The historic country of Guatemala is a testament to the ancient world. Home to some of Central America’s oldest Mesoamerican civilizations, Guatemala is dotted with crumbling ruins, stone temples, and age-old villages.
While many people come to explore the multitudes of archeological sites, Guatemala is also known for its spectacular landscape and natural tourist attractions. With black sand beaches, molten volcanoes, and dense, tree-lined jungles, you’ll be amazed at the diverse list of things to do in Guatemala.
The country also has a rich and distinctive culture from the long mix of elements from Spain and the native Maya people. Whether you’re interested in history or outdoor adventure, be prepared to be blown away by Guatemala.
In this post, we'll cover:
15. El Mirador
Nestled deep in the heart of the Petén Jungle are the mysterious ruins of El Mirador. Many of the structures date back to the 6th-century BC, including the world’s largest pyramid from pre-Columbian America. Covered in a shroud of vines and dense vegetation, El Mirador is a rare glimpse into the history of the Mayan culture.
Due to its remote location, traveling to El Mirador requires a bit of planning. 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.
It’s recommended to visit El Mirador with a tour that can organize mule or horse transportation, as well as camping accommodation.
The colorful beachside town of Lívingston is the perfect destination for a bit of relaxation. Lívingston is unlike other cities in Guatemala because of its laid-back tropical atmosphere, which is more reminiscent of a village in the Caribbean.
Besides sunbathing on the beach, you’ll have an entire outdoor world to explore during your visit. Explore the lush jungles on the banks of the Rio Dulce, cool off in the emerald pools of the Los Siete Altares waterfalls, or go snorkeling in the turquoise waters of Zapotillo Cayes.
Make sure to spend some time in the town itself, where you can indulge in fresh seafood and soak in the unique blend of these two different cultures.
The impressive structures at Nakúm are some of the best-preserved examples of Mesoamerican architecture. Although it’s one of the largest Mayan communities in the country, it’s often the least crowded due to its secluded location on the Holmul River. Because of the rough conditions, the road leading to Nakúm is only open several months out of the year and requires a 4×4 to reach.
The highlight of Nakúm is the South Acropolis. This raised platform consists of 12 courtyards and 33 individual buildings that were once used as homes during the Late Classic Period. You can also visit the different pyramids surrounding the courtyard of the Central Plaza.
Guatemala might not be known for its sun-soaked beaches, but Monterrico proves to be the exception. This laid-back town is world-renowned for its stark black volcanic sand beaches.
If you happen to visit Monterrico between June and December, then you have a good chance of spotting sea turtles, who come to the beaches to breed and lay their eggs. You can also visit Tortugario Monterrico (Monterrico’s turtle conservation center) to get up close and personal with the newly hatched babies. Every day before sunset, you can watch as Tortugario Monterrico releases the turtles back into the ocean.
11. Todos Santos Cuchumatan
Dive headfirst into local Mayan traditions with a visit to Todos Santos Cuchumatán. Due to the village’s remote location in the Western Highlands, it has managed to preserve century-old Mayan and indigenous traditions that have disappeared throughout the rest of the country. Most residents in the town are of Mayan descent. Not only do they still speak the rare Mam language, but they also tend to dress in traditional clothing.
The best time to visit Todos Santos Cuchumatán is in early November for the All Saints’ Day festival. This celebration is full of dancing, music, and traditional horse racing.
The colorful islet of Flores is marked by bright red roofs, narrow cobblestone streets, and beautiful colonial buildings. It’s located in Lago Petén Itzá and can be reached by the connecting road next to Santa Elena and San Benito.
You can walk around the entire island in just 20-30 minutes, although most tourists prefer to rent a bike or canoe and explore the area at their leisure. Besides admiring the historic architecture, don’t forget to stop by the Catedral Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios y San Pablo Itzá. This bright white cathedral is the highlight of the island.
9. Semana Santa
Guatemala during Semana Santa is one of the most festive times of the year. Also known as Holy Week, Semana Santa is celebrated widely throughout Latin American; however, the biggest celebration takes place right in Antigua.
The city is transformed by colorful decorations, live music, and endless amounts of food and drink. The main attraction of the festival is the Palm Sunday parade. During the processional, you’ll see dozens of parade floats, as well as people dressed up in purple robes with white waistbands.
8. Pacaya Volcano
The active Pacaya Volcano is one of the most stunning natural landmarks in Guatemala. After it’s 70-year dormant period, the volcano has been erupting continuously since the early 1960s, with the largest eruption occurring just in 2014. Despite the perceived danger, it remains one of the biggest tourist attractions in Guatemala.
A hike to the top of the volcano takes just around two hours and provides sweeping views of the entire surrounding area. You’ll even find food stands along the way selling marshmallows that you can roast over the heat of the volcanic rock!
7. Rio Dulce
One of Guatemala’s most beloved natural gems is the Rio Dulce. The river flows out of Lake Izabal, site of the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, an old Spanish colonial fort built in 1644 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.
6. Semuc Champey
Hidden among the limestone mountains and dense forest shrubs is one of Guatemala’s most breathtaking sights – Semuc Champey. With cascading turquoise pools, underground caves, and flowing waterfalls, Semuc Champey is a slice of paradise in the middle of the jungle.
Getting to Semuc Champey can be difficult. From the town of Lanquin, it’s either a 2.5-hour walk or a 4×4 taxi drive to the entrance of the falls. Along with your swimsuit, don’t forget to bring sturdy shoes, as the entire area can be rugged and slippery.
5. Chichicastenango Market
Every Thursday and Sunday, Guatemala throws the largest market in all of Central
America. Located in the heart of Chichicastenango, this market is your one-stop-shop for all your shopping needs.
Stacked back to back are hundreds of stalls selling different Mayan handicrafts, like textiles, wood carvings, leather goods, and other souvenirs. You can also find a variety of snacks, fresh produce, and even livestock. It’s important to practice your bargaining skills and pay no more than 50% of the asking price.
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.
From 250 – 600 AD, Yaxhá was one of the largest ruling civilizations in Mesoamerica. It was believed to have over 40,000 inhabitants living just within the kingdom itself. Nowadays, you can visit Yaxhá and explore more than 500 ruins that tell the story of this ceremonial and influential ancient city.
While you could easily spend an entire day in Yaxhá, there are a few sights you shouldn’t miss. The South Acropolis was considered the heart of the city and contains ball courts, elite residences, and several temples. You should also see Plaza A, which has one of the last remaining twin-peaked pyramids outside of Tikal.
3. Antigua Guatemala
The charming Spanish Baroque buildings and colorful colonial churches make the mountainous city of Antigua one of the most visited destinations in Guatemala. Marvel at The Catedral de Santiago, shop at the Handicrafts Market or hang out with locals in Parque Central.
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.
Make sure also to snap a few photos of the iconic el Arco de Santa Catarina. This bright yellow building was built in the 17th-century as a way for nuns to cross the street without going outside. With the cloud covered mountains in the background, it’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in all of Guatemala.
2. Lake Atitlan
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 and offers plenty of things to do in the outdoors.
Rent a boat and sail across the deepest lake in Central America, or strap on your hiking boots and hit the trails to explore the depths of the surrounding landscape. For something more adventurous, you can also soar high above the lake and valleys by paragliding off the cliffs of the mountains.
The lake is also near to several rural villages, including San Pedro and San Juan. Stop by for lunch, or simply to mingle with a few of the friendly locals.
The archeological site of Tikal is possible the most important attraction to visit in Guatemala. As one of the most powerful civilizations in the Mayan Kingdom, Tikal dominated the region for over 700 years, with most of the buildings dating back to the 4th-century BC.
Comprised of towering temples, massive royal palaces, and limestone pyramids, there are hundreds of structures to explore during your visit. The North Acropolis and Plaza of Seven Temples are two of the most impressive buildings on site. You should also visit Tikal Temple I, which was the tomb for King Jasaw Chan Kʼawiil I.