Xela is the smallest big city you’ll visit in Guatemala. Despite its more than a quarter-million inhabitants, it often feels cozy and navigable after a few days’ stay. That’s because the majority of visitors stick close to Zone 1, which takes on a small-town feel despite its distinctly city-ish sites and sounds. There are plenty of longterm non-natives in Xela. You’re liable to meet people and maybe even develop a semi-stable social life inside of a week.
Top reasons backpackers visit Xela:
- Attend Spanish School
- Check out the city’s restaurants and nightclubs
- Hike nearby volcanos Tajamulco, Santa Maria or Santiaguito
- Day-trip to hot springs, cultural sites and more
Xela: Cathedral domes in central park.
Climate & costs
Xela is generally cool (60 - 70°F or 15 - 20°C) with chillier nights and mornings, mostly due to its elevation of some 7,600 to 7,800 feet depending on specific location (~2,315 - 2,400 meters). It’s often very sunny during mid morning until about noonday, after which the warmth starts to fall away quick.
You’ll spend Q50 or Q60 for a dorm bed, ~Q150 for a private room. Cheaper dorms and rooms are available at less frequented locations like Casa Argentina or Hotel Quetzalteco. Longterm options are often findable with a little poking around.
Xela from above: low clouds cover the city proper.
Food starts at around Q5 for street fare, Q15 at comedores, or Q30 for non-traditional meals. You’ll pay as much as Q70 - Q100 for special treats like a good pizza or plate of Indian food. There are several hostels with kitchens in Xela, which means super-cheap food if you’re willing to work for it. Xela is home to all kinds of highland farms, so fruits and veggies are really, really cheap in local markets.
There are a huge variety of Spanish schools in Xela, and I won’t be recommending any specific ones here. Prices, teaching styles and schedules vary wildly. The trick is to do some research once you arrive, and not to settle for anything you’re not happy with. You’ll be glad you looked around. Xela’s not famous for Spanish School without reason — there are tons of options.
At least a few backpackers staying at well-trafficked hostels (check out Casa Seibel and Black Cat) are likely to be attending a local school. It definitely pays to ask around. Somebody else’s good or bad experience can save you time and money.
Shop first, commit later
Don’t commit to anything until you know you like it. After getting some feedback from other travelers, walk around to a few schools to confirm prices and schedules. Let them know you’d like to try one or two days first, then decide whether you’ll stay on for a longer term.
Homestay or hostel?
Homestays (living with a local family while attending school) can be a really great or too-overwhelming experience. Again, checking with other backpackers is always a great idea to get a feel for what’s going to work for you. This Homestay vs. Hostel post from Karina’s Extraordinary Life is entirely dedicated to the decision. It’s definitely worth the read.
The most popular volcano hikes in the Xela area are Volcán Tajamulco, Santa Maria, and Santiaguito. Hikes vary in difficulty, duration and price. Expect to pay around Q200 for a half-day trip, and upwards of Q600 for overnight visits. There are also full moon treks when the lunar cycle is right, which can be a pretty unreal experience assuming the sky is clear.
Distant mountain ranges from the peak of Volcán Santa Maria.
The skies tend to be clearer in the mornings, which of course translates to clearer, farther reaching views. Overnight hikes aren’t just about the sunrise, they also mean more time with an actual view. The difference between morning and afternoon climates can be pretty dramatic.
I once climbed Volcán Santa Maria starting at around 5:00 AM, and was happy to have a view from the top that extended to the horizon. Around lunchtime, clouds came on like a wall of smoke. You could hardly see twenty feet in front of you for the rest of our time at the summit, and the weather didn’t clear until we descended below it on our way back down.
Check out the Adrenalina Tours office for more information about area volcano hikes. Their office is inside Pasaje Enriquez, the can’t-miss-it train-station looking building near Xela’s central park. Most hostels have their own preferred guide as well, and can sell you tickets or packages from reception.
The Laguna Chicabal hike, the Fuentes Georginas hot springs, and the Chichicastenango Market are a couple other activities to add to your list if you’ve got the time.
Laguna Chicabal is a beautiful, sacred lake that’s located in the crater of a dormant volcano. The area is known for a rapidly cycling climate. It can be crystal clear and sunny one moment, and nearly impassable with fog the next. It’s best to head out early in the morning to try and include some of the clearer weather in your hike. Two things to keep in mind: 1) The actual hike itself is considerable, and 2) No swimming. This is a sacred Mayan location.
Midday fog rolls into Chicabal Laguna.
The Fuentes Georginas hot springs are always nice but certainly best on cold, drizzly days. Piping hot natural springs feel amazing in otherwise miserable weather. If you’re lucky enough to encounter a chilly and rainy spell in Xela, make Fuentes Georginas your plan for the day.
One of several natural source hot springs at Fuentes Georginas.
The Chichicastenango market is well-renowned. While it’s not far different in kind from other markets, it’s definitely different in degree. The market is huge, often flooding the city’s central park and bursting into all available side-streets. Construction materials, food stuff, clothes, handicrafts, you name it. If you can buy it in Guatemala, chances are you can find it in Chichi.
Chichicastenango, I should mention, is by no means a part of Xela. It’s less than two hours away, though, which categorizes it snugly as a day-trip and makes it one of the more frequent destinations with area tour companies.
One last mention for Xela do-it-yourselfers: The Civil Police in Xela (PNC) will often escort hikers and backpackers to and around area attractions. This is actually pretty cool! The PNC patrol on regular routes near Volcán Santa Maria, Laguna Chicabal, Santiaguito Mirador, Fuentes Georginas and more. If you give them a call they'll often switch their routes to accommodate travelers. Think friendly guy in uniform joins your hike, not awkward armed guard makes you feel uncomfortable.
These guys are super friendly and genuinely enjoy their civil security patrols. The best part? Why pay for a tour when you can do-it-yourself with a knowledgable guide that's happy to accompany you?
The PNC are available for day trips only, of course, and it's not a guaranteed service. Absolutely worth the phone call, though. If you don't speak Spanish, have a local friend make the call. Call the PNC for a courtesy escort at (502) 5908-0686.