The Highlands: Places to Explore

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Quetzaltenango (Xelajú)

Guatemala's second-largest city might seem quite provincial if you've first visited the capital. But we'll take friendly, old Quetzaltenango any day. Historically, the city never entirely warmed to the idea of authority from far-away Guatemala City, and, in fact, was a hotbed of separatist sentiment during the 19th century. Those dreams have long faded, but you'll see Quetzaltenango's blue-white-red regional flag flying far more frequently here than the blue-white-blue national flag.

The first attraction of the place is the city itself. You won't find many must-see sights here, but Quetzaltenango's large student population gives it a cosmopolitan, politically astute, slightly bohemian feel, with a good selection of restaurants, cafés, and nightlife. It's no wonder that the city has become such a choice place to study Spanish.

The city anchors a valley guarded by the Volcán Santa María, with an economy based on agriculture. The rolling hills, enriched by fertile volcanic soil, are particularly good for growing coffee. The area attracts travelers who come here to purchase the intricate weavings from the surrounding villages. The first Sunday of each month is the main market day in Quetzaltenango itself, and the central square is filled with women selling their wares. Many days a week, towns in the Quetzaltenango orbit play host to their own markets, and are well worth their easy day trips.

Streets in Quetzaltenango vaguely follow the Guatemala City organizational model. The city is divided into 11 zones, although nearly everything you need is in Zona 1. Avenidas run north-south; calles, east-west. Outside the very heart of the city, hills interrupt the regular grid system, and many streets need to be designated as Diagonal.

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