Quetzaltenango and around

Quetzaltenango (commonly known as Xela - pronounced 'shayla') is the most important city in western Guatemala. The country's second city is set among a group of high mountains and volcanoes, one of which, Santa María, caused much death and destruction after an eruption in 1902. The bulk of the city is modern, but its 19th-century downtown revamp and its narrow streets give the centre more of a historic feel. There are breathtaking views and a pleasant park with its beautifully restored façade of the colonial church. It is an excellent base from which to visit nearby hot springs, religious idols, volcanoes and market towns

Tourist information

General information can be found at www.xelapages.com and www.xelawho.com.


The most important battle of the Spanish conquest took place near Quetzaltenango when the great K'iche' warrior Tecún Umán was slain. In October 1902 the Volcán Santa María erupted, showering the city with half a metre of dust. An ash cloud soared 8.6 km into the air and some 1500 people were killed by volcanic fallout and gas. A further 3000 people died a short while later from malaria due to plagues of mosquitoes which had not been wiped out by the blast. Some 20 years on, a new volcano, born after the 1902 eruption, began to erupt. This smaller volcano, Santiaguito, spews clouds of dust and ash on a daily basis and is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. The city's prosperity, as seen by the grand neoclassical architecture in the centre, was built on the back of the success of the coffee
on the nearby coastal plain. This led to the country's first bank being established here. The town's fiestas are 9-17 September, Holy Week and the October fiesta of La Virgen del Rosario.


The central park,
Parque Centro América
, is the focus of the city. It is surrounded by the cathedral, with its beautifully restored original colonial façade, and a number of elegant neoclassical buildings, constructed during the late 19th and early 20th century. The modern cathedral,
Catedral de la Diócesis de los Altos
, was constructed in 1899 and is set back behind the original. The surviving façade of the 1535
Catedral del Espíritu Santo
is beautiful, intricately carved and with restored portions of murals on its right side. On the south side of the park is the
Casa de la Cultura
. Inside are the
Museo de la Marimba
with exhibits and documents relating to the 1871 Liberal Revolution. On the right-hand side of the building is the totally curious
Museo de Historia Natural
Deformed stuffed animals are cheek by jowl with pre-Columbian pottery, sports memorabilia, fizzy drink bottles, a lightning-damaged mirror and dinosaur remains. It satisfies the most morbid of curiosities with displays of a two-headed calf, Siamese twin pigs, an eight-legged goat, and a strange sea creature that looks like an alien, known as
Diabillo del Mar
(little sea devil). On the park's southwest side is the
Museo de Arte
, with a collection of contemporary Guatemalan art, and the
Museo del Ferrocarril Nacional de los Altos
, recounting the story of an electric railway between Xela and the Pacific slope. The
Banco de Occidente
, founded in 1881, and the first bank to opened in Guatemala, dominates the northern edge of the park. The overly wired-up
straddles the eastern edge of the park with its neoclassical columns. Its first building blocks were laid in 1881, but it wasn't completed until 1897. The stately
Teatro Municipal
(1892-1896) is on 14 Avenida y 1 Calle and can be visited outside of performance hours. Restored at a cost of four million quetzales, it has an imposing presence.

There is a sickly green modern church, the Sagrado Corazón, on the Parque Benito Juárez near the market. Inside is a gigantic, free-standing, Chagall-influenced painting with swooping angels, and Christ in a glass box, built into the picture. The church of La Transfiguración houses the largest crucified Christ figure (San Salvador del Mundo) to be found in Central America - it is almost 3 m in height and now housed behind glass. At 20 Avenida and 4 Calle is the city's Cementerio. Inside are the remains of the Quetzalteco President, Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920) in a small cream neoclassical temple. Behind his tomb are the unmarked graves of a large number of cholera victims wiped out in a 19th-century epidemic. Manuel Lisandra Barillas (Guatemalan President 1885-1892) is also entombed here. There is a small patio area known as Colonia Alemana lined with graves of German residents; a large area where those that died as martyrs in the civil war lie; and a memorial to those that perished in the September Revolution of 1897.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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