It won't take you long to visit Quetzaltenango's principal attractions. The Parque Centro América, with its open-air gazebo, is the town's focal point. On the southeastern side of the park you'll find the Catedral Metropolitano de los Altos, which is actually two churches. Fronting the park is the ornate facade of the Catedral del Espíritu Santo, which is all that remains of the city's original 16th-century baroque church. Behind this facade is the more modern, and much larger, Catedral de la Diócesis de los Altos, which was inaugurated in 1899.
Also fronting the Parque Centro America is the Museo del Ferrocarril (Train Museum), which documents, mostly in photographs, the construction and functioning of the electric train built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to connect Quetzaltenango with Retalhuleu and the Pacific coast.
Just north of the park center is the Teatro Municipal (Municipal Theater), 14a Avenida and 1a Calle (tel. 502/7761-2218), a wonderfully restored theater built between 1884 and 1908. The theater hosted its first concert in 1903 and is still functioning today. It's worthwhile to catch a show if there's one while you're in town. Just across from the Teatro Municipal is the equally well restored Teatro Roma, 14a Avenida A (tel. 502/7761-4950), the city's first cinema. While they no longer show movies here, they do have occasional performances, which are worth a visit.
On the south side of the park sits the Casa de la Cultura, 7th Calle 11-09, Zona 1 (tel. 502/7761-6031), a large building that houses the INGUAT offices and the Museo de Historia Natural (Natural History Museum; tel. 502/7761-6427), which, in my opinion, can be missed. Should you decide to visit the exhibits, which include dinosaur bones, Maya artifacts, and a room dedicated to the marimba (a large wooden xylophone and the bands that play them), the museum is open Monday through Friday from 8am to noon and 2 to 6pm; and Saturday from 9am to 1pm. Admission is Q10 ($1.35/70p).
Zunil & Fuentes Georginas
Zunil is a picturesque little town on the shores of the Salamá River and is surrounded by verdant agricultural fields. It has a beautiful whitewashed church and narrow, cobblestone streets that wind up the hills from the river. Zunil is famous for its worship of Maximón, who is known as San Simon here in Zunil. San Simon is housed in different local homes at different times, and you can ask anyone it town where to find him. A small tip is expected for taking you to see the saint's statue. Monday is market day in Zunil, and while small, it's still a colorful and vibrant market.
Hot springs can be found in several places on the way to Zunil, including Los Vahos, El Recreo, and Los Cirilos, but they all pale in comparison to Las Fuentes Georginas (tel. 502/5704-2959), a hot springs resort just beyond Zunil. The large pool here is set in rock and surrounded by steep hills. The hottest water is found closest to the hillside, and gets cooler as you move farther away. There's a restaurant, some changing rooms, and a few basic cabins for overnight stays, but I don't recommend them, as they're very musty and in desperate need of upkeep. Las Fuentes Georginas is open daily from 8am to 6:30pm. Admission is Q20 ($2.65/£1.35) for adults, Q10 ($1.35/70p) for children under 12. Parking is an extra Q10 ($1.35/70p) if you come in your own car.
Zunil is located 9km (5 1/2 miles) south of Xela on the road to Retalhuleu and the Pacific coast. Las Fuentes Georginas is another 8km (5 miles) beyond Zunil up a beautiful, winding road that heads into the mountains. A taxi from Xela to the hot springs should charge around Q100 ($13/£6.50) each way. The fare is a bit less if you're only going to Zunil. Alternately, Adrenalina Tours runs a twice-daily shuttle to Las Fuentes Georginas, leaving Xela at 8am and 2pm, and returning at noon and 6pm. Cost is Q40 ($5.35/£2.65).
Volcán Santa María
The skyline south of Quetzaltenango is dominated by the 3,677m (12,256-ft.) Volcán Santa María. All of the tour agencies listed above lead hikes to the summit, and most leave Xela before dawn by car or minivan to the town of Llanos del Pinal. From here it takes between 3 and 4 hours of strenuous hiking to reach the summit. On a clear day, you can see as far as Mexico. You can also see a host of other Guatemalan volcanoes, including Tajumulco, Siete Orejas, and Acatenango, as well as the volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlán and the volcanoes Fuego and Agua just outside of Antigua. The best view here, however, is of the crater of Santa María's very active sister volcano, Santiaguito. Santa María had a major eruption in 1902, which covered much of Quetzaltenango in thick ash and killed more than 1,500 people in the region. It was during this eruption that Santiaguito was born. Santiaguito is in an almost constant state of eruption, belching out gases, volcanic ash, and molten lava. Guided tours run between Q75 and Q225 ($10-$30/£5-£15) per person, depending upon group size. During the dry season, it's possible to camp near the summit, which is worth it for the amazing sunrise and sunset views.
While this small town boasts the oldest Spanish church in Guatemala, it's better known for the private and established vendors lining the streets, particularly the highway leading to Quetzaltenango, with used cars for sale. Of these, the majority seem to be Toyota pickup trucks.
The Iglesia de San Jacinto may be small, but it's well maintained and worth a visit. Established in 1524 during Pedro de Alvarado's conquest of the region, the church boasts an ornate altar and some antique paintings.
Salcajá is also famous for its jaspé or ikat textile weaving. This complex dyeing and weaving process produces intricate abstract designs, although they've been weaving these cloths here since the 1860s. Salcajá is also known for two locally produced liquors -- caldo de frutas and rompopo. Caldo de frutas (literally, fruit soup) is a strong brew of fermented fruits and rum or cane alcohol. Rompopo is a somewhat milder concoction of rum, milk, and egg yolks.
Salcajá is located 7km (4 1/3 miles) from Xela on the road to Cuatro Caminos.
San Andrés Xecul
The ornate church here is definitely worth a visit. Try to come in the afternoon, when the sun hits the church's facade, as it's much harder to get a good photo in the morning, when the sun is behind the church. Up the hill from the main church is a much smaller church worth a visit for two reasons. First, the high perch here offers a wonderful view of the main church and town. Second, this church, and the plot of land beside it, are still actively used for Maya ritual prayers and ceremonies, and you can almost always find local Maya worshiping here.
San Andrés Xecul is located 9km (5 1/2 miles) from Xela, just beyond Slacajá, and off the road to Cuatro Caminos.
San Francisco El Alto
While Chichicastenango's market gets most of the press and acclaim, insiders know that San Francisco El Alto's Friday market is the place to shop the best and largest selection of textiles and garments in Guatemala, plus take in some good views from the hillside location. As in Chichi, San Francisco's central plaza is taken over on market day and packed with merchants from all over the highlands. However, far fewer tourists come here. Instead, large wholesalers and local barterers are the principal buyers. Animal activists should be aware that part of the market here is reserved for live animals, everything from dogs and cats to pigs and chickens. You'll also see caged birds and the occasional captured monkey. San Francisco El Alto is located 17km (11 miles) from Xela beyond Cuatro Caminos on the way to Huehuetenango.
Laguna de Chicabal
The Laguna de Chicabal is a gorgeous lake formed in the crater of an extinct volcano. The cone of the lake rises to 2,900m (9,514 ft.), and the emerald-green lake, considered sacred to the Maya, lies a few hundred feet below the rim, surrounded by lush cloud forests. Even if there are no active ceremonies taking place when you visit, you'll notice the many altars around the lakeshore and the ashes, burned candles, and past offerings from recent devotees.
Laguna de Chicabal is accessed from the village of San Martin Sacatepequez, which is also called San Martin Chile Verde. The hike from San Martin takes about 2 hours. Alternatively, you can drive to a parking lot that is just a 40-minute hike from the lake. The best way to visit the lake is on a guided tour out of Xela. The lake is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Admission is Q10 ($1.35/70p), and parking is an additional Q10 ($1.35/70p). Camping is allowed for Q30 ($4/£2) per person.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.