The city of Quetzaltenango – also called Xela – will probably rarely be included in itineraries for Guatemala. The second city of the country may not be a bustling metropolis and certainly not a tourist destination, but that is precisely why we advise you to visit Xela. But in Quetzaltenango you can experience the more authentic city life of Guatemala, while being surrounded by beautiful landscapes where you can make great day trips. Read more about visiting Xela in this blog, including the best things to do in Quetzaltenango!
How to get to Quetzaltenango in Guatemala
Quetzaltenango is located in western Guatemala, where it is surrounded by mountains and volcano peaks. It is known as a university town and is full of Spanish schools and universities. The border with Mexico is not far away. So if you are traveling to both Mexico and Guatemala, it makes sense to cross the border before or after visiting Xela. San Cristobal in Mexico is then the first tourist destination on your route.
In Guatemala the nearest tourist destination to Quetzaltenango is Lake Atitlan. Direct shuttles are offered for travelers from the villages surrounding the lake of Atitlan for about 150 to 170 quetzal. But you can also easily travel by Uber which is very affordable in Guatemala. If you don’t have an Uber account yet, make sure to use this Uber link to sign up and get a discount on your first ride. The cheapest and most authentic way to travel to Quetzaltenango is by local chicken bus, as we did. We paid a total of 35 quetzal for the bus and an Uber from the Xela bus station to the city center. From Panajachel at Lake Atitlan there is a direct bus to Xela.
Are you a hiking enthusiast? Then hear the three-day hike from Lake Atitlan to Quetzaltenango (or vice versa) on your bucket list!
If you are traveling from other destinations in Guatemala, there are easy options to get to Xela as well. From Guatemala City, long-distance buses from the organizations Transportes Alamos and Linea Dorada will take you to Xela in 4.5 hours. We would not recommend taking the chicken bus from Guatemala City, because you will be on the road for a very long time and these buses are not very comfortable. From Antigua you can book a shared minivan.
Do you travel from other destinations in Guatemala? From Guatemala City, long-distance buses from the organizations Transportes Alamos and Linea Dorada will take you to Xela in 4.5 hours. We would not recommend the chicken bus from Guatemala City, as you will be on the road for a very long time and these buses are not very comfortable. From Antigua you can arrange a place in a shared minivan.
Where to stay in Quetzaltenango
There is only one good recommendation for a place to stay in Quetzaltenango: the lovely and affordable boutique hostel Mucha Arte Hostal, run by the lovely Patricia and Juan Carlos. It was one of our favorite places to stay in Guatemala because of the stylish decor and hospitable owners.
The rooms are spacious and attractively decorated, as you would normally expect from an expensive boutique hotel. However, the room prices of Mucha Arte are a lot less than you’ll expect from a boutique hotel, as this is a hostel rather than a hotel. There are both dormitories and private rooms, but guests do share a bathroom. There is also a kitchen, outdoor terrace and communal lounges. Mucha Arte is a popular base for the many travelers who stay in Xela for a longer period and we can absolutely understand, as Mucha Arte feels like a home away from home.
Other great hotels and hostels in Quetzaltenango are:
#1 Plaza Pradera Quetzaltenango for a hotel with spacious, modern rooms and a beautiful rooftop pool with views over the city. The location is less ideal and is unfortunately outside the center.
#2 Hotel Pension Bonifaz with a prime location 100 meters from the central park. There is a swimming pool and breakfast is served daily on the central patio.
#3 Kasa Kiwi for a basic, but popular hostel in Quetzaltenango. The roof terrace scores high points with guests. Kasa Kiwi is also a tour organization in Xela and can therefore help you book day excursions.
8 best things to do in Quetzaltenango
#1 The volcanoes of Quetzaltenango
The best thing to do in Quetzaltenango is visiting the volcanoes in the area. To us, the volcanoes are the main reason to visit Xela. The city is a great base for lovers of nature and hikes, with climbing one of Guatemala’s impressive volcanoes being the absolute highlight.
Read more: hike to the Santiaguito Volcano.
Guatemala’s highest volcano is the Tujimal Volcano which can be visited from Xela. It takes a few days to climb to the top of this volcano during a tough, multi-day trip. More easily accessible are the volcanoes near Quetzaltenango: the Santa Maria and the Santiaguito, where the Santiaguito is actually part of the Santa Maria. We have been told that the craters of the Santiaguito were created by a huge eruption of the Santa Maria. Part of the volcano then collapsed and that is now the Santiaguito.
The Santa Maria Volcano can be visited on a two-day hike, spending the night on the volcano. In 1902, a major eruption of Santa Maria destroyed much of the city. The active Santiaguito volcano is even easier to visit. Half-day trip is enough to go to this volcano. The Santiaguito is one of three active volcanoes in Guatemala. You can therefore no longer hike to the crater itself, but you can visit a viewpoint on the slope of the Santa Maria during a half-day trip to the Santiaguito. After climbing up you’ll spend some time at this viewpoint with something to eat and drink, while with a bit of luck you’ll experience several volcanic eruptions. A unique and unforgettable experience during your Guatemala trip!
But there are more hikes from Quetzaltenango. How about a multi-day hike from Xela to Lake Atitlan? Or spending several days visiting local villages and authentic Mayan tribes?
#2 Breakfast at Xelapan
Everyone in Guatemala knows the Xelapan chain, but the bakeries can only be found in Xela. Breakfast, coffee, sandwiches and sweets are all amazing and super cheap. We are real breakfast lovers, so while staying in Quetzaltenango, we would usually start our days at one of the Xelapan shops.
Other great places for food and drinks in Xela? As Quetzaltenango is a young city with many universities, you are in the right place for trendy hotspots and cozy cafes. We recommend Madarina for a hip lunch and bagels in a courtyard, El Cuartito for drinks and local beers, Sabor de la India for Indian food and Panquewaffles for delicious food in a hip setting.
#3 The volcanic hot springs
One of the most popular things to do in Xela is to visit the hot springs at Fuentes Georginas. In an area with many volcanoes, it is not surprising that all that volcanic activity resulted in these volcanic hot springs. The hot springs are about 30 minutes from Quetzaltenango in a town called Zunil. A tour is the fastest and easiest way to get to the springs; the local bus would take you much longer.
The mountain environment is beautiful and the hot springs seemed like a great afternoon trip, as we still had time to spare in Quetzaltenango. However, if you are short on time, we recommend that you skip the hot springs. The hot springs are one of the popular places to visit by locals and it can be extremely busy, which doesn’t make a visit a great experience. Nevertheless, we spent a great afternoon at the springs and it also had its charm to do something among mainly locals.
There are several baths at the Fuentes Georginas. Of course, the warmest and largest bath is the most popular. But along the road from the parking lot to this large bath, there are also two more hot water baths that you can visit. Near the large bath are changing rooms and (cold) showers.
#4 The authentic city center
Xela is often called the most typical Guatemalan city in the country. It is the second largest city in Guatemala after its capital Guatemala City. But there is much less crime making this a safe alternative for those who prefer to avoid the capital. Quetzaltenango will give you an authentic city atmosphere, much different from tourist destinations such as Antigua or Flores. Despite its beautiful hikes and volcanoes, Xela does not attract many travelers, so the restaurants and facilities aren’t mainly focused on tourists.
The city center is not full of sights though. You will for sure end up at Parque a Centro America, which is Quetzaltenango’s central park and town square. Striking is the mix between hip students from the universities and the poorer Mayan population, often in traditional costume or working as a shoeshine boy.
Around this park are the most important and monumental buildings of the city. These usually date from the nineteenth century, when the city flourished after the introduction of coffee plantations. From the central park, you can also easily walk to the great restaurants and hip hotspots of Xela. The interesting part of the center is not big. The atmospheric city center mainly focuses on the streets around the Parque a Centro América.
#6 Spanish lessons & digital nomads
Quetzaltenango is one of the most popular destinations in Guatemala to stay for a longer period of time. Do you want to do volunteer work, live as a digital nomad or take Spanish lessons? Travelers in Guatemala mainly come to Xela for this!
The city has a pleasant atmosphere and many amenities, but is not massive and touristy like many other popular places in Guatemala. Xela is also very safe and therefore a great place to live for a while. These are the perfect ingredients for the small international community that has emerged in Xela. There are now many opportunities to do volunteer work and there are a lot of Spanish schools offering Spanish lessons in groups or privately.
#5 The cemetery of Xela
In Latin America cemeteries are real attractions and so is the cemetery of Quetzaltenango. The tombs are beautifully decorated and often very imposing. In addition to classic tombstones, the cemetery has special mausoleums and monuments. You can immediately see from the size of the graves what the social background of the family was: the larger, the more important.
Make sure to visit the tomb of Vanushka, who died in the 1920s of lovesickness according to local legends and is now revered and adored by single locals. When traveling around Guatemala, you will probably see this name more after, as a locally brewed beer in Quetzaltenango is named after this legend. The graves of the two former presidents are also worth a visit. There were not the presidents of Guatemala though, but of Quetzaltenango. Because did you know that this region was independent from Guatemala for a short time between 1838 and 1840 under the name of Los Altos?
Tip: nightly tours of the cemeteries are also a great option to visit this place. It’s a bit spooky, but isn’t that fitting for a cemetery?
#7 The viewpoint on Cerro El Baul
For the best view of the city, you have to be on the Cerro El Baul. After climbing several volcanoes, we skipped this attraction of Quetzaltenango. But if you have the energy, braving this green hilltop just next to the city is definitely recommended.
#8 Day Trips from Quetzaltenango
Quetzaltenango is a great base for day trips in the area. In addition to the (multi-day) volcano tours and the volcanic hot springs, there are many more excursions in the hilly region. This area is known for its coffee plantations and it is a popular day trip to visit such a plantation for a tour. In the vicinity of Quetzaltenango you also have authentic villages where Maya tribes live. You can visit them with a guide.
Or head to Zunil – where you also visit the volcanic hot springs – to witness how the locals worship the cigar-smoking ‘saint’ Maximón (also called San Simón) and ask for health, love or just an X-box.