San Andres Xecul
The town itself is attractively located among the Guatemalan mountains, but the church is the real reason to visit. Its brightly painted facade shows a clear mix of colonial and Mayan influences, depicting angels alongside quetzals, plants, jaguars and more. It’s also worth walking up the main street to see the smaller chapel that accompanies the church, along with a stunning viewpoint.
For an experience that you’re unlikely to have anywhere outside of Guatemala, get a chicken bus out to Chicabal lake, a crater lake that’s sacred to the Mam-Maya. You’ll get dropped off at a small sleepy village underneath Chicabal volcano, from which you can choose to either walk up the steep ascent or get a ride in a pickup: but be warned, neither is for the faint-hearted.
Once at the top, on clear days you’ll be greeted with a stunning view of the crater lake below and surrounding countryside. Descend the steps through thick cloud forest and take a walk around the lake’s perimeter, where you’ll see the various altars, used in Mayan ceremonies.
A little further outside Xela lies the town of Chichicastenango, best known for its market which is held every week on Thursdays and Sundays. The market’s a great place to stock up on souvenirs, with a huge variety of handicrafts and textiles from the surrounding areas. Be warned, though, that the large numbers of tourists that flock to Chichicastenango mean you might end up paying a little extra than you would elsewhere.
Various agencies in Xela will organise a tour to Chichicastenango on market days. Alternatively, it isn’t particularly hard to get there under your own steam. There are regular direct buses from 5am onwards, and the journey takes around two hours.
San Francisco el Alto
While Chichicastenango might be one of Guatemala’s most popular markets among tourists, it’s at San Francisco el Alto where you’ll see an actual slice of local life. The market, held every Friday morning, is the biggest in the entire country. It’s particularly well known for the staggering amount of clothing on sale, much of it made locally.
San Francisco is an easy one hour’s ride on a local bus from Xela. Head to Terminal Minerva near the centre of the city, and there’ll be a bus heading that way, leaving every few minutes.
If you want to reap the rewards of Xela’s volcanic setting without donning your hiking boots, take a trip to Feuntes Georginas, where you’ll find four pools all fed by natural hot springs. The springs were a favourite of President Jorge Ubico’s wife in the 1920s, which is how they got their name today.
While you bathe, you can take in the stunning surroundings, including an amazing view down into the valleys below. The area is also a starting point for a few hikes of various lengths.
A touch more challenging than Feuntes Georginas is the short hike up to view the regular eruptions of Santiaguito. Santiaguito is a highly active lava dome that sits on the side of Santa Maria, the volcano that dominates Xela’s skyline.
While Santa Maria itself can be climbed in a day, it can be a tough task for less experienced hikers. Santiaguito is much easier, and should take only a couple of hours from the village of Llanos de Pinal, a brief bus ride away from the city centre.
Annual festival days
All of the towns — and a fair few of the villages — that surround Quetzaltenango have major festivals once a year. Usually held in the name of the town’s chosen saint, a day spent at one of these fiestas is unlikely to be forgotten in a long time. Every town celebrates in a different way, and some even feature death-defying tightrope walking from a worryingly tall wooden pole.
The sheer number of festivals means that there’s a solid chance of sampling one if you’re in the area for a while. Ask around to find one you can visit. Or if you’re around towards the end of September, you might get to sample Xela’s very own.