Doing a little cultural digging in Quetzaltenango, are we? Here’s a word you might be happy to hear: “jackpot.” Because of its location a mile and a half above sea level, high among the towering volcanoes of Western Guatemala, this city has been able to thrive in relative obscurity to much of the outside world (with the exception of the Spanish invasion of the 16th century, that is). Its Mayan and K’iche’ influences are so prevalent, in fact, that local nomenclature still uses the indigenous name Xela (short for Xelajú) as commonly as the official, Spanish-adopted name Quetzaltenango when referring to the city. That’s what you call staying power. Now this isn’t to say that colonialism was without its benefits, mind you, as anyone who has seen the city center’s trove of magnificent, European-inspired buildings can attest to. It simply means that, when you go checking out the surroundings in Xela, be prepared for an onslaught of cultural goodness from all walks of Guatemalan history.
If architecture is your bag, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Starting with the centrally located (and aptly named) Parque Central, you’ll have your pick of Greco-Roman monuments and Italian-designed neoclassical structures to check out, including the Ionic pillars of “The Kiosk” and the beautifully sculpted exterior of La Iglesia del Espíritu Santo. Looking for something a bit more functional? Take an hour to investigate the art/history museum inside la Casa de la Cultura, or grab a bite to eat inside the famed Pasaje Enríquez. Farther north, the grandeur (both inside and out) of Xela’s Municipal Theater makes it well worth poking your head inside, while Zona 3’s temple to the Greek goddess Minerva should at least get your eyebrows raised. There’s even access to the oldest church in Central America, the famed Iglesia de San Jacinto, from in the northeastern municipality of Salcaja.
Impressive as the architecture and history are, however, most of Quetzaltenango’s cultural appeal rests in its population. Within the city are several universities, including big names like the Mesoamerican University and La Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, equipped with enough coffee shops and nightclubs to warrant the creation of an area dubbed the “Zona Vivia.” Mixed with these emblems of youth and modernity are testaments to Mayan culture, such as the bustling markets at La Democracia and the Minerva Bus Terminal. Toss in all the charm of arched bridges, cobblestone streets, traditional craft cooperatives and thriving coffee plantations in the surrounding countryside and what you’re left with is a rare gem of a city: one that’s beautifully connected to its rich ethnic heritage while striving headlong towards 21st century relevance. But don’t take our word for it; go spend some time away from the more touristy hubs and get to know Xela for yourself.