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The second-largest city in all of Guatemala, Quetzaltenango is an important commercial hub in the central-western highlands. The city is a sprawling conglomeration of districts and neighbourhoods that seems to go on endlessly in any direction from the center. Although its population is estimated to be about 300,000, it often seems larger.

To the Quiché people who lived in the city for centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, the city was called “Xelajú,” or “Under Ten Mountains.” Quetzaltenango, or “Place of the Quetzal bird” was the name given to it by Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado’s Mexican allies during the conquest. Although the name stuck as far as the Spanish were concerned, the locals still more commonly refer to the city as Xelaju, or Xela for short.

The city was the capital of the Quiché people at the time of the Spanish conquest. They fought valiantly against Pedro de Alvarado and his men, but ultimately the city fell. The Quiché leader, Tecún Umán, bravely went to battle with the Spanish, but fell in battle outside of town. According to tradition, he fell in single combat with Alvarado himself, although there is little historical evidence to support this notion.

The city remained important during the colonial and republican periods, and when coffee was introduced in the nineteenth century, the city boomed. The fine houses and buildings of the coffee boom can still be seen in the colonial center of town, and the region still produces a good deal of coffee, although insiders will tell you that the coffee grown in Alta Verapaz and Huehuetenango is of higher quality.

There are some tourist attractions in Xela, making the town worth a visit. The colonial center has some interesting architecture, and the hills and mountains around the city are good for hiking. The central market has some traditional crafts for sale, and they’re generally cheaper than you’ll find them in Antigua or Panajachel. The city is convenient to other places of interest such as San Francisco el Alto and Momostenango. There are an abundance of Spanish schools in Xela, which mainly attract those students too serious to want to study in Cuba-libre-soaked Antigua or Hippie Heaven Panajachel. These students in general sacrifice two-for-one margaritas for a more authentic homestay and less distractions.

Neighborhoods in Quetzaltenango : San Andrés Xecul, Cantel, Las Cumbres, Xela, Los Vahos, Laguna Chicabal, Zona 3 Quetzaltenango, San Francisco El Alto, Salcajá, Almolonga and Fuentes Georginas.

Other places nearby Quetzaltenango : Huehuetenango, Nentón, Momostenango, Cuatro Caminos, San Mateo Ixtatan, San Mateo Ixtatán, La Mesilla, Todos Santos Cuchumatan, Barillas and Gracias A Dios.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
19 Oct 2007

Top Places in Quetzaltenango

El Palmar Viejo

El Palmar Viejo is one of the more unusual tourist attractions to visit around Quetzaltenango. Back in the 1990’s the infamous Hurricane Mitch caused havoc in this little village and forced the ...
City Zone
El Palmar Viejo, Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Los Vahos

Situated about 3.5km from the Parque Centroamérica are the modest sauna/steam baths of Los Vahos. If you are interested in a hike out of Quetzaltenango, then this is great option. Walking, the ...
City Zone
Los Vahos, Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Laguna Chicabal

Situated a two hour walk from the village of San MartĂ­n Sacatepequez is beautiful Laguna Chicabal. The lake sits within a volcanic crater at an altitude of about 8,900ft and is surrounded by a lush ...
City Zone
Laguna Chicabal, Quetzaltenango , Guatemala


Cantel is a small industrial town located east of Quetzaltenango and Zunil. It became one of the more important industrial suburbs when it contributed significantly to Quetzaltenango’s late 19th ...
City Zone
Cantel, Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Fuentes Georginas

Situated high in the hills above Zunil, is one of Guatemala’s finest hot spring resorts, Fuentes Georginas. It makes a popular day trip for both locals and tourists from Quetzaltenango or Zunil. ...
City Zone
Fuentes Georginas, Quetzaltenango , Guatemala


Situated northeast from the Cuatro Caminos Junction and through 30 km of pine forests, lies the department capital of Totonicapán, known locally as Toto. This modest town is known for producing some ...
City Zone
Totonicapán, Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

San Andrés Xecul

If you head west off the Pan American Highway at a crossroads between the turnoff for Salcajá and the Cuatro Caminos junction, you will find San Andrés Xecul. This small highland town of steep ...
City Zone
San Andrés Xecul, Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Las Cumbres

Located half a kilometer south of Quetzaltenango is Las Cumbres; a small highland resort that serves as the perfect spot to relax and unwind while traveling around Guatemala’s Western Highlands. ...
City Zone
Las Cumbres, Quetzaltenango , Guatemala


Almolonga is a small agricultural town located just 5km southeast of Quetzaltenango. This pleasant town produces lots of the region’s fresh vegetables and holds a busy market on a Tuesday, Thursday ...
City Zone
Almolonga, Quetzaltenango , Guatemala


Of all the small towns in the area, Salcajá is a rather uneventful place to visit. However, if you are passing by on your way Quetzaltenango there are a couple of things for which the town is known ...
City Zone
Salcajá, Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Things to do in Quetzaltenango

Parque Centroamérica

134441Like most Guatemalan cities, Xela is built around a Central Park. The Parque Centroamérica gives a European feel with the presence of Greek columns. On the south side, stands La Casa de la Cultura ...
City Plaza
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Casa de la Cultura

134443When the Espiritu Santo Church and Franciscan convent were built, a cemetery was built at the location of the present Casa de la Cultura. In 1872, after the triumph of the Liberal Revolution, the ...
Historical Building
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Santa Maria

Climbing Santa Maria (3772 m) can be easily done from Xela. You can start walking at the village Llanos del Pinal, 5 km south of Xela. The trip to the summit takes about four hours. The last 20 ...
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Horseback Riding

Saddle up for a horseback adventure in the Quetzaltenango valley. Feel the magic of freedom and infinite space, the intense blue of the sky, the vertigo of the ravines with carpets of crops on the ...
Horseback Riding
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Volcano Climbing

There are many volcanoes to climb from Xela and the variety will please hikers at all levels. Volcano Tajumulco (4220m) is the highest point in Central America and is a challenging two day-trip from ...
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala


Cycling is a great way to discover the surroundings of Xela if you’re not afraid of dusty, bumpy roads. You can go to Zunil and Fuentes Georginas, Los Vahos or Salcaja and San Andres Xecul in a day ...
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Temple Minerva

Outside the Zoo and in the middle of 4 Calle stands the Temple Minerva. It was built in 1900 by the dictator Estrada Cabrera, to honor the Roman goddess Minerva. In Roman legend, she was born, fully ...
Historical Building
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Parque ZoolĂłgico

Inaugurated on 26 December 1956, this small zoo is a favorite place for Guatemalan families during the weekend. There are a few monkeys, coyotes, raccoons, deer, sheep and birds in small cages. And ...
Other Activity
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Teatro Municipal

At the northeast of Parque Central, the theater was built in 1894 by the architect Enrique Jones. On 19 July 1895, General Justo Rufino Barrios celebrated the completion of the Municipal Theater. But ...
Historical Building
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Museo de Historia Natural

This museum has an interesting collection covering the Maya, the liberal revolution in Central American politics and the Estado de Los Altos of which Xela was the Capital. Marimba, the weaving ...
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala

Museo Del Ferrocarril

The Museo del Ferrocarril is a must see for train enthusiasts or simply those interested in learning a bit more about Guatemala’s history. This well put together museum features several old ...
Quetzaltenango , Guatemala
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