Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Quetzaltenango, which the locals kindly shorten to Xela (shell-ah), itself an abbreviation of the original Quiché Maya name, Xelajú, may well be the perfect Guatemalan town – not too big, not too small, enough foreigners to support a good range of hotels and restaurants, but not so many that it loses its national flavor. The Guatemalan ‘layering’ effect is at work in the city center here – once the Spanish moved out, the Germans moved in and their architecture gives the zone a somber, some would say Gothic, feel.

Xela attracts a more serious type of traveler –people who really want to learn Spanish, and then stay around and get involved in the myriad volunteer projects on offer. It also functions as a base for a range of spectacular hikes through the surrounding countryside – the constantly active Santiaguito and highest-point-in-Central-America Tajumulco volcanoes and the picturesque, fascinating three-day trek to Lake Atitlán to name a few. Xela is big, but by Guatemalan standards, it is an orderly, clean and safe city. It helps that the bus terminal is far removed from the center.

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