Global Mark : 14.32
Ratings by criteria :
Ratings by backpackers :
Comments : The town has a relaxed Greek atmosphere but this is not the attraction : the Spanish-schools, the villages, the artists and the volcanoes are.
What to do ? Visit the helpful tourist office for maps & info / Spend an hour visiting the city (basically the church and the museum) / Climb the highest mountain & volcano of Central America (the Tajumulco, 4220m) / Shop at the biggest market in Central America (San Francisco on Friday) / Many other places to trek or shop in the area / Then relax at the hot springs / Discover one of the most colorful church of Central America / Watch a movie (a few cinemas) or local people hugging & kissing (a lot on Sunday) / Eat pizza (one restaurant at every corner in zona 1) or good pastries / Degust hot chocolate inside one of the nicest cafe in Central America / Play video-games or baby-foot / Be original : learn Spanish !
What you may not like ? The little attractions in town / The lack of cheap local food in zona 1 / The limited cheap & nice places to stay / The beggars and drunk people / Seeing nearly as many foreigners as local people on the plaza (not to say in zona 1) / Spotting armed guards in front of each bank / Annoying a gringo who would rather talk Spanish / The traffic and associated pollution / The chilly mornings at 2333m...
How long ? Half a day for the town, a few days for the surroundings, a few weeks to learn Spanish...
Where to stay ? Quite a few places to stay in Zona 1:
Where to eat ? There are plenty of restaurants in zone 1 but they nearly all have a westerner touch. If you are fed-up of pizzas, burgers or Italian food, it may take you a while to find your paradise. It could be found in the area S-E of the plaza : there are a few snacks on offer at night and a couple of reasonably priced restaurants. Among those, Sagrado Corazon Cafe (9a C. 9a Av., opp. Hotel Altense, 8am to 8pm except Sunday) offers some interesting local menus at Q11-20 : it is tasty and well served ! Another good place in the same area, highly recommended by vegetarians : La Salida (10 C. 9 Av, 10:30 to 21 except Wed). Good and well served dishes cost around Q15. Unfortunately, the whole area does not look like the safest, with rather poorly lighted streets. One place is not to be missed : La Luna Cafe Y Chocolate Museo (8a Av. 4-11) : 100 years of chocolates tradition inside a lovely museum !
Internet ? Most places collided to raise their prices from Q10 to Q15 an hour (Q4 per 15mn). The American manager of Alternativas (16 Av. 3-35 and 3-59, opp. Parque Juarez) however disagreed and kept the original tariff : Q3 for 15mn, Q10 for one hour on Sunday & daily from 3pm to 9pm (Q12 other times). Support him !
Banks ? A dozen of banks around the plaza, incl some with ATM machine. Most however do not change TC. The best rate at the time of writing was 'Banco Occidental', North of the Plaza : there is always a long queue but you may watch 'Mr Beans' on TV while waiting and there is a cold water dispenser...
Supermarket ? "Despensar Familiar" can be found S-W of the plaza on Calle 7. Open daily from 8am to 6pm.
Info ? Basically three places to head to for precise information on the numerous options :
Learning Spanish ? Having read everywhere that this was the place to go for studying Spanish, Xela may become victim of its success. There are as many schools as ever and the prices are still very reasonable (about $70 per week + $70 for lodging with a family, a bit more during summer) but the high number of students nowadays means that the opportunities to speak English has never been as high. Success will rely heavily on your commitment to converse with locals rather than fellow students. This being said, Xela remains one of the best overall option in Guatemala. There is usually no need to book online (with add. fee), except if interested by a specific school.
A tour of the villages ? There are dozens of villages worth visiting around Antigua. Some are well known. Others have to be discovered with patience, by talking to people and spending some time in the area. Most villages however become really interesting only during their market day. The following is what I did on a Sunday :
It was very foggy that day but the bus to San Francisco still managed to find its way to 'La Rotunda', where I was waiting. It took about 40mn (and Q2.5) to reach the village, whose main attraction is the view to the valley (left side better) and, above all, its Friday market, the biggest in Central America. I arrived at the perfect time (8:20), when the mass was just ending : waiting at the door of the nice church, I was able to meet the whole village. Most remained on the place to degust a glass of 'leche' (milk). If you want to meet people, this is the drink to have...
Beside that, there was not much to do so I soon took a bus to Momostenango (R2.5, another 20mn), the center of wool production in the highlands, with a few nice buildings. But today's attraction was its market : if you love colors and pushing crowd, this is the place to be ! You should also ask a local to tell you the way to the 'volcancitos', some strange shaped stones. There is an acceptable hotel (Hotel Estiver, 1C 4-15, zona 1) but nobody was there so prices remained a mystery. Hospedaje Roxana, near the church was cheap (Q11) but dirty.
The bus back to Xela took a complete different way : a small rocky and dusty roads that would be enjoyable if the bus was not that packed and hot. Indeed, because of the dust, the windows were closed and this gave us a lovely sauna atmosphere. It stopped at all the villages and emptied little by little. This way, it took twice as long to reach San Francisco...
I had decided to visit Totonicapan ('Toto') so stopped at the 'Cuatro Caminos'. Rather than waiting at the crossroads, you could walk for 5mn to reach a place where girls wash clothes and themselves. From there, it will be a 20mn (Q1.5) trip along a nice road. That road is actually the only good reason to go outside of market day (Tuesday & Saturday) as Toto really is not too interesting. It is a poor provincial capital and you may feel uneasy displaying any kind of luxury.
The trip back was interesting as we were caught in a heavy hails assorted with some flash of lightning. It was fortunately a very local manifestation of nature and we found Xela as dry as ever. I did not make this time the mistake to go to the bus station and asked to stop near 'Parque Juarez', an interesting area, 15mn walk from the Plaza.
On the way back to Xela from 'Cuatro Caminos', you should make a side trip to the hilly village of San Andres Xecul (road just before the 'Esso' Station). You could walk the 4km or wait for one of the numerous bus or pick-up. Beside its nice setting, this village is famous for his splendid & colorful church, probably one of the nicest in Guatemala. The doors open only after 2:30pm (except on Sunday, morning as well) but the facade is what people really care about. The smallest church at the top of the village is worth going only for the view. From the village, buses depart every 30mn to Xela (Q2.5, 45mn).
Laguna Chicabal is one of the easiest volcano to climb, as well as one of the most original : it boost a lake in its crater. It does not really make sense to go with a guide as the way from the village of San Martin Sacatepequez (Q2.5, 45mn) is pretty straightforward (and upforward : good physical condition required) : once on the main street, turn right and keep going. At a three roads intersection, take the one going up on the left and sweat for 20-30mn. 1-1.5 hour (from the bus) later, you should reach the ticket office and the parking (a tour with an agency should actually bring you there) : it cost Q10 for foreigners to enter the reserve (Q1 or Q4 for locals). 20-30mn up later, you should understand why it was worth coming : your first view of the lake ! Magic ! That is, of course, if it is not foggy... To reach the lake, you must go down a long step of stairs. Then, take your time to wander around. The members of an evangelist sect were making all kind of crazy noises when I was there but this is not supposed to happen more than once a month. I had just finished walking around (45mn) when the fog showed up and covered the whole place in 30 seconds. "It is normal here, it will clear up again in 5mn" said the ticket guy (yes, another one !). But 15mn later, the lake was still invisible...
Inactive Volcan Santa Maria, 3772m high, requires a lot of energy and a guide as it is covered with forest. Easy to get lost ! It can be done in one day but spending the night near the top is recommended. Agencies charge $12-20 depending on the number of people.
Inactive Tajumulco, 4220m high, the summit of Central America, can be done on your own (if possible with someone) in about 5 hours at a relaxed pace (plus 3 hours transport). There is no hard climbing involved and no safety issues have been heard so far, as farmers grow crops
on its slopes. Patrick can rent you a tent (Q30) and a sleeping bag (Q25) to help you fight the freeze. It is indeed recommended to spend the night near the top to enjoy both sunset and sunrise.
Notes : (1) every 30mn market day, then to Momo / (2) from 9 Av. 10 C. Zona 1
The trip to Huehuetenango : SSSS / R / Q8 / 3 hrs
See also the trip from San
Pedro (Lago Atitlan)