Quetzaltenango, or as its more commonly known Xela, was our home away from home for 2 and a half weeks in Dec 2017. Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala and one of the best destinations to learn Spanish as you get a true immersion in Guatemalan culture and plenty of opportunities to practice speaking Spanish as it is not on the typical gringo trail! Its also a great base for hiking the nearby volcanoes. Christmas time here is also special as there are many parades, festival days and things to see in the lead up to Christmas, so nearly every evening we were treated to a new experience and tradition. Guatemala showed us how to truly celebrate Christmas with a month long celebration instead of 1-2 days.

Top things to do in Xela

In no particular order our tops things to do in and around Xela are:

  • Go to Xelapan and eat the delicious pastries. #xelapaneveryday

A gingerbread man from Xelapan

  • Spend time in El Parque Central, great to relax and people watch and catch parades, music or festivals, you name it.

The Central Park of Xela at night

  • Climb Cerro El Baúl for a spectacular view over Xela.

The view of Xela from Cerro El Baúl

  • Try a salsa class or two and then test your moves at Pool&Beer every Wednesday.
  • Find The Bake Shop for the best banana bread, only opens on Tuesdays and Fridays.
  • Walk around Mercado La Democracia, every need is catered for.
  • Try tamales, but maybe not for breakfast, lunch and dinner!!
  • Visit the cemetery El Calvario, and observe the tombs of the different classes. It’s pretty easy to distinguish which tombs belong to which class and the architecture is amazing. Also if you need some luck with your love life, visit the tomb of Vanushka. As the love legend goes, Vanushka was a gypsy girl whose love was prohibited and died in mortal agony as her lover was sent to Spain as punishment.

The grave of Vanushka

Some other graves in the Xela cemetery

  • Visit the nearby town of Salcajá where we enjoyed Dia de Diablo, an experience we will never forget especially Alan (they won’t jump on tourists with body paint surely!!) .

The madness of the Day of the Devil festival in Salcaja

  • Visit the town of San Andres Xecul to see the one of most colourful and playful churches I’ve seen where I’m sure I saw cow decorations hanging from the ceiling.

The church at San Andres Xecul

  • Climb the highest peak in Central America – Tajumulco. More details below.
  • And lastly, go to Spanish School.

Read on below for more details on the hikes, treks and Spanish School.

Spanish School and Homestay Experience

We completed two weeks of Spanish with Utatlan Spanish School. It cost 1460Q for one week of Spanish (5 x 25hrs) and homestay. Check out their website for different options and prices.

Utatlan Spanish School is coordinated by the very talented Kristian who also organises after school activities which is great. We visited many nearby towns, made rellenitos from scratch (delicious!), learned some salsa and spent a brilliant few hours enjoying the sugar rush in the chocolate museum.

Rellenitos made in the school!

We had separate teachers during the two weeks, Carlos and Yuvi. Both taught at different paces to our requirements and gave us more of an insight into life in Guatemala. We cannot recommend them enough!

We stayed with the Lopez family for 2 weeks and enjoyed our Guatemamas cooking and hospitality. Staying with a family makes you realize how important family life is in Guatemala and makes you appreciate your own family at the same time.

Our homestay family

Activities – Tajumulco hike and three day trek

After doing some research into tour operators we opted to go with Queztal Tours Guatemala as it is ran by a native Guatemalteco named José. Our reasoning behind choosing this company over the others (Queztaltrekkers, Adrenalina Tours) was that we wanted to support a local business, prices are really reasonable, groups are smaller, the tour dates are very flexible and of course to practise some Spanish along our chosen treks!

Hike to Tajumulco

Our first hike of the trip to Tajumulco was going to be a tough one as it is the highest mountain peak in Central America standing at 4220m elevation but we were excited to finally get to use our new hiking boots and do some exercise! The hike cost 400Q pp and included meals, sleeping bag, mat and tent.

Tajumulco from below

The night before the hike we discovered Alan was carrying a little parasite after it made its presence felt so after a sleepless night for both of us, Alan was not able to go on the hike. I was half prepared but very tired however the very flexible tour company postponed the hike until the next day. I was relieved!! Alan spent the day going from clinic to hospital until he had some tablets. We were very impressed as it only took one day to diagnose and get the cure.

Some of the scenery on the way up the mountain

The hike was tough but I think this was mainly due to the weight of the bags. It took approx 5 hours, including one hour for lunch, to get to base camp. Once there we put up the tent, gathered wood for the fire, admired the scenery above the clouds and ate the best spaghetti for dinner. We soon forgot about the pain of the climb and settled in for a windy night at base camp. Only one more hour of climbing was left to reach the summit,  so at 4.30am with all our clothes layered on and our head lamps illuminating the path we were off to accomplish our goal. At the peak we found some stones for shelter and settled in, as much as it was possible in the freezing cold, to watch the sun rise over the volcanoes. It was truly unforgettable.


The views from the top were immense!

The trek down only took 2 hours and after 3 chicken buses we arrived back to Xela around 5pm. It was time for a well deserved sleep!!

Some Tips

  • Spend a few days in Xela (2330m) to acclimatise to the elevation, it may help with the hike.
  • Wear your hiking boots for at least 3 days beforehand if they are new.
  • Megapaca near the bus terminal has second hand clothes for really cheap if you need to buy warm clothes.
  • Essentials – Warm Clothes (gloves, hat, scarf, warm socks) and layers. Head lamp, sunscreen, some snacks, 3-4l water, hand sanitizer, toilet-roll, repellent. I had 3 jumpers, 3/4 tops and a wind jacket, 2 pairs of socks and gloves and still felt the cold at the top!!

Three day trek from Xela to Lake Atitlán

We also completed this trek with Queztal Tours Guatemala and enjoyed every minute of it, except uphill for me and downhill for Alan!!

Day 1 – Amazing Views

The views on the first day were spectacular from corn fields, small towns, jungles to volcanos in the distance. We were mesmorised and found it hard to continue walking without tripping from looking around so much. We stayed with an indigenous family and fell in love with the two kids Bryan and Michelle. They had so much energy and were so happy it was contagious. Alan got about 50 hugs of Bryan before bed time. Brilliant end to the day.

The views from the start of the trek

Aoife found a nice resting spot!

Tajumulco, which we had climbed two days before!

The early part of the trek was all uphill to leave the Xela valley

A great view from the top of the valley with Tajumulco in the distance

We encountered some goats!

Walking through the corn fields!

The tropical rainforest part of the trek

Our first view of the volcanoes at the lake!

Bryan and Michelle keeping us busy all evening!

Day 2 – The Hardest Day

The second day was harder, 2hrs downhill then a straight incline up for an hour and half followed by more up and up! We were definitely ready for our Mayan Sauna – Temazcal, at our next homestay which was great to relax the muscles and have a much needed semi-wash!

So much uphill….

and more…

We started at the top of this mountain!

Day 3 – The Final Day

Up again at 4.30am for a short climb up to the Indian Nose to watch the sunrise. We had some warm coffee, and enjoyed yet another sunrise while José made our breakfast. And after 45 or so kilometres we ended the trek in San Pedro Lake Atitlan. Words don’t do this trek justice, yes it was difficult at times but the whole experience from the views to the people make this an unmissable journey that I will never forget.

Sunrise at the lake!

We made it!

Finally arrived in San Pedro

Essentials – camera, snacks, breathable light clothes, jumper and long sleeve top for night, insect repellent, sunscreen, 2L of water per day, swimwear and towel.

Other hikes around Xela

Lago de Chicabal, Santa Maria, Santiaguito. Many tour companies offer these tours so shop around for the best deals or try doing in on your own. We tried going to Chicabal solo howewer it was on a Sunday and the bus times \ stops were different which we found out after waiting on the side of the street for an hour, and so decided against going and went for Xelapan instead!

More activities to do in Xela

Other activities we did not get a chance to do around Xela include visiting nearby towns for their markets – San Francisco de Alto, Zunil, or relax in the thermal baths, Las Fuentes Georginas after one of the hikes.

Any questions on Xela or on the above post? Feel free to comment below. I would love to hear from you!

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