This is a southwest department. Famous because it has the oldest colonial buildings in the country since it was here were the Spanish Conquistadors first settled.
It is notable given its geographic variety which includes numerous volcanoes, thermal water beds, valleys, mountains and rivers, which allows several crops to be planted here, such as coffee, wheat, fruits and vegetables, as well as breeding of livestock.
This department has an overall area of 1951 sq. kilometers (1219 sq. mi.), with a cool climate on the highlands and warm on the coastal area. The languages and tongues spoken are Spanish, Quiché and Mam.
During the pre-Hispanic period, Quetzaltenango was a Quiché center called “Xelajú”, meaning “Under the Ten Hills”. Quetzaltenango is a Nahuatl-origin word that means “Place of Quetzal birds”. Accounts of the time of the Conquest tell that the conqueror of Guatemala informed that when the Quiché prince Tecún Umán died, he was wearing an emerald-green suit made of quetzal feathers, for which the newly founded Spanish city was named Quetzaltenango.
This city played an important role during the independence movement. In 1822, the political leaders of the time swore their loyalty to the Mexican emperor Iturbide. In 1838, Quetzaltenango became part of the Sate of Los Altos (the “Highlands”), as sixth member of the Central American Federation.
By the end of the XVIII Century, the coffee plantations became relevant and the department (or state) prospered. In 1902, the Santa María volcano erupted, and the earthquakes produced partially destroyed the city of Quetzaltenango. Nevertheless, some neo-classical buildings still remain.
City of Quetzaltenango
It is currently considered as the second most important city of Guatemala, due to its size, industrial, cultural, and commercial activity. It has preserved its colonial architecture.
Several neo-classical buildings can be seen, among which those are located around the Centroamérica Park, considered the heart of the city. East of the plaza lies the Espíritu Santo (Holly Spirit) Cathedral with its two facades. The first one, first constructed in 1535, is very ornamented, and the latter, of neo-classical style, forms part of a structure made of several domes which dates back to 1899.
On the south end of the park is another building with such characteristics, called La Casa de la Cultura, where the Natural History Museum is housed, and which contains a collection of pre-Hispanic pieces and historical memorabilia. This is also the site of the Information Office of the Guatemalan Tourism Board, or INGUAT. The Municipal Theater is locate at 1st street, between 14th and 14th A Avenues, and is decorated with several busts of local scholars.
Colorful inclined stone-covered streets that rise and fall, red-roofed houses, parks and churches, and mansions built by the rich local coffee growers are part of the urban landscape of the city. On the outskirts of the city is located the Cerro el Baul, from where one can get a magnificent view of the city and the surrounding mountains.
Xelajú, as this city is known, has an altitude of 2,333 meters (4374 ft) a.s.l., and has a cold and humid climate.
The most important celebration that takes place at the city is the city fair, which runs from September 12th to the 18th, with the famous Central American Floral Parade.
“Xela” is located 206 kilometers (128 miles) from Guatemala City, and is reached by taking the Pan-American E Highway, or 234 kilometers vía the international Pacific highway.
Quetzaltenango’s surroundings include several villages and tourist sites, of Quiché and Mam origin, and that have several small plazas with amazing colonial-style churches, where the tourist can appreciate the agricultural and handicraft richness of the region on market days. For this reason, it is recommended that this city be used as an operations center.
Places to visit in Quetzaltenango:
Located 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) from Quetzaltenango City. It is a very ancient village, where the San Jacinto church was built, which was the first religious building of the Kingdom’s Captaincy General. It is a beautiful example of colonial architecture. It is also famous for its jaspe textiles, its liquor (called “caldo de frutas” or “fruit soup”) and its delicious “rompope”. Market days are on Tuesdays, and its celebration day is on August 23.
San Juan Ostuncalco
Located 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the City of Quetzaltenango, it is placed on a beautiful valley and within a prosperous region, rich in crops and fruit orchards. The Lacandón and Siete Orejas volcanoes surround the town. Its inhabitants build woven-cane and wicker furniture, weaving the fibers as mere thread. Musical instruments and beautiful regional textiles can also be found here. Market days are on Sundays.
Located 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Quetzaltenango, it’s a fertile-land valley, known for its vegetables and fruits cultivated on small parcels.
Nearby are the thermal waterbeds of Aguas Amargas and El Rosario, where you’ll be able to dive into sulphurous waters. Market days are on Sundays, and its local fair is celebrated on August 15th.
Located 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) from Xelajú, it lies next to the river banks of the Salamá River. Its features include adobe houses broken-slate-roofs, whose sizes contrast the surrounding mountains and the Santa María volcano. Its inhabitants wear really colorful textiles, made using pre-Hispanic techniques, with rich colors and designs that portray objects from the surrounding areas.
Vegetables, corn, beans and wheat are cultivated on the river banks. The whole valley is covered with huge volcanic stones.
At the central park you’ll find the colonial church, famous for the carvings on its façade and the silver cross on the altar. This is one of the few villages where Maximón (or San Simón) represented as a figurine with doll-like head, is worshipped with Pom and ceremonies. Market days are on Sundays and its main fair is celebrated on November 25th.
These thermal-water baths with healing properties are located very near Almolonga; its waters flow from the furnaces of the Cerro Quemado volcano.
These baths were built during the presidential period of General Jorge Ubico, reason for which it received that name, on his honor. Other thermal fountains to be visited are Los Vahos and Aguas Amargas.
San Martín Sacatepéquez (SAN MARÍN CHILE VERDE)
Of Mam origin, it is located north of the Chicabal volcano. Its inhabitants during the Santa María volcano eruption in 1902 abandoned the village. Later, people came back and it is nowadays one of the western highlands most interesting communities. Women are excellent weavers, who embroider geometric figures depicting pre-Hispanic and modern designs that end up decorating their huipiles (or typical blouses).
Located on the San Martín Sacatepéquez area. It rises 2900 meters (9560 ft). One of the main highlights of this volcano is a lagoon that the locals consider sacred. Throughout the month of May, they go up to the lagoon and perform their Mayan rituals. Camping or swimming is not recommended, given the religious importance the lagoon has for the local Indians.
It is an active volcano. The crater can be reached by car or by bus up to the El Pinal plains; the remainder of the way up has to be done by foot. There are other four volcanoes: Santa María, Cerro Quemado, Lacandón and Siete orejas.