9 must-see places for your Guatemala getaway
Featuring untamed jungles, smoke-belching volcanoes and a massive, mystical lake, Guatemala offers an incredible range of travel options.
Enjoy stunning Lake Atitlán and its volcanic backdrop. Step back into time on the cobblestone streets of colonial Antigua. Explore the magnificent Mayan ruins of Tikal. Cruise down a jungle-shrouded river. Climb an active volcano. Here’s the best of the best:
1. Behold magnificent Lake Atitlán
Marvel at the breathtaking beauty of Lake Atitlán and the three majestic volcanoes towering over its shimmering, deep blue water. Formed by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption more than 80,000 years ago, the lake spans 130 square kilometres (50 square miles), reaching depths of 305 metres (1,000 feet).
For starters, enjoy its vastness over a refreshing drink along the waterfront in lively Panajachel (Pana for short). The lake’s main hub, Pana thrives with a hectic-eclectic mix of shops, hotels, restaurants, and rows of vendors.
Boatmen eager for passengers constantly patrol Pana’s shore, promoting their cruises to indigenous towns dotting the hillsides surrounding the lake. You’ll find something special in each community.
Stop at San Antonio Palopó to see their distinctive, handcrafted ceramics. In San Marcos, detox and unwind at its many yoga and wellness centres. Learn Maya culture in San Jorge La Laguna, and hike to nearby caves used for sacred Maya ceremonies. Book an excursion to San Juan La Laguna, known for its artisan cooperatives and hand-woven textiles.
Be sure to cruise over to the Tz’utujil Maya town of Santiago Atitlán, where you can explore Santiago’s church and market whilst learning about the town’s history, textiles, and folk art. Track down Maximón, a celebrated Maya folk saint who is housed by a member of the local religious brotherhood.
To get another perspective of the lake, settle into a stable kayak. From the docks at Santiago, an hour or two of gentle paddling brings you to the intriguing Cerro de Oro (Hill of Gold). A challenging, 1.5-hour hike to its summit (1,636 metres / 5,368 feet) rewards you with impressive views of the lake and its volcanic surroundings.
In San Pedro, another popular stop, you’ll sense a backpacker vibe mixed with the indigenous culture. For something adventurous, gather your energy for a pre-dawn climb up Volcán San Pedro (3,020 metres / 9,908 feet) to watch the sunrise reflected over the lake.
Regardless of your destination around the lake, you’ll find options for swimming, horseback riding, hiking, biking, bird watching, scuba diving, canoeing, kayaking, and more. And you can always just stretch out and enjoy the lake’s splendor from a hammock swaying in the breeze.
2. Savour Antigua’s colonial charm
Surrender to the alluring charm of colonial Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that lovingly protects its centuries-old roots. Walk its cobblestone streets past historic homes, upscale boutique hotels, and an exceptional selection of shops, galleries, and international and local restaurants.
From street corners and tree-lined parks, admire the three volcanoes that form Antigua’s picturesque horizon. Watch in awe as Volcán de Fuego noisily shoots pillars of gray smoke into the sky. As night falls, find a perch at one of Antigua’s many rooftop cafés to watch orange lava flowing down Fuego’s slopes.
Soak up the atmosphere of Antigua’s Central Park, where indigenous women sell textiles, schoolchildren play, and families relax in the shade. From there, wander down the Calle del Arco to the landmark Santa Catalina Arch spanning the street, its bell tolling on the quarter hour. As you roam throughout town, you’ll encounter what’s left of ancient churches laid waste by a 1773 earthquake, their ruins preserved in place.
One of the day’s toughest challenges may be narrowing down your dining choices from an overwhelming variety of restaurants, offering everything from local favourites to the best of international cuisine. Be sure to try delicious eats served by indigenous cooks on the street and inside Antigua’s thriving market, one of the country’s best. You can also try your hand at making fresh corn tortillas, a diet staple throughout Guatemala.
For an aerial view of Antigua without leaving the ground, climb the steps of Cerro de la Cruz and gaze out from its quaint park overlooking the entire town.
3. Visit the ancient temples of Tikal
Prepare for sensory overload when gazing upon Tikal’s amazing temples for the first time. As one of the most important religious, cultural, and commercial cities of the Classic Maya period, Tikal comprises more than 3,000 structures surrounded by dense jungle teeming with wildlife.
Lose yourself in the mystery and ancient beauty of Tikal’s massive temples, some of them rising above the tallest trees. You’ll need agility and good footing to climb iconic Temple IV, soaring above the jungle canopy at 47 metres (154 feet). From its sun-drenched platform, gaze across the treetops where tropical birds and monkeys thrive.
Continue the archaeological feast amongst the magnificent ruins throughout Tikal’s inner urban zone (400 hectares / 990 acres). Follow in the footsteps of Maya royalty and commoners to the majestic Great Plaza and its Temple of the Jaguar (44 metres / 144 feet) and Temple of the Masks (38 metres / 125 feet).
Don’t overlook the detailed hieroglyphs and stone carvings throughout Tikal. And as you explore, enjoy the sights and sounds of tropical birds, howler and spider monkeys, and other wildlife in the treetops. Five cats, including jaguar and puma, several species of anteaters, and more than 300 species of birds all thrive within the vast Tikal National Park (576 square kilometres / 222 square miles).
4. Hit the bustling market at Chichicastenango
Dive into the chaotic, entertaining performance of age-old bartering, buying, and selling at the sprawling market at Chichicastenango (Chichi for short) in the Western Highlands.
On Sundays and Thursdays, the market days, you’ll see piles of brightly hued textiles skillfully woven into blouses, skirts, rugs, tablecloths, purses, and much more. Traditional wooden masks depict deer, dogs, jaguars, rabbits, and other characters — animal and human — featured in traditional dances.
Rustic ceramics include delicate butterflies, miniature village scenes, and brightly painted kitchenware. Step into a real-time Diego Rivera scene amongst rows and rows of flower vendors.
Witness animated bargaining, conducted mostly in the Maya K’iche’ language, as locals and shoppers from nearby villages stock up on household goods and farm supplies. Their shopping lists include vegetables, herbs, seeds, machetes, and livestock, such as chickens, turkeys, pigs, and goats.
If you visit on a Sunday, you can observe locals practicing a unique blend of the Maya and Catholic religions at the historic Santo Tomás Church in the centre of the market sprawl.
5. Climb a smoke-spewing volcano
Lace up your boots and find a walking stick because Pacaya, one of the liveliest volcanoes in Central America, beckons.
Setting out from Pacaya’s foothills, your climb takes you through a lush pine forest with a widening panorama unfolding as you ascend. Note the changing terrain and surroundings on your way up the 2,552-metre (8,371-foot) mountain.
At the base of the grumbling, smoke-belching cone itself, the forested landscape abruptly ends. A barren moonscape of loose rock and pebbles greets you, adding tricky footing to the adventure.
You’ll notice hot steam escaping through crevices in the lava rock. Peek inside an opening, maybe you’ll see bright orange magma flowing inside. Volcanic smoke, gases, and mist sometimes drift across the peak, forming a surreal aura.
From this lofty perch, peer out at northern volcanoes, the Pacific lowlands and, on a clear day, all the way to El Salvador.
As the most accessible of the three active volcanoes in Guatemala, Pacaya invites climbers of all levels. Even if you have second thoughts after starting out on foot, you can ride part of the way on horseback.
6. Go camping in the Uaxactún ruins
It’s one thing to visit Guatemala’s stunning Maya ruins, but wait until you camp overnight at one — in particular, Uaxactún, one of the longest-occupied Mayan cities.
Settle into a comfortable, basic tent within the temple cluster that served as a cosmic observatory, the oldest known of the Maya kingdom. At dusk, climb a lookout tower and savour sunset drinks as daylight fades away. When night fully prevails, gaze at the thick blanket of stars twinkling overhead.
Shifting into nocturnal mode, the surrounding forest wakes up as owls, bats, opossums, and spooky insects emerge from their daytime slumber. Set out along jungle trails in search of night-roaming wildlife.
In the morning, after a symphony from howler monkeys and tropical birds awakens you, get a daylight view of the ruins. Wander amongst the temples and carvings in the cluster known as Group E. Oriented to the heavens, its four temples align with the sun on the four season-changing dates of the calendar.
After touring the site, visit the small and friendly village surrounding Uaxactún. You’ll learn about chicle (natural gum), allspice, and xate (exported globally for floral arrangements) that locals collect.
7. Bike through scenic Antigua Valley
Hop on a bike to explore the bustling markets, indigenous villages, and bird-filled cloud forests surrounding Antigua. Your outing along the back roads and trails of the Antigua Valley reveals the typical lifestyle and abundant nature found throughout Guatemala.
In the mountain town of Santa María, you’ll see many women who still wear the ornately embroidered, traditional Maya dress as they carry out their daily activities. Pedal down the slopes of Agua volcano into the towns of San Pedro las Huertas and Ciudad Vieja to visit colonial sights and see typical daily life.
In the town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, spend a few minutes at a weaving cooperative, watching women skillfully use back-strap looms to create brightly coloured, intricate textiles. Along the way stop at a fascinating, organic macadamia farm in San Miguel Dueñas. Sample the chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and check out the macadamia-based cosmetic products.
Offering incredible views and great terrain for biking, the verdant hillsides surrounding Antigua also provide perfect conditions for coffee farming. Stop at a growers’ cooperative and follow the process from picking and washing the beans to drying, sorting, grinding, and roasting. And of course, enjoy a rich, steaming cup of smooth, Guatemalan coffee afterward.
8. Cruise down scenic Río Dulce
Relax on the water and watch the ever-changing scenery unfold in a voyage down the tranquil Río Dulce (Sweet River) in Guatemala’s sultry Caribbean coastal region.
Fed by the waters of stunning Lago de Izabal, the country’s largest lake, Rio Dulce begins its flow in the shadow of a Spanish colonial fort built in 1652 to keep pirates out. Soon the river flows beneath one of the largest bridges of Central America and passes the small but thriving community of Fronteras.
From the river, you’ll see marinas and thatch-roof lodges and restaurants along the shore. Watch for indigenous villagers paddling hand-hewn, dugout canoes to sell their wares in Fronteras and return home with supplies for home and farm.
Downstream, check out the avian activity of Bird Island, a cluster of mangroves and other trees growing in the river. You’ll see pelicans, egrets, and cormorants, among others, as your boat glides by. The habitat also supports docile, slow-moving manatees; you may catch a glimpse of one munching on floating water lilies or surfacing for air after grazing on submerged grass.
Keep an eye on the riverbanks, too, and not just for birds foraging at the water’s edge — you’ll also see turtles and iguanas basking in the sun.
Soon the cruise reaches a collection of hot mineral springs. Go for a refreshing swim in the springs, or at least dangle a hand or foot overboard to experience the thermal waters mingling with the river.
For 10 spectacular kilometres (6 miles), the river dissects a deep, limestone canyon. Teak, mahogany, palms and wildflowers thrive up and down the 91-metre (300-foot) walls of rock. Watch howler monkeys cavorting from tree to tree, and maybe you’ll see an elusive toucan perched among the branches.
The river’s 43-kilometre (27-mile) route leads to Amatique Bay at the laid-back, Garifuna town of Livingston. Be sure to check out the local fare and vibrant, island-like culture of this once-booming seaport. Amble through its handful of streets lined with clapboard houses, and duck into a rustic café. No doubt you’ll hear punta rock (local, percussion-based music), which plays nonstop.
9. Swim in crystal pools at Semuc Champey
Immerse yourself in the turquoise-blue pools of Semuc Champey National Park, one of the most magnificent natural formations in Guatemala. Nestled in the rainforest of the Verapaces region, this stunning chain of pools rests atop a 300-metre (984-foot) natural limestone bridge with lush jungle foliage rising from its edges.
Hike 45 minutes through the rainforest up the short but steep Mirador Trail for a postcard-perfect view of the pools and surrounding mountains. After the visual feast, reward yourself with a long soak in the warm waters. Watch your footing on the smooth and slippery rocks around the pools.
Later, if you dare, tour the dark and watery Kan’Ba Caves. Using only a candle for light, you’ll wade and swim through the formation’s pools and rushing waterfalls. At the end, crawl up a rope through a tumbling waterfall and take a blind leap, splashing down into the pool on the other side.