Guatemala Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

With ancient Mayan ruins to marvel at, a stunning lake to reflect in and beautiful local wares, Guatemala is good to visit at any time of the year. For such a small country, Guatemala sure does pack a punch.
Guatemala Travel Guide
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Situated at the base of 3 dormant volcanoes, Lago Atitlan is a natural wonder of Guatemala. Standing beside the lake, the only thing you will be able to do is simply stare at its beauty in the surroundings of the mighty volcanoes and a dense green forest. Once you’ve had your fill taking in the picturesque lake, cruise the lovely islands and meet the locals in their colorful traditional dress.

Head over to Antigua to feel its romance and admire its Spanish-Baroque influenced architecture. The former capital of Guatemala, Antigua is full of grand squares, Baroque churches and quaint boutiques. Wander through the tiny cobbled streets or even better take a tuk tuk to a lively market with stalls selling all sorts of colorful produce.

Plan your visit to Antigua around the Semana Santa Easter celebrations that take on an all-consuming splendor and magnitude. Marvel at the gilded statues, processions, music and pomp of this colorful Guatemalan celebration. And if you still haven’t had your fill of Central American carnivals, head over to La Ceiba for carnival and to Guatemala City for the Day of The Dead celebrations.

Miles up in the hazy air, peering through the Central American jungle canopy are the tops of ancient Mayan temples. Stand at the top of the temple at Tikal, one of the largest archaeological sites of Guatemala and survey the surrounding countryside.

The only way to access Livingston, the outpost of Caribbean culture is by cruising down the Rio Dulce in a boat. The journey is worthwhile as it will take you past beautiful scenery and a natural hot spring, before culminating in a fascinating town founded by Garifuna settlers as well as immigrants from St. Vincent.

Known as “Chichi” by locals, the town of Chichicastenango is surrounded by mountains and valleys. Its sleepy cobblestone streets come alive on Sundays and Thursdays when it hosts one of the largest and liveliest markets in Guatemala. Chichicastenango has the life of a large country market, not to mention the colorful local textiles and handicrafts.

More beautiful than the pictures you’ve seen, a much more enticing destination than you could ever have imagined, adventure seekers, nature lovers, history buffs and architecture enthusiasts will all find their own little niche in Guatemala. With so many attractions to match every traveler’s interest, Guatemala could easily become your favorite country in Central America.

1. El Mirador

Created more than 2 millennia ago, El Mirador is an ancient Maya city. Although it is three times as big as its famous neighbor Tikal, El Mirador receives only 2,000-3,000 visitors in comparison to Tikal’s 200,000 tourists. This is because it is quite inaccessible with no roads and an exhausting 5-day round trip trekking through the jungle.

Situated in northern Guatemala and attracting a blend or archeology buffs and adventure travelers, El Mirador features remnants of massive pyramids, complex waterways, as well as the world’s first freeway system.

Your journey to El Mirador will begin in the remote village of Carmelita, where the trail begins. Over the next 5 days, expect to hike more than 100km within the Mirador basin.

Many agencies in the area offer tours with English-speaking guides as requested. The tour package includes certified guides, transportation to and from Carmelita, food and water for the 5 days, camping supplies, cooks, mules and one challenging trek. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes to avoid blisters.

While the terrain is mainly flat, big cracks and mud clumps tend to create rugged trails. It is highly recommended that you go trekking during the dry season to avoid the mud and mosquitoes synonymous with the wet season.

The trail will lead you through several ruin sites including El Tintal and La Muerta, before you finally arrive at El Mirador. Your guide will explain the significance of the ruins that range from Mayan palaces and saunas to intercity highways and astronomical observatories.

Because much of the ruins remain covered in earth mounds and tree roots, your imagination will be a useful companion while touring the lost city. Nonetheless, the ancient stucco carvings that are scattered through the entire city will help you piece together its mysterious past.

Close to the Jaguar Paw Temple are amazing 26-foot long panels etched with epic tales from the Hero Twins, as related in the sacred book of Maya mythology, the Popol Vuh.

Situated in the heart of El Mirador is the temple of La Danta which rises 230 feet and features more than 99 million cubic feet of rock. The largest pyramid of the Mayan world, La Danta’s massive platform almost comes close in volume to those of the Egyptian pyramids.

Every evening after the guides have set up camp, you will take one last trek to the top of La Danta or El Tigre, perched high above the jungle. What you will see is the vast expanse of the lush green jungle stretching out on all sides with no trace of human civilization, except for the temple on which you stand. Listen to the cicadas summon the darkness as the sun sets over the forgotten city. Look up into the sky and marvel at the constellations that beam brightly from high above.

Go to bed but expect to be roused out of your sleep in the wee hours of the morning by the sounds of howler monkeys roaring throughout the jungle. After enjoying the breathtaking sunrise, you will be see oscillated turkeys boasting colors as extravagant as peacocks skirting the edges of your camp.

You may then embark on a tour of jungle fauna and see foxes, deer, squirrel monkeys, camouflaged frogs and giant ants darting in and out of the jungle foliage along your path. If the stone jaguars at El Mirador strike your fancy, you will be thrilled even more by a sighting of a real life jaguar native to this area.

2. Livingston

A small town in a secluded part of Guatemala, Livingston is home to the unique Garifuna people who inhabit a few towns along the Caribbean Coast of Central America. Situated in the Izabal department , close to Guatemala’s border with Belize, Livingston is very secluded and can only be reached via boat.

Founded in 1806, Livingston was first inhabited by people who worked at the San Felipe Castle fortress to guard the port of Guatemala in the Caribbean from pirates. Some of the people also worked as merchants, using their canoes to ferry, buy and sell their merchandise in the surrounding rivers.

Livingston today boasts many good restaurants and bars in town that visitors can enjoy. It also has a quiet beach which is ideal for afternoon visits.

There are also a number of attractions located close to the town. Siete Altares are a series of small waterfalls situated 5km away from Livingston. Bring your swim suit for a swim or take a boat ride past the mangroves where you can see local animals.

You can also visit Playa Blanca, a white sandy beach that will have you feeling as if you have left this world. The beach is only accessible through the sea via boat and this inaccessibility means that you will feel like you have the entire beach all to yourself. The surrounding area also features naturally heated hot springs.

The Garifuna people have a very unique culture that is the result of a combination of traditions from enslaved Africans brought by the Spanish and the native Caribbean people. Try to attend some of their lively ceremonies that involve plenty of dancing to drum music. Cassava is one of the staples among the Garifuna who create a type of bread with it that you should definitely try.

The Garifuna came to Central America during the early 1800s. To resist English domination, groups of Garifuna people fled to other islands and beaches along the Caribbean coast. This is why you can still find small populations of Garifuna in Honduras, Belize and Nicaragua.

3. Volcan de Pacaya

Have you had the pleasure of climbing up an active volcano to the crater to see inside? Well, Volcan de Pacaya, one of the youngest volcanoes in Guatemala, which offers climbers a unique look into the earth’s geological bowels.

Situated to the south of Guatemala City, Volcan de Pacaya is one of the most active volcanoes in the entire Central American region. The volcano is so easily accessible that you can approach the lava flow and almost touch it with your hands.

For more than 50 years, the volcano has remained in a moderate eruptive phase that has generated frequent and impressive eruptions that average an eruption each year, as well as signs of activity on every day of the week. Its frequent eruptions are often visible from Guatemala City.

Pacaya can be hiked as a day trip or even a night trip which is worthwhile when the volcano is active. The ascent will take you about two and a half hours, starting from San Francisco de Sales, a village situated at the foot of Pacaya. The entrance to the Pacaya National Park is situated at San Francisco de Sales.

The best time to climb Pacaya is between November and April to avoid the rainy season. Rising to an impressive 2,252 meters or 8,372 feet, Pacaya frequently spews molten lava, ash and rock into the sky. The best time to view this exhilarating volcano is at night when its bright orange lava lights up against the night sky.

The volcano’s environment comprises humid forest and rocky lands. The hike begins inside the thick forest which opens up suddenly to a startling view of the volcano. Marvel at Pacaya as it stands before you in all its glory, a gigantic black cylinder spewing smoke and rock.

Hike through a desolate lava field landscape bypassing trees ashen and scarred by many of Pacaya’s eruptions. Enjoy the walk across thousands of years of old dried lava flows, through lush forests and farmland. After a pleasant walk through volcanic sandy paths with great views of the unique vegetation, you will arrive at the plateau where you can view the main volcano crater.

A relatively easy climb will bring you to the fertile shelf just below the cinder cone. When Pacaya is active, you can visit the border of the volcano’s base within the main cone to watch lava eruption. From here you can enjoy amazing views of the recent lava flow. With the smoking crater looming above, the lava fields begin to resemble an extraterrestrial setting.

Standing at the top of Pacaya, look down on the swirling and noisy bubbling molten lava, smoke and rock. The sulphurous gas will hit you hard with its smell, and you will feel the volcano’s heat.

Have a picnic lunch below the smoking cinder cone within a barren land of lava rock. Enjoy the views of the nearby towering volcanoes as well as the Pacific coast. The volcano offers impressive views of the lagoon of Calderas, as well as the other 3 neighboring volcanoes: Acatenango, Fuego and Agua.

After your hike, soothe your muscles inside a thermal pool heated by the Pacaya’s very own volcanic activity.

Recent activity has left a mark on the ever growing volcano as surprise eruptions burst lava flows from the already cracked crater that continue to alter the landscape and keep the little volcano exciting.

Pacaya first erupted more than 23,000 years ago, and has erupted over a dozen times in the last few centuries. After remaining dormant for more than a century, Pacaya unexpectedly erupted in 1965 and continues to do so to this day.

Even if you don’t get to see flowing lava churning down Pacaya’s slopes, there is plenty of energy bubbling just below the volcano’s surface every day. Quieter now since the last eruption in 2010, Pacaya allows visitors to easily trek over its cooled lava flows in search of gas vents and hot spots.

4. Flores

A tiny jewel in Lake Peten Itza, Flores is a charming scenic island and a popular jumping-off point for visitors heading to the Tikal National Park and the surrounding areas.

Although no Maya buildings remain on the site today Flores remains of great importance to the heritage of the descendants of the Maya. This is because Flores was the last independent state of the ancient Maya civilization that held out against the onslaught of the Spanish conquistadors.

Following the collapse of Chichen Itza, the Itza people left the Yucatan to build their capital Tayasal on the small island in Lake Peten Itza. During the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors initiated a number of campaigns to subdue the Mayan cities, but decided not to conquer Tayasal due to its excellent defensive position.

But Tayasal would later be conquered by the conquistadors in 1697 and its idols destroyed. The Spanish then used the stones of the Mayan structures to build the Roman Catholic Church, while renaming the city “Flores”.

5. Chichicastenango

Guatemala is arguably the best country in Central America from which to purchase Mayan textiles and handicrafts. And the best place to find them in Guatemala is at Chichicastenango. Situated in the highlands of Guatemala, not far from Antigua, Chichicastenango is a must-visit for any traveler to Guatemala.

The Mayan market at Chichicastenango takes place two times a week: on Sundays and Thursdays. On Market days, the tilted, cobblestone streets of the city erupt in lively hues of color as thousands of indigenous Mayan vendors and shoppers head over into town to set up their wares and find a bargain.

The Market fills the streets in the center of town and stocks almost everything imaginable from food produce to colorful Mayan textiles, wooden handcrafts, Mayan masks and beautiful beaded jewelry.

You can haggle – but not too hard. Keep in mind that Guatemala is an impoverished country and a few coins probably mean much more to the vendor than to you. Moreover, many of the vendors carry their wares to the Market on their backs from the neighboring towns.

Aside from the famous market, the town of Chichicastenango also boasts other attractions worth a look. Dominating the town center of Chichicastenango is Santo Tomas church. Built atop the platform of a Mayan temple, the church is over 400 years old. Just as colorful as the rest of the town, the Chichicastenango cemetery is also worth a visit.

Chichicastenango is the best place in Guatemala to shop for Mayan textiles such as blankets, clothing and fabric. It is also the best place to see them as they are worn by the thousands of indigenous Mayans at the bi-weekly market.

6. Antigua

A gem in itself, the city of Antigua is the beautifully preserved old Spanish capital of Guatemala. Until it was severely damaged by a series of earthquakes in 1773, Antigua was the capital city of Guatemala.

The jewel of the Guatemalan highlands, the city of Antigua Guatemala or “Ancient Guatemala” is famous for its 16th century colonial-style Spanish architecture that lines its cobblestone streets, as well as three volcanoes that loom in the distance.

Everywhere you turn in Antigua, your eyes will rest on examples of colonial architecture. Check out the ruins of the San Agustin Church, the Cathedral ruins, as well as those of the Municipal Palace.

Then head over to Central Park, the social and geographic center of Antigua which makes for a beautiful spot to spend your afternoon. On special occasions, celebrations and presentations are held at the Central Park.

You can enjoy breathtaking views of the city from the tops of the nearby hill at Cerro de la Cruz, which is well worth the hike up.

From the city streets, you can easily see Volcan de Agua, a volcano famous for its scenic views behind the clouds, as well as the tradition of the locals of laying out a carpet pointing to the volcano during Semana Santa festivities.

Plan your visit the week before Semana Santa, the most elaborate celebration in Antigua. You will be dazzled by the brilliantly-colored sawdust carpets that have been sifted into beautiful designs and laid out on the streets for the costumed religious processions to walk over.

The city of Antigua has numerous restaurants, cafés, pubs and shops that cater to travelers. Stop by the artisan market near the bus station which offers first-rate shopping opportunities.

The best place to find Mayan jade in Guatemala is in Antigua. Jade-lovers can visit Casa del Jade, for insights into the thriving industry that produces beautiful jewelry and carvings from Guatemalan jade. Casa del Jade produces exquisite jade jewelry and artifacts and features extensive display rooms which you can browse for hours.

At the Casa del Jade Museum you will learn how the ancient Mayan culture prized jade for ornamentation, painstakingly converting the stone into works of art. Excavation of the Mayan pyramids at Tikal revealed that it was custom for the Mayan kings to be entombed with a mosaic death mask carved out of jade.

Casa del Jade today exhibits seventy pieces that tell the story of the 4 main Mesoamerican cultures: the Maya, Aztec, Olmec and Mokaya. The museum holds original pieces, in addition to perfectly sculpted replicas made by talented local artisans that will take you on a journey in time.

In addition to educating the public on the traditional value of jade, the museum also seeks to express the identity and pride in the wonderful cultures of Guatemala. Regarded by the Maya as the “stone of eternal life”, jade can be seen in its natural state at the museum.

Visitors will also get to learn about where it comes from, why it has different shades and colors, as well as watch the artisans transform the stone into a piece of art. Best of all, you get to delight yourself with the mysteries of the ancient Mayan world.

Not only does Antigua boast a wide array of attractions, but it also has a rich and colorful culture that is evident in the society that inhabits the area. The rich culture and traditions of the people of Antigua make it a very worthwhile place to visit during your stay in Guatemala.

7. Tikal

One of the most special attractions in the world, the Mayan ruins of Tikal make for a truly magical place. A place of great ecological and archaeological value, Tikal’s name means “the place of voices”.

Tikal was the first national park to be declared in Guatemala in 1955 and in 1990 it became a biosphere reserve. Many structures have been uncovered at Tikal, although there are still many more to be excavated.

The Main Plaza is the most famous sight in the entire park, which you can visit. Tour the Bat Palace, a 2-storey structure that is also known as the “palace of windows”. Temple IV is the tallest structure of Tikal which you can climb to the top to enjoy amazing views of the jungle and other Tikal structures.

Other points of interest within the archaeological park include the Market Place and the Lost World, the largest ceremonial compound.

At Tikal, you will see Ceibas spread out all over the park. The big trees were the sacred tree of the Maya and today they remain a national symbol of Guatemala.

Tikal is one of the few Mayan archaeological sites where visitors are allowed in for sunset and sunrise, so be sure to take advantage of this. This is amazing because that is when most of the wildlife makes an appearance.

Another fun thing to do in Tikal is searching for the wildlife. During your jungle exploration you will encounter surreal-looking porcupines. Spider monkeys will be playing about as howler monkeys hide in the trees. You can hear them but may have to strain to see them.

There are also tarantula spiders which, by the way rarely bite, and if they do, they do not have venom anyway. You will also see wild turkeys running all over the park. If you are extremely lucky, you will see jaguars which are rare to spot as they are active only at night.

The Maya was a powerful civilization that once lived in the northern countries of Central America. Tikal was founded around 1000 BC and by 300 BC was already a massive metropolis. Its first major structures were built between 400-300 BC. A powerful dynasty ruled Tikal until 378 AD. One of the largest cities of its time, Tikal was a superpower in constant conflict with its neighbors.

By 950 AD, the city of Tikal had been abandoned by its population of about 50,000-plus inhabitants. Overpopulation had caused deforestation, erosion and soil nutrient loss that led to a rapid decline in population. Following 1,000 years of abandonment, all that was left of Tikal was a legend of a once great city lost under the jungle.

8. Lago de Atitlan

The word Atitlan is Mayan for “the place where the rainbow gets its colors.”In the Guatemalan highlands, especially in the Atitlan area, the culture of the Maya still thrives.

Unlike other American destinations that have been cleaned up and pasteurized for the tourists, Atitlan is real. The strength of the Mayan culture is profoundly evident here as many of the villages remain very traditional in terms of clothing and language. The local Mayan women wear their colorful traditional clothing not to impress tourists, but as part of their ancient tradition.

Famous for its natural beauty and colorful Mayan villages, Atitlan is also home to one of the most beautiful lakes in the world – Lago de Atitlan. Widely regarded as one of the most stunning destinations in Central America, Lago de Atitlan or Lake Atitlan comes highly recommended to anyone visiting the region.

Situated about three hours away from Guatemala City, the lake rests over the crater of a massive volcano that collapsed a long time ago, and is surrounded by 3 volcanoes that add to its picturesque beauty. The three massive volcanoes – Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro, the lush vegetation and blue waters make for a memorable piece of paradise.

A boat tour on Lago de Atitlan is an amazing way to enjoy the lake’s beauty while you sit back and relax. This is also the best way to access the villages surrounding the lake. Boats travel from village to village many times a day. Depending on how fast you want it to go, your tour can be very relaxing or very exciting.

Over 10 villages surround Lago de Atitlan and all of them are inhabited by the descendants of the Maya. The 4 most popular villages are Panajachel, Santiago Atitlan, San Pedro la Laguna and San Marcos la Laguna.

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Panajachel is the party center of the area and has the best restaurants. Panajachel features tilted streets with numerous restaurants, roadside food vendors and artisan markets that make the village a great starting point for visiting the other Lago de Atitlan villages. Moreover, the view of the 3 volcanoes surrounding the lake as seen from the lakeshore of Panajachel is simply breathtaking.

San Pedro la Laguna is the quirkiest of them all with a distinct bohemian feel and restaurants located along the scenic lakeshore. From San Pedro la Laguna, visitors can begin their hike up the steep slopes of the Volcan San Pedro. Be sure to stop at El Mirador from where you can enjoy stunning views of the lake. There are lots of places from which you can hire a guide to take you up.

Santa Cruz la Laguna is a small village that winds up a steep hillside. The village offers plenty of diving facilities so you can enjoy an adventurous dive into Lake Atitlan. San Marcos is a smaller, quiet village that attracts those of the holistic persuasion. There are plenty of facilities that offer yoga, massage and meditation here.

Santiago Atitlan is the biggest city, while Santa Catarina Palopo is a pretty Mayan village that offers gorgeous views of the lake. If you wish to venture off the beaten path, visit the smaller villages of Jailbalito, Tzununa and San Lucas Toliman.

You can also go swimming in Lago de Atitlan. Simply jump from the pier into the embrace of the beautiful lake. Or go into one of the towns with a quiet beach, away from all the boats to enjoy a relaxing moment on a kayak. This offers an amazing opportunity for appreciating the beauty of the lake and its surroundings.

Also visit Maximon, the result of a couple of centuries of the merging of the Mayan and catholic faiths. The rituals surrounding the representations here are fascinating to watch.

9. Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey means “Sacred Water” in Mayan language and comprises a natural limestone land bridge that is studded with a series of freshwater pools, suspended over the Rio Cahabon. The type of natural wonder you really have to see in order to believe, Semuc Champey features pools that range in color from violet to emerald, and waters that are deliciously cool.

The Cahabon River submerges itself at the entrance of Semuc Champey only to resurface about 400 meters later, after passing the natural limestone bridge that is suspended with beautiful crystal clear ponds. It is within this unique natural formation that you will marvel at waters with shades of dark blue sapphire to light green emerald.

Unbelievably impressive and often described as one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala, Semuc Champey is a natural wonder. Boasting some of the finest scenery in Central America, Semuc Champey is located within the municipality of Lanquin, an area famous for its stunning natural beauty and a popular destination among bird watchers and nature lovers.

Lush, forested hills cradle the river which surges below the bridge in a ferocious undertow you should not attempt swimming in. Nonetheless, you can enjoy swimming in the pools at the top of the bridge. Relax and soak your body as tiny fish nip at your toes. Hop from one lovely pool to the next. The more adventurous souls can dive from the rocky outcrops into the deeper pools, but do this at your own risk.

The El Mirador path will give you a bird’s eye view of the natural bridge that makes up the six turquoise pools. The long and challenging walk will be well worth it once you see just how beautiful the view is from up here. During your hike up the paths, you may see spider monkeys, hear howler monkeys and encounter other wild animals.

Once down at the pools, it’s time to relax and have some fun. The more active travelers can even do some river tubing down the smoother waters.

Have a look at the mouth of the cave under which the mighty Cahabon River’s waters flow. You will enjoy the contrast with the smoother flow of water that fills the pools. In fact, the pool waters do not come from the Cahabon, but are fed by rainwater trickling down the small creeks from either side of the valley.

Also tour the K’an-Ba Caves. Just as impressive as the pools, the caves offer a great opportunity for exploration. Here you will climb ten foot high waterfalls using knotted ropes and jump from high rocks into murky pools, as you swim and squeeze through tight spaces.

The attractions of Semuc Champey are best experienced during the early morning hours before the scorching Guatemalan sun is at is full power. The all-natural experience at Semuc Champey can be as relaxing and passive or as adventurous and active as you want it to be. Just be sure not to miss this little patch of paradise during your visit to Guatemala.

10. San Antonio Aguas Calientes

Situated in the department of Sacatepéquez, San Antonio Aguas Calientes has a fascinating daily textile market. This should come as no surprise seeing as the town is famous for weaving some of the best textiles in Guatemala.

Set in a valley to the northwest of the Acatenango Volcano, six kilometers outside Antigua, San Antonio Aguas Calientes is home to world-renowned weavers famous for their superb quality of double-faced weaving textiles. The weavers are famous for using an image drawn on graph paper as a guide for creating their popular brocaded designs.

Older style textiles feature geometric figures exclusively. The popular patterns of figurative designs used include realistic flower, cherub and bird motifs rendered in vibrant multicolored hues, with blue and orange predominating.

The textiles are strongly ingrained into the local traditions and culture with some being specifically woven by the bride as a wedding gift to her mother-in-law, and others used for religious purposes.

The traditionally woven textiles are sold in a 2-storey market on the square, along with other handicrafts. Brace yourself for it is within this market of San Antonio Aguas Calientes that you will see some of the best woven materials you will see in the entire Central American region.

Several weavers set up their looms there and will demonstrate their weavings skills. There are also a number of other stores situated outside town that sell the woven textiles. You can also visit the small museum on the second floor of the market that features exhibits telling the history of the weavers of San Antonio Aguas Calientes.

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The town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes has managed to retain a fascinating indigenous vibe from the mixture of Mayan people and descendants of enslaved African who add an Afro-Caribbean element to the mix. In addition to its diverse ethnic composition, the town specializes in producing handicrafts, in particular woven textiles and wood carvings, which make it a great spot to find souvenirs and gift items.

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