If you want to get a sense of authentic urban living in 21st century Guatemala, spend a little time getting to know Quetzaltenango. This semi-isolated city is the second largest in the country, perched in the Guatemalan highlands at an elevation of 2,350 m. That’s almost a mile and a half above sea level, for the record. And just what sets Xela (a pseudonym derived from its native name of Xelajú) apart from the country’s other major hubs? Well for starters, its relatively remote location keeps most of Guatemala’s tourists confined to towns like Antigua and Flores. This means more unadulterated opportunities to observe and experience life on a local level. On top of this, its moderately-sized population (approx. 250k) isn’t subject to the kind of persistent crime that plagues Guatemala City; and hey, who doesn’t like safety? Then when you factor in some surprisingly impressive architecture and access to many of Guatemala’s most memorable adventures, what you end up with is a city with an oddly long name that’s well worth taking a closer look at.
Quetzaltenango’s heritage includes Mayan, K’iche’ and Spanish influences, so prep yourself for a rich cultural experience that spans both centuries and civilizations. Many of its most impressive structures surround the unmistakable Parque Centro America, including must-sees like the Municipal Palace and the Pasaje Enríquez. El Teatro Municipal is another jaw-dropper, with its sculptures and towering pillars out front and an ornately designed interior that hosts performances throughout the year. But cool buildings are one thing; daily life is something else. Thankfully, contemporary Xela doesn’t disappoint there either. Bustling markets like Minerva and La Demo, as well as nearby towns like Ostuncalco and Salcajá (which is home to the oldest church in Central America), provide great opportunities to get a feel for the indigenous cultures that are thriving in this part of Guatemala. There’s even a passable entertainment district, Zona Vivia, if your idea of cultural immersion starts after sundown.
Equally as surprising to most first time visitors will be Quetzaltenango’s bounty of adventure opportunity. Much like Antigua to its southeast, the city offers access to plenty of massive volcanoes (including the tallest peak in Central America), so hikers and rock climbers won’t have any trouble finding invigorating new challenges to add to the itinerary. If you’ve had your fill of multiple-day treks, you might be pleasantly surprised to find out that there’s also a smattering of nearby hot springs to enjoy; think of it as the more relaxing side of geothermal activity. And who can forget beautiful Lake Atitlan 70 km to the southeast, with all the swimming, boating, paddling, and scuba diving an ambitious inland traveler could ask for. Of course, we’re just beginning to scratch the surface, but as you can see it doesn’t take much to for this unsuspecting city to pique an adventurer's curiosity. Why not dig a little deeper?