Often used as a stopoff on the journey to or from Mexico, or as a staging area for forays deeper into the Cuchumatanes mountain range, Huehuetenango offers few charms of its own, though some may appreciate its welcoming if scruffy character. Fortunately, 'Huehue' (way-way) packs in plenty of eating and sleeping options along with some striking mountain scenery.
The beautiful volcanic country around Xela offers up numerous exciting day trips. For many, the volcanoes themselves pose irresistible challenges. You can feast your eyes and soul on the wild church at San Andrés Xecul, hike to the ceremonial shores of Laguna Chicabal, or soak in the idyllic hot springs at Fuentes Georginas.
Todos Santos Cuchumatán
Way up in the highlands, the community of Todos Santos is nestled at the bottom of a deep valley and bordered by forested slopes. After a 1½-hour climb up from Huehuetenango, the bus leaves the Huehue–Soloma highway to follow a narrow paved road alongside precipitous cliffs, pulling into town about an hour later.
San Miguel Totonicapán is known for its artisans. Shoemakers, weavers, tinsmiths, potters, leather workers and carpenters all make and sell their goods here. Market days are Tuesday and Saturday; it's a locals' market, not a tourist affair, and it winds down by late morning. The ride from Cuatro Caminos is along a pine-studded valley.
Beyond San Francisco El Alto, 26km from Quetzaltenango, this town, set in a pretty mountain valley along a road through pine woods, is famous for the making of chamarras, or thick woollen blankets, as well as ponchos and other woolen garments. The best days to look for these are Wednesday and Sunday, the main market days.
A superb natural spa in a spectacular setting, Fuentes Georginas is an 8km drive uphill from Zunil. It's named after the wife of 'benevolent dictator' Jorge Ubico, who customarily comandeered the installations on weekends for his personal use. Four pools of varying temperatures are fed by hot sulfur springs and framed by a steep, high wall of tropical vines, ferns and flowers.
Yalambojoch & Laguna Brava
In a lower-lying, more lushly vegetated zone between the Cuchumatanes and the Mexican border, the northwest corner of Huehuetenango department has a distinctive culture where the Awakateco language is spoken. About 20km east of the border post at Gracias a Dios is the hamlet of Yalambojoch.
Soloma & Around
North of the Todos Santos turnoff, the paved road winds up between often mist-shrouded cliffs and a precipitous gorge. Out of the mists emerge a pair of massive fingers of granite, known as the Piedras de Captzín. Soon after, you arrive in San Juan Ixcoy, where the women wear traditional white huipiles embroidered at the collar and hanging almost to their ankles.
As you speed downhill toward Zunil from Quetzaltenango, you'll see this pretty market town spreading across a lush valley framed by steep hills and dominated by a towering volcano, its white colonial church gleaming above the red-tiled roofs of the low houses. A road on the left bridges a river and, 1km further, reaches Zunil's plaza.
San Andrés Xecul
A few kilometers past Salcajá, the road from Quetzaltenango passes the Morería crossroads, where a branch heads west to San Andrés Xecul. After about 3km on this uphill spur, you'll start seeing rainbow cascades of hand-dyed thread drying on the roofs and you'll know you have arrived in San Andrés Xecul.
High in the Sierra Cuchumatanes (3400m) amid a rocky plateau dotted with maguey plants and sheep, Chiabal, 17km east of Todos Santos, welcomes visitors looking to experience rural life in a tiny Mam community. The villagers provide simple accommodations and prepare hearty local fare. A community-built 2.
With an early start from Huehuetenango you should have no trouble getting through this border point and onward to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. From the bus terminal, it's a hike of about 1km to the Guatemalan immigration post. Mexican immigration is at Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, 4km west of the border; taxis charge 10 Mexican pesos for the ride.