Guatemala’s incredible biodiversity and extraordinary selection of active volcanoes is just the tip of the iceberg: this Central American gem has an intriguing past, accomplished artisans, vibrant urban landscape, and a community that is as warm as it is traditional. It’s a modest country in many ways – plenty of sites escape the pages of popular guidebooks – but a deeper, interactive experience is there for the taking. Whether you bump along in a chicken bus or jet-set between major locales, any Guatemalan adventure should include these eight unbelievable sites.
Guatemala’s charming colonial city is the center of most tourist activity, but it also hosts a vibrant local culture and a sizable contingent of expats. Here, the lush highland landscape mingles with centuries-old stone buildings -- a harmony of European style and Latin American spirit. You’ll find everything from luxury guesthouses to modest food stands selling traditional fare within the small grid of streets, and don’t miss Nim Po’t, the famous artisan market at the north edge of the city center, where you can browse a huge array of traditionally made Mayan crafts and textiles. This city is a fantastic introduction to everything Guatemala has to offer.
2. Lake Atitlan
If you’d like to explore the magnificent rural landscape, travel a few hours west of Antigua to the Solola municipality, where a mystical lake sits in the well of an ancient super volcano. Lake Atitlan is remarkable for a few reasons, one being the excellent preservation of tradition and landscape within the five Mayan towns that line its shores. But the lake itself behaves in a mesmerizing manner every day: as the wind from the Pacific is funneled through the range of adjacent volcanoes, the calm waters grow choppy, and into crashing waves by mid-afternoon. Backpackers, eco-travelers, spiritual seekers, and culture-savvy travelers are all drawn to this special lake, where there are a variety of guesthouses to house visitors.
3. Pacaya Volcano
Trekking, hiking, and climbing are some of the most popular activities in the interior, and if you’re up to it, a volcano ascent is your best bet for a remarkable outdoor adventure. There are three volcanoes to choose from, although Fuego is often too volatile to visit; most guided treks will go up Pacaya, which can be done in a day, and features an active crater at the summit. Unfortunately, armed robbers have been known to patrol the trails targeting tourists, so be sure to go with a reputable guide company. They’ll also make sure you have the food, drink, and accessories you need for a successful experience.
4. Semuc Champey
If you’re looking for a beautiful, tranquil place to cool off, look to the turquoise waters of Semuc Champey. It takes a bit of time and effort to get here, but you’ll be rewarded with cool, fresh river water tucked into a valley of lush, untouched forest. The 300 meter natural limestone bridge holds a series of stepped pools where you can take a quick dip, or pass a long sunny afternoon. If you’re staying for the day, bring along a picnic lunch or head halfway up the adjacent mountain for a bite at one of the restaurants. However, it’s also possible to camp at the site, if you want to stretch out your visit.
Not every traveler makes it to Tikal, but those that miss it will probably regret it. This UNESCO Heritage Site and National Park is the crowning glory of Mayan archaeology in Guatemala – possibly all of Central America. Located in the jungle not far from the town of Flores, Tikal’s temples, plazas, and labyrinthine courtyards are a dizzying reminder of the power and prestige of this ancient Mayan stronghold. The park encompasses over 340 square miles, and there are amazing ruins scattered all around the space. The massive twin pyramid complexes with their prominent altars are one of the biggest – and most unforgettable – treats of the tour.
6. Coffee Plantation
Connoisseurs agree that Guatemala produces some of the best coffee on the planet, thanks in part to its temperate highland climate and rich soil. Why not go beyond a tasting, and get right into the heart of a coffee plantation? You’ll explore the farm, learn about the growing and harvesting, and get a professional lesson in tasting and classification. Some farms combine their tours with hiking, bird watching, or even mountain biking to get in deeper touch with your surroundings, while others focus on teaching the art of making and serving the perfect cup.
Veer a little bit off the tourist trail to check out the archaeological site of Quirigua, where you’ll see the massive, world-renowned Mayan carvings. A guided tour of this UNESCO World Heritage site will offer a vivid lesson in Mayan history, art and ritual, and since the site is only partially excavated, you’ll get a glimpse into how the ruins were found. The scenery is certainly a highlight: towering ancient stone stelae peek over the banana groves, and you can take some short hikes through the neighbouring jungle while you’re there.
8. Museo Popol Vuh
Guatemala City is known to be a bit rough around the edges, but there are a few worthwhile places to see before you head out of the metropolis, including one of the world’s largest collection of Mayan artifacts. Head to the Universidad de Francisco Marroquin campus in Zone 10 for a glimpse into pre-Colombian Mayan art culture, including a selection of ancient stone sculptures and some of the best preserved Mayan pottery in Central America.
Although it’s a relatively small country, the terrain and infrastructure of Guatemala can make it tricky to get from one part to another. Count on long, winding car rides, and factor in time for traffic (and weather-related obstacles if it’s the rainy season). Communication breakdown can lead you into a tough spot, so take tips from local guiding groups or other seasoned tourists before you head off to any destination, which should keep you safe and on track.