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Sometimes Dumpy Towns Lead to Great Adventures

Chicabal crater lake

Quetzaltenango, in Guatemala, has a name that seems ready for tales of exotic travels and interesting experiences. I didn’t have any pre-set expectations before I got there, but I did expect it to at least be a place worth hanging around for a few days.

Well…not really.

As I’ve found in so many places round the world that are jumping off spots to adventure activities, calling Guatemala’s second largest city “not very attractive” is being charitable.

Xela, as it’s more commonly known, is often described by the Guatemalans who don’t live there as grimy, run-down, and messy. There’s a historic center, yes, but it’s small and has a strange mixed bag of building styles. If something collapsed after an earthquake (not uncommon here), something contemporary and purely functional went in its place. Sometimes it fit in, usually it didn’t. The church in the main square has a historic facade, but it’s like a movie set piece just for show: it’s not even connected the real church behind it. I took six photos total in the center and this is the best one I managed:

Xel-ha Guatemala

The reason you go there has little to do with any of that though. You use this city as a home base to explore the region around Xela. You do some serious hikes up serious volcanoes. Or you go hiking to that crater lake pictured at the top of this post.

Or you go biking through the countryside and end up at the oldest church in Central America:

oldest church central america

Perhaps you drive through an area filled with small little farms all growing different crops and end up at these fabulous hot springs, Las Fuentes Georginas:

Georginas Fountains Hot Springs

Adventure Towns are Just the Base

This situation in Guatemala is not uncommon. Have you ever been to La Fortuna in Costa Rica? It’s a mess. But you have Arenal Volcano in the background and you get to pick from dozens of fun activities like this:

adventure travel

Have you heard of Uyuni, in Bolivia? It’s a dump with a capital D, but it’s where you need to go if you’re going to the famous salt flat.

Uyuni Salt Flat

Ciudad Valles in San Luis Potosi state of Mexico is not a place you would stop in normally, but from there you can do all kinds of crazy adventure activities.

This is not just true for the Americas. Even the worst hack travel writer is not going to call Krabi’s Ao Nang in Thailand “charming.” Nor most of the places you’d do a volcano hike from in Indonesia.

In Africa, the jumping-off places are seldom where you want to stick around for long. Like the capital of Botswana, Gabarone. You usually have to fly into there though to get to somewhere like this:

African safariSo hey, suck it up and understand that where you’ll be spending the night before and after your great adventure may not be the highlight of your trip. But here’s what I’ve found in my couple of decades of travel: the towns and cities that are bases for adventure tours usually have plenty of beer. And at least a few good places to eat.

Find info for Xela (Quetzaltenango) on the Guatamala Tourism site or the website of the local English magazine XelaWho.



Friday 8th of February 2019

Great information about adventure trip thanks for sharing this Information with us


Tuesday 7th of July 2015

Nice Information about awesome pics. I always like adventure trip.


Monday 1st of June 2015

I lived in Xela for 4 months studying Spanish previously and have recently moved back on a permanent basis. Didn't realize we were a dump. ;) I'll taking living here over Antigua or the lake any day. Different strokes... guess that's why we travel, one person's trash is another person's unforgettable experience.


Thursday 19th of February 2015

Sometimes you get a nice surprise though. San Pedro Atacama is pretty cool. And Cafayate in Argentina. Great spots for nearby adventures.


Wednesday 18th of February 2015

It's best to go to Xela before you've been anywhere else in Guatemala. Every other place will look great in comparison. Even the capital. If you go there after Antigua or Lake Atitlan it'll seem shockingly ugly.