After my month in San Pedro on lake Atitlan I spent five days in Xela. It was a day or two longer than I intended due to bad bus/flight connections.
Xela is the name more commonly used for the city of Quetzaltenango (I’m going to stick with the shortened name, since I have to check the spelling every time I use the full name).
It is up in the mountains, at an elevation of around 2,300 metres. This means it is possible to get sunburn and frostbite on the same day, since the temperature plummets at night. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating the frostbite but it was cold at night. It wasn’t helped by the fact that most budget accommodation only has cold water.
I didn’t shower the whole time I was there; I simply aimed body parts briefly at the jet of icy water and then shivered my way back into clothes (possibly this comes into the category of too much information for you all).
It reminded me of Bolivia; I cut short my time in Bolivia because I couldn’t handle the cold nights and the cold water. After five days in Xela I was ready to travel somewhere warmer as well.
The city is quite pleasant, although you can see everything in a day. If you feel like kicking back and staying for a while there are numerous Spanish schools, some salsa schools and some volunteering possibilities. However it was just too cold for me.
Visiting nearby towns
Xela makes a good base to visit the surrounding small towns. You can get the chicken bus for next to no money. The station is tucked away behind a crowded market some distance from the city centre, however it is worth looking at a map and guessing which road out of town the bus will take and then you can go and stand there, saving yourself a trip into the station.
To catch the chicken bus to Zunil you can head to the rotonda/Avenida Independencia and stand there until one comes along. It costs 5 quetzals (next to nothing) to get to Zunil. Once there, you will find a colourful market, where the women all wear their traditional clothes.
A lot of websites tell you that the market is only on Mondays, however it turns out to be on every day now, albeit in a smaller form than previously.
Zunil is a nice little town. They have San Simon the Maximon, who I previously visited in Santiago on Lake Atitlan. This rebel Mayan God accepts offerings of cigarettes and alcohol (and, of course, money). I didn’t visit him in Zunil, since I had seen him only recently before (actually I got so caught up walking around the town that I totally forgot to look for him. He moves around a bit, so you need to ask someone where he is).
Also nearby to the town are the Fuentes, or hot springs. There is no public transport there so you have to negotiate with a tuk-tuk driver. Also you need to negotiate with them to come and pick you up again, since there is nothing else there and it is a long walk back. I forgot the last part, but luckily I only had to walk about half a kilometre to find a tuk-tuk dropping somebody else off and I managed to grab a ride back into town. Expect to pay 50 quetzals to get there from Zunil and another 50 back (unless you are super-skilled at haggling or are very patient), plus there is a 50 quetzals entrance fee (that totals around £15/US$20).
Another nearby town I visited was Salcaja, where the popular Tuesday market sells pile after pile of beautiful fabrics. You can catch the chicken bus to Salcaja from Av Independencia too (but on the other side of the road). Salcaja was a bigger place, dusty and very crowded on market day.
After those two I felt a bit marketed-out. I’m not a shopper (I enjoy the atmosphere of markets but rarely buy anything) and there is only so many markets that I needed to visit.
If you only have time for one of these markets, I’d go to Zunil. Also, you are not tied to a particular day with Zunil.
There was another market I fancied in San Fransisco El Alto where they have an animal market, which I thought might be a little different. However this was on a Friday and I wasn’t in Xela for a Friday, so it didn’t happen.