With a population 55% indigenous and 45% mestizos, the city is an example of how traditionally impoverished indigenous people have obtained economic and political power in Guatemala running small and big businesses. In 1986, Xelajú elected its first indigenous mayor in 150 years.

The Quiche eventually conquered the region and displaced the Mam inhabitants. The new rulers formed the city of Xelaju at the base of the volcano, Santa Maria. The name Quetzaltenango, which means the place of the quetzal bird, was introduced by Spanish invaders who conquered the area under the leadership of Pedro de Alvarado.
The Quiche natives are still the major indigenous population within Quetzaltenango. They make up approximately fifty-five percent of the city's population.
The town's oldest area, around the central plaza or Parque Centro America, features narrow, cobblestone streets and graceful architecture. A number of cafes, pubs restaurants and discos are found near the lovely Municipal Theater, recently restored and offering a wide variety of cultural performances.
Quetzaltenango is a convenient base from which to explore nearby towns and natural areas. Zunil a half-hour's drive away is a Maya-Quiche, village where the local cult of San Simon is practiced. The Fuentes Georginas hot spring near Zunil offers rustic cabins for overnight stays, hiking, bird watching and bathing in natural springs of hot water. At Salcaja, just outside Xela, stands the first church built by the Spaniards in Guatemala.

Quetzaltenango, commonly called Xela or Xelaju by the native people, is a beautiful gem of a city, nestled between three massive volcanoes and brimming over with a rich history and culture. It possesses a distinct Colonial influence, much of it dating back to the time it was first settled by the Conquistadors. Today is serves as the commercial center of southwest Guatemala and is the second largest city in the entire country. It is also the cultural center of the Quiche Mayan people, and their impact on the local industry and flavor can be felt from the moment you arrive. It's an ideal place to relax during your vacation, especially in the summer months. At an elevation of roughly 8,000 feet, or 2,333 meters, it's easy to unwind with the warm days, cool nights and the delightful absence of any pesky mosquitoes. It also doesn't hurt that there are plenty of amazing sites to be seen, wholly unique to this area.
Within a few kilometers of the city there are several Mayan towns which are Famous for their busy markets and colorful traditional costumes and woven goods.

Mayan Villages

In the land of Quetzaltenango, a great many of the local people are Mayan. And many of them live in nearby villages that have still preserved their history, culture and beauty. There are two local villages that all Quetzaltenango visitors should visit: the Mayan village of Zunil and the Mayan village of Almolonga.


Zunil is a small agricultural village which is the home of an exquisite Catholic church. If you're planning to visit Zunil, try to schedule your visit on a Monday, when the market is open. Then you can browse through stalls of deliciously fresh local produce, and probably pick up some wonderful Mayan handicrafts to take home with you. There's another little secret of Zunil - previous visitors (a great many of them) recommend looking up a local villager by the name of San Simon. You'll have to ask around to locate him once you get there, but the wonderful afternoon of conversation you can enjoy over cocktails and cigarettes (...if you smoke) is well worth the trouble of looking for him.


The other village is Almolonga, and is about a twenty minute bus ride away. Almolonga primarily serves the community as an agricultural village. It has often been referred to as the Garden of the Americas and its fields are growing something all year long. You can sample some of the local produce on Market Days, which fall on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In addition to their amazing produce, Almolonga also has another wonderful treasure to offer - medicinal sulfur baths.


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