Why No Guatemalan Trip is Complete without a Xela Stop
published feb 11th, 2015
When I first arrived in Xela from Antigua, I was a bit surprised it had been so highly recommended. The second largest city in Guatemala, Xela immediately felt big, loud, and not nearly as picturesquely charming as many of the other tourist destinations in the country.
Domed cathedral in Xela's central park
Ahhh how first impressions are deceiving. By the end of that week-long stay, I’d made up my mind to return to Xela for a longer-term period to volunteer, improve my Spanish, and dive in to the Guatemalan culture I’d come to love so much. It’s a choice, I’ve since learned, that many travelers to Xela make. My theory is it’s because Xela’s main activities attract a special kind of traveler, one who is curious, active, and interested in Guatemalan culture. It makes for a really awesome community.
Here are the top reasons people come to Xela:
Probably the biggest driver of tourism to Xela is the outrageous supply of Spanish schools. Whether you’re looking for a communal environment that offers after-school excursions like salsa dancing and day trips, something low-key and cheap, language education with an emphasis on social justice, etc, there is a school for you. This means that it pays to shop around. Prices vary widely, as does teacher quality.
Guatemala in general is a great place to learn Spanish because lessons tend to be one-to-one. But Xela is unique along the Guatemalan traveler trail because it feels distinctly more local than touristico. Not only can you practice your Spanish -- you’ll be forced to (this may seem like a strange comment, but spend a week in Antigua or at Lake Atitlan, and you’ll know what I mean). Homestays are available at many of the schools as a way to really dive in and force yourself to practice.
Trek Guatemalan Volcanoes
Xela is also a jumping off point for tons of great treks up and around Guatemala’s vast volcanic landscape. Tajumulco is the highest peak in Central America, and it can be climbed in one day or two. Santa Maria is a bit less high, but arguably tougher, and many hikers add to the challenge (and the enjoyment) by climbing it by light of the full moon. This puts you on top in time for sunrise. Both offer views of the active Santaiguito volcano, which can also be partially climbed.
The view of surrounding volcanoes from Volcán Santa Maria near Xela, Guatemala.
For travelers with more time, there is a three-day trek from Xela to Lake Atitlan; those who worry about physical fitness or are interested in something with a cultural aspect often find Lake Chicabal a great alternative. Didn’t bring enough warm weather gear on your Central American vacation? Don’t let that deter you—there are tons of second hand stores (called pacas) that can sell you a warm jacket, hat, or gloves super cheap. Many tour companies also lend these out.
Xela has a distinct social justice flair to it, and it has been home to a number of different movements over the years. The impact of this is evident—there are countless NGOs, schools, and non-profits based here, which means travelers looking to give back, practice their Spanish skills, and get involved with the local community have plenty of opportunities to do so. There are tons of different types of volunteer options, depending on your interests, skills, and the length of your stay. EntreMundos is a local organization that has some great resources for travelers looking to connect with a volunteer opportunity. They have a free database you can browse, or they can connect you with an opportunity for a donation.
Become Enmeshed in Guatemalan Culture
The fact that Xela is the second biggest city in the country is deceptive. It’s actually a tight-knit community that is open, friendly, and made up of both expats and locals. It provides a glimpse into Guatemalan culture that isn’t likely to be attained in the country’s more touristy destinations.
So that’s my take. Whether you’re interested in learning a language, getting out in nature, giving back, or just having a more cultural experience, Xela is a great place to do so. And that means it’s attracting other people interested in the same thing—the type of traveler who really cares about learning from and engaging with the local population. For me, this is by far the biggest draw to Xela.