When there are only 80 km of highway separating you from the highest mountain between Mexico and the Andes, the question “What is there to do around here?” starts to take on a strictly rhetorical denotation. Welcome to Quetzaltenango (or Xela, as it’s commonly referred to by the locals). Though it lacks both Antigua’s reputation and the ruinous splendor of Guatemala’s northern jungles, this may very well be one of the most adventure-accessible cities in Central America. And we’re not just talking about volcanoes, either. Rivers, valleys, mountains, lakes, hot springs, bike trails, climbing routes - as long as you’re not looking for snow, you’ll find plenty of reasons to ditch the city and go exploring the highlands of Western Guatemala here. However, since we’re assuming that many of these might currently be foreign to you, sit back and brace yourself for a quick crash course in Xela’s great outdoors.
Let’s start with an obvious first choice: the volcanoes. Whether you’re in search of lofty heights (Tajumulco) or just want a front row seat to some spectacular eruptions (Santa Maria), Quetzaltenango’s surrounding peaks are as memorable as they are abundant. Some, like the unmistakable lava spires on Cerro Quemado, offer excellent rock climbing opportunities to accompany a day’s worth of invigorating hiking. Then there are the often forgotten sister peaks of Zunil and Santo Tomas, known less for their stature and more for the beautiful multiple-day Alaska Route that gets you out exploring one of Guatemala’s most scenic trails. If you’re more interested in adventuring on two wheels, these undulating elevations are perfect for mountain biking as well, with popular guided rides to San Andres Xecul, the Totonicapan Ruins and Los Vahos hot springs just to rattle off a few.
As far as water-based activities go, Xela’s selection runs the gamut from raging rivers to muscle-relaxing geothermal pools (not a bad dispersion, if you ask us). Start with the Class III-IV rapids along Rio Naranjo that cut through Guatemala near the town of Coatepeque. June through November, this is far and away your best nearby option for tackling some intense white-water rafting. If you prefer your paddling without the adrenaline rush, head southeast towards the world-renowned Lake Atitlan, where you’ll need at least a few days to take in an adequate amount of the incredible scenery and adventure that’s available on, in, and around the water. Or you could just go right for the steaming baths of Las Fuentes Georginas, which feel all the more rewarding after a great hike along the Siete Cruces Ridge. Whatever your adventure style, chances are Quetzaltenango’s got something to satisfy you. Think of it as all the outdoor possibility of Antigua sans the crowds.