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.
One day spent in Tikal will be enough time to appreciate the ruins, but longer than that will give you a better feel for the natural beauty’ as well. If you’re visiting in the winter with its early sunset, be sure to sit atop Temple IV and watch the sun drop beneath the horizon. Unfortunately, in the summertime months you will be required to leave before the sun sets, as closing time is at 6:00 PM.
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.
One of the most well-known landmarks in Antigua is the Arco de Santa Catalina, which is an archway that was part of a convent here from 1613. Unfortunately, the original was destroyed in the earthquakes of 1773, but the current one was beautifully reconstructed the following century to include a clock tower.
Be sure to make time for a hike up to Cerro de la Cruz, where you can get a spectacular view of the city with the hulking Agua Volcano behind it. This activity is best done to catch the sunrise, if you can stomach waking up so early. If you happen to be visiting sometime between December and February, you may also want to add whale watching to your list of things to do in Antigua. You can reach it along the Pacific Coast in about a one hours drive.
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.
If you prefer a less mainstream touristy sort of town, stay instead in San Pedro La Laguna. Although it is known as a party town, it does not feel as commercialized as Panajachel. Perhaps better yet would be Santiago de Atitlan, which has a completely different vibe than the other cities and should definitely include a visit to Saint Maximon.
Lake Atitlan is the perfect place to experience some adventure tourism. Boating, fishing, paragliding, and even scuba diving are all popular activities that actually involve the waters of Lake Atitlan. The lake has not been clean enough to swim in, but conditions are improving; do some research before you jump in.
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.
Back in Zona 1, check out the National Palace (Palacio Nacional de la Cultura), which once served as the presidential palace but is now a museum. Completed in 1943, this palace houses 350 rooms, some of which you may see on your tour and that will likely impress you. Tours are free and last 45 minutes.
To see the supposed “center of Guatemala” go to Plaza Mayor, which is actually two plazas altogether: the Parque de Centenario with its beautiful fountain and the popular Plaza de las Annas. You can also combine a visit here with the aforementioned Palacio Nacional, the Catedral Metropolitana, and the busy nearby market.
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.
If you do make it to the top, you will be finely rewarded. Smoke, gas, hot rocks, glowing lava, and incredible views await you. Take note of the volcanic activity before you go; as mentioned above, the last major (and deadly) eruption was as recent as 2010.
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).
The key aspect of Chichi to note is that, no matter how touristy it seems, it wasn’t set up this way primarily for the benefit of tourists. It has a truly organized system that has been in place for decades, and it is a center of inter-village trade throughout the highland Mayan villages.
Besides the market, the church Iglesia de Santo Tomas is worth a look around, built over 450 years ago. Although it was built right on top of the worship site for the ancient Mayans, it is now used equally for Catholic Masses and traditional Mayan ceremonies. It won’t look like the interior of a traditional Western Catholic church, but rather has its own Mayan twist that you should definitely check out.
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.
Also insist on an English-speaking guide. You can expect a tour to last anywhere between one hour and three, and it will probably include a stop at La Guitarra Island. Swimming, picnicking, and a tour of the ruins there are all possible activities on La Guitarra. Ask where to find El Mirador, an ancient pyramid, because climbing it will give you especially stunning views of Flores. Don’t forget to bring your camera.
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.”
The place where the river re-emerges is actually a cave, which you can visit with certain guides. A visit here may even include a climb down the crack waterfall for free, which many assert was their favorite part of the trip. Keep in mind that it potentially could be dangerous and is not recommended for children. Proceed with caution.
Take note: If you can at all help it, avoid visiting Semuc Champey on the weekend, as it will be absolutely overrun with day-trippers. That is, unless you prefer to arrive by the busload with the day-trippers.
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.
Another great place to check out is the Museo Lacustre Atitlán, which will explain how the lake and the surrounding mountains and volcanoes were formed, as well as displaying some of the findings (such as a collection of ceramic pieces) found in the lake.
Plenty of boats going into the lake depart from Panajachel, often stopping at some of the villages along the other parts of the shore. Panajachel is a city jam-packed with tourists and activity, so if you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life then staying in one of the smaller towns or villages is probably a better option.
If you don’t know much else about Guatemala and vet 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.
There are a number of other structures worth visiting as well, so take your time walking around the area. A museum as well as a conveniently located parking lot and some restrooms are situated near Plaza C, making this an all-around comfortable and easy visit.