High in the central highlands of Guatemala is a city with two names and a fascinating history marked by war and volcanic eruptions: Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela City.
Officially named Quetzaltenango and one of the largest cities in Guatemala, it is known unofficially Xela and as the capital of the Mayas, and that split identity makes it an intriguing place to live in or visit.
Xela City or Quetzaltenango? A tale of two names
The city’s double name stems from the 1500s, when it was a Mayan settlement known as Xelaju. Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado captured the city and renamed it Quetzaltenango, which was the name used for the site by his Tlaxcaltecas allies from central Mexico.
Local people often refer to the city as Xela, and the city is widely known by both names, so you won’t have a problem being understood using either name.
The city has occupied an important place in Guatemalan history and culture, and its seven universities making it a popular destination for local students and international students learning Spanish.
How to get to Xela City / Quetzaltenango
Most people travel to Xela by bus, although the small local airport does handle a few thousand passengers each year.
The bus services between Guatemala City and Xela are typical for the country, as you can either pick up one of the famous “chicken buses” or use the more comfortable, scheduled services.
War and coffee mark Xela’s early history
Xela was part of the Guatemalan state which was one of five states within the Federal Republic of Central America created as part of the bloodless independence movement from Spain in 1821.
But in 1838 the province of Los Altos won its own recognition as the republic’s sixth state, with Xela City as its capital. That did not last long, as Civil War broke up the young nation and those six states became the five new countries of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, with Los Altos re-incorporated into Guatemala.
Although robbed of their independence, Los Altos and Xela City soon boomed with the growth of the commercial cultivation of coffee in the late 1800s, and the city’s examples of Belle Époque architecture date from this period.
In the shadow of Santa Maria Volcano
One of Xela City’s most imposing attractions is Santa Maria Volcano, just a few miles to the south, but it is an attraction with a deadly history.
The volcano erupted in 1902, dropping rocks and ash on Xela and other settlements, killing an estimated 6,000 people. The Santa Maria eruption is considered the fourth most powerful and destructive of all time.
The volcano erupted again, less dramatically, in 1903 and 1922, and a portion on its western flank, known as Santiaguito, is still extremely active. If you’re feeling brave and energetic you can tackle a hike to its summit.
If you’re into hiking up mountains, Xela is also a good base from which to tackle Central America’s tallest peak: Volcan Tajumulco. You can organise treks up this 4,220m monster from Xela City.
Guatemala’s only electric railway
Xela City is home to a small museum dedicated to the intriguing Ferrocarril de Los Altos railway project, which was supposed to connect the city to a network reaching across Central America.
The 45km route connected San Felipe to Xela City, included a 300m tunnel, seven bridges and cost around $US8 million to build, but lasted just three years as it was effectively destroyed in 1933 by a combination of flooding, economic unfeasibility and political opposition.
The only remaining traces of this remarkable project are the museum and the commemorative marimba music created for its.
Xela has produced many famous Guatemalans
For a city of less than 200,000 people, Xela City has produced a remarkable number of prominent figures from Guatemalan history.
Two of them, Rolando Moran and President Jacobo Arbenz, played key roles in the Guatemalan Civil War. Arbenz was deposed in 1954, prompting Moran to begin fighting against the new right-wing government. Moran would go on to help create the Guerrilla Army of the Poor in 1972, but later won a UNESCO peace prize for his role in the peace process which ended the war in 1996.
President Arbenz was following in the footsteps of two other Xela-born presidents, Manuel Barillas and Manuel Cabrera.
Other notable locals include poet Otto Renee Cabrillo, pioneering physician Rodolfo Robles and sculptor Efrain Recinos.
Get your feet up at Las Fuentes Georginas
As well as hiking and enjoying the architectural and historical quirks, visitors to Xela City can get their feet up and enjoy Las Fuentes Georginas, a set of three hot springs of varying temperatures
This lovely spot is popular with tourists but you need to head a little way out of the city to the town of Zunil, and it’s well worth the trip.
Whether you call it Xela City or Quetzaltenango, this is a city well worth a visit to enjoy its culture and natural beauty. From hiking up nearby volcanoes to poking around its historic sites, you can find something to engage you in the capital of the Mayas.
About Jürg Widmer Probst
Jürg Widmer is a busy blogger and resident of Guatemala who often shares all things about Guatemala, from the country’s hidden gems, article and culture to the best place for food and drink.