201km (125 miles) NW of Guatemala City; 90km (56 miles) S of Huehuetenango

The highland city of Quetzaltenango is the second largest in Guatemala, with a population of more than 300,000. Like Chichicastenango, this was and still is a principal center of the Maya Ki'che of Guatemala -- and many locals still refer to the city by its Ki'che name Xelajú. In fact, most people simply call the place Xela (pronounced "Sheh-la"). Xelajú is close to the sight where Ki'che King Tecún Umán was killed in battle against the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. Following Tecún Umán's defeat in 1524, the city was renamed Quetzaltenango, or "place of the Quetzal," which is what Alvarado's Nahuatl mercenaries called it. In 1848, Quetzaltenango declared itself "El Sexto Estado del los Altos," independent from Guatemala. However, while the city retains an independent streak, its political independence lasted only 2 years, and the Guatemalan military quickly brought the rogue state back into the fold.

Thanks to the presence of a large national university and scores of language schools and foreign volunteer programs, there are several good coffee shops and used bookstores in Xela, and even a couple of art-movie houses. You'll also find more nightlife here than anywhere else in the country outside of Guatemala City.

Quetzaltenango makes an excellent base for visiting a host of nearby towns and attractions, including hot springs, small villages with impressive markets and churches, and towering volcanoes waiting to be hiked. The city also serves as a convenient gateway to both Mexico and the Pacific coast of Guatemala.