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Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela or Xelaju, is the second largest city in Guatemala. There are a number of attractions in town, and it's also a good base for exploring Guatemala's Western Highlands ("Los Altos"). Situated at the southwest of the country, the surrounding department has a variety of landscapes extending from the cold highlands to the warm Pacific coast. There are numerous volcanos, hot springs, valleys, mountains, rivers. The region provides a harvest of numerous products such as coffee, wheat, fruits and vegetables, as well as sheep and cattle breeding. (less...) (more...)
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Points of Interest in Quetzaltenango
The town conserves traces of the colonial period in its streets and avenues. The classical, neoclassical and Italian renaissance styles are evident in the buildings and the houses which have been built during the past century and the beginning of the 20th, with volcanic stones by artistic "Quetzalteco" masons. Some examples of architectural styles:
- Espiritu Santo Cathedral : Consist of two structures. The "Espiritu Santo" parish's ancient facade (1535/1896) and to the back the "Diócesis de los Altos" (1899).
- The Municipal Theatre is a very important Neoclassical work.
- The Central America park (known as "Parque Central): Situated in the centre of the town is also centre of cultural activities and amusements.
- The Enrique Passage : Commercial building from 1900 facing the central park.
- Gobernacion : one block from the central park.
- Also visit the Cerro del Baúl, where one can have a beautiful view of Quetzaltenango's valley, day or night (accessible by foot, car or taxi).
Quetzaltenango has important cultural activities. There, you'll find the Occidental Cultural Centre (La Casa de la Cultura de Occidente), and Alliance Française de Quetzalteango, numerous activities are scheduled all year.
The first Sunday of each month, the "Quetzaltecos" install the artisans' market in the central park where handcrafts from Quetzaltenago and surrounding villages are displayed. In September, the annual fair and festival is offered from the 12th to the 18th.
The city of Quetzaltenango, the Department of the same name's capital and largest city, is situated on an extensive plain and surrounded by hills and volcanoes. The city of Quetzaltenango conserves the Maya-Quiche's old traditions and the colonial past, while maintaining the dynamism of modern life.
The city's roots go back to the Pre-Columbian Maya era. The Mam authority, called Kulahá, reached its most important expansion. Later Quiches's Lords conquered the area, and founded the city of Xelajú here, moving it from a previous location at the base of the volcano Santa Maria.
The city was already some 300 years old when Spanish Conquistadors came to conquer Guatemala in the early 1500s. Their native allies the Nahuas from Central Mexico called the city Quetzaltenango, meaning "the place of the Quetzal bird" in the Nahua language. The Spanish took the name from the Nahuas. It's still the city's official name, but locals are more apt to casually call it "Xela" from the the ancient name of Xelajú.
It was the administrative capital of the Western Highland region in the Spanish Colonial period. With Central American independence from Spain in the 1820s it was part of the Central American Federation. Conflicts between the interests of Quetzaltenango and Guatemala City led to the creation of "Los Altos", the "Sixth State of the Central American Confederation ", consisting of Western Guatemala (and a slice of what is now part of Chiapas Mexico) with Quetzaltenango as its capital. When the Central American Federation fell apart in 1839-1840, Los Altos was briefly a de-facto independent state, until the army of Guatemalan dictator Carrera brutally conquered the city and hung its leaders.
The city enjoyed prosperity with the boom in coffee production in the late 19th and start of the 20th century, when many of the city's "Belle Époque" style landmarks still seen were built. Plans for a railway to Quetzaltenango dated back to the 1890s, and construction was started in the 1920s and finally completed in 1930. The "Ferrocarril de los Altos" was proclaimed the engineering marvel of the age-- until it was destroyed by landslides in 1933. The fabled railroad is still remembered in local song and story, and there's a museum dedicated to it in town.
Quetzaltenango's prosperity declined from the Great Depression through the Guatemalan Civil War in the later 20th century, and for a time much of the city looked on the scruffy side. With the new millenium, however, better times are back. The old landmarks have been refurbished and new ones added, and the city is more beautiful and vibrant than ever.
Quetzaltecos are proud of their city, its distinct regional culture, and its rich heritage.
There are hundreds of volunteer opportunities with organizations and groups in and around Xela, ranging from one day projects to long term placements.
Many of the schools listed above offer opportunities for their students. For other volunteer opportunities, see the list below.
- Asociación de Mujeres del Altiplano.
- Asociación Nuevos Horizontes, women's and children´s rights non-profit organization 
- El Nahual Community Center (non-profit). Offers volunteer teaching opportunities in schools around Xela. All are welcome at the weekly organizational meeting held Monday at 5:30PM at the Blue Angel Café.
- Entremundos (non-profit). Hosts a database of local opportunities, accessible for free. Additional services, including housing, are available with a donation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
- La Pedrera Community Project (non-profit). Offers volunteer work and internships with an indigenous community.
Xela is also well-known for its abundance of volcanoes, mountains, and hot springs.
- Adrenalina Tours  organizes daily shuttles to the Fuentes Georginas hot springs in the town of Zunil, to areas for hiking and trekking, cultural tours in indigenous villages, walking city tours, or to the tours of the cemetery and beer factory. There are also shuttles to and from most places in Guatemala, and Tapachula and San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico, or Copán Ruinas in Honduras. This service is equipped with its own vehicles, bilingual drivers, and certified guides. Their offices are located on the west side of the central park, on Pasaje Enriquez. Information: email@example.com
- Caminando Guatemala  Specialized tour operator for treks and hikes, on the third floor above Adrenalina. They organize daily hikes to the local volcanoes of Santa Maria, Chicabal, and Santiaguito. They can also arrange multi-day expeditions.
- Quetzaltrekkers  offers trips to local natural wonders at reasonable prices, as well as extended treks to Lago de Atitlan and the Cuchumatanes. All guides are either foreign volunteers or local Guatemalans. All profits go towards La Escuela de la Calle, a school in the poorest neighborhood of Xela.
The salsa scene is also very active in Xela. Lessons are cheap and there are lots of clubs.
- Churrascaría Cajola This place is bare bones, dirt cheap, and delicious. You can get carne asada, with tortillas, beans, and cabbage for 10 quetzales (USD $1.25). A soft drink will cost another 4 or 5 quetzales. Located just east of Cervecería Nacional, next to the small roundabout.
- Sabor de La India A great indian meal from 40 to 70 quetzales, plus drink. Address is 15 Avenida 3-64, Zona 1, next to Vrisa Bookstore
- Comida Taiwanesa Their specialty is the Taiwanese empenada which is entirely vegetarian. They're Q3.00 a piece and two will make a decent size snack. They also sell soy milk and snow cones with all kinds of toppings. Located south of the Parque Central on 8a calle between 8a avenida and 9a avenida.
- La Genovese A small Italian Restaurant just two blocks south of the Municipal Theater on 14 avenida A serves great pasta dishes perfect for vegetarians, as well as a great selection of meat based sauce dishes such as the famous Lasagna Bolognes, Spaghetti ala Amatriciana. You will also be surprised to find gourmet dishes such as Fettucinni with black trouffles and smoked salmon, Penne alla Gorbachov which is penne pasta with a vodka based sauce. Part of the charm of this restaurant is its chef Alfredo Trovatti who can entertain you with stories of his travels all around the world.
- Luna Cafe has the best hot chocolate (spicy!), and decent food (some original takes on local ingredients & dishes) too. They are closed on Sunday. They are located off the east side of central park on 8a Av between 4a and 5a Calle. Around the corner on 4a Calle, is Bajo la Luna that has an excellent wine selection (seriously) and cheese plates.
- Cafe RED is located in Zona 1 on 3a Calle just west of 15a Av. and has delicious coffee, excellent salads (spinach - no iceberg lettuce thankfully), sandwiches, pasta, soups, tipico meals, and wine for only 15Q a glass. They are closed on Sunday.
- El Cuartito Cafe is located at the intersection of 7 Calle 7 & 13 Avenida, Zone 1, a block from the SW corner of Parque Central, across from the supermarket La Despensa Familiar. Open daily 8am-11pm. This cozy & trendy modern-art-decorated cafe serves amazing coffee drinks (Q10-23 using 100% organic & fair-trade Xela cooperative produced coffee), teas (Q15-20), hot chocolate (Q12-17), alcoholic (mojitos - Q20; wine - Q16; commercial beer - Q15; artisan beer - Q30; Irish coffee - Q200), excellent pastries, breakfast plates (Q20-35), and great snacks (chips & salsa - Q15, nachos - Q25, quesadilla - Q20). Free Wi-Fi. Live music often.
- Panorama Restaurante y Mirador, 13 Avenida A, D16-44, Zona 1 (http://restaurantepanorama.com/videos/como-llegar/), ☎ 5319-3536 or 7765-8580. Tue-Fri 5-11pm, Sat-Sun 1-11pm. Amazing view overlooking central Xela (beside Iglesia Monte Sinai). Sit outside on the lawn as you gaze across the Quetzaltenango valley at the mountains all around. Excellent for celebrating an occasion or impressing that special someone. Specializing in Swiss cuisine and serving delicious fondues, raclette, sandwiches, pizzas, hamburgers & more. Q25-110.
- Baviera Cafe, 5a Calle 13-14, Zona 1 (1 block west of central park), ☎ 78799958 al 60. 7a-8:30p. This charming cafe/restaurant offers tables, a lounge/sofa area, flat-screen TV showing sporting events. Serves wonderful teas (from Q6), locally sourced & roasted coffee drinks (from Q8), hot chocolate (from Q12), milk shakes (from Q20), juices/horchata/sodas/beers (from Q10) as well as soups (from Q20), sandwiches (from Q25), salads (from Q25), pastries (from Q20), snacks (from Q8), and breakfasts (from Q20). Free Wi-Fi internet to paying customers (passcode=11111aaaaa). There are also 3 other locations in Xela.
- Cafe Nim Sut, 4ª. Calle 9-42, zone 1 (Half block NE from Central Park), ☎ 7761-3083. 9am-7:30pm. Excellent location & service, with a terrace & panoramic view. Offers delicious breakfasts, snacks, lunches, & dinners. Lunch specials every day just Q25. Also offers a variety of coffee, cappuccino, espresso, latte and more. Can plan/host events & gatherings. Also a hostel with nice rooms decorated in a warm style. Offers wi-fi internet access to customers.
Don't drink the tap water. Some hostels will have a water filter, which many drink from, and it seems to be safe. Otherwise, drink purified water (agua pura).
Cabro, which some consider one of the best beers in the world, is made locally in Quetzaltenango. Another local beer, Gallo, is more like the Bud Lite of Guatemala -- bland, available everywhere, and sponsoring everything.
If you like dark beer, try the Moza, another local beer, it's some people's favorite. Shop at the liquor store and return Moza bottles for credit but not all bottles will receive a 1 Q credit.
- El Cuartito Cafe is located at the intersection of 7 Calle 7 & 13 Avenida, Zone 1, a block from the SW corner of Parque Central, across from the supermarket La Despensa Familiar. This cozy & trendy modern-art-decorated cafe serves amazing coffee drinks (Q10-23 using 100% organic & fair-trade Xela cooperative produced coffee), teas (Q15-20), hot chocolate (Q12-17), and many alcoholic beverages (mojitos - Q20; wine - Q16; commercial beer - Q15; several styles of artisan beer - Q30; Irish coffee - Q200). Free Wi-Fi. Open daily 8am-11pm. Live music often.
- Miel Y Cafe, 3ra Calle, 15-21, Zone 1 (just a few blocks from Central Park), ☎ 011-502-4009-3930. 12-8 p.m. Miel y Cafe is an eclectic cafe and hostel in downtown Quetzaltenango. They offer an especially tasty yet unusual avocado and chocolate drink, as well as locally grown gourmet coffee. However I would not live there if I were you! Although it could be an awesome house and really feel like home, it has that sterile hotel feel that makes you just want to hide in your bedroom. Also the guy that runs the cafe (Rocco, doesn't live there) just acts like it's his house and is hanging out there all the time with his dog and his friends. Stay away! $150.00 a month for a single room,$100.00 a month per person shared room.
- Baviera Cafe, 5a Calle 13-14, Zona 1 (1 block west of central park), ☎ 78799958 al 60. 7a-8:30p. This charming cafe/restaurant offers tables, a lounge/sofa area, flat-screen TV showing sporting events. Serves wonderful teas (from Q6), locally sourced & roasted coffee drinks (from Q8), hot chocolate (from Q12), milk shakes (from Q20), juices/horchata/sodas/beers (from Q10) as well as food (see "Eat" section). Free Wi-Fi internet to paying customers (passcode=11111aaaaa). There are also 3 other locations in Xela.
- Dos Lobos Panaderia y Cafe, 2a calle, 14a-32, Zona 1 (a few blocks northwest of central park), ☎ 77617023. A cute cafe owned by a lovely pair of American expats. The bagels are fresh and home made and very delicious. Definitely worth a visit. $9 Cafe negro, $11 Bagel with cream cheese.
There are many opportunities to buy goods in Xela. Mayans will approach you, especially in parks, about selling purses, bags and blankets in the local styles. Markets occur regularly in and around Xela. Remember to negotiate prices-- walking away is often a good way to get the price down a bit.
During the monthly market at the Parque Central on the first Sunday of the month, a row of vendor booths is set up in front of the Municipal building & Catholic Cathedral (east side of the park) with vendors mainly selling local products. Showing interest & walking away typically elicits price offers at around half of the original quote. For example: my wife decided against a Mayan tablecloth that was originally quoted at Q250 (a reasonable price) and the vendor's wife proceeded to follow us around the park for a while coming down to Q100 eventually before accepting that my wife simply had decided not to purchase at any price.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Quetzaltenango on Wikivoyage.