Guatemala's South

XELA (QUETZALTENANGO)

Global Mark : 14.32

Ratings by criteria : 

Charm Scenery Culture Tradition Market Relax Fiesta 

Cost

AVER.
3 5 3 4 5 3 3 3 14.50

Ratings by backpackers :

Surveyed Liked  Comeback  Recommend  Range AVER.
22 95%(21) 73%(16) 86%(19) 7 to 18 14.14


Description :
A big town with a large community of learning-Spanish gringos and plenty of things around.

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: 

  • Pension Victoria, 6 Calle, 3mn from the Plaza / Q20 per person / Go there for the cheapest rooms, the very central location and to meet locals / What you may not like : it is rather run down & noisy (thanks to the dogs, cat, parrots or road) and the rooms aren't equal in size and quality so ask to check a few
  • Pension Yesly, just after / Room 30(1) or 50(2) / Big but empty rooms. Not too charming as well.
  • Hotel Occidental, 7 Calle, the nearest from the Plaza / Rooms w. shower 70(1) 90(2) / Big & clean rooms, some unfortunately dark as no windows. 
  • Casa Argentina (7612470), 12 Diagonal 8-37, 10mn from Plaza, near a market / Q25 per person, either in huge dorm (20) or much better rooms / Monthly rent : Q600 Sgl or Q1200 Dbl / When rooms become free, dorm guests have the priority / Go there for the friendly atmosphere with free water & kitchens. Quetzaltrekkers is also based here. / What you may not like : the dorm !
  • Hotel Oriental (7632241), 14 Av 3-36 / Sgl 40, Dbl 60, w. shower & TV 60(1) or 75(2) / Free water / A Chinese management hotel with acceptably priced & comfortable rooms w. shower. 
  • Pension Oriali (only sign : 'Pension Hotel'), 2 Calle, just east of 12 Av / Q45 per person / A nice little house with comfortable & clean rooms plus a parrot and some greenery. Try to get a discount.
  • Hotel Colonial (7612488), 3a Calle 9-48 / Q35 per person / Kitchen / Go there for the nice panoramic view of town, the acceptable big rooms at good prices and the relaxed atmosphere / What you may not like : not trying your luck with a discount as it is possible.
  • Hotel Los Olibos (7653469), 13 Av. 3-32, North 4 Calle / Dbl w. shower & cable TV 110 / Go there for the comfortable rooms at acceptable prices, at least if two people. 
  • Radar 99, just opp / Room 30(1) or 60(2), w. shower 40(1) or 70(2) / An acceptable option that however lack charm.
  • Hotel Altense (7654648), 9a C. 8-48 / Room w. shower 40 per person / Correct rooms & atmosphere at correct prices but the area does not look too safe late in the night...

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 :

  • The tourist Office, South of the Plaza. Open Mon-Frid 8am-1pm & 2-5pm, Sat 8am-noon. 
  • Quetzaltrekkers, located at Casa Argentina organizes regular trip (incl. to Tajumulco for $55) and use the money to help finance various programs. 
  • Adrenalinatours ( 13 avenida , 4 calle, pasaje enriquez), where Patrick, a Belgium guy (adrenalinatours@hotmail.com), will patiently explain you some options of this very rich area. He organizes trip for $11-20 depending of the number of person and can rent tents and sleeping bags. 

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).


The market days ? It is always best to visit a village during its market day : Zunil => Monday / Totonicapan => Tuesday & Saturday) / Momostenango => Sunday / San Francisco El alto (the biggest in Central America) => Friday / Almolonga => Wednesday & Saturday / Salcaja => Tuesday / Xela => the first Sunday of each month / For other markets, check the table market days


A trip to the hot springs ?
It is possible to go on a tour for $8 but I would recommend doing it on your own. For several reasons :

  • You will be able to visit Zanul (Q1.5, 20mn, bus from La Salida Restaurant) : this village at 2076m has got a beautiful church (usually open after 2pm only, except on Sunday), a colorful cemetery, a room to worship Maximon (or San Simon, the evil saint, at the bottom of 3 Av, likely to change, Q2 to enter but still free to have a look), a textile cooperative and a (covered) market on Tuesday (best time 10am). Above all it enjoys a superb location !
  • You will be able to walk the road, at least one way. This is indeed a better attraction than the springs themselves. 8km long, it can be safely walked in 2 hours, among the vegetable-growing fields (smell them !) with Volcano Santa Maria in the background and plenty of birds above. To find the road, go up the village and cross the cemetery. You will see a road going up on the left of the main road. Enjoy !
  • You can do it for much cheaper. In theory, considering that one way by pick-up from Zunil cost Q35 and the entrance fee Q10, $8 may sound like a bargain. In practice, you can get a ride up for as little as Q5 (local people pay Q2) and a little of patience. Just walk the road and stop all the pick-up going up : a few will refuse your offer but one may agree (it is going anyway !). The chances of getting the Q5 ride are much higher on the way down (you may not even have to bargain)
  • The sources 'Fuentes Georginas' aren't that impressive. It is too hot to swim and the basins aren't that luxurious nor beautiful nor isolated inside the vegetation. The first basin is just after the gate on the left. As the ticket guy is sometimes stationed further away, you may be able to test the water for free. Otherwise, you will have to pay the Q10, even to have a look. There is a restaurant (sandwiches Q10, comidas Q35, cafe Q4) and good houses (two big beds, separated bathroom and fireplace as a bit chilly at 2400m) can be rented for Q90(1) or Q120(2). Hot Springs or not, the setting is gorgeous and this would be a great retreat...


Climbing Volcanoes ?
There are three volcano options in the area : easy Laguna Chicabal, moderate Tajumulco (the highest summit in Central America) and challenging Volcan Santa Maria.

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.

 << Discover Xela's surroundings


Leaving ?
If you do not wish to go to the busy Minerva Bus Terminal (Q0.65, from 9 Av 8C, 15mn), bear in mind that most long distance buses stop at the roundabout 'La Rotunda', about 15mn walk from the Cathedral. It may be full when showing however...

To Price Time Freq Hrs Km
Guatemala City 24/28 5 to 17 hour 4 206
Panajachel 12 5,6,8,10,12,15 na 3 100
San Pedro 12 11:30,13 na 2.5 ?
Santiago Atitlan ? 8,11,12:30,16:30 na 4.5 ?
Chichicastenango 8 5,6,9:30,10:45,11,13,14,15:30 na 2.5 94
Huehuetenango 8 5 to 17:30 30mn 2.5 90
San Marcos 6 day 30mn 1 ?
La Mesilla 12 5,6,7,8,13,14 na 4 170
Toto 2.5 day 20mn 1 30
San Francisco el Alto 2.5 day 30/60mn(1) 1 17
Zunil (2) 2 day 30mn 20mn 10
San Martin 2.5 day 30mn 45mn ?

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 
When I showed up at the station at 7am, the bus was already moving. I jumped in to learn that it would do circles. I jumped out, thinking that I could maybe find one really ready to leave. I did not. 10mn later, the initial bus came back... It left the terminal at 7:35 and the 'rotunda' at 8:00. It was packed !
The scenery was first better on the left but soon changed side. As this was also the side of the sun, you may therefore prefer less luminosity. We stopped to fill up the tank at 9:50 (everybody strangely went off) and reached Huehue's terminal, located in Zone 3, at 10:10. 
I was directed toward the bus for Todos Santos. - What time does it leave ? - At 12:30 - And do you have buses in the morning ? - No !  Actually, asking other people, there were buses in the morning. At what time ? 10 people asked, 10 different answers... I decided to spend the day in Huehue ! The buses to the center of town leave from after the market on the east. It takes 10mn and cost Q0.65

See also the trip from San Pedro (Lago Atitlan)