Quetzaltenango (Xela) Parque Centro America with Sheena

25 Fantastic Things to do in Xela, Guatemala

In City Guides, Guatemala by Erik @ DIY Travel HQ4 Comments

There are so many things to do in Xela, Guatemala – aka Quetzaltenango. From attractions & day trips txeo accommodation & transport, find out all the essentials in our Xela travel guide.

There are many places to visit in Guatemala but some of them have their disadvantages:

  • Guatemala City is large, noisy, dirty and dangerous
  • Nearby, Antigua is overly touristy
  • And a lot of other cities spread around the country have no attractions, or no infrastructure for tourists.

But you won’t find any of these issues in Xela, Guatemala – note that it is also commonly referred to as Quetzaltenango.

Due to its medium size, Xela has the right combination of authentic Guatemalan lifestyle mixed with tourist infrastructure.

Find more inspiration in one of the Guatemala guide books below! 

You can also walk the streets in relative safety. Nevertheless, always be aware of pickpockets. We recommend wearing a money belt with RFID blocking and traveling with an anti-theft daypack.

It’s also essential to purchase travel insurance before any trip to Guatemala. We’ve been using World Nomads in our travels through 80+ countries over the past 12 years. 

It’s the best-value provider we’ve found in terms of price and coverage and we haven’t had any issues when we’ve had to make (fortunately) minor claims. For more details check out our World Nomads review here.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Historic Center Street
You can walk the streets of Xela, Guatemala with little fear of being mugged

Markets span the whole of Xela, Guatemala making food and other items cheap.

Transportation to nearby destinations is straightforward.

There are enough things to do in Quetzaltenango to warrant accommodation for tourists, but you can still avoid foreigners altogether if you wish.

Keep reading our Xela travel guide for information on what to see & do in the city!

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Mercado La Democracia Street Vendors
Life in Xela continues with or without tourists.

Things to do in Xela, Guatemala

Xela is not a large city but inside it you can find many things to do. The main attractions can be found within these 4 main areas:

  • Parque Centro America
  • Mercado La Democracia
  • Parque El Calvario
  • Mercado La Terminal

We’ll explore these areas and the attractions in them in more detail. You can see it all in half a day or take you time in Xela over several days of sightseeing.

1. Parque Centro America

Most of the attractions in Xela are located along the perimeter of Parque Centro America, where you will find the city’s most striking architecture.

The park itself occupies two city blocks, and is lined with Roman columns on both ends. The interior is filled with benches, shrubs, statues, and a rotunda.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Parque Centro America
If you don’t know where to start, then start at Parque Centro America
Quetzaltenango (Xela) Parque Centro America View
Parque Centro America is the heart of Xela.

2. Museo de Historia Natural

On the south side of Parque Centro America is Museo de Historia Natural.

Both the building and interior exhibits are rather plain. Only go inside if you are really fascinated by Mayan culture, indigenous weavings, or the Central American political uprising.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Museo de Historia Natural
This museum deserves a quick pass-by

3. Iglesia del Espiritu

SantoIglesia del Espiritu Santo stands out on the southeast side of Parque Centro America.

The façade was recently rebuilt, but the new cathedral located directly behind is the current place of worship.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Iglesia del Espiritu Santo
If you can’t expand the historical church, keep the facade and build another one right behind it

4. Municipalidad

Located one block north of Iglesia del Espiritu Santo is Municipalidad. This government building has a splendid exterior, and pleasant grounds that you can wander inside.

Expect to see many lines outside offices formed by typical government bureaucracy.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Municipalidad
The east side of Parque Centro America has it all
Quetzaltenango (Xela) Municipalidad Grounds
This garden would make coming to work a little easier

5. Pasaje Enriquez

Pasaje Enriquez gives the impression of a grand arcade, but don’t let appearances fool you.

Instead of boutique shops, there are tourist related offices and a few drink establishments.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Pasaje Enriquez
If you build it, they don’t always come

6. Teatro Municipal

You will discover Teatro Municipal a few blocks northwest of Parque Centro America.

The front and side facades could not be any different.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Teatro Municipal
This theater is a tale of two designs

7. Mercado La Democracia

Mercado La Democracia is the main hub for discounted food and goods.

Nearby is Parque Benito Juarez and a few churches.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Mercado La Democracia
Who builds roads just for cars when you can throw in a market as well?

8. Mercado La Democracia

You name it, they sell it. Although technically an inside market, the whole section of Xela has been taken over by the market.

Each street seems to specialize in different items. For example, the east side of 16 Avenida is full of fruit while the west side sell predominantly vegetables.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Mercado La Democracia Street Vegetable Market
Fruits to the right. Vegetables to the left. Never shall the two meet

9. Parque Benito Juarez

This small park engulfed in the frenzy of Mercado La Democracia offers a small respite from the hustle. Grab some street food and relax on a park bench.

The two attractions are a face infused Mayan calendar, and a gazebo at the center. Many city buses also originate here.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Parque Benito Juarez
Grab some food and take a break from market frenzy in Quetzaltenango

10. San Nicolas Church

On the east side of Parque Benito Juarez is the gothic San Nicolas Church.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) San Nicolas Church Exterior
This church totally blends in with the rest of Quetzaltenango… not!

The interior is even more striking as the darkness adds a feeling of doom-and-gloom.

What really caught our attention was the globe at the altar with Jesus. It reminded us of Cristo Rei in East Timor.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) San Nicolas Church Altar
Jesus is on top of the world

11. Parque El Calvario

On the western half of Xela, Guatemala is Parque El Calvario.

The park is little more than a basketball court, but the adjacent church and cemetery are personal favorites. Street food is also on offer at all hours of the day.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) El Calvario Cemetery Entrance
If you feel like you might pass out and die, then grab some street food before heading into the cemetery

12. Iglesia El Calvario

Iglesia El Calvario is a small yellow church that is frequented by school kids before and after classes.

You can also catch a bus to Volcan Santa Maria here.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Iglesia El Calvario
You should see this church when waiting for the bus to Santa Maria Volcano

13. El Calvario Cemetery

Of more interest surrounding the park is the Calvario Cemetery. The narrow alleys are so colorful and vibrant. In a strange way it makes death less scary.

Despite occupying a large section, the graves are stacked very tightly. They literally form the perimeter walls. It is a sight to behold.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) El Calvario Cemetery Road
These graves go on and on, and this is a short alley
Quetzaltenango (Xela) El Calvario Cemetery Stacked Graves
Make sure you bring a 3-D map to find your family

14. Mercado La Terminal

Mercado La Terminal is a nightmare that you will have to visit at least once during your stay in Xela, Guatemala.

Besides the market, you can also find Templo de Minerva and Minerva Bus Terminal.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Minerva Market
Trying to make your way through this crowded market is a nightmare

15. Templo de Minerva

Sticking out like a sore thumb, Templo de Minerva is another Roman inspired structure.

It was built to motivate Guatemalans to attain further education, but is currently fenced off. I’m not sure what signal the government is trying to send with the mixed message.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Templo de Minerva
I guess they fence it off to keep market vendors from taking over

16. Mercado La Terminal

This market is jam-packed! There is virtually no movement as people haphazardly stop and start, while others head in the opposite direction doing the same thing.

The best advice for navigating this stretch is to follow a truck or someone with a cart that has already cleared the way verbally.

You are probably wondering why you would bother to visit if you can get the same items at Mercado La Democracia. Well, this is the path you must take to get to Minerva Terminal.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Minerva Market Truck
People will always move for vehicles (albeit slowly), so use that to your advantage

17. Terminal Minerva

The bus terminal is just as crazy as the market. Food vendors line the side, while line after line of ‘chicken’ buses form half a dozen lines.

Buses progress as the front ones fill-up and depart. Most driver assistants will push the bus forward instead of starting the engine.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Minerva Chicken Bus Terminal
Who would have guessed it would take so long to reach, and ultimately leave Minerva Terminal

Best Day Trips from Xela

Consider exploring the things to do in Xela in combination with day trips to the surrounding towns, markets and villages.

Xela is the center of the highlands in Guatemala. As such, there are a number of excellent weekly markets in villages nearby.

Follow this itinerary if you would like to hit market days in the surrounding villages:

Friday: San Francisco El Alto and San Andres Xecul

Saturday: Laguna Chicabal and Xela

Sunday: Momostenango and Los Riscos

Monday: Volcan Santa Maria

Tuesday: Zunil, Fuentes Georginas, and finding San Simon (Maximon)

1. San Francisco de Alto Friday Market

San Francisco El Alto is the most authentic, large Guatemala market. The highlight is the animal market.

If you are in Xela on a Friday, get up early and make your way to San Francisco El Alto. You won’t regret going.

In fact, we were so amazed by both the quantity and variety of animals available for purchase at the animal market that we made two laps to make sure we saw everything.

Zunil Market Traditional Outfits
I wonder how much longer the locals will continue wearing traditional clothes
San Francisco El Alto Animal Market Sheep
If you don’t keep your sheep on a tight leash you might find yourself with a few more in several months. Go rams!

2. Momostenango

Momostenango hosts their weekly market on Sunday, and can be combined with a visit to Los Riscos – if you can time it correctly as a day trip from Xela, Guatemala.

Momostenango’s Sunday market seems very tame, and village oriented compared to the larger San Francisco de Alto Friday market. The streets were less jammed, alive band performed in the gazebo, and people were able to chat.

If you plan on coming to Momostenango for the Sunday market anyhow, then Los Riscos are an added bonus.

A short 5 minute walk uphill, and you are there. These pillars were created by wind and water, as rain helped erode away the lose sediment surrounding the sandstone.

Momostenango Los Riscos and Tree
Can you see the different beds of rock in the pillars?

3. Zunil

Zunil recently converted to a daily market making it ok to visit any day of the week. You won’t be missing anything as many locals and vendors still wear traditional garments in their daily lives.

The most popular attraction around Zunil is Fuentes Georginas (Q50 / $6.85). The private hot springs have a series of pools with different temperatures, and are surrounded by walls filled with lush vegetation.

Plan to visit the day after hiking Volcan Santa Maria to help your body recover.

You can also try to find San Simon, a revered god to Guatemalans in the highlands. He is part Mayan gods, Jesus, and even the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvaradoall rolled into one.

Most importantly, he is a bad-ass who likes offerings of tobacco, alcohol, and of course money.

There are better Guatemala markets than Zunil but combined with the other attractions, it makes a decent day trip from Xela.

Zunil San Simon (Maximon) Worship
San Simon (Maximon) is everything to everyone in the Guatemalan Highlands

4. San Andres Xecul

Unless you are desperate for an excursion from Quetzaltenango/Xela, we don’t recommend visiting San Andres Xecul.

The town is famous for their church’s childish façade. There’s a daily market but it’s nothing special in terms of Guatemala markets.

San Andres Xecul Iglesia del Calvario
Can you fit any more designs on Iglesia del Calvario’s facade?

Best Xela Hikes

The Guatemalan Highlands are home to a plethora of volcanoes nearby. Some you can climb as a day trip, others require overnights, and a few that could be done either way.

The day hikes from Xela include Volcan Santa Maria and Laguna Chicabal.

If you are keen on hiking then look into these multi-day treks from Xela:

Volcan Santa Maria View of Xela and Volcan Almolonga
Look at the view of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

1. Volcan Santa Maria

If you start very early you can climb Volcan Santa Maria, and still have a nice view before the clouds roll-in around 9:30 am.

If you like to sleep in, or are a slow hiker, then consider sleeping on top for excellent views.

The goal is to catch Volcan Santiaguito erupting while still clear. Expect the trip to take 9 hours door-to-door.

Road to Volcan Santa Maria
You have to walk to the volcano before you can climb it

2. Laguna Chicabal

Laguna Chicabal is an easy climb for a volcano, and can definitely be done as a day trip.

The highlight is enjoying the tranquil crater lake, and possibly witnessing Mayan faithful.

Laguna Chicabal Mirror Reflections in Water
Come early, and witness a mirror lake

Volunteering in Xela

If you have a month to spare and love hiking, then consider volunteering with Quetzaltrekkers.

The proceeds from this organization go towards a school for kids from low-income families. The hikes are almost exclusively led by foreigners. It is the only way to make the school sustainable.

If you would like to volunteer to be a guide, then here are a few things we learned from someone just starting.

Compared to other volunteer opportunities where you pay a large amount to donate time, Quetzaltrekkers makes it affordable. Accommodation in a less than desirable house is Q300 / $41.15 per month, and you provide your own food. Meals are provided if guiding multi-day hikes.

As you can imagine, there is little time to get acquainted with hikes if you are there for only a month. Typically you tag along at least once for the main hike you will be leading. However, you may be asked to guide other trails without any experience.

This is a great way to give back to the world for cheap, and enjoy some of the hikes you would have done regardless.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Quetzaltrekkers
If you volunteer with Quetzaltrekkers, then you get to help impoverished kids while staying fit and enjoying nature

Learning Spanish in Xela

We decided to learn Spanish at San Pedro de Laguna but if you’re looking for a more authentic Guatemalan city, then Xela may be your best choice.

It is affordable, there are creature comforts, and a lot of schools to choose from. In your down time, take advantage of the local markets and hikes to practice your Spanish.

Street Food in Xela

Street food can be found around Mercado La Democracia, Parque El Calvario, and south of Parque Centro America.

Options include:

  • Tacos – 3 for Q10 / $1.35
  • Hotdogs – Q5 / $0.70 with drink
  • Pupusas – Q5 / $0.70 and up
  • Fried chicken with fries – Q10 / $1.35
  • Ceviche – Q15 / $2.05 and up
Quetzaltenango (Xela) Street Food
Pastor tacos from a spit used to be the cheap option. In Guatemala they are the most expensive!

Our favorite restaurant for ‘menu del dia’ is located on 8a Calle near Parque El Calvario.

There are a few nearby, but this is identifiable by their sign outside indicating almuerzo. A drink comes with a plate of meat, rice, and salad for Q15 / $2.05.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Menu Del Dia
These set meals are great value at Q15

Farther from the park, but on the same street, we tried the traditional Guatemalan food restaurant. In our opinion the restaurant had a nice ambiance, but the portions (Q25 / $3.45) were small for the price.

Another option for local dishes is the comedor a few buildings down selling pepian for Q15 / $2.06.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Pepian Dish
That is a small serve of pepian

Regardless where you find traditional dishes, you should try pepian and jocon – we even learnt how to cook these dishes at Ixiim Cooking School in San Pedro de Laguna and El Frijol Feliz in Antigua!

There are very few identifiable dishes in Guatemala, but these are two:

  • Pepian is your typical set meal, but with a spicy sesame seed sauce
  • The jocon we tried was similar, but with a vegetable and herb puree as sauce
Quetzaltenango (Xela) Jocon Dish
Maybe your jocon will taste like more than pea soup

Xela Accomodation

There is a wide range of accommodation options in Xela / Quetzaltenango.

The cheapest we found was Casa Argentina, and at the same location as Quetzaltrekkers. Dorms are Q30 / $4.10, and rooms are Q40 / $5.50 per person.

Most of the rooms have shared baths, but they are plentiful. Long term stays can be negotiated.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Casa Argentina Room
All the rooms are basic, so follow the Wi-Fi for the best choice

When picking a room, test the Wi-Fi first to make sure you can access it in your room. There is also a kitchen in the rear you can use, but kitchenware is in short supply.

Another debatable aspect to Casa Argentina is their security. Barbwire lines the outside, and the door is always locked. For this reason, the place is generally safe. However, this also means you have to knock for a LONG time to get in at night, and if leaving early in the morning.

Overall, Casa Argentina is rough around the edges, but acceptable for most backpackers.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) Casa Argentina
Knock. Knock. Is anyone going to answer the door?

Xela Transportation

The Rotunda on the east side of the city is handy for ‘chicken’ buses to San Francisco de Alto and Zunil.

Meanwhile, microbuses depart from 15a Avenida and 6a Calle for Laguna Chicabal.

Buses to Volcan Santa Maria pass Iglesia El Calvario.

1. Terminal Minerva

Most long distance destinations from Xela departs from Minerva Bus Terminal.

When trying to find your ‘chicken’ bus, make sure you have the correct lane and walk from front to back as they depart in this order.

Momostenango, San Andres Xecul, and Chichicastenango all depart from the second lane from the left.

There are so many things to do in Xela - aka Quetzaltenango! Check out our Xela, Guatemala travel guide for info on attractions food accommodation & transport to help you plan your trip #xela #quetzaltenango #guatemala

*** The Final Word – When traveling for a long time, sometimes you need to base yourself somewhere to recharge your batteries. Xela is that kind of place! ***

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links which means that we receive a small commission if you click on a link and purchase something that we’ve recommended, at no extra cost to you.

Visited in August 2016

Updated in February 2020

Comments

  1. I enjoyed this immensely. Lake in the crater, colorful market people selling their vegetables and fruits, unusual Church facade, magnificent buildings, and even colorful tombs. This was an interesting place for sure. I enjoyed reading it all and seeing every picture. Thanks.

  2. We are glad you enjoyed reading it. There is a lot to do near Xela, and we’re glad it is finally all published!

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