Travel Tips: Atitlan to Quetzaltenango (Xela)

Whenever you travel in Central America, it’s sometimes good to prepare yourself for the worst, mostly because you just never know what you’re going to find.  Our trip from Lake Aititlan to Xela, however, turned out to be unexpectedly pleasant, but far the easiest travel experiences we had had thus far in Central America.  Instead of taking four different buses, this time, we only had to take one chicken bus, and a couple other small forms of transportations.  This was mainly because we timed our departure from Lake Atitlan to one of the few direct buses to Xela that runs each day. Find details below.

Officially on maps, our destination off Xela is listed as Quetzaltenango, but you will never hear a local call it that.  Instead, they’ll call it Xela (pronounced SHAY-la), the Mayan name meaning "under ten mountains".  I can hardly blame them, considering about half of Guatemalan cities bear the suffix -tenango, which simply means “place of”.  Many cities were renamed with this suffix when the Spanish invaded.  Xela became Quetzaltenango, “place of the quetzal birds”, when Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado killed Mayan ruler Tecun Uman.  But what with all the other tenangos of Guatemala (like Chris’ person favorite, Huehuetenango), it gets a little confusing, so Quetzaltenango is simply known by its rightful name of Xela.

Santa Cruz to Panajachel: Q10 each, 10 minutes

This time determined not to get ripped off, we took out an exact Q20 as we boarded an already full boat of people.  If anyone tried to get more out of me, they were going in the lake.  Maybe it was the lack of rain, or the fact that the boat was jam packed with people, but we didn’t try to get swindled this time.   Once you dock in Pana, walk to the bus station.  Of course, I mean the Guatemalan definition of a bus station, which is just the street.  From the dock, walk straight up the street and turn right at the first major street.  Follow that street to the end then turn left.  You’ll follow that street into the main hub of Pana, and you’re looking for the main street, or calle principale, if you just want to ask directions from a local.

Once in the center, Pana can be a little confusing.  There are a lot of outdoor shops and markets lining the streets and naturally, every single vendor needs to be yelling something so it becomes difficult to hear your own thoughts.  Walk straight down the main street, past all the vendors and shops, until the street ends.  Turn left and you’ll see a roofed bus stop.  That’s where the Xela bus stops, but you’ll likely hear someone yelling “Xela, Xela, Xela!” at the top of his lungs every five seconds.  You can’t miss it.

Panajachel to Xela: Q20 each, 2.5-3 hours

Direct buses to Xela leave once early in the morning and once at 1pm.  If you miss those direct buses, you’ll need to take a bus back to Los Encuentros and change there.  Since we couldn’t find any decisive resource that told us when the direct buses left, we showed up in Pana a little before noon.  Once we got on the authority of several locals (ALWAYS ask twice to avoid misinformation or deception) that the direct bus would leave at 1pm, we stopped in a restaurant to grab some lunch while we waited.  Pana had plenty of options close to the stop.  

Try to get to the stop a little early so that you can be one of the first people in the bus.  Chicken buses fill up fast, so if you don’t want to find yourself crammed into a non-seat straddling the aisle, don’t be afraid to get a little pushy getting on the bus.

Xela bus stop to Parque Central: Q1.50 each, 15 minutes

Once you arrive in Xela, the bus will let you off somewhere in Zone 1.  Chances are, you’ll want to end up in Zone 3, which is where the central park and most of the hostels are located.  At first, getting kicked off the bus in an entirely different area of Xela than the one you want can be overwhelming.  I got really frustrated as we frantically paced the street asking for walking directions to the central park, which no one seemed to be able to give us.  “You have to take a bus,” was the answer we continually got.  Take a second to calm down, like I did.  Even though Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala, behind Guatemala City, it is one of the safest areas in the entire country.  You can at least take comfort in that as you try to find a bus.

The buses these people speak of are city microbuses, or busitos, which look more like vans than anything.  It’s nearly impossible to tell which van is going where just by seeing them driving down the road, so your best bet to find the van you’re looking for is to just ask the locals.  “Donde esta los buses a parque central?”  They can point you in the direct of the stop.

The fare is dirt cheap, only Q1.50 per person, though they may try to charge you extra for bags.  Since Nellie is about the size of a person, he charged an extra seat worth for her, but given that meant I had to pay an extra $0.20, I didn’t really care.  The bus ride is short and will take you right to the central park.  From there, you should be able your hostel easily enough.  Be careful walking on all the side streets sprawling out from the park.  They are just narrow enough for about one car, so be mindful of your surroundings.