The Xela area offers some of the country’s most evocative highland scenery, with volcanic cones soaring above forested ridges, and a number of fascinating indigenous villages to explore. Straddling the coast road south of the city are Almolonga and Zunil, where you’ll find superb hot springs, including Fuentes Georginas, a stunning natural spa. Just west of here the Santa María volcano, towering above Quetzaltenango, is a terrific if exhausting excursion. The most accessible climb in the area lies southwest of the city, up Volcán Chicabal to an exquisite crater lake set in the extinct volcano’s cone.
North of the city, the traditional Maya town of Olintepeque is renowned for its shrine devoted to the pagan saint of San Pascual. A little further distant are Totonicapán, a departmental capital, and the famous market town of San Francisco el Alto, perched on a rocky outcrop. Beyond here, in the midst of a pine forest, lies Momostenango, the country’s principal wool-producing centre.
In the hills above Zunil, reached via a steep road which switchbacks through magnificent volcanic scenery, Fuentes Georginas is a spectacular natural spring spa situated on the evergreen slopes of Volcán Pico Zunil. The pools here are surrounded by fresh green ferns, thick moss and lush forest, and to top it all there’s a restaurant with a well-stocked bar. It’s a blissful place to spend a few hours soaking away the chicken bus blues or recovering from a volcano climb in the heavenly steaming pools. Unfortunately the eco-vibe is spoiled by cheesy piped music. Fuentes Georginas has barbecue and picnic areas.
Due south of Quetzaltenango, the perfect cone of Volcán Santa María rises to a height of 3772m, towering over most of the Xela valley. It’s possible to climb the volcano as a day-trip, but to really see it at its best you need to be on top at dawn, either sleeping on the freezing summit, or camping at a site part of the way up and climbing the final section in the dark by torchlight. Full moon trips are also an option.
The volcano’s highest point is marked by an altar where the Maya burn copal and sacrifice animals, and on a clear day the view will take your breath away – as will the cold if you get here in time to watch the sun rise. In the early mornings the Quetzaltenango valley is blanketed in a layer of cloud, and while it’s still dark the lights of the city create a patch of orange glow; as the sun rises, its first rays eat into the cloud, revealing the land beneath.
Below, to the south, is the angry, lava-scarred cone of Santiaguito, which has been in constant eruption since 1902. Every now and then it spouts a great grey cloud of rock and dust hundreds of metres into the air. To the west, across a chaos of twisting hills, are the cones of Tajumulco and Tacaná, marking the Mexican border. But most impressive is the view to the east. Wrapped in the early morning haze, four more volcanic cones can be seen, two above Lago de Atitlán and two more above Antigua – one of which, highly active Fuego, often emits a puff of smoke.
It’s highly advisable to climb Santa María with one of the Quetzaltenango tour operators who will organize transport, food and water for the trip. You should also be acclimatized to the altitude before attempting the hike.