Xela has it – the city surprises people and attracts them to stay longer. Its architecture is grand, and life is bustling and exciting.
Chances are that, when you first arrive here from other parts of Guatemala or Belize, all you want to do is walk around and suck it all in. And walking in the city is excellent, every turn leads to a new square or a building that you didn’t even think could exist anywhere in Guatemala.
There are quiet little parks with a couple of benches to enjoy the sunshine, a theatre and big city squares that remind you of a mini Times Square. At least, if you have been away from big cities for a while. In the evenings it’s all lit up, and during the daytime, magnificent blue volcanoes frame the town. Also, Xela offers a surprising number of cheap eats. Walking around in Antigua can make a backpacker cry– he or she probably didn’t come to the other side of the world pay European prices to eat European food.
Well, you can find decent pizza in Xela as well, but it’s more fun just to let your legs take you wherever they want to go. You’ll probably end up sitting in a local drink place that serves crazy looking ice-cappuccino, surrounded by a group of local teenagers. Or you find yourself being served rice, beans and yummy vegetables by a friendly local lady. We were lucky enough to taste local food served with a mini earthquake which, considering Xela’s location, is quite common here.
If you have had enough of aimless wanders and you get curious about what else is here, check out the list we made for you.
Things to do in the city
1. Take a stroll in the graveyard
It’s pretty morbid to start the list with a recommendation to go to a cemetery. But trust us, once you’re here, you wished you had had more time to take it all in. So, our first recommendation is: enter the graveyard earlier rather than later. Even though dusk is an especially mystical time to visit. Just don’t hang around too long, or you may get locked in by the guards, just as it happened with us. Luckily, they still let us out in the end.
Taking a walk among the dead people is like entering another town with its own little houses. The mausoleums came in all shapes and sizes. Most often they looked like tiny chapels with a cross on top, but we also found constructions that reminded us of gothic cathedrals, Greek temples- even Egyptian pyramids. It seems like the mourners have let their imagination run wild. Some of the burial places are like long corridors of drawers in the library. But the nicest thing in this graveyard is the colours, from creamy pastels to bright and crazy tones. Don’t forget your camera when you come here.
Wander a little further from the entrance, and the graves start to look more simple until there are only simple crosses covered with grass. Here you can spot Mayan families walking around looking for their graves. Some language schools in Xela offer guided tours in the cemetery as an optional activity to practice language and learn something new. Among other things, you’ll discover that the most spectacular mausoleums belong to dictators.
2. Check out the animal life!
Since we studied Spanish in Xela, our days were mostly packed with learning the verb conjunctions, participating in school activities and trying to make our wishes understandable for the host family. But during the weekend we put our notebooks aside and made a walk to the other side of the Xela to check out the zoo.
The zoo is quite a walk away from the city centre. It takes about 40 minutes on foot, probably more, because you’ll pass busy market areas where your pace goes down quite a bit. But if it’s a sunny day, the walk is totally worth it. You can admire excellent carpentry on the sidewalk, check out chargers and accessories, tons of clothes and fresh food. As always, markets are loud and full of local characters.
Parque Zoologico Minerva is an interesting mixture of a park, playground, amusement park and zoo. And the best thing – it’s free. Considering that my expectations were low, I expected to see a couple of local animals, and that’s it. In reality, it’s a cosy place with families strolling around and couples having pick-nicks on the lawn. And there were many more animals than I expected.
Of course, you get your fair share of monkeys in Xela zoo. They are funny and cute and whatever they decide to do is amusing to watch. I’m talking about the spider monkeys- the same active climbers we spotted hanging on the high trees in Tikal and the nature park near El Remate.
It’s a little bit sad to see them in a zoo because in nature they never come down to the ground. They jump like air acrobats from branch to branch spending their whole life in the air. Here they sit next to the washbowl filled with fruits, scratch themselves or play in their playground. They are nonetheless one of the most adored animals in the zoo. Children and grown-ups are gathered around the reeling to follow their every move.
Coatis are the other native animals that you’re likely to meet somewhere in Guatemala. Closest to Xela, you should keep your eyes open on the way to hot springs called Fuentes Georginas. There are a bunch of coatis playing near the parking lot.
The jaguar is also a frequent visitor in local forests. We were lucky to spot the gracious creature in the Cuchumatanes mountains near Nebaj. The zoo also offers the opportunity to look a grey fox into the eyes and say hi to North American native coyote.
Besides the native animals in the Americas, you can admire the big and strong tiger and check out the furry wild pig.
All in all, visiting the zoo is a relaxing day activity that you shouldn’t skip.
3. Have dinner (or coffee) with a view
Xela is surrounded by volcanoes that all invite you to climb. If you don’t have the time or you’re looking for something gentler to start with, it’s a great idea to take a walk to the Restaurant and Mirador Panorama. Depending on how much time you have you can either keep walking or sit down enjoy your coffee and the view as we did. It’s better to choose a sunny day because the hilltop can get chilly.
4. Go shopping
If you arrive at Xela from the coast or from El Peten, you notice a dramatic drop in temperatures. In October the temperatures went down as low as 11 degrees, combine it with heavy rain, no sun and no heating in the houses and you’re likely to sit in Xela clattering your teeth all day long.
So it’s a good idea to bring jeans or long pants, spring jacket and sweater. If you’re terrified of cold, bring woollen socks. You’ll feel so much cosier during those chilly evenings.
Chances are you didn’t prepare for the low temperatures. In that case, fear not. There are plenty of second-hand shops where you can find everything you need. Our host family recommended stepping in Megapaca, a huge second-hand shop that they loved.
There’s also English bookshop, should you run out of reading material, and a mall with a cheap shop for office supplies and home stuff. Practically all the things you need if you plan to study in Xela or live there for a while. Downstairs is a large well-equipped supermarket with a selection so much better than in Dispensa Familiar.
5. Practice (cheap) yoga
If you look for a place to stretch your sore muscles, the good news is that the yoga is dirt cheap in Xela. And there seems to be no shortage of teachers and likeminded people. For example, during our stay in the hostel Casa Seibel, we saw a girl stretching in the courtyard in front of a computer, apparently giving a yoga lesson. How cool is that?
How cheap is cheap? Well, for a single class you pay $2.60 which is much lower than in more famous beach destinations in Central-America. Why isn’t Xela a yoga destination yet?
How does Xela taste?
Even though Guatemala has a rich coffee history and some of its higher lands have perfect conditions for coffee growing, it’s not likely a lady on the street stall offers you nice strong brew. Unfortunately, the more reasonably priced coffee that lands in your cup is pure Nescafe, which you very often have to scoop up by yourself from the bottom of the jar. A cup of decent coffee costs $2. Funnily enough, it is almost impossible to find local coffee in the shop.
But if you feel like treating yourself with a nice cup, Xela is an excellent place to do it. There are so many cute cafes everywhere you go. Useful tip: if you want to enjoy your coffee in the evening, be aware that there is no heating in cafes. Plus, they love to keep the door open, so dress warmly.
Taiwanese street food
A little bit tired of Guatemalan food? No worries, we got you covered. In Xela, one of our most amazing and crazy discoveries was the Taiwanese street food shop. A hole in a wall where greasy empanadas and sweet cakes were sizzling in grease and melted in our mouths. Bonus- it’s vegetarian and dirt cheap. Warning: you can get addicted.
I wouldn’t say that the buns and doughnuts in Xelapan are the best in the whole of Guatemala. We’d travelled quite a bit around this Quetzal-loving country to have found a bunch of decent bakeries in Nebaj and Barillas. But in Xela, it’s undoubtedly the bakery to go. A great idea is to buy a bunch of pastries to eat on the bus or during a day trip.
Get out of the town
6. Climb volcanoes
As much as you love city life, the majestic blue cones on the horizon will take your thoughts away at one point. You’ll find yourself wondering, what is out there? What’s the view like from the top of one of these giants?
The perfect triangle that looms over Xela is Santa-Maria, steep and therefore hard to climb. But it gives you amazing views of Xela and plentiful of other volcanoes. Among others, you can see an erupting Santiago. And as a cherry on top, you can witness Maya chanting and rituals on the summit. We didn’t do it since we had only two weeks in Xela, but Santa-Maria goes definitely on our to-do list for the next time.
Tajumulco is the highest peak in Central America. But that’s not the only reason why you should go up there. My favourite parts of this climb were the pink sunset on the top, the scenic way down and the massive lunch once we were back to the civilisation. We went with Quetzaltrekkers and were very happy with our experience.
7. Soak in the cold, hot springs and visit the carrot town
What is the sweetest thing to do after a long day of hiking in the mountains? Soak in hot water or have a beer like Tom would say. We decided to try out the hot springs called Fuentes Georginas next to Xela.
I have to say that it was not the most delightful experience. The big pool was cold and filled to the brim with people. After a couple of hours of shivering and trying to find out if there was some pool that was actually hot, we gave up and walked back to Zunil. Since it’s also quite expensive, I wouldn’t recommend this place. Better to do the hot baths in San Pedro de Atitlán.
The other option is to keep your eyes open during the bus trip and jump out a little bit before Zunil. The highway is lined with bathhouses which probably offer similar (or even better) service at lower prices. On the way home from the hot springs, we saw Maya ladies with wet hair coming on all the way. The whole bus smelled like shampoo and made me dream of going to their bathhouses as well.
But the trip to the hot springs was not a total failure. It’s nice to wander around nearby Zunil, check out its egg yellow church and two massive market buildings. Usually, markets here in Guatemala are crammed on the streets so that while you’re buying your coriander, you have to watch out not to get run over by a truck. But this little village had a proper market building with counters and rooftops. The reason for that is that from Zunil they transport vegetables to other places in Guatemala. Everywhere you could see bags of large carrots, cabbages, onions etc. In fact, the whole town smelled like onions.
When we walked down from Fuentes Georginas, we saw where all these greens came from. Every square meter of the mountains around Zunil seemed cultivated. Ladies in their purple traditional dresses and headpieces bent down to hoe. Men and their sons loaded carrots bigger than I have ever seen to trucks to drive to the market. Now I started to understand why people love to live close to volcanoes and what it means when my geography textbook says that volcanic soil is fertile.
8. Learn about weaving in Salcaja
When you walk on the streets of this little village near Xela, you see how workers have stretched out bright coloured threads on the grass to dry. Here they dye the yarns and weave pretty traditional cloth. During our school trip (which was just me, Tom and our teacher), we visited one of the weaving workshops. It was a dark room with looms. From the darkness emerged an older man who showed us how to weave. Nearby his daughter split the yarn the little grandchildren ran around, curious about the visiting gringos.
After some weaving, the old man took a big bunch of keys from his pocket, and we went to check out the oldest church in Guatemala. It’s almost 500 years old and has survived multiple earthquakes. It looks cute with many baroque details on its facade and the inside reminds a boat. Usually, it’s only open for special events and on holidays.
9. Descend into a volcanic lake
Laguna Chicabal is sacred to the Mam Maya. They visit the crater lake to pray, make flower donations and ask the gods for rain. Judging on the clouds and the fog we encountered, their prayers seem to be heard. Chicabal is quite an easy hike, even for people who have not been born with hiking boots on their feet. We visited from Xela, which is an easy day trip as long as your bus driver doesn’t try to compete with a sloth.