The quiet and safe city Quetzaltenango lies in the western highlands, in the territory of the Quiché Mayas. For Guatemalans the city is better known under the name Xela, which is an abbreviation of the original city name Xelajú. In Quiché language Xelajú means ‘under the ten mountains’. This name derives from the fact that Quetzaltenango lies in the highlands of the “Serra Madre” and is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. Over the past decades, Quetzaltenango has become an important trade center and gained in wealth. Even though it has become the second biggest city in Guatemala, it conserves its authentic charm, which gives you the feeling of being in a huge village rather than being in a busy city.
Before Xela fell under the territory of the Quiché Mayas in the 14th century, it belonged to the Mam Mayas. Later, the city has been inhabited by Spanish and later German settlers, which is reflected in the city’s neoclassical architecture. In 1840, Quetzaltenango became a part of Guatemala. In the end of the 19th century the city experienced an economic boom due to an increased cultivation of coffee by German, Italian and Austrian immigrants. Then in 1902 the city was struck by two huge disasters: A volcanic eruption by the Santa Maria volcano and an earthquake destroyed the city and its surrounding by such a devastating level that Quetzaltenango never fully recovered.
Nowadays, Quetzaltenango has reestablished itself as an important trade center and serves as a connection between the roads to the Pacific Coast, to Mexico and to Guatemala City. Also tourism plays a significant role in Xela’s economy. The city has become the starting point for various excursions and its Spanish schools are favored by many Spanish students. Most sights gather around the central square called Parque Centro América, where you will find yourself set back into the neoclassical period. At the east side of the park you will see the town hall and right next to it the church Iglesia del Espíritu Santo with an impressively decorated facade. Crossing the park to the opposite site, you will enter the Pasaje Enríquez. In its former days it used to be elegant shopping mall, nowadays it is home to many restaurants, bars and travel agencies.
Also for rainy days Quetzaltenango has a lot on offer. At the central park you will find the Natural History Museum and closer to the bus station Terminal Minerva you will find Quetzaltenango’s Intercultural Center. The center is home to the Ixkik’ Museum about traditional Maya weaving, a modern art museum and a railway museum. Xela is also a perfect starting point for days trips like volcano hikes, tours to neighboring, traditional villages or the hot springs Fuentes Georginas. Furthermore, Xela is known for its ancient weaving tradition, so why not taking a course in back strap loom weaving at the Trama textile weaving school.
Quetzaltenango also offers a good amount of different restaurants, bars and hotels. In the city center you will find the right mix between traditional restaurants serving typical Guatemalan food, and European, Asian or North American style restaurants. You can immerse yourself in a rather modern scene, where innovative entrepreneurs open their small businesses: how about enjoying a coffee in a hip café, buying fancy, self-made cloth in small fashion stores or dancing through a lively nightlife?