Guatemala’s western highland region is the place to discover ‘living Maya culture’, and Quetzaltenango is geographically positioned at its center.
The area around modern-day Quetzaltenango was originally the homeland of the Mam Maya people, who ruled their kingdom of Kulaha from the site. However, the Maya in general were warring people and in the 14th century, the powerful Quiche Maya expanded their territory into the land of the Mam Maya, resulting in much conflict. The Quiche conquered the Maya and built a new city called Xelaju, at the foot of the Santa Maria Volcano.
Quetzaltenango remained the city’s name throughout the Spanish colonial era, although the indigenous Quiche locals who made up the majority of the population continued to call it Xela. Many Quiche still proudly consider Xela to be the capital of the Mayas, as their group was one of the most powerful kingdoms among the Maya.
The geographic location of the city ensured that, in history, Quetzaltenango was always central to the regional activities of the day. As it lies at the intersection of ancient roads between Mexico, Guatemala City and the Pacific Slope, there has always been a steady flow of trade and travel through the area.
Guatemala’s second city is prosperous and modern, yet its population is still made up mainly of indigenous Quiche Maya people. This gives the city, known for its coffee and agriculture, a lively indigenous atmosphere with Spanish colonial undertones.
The city of Quetzaltenango is a rising tourist attraction in its own; part of its attractive lays on its ordinariness, which in many ways that´s its beauty. A resolutely Guatemalan highland center, off the main tourist trail but with a hospitality and friendliness that belies its size. It certainly makes an excellent base for exploring this part of the country, making day-trips to markets and fiestas, basking in hot springs like Fuentes Georginas, or hiking in the mountains. The Xela plain and surrounding hills feature numerous smaller towns and villages, mostly indigenous agricultural communities and weaving centers. On market and fiesta days these villages explode into life. The impression of what makes Quetzaltenango distinct differs from highland destinations heralded for their unique displays of Maya cultural identity and heritage. The city is framed as a regional center that functions as a convenient nexus for arranging trips to observe authentic indigenous life elsewhere. Day trips to rural villages are excellent opportunities for tourists to have a close contact with the Maya culture. Maya women wearing traditional clothing, subsistence farmers, colorful handicrafts and indigenous spiritual practices are central to a highland aesthetic that caters to tourist sensibilities and desires.
Today, Quetzaltenango continues to bask in solid economic growth from its coffee industry, along with a newfound interest in the city as a tourist destination, thanks to its rich Quiche Maya atmosphere mixed with touches of Spanis