For those looking to unearth a vacation destination with all of the trappings of the Old & New Worlds, there’s no better place to do it than in Guatemala. The country has a rich and distinctive culture from the long mix of elements from Spain and the native Maya people. This diverse history and the natural beauty of the land has created a destination rich in interesting and scenic sites. Here are some of the most impressive tourist attractions in Guatemala.
El Mirador was a major Mayan city that flourished from about the 6th century BC and abandonment at the end of the 9th century. The ruins of El Mirador were rediscovered in 1926 but received little attention due to its remote location deep in the jungle of northern Guatemala. Today the site remains largely covered by tropical jungle. Visiting El Mirador is not for the faint of heart. The village of Carmelita is the nearest point to the ruins that you can go by car. From there it takes a grueling trek of at least five days and four nights through the jungle with ants, ticks and mosquitoes that never relent. That said, people who make this journey will never forget it.
Rio Dulce, or Sweet River, is known for many things. The river is popular with sailboaters who, hopefully, aren’t plundering other boaters like the pirates of yore did. The river flows out of Lake Izabal, site of the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, an old Spanish colonial fort built to keep Caribbean pirates from the river. The river today boasts one of the largest bridges in Central America. On one side of the bridge is Frontera, known for a vegetable market where many shoppers arrive in dugout canoes. On its journey to the Caribbean, the river flows through a high-walled spectacular gorge. The river enters near Livingston, a Garifuna town which can only be reached by boat.
Parque Central is the heart of Quetzaltenango, serving as the city center and a major local and cultural hub. The city is situated in between three massive volcanoes, offering a beautiful and primitive aura to the area. Sometimes shortened to Xela, the city is also home to Fuentes Georginas, the local natural sulfur springs. The city boasts multiple opportunities to explore local Mayan villages or to travel about a day’s journey to Laguna Chicabal, a sacred lake situated in the cloud forest and perhaps a visitor’s greatest chance of spotting a Quetzal bird in the wild.
Located close to Antigua, Volcán Pacaya, is an active volcano, last erupting on May 27, 2010. While there are trails and hiking opportunities open to the public, this is not a site for the faint of heart and care should be given in the preparation of your visit. If you’ve got your heart set on climbing Volcán Pacaya and seeing the magnificent view it affords, plan on setting aside at least one whole day for your journey – if not more.
If El Mirador piqued your passion for archeological sites, then you’ll want to add Yaxha to your Guatemala bucket list. It’s smaller than the more famous Tikal, but still the third largest Mayan ruins in Guatemala. Yaxha was the ceremonial center of the pre-Columbian Mayan kingdom. Its indigenous name translates as blue-green water, appropriate since it overlooks a lake. The northern Guatemala settlement had around 500 buildings, including 13 altars and nine temple-pyramids. Be sure to climb to the top of Temple 216 for views of the lakes and jungle.
Monterrico is a bit off the beaten path of Pacific coastal Guatemala. With beautiful black sand, volcanic beaches and far fewer faces than you’ll spot at some other beaches, it’s great for those looking for a true “escape” from reality. However, the Pacific currents and tides make for rough water and only very experienced swimmers should leave the safety of the beach to explore the waters of the ocean. If you’re into environmentalism and conservation, you can actively take part in saving a sea turtle by visiting one of the local sea sanctuaries (during the appropriate season) and help facilitate the release of baby sea turtles into the warmth and safety of the ocean.
Often shortened to “Chichi”, this is THE shopping destination of Guatemala. Located between two and three hours southwest of Guatemala City, ChiChi may be home to the brightest and most vibrant native market in all of the Americas. With a vast array of local fabrics, textiles, clothing, masks, wood-crafted items, pottery and even fireworks, there’s no reason that anyone should leave Chichicastenango Market empty handed. The city is also famous for their ability to celebrate and often host festivals, feasts and fiestas which tourists are welcomed to share in.
Antigua was once the capitol city of Guatemala, up until the year 1773 when a massive earthquake decimated the town. In 1776, it was ordered abandoned and what had once been a buzzing and vibrant capitol city took on the aura of a quiet provincial town. Known for its old-world style Spanish architecture by way of palaces, cathedrals, universities and hermitages, Antigua is a charming jewel in Guatemala. The Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua has become a visual cue to let everyone know that they’ve arrived. The city is a particularly popular tourist attraction during Holy Week, with parades and floats and carpets of flowers lining the streets. It’s absolutely breath-taking.
Lake Atitlán was described by Aldous Huxley as the most beautiful lake in the world. Situated in the Guatemalan highlands, the lake is a stunning exhibition of natural splendor. The portal to Lake Atitlán, the city of Pananajachel, is also a portal to an indigenous world of the Mayans and other ancient peoples. It is a beautiful area, with many tourist attractions, opportunities for exploration, scuba diving and learning Spanish.
Situated in the lowland rainforest of northern Guatemala, Tikal is one of the top tourist attractions in Guatemala due to its beauty and ancient wonders. The name Tikal translates as “Place of Voices” (sometimes, “Place of Tongues”) and once boasted a bustling population of a quarter million or more. Today, however, all that is left of this ancient metropolis are a number of beautiful Mayan ruins. The city is surrounded by a large wildlife preserve, full of monkeys, parrots, deer, macaws and other incredible specimens. You’ll need to set aside a minimum of two days for a thorough exploration of this natural gem.