When I first interviewed for a teaching job in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, my first question is "Where is that, anyway?" As someone who had never considered moving to Central America, I probably could not have put Guatemala on a map, never mind its second largest city.
Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela (pronounced shay-la) is a mid-sized city located in the mountains of western Guatemala. It is a hub of Mayan culture, and a popular place to study the Spanish language. Since moving to Xela a few months ago, here are a few things I've learned.
1. How do I get there?
The best way to fly into Guatemala is through Guatemala City (also known as Guate to locals). From Guate, you can take a charter bus to Xela. I took an Alamo bus, which takes about four hours and will cost you about $10 USD. You can also take a Chicken Bus (a re-purposed school bus that is the standard mode of transportation in Central America), but it will lack certain advantages such as having your own seat and not risking your life. If you take a taxi from the airport to the bus terminal, negotiate the price beforehand. A fair price would be between 30 and 50 Quetzales (around $5 - $8).
2. Why would I go there?
I've met a lot of travelers who are in Xela for various reasons, but first of all, living and traveling in Guatemala is inexpensive. I have a friend who works remotely for an internet company who is choosing to live in Guatemala because the cost of living allows him to support himself working for just a few hours a day. You can find accommodations for around $100 USD/month, and your food costs will depend on how good you are at haggling at the market. There are many reputable Spanish schools in Xela where you can learn Spanish in a full-immersion setting. It's also beautiful! There are so many great hikes and tourist destinations within a few hours of Xela.
3. Where else can I go in Guatemala?
If I could recommend one other destination in Guatemala, I would recommend Lake Atítlan. Surrounded by mountains, the lake is one of the most scenic destinations in Central America, and it is only a two-hour trip from Xela by Chicken Bus. It's a must-see for anyone visiting Guatemala for any period of time. Panajachel is the main hub on the lake, and its street markets and hotels make it a tourist destination. For a less touristy crowd, I would recommend checking out San Pedro or San Marcos, which are favorite destinations for backpackers and young travelers.
After spending a few months in a city I had never heard of before, it's amazing how much you can learn and experience taking the road less traveled.
What are some underrated travel destinations that have surprised you?