10 Things to Know Before Visiting Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Panoramic shot of Xela
Panoramic shot of Xela | © Chrishonduras / WikiCommons
Patrick Foot

Quetzaltenango is an increasingly popular spot for people visiting Guatemala, but it isn’t quite as devoted to the tourist trade as some of the country’s other highlights. If you’re new to the city, then take a look at these 10 tips to make sure that you make the most out of your visit.

It’s at high altitude

Xela is one of the highest cities in Central America, sitting at around 2,300 metres (7,546 feet). While that isn’t high enough to make altitude sickness an issue, anyone visiting from lower altitude should bear it in mind if they’re planning on walking any of the nearby volcanoes. If possible, give your body time to acclimatise before climbing again.

It might be colder than you think

That high altitude means that Xela has a markedly different climate than other parts of Guatemala. All year round, the nights can get decidedly chilly, and anyone arriving expecting a tropical climate will quickly start looking for a jumper at the city’s biggest clothing shop: the Megapaca. If you’re planning on staying in Xela, you’re probably going to need a warm set of clothes.

Xela at night

Nobody calls it Quetzaltenango

Everyone in Guatemala will understand you if you call the city Quetzaltenango, but it isn’t the name they use themselves — after all, the word is quite a mouthful. Xela is its much shorter nickname, derived from the old Mayan name for the city, Xelaju. It’s pronounced “sheh-la”, so make sure to say it that way if you want to sound like a local.

The streets can get loud at night

Xela is a major city, but it offers something completely different to Guatemala’s capital. During the day it’s quiet, laid back and friendly — and while that’s still true during the night, the street dogs that look so relaxed when the sun’s up can get a lot louder in the evening. When combined with the roosters kept by many of the city’s residents, it can make for a noisy night. If you’re a light sleeper, consider packing earplugs.

It’s a major transport hub…

As Guatemala’s second biggest city, buses run direct to Xela from many surrounding areas. You can get to the town in a single shuttle from Mexico, or in a four-hour Pullman from Guatemala City. And not only is it easy to get to, it also works as a great base for exploring everything the region has to offer.

Chicken bus to Xela

With a few different bus terminals

However, the city lacks a real central bus terminal, so working out where you need to go to find the right connection can be a tricky affair. All of the first class bus companies have their own terminals, and if you’re wanting a chicken bus then it’s a good idea to ask a local before heading out.

You can pay the Spanish schools a visit

Xela’s range of Spanish schools are a big draw for many Westerners, offering a great way to improve your Spanish skills at a fraction of the cost of tuition back home. Many visitors book their classes ahead of time, but if you want to take a look at a few schools to decide which is best for you, you can. Make sure to investigate where you’ll be learning, who’ll be teaching you, and whether your school offers any free activities for students.

Directions can be difficult

Like much of Guatemala, getting directions in Xela can be a little more vague than you’re used to. If your Spanish is rusty, then brush up on general directions, because you might here a lot of ‘near the square’, or ‘up the hill from the bank’.

Panoramic Xela

Xelawho contains local listings

Quetzaltenango is an immensely cultural city, with lots of art shows, music events and theatre on throughout the year — much of it free. If you’d like to sample what the city’s got to offer, pick up a copy of Xelawho, the listings magazine. You’ll find it in any coffee shop or bar frequented by Westerners.

You can stay with a local family

There’s a huge range of different hostels and hotels dotted throughout Xela. But if you want to get a taste of what living in the city is really like, live with a local family. You’ll usually get all your meals included, which can be a great way to practice your Spanish over the dinner table. The easiest way to get set up with a homestay is via one of the city’s many language schools.

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.