Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela (SHAY-la), is Guatemala's second-largest city. Built on the former site of a Maya city called Xelaju (hence the nickname), Xela is an attractive place 127 mi/205 km west of Guatemala City with a wealth of handsome 19th-century architecture and a proud Maya and Spanish heritage. It's a good place to buy Maya handwoven products and learn Spanish. It has many language schools for those who want a more thorough immersion than is offered by the schools in Antigua; although the number of foreigners in Xela is steadily growing, there is still little English spoken there. Because of its altitude (7,650 ft/2,330 m), Quetzaltenango is also known as one of the coldest cities in Guatemala, so take a jacket.
Sights include the neoclassical Municipal Theater, the city market and the Parque Centroamerica, a beautiful square filled with statues and flanked by several fine buildings, including a restored colonial-era cathedral plus a somewhat bizarre natural-history museum. Concerts and folkloric dances often take place in the square, and a special handicrafts market is held there on the first Sunday of every month. Tour operators frequently package Quezaltenango with a trip to Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlan.
Several day trips and excursions are available from Quetzaltenango. The most popular day trip is to the picturesque village of Zunil, about 6 mi/10 km south of Xela. This typical Maya farming community has a pretty white colonial church and a popular handicrafts cooperative. Visitors also come to see the effigy of San Simon (known elsewhere as Maximon), a comical-looking, cigar-smoking saint worshipped by the highland Maya. San Simon is moved to a different house every year, but the locals always know his current location.
On the way to Zunil, you'll pass through Almolonga (try a hot mineral-water bath at the lower end of the village). From Zunil, nature lovers will want to continue on to the Aguas Calientes (or Fuentes) de Georginas (these springs vary in temperature and they can be dirty, too—but the drive there is beautiful). Or head for Cerro El Baul National Park, overlooking the city. North of Quetzaltenango are several villages: Salcaja, where you can visit the Church of San Jacinto, the first Christian church in Central America (Tuesday is market day); San Andres Xecul, whose church has the most elaborately decorated facade in Guatemala; San Miguel Totonicapan, which also has a nice church (Tuesday and Saturday are market days); San Francisco el Alto (a Friday market that is quite good); Momostenango, where you'll see the Los Riscos geological outcroppings (the town is known for wool blankets); and Nahuala, where you can get a good glimpse of typical village life.
Villages west of Quetzaltenango include San Marcos (hot springs); Concepcion Chiquirichapa (wooden-furniture manufacturing); San Pedro Sacatepequez (lovely indigenous clothing); San Martin Sacatepequez (baskets); and San Juan Ostuncalco (furniture manufacturing). Several hours northwest of Quezaltenango are the ruins of Zaculeu (a Maya religious center that was conquered by the Spanish in 1525) and the towns of Huehuetenango (a large market town) and Chiantla (a nice church).
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