Quetzaltenango Guatemala is a very authentic city situated in the western highlands of the country. It has preserved a lot of its original Maya culture and there is much to see and discover. I recommend adding it to your Guatemala backpacking adventure.
Most locals call it by its Maya name: Xela.
You can use it as a hub to go on excursions in the nearby villages or extend your stay here to follow some of the best Spanish courses that Guatemala has to offer.
We’ve made a summary of some top excursions for you to do when staying in Xela Guatemala. This list also includes some cool places of interest that you can explore in the city.
Keep reading to get some awesome inspiration on things to do in Xela!
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Volcano hiking near Xela Guatemala
The volcano Santa Maria is a popular hike to do when staying in Quetzaltenango.
It can be done without a guide in one day but don’t underestimate the climb. It takes about half a day up (around 4 – 5 hours) and a little less time down. But you also have to consider some breaks and picture time.
If you are not used to doing hikes, worried about safety or if you are afraid to get lost, you can also consider arranging a tour to do the volcano hike with a guide. A tour agency can take care of your transportation and guidance up this more than 3700 meters high hill. Some agencies suggest tours where you can stay the night on the volcano so you can witness the sunrise over the valley in the morning.
- Don’t forget to bring lots of water, snacks, and food
- Wear good hiking boots
- Dress in layers
- Bring a wind/ rain jacket
- Bring a camera
- Bring sunglasses
Visit a coffee plantation
The number 1 export product in Guatemala is coffee. Guatemalans are proud of their delicious blends and a lot of them love to drink it every day!
Many locals work in the coffee industry and you can take a look at a plantation and witness first hand how coffee is produced.
On a coffee tour, they will show you the different stages in the production of coffee and in the end you can enjoy a nice cup together with the group. Many plantations are family-owned businesses and you can support them by buying some locally produced coffee. It makes for a great souvenir or a nice gift too.
After a day of volcano hiking or exploring the city, your muscles can get quite sore. A visit to the hot springs helps your weary body recover! The Fuentes Georginas hot springs are located at neighboring town Zunil, just a short bus ride away. You get there by chicken bus from Xela. Once in town, you still have a steep hike uphill to do in order to get to the entrance of the hot springs.
We hitchhiked up the hill and were so lucky to be picked up really fast. In the back of a pick-up truck together with 2 friends and 2 Maya women, we could enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the town.
The hot springs itself are not the most beautiful I have ever seen but the setting is nice. Facilities are basic but you don’t need much. The water is soothing and it is a good way to relax and talk with the locals.
Outside showers are cold and there are no private cabins to change into your dry clothes. But that is part of the charm of experiencing hot springs in Guatemala.
We were surprised by some very heavy rainfall when we were trying to get back to Xela. The parking lot became more empty by the minute and we had a hard time trying to convince someone to take us back down the hill. By the time a family was willing to take us with them in their minibus, we were already soaked. Again we got lucky and they took us all the way to Quetzaltenango.
You can arrange a tour to the Fuentes Georginas in Xela town, but it is so much cheaper and so much more fun if you get there on your own.
Mercado La Democracia
This huge market is located in zona 3 of Quetzaltenango. Local vendors sell their goods placed in little stalls or straight on the floor.
You can choose from a wide range of items like vegetables and fruits, clothes, all kind of tech stuff, and more. There is also a covered area where they sell meat and other items.
It’s a fun way to spend some time strolling around and even buying your necessities for your dinner.
On the market, you can also find a nice park called Bénito Juarez which is a perfect getaway if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the market.
Parque Centro América
Parque Centro América is the central square of Xela Guatemala.
It is a cute plaza surrounded by trees and its most striking feature is the round “kiosk” made of pillars.
There are a few benches scattered around the plaza where you can relax and just watch everyday life unfold. When it is not raining cats and dogs, you can find some local vendors here selling their merchandise.
Situated around Parque Centro América you can find some beautiful buildings like the church of Espiritu Santo (=Quetzaltenango Cathedral) with its beautiful 16th-century architecture. If you are interested in Natural History, you can also pay a visit to the House of Culture where you can find this interesting museum that holds a mishmash of artifacts, stuffed animals and loads of curiosities of all kind.
The Pasaje Enriquez is a covered aisle that is also located at the Parque Centro América. In this passage, you can find an assortment of restaurants and bars. The atmosphere comes alive in the evening when lots of locals gather here to have a drink or enjoy a meal together.
Visit a traditional women’s weaving cooperation
The Trama Textile Cooperative is a huge cooperative of over 400 women from different weaving groups who weave their handicrafts by hand and sell them to the public at designated stores.
You can buy these beautifully colored handicrafts and support the community that way, or, you can follow a course with them and learn how to weave a souvenir yourself.
Cerro El Baul
El Baul is a lava dome that is situated on the outskirts of Xela. On top of it, you will find a viewpoint over the city where you have some awesome photo opportunities if the weather is favorable.
The hike itself is relatively easy but better done in a small group than on your own because individuals are sometimes robbed here. Don’t carry too many valuables or money with you.
The market of Chichicastenango is the place to be to get your souvenirs!
Tours to Chichi are arranged daily and if you love strolling around markets than this is the place for you! We really enjoyed our visit.
Even if you don’t intend to buy a lot, it’s still a nice experience to see all the vendors with their colorful merchandise spread across different stalls, witnessing tourists and locals trying out their best bargaining skills.
You can find stuff like clothes, fabrics, masks, belts, musical instruments, bracelets, booklets and many more.
A big part of the market also sells fresh produce. Vegetables and fruits and loads of other products.
But we went especially for the souvenirs as we could buy food closer to where we were staying.
San Fransisco El Alto market
As Chichicastenango is for a big part a market for tourists, San Fransisco El Alto market is mostly for locals.
So if you want to experience an authentic market in the highlands of Guatemala you should come here!
This market is held on Friday mornings. It has a huge animal section but you can also buy vegetables, fruits, clothes, houseware and more.
The stalls are covered with roofs that make the market look like a giant maze.
Study Spanish in Xela Guatemala
Guatemala is full of Spanish schools. Also in Xela, you can follow excellent Spanish courses.
Mostly it is a 1 on 1 course but if you are traveling as a couple you can also go together.
Some schools give you the opportunity to stay with a local family during the time you follow lessons which is an excellent way to put in to practice what you have learned.
If you don’t like staying with a local family you can stay in a hostel. Most hostels offer discounts for students who are staying for a longer period. Check out these hostels in Xela if you are looking for a nice place to stay.
3 Day hike to Lake Atitlan
Local cooperations organize an epic 3-day hike going from Xela to Lake Atitlan. You will make your way through small pueblos and cloud forests until you reach Atitlan where you will witness a jaw-dropping sunset over the lake. Check out this trip!
If Lake Atitlan is the next destination on your itinerary, then you can send your large backpack there for an extra 100 quetzals. This way you can do the hike with a small daypack which makes it so much more comfortable.
This crater lake surrounded by a cloud forest is located in the town of San Martin in the Quetzaltenango department. Tours to the lake are arranged in Quetzaltenango town or maybe even through the hostel you are staying in.
The lake is sacred to the Maya community and many locals still come here to pray.
You can follow a walking path to the viewpoint over the lake, the Mirador, and take some pictures if it’s not too cloudy.
After the viewpoint, hike down to get a closer look at the lake. It’s good to know that you are not allowed to swim in the lake itself.
Street food tour
If you want to discover the best places to eat street food in Xela than this is the tour for you! On this tour around the city, you will discover the best-hidden street food places in Xela that you would probably not find on your own.
Get ready to try some of the best tostadas, tortillas with guacamole, churros, and other dishes prepared by old Maya recipes!
Check out this tour here!
Where to stay in Xela?
Conclusion - Things to do in Xela Guatemala
So this was our list with things to do in Xela Guatemala. We enjoyed our stay here a lot because it is not that touristy as many other destinations in the country. You get the chance to mingle with the locals and practice your Spanish while getting a taste of how everyday life is in the highlands of Guatemala.
Be sure to check out our article about Guatemala, what you should know before you go.
Don’t hesitate to let us know how you experienced Quetzaltenango!