Quetzaltenango, also known as Xelaju or Xela, is the second largest city in Guatemala, nestled in a beautiful mountain valley and situated 2,400 meters (7,800 ft) above sea level. With plenty of activities and attractions, it is no surprise that Xela has become a popular destination for visitors. Here are my favourite 7 things to do in Quetzaltenango in 4 days, so you will explore and experience the best of the Guatemalan highlands.
Students from nearby villages flock to Quetzaltenango for its several private universities. Travelers can enjoy the many excursions offered in the area, and there are also Spanish schools offering learning programs including tours and homestays with local families.
How to get to Quetzaltenango
Getting to Quetzaltenango is easy. There are several tour operators offering shuttle services to Xela. In addition, there are coach bus companies that have daily departures from Guatemala City.
How to get to Quetzaltenango from Guatemala City
By coach bus: The route is serviced by two primary coach bus companies:
- Xelabus: This coach bus company offers the most comfortable and modern buses. Departures are available from 5:00 AM to 4:00 PM from Monday to Saturday, and from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM on Sundays. The one-way fare is 100 GTQ (12.50 USD).
Xelabus location in Guatemala City: Google Maps
Xelabus location in Quetzaltenango: Google Maps
- Transportes Alamo: These coach buses, though comfortable, are not as modern or new. They offer 9 departure times between 3:00 AM and 5:00 PM. The one-way fare is 90 GTQ (11.25 USD).
Transportes Alamo location in Guatemala City: Google Maps
Transportes Alamo location in Quetzaltenango: Google Maps
By car: To reach Xela from Guatemala City by car, take the Pan-American Highway (CA-1) for 180 km (112 mi). After that, turn onto the RN-1 for the final 20 km (12 mi) and you will arrive at the center of Xela. The total distance is 200 km (125 mi). Google Maps.
By shuttle: There are limited shuttle services from Guatemala City to Xela, typically with two departure times in the morning (8:00 and 11:00 AM). You can check Adrenalina Tours and the GuateGo website for availability and prices, which range from 250 to 360 GTQ (32 to 45 USD) one-way.
How to get to Quetzaltenango from Antigua
By coach bus: There is no direct coach bus service between Antigua and Xela.
By car: The route from Antigua to Xela by car is the same as from Guatemala City. Take the Panamericana / CA-1 highway and then turn onto the RN-1, which will take you to the center of Quetzaltenango. The total distance is 160 km (100 mi). Google Maps.
By shuttle: Shuttle services from Antigua to Xela are widely available. You can find small offices of tour-operators scattered throughout the streets of Antigua. The cost of the transfer is usually between 200 to 300 GTQ (25 to 38 USD). If you prefer to book in advance, you can do it on the GuateGo website or at Atitrans. The shuttles usually depart from Antigua at 8:00 AM and 2:00 PM.
The weather in Quetzaltenango
The coldest months are from October to February, with temperatures as low as 5°C to 14°C (40°F to 57°F). From March to May, temperatures increase significantly, reaching up to 26°C (79°F). From June to September temperatures are usually between 10°C to 17°C (50°F to 63°F).
The average temperature in the towns surrounding Quetzaltenango, such as Almolonga, Zunil, San Andres Xecul, and Salcaja, is 5°C (40°F) lower than in Quetzaltenango.
Where to eat in Quetzaltenango
Quezaltenango is home to several unique and traditional restaurants that are so beloved by Guatemalans that some even travel to Xela just for them. To make sure you don’t leave without trying them, here is a small list of the must-visit restaurants and cafes in Quetzaltenango:
- Salon Tecun: Established in 1934, this bar and restaurant is in the Pasaje Enriquez adjacent to the central plaza of Quezaltenango. It is renowned for its pizza and live music nights on weekends. What makes it truly special is that the building where it is situated was built in 1900, making it one of the oldest of its kind in Guatemala.
- Xelapan: This is the most popular bakery and cafeteria in Quetzaltenango and the nearby town of Almolonga. They are best known for their Xecas, a type of bun with sweet or savory fillings, made with flour and aniseed.
- Cafe La Luna: Located in an old house in the center of Quetzaltenango, this cafe is full of history. It is home to a variety of antiques collected over the years. Many of these objects have played a significant role in historic events in Guatemala. Enjoy a delicious cup of hot chocolate while learning more about the country’s rich history at this unique cafe.
- Restaurante & Museo Tertulianos: This luxurious restaurant is housed in a 1909 former mansion, boasting an Italian-style architecture. Every aspect of the interior is carefully crafted for a delightful experience. Its signature menu showcases the restaurant’s house specialties. Additionally, the building features a Bistro Bar.
What to do and see in Quetzaltenango
1. Fuentes Georginas
The Georginas Springs are hot springs located near the Zunil volcano, which are comprised of four pools of varying temperatures. Situated at an altitude of over 2,400 meters (7,800 ft), the climate is cool, 10 to 13°C (50 to 55°F), and the water has a distinctive sulphur smell. You can take a relaxing bath in each one of the pools, so don’t forget your swimsuit. Inside the facilities there are showers and changing rooms.
I highly recommend taking the early morning tour to the Georginas Springs to get the most out of the cloud forest (a tropical moist forest with a persistent cloud cover) environment and the pools. You will be able to enjoy the place without a lot of people around, and you will be back in Quetzaltenango in time for lunch and your next activity of the day.
The entrance fee is 60 GTQ (7.50 USD). Once inside, there is a souvenir store, convenience store and restaurant. You can also bring your own food and drinks.
How to get to Fuentes Georginas
By shuttle: You can take one of the shuttles that offer pick-up service from your hotel to Fuentes Georginas, which is 20 km (12 mi) away from Quetzaltenango. The journey will take around 45 minutes, depending on traffic. To reserve your shuttle with the entrance fee included, click the button below.
By bus: Take a bus from the Minerva Terminal to the Zunil village. It costs 5 GTQ (0.60 USD) one-way. Once in Zunil, take a cab to Fuentes Georgina. It will be 60 GTQ (7.50 USD) one-way. Note that credit cards are not accepted in many places in Quetzaltenango, so be sure to carry cash.
2. Chocolate tour
On this tour, you will visit a small local cacao farm and learn about the cultivation and harvesting of cacao beans. You will also have the opportunity to participate in the chocolate-making process, from roasting the beans to packaging the chocolate.
You will be guided by friendly local experts who are passionate about sharing their knowledge of chocolate. This is a great way to learn about the history of chocolate in Guatemala, which dates back to ancient Mayan civilization, and about the role that cacao plays in the town’s economy and culture
At the end of your visit, you will be able to savour a hot chocolate beverage. Taking the chocolate tour in Quetzaltenango is a special and unforgettable experience that blends education, cultural enrichment, and delightful indulgence.
You can take the tour at 3:00 PM. It is perfect after your visit to the Georginas Springs and lunch. Click the button below to book it.
3. Chicabal Lagoon and Volcano
Chicabal Volcano is an inactive volcano standing over 2,700 meters (8,900 ft) above sea level. Inside its crater lies a sacred lagoon, also named Chicabal, with a depth of around 300 meters (1,000 ft). Swimming is not allowed here as it is a ceremonial site for the Mayas. The environment is a lush cloud forest, making it a stunning sight when the clouds meet the lagoon.
It takes approximately 1 and a half hours to climb this volcano, which is of a medium difficulty level. The entrance fee is 50 GTQ (6.25 USD).
How to get to Chicabal Lagoon
By bus: Take a minibus from Minerva Terminal to San Martin Chile Verde. Starting at 5:00 AM, departure times are every 15 minutes approximately. Tell the driver you are going to Chicabal Lagoon. He will inform you where to get off. The distance is 23 km (15 mi) and the trip takes about one hour due to the traffic in the area. A one-way trip costs 10 GTQ (1.25 USD).
When you get off the minibus, the beginning of the path is right in front of you. At the start of your ascent, you will see a sign that warns that Chicabal Lagoon is a sacred place and permission must be asked “al Creador y Formador de la Tierra” – from the Creator and Shaper of the Earth. Here begins the ascent to the visitor’s centre where you pay the entrance fee. For your return trip to Xela, take the minibus that runs along the same street where you got off on your outbound trip. Minibuses pass on this route every 15-20 minutes; however, the times are not fixed.
By shuttle: You can take a guided tour of the sacred volcano and lake, which includes a shuttle and a guide to explain the history and significance of the area. In addition, the guide will provide information on the Mayan ceremonies of the Mayan-Mam ethnic group from Quetzaltenango.
4. Mayan Traditional Textile tour
On this tour, you will visit a local Mayan weaving centre and meet with skilled women weavers who will share their knowledge and techniques with you. You will learn about the natural dyes and materials used in weaving, and the cultural and political significance of different patterns and colours in Mayan textiles.
I highly advise taking the opportunity to participate in the weaving process, from spinning wool to creating designs on the loom. You will gain hands-on experience and develop an appreciation for the skill and artistry involved in traditional Mayan weaving.
You can take this tour at 3:00 PM. It suits perfectly after your visit to Chicabal lagoon. Click the button below to book it.
5. San Andres Xecul
San Andres Xecul is a small, popular town known for its iconic Catholic church. The town has a population of over 22,000, most of whom belong to the Maya Quiche ethnic group. Some suggest that part of the inhabitants are descendants of the Cholutecas indigenous tribe who arrived from Mexico in 1520 following its invasion by the Spaniards.
The Catholic church, also called San Andres Xecul, has become well-known since it was featured on the cover of Lonely Planet about Guatemala. Visitors flock to the town to take the classic photo of the church. For more information about the town and how to get there, read my full description here.
Take an 8-hour guided tour that includes transportation to San Andres Xecul and two Mayan villages nearby: San Francisco El Alto and Salcaja. While there, you will visit the local market and witness the production of “Caldo de frutas,” a traditional indigenous liquor that takes two years to ferment.
6. Gastronomic tour and Mayan cooking lesson
Visiting Quetzaltenango is a must for anyone looking to experience the culinary richness of Guatemala. There are 7 markets throughout the city, each offering their own unique and colourful selection of ingredients. I recommend an organized tour to get the full experience, as the guide will explain the history and origins of the typical foods. At the end of the visit to the markets there will be a Mayan cooking class.
This tour includes lunch and a cooking lesson to make Pepian, an iconic dish from Pre-Hispanic Mayan culture. This savoury red sauce is made with a blend of different chiles and ground tortillas and was traditionally served as an offering in religious ceremonies.
If the trip to San Andres Xecul does not appeal to you, this activity is a great option. Below you will find the button to book it. You can take it at 10:00 AM and it lasts 3 hours.
7. Cerro Quemado
Cerro Quemado, also known as La Muela, is a volcano that has been dormant for over 250 years. It is not considered fully inactive, because it still has active features such as hot springs and fumaroles -vents in the surface of the earth from which hot volcanic gases and vapors are emitted. It is a sacred place for the locals, who often ascend to its summit to perform religious ceremonies and make offerings.
At 3,200 meters (10,500 ft) above sea level, this volcano offers various routes and peaks to climb, making it the perfect spot for rock climbing in Guatemala. Mountaineers from the area have praised the variety of rocks, allowing climbers of all levels to practise, from beginner to advanced. Temperatures are between 13°C and 21°C (55°F and 70°F).
If you are looking for a challenging hike without climbing rocks, consider the ceremonial area near the town of Almolonga and Quetzaltenango. Make sure to come prepared with good hiking shoes, hiking sticks, sunscreen, and plenty of energy, as the trails are quite steep and full of rocks. You will enjoy the stunning panoramic views of the town of Almolonga, the valley, and the city of Quetzaltenango.
How to get to Cerro Quemado
To get to Cerro Quemado, the easiest way is to take an Uber or shuttle from the center of Quetzaltenango. Head towards Canton Chicua and you will soon come across the street that marks the beginning of the ascent. Locally known as the “road of flowers”, this street is where many people purchase flowers for the ceremonies held on the hill.
If you are looking to practice rock climbing with a professional team, book a day trip. You will be accompanied by experienced instructors who will provide you with all the necessary equipment: ropes, climbing shoes, a helmet, and a harness. Plus, your trip includes lunch, drinks, and transportation to and from your hotel. No matter your skill level, it is sure to be an unforgettable experience.
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