Guest post by: Amelia Lynch
A Family Guide to Xela
The official name of this Guatemalan city is Quetzaltenango, but locals call it Xela (SHAY-la) in reference to its’ ancient Mayan name of Xelajú. Located in the Western highlands of Guatemala, Los Altos, Xela had been around for 300 years when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s.
Set at an altitude of almost 8000 ft at the base of Volcano Santa Maria, this mountain town resists outside influence and maintains it’s own unique character. The population is still around 90% indigenous, and it is common to see traditionally dressed mothers leading children in school uniforms through the square, presenting a rich mixture of old and new cultures.
The main attraction for visitors is the many Spanish schools that offer immersion in both language and daily life. There are around 50 sprinkled throughout the centre of the city, but you will see few recognisable tourists on the streets here. This gives Xela a very authentic feel that may be lacking in places with heavier traffic, making it perfect for a family that wants to get away on their own. We spent two weeks there in January with our daughters, June, age 9 and Rory, age 7.
Where to Stay in Xela
There are traditional hotels in Xela and low budget hostels. Most of the lodging is close to the historic city centre and all very affordable.
If you are visiting Xela to learn Spanish many schools offer accommodations. We stayed in a three-bedroom house that is part of Casa Xelajú Spanish School, which also allowed us access to their afternoon activities with their students. They also have a large number of smaller apartments on site, or you can do a homestay with a local family.
While a homestay might seem harder when traveling as a family we found that many offer lodging for multiple people. The advantage of having constant interactions with a local family will really boost your Spanish skills, and we regretted not doing this after seeing how much it benefited other students.
Where to Eat in Xela
Another huge advantage of a homestay is that it includes home cooked meals. At times we struggled with where to eat and wished we had a hot meal waiting for us at home.
Albamar was a go-to place for us, especially with breakfast available all day. We arrived in town late our first night and their caldo tlalpeño sustained us when all the other places had closed up. Two large orders of this chicken based soup with rice, garbanzo beans, with optional additions of avocado, onion, tomato and cheese fed our whole family. We loved to convenience of the location right off the Parque Central, and the bright skylights and plant filled interior was always warm and welcoming.
Giuseppe’s Gourmet Pizza was so much more than a pizza place. We had lasagna, grilled chicken and fettuccine in addition to a delicious pizza and local beer to wash it down. Located on the second level it also provided a fun vantage point for people watching on the busy street below.
To stock our house’s kitchen we visited the grocery store located one block from the main square, Dispensa Familiar, and the community markets were a wealth of local produce, snacks and goods. We even indulged in some street food at the market with elote (corn on the cob) being a favourite snack on the go for the girls.
Getting Around Xela
Getting around in Xela was easy and cheap, but you have to be brave and not mind losing your personal space. Chicken buses may be the most well known transportation in Guatemala and were an adventure that my children enjoyed. But they are not for the faint of heart or for those who get car sick. They are old school buses from the U.S. redone in bright colours so that each one is different. The drivers are known for being in a hurry, taking curves at maximum speed and passing with oncoming traffic, so I recommend just a short trip your first time. We rode to the market at San Francisco el Alto about 45 minutes away from the Minerva bus terminal and that was enough for me.
Local minibuses, while not as pretty, can be just as interesting. These small, well-worn vans pass regularly, the ayudante, or driver’s helper, hanging out the door and calling out destinations. Our most common travel was to Minerva Terminal, often just “terminal” so we rode almost daily. The cost was 1.25 quetzales per person one way, less than one dollar for our whole family to get across town. I was surprised that we were the only non-locals on the minibuses but people always made us feel welcome, smiling and chatting, sometimes offering to share snacks.
The streets are rough and the buses are old, making the ride a bouncy one. On a busy route people pack in tighter and tighter and the ayudante keeps calling for more, they never seem to be considered full. My girls loved riding minibuses because they were often able to stand up in the aisle or sit backward behind the driver when space got scarce. My husband and I were not quite so flexible, being head and shoulders taller than the locals.
We did see a few taxis available, usually at the taxi station by the Parque Central. Many are in rough shape due to the cobblestone streets. There are not a lot of them and they are more expensive than the public transportation, costing 35 quetzales for a ride across town.
Although it is the second largest city in Guatemala, Xela is also very walkable and safe. From the centre you can get almost anywhere is under 30 minutes if you are in good shape. The altitude slowed us down, so take this into account and give yourself plenty of time.
While in Guatemala Rory turned 8 years old so we let her choose the activity for that day. She chose horseback riding, which we booked with Adrenalina Tours. The driver picked us up at 8am and took us to the edge of the city where an older man met us and led us off between the houses, chatting away at us in Spanish despite our lack of understanding.
Juan welcomed us to his family farm and set to work saddling five horses while we explored the barn, the children delighting in the pigs and chickens kept nearby. He led us through his community up in the foothills for two hours, stopping for a break at a playground built from local pine branches. People poked their heads out to watch our group pass, delighted when we greeted them in Spanish, “Buenos dias.”
After the ride Juan showed us the rest of the property, his brother’s dairy cows and a collection of beautiful roosters. Rory loves pigs, so he took her to see the piglets that had been born the night before and scooped one out for her to hold. When June asked if there were baby chickens he walked us down to his own home and introduced us to his wife and daughters, who showed us the chicks they were keeping out back.
It was not the typical tourist trail ride experience we had expected. Juan obviously delighted in sharing his life and family with us, and we were touched by his personal interest in us. I hope that we get to return and visit him again.
And the Lows…
We didn’t pay much attention to the weather reports until the week before we would leave for Xela. For the past year and a half our family has been based in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, so we were not prepared for temperatures in the low 60’s during the day and less than 40 F at night. We don’t even own any clothing that is suitable for these temperatures and for the first several days we froze, especially at night.
There is no heat in most of the houses in Xela. Luckily there are large quantities of second hand clothes for sale cheap, both in the markets and in stores called Pacas. We bought three jackets, three pairs of gloves and two pairs of socks for 77 quetzales in the Minerva marketplace (around USD $10) Bargaining is expected, but the price was so good I just agreed, happy to be warm.
Things to do in Xela
In the Parque Central there are always other children to play with and lots of local life passing by. My girls found a tree that we visited every day so they could climb. If you want to feed the numerous pigeons women sell small bags of food for them, or you can have your boots shined by local boys. Casa Xelajú offers a tour of this historic city center every Monday afternoon (in Spanish) that helped us get to know the surrounding government buildings here as well.
Near the Parque Central is a cooperative of weavers called Trama Textiles. This place not only makes sure that local women receive a fair price for their work, they will teach you to weave with a traditional backstrap loom. At first my girls thought it would be boring, but when they saw the women weaving they clamoured to join in and spent two days patiently weaving their own small scarves. If you don’t want to make your own there is a demonstration and a shop that sells a variety of unique products from the cooperative.
The area around the Minerva terminal was a wealth of entertainment. It is named for the Temple of Minerva, a Roman style structure build by a former president to show his commitment to education. The local market extends for several blocks here, one of the largest in the city.
Next to the market there is a small zoo where for just 3 quetzales each you will find a huge playground and some carnival style rides that can be purchased separately. The zoo backs up to a large green space, making it an excellent place to run off extra energy.
The modern shopping mall is just around the corner from Minerva as well, with the main attraction for families being the multi-story play area in the food court. Just outside of Xela the thermal springs at Fuentes Georginas are a great place to warm up. The pools are shallow enough my girls could touch the bottom everywhere and the temperature of the water varies according to how close you are to the source so you can find a spot that’s just right.
When to Visit Xela
Temperatures in Xela in January are chilly, but even in June it does not change much, often only reaching mid-70sF on the warmest days. This makes Xela a good destination year-round. We did find that a few places were closed for vacation in January such as the main museum and one of the theatres. In the summer there are more visitors due to school breaks, and the Spanish schools often add more classes to their schedules in the afternoon. This is a good option for those like us who aren’t early risers.
How to Get to Xela
Most visitors fly into Guatemala through La Aurora airport in Guatemala City. From here it is a four-hour drive to Xela, easily done on a 1st class Pullman bus. There are many options, with Linea Dorada being the most recommended company. We used Alamo because they have more runs scheduled throughout the day, but the schedule can vary greatly. Local tour companies run smaller shuttles to Xela and back for around triple the cost of the buses. The advantage of these is that you can book one to an in-between destination such as Antigua or Lake Atilan if you want to visit there as well.
What to Pack
- The roads in this part of Guatemala are rarely straight, bring Dramamine or non-drowsy Bonine.
- Closed toed shoes that are good for walking.
- A backpack or day pack
- Swimsuit for the hot springs
- Dress in layers scarf long pants long sleeved shirts
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