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History of Quetzaltenango

In pre-Columbian times Quetzaltenango was a city of the Mam Maya people, and was called Xelajú, a name that may be derived from "Xe laju' noj," meaning "under ten mountains." By the time of the Spanish Conquest, it had become part of the K'iche' Kingdom of Q'umarkaj and was already over 300 years old.


Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated and killed the Maya ruler Tecún Umán and called the city by the Nahuatl name used by his Central Mexican Indian allies, "Quetzaltenango," which is generally considered to mean "the place of the quetzal bird." During the colonial period, Quetzaltenango became the city's official name. However, many people call the city Xela, and some proudly, consider it the "capital of the Mayas."


From 1838 to 1840, Quetzaltenango was the capital of the state of Los Altos, one of the states of the Federal Republic of Central America. As the union broke up, the army of Guatemala under Rafael Carrera conquered Quetzaltenango, once again making it a part of Guatemala.


In the 19th century, coffee was introduced as a major crop in the area and the economy of Xela prospered. Recently, the city has become a popular destination for foreign students studying Spanish or K’iche, one of the Mayan languages.

By Claire Bourgin
I have traveled around the world since I'm a kid. Traveling is now part of my everyday life in Guatemala. I have been living in Quetzaltenango for 3...
02 Sep 2009

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