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, Central America, 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 its 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.
Most visitors arrive to study in Spanish in Xela but it’s also a wonderful destination if you’re looking to explore Guatemala off the beaten path. This guide tells you all the things to do in Xela as well as when to visit, where to stay, where to eat and how to get to Xela.
Updated for 2021. Guest post by: Amelia Lynch
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on a link I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. For more information, please see my disclosure policy.
What to do in Xela
One of the main reasons that people come to Xela is for studying Spanish. There are around 50 schools that offer immersion in both language and daily life in the city. We studied at the Casa Xelajú language school.
Parque Centro América
Also called Parque Central, this broad central plaza is the heart of Xela. It’s a great place to watch local life go by and is where most of Xela’s sights can be found. It was originally two separate parks but they were combined in the 1930s. Casa Xelajú offers a tour of this historic city centre every Monday afternoon in Spanish that is a great way to learn more about the city.
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. If you don’t want to make your own there are regular demonstrations and a shop that sells a variety of products from the cooperative.
Minerva Terminal Market
The area around the Minerva terminal was a wealth of entertainment. It is named for the Temple of Minerva, a Roman style structure built by a former president to show his commitment to education. The local market, the Minerva Terminal Market, extends for several blocks here and is 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.
Mercado la Democracia
Democracy Market (Mercado la Democracia) is another busy market in Xela. It’s one of the best places to visit in Xela simply because it is so vibrant and colourful. It’s also a good place to come for fruits and vegetables.
Just outside of Xela the thermal springs at Fuentes Georginas are well worth a visit. The hot springs emanate from the Zunil Volcano and the temperature of the water varies according to how close you are to the source. The springs are located about 9km from Xela.
Chichicastenango Market is the biggest outdoor market in Central America. It’s the place to come for traditional textiles, artisan crafts, traditional souvenirs and to catch a glimpse of local market life.
Traders arrive from all over Guatemala every Thursday and Sunday to buy and sell goods. Although it’s a popular tourist spot, this is still very much a locals market.
You can visit Chichicastenango on a day trip from Xela. Buses leave from the Minerva Terminal to Los Encuentros. Once you arrive at Los Encuentros you will see myriad buses destined for the market. Tour buses also depart from Xela to Chichicastenango.
We booked a riding tour with Adrenalina Tours. The driver picked us up at 8am and took us to the edge of the city where we met our guide for the day, Juan.
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. Once we were all ready, led us through his community up in the foothills for two hours, stopping for a break at a playground built from local pine branches.
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.
The local markets are also a great place to pick up food if you are staying in self-catering accommodation.
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 but they are not for the faint of heart or for those who get car sick.
These are old school buses from the U.S. repainted in bright colours and bold designs. The drivers are known for being in a hurry, taking curves at maximum speed and passing with oncoming traffic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to Get to Xela
Most visitors fly into La Aurora airport in Guatemala City. From here it is a four-hour drive to Xela, easily done on a 1st class Pullman bus. We used Alamo because they have more buses scheduled throughout the day.
Local tour companies run smaller shuttles from Guatemala City 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.