Quetzaltenango aka Xela is an authentic Guatemala city with a small town feel. Although it may not have the colonial beauty of Antigua or the waterfront views of Lake Atitlan, Xela has an undeniable charm and livability which see many a passer-by staying for an extra week, month or year. The view of the Santa Maria volcano and the hills surrounding the town make for a breathtaking backdrop, the city’s accessibility and most of all, it’s people make Xela interesting, diverse and great fun.
Getting here and around
First class bus, shuttle or chicken buses are the main options for your transportation to Xela. Arrivals from Guatemala City can take a first class coach from Linea Dorada, Alamo or ADN from their separate offices in Guatemala City. It is advisable to check ahead as seats aren’t always available, but you will be traveling the 4 hour journey with a seat for yourself and with leg room. The first class buses are not much more expensive than a chicken bus, and for the greatly increased comfort are a worthwhile investment. Door to door shuttles are easily arrangeable through your hostel or tour agencies from any of the main cities in Guatemala. However, if you really want to jump into the deep end- hop on a chicken bus! Listen out for the calls of “Xela, Xela, Xela” by the drivers helper and check it is going to Minerva Terminal, the main chicken bus terminal in Xela’s Zone 3. When you arrive, you can take a taxi to your destination or a collectivo to Parque Central.
When you settle into Xela, more than likely you will be living in Zona 1 and everything you need is within walking distance, but if you want to make a quick trip to Walmart, Megapaca (a second hand shopping adventure like no other), the cinema, bowling alley or the bigger market at Minerva you can jump on any of the collectivos racing up 12th Av to save your legs.
Finding budget accommodation in Xela is not difficult. Xela has a high turn-over of volunteers from various organisations and therefore finding a room in one of the share houses designed to meet volunteers needs, or in a private apartment is easily arranged in a couple of days. If you stay your first night in a hostel you should be able to find a longer stay room or apartment in no time. Accommodation in Zone 1 ranges from 900 GTQ to 1500 GTQ per month inclusive of all or most bills.
Wining and dining
The typical Guatemalan cuisine of black beans, tamales, tortillas and fried chicken is a staple, but if you prefer to experiment with a more international type of cuisine or for a reminder of home, Xela has a surprisingly wide range of restaurants and cafe’s on offer. Incredible Indian, Thai, sushi, dim sum, Italian, burgers, crepes, vegetarian and vegan options are easy to find around Zone 1. You can also purchase street-food, paposas or chips are playing it safe, but if you’re feeling lucky you can take on a game of food poisoning roulette with street tacos or meat products.
For home cooking, the market in either Parque Central or the larger La Democracia will provide all your fruit and vegetable needs-just remember to wash them thoroughly! The bigger supermarket in Zone 3, Paiz has all your cooking (and wine) needs, and there are several health and organic food stores in Zone 1. If you have a sweet tooth and love a croissant with your coffee in the morning, there are great bakeries with delicious treats and whole-wheat bread and bagels, or the local powerhouse bakery XelaPan for all your sweet and carbohydrate related needs.
Social and activities
Whether you want to learn Spanish, salsa or stretch it out in yoga there will be something for you in Xela. If nature is your jam, amazing weekend hikes, hot springs and the lake are a stone’s throw away. Generally, there is some kind of social event every evening, whether its Trivia Tuesday at King and Queen, cheap wine Wednesday and free salsa, or checking out some live music on Thursday (either a band or karaoke) there is always something on! Here at TRAMA we like to have a team lunch on Fridays where everyone brings something to share which is a great way to wrap up the week. On the weekend there are a host of bars and a handful of clubs if you want to dance the night away, or you can relax and take in an organic market, check out a film or go bowling.
Xela sits at a high altitude of approx 2,400 m and the weather can be quite chilly as a result. It is definitely advisable to bring some warm clothes and a waterproof jacket, as during rainy season it pours down for a hour or two most afternoons. If you forgot to pack your winter woolies don’t worry, mentally prepare yourself to be overwhelmed by choice and make a quick trip to the second hand warehouse Megapaca and you’ll be able to find everything you need to keep warm and dry for discount prices, and even some leopard print or patent leather purple knee high boots- if you really want to add some flair to your outfit.
Safety and things we’d wish we’d known!
Like all places, you should undertake common sense and general precautions while living in Xela. It is generally a safe place to stay, we have many female, solo travellers volunteering at TRAMA who feel completely safe living and working here. Petty crime does happen on occasion, for example when travelling on a chicken bus keep an eye on your bags, and have your luggage in the bus rather than on the roof. If you are a solo female traveller you may experience some harmless extra male attention on the street, but it is fairly unobtrusive and easy to ignore. Generally, Xela is a friendly, welcoming and people are happy to help you out with anything you may need! For something that we wish we’d known, it is a wise choice to bring some medicinal supplies for potential stomach upsets, however there are abundance pharmacies for when you get ill. For the rest, we’ll let you discover it for yourself!