10+ Best things to do in Xela Guatemala: authentic Guatemala

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Quetzaltenango, known affectionately as Xela, is an authentic gem nestled in the western highlands of Guatemala. It remains a bastion of Maya culture, offering a rich tapestry of history and tradition for travelers to explore. For those embarking on a Guatemala backpacking journey, Xela is an unmissable destination, as highlighted in our complete guide for backpacking Guatemala.
Xela serves as an ideal base for adventurers looking to delve into the surrounding villages or for language enthusiasts eager to enroll in some of Guatemala’s finest Spanish courses.
To enhance your stay in Xela, we’ve curated a list of top excursions and captivating city attractions. Continue reading to uncover a trove of inspiration for your Xela adventure!

Volcano hiking near Xela Guatemala

The volcano Santa Maria offers an enticing hiking opportunity for those visiting Quetzaltenango. While it’s possible to tackle this hike without a guide in just one day, the ascent should not be underestimated. Climbing to the top typically takes about 4 to 5 hours, with the descent requiring slightly less time. However, factor in breaks and moments to capture the scenic views with photos.
For those who are inexperienced hikers, concerned about safety, or simply do not want to risk getting lost, considering a guided tour for this volcano adventure is advisable. A tour agency can manage your transportation and provide a knowledgeable guide to lead you up this towering hill, which stands over 3700 meters tall. Some tour options even include an overnight stay on the volcano, allowing you to experience a breathtaking sunrise over the valley.
Here are some tips for your hike:

  • Ensure you carry plenty of water, snacks, and food.
  • Invest in sturdy hiking boots.
  • Dress in layers to adapt to changing temperatures.
  • Don’t forget to pack a wind/rain jacket.
  • A camera is a must to capture the stunning scenery.
  • Sunglasses are highly recommended to protect your eyes.
10+ Best things to do in Xela Guatemala: authentic Guatemala
Views from Santa Maria hiking trail

Visit a coffee plantation

Coffee stands as Guatemala’s premier export, a source of national pride due to its exquisite blends that locals enjoy daily. The coffee industry employs numerous Guatemalans, offering an opportunity for visitors to explore plantations and gain firsthand insight into coffee production.
During a coffee tour, participants are introduced to the various stages of coffee production, culminating in the pleasure of savoring a freshly brewed cup alongside others. Many of these plantations are family-owned, presenting a chance to support local businesses by purchasing their coffee. Not only does this support the local economy, but it also provides a unique souvenir or thoughtful gift.
Check out if you can book a coffee tour from your Quetzaltenango hostel. Or book a coffee tour in the nearby Antigua.

Fuentes Georginas

Following a vigorous day of volcano hiking or city exploration, your muscles may feel notably sore. For relief, a visit to the hot springs is highly recommended to help your body recuperate. The Fuentes Georginas hot springs, nestled in the nearby town of Zunil, are just a brief bus journey from Xela. Access is convenient via a “chicken bus” from Xela, followed by a challenging uphill hike to reach the entrance.

Fuentes Georginas
Fuentes Georginas

Our adventure included hitchhiking up the hill, where we were fortunate enough to quickly catch a ride. Packed in the back of a pick-up truck with two friends and two Maya women, we savored the picturesque scenery of the town.

Though the hot springs themselves might not rank as the most spectacular I’ve seen, their setting is genuinely appealing. The facilities are basic, but adequacy prevails over luxury here. The water’s soothing embrace offers a splendid opportunity to relax and engage with locals.

Be prepared for the outdoor showers, which are brisk, and the absence of private changing cabins. However, this simplicity adds to the authentic charm of experiencing Guatemala’s hot springs.
Our return to Xela was unexpectedly delayed by a sudden, heavy rainfall, thinning the parking lot crowds and complicating our efforts to find a ride back. Eventually, a family in a minibus, despite us being thoroughly drenched, kindly offered us a ride back to Quetzaltenango.

Although you can book a tour to the Fuentes Georginas from Xela, venturing there independently is not only more economical but also immensely more rewarding. But, I can imagine that you don’t feel like standing in the rain, waiting for a hitchhike in order to get back to the city!

Fuentes Georginas Quetzaltenango

4-hour guided tour to the hot springs.

Includes transportation to go there and back to your hotel in Xela.

Check out this tour

Mercado La Democracia

Located in Zone 3 of Quetzaltenango, you’ll find this expansive market a bustling hub where local vendors display their wares on small stalls or directly on the ground. You can browse through an extensive selection of items ranging from fresh vegetables and fruits to clothing, various tech gadgets, and more. Additionally, there’s a designated covered section for meats and other goods just for you.

Exploring this market offers you a delightful opportunity to wander, shop for daily essentials, or even pick up ingredients for your next meal. Amidst the market’s lively atmosphere, you’ll discover the tranquil Bénito Juarez Park, an ideal retreat for those of you seeking a moment of peace away from the market’s vibrant energy.

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What to do in Xela

Parque Centro América

Parque Centro América is the heart of Xela, Guatemala, a charming square you’ll find embraced by lush trees. Its most notable feature is a distinctive round kiosk, supported by elegant pillars. As you wander through the square, you’ll come across several benches offering you a peaceful spot to sit back and observe the rhythm of daily life. On clear days, you can see local vendors around the plaza, showcasing their goods just for you.

Encircling Parque Centro América, you’ll notice several magnificent buildings, among them the Church of Espiritu Santo, or Quetzaltenango Cathedral, renowned for its exquisite 16th-century architecture. If you’re keen on natural history, just a short walk away is the House of Culture with a fascinating museum inside. There, you’ll discover an eclectic collection ranging from artifacts to a wide array of intriguing curiosities meant for curious eyes like yours.

Adjacent to Parque Centro América is the Pasaje Enriquez, a covered walkway where you’ll find a variety of restaurants and bars. As evening falls, this passage becomes a vibrant meeting spot where you can converge with locals to enjoy a drink or savor a meal in good company.

Parque Centro America in Xela Guatemala
Parque Centro America

Visit a traditional women’s weaving cooperation

The Trama Textile Cooperative stands as a significant cooperative, comprising over 400 women hailing from various weaving groups. These skilled artisans meticulously craft their handicrafts by hand, infusing each piece with traditional techniques passed down through generations. They then sell these vibrantly colored handicrafts to the public at designated stores, offering a window into their rich cultural heritage.

By purchasing these beautifully crafted items, you not only acquire a unique piece of art but also directly support the community, empowering these women and preserving their traditional crafts. Alternatively, for those interested in experiencing the art of weaving firsthand, the cooperative offers courses. Here, you can learn the intricate process of weaving, allowing you to create a personal souvenir while immersing yourself in the cultural tradition. This not only enriches your understanding of the craft but also fosters a deeper connection with the community and its heritage.

Visit the Mayan ruins of Zaculeu

Zaculeu, the captivating Mayan ruins near Huehuetenango, Guatemala, once the thriving capital of the Mam kingdom, invites you to step into history. This fortified city, a historical stronghold, played a crucial role in the Mam’s defense strategies against rival kingdoms. Today, it offers you a glimpse into Mayan architectural brilliance. You can explore its ancient temples, pyramids, and ball courts, witnessing firsthand the civilization’s ingenuity.

The site also allows you to delve into the Mayan’s mystical underworld through its network of underground tunnels and provides exhibits that illuminate the day-to-day life of these ancient people.

If you’re journeying from Quetzaltenango, Zaculeu is easily accessible and presents a compelling opportunity for you to dive into Guatemala’s rich Mayan heritage. It’s an essential destination for explorers like you, keen on unraveling the mysteries of Mayan culture.

Top choice from Quetzaltenango
Zaculeu from Quetzaltenango

Full day guided tour from Quetzaltenango

Check out this tour

Cerro El Baul

El Baul is a magnificent lava dome located on the scenic outskirts of Xela, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. When you reach the summit, you’re greeted by an unparalleled viewpoint over the city, providing awesome photo opportunities, especially when the weather is clear and favorable.

The hike to the top of El Baul is relatively easy, making it accessible for people of varying fitness levels. However, it is advisable to undertake this adventure in a small group rather than solo. The reason behind this recommendation is the unfortunate occurrence of robberies targeting individuals in this area. To mitigate the risk, it’s wise not to carry too many valuables or a large amount of money with you. Instead, focus on enjoying the natural beauty and the panoramic views that El Baul has to offer.

Chichicastenango market

The Chichicastenango market is a must-visit destination for souvenir shopping! Daily tours to “Chichi” make it accessible for everyone who enjoys exploring vibrant marketplaces. Our visit there was truly delightful.

Even if purchasing isn’t your main goal, the experience of browsing through the myriad of colorful goods displayed by vendors is worthwhile. You’ll witness both tourists and locals engaging in spirited bargaining over an eclectic mix of items, from clothing, textiles, and masks to musical instruments, bracelets, and small booklets, among other unique finds.

Moreover, the market offers an extensive selection of fresh produce, boasting vegetables, fruits, and numerous other products. Though our primary aim was to collect souvenirs — considering we could easily procure food closer to our accommodation — the overall atmosphere and variety made our trip especially memorable.

Chichicastenango market
Chichicastenango market

San Fransisco El Alto market

While Chichicastenango might catch your eye with its vibrant colors and an array of souvenirs tailored for tourists, the San Francisco El Alto market will captivate you with its focus on meeting the needs of the local population. If you’re eager for an authentic market experience in the heart of the Guatemalan highlands, San Francisco El Alto is your ultimate destination. This bustling market comes alive on Friday mornings, offering you a rare glimpse into local life.

A standout feature for you to explore is the extensive animal section, where locals buy and sell livestock, crucial to the region’s economy.

But there’s more for you to discover, including rows of vendors selling everything from fresh vegetables and exotic fruits to traditional clothing, household items, and handcrafted goods. The market’s covered stalls, with their complex, labyrinthine layout, will enchant you, enhancing its unique charm and ensuring a memorable experience as you immerse yourself in local culture.

Xela Guatemala street view
Xela street view

Study Spanish in Xela Guatemala

In Guatemala, especially in Xela, you’ll find an abundance of Spanish language schools offering outstanding programs. You can typically expect personalized instruction with one-on-one courses, though if you’re traveling with a partner, you both have the option to learn together.

You also have the unique opportunity to live with a local family while attending classes, allowing you to immerse yourself and practice your new language skills in everyday situations. If you prefer a bit more independence, choosing to stay in a hostel is a great alternative. Hostels often offer discounts if you’re committing to a longer stay.

For a comfortable and conducive learning environment, you should check out these hostels in Xela.

Xela Guatemala City Skyline
Xela view

3 Day hike to Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is a fabulous destination on it’s own, but you can also visit it on a 3-day hike from Xela. Or you can do this amazing hike and then stay there for a while! We enjoyed the towns and villages of Lake Atitlan so much, that we want back a few times.

So, why not join a 3-day trek from Xela to Lake Atitlan, traversing Guatemala’s countryside. This route explores the Western Highlands, featuring active volcanoes and mountains. Highlights include a sunrise view from Countenance Maya and Lake Atitlan, Guatemala’s largest lake.

You’ll stay in a traditional Guatemalan home for two nights, with three meals a day provided, offering you insight into local life. This trip includes round-trip transportation from Quetzaltenango or, alternatively, you can also stay in San Pedro after the hike.

The trek to Lake Atitlan covers the Western Highlands’ scenery, culture, history, and geology, with your guides sharing insights. Staying with local families provides you an opportunity to experience Guatemalan hospitality firsthand. The hike includes all meals and transportation from Quetzaltenango.

Quetzaltenango to Lake Atitlan - 3-day Hike

3-days - all included hike to Lake Atitlan

From Quetzaltenango to San Pedro La Laguna.

Your bags will be taken to San Pedro for you!

Check out this 3-day trek

Lake Chicabal

Located in San Martin, Quetzaltenango, the sacred Lake Chicabal, revered by the Maya community, is a natural wonder surrounded by a cloud forest. It’s a place where many locals come to pray, reflecting its cultural importance. You can book a tour to this serene lake which offers a journey to a site of profound spiritual importance.

From the Mirador, a path leads you to a stunning viewpoint over the lake, where, weather permitting, you’ll enjoy breathtaking views. While swimming is prohibited, hiking closer reveals the lake’s tranquil beauty, blending natural splendor with cultural heritage, making it a must-visit in the Quetzaltenango (Xela) area.

Opt for a guided hiking tour to enhance your experience. This ensures safety and simplifies transportation from your Xela hotel. Guides will take you past Mayan altars, down winding trails, and provide insights into the Mam Mayan ceremonial site. With pickup and drop-off included, it’s the easiest and most enriching way to explore one of Xela’s top day-trip destinations.

Chicabal Volcano and Lagoon near Quetzaltenango

1-day guided hike from Quetzaltenango to Chicabal crater lake.

Includes pick-up and drop-off.

Check out this guided hike

Street food tour in Quetzaltenango

Explore Xela’s street food scene on a tour meant for true food lovers! Roam the city with guides who’ll show you secret spots to enjoy authentic street food, places you might miss on your own. Dive into a variety of local treats, from tasty tostadas and tortillas with fresh guacamole to delicious churros, all made following ancient Maya recipes. Experience a remarkable Foodie Tour, highly recommended and led by a local Mayan woman and her team.

Discover Quichon, a Xela traditional dish bursting with Mayan taste, savor top-notch artisan chocolate, and try Shecas, the famous Mayan bread of Xela, cherished for its distinctive taste by both locals and tourists. Wrap up your food journey with a cup of Quetzaltecan coffee, known globally for its excellent quality, thanks to Guatemala’s ideal altitude and soil conditions. This is a fantastic voyage into the Mayan culinary legacy—a true celebration of their age-old knowledge.

Quetzaltenango Food Tour

Full-day street food tour with cooking class.

This tour lasts all day and starts at the Central Park.

Check out the food tour

Where to stay in Xela?

After exploring the second largest city of Guatemala, finding the perfect place to rest and recharge is vital. In the next section, we’ll quickly guide you through the best backpacker accommodation Quetzaltenango has to offer, from cozy hostales to vibrant hostels that promise a comfortable and memorable stay. Discover your home away from home in the heart of Maya country.

Kasa Kiwi Hostel - Quetzaltenango - Guatemala

Kasa Kiwi Hostel offers budget-friendly, cozy accommodation with a welcoming vibe and vibrant decor. It features a range of room options to suit various budgets and preferences, along with well-equipped common spaces like a kitchen.

Check prices on Booking Check prices on Hostelworld
Casa Seibel - Quetzaltenango - Guatemala

Casa Seibel is a cozy hostel in Quetzaltenango, loved by travelers for being just 5 minutes from the central square. It has various rooms at great prices, with amenities like luggage storage and a shared kitchen. The welcoming staff, including volunteers from around the world, ensures a warm atmosphere, earning high marks for its cleanliness, location, and vibe.

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Conclusion - Things to do in Xela Guatemala

Here’s our curated list of things to do in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Our experience in Xela was remarkable, primarily because it’s less crowded with tourists compared to other destinations in the country. This gives you a wonderful opportunity to interact with the locals and improve your Spanish, all while immersing yourself in the daily life of Guatemala’s highlands.

Make sure to check out our backpacker guide to Guatemala and our itinerary ideas for Guatemala.

And, did you already know about these interesting facts about Guatemala?

We’d love to hear about your experiences in Quetzaltenango! Feel free to share with us.

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