Updated December 2017
Quetzaltenango (Xela) is one of the top study destinations in Guatemala, with thousands of backpackers passing through every year to learn, improve or immerse themselves in the language.
For those who enjoy the great outdoors, it is also a fantastic base for various hikes, whether you prefer spending a few hours or a few days reaching a summit.
As many of you will end up staying in town for at least a couple of weeks, we've put together a list of ten great things to do in and around Xela during your visit.
#1 conquer tajumulco - central america's highest peak
It's tough, it's cold and you'll hurt like hell the next morning, but it's totally worth it. Not only will you be able to brag that you've climbed the highest peak in all of Central America, but you will see landscapes and a sunrise that will blow your mind.
Xela offers a variety of volcano-trekking opportunities, but this is definitely the ultimate for the more adventurous. Here's more information on our experience and how to arrange the trek with Quetzaltrekkers.
#2 get hot and steamy at the springs
Las Fuentes Georginas are a short bus and truck ride away from Xela and are a great way to unwind after a hard week's studying. There are three hot-springs of varying temperatures, so everyone will find something that's just right for them. Although there is a 50Q entry fee, we recommend giving it a visit at least once.
There is a restuarant/bar on-site but it is a little beyond the budget of most backpackers - best to eat first or smuggle in snacks.
How to get to Las fuentes georginas
Take a bus from the corner of 9a Avenida and 10a Calle, Zona 1 (in front of the Shell petrol station) to Zunil - they run every 10 minutes. From the bus drop-off, cross the road and take the dirt track leading into Zunil village. Walk approximately 5 minutes where you will usually find taxis or pick-up trucks waiting to ferry tourists to the springs. Neither should charge you more than 50Q each way, irrespective of how full they are.
To get back, either hitch a ride, or call a taxi. The pick-up truck drivers will also often give you a number to call them when you're done.
If you'd prefer to do this as part of a tour, find further information here.
#3 tombstones, legends and history in the graveyard
Recommending you spend a few hours in a cemetery on a 'Top 10' list may seem a little odd - and perhaps speak of there really not being much else to do in a city - but that couldn't be further from the truth in Xela.
Stories of detested dictators, spurned gypsies with graves covered in lipstick and roses, poets, romantics and revolutionaries all rest in Xela's colourful sprawling cemetery, which gives you a unique insight into the complex and often divided history of the country. Nothing was more stark for us on the day than seeing the plot towards the back where Maya are traditionally buried, often with only a simple hand-made cross in a pile of dirt and an obituary written in marker-pen, contrasting hugely with the grander mausoleums elsewhere.
The cemetery itself is a vibrant and photogenic place to wander around on a sunny day, with a fantastic volcanic back-drop. Try to find a knowledgable local with whom to visit to breathe some...er, life...into the stories.
Remember, this is also an active cemetery so please be mindful and respectful of other visitors.
#4 blow your top at santa maria & santiaguito
After spending time in Guatemala, one can grow a little blasé about the stunning volcano backdrops on offer. But make your way up Santa Maria and look down on the eruptions of the its extremely active little brother Santiaguito and you'll be blown away (hopefully only metaphorically).
How to get to Santa Maria volcano
You are of course able to do this on a tour, but for those on a tight budget it's totally possible on your own. Here's our buddy Matt Wicks' great guide on how to summit Santa Maria for fifty cents.
Due to safety concerns, it is advisable to climb Santiaguito with a guided tour.
#5 get lost and found at the market
If you've made your way to/from Xela by chicken bus, then you're likely to have spent 10 minutes hauling ass through the market with all your worldly possessions on your back.
However, if you get the opportunity to spend a morning or afternoon wandering around it during your stay, you're in for a great experience. All the manic hustle and bustle you'd want of a Central American market, with cheap clothes, wonderful fruit and veg, shouting vendors, strong personalities and traditional restaurants - it's a sight for all your senses and an excellent place to practise your Spanish!
#6 volunteer with entremundos
Few of us pass through Central America without at least being tempted to give up a few hours helping those less fortunate than ourselves, and Guatemala is an excellent country to do some volunteer work - whether you want to build houses, teach kids, help deliver medical care or offer social media expertise, there is quite literally something for everyone.
The problem can often be identifying an NGO that can benefit from your skills but which at the same time provides you with what you need or want. This is where Entremundos can really help.
They act as an intermediary, connecting volunteers and organisations and providing them with resources to maximise the developmental impact of each organisation and aiding the most vulnerable or at risks groups around Guatemala's Western Highlands.
Through their website you can access a directory of volunteer opportunities all over Guatemala, or stop by their offices to have a one-to-one with a placement officer to find out how you can really help.
#7 see if the local bread rises to the occasion
We'll be honest, if you're fresh off the plane or don't enjoy carbs as much as us, then you might wonder what a bakery is doing on our list. However, several months after landing in Latin America it has become increasingly apparent that unless explicitly stated, sugar is added to everything, including bread.
Five months in, whilst wandering the streets of Xela, we discovered La Chatia Artesana. Inside this small cafe and bakery you will find a selection of fresh artisan bread and bagels that will make you do a quick happy dance and chuck the Atkins book into the bin. And for those who can never have it sweet enough, there are also some excellent scones, cakes and cookies (we particularly recommend the chocolate chip variety!)
Location: 7a Calle 15-18, Zona 1 (around a 5 minute walk from the main square).
#8 pig out at asian corner (la esquina asiatica)
Good value and big portions of real tasty Asian food were a huge surprise to discover in Xela. Emily found her pad-thai tofu amongst some of the best she's ever had, and Andrew devoured a sweet and sour chicken which hit all the right notes of proper comfort food.
They sometimes have a buffet at weekends (50Q all you can eat!) and takeaway is always available. It is also very veggie friendly with a number of tofu and veggie dishes.
Location: 9 Avendia 6-79, Zona 1., ring the buzzer, it's on the second floor. Please note, that it's not open on Tuesdays and closes in the afternoon on Sundays.
#9 check out chicabal
This is the last volcano on our list, we promise! A relatively easy hike to to do on your own - despite what the tour groups will tell you - where you'll find a mystical crater lake at the summit. Unfortunately, you definitely cannot swim in this due to its importance to Maya folklore, but it is a beautiful hike nonetheless.
Make sure that you set off very early and aim to be at the summit by no later than 10.30 a.m. as, once the clouds start to set in at 11 a.m., the views are all but lost.
How to get to Chicabal
If planning on doing this trek, we recommend attempting it Monday-Saturday as transport options get a little more complicated on Sunday.
Find the corner of 15a Avenida and 6a Calle Zone 3 where microsbuses to Toj Mech will pass by regularly - the first bus is at 6.30am and we highly recommend leaving no later than this to make the most of the view.
From the parking-lot you have two options. The first is to negotiate a good price with the pick-ups at the bottom to take you all the way to the entrance (expect to pay around 100Q), or you can opt to walk the first part along paved roads until you encounter another smaller parking-lot with more pick-ups to take you on the final bumpy stretch to the entrance It possible to skip the trucks entirely and do all this on foot but it will take time, and a lot of energy. We paid 30Q from the second parking lot, after a little bartering.
Entrance is 50Q per person and from the beautifully landscaped gardens of the payment booths, the crater lake is another 3km hike. It is clearly sign-posted along the way, with options to view the mirador or laguna first - we would recommend heading to the mirador first as, if you opt for the lake, you will be required to climb more than 600 steps to the summit.
#10 stretch it all out at casa de yoga
For only 50Q per person, you can enjoy unlimited classes at this great yoga studio for an entire week. A welcome antidote to the hectic backpacker life and a chance to soothe those tired muscles after enjoying all those volcano hikes!
where to stay in xela
We only have one suggestion for you - Casa Seibel.
Run by a wonderful American-Guatemalan couple, this hostel was probably our favourite in all of Guatemala. Located in a large old property in the centre of the city, it has lots of common rooms, a great kitchen, two lovely courtyards and the most wonderful furnishings (think lots of solid wood furniture, a piano, stripped floorboards and vintage finds).
It's not a party hostel, but if you want somewhere to relax, a base for your Spanish school studies or a warm and friendly place to stay, this is it.
For further information, to check availability or prices, see here.