Guatemala is a place with dynamic culture, riveting ruins, and incredible natural beauty. One visit to this colorful country and you’ll be addicted – it’s not uncommon for foreigners to return more than once.
Of course, like any country, Guatemala isn’t perfect. Ethnic tensions persist between the Amerindian peoples and communities with European ancestry. Age-old rivalries of Mayan groups still can be seen today, as well. Economic inequality seems to run rampant, with shantytowns and cosmopolitan metropolises coexisting side-by-side. On top of everything else, the country sits along a major fault line, which explains their history of devastating earthquakes. But still, Guatemala manages to get into every visitor’s heart in a way that is indescribable.
So then, what is it that makes this country such a pleasure to visit? Perhaps it’s the eerie, glowing beauty of the volcanoes that seem to ring most Guatemalan towns. Or maybe it’s the vibrant indigenous community, with their fascinating traditions, lively markets, and unique cultural backgrounds. Or perhaps it’s the rainforests of Guatemala that are so green you’ll think your eyes deceive you. In any case, don’t be surprised when one holiday in Guatemala turns into an obsession of how and when you can go back.
Well known as Guatemala’s most beloved and celebrated national park, Tikal National Park’s 575 square kilometers are filled with rainforests, Mayan ruins, diverse flora and fauna, and the “Eiffel Tower” of Guatemala: the massive Temple I. If you’re looking for a place that is representative of Guatemala’s natural history and human culture, Tikal is the place for you. In terms of national importance, Tikal National Park tops the list. Understandably, Tikal has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
With a name like Antigua (“Old”), it’s easy to imagine what kind of a city this will be. Once serving as Guatemala’s capital, after the 1773 earthquakes the capital was moved elsewhere. However, plenty of Antiguenos decided to stay, living among the wreckage and ruins of a previously prosperous metropolis. Nowadays, Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to many an international student or expatriate. It has been reborn as a charming, nicely preserved city known for its natural beauty and ancient architecture.
03. Lake Atitlan
Sitting on its mile-high perch within the crater of a volcano, Lake Atitlan has been hailed by some as the most beautiful lake in the world. Caught in the middle of cone-like volcanoes, lush hills, and ancient Mayan villages, the atmosphere at Lake Atitlan is indeed hard to beat. The damage incurred by Hurricane Stan in 2005, though is still visible, certainly did not destroy the incredible feeling of wonder that comes over visitors when they first step onto the shores of the lake.
04. Guatemala City
Guatemala City is not only the largest city Guatemala, but also the largest city in Central America. With three million inhabitants, Guatemala City is as crowded and polluted as any other city of its size, but it also boasts a lovely climate and excellent scenery. Commonly referred to simply as “Guate,” this city is perched on a plateau nearly 1500 meters above sea level. Because of its dangerous reputation, you might be surprised by its breathtaking beauty and culture.
05. Pacaya Volcano
Pacaya Volcano is the most popular volcano climb to do in Guatemala, partly because of its ease and accessibility, but also due to the fact that it is still an active volcano, lending climbers the feeling of just enough danger to make things interesting. Pacaya is a volcano that has actually been spewing lava and emitting steam consistently since 1965, to the great awe and excitement of tourists. Climb the volcano if you dare; just be sure to watch your step at the summit – it gives the “hot lava game” an entirely new perspective.
Although no longer topping the list of markets that are off the beaten track, Chichicastenango (more commonly called just “Chichi”) is a town renowned for its fame as a tourist attraction just the same. Specifically, well-known for its Sunday and Thursday markets, its stunning natural beauty, and its swarms of tourists who mostly arrive by the busload, one of the plusses of visiting this market is it is tourist-friendly and the crafts are based off of traditional Mayan handicrafts (although most are no longer hand-made).
Flores is often the name used to describe not only the island village of Flores itself, but also its mainland sister, Santa Elena. Flores is picturesque, easily navigated, and dotted with adorable hotels. There is no other town quite like it in Guatemala. Quaint, quiet, and charming, this little island deserves a day of your time to take a relaxing stroll around it, enjoying the lakeside views and either a sunrise or a sunset – or both.
08. Semuc Champey
The Semuc Champey limestone pools were once an isolated, tranquil place to visit off the beaten path. Nowadays, however, it has been discovered by many tourists who visit Guatemala – and you can easily understand why. On the upside, the tourism-related infrastructure has come leaps and bounds over the years due to the high traffic of visitors, so it makes for a fairly easy but also memorable trip. It’s not for nothing that this has been hailed the “most beautiful spot in Guatemala.”
As far as cities along the lakefront of Lake Atitlan go, Panajachel is easily the most well-known. Bustling with curious, excited tourists and many an advertisement for adventurous lake- themed tourist activities, Panajachel is the type of place for tourists looking for a fun, exciting time. “Pana,” as it’s often called, is filled to the brim with products of the tourist industry: restaurants, shopping, and – just to top it off – incredible views of the three towering volcanoes in the background.
If you don’t know much else about Guatemala and yet you have heard of Yaxha, it is probably from one main source: Survivor: Guatemala, the 2005 season of the famous TV show. Because of it, Yaxha has skyrocketed to the top of many tourists’ itinerary, and the ruined city is now getting some well-deserved attention. As the third-largest Mayan city in Guatemala, it easily makes for one of the best things to do in Guatemala.