The City of Quetzaltenango has long been the second most populous of Guatemala, after Guatemala City. In 2000 it had an estimated population of 250,000. The population is about 50% indigenous or Indian, 49% Mestizo, and 1% other. Quetzaltenango is located in a mountain valley at an altitude of 2,333 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level.
In Pre-Columbian times Quetzaltenango was a city of the Mam[?] Maya people called Xelaj˙, the name derived from "Xe laju' noj" meaning "place beside 10 mountains". The city was said to already be over 300 years old when the Spanish first arrived. Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated and killed Maya king Tecun Uman[?] here. When Alvarado conquered the city for Spain in the 1520s, he called it by the Nahuatl name used by his Central Mexican Indian allies, "Quetzaltenango", or "the place of the Quetzal bird", which became the city's official name in colonial times. However many people (especially but not only the indigenous population) continue to call the city "Xelaj˙" or more commonly Xela for short.
From 1838 to 1840 Quetzaltenango was capital of the state of Los Altos, one of the states or provinces of the United States of Central America. As the union broke up the army of Guatemala under Rafael Carrera[?] conquered Quetzaltenango making it again part of Guatemala.