A Guatemalan Take On Disney World
The twin theme parks of Xocomil and Xetulul sprouted seemingly out of nowhere just a few years ago on the outskirts of Retalhuleu along the road to Quetzaltenango. The first of these, Xocomil, opened its doors in 1997, with Xetulul being added in 2002. Both parks are operated by IRTRA, the Institute for the Recreation of Guatemalan Private Industry Workers, a private entity created by the Guatemalan Congress. It operates three other parks near Guatemala City.
Xocomil and Xetulul opened to much fanfare and are beloved by Guatemalans and foreigners alike for the quality of the parks’ attractions, their cleanliness, and the friendliness of the staff. By any standard, the parks are impressive, and they are special because they showcase the excellent quality and amazing potential of the Guatemalan service sector. The theme parks and the accommodations built to house their guests truly have nothing to envy similar attractions in developed nations. If you are traveling in this part of Guatemala with children, a stop at Xocomil and/or Xetulul is almost obligatory.
Xocomil and Xetulul receive more than one million visitors annually, making them Guatemala’s top tourist draw. There are plans to build two more parks in the lands adjacent to them. Retalhuleu itself has already begun a transformation inspired by the parks’ creation. Though it has always been a regional recreational center, the arrival of more visitors to the area has vastly improved the quality of local hotels, though prices have likewise increased.
In addition to its popularity with Guatemalans, visitors from Southern Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras also flock to the parks in droves. There are plans to build an airport, allowing those visitors to arrive by plane on package tours.
All this might sound suspect, like crass consumerism or the makings of mass tourism, brought home by the fact that the top tourism draw in a country of incredible natural beauty is a manufactured theme park. But you should keep in mind that it’s a far cry from Las Vegas and it really goes to show that Guatemala, and her people, are entirely capable of competing with better-known tourism destinations and creating something that is professional, high quality, and yet entirely Guatemalan.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com