Guatemala is a great place to see sights you probably not going to see anywhere else. Things like smoking volcanoes, world-famous coffee fresh from the slopes where it’s grown and roasted, and ruins of the once-great Mayan civilization.
Guatemala is a place to mingle with the locals, including roaming the country in a colorfully painted former school bus, called a chicken bus. Oh, the country has some great beaches and stunningly blue lakes, of which Lake Atitlan is the most famous. So, gringos, it’s time to pack those bags and vamoose! An overview of the best places to visit in Guatemala:
Getting to Semuc Champey involves a 30-minute ride over bumpy roads through a jungle, but the trip is well worth the bounces. Once you get there, you can relax the bumps away with a swim in gorgeous turquoise blue pools atop a natural limestone bridge.
Equally incredibly turquoise blue is the Cahabon River that created the limestone bridge and now runs under it. Caves can be found within the limestone bridge; some caves are accessible only by swimming underwater.
The town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, in a province with the same name, is a good place to see native Guatemalans wearing traditional clothing on a daily basis. It’s one of the few places in the country where this still occurs.
The residents are predominantly Mayan and still speak that language. Located in the mountains of the Sierra de los Cuchumatánes, the town is noted for its annual All Saints Day celebration (Todos Santos translates as “all saints.”) The celebration features music, dancing, lots of alcohol and horse races.
Livingston is one of Guatemala’s gems tucked away on the Caribbean coast, and can only be reached by boat. Fortunately, two ferries head out and back each and every day. The town is the hub of the Garifuna culture, meaning tourists have a chance to taste the local menu and music during their visit. Evenings in Livingston are full of excitement and you may just have the opportunity to take part in the Punta, a regional dance with an incredible beat.
The name may be a mouthful, but Quetzaltenango has been described as the perfect Guatemalan town. It’s the country’s second largest city, but is not considered big nor is it considered too small. Quetzaltenango is also known by its Mayan name of Xela.
The Germans moved in after the Spanish left, giving this former coffee-growing center the multi-cultural feel that can be found in the Central Plaza, home to the Catedral de Espiritu Santo. The city is a jumping off point for hikes to Laguna Chicabal, a doormat volcano, and the active Santa Maria volcano.
Many people gravitate to white-sand beaches for a little rest and relaxation. You won’t find those at Monterrico, a popular beach resort on Guatemala’s Pacific Coast. The beaches are volcanic black ash.
You’ll want to bring sandals if you plan to do any beachcombing, as the sand can be too hot for bare feet. It has nice waves for surfing, but Monterrico’s main attraction may be the sea turtles. The beach is the breeding ground for four species of sea turtles.
Flores is a located on Lake Petén Itzá and connected to land by a causeway, on the other side of which lie the twin towns Santa Elena and San Benito. It was here, on the island of Flores, that the last independent Maya state held out against the Spanish conquerors.
For many tourist, the main reason to visit Flores is its proximity to the famous Maya ruins of Tikal. But the island city itself is a great place to visit in Guatemala, filled with colonial, red-roofed buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, a historic church and many hotels and restaurants.
Walks through the Old Town offer the sights of beautiful old Spanish churches and colonial buildings. Boat cruises can be taken across Lake Peten to view picturesque scenery and a variety of birds. With several piers along the lake, tourists can do like the locals and jump off to take a refreshing swim. The Petencito Zoo offers encounters with native animals like jaguars and monkeys. Also close by, the Ixpanpajul Natural Park is a great place for forest hikes, ziplining, canopy tours, horseback riding and wildlife viewing.
There’s just something about the name Chichicastenango that makes you want to visit. Maybe because it’s a good place to immerse yourself in the Mayan culture – almost 100 percent of the town’s population is Mayan K’iche. Maybe it’s because of the fantastic Thursday and Sunday market, where you can buy everything from food and colorful women’s blouses to lime stones for making tortillas and traditional carved wooden masks. Adjacent to the market is the Church of Santo Tomas, built on the site of a pre-Columbian temple.
Panajachel, a lakeside town in the southwestern central highlands, is named after the indigenous word for a tropical fruit, the white sapote. The town sits on the shores of Lake Atitlan, which, with Sierra Madre volcanoes on the other side, dominates the landscape.
Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America. This former Spanish colonial town, with its busy marketplace, is reputed to be the best place in Guatemala to buy souvenirs. It also makes a good place to explore surrounding native villages around Lake Atitlan, which are accessible by private boat.
The scenic region around Lake Atitlan is a natural playground where visitors can enjoy a number of outdoor activities. The lake itself offers boat cruises, swimming and kayaking, while the surrounding volcanoes, farms and hills present opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, touring coffee plantations, and exploring archaeological Mayan sites such as those at Sambaj and Chiutinamit.
Set against the pictorial backdrop of three imposing volcanoes in the central highlands of Guatemala, the beautiful, old colonial town of Antigua is one of the country’s top tourist destinations. Once the noble capital of the Spanish Empire in Central America, Antigua was severely damaged during a major earthquake in 1773, causing the city to lose its sovereignty to what is now modern-day Guatemala City. Nevertheless, Antigua still retains an outstanding collection of well-preserved Spanish architecture, which furnishes the city with an enchanting and romantic atmosphere.
A major center for learning the Spanish language as well as a popular base for exploring other parts of Guatemala, Antigua provides a plethora of impressive sights and activities. Just a simple stroll through the city center awards views of spectacular architecture, historic churches and prominent landmarks like the Santa Catalina Arch. The heart of the city is Central Park, a large green space with trees, walking paths, monuments and fountains, where people can relax or hire taxis to get around the city.
A must-do is get lost in the city’s huge market with its maze of tropical fruit stalls and flowers. Museums and art galleries showcase Antigua’s history, culture and art, while the Hill of the Cross presents panoramic views of the city. Just outside Antigua, tourists can hike up the volcanoes or hop on a bus to tour coffee farms, cacao plantations and traditional villages.
Located in the tropical rainforest of the Petén province in northern Guatemala, Tikal was one of the largest cities of the ancient Mayan civilization during its Classic period, which ran from approximately 200 A.D. to 850 A.D. Archaeologists estimate that, at its peak, Tikal’s population ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants. It was a religious, political and trade center due to its favorable geographic location, being bounded by rivers on both the east and west.
Although Tikal reached its height during the Classic Period, some of the architecture at the site dates back to the fourth century B.C. At times, rulers of Tikal would be replaced by others, but the city continued to flourish. It was the dominant city in the region, and ruled over other small city-states. Because of the availability of the tombs of the past rulers as well as other monuments and palaces to study, Tikal is one of the best understood of the large Mayan cities.
Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, the Mayans abandoned the city around 900 A.D. Due to the growth of the jungle, archaeologists did not rediscover it until 1848. The portion of the city now excavated is quite impressive. Approximately 3000 sites have been uncovered and nearly 10,000 still need to be revealed.
At the center is the Great Plaza, a large area with a plaster-like floor. In time, other structures were built surrounding the Plaza. These include the North Acropolis and the Central Acropolis. The North Acropolis holds seventy slabs of stone, called stelae, that stand in a double row with altars set in front of them. Some are carved with images of rulers and hieroglyphs. The Central Acropolis encompasses 700 feet of long buildings with many rooms, often called palaces.
There are six temple pyramids, with the tallest one, Temple IV, standing 65 meters (212 feet) high. Visitors can scale it by using protruding roots and wooden ladders. Temple VI has an immense display of hieroglyphics that narrate the history of the city. Temple I and Temple II lie to the east and west of the Great Plaza.
In addition to the towering temples and other unique architectural works, Tikal is well known for the carved inscriptions and exceptional polychrome ceramics found there. Water conservation was important to the Mayans at this site, and they engineered reservoir and culvert systems to help with the storage and usage of water. Another innovation used by the Mayans were sacbes, which were raised causeways paved with lime-based cement, connecting Tikal’s ceremonial nodes.
The last recorded date on a monument in Tikal is 869 A.D., and historians believe that by 950 A.D. the city was abandoned. Scientists are not sure whether war, disease, famine or some other reason caused the Mayans to leave Tikal. However, they left a part of themselves behind in the ruins. The city and surrounding area is now a protected national park, and visitors are welcome to explore the ruins.