Quetzaltenango, commonly called Xela or Xelaju by the native people, is a beautiful gem of a city, nestled between three massive volcanoes and brimming over with a rich history and culture. It possesses a distinct Colonial influence, much of it dating back to the time it was first settled by the Conquistadors. Today is serves as the commercial center of southwest Guatemala and is the second largest city in the entire country. It is also the cultural center of the Quiche Mayan people, and their impact on the local industry and flavor can be felt from the moment you arrive. It’s an ideal place to relax during your vacation, especially in the summer months. At an elevation of roughly 8,000 feet, or 2,400 meters, it’s easy to unwind with the warm days, cool nights and the delightful absence of any pesky mosquitoes. It also doesn’t hurt that there are plenty of amazing sites to be seen, wholly unique to this area
Relax in Nature’s Hot Tub
If you only had time to do one thing during your stay in Quetzaltenango, you wouldn’t want to miss Fuentes Georginas, the local natural hot water springs. Here you’ll find warm, relaxing and inviting natural sulfur springs and an environment as beautiful and primordial as something straight out of Jurassic Park. Even the drive there is amazing, as you’re passing along perfectly manicured fields, all planted with a huge variety of local produce. You can find onions, carrots, cabbage, corn, all laid out in neat little rows. Better still, after your relaxing respite in the springs, they also have a restaurant and gift shop so you won’t have to leave with your stomach or your hands empty.
The Sacred Lake
Within a day’s hike of Xela, you can visit a wonderful sacred Mayan location known as Laguna Chicabal. It’s a volcanic lake surrounded by a “mystical cloud forest” which is the way the Mayans refer to the thick fog that will come rolling in out of nowhere. There is a stairway you can follow that will lead you down to the lake’s shore. While you’re there, you’re on an ancient holy ground. Indeed, religious ceremonies are still performed on its shores.
This lake is special for another reason, as it sits within the crater of a dormant volcano. It is a protected area, abundant with wildlife and beautiful flora. As a matter of fact, its one of the few places where you can hope to spoke the rare Quetzal bird – the national bird, and the namesake of Quetzaltenango. When visiting this sacred monument, be sure to be respectful and tidy.
Visit Mayan Villages
In the land of Quetzaltenango, a great many of the local people are Mayan. And many of them live in nearby villages that have still preserved their history, culture and beauty. There are two local villages that all Quetzaltenango visitors should visit: the Mayan village of Zunil and the Mayan village of Almolonga.
Zunil is a small agricultural village which is the home of an exquisite Catholic church. If you’re planning to visit Zunil, try to schedule your visit on a Monday, when the market is open. Then you can browse through stalls of deliciously fresh local produce, and probably pick up some wonderful Mayan handicrafts to take home with you. There’s another little secret of Zunil – previous visitors (a great many of them) recommend looking up a local villager by the name of San Simon. You’ll have to ask around to locate him once you get there, but the wonderful afternoon of conversation you can enjoy over cocktails and cigarettes (…if you smoke) is well worth the trouble of looking for him.
The other village is Almolonga, and is about a twenty minute bus ride away. Almolonga primarily serves the community as an agricultural village. It has often been referred to as the Garden of the Americas and its fields are growing something all year long. You can sample some of the local produce on Market Days, which fall on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In addition to their amazing produce, Almolonga also has another wonderful treasure to offer – medicinal sulfur baths.
Even More Entertainment
However, these are just a few of the highlights that Quetzaltenango has to offer. In addition to sacred lakes, hot springs and Mayan villages, Xela also offers many other enticing destinations and attractions. If time allows you can go hiking and camping on one of the three local volcanoes: Santa Maria, Santiaguito (which erupts nearly every single day) or Tajamulco – the highest point in Guatemala.
If you take a bus towards Retalhuleu, you can also visit IRTRA, the nearby water and amusement park. There are two main parks, Xocomil and Xetalul, and both are open from 9a-4p Thursday through Sunday. Or, for those of you staying over for an extended vacation, you might think about checking out one of Quetzaltenango’s dozen different Spanish language schools, which offer intensive immersion in the local tongue with affordable prices and quick results.
Whatever it is that you decide to do in Quetzaltenango, you can rest assured you’ll never be bored!