North America > Central America > Guatemala > Western Highlands (Guatemala)
The Western Highlands are a lush and beautiful mountainous region in Guatemala, stretching from the outskirts of Antigua to the Mexican border. The region is defined by two main features: the Sierra Madre, a mountain range of volcanoes on its south side, and the tall mountain ranges that form the northern side. The greatest of these are the Cuchumatanes mountains where the Ixil Triangle is located.
- 1 Lake Atitlán - beautiful volcanic lake surrounded by several quaint Mayan villages, each with a distinct personality.
- 1 Chichicastenango — known for its colorful markets held every Thursday and Sunday
- 2 Huehuetenango — last major town before or from the Mexican border
- 3 Panajachel — Lake Atitlan's most visited town
- 4 Quetzaltenango — Guatemala's western center makes an excellent base for studying Spanish
Towns & villages
- 5 Almolonga —
- 6 Cantel — a K'iche' village with a glass-blowing factory open to tourists, and a couple of small archaeological sites.
- 7 San Andrés Xecul — a small K'iche' village with a colourful church
- 8 San Gaspar Chajul —
- 9 San Juan Cotzal —
- 10 San Rafael Pie de la Cuesta — a coffee-producing town in the foothills
- 11 Santa Maria Nebaj —
- 12 Solola — the capital of the state of Solola has a market that attracts shoppers and vendors from throughout the state
- 13 Sacapulas —
- 14 Salcajá —
- 15 Todos Santos Cuchumatán —
- 16 Uspantan —
- 17 Zunil —
- For hikers, there are decent walking and climbing routes in the western highlands, including volcanoes of various difficulty, ranging from the Chicabal crater lake, which can be reached on an easy day trip from Quetzaltenango, to Tajumulco, requiring several days.
- There are archaeological remains across the highlands.
The landscape of the highland is controlled by many factors but perhaps the most important is its altitude. At lower altitude, the plants are almost tropical with coffee, cotton bananas and cacao while at higher up the hills are often wrapped in clouds and the ground is sometimes covered with frost. There, corn and potatoes are grown as main crops.
Expect English only in the more touristy destinations, such as Panajachel or Chichicastenango. Spanish is the language of choice in all the major towns. The Western Highlands have a majority Maya population, and each region has its own distinct language. If you are heading into the real backwaters, the locals will speak Spanish as a second language, if at all. In remote towns, the only Spanish speakers may be doctors or lawyers.
Buses from Guatemala City travel to all the major towns in the Western Highlands, notably Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango and San Marcos. IF travelling from Antigua, change at Chimaltenango for onward buses. The main way in from Mexico is via La Mesilla, with connections from San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, usually ending up in Huehuetenango.
There will be a constant flow of buses along the Interamericana Highway. Some of them will be branching off onto minor roads to more remote areas. Going through these roads can be a exhausting experience, particularly in northern Huehuetenango and Quiche regions but scenery makes it well worth the travel. The most recommended plan is to base yourself in one of the larger city or village and then make a series of day-trips to those more remote areas.
Spending time in the western highlands means you'll have lots of choices with spectacular verdant scenery yielding up atmospheric highland villages of adobe houses and whitewashed colonial churches at every turn. On top of the colorful market towns and astonishing landscapes for which the regions is known for, there are a few restored archaeological sites such as the pre-conquest cities of Q'umarkaj (Utatlán), and Zaculeu. For the adventurous, there are also a great many unrestored sites largely forgotten in the mountains.
- If coming from Mexico via La Mesilla, stop off at Huehuetenango and visit the nearby Maya ruins at Zaculeu, and perhaps one of the Cuchumatanes towns such as Todos Santos Cuchumatán if you have time. From there to Quetzaltenango, surrounded by interesting villages, and perhaps climb the Santa María volcano. From Quetzaltenango to Chichicastenango and to Lake Atitlán, and onwards to the Central Highlands around Antigua Guatemala.
- If coming from Antigua Guatemala or Guatemala City, stop by the Maya ruins of Iximche near Tecpán Guatemala, then onwards to Lake Atitlán, from there to Chichicastenango, and then onward to Quetzaltenango. From Quetzaltenango, you can either head for Huehuetenango, or head onwards to Retalhuleu in the Pacific Lowlands, or San Marcos to climb the Tajumulco volcano, the highest in Central America.
The numerous Spanish language schools, volunteer opportunies, and opportunities for laziness which the Western Highlands offer are described in the individual articles of the region's cities.
- Climb a volcano, such as Santa María near Quatzaltenango, or Tajumulco near San Marcos
Beware of eating unwashed vegetables, and particularly avoid eating lettuce, which is a notorious source of amoeba infection - even the locals avoid eating lettuce served in restaurants.
- Atol de elote, available in markets, a delicious hot maize drink.
It's sad but as you might have expected, crime against tourist including armed robbery and rape is not common in the Atitlán area but it does happen. There have been isolated incidents reported in Panajachel late at night and if you are planning to hike the volcano nearby, check with the tourist office first for the latest security information. Quetzaltenango is a major city, so be aware of your surroundings and take especial care after dark.
Bear in mind the altitude, especially if you have just flown in from sea level. Even rushing around the city streets in Quetzaltenango can soon exhaust you if you are not acclimatised. Ideally, allow yourself a couple of weeks acclimatisation in the highlands before taking on a volcano.