Don’t skip Xela | Ultimate guide
to Quetzaltenango

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Exploring Xela Where to Stay Where to Eat How to get around

Travellers in Guatemala often skip Quetzaltenango, also known by its Mayan name Xela. And that’s exactly what makes it unique.

Despite being Guatemala’s second biggest city, Quetzaltenango doesn’t attract nearly as many tourists as the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Antigua. No doubt Antigua is a beautiful city, but it no longer has that authentic and local feel that you’ll still find in Quetzaltenango.

As you wander through Quetzaltenango’s colourful colonial streets, you get a beautiful insight into the lives of the locals intertwined with the city’s history, culture and traditions.

This charm and compelling vibe are hard to capture in words — you’ll just have to see for yourself! 

If you’re visiting Quetzaltenango (Xela) soon, you’ve come to the right place. After reading this guide, you’ll know which area to stay in, where to find the best restaurants and how to get around Guatemala’s second-biggest city. 

Also, check out our list of the best activities in Quetzaltenango!

Quetzaltenango or Xela?

You may have seen Quetzaltenango being referred to as Xela. This isn’t some nickname because “Quetzaltenango” is a long word that’s hard to spell. It’s a play on the city’s original name.

Before Spanish colonisation, the city was called Xelajú, hence Xela for short. It was the capital of the Maya K’Iche kingdom.

Whatever you want to call the city, one thing is for certain, there are plenty of fun things to do in Quetzaltenango.

What is Quetzaltenango famous for?

Volcano in Tajumulco
Tajumulco Volcano is the highest peak in Central America

The area around Quetzaltenango is a hotspot for volcanoes, offering a number of incredible volcano hikes, including the highest peak in Central America, Tajumulco Volcano.

Inside the city, the streets are filled with stories to uncover and sites to visit.

Simply slipping into everyday life in Quetzaltenango is one of the best things you can do too.

How long should you spend in Quetzaltenango?

How long you stay in Quetzaltenango depends on your reason for visiting the city. Some people stay for months to volunteer or brush up on their language skills. It’s a livable city and there are some good and affordable Spanish schools here). 

For this reason, Quetzaltenango has a small but close-knit expat community.

If you simply want to see the city and tick off the top things to do in Quetzaltenango, then 3-4 days is a good amount of time.

Where to stay in Quetzaltenango

Quetzaltenango is Guatemala’s second-biggest city after Guatemala City. 

Most big cities have a number of neighbourhoods to pick from and areas to research. But when it comes to Quetzaltenango, choosing which area to stay in is quite simple.

Stay in Zona 1 – near Parque Central

Parque Central is the cultural epicentre of Quetzaltenango. It’s the heart of the city, bustling with activity and locals meeting with their friends.

It’s a great place to stay. This is where you’ll find the most restaurants, bars, cafes and shops. 

Parque Central is within Zona 1, so anywhere in this area will be safe and full of options. Staying within Zona 1 means that most things you need will be within walking distance.

And you’ll probably want to walk as the streets in Zona 1 boast colourful and unique colonial architecture.

Accommodation in Quetzaltenango

We recommend booking your stay in advance. Considering how big Quetzaltenango is, there isn’t a huge number of accommodations to choose from. 

The majority of accommodation options are homestays, small family-run hotels, Airbnbs and hostels.

Private rooms in Quetzaltenango start at around $15 per night.

Casa Seibel is a great budget option without having to compromise on comfort. If you’re not on a budget, Latam Hotel’s rooftop pool and gym are the perfect way to treat yourself. 

Where to eat in Quetzaltenango

Guatemala isn’t the cheapest place to eat. That applies to Quetzaltenango too.

Although there might only be a few cheap options, there are plenty of delicious ones. You can find traditional Guatemalan cuisine and plenty of Italian influence in Quetzaltenango. Even Indian restaurants!

To make sure that you only have delicious meals in Quetzaltenango, check out our three favourites places to eat:

Restaurante Tertulianos — one of Quetzaltenango’s best restaurants

Restaurante Tertulianos is one of Quetzaltenango’s most famous restaurants. With thoughtful presentation and memorable flavours, the food here is on the fancier side,

Situated inside an elegant colonial-style building, boasting a gorgeous garden and beautifully adorned walls, Restaurante Tertulianos creates the perfect ambience for a meal.

Clara y Tinto ⁠— for a Spanish vibe and delicious wine

When entering Clara y Tinto, you’ll feel as if you’ve suddenly been transported to Spain. The moody and perfectly-lit interior creates the ideal place to enjoy some top-quality wine and tapas. 

The wine bar offers a range of tapas to accompany your wine, cocktail or beer. You can indulge in a cheese board, charcuterie board, salads and sandwiches. It’s a great place to spend an evening in Quetzaltenango.

Sabor de la India ⁠— a taste of India in Guatemala

Indian food might not be what you came to Guatemala for, but it doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on Sabor de la India. There is an array of dishes to choose from, including all of your favourite Indian dishes. 

The food is seasoned with rich spices and cooked with care ⁠— you can almost taste it in the food. Sabor de la India is also one of the cheaper options in Quetzaltenango.

How to get around Quetzaltenango

Exactly what we like to hear when visiting a new city ⁠— Quetzaltenango is an easy city to navigate. Despite being the second biggest city in Guatemala, Quetzaltenango packs most of its must-sees into a small area.

The best ways to get around Quetzaltenango:

By foot 

Quetzaltenango is full of walkable streets with so much to see.

Whilst walking from one place to another may be the longer option, most of the time it’s the best. Walking to your destination is a great way to explore the city.

The only time it may not be better to walk is at night. If you’re alone, you might want to get a taxi.

By minibus

For longer distances around Quetzaltenango, minivans or microbuses are the best options.

Quetzaltenango is full of them. You won’t have to wait long before one drives past in the direction that you want to go.

They have designated routes around the city, with the destination often advertised in the window. They also sometimes have someone shouting where they’re going (fast and loudly). 

As well as being a mode of transport, the minivans can be part of your Quetzaltenango experience as you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with locals.

The minivans are the cheapest way to get around Quetzaltenango, costing only Q1.25 during the day and Q2 at night.

By taxi/Uber

Taxis can be found everywhere in Quetzaltenango. They’re often roaming the streets looking for passengers or waiting outside of popular locations such as the bus station. 

Taxis are the most comfortable and convenient way to get around the city, but they’re also more expensive. Most rides within the city will cost between Q20-40.

Uber is also available in Quetzaltenango. They are normally cheaper and can be ordered to your exact location when you want them, so this may be a better option.

By chicken bus

Chicken bus, Guatemala
Chicken bus in Guatemala

Chicken bus is the nickname given to the brightly coloured and decorated buses in Guatemala. Fun fact: they’re actually retired school buses from the United States!

Sometimes it’s impossible to work out where they’re going. But once you’ve figured it out, the chicken buses are great for reaching hikes outside the city. Plus, they’re cheap and their hecticness adds to the adventure.

The 45-minute journey to Santa Maria Volcano costs only Q2.

In summary

Now that you’ve finished reading this guide, you’re almost ready for your adventure in Xela. The next step is to create your personalised itinerary with our top picks of things to do in Xela. Simply choose your favourite activities and places to visit, and you’re all set to make lasting memories in Xela.

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Professional Traveller

Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.

Professional Traveller & Editor

Aleksandra is a writer and editor who recently moved from Hong Kong to London. She’s worked and studied in four countries (and counting) and picked up a new hobby in each of them. She’s a big fan of long train journeys so you can count on her to take the scenic route, finding a few hidden gems along the way.