In Central America, Guatemala is regularly a major hit among travelers. Those with flexibility often find themselves staying far beyond their original itinerary. Once the heart of the Mayan world, where the ancient culture’s best cities flourished and commerce grew, Guatemala now offers travelers a welcome blend of relaxation, adventure and culture.
Here, you can reside entirely in small towns and quaint villages soaking up all remnants of Mayan culture. Roads lead to the highlands where temperatures drop and volcanoes rise to spectacular heights. Local markets defy belief and sparkling lakes harbor tales as old as time.
Away from the bubbling volcanoes are two coasts, one that looks out to surf and sunsets. Then there is the Caribbean and a unique culture not found elsewhere in Guatemala. It’s amazing that a single country can have all this, yet with its small size, you have it all at your fingertips.
Fall in love with Xela
Pronounced “Shay-lah”, Xela is the Mayan name for a town the Spanish name Quetzaltenango. It’s an adventure hub, a town steeped in Mayan history and the perfect place to call home as you experience the best of Guatemalan culture and nature.
Xela is one of the largest cities in Guatemala. You could write an entire article purely on the best things to do here, so we will try our best to keep this concise. Begin by exploring the city on foot, taking in the organized chaos of Central American traffic, while keeping the camera handy as you pass church after beautiful church, including the memorable Quetzaltenango Cathedral. Between them are local hangouts where you can dine on caldo de res (beef broth), tamales and jocon de pollo (chicken stew).
For nearby cultural experiences, you can check out the many amazing villages around Lake Atitlan along with the thrilling Chichicastenango Market. But we mentioned that Xela is an adventure hub. It’s the best launching point to hike up the Tajumulco Volcano, the tallest in the country. Afterwards, rest your weary ones at the hot sulfur springs in Fuentes Georginas. When you’re ready to get those legs moving once more, make your way to Lake Chicabal, a vast crater lake.
Admire Lake Atitlan
Nestled in the foothills of the Guatemalan Highlands, Lake Atitlan is a mesmerizing experience. Wherever you look, there’s natural beauty, from the glistening lake, which is the deepest in Central America, to the surrounding Serra Madra range. In addition, the lakeside towns of Panajachel, San Pedro and San Juan provide layer upon layer of culture.
From the edge of the lake, you’ll find yourself in a trance as you stare toward the deep blue lake that stretches into the distance. The color blend of the lake and sky makes it hard to see where the horizon ends and the heavens begin. The only interruption is the sharp spike of volcanic mountains that rise out of the lake like a haze of blue smoke.
From the many towns around Lake Atitlan, you can rent kayaks and standup paddleboards and explore what is often glass-like water. The calm conditions make it a breeze to paddle, providing ample opportunity to simply sit and watch.
From Antigua, you can venture to Lake Atitlan while experiencing a number of local communities and ancient Mayan culture. On this private tour, you’ll visit three lakeside villages to discover ancient technology and traditions that carry on into the 21st century, all while admiring the immense beauty of the lake.
Go Chase Volcanoes
Did you know that there are over three dozen volcanoes in Guatemala? Active, dormant and extinct, many that you can climb with your own two feet, plenty of hydration and a sense of adventure. If you’re up for a challenge, the Central American nation doesn’t have a shortage of epic volcanic climbs to experience thanks to being on the precipice of two tectonic plates that get along as well as teenage siblings.
It can make choosing between each volcano a difficult decision. But let us lend a hand. We mentioned Volcan Tajumulco, so let’s start there. Not only is it the tallest volcano in Guatemala but also all of Central America. It stands at almost 14,000 feet (4,220m) so you’ll want to spend a minute (or more) adjusting to the altitude.
Despite its sheer height, it’s not the hardest volcano to climb in the country. Hikers, who won’t have to pay an entrance fee, will begin their hike at around 10,000 feet (3000m), leaving just a third of the mountain to complete. Not a bad way to summit bag Guatemala’s tallest peak.
Another option, and one of the best hikes in Guatemala, is Volcan Acatenango. At 13,041 feet (3,975) it’s the second tallest volcano in Guatemala, yet it’s a far greater challenge and one that leaves you worthy of a frothy summit beer once you make it to the top. The trailhead is an hour from Antigua and it’s most commonly done as an overnight hike. Don’t fret if you don’t have your camping gear handy. This guided trek will bring you to the top in time for an epic sunrise.
Spend a Few Days in Antigua
We are only a few stops in on our journey through the best things to do in Guatemala, and yet we’ve already mentioned Antigua a bunch. Let’s not avoid it any further. The gorgeous city is surrounded by not one, but three imposing volcanoes. Add in a skyline of colonial-style buildings and Antigua is one of the most beautiful cities in Central America.
You’ll be surprised to learn that Antigua suffered through a significant earthquake in the late 18th century. One strong enough to force the title of Guatemala’s capital city away from Antigua to Guatemala City. But despite this tragic natural event, Antigua remains a city laden with eye-catching architecture and without major high-rises, it’s far from a concrete jungle with plenty of character.
Travelers flying into Guatemala would do well to make Antigua their starting point. Not only do you have access to many top attractions, but the city itself offers so much history without burning a hole in your pocket. Join locals and shop at Iglesia de la Merced, take a picture of the Santa Catarina Arch and visit the Ruins of Santa Rosa, one of a handful of reminders of the 1773 earthquake. Finish up with a trek to the top of Cerro de la Cruz for majestic views over the city.
Explore the Mayan Ruins of Tikal
OK, the Tikal ruins are arguably the best thing to see in Guatemala. But hey, I couldn’t just give that away at the start. Now that you’ve read this far, let’s go a little further. Far from anything (the nearest major town is Flores, an hour away) the Mayan Ruins of Tikal requires a bit of a journey, but one that is ultimately worth every bit.
You’ll find the ruins near the border of Belize and thanks to amazing preservation, the ruins are one of the best representations of Mayan history and engineering prowess in Central America. For around 1,500 years, the Mayans developed and occupied this space, building over 3,000 structures from spacious plazas to temples and striking pyramids. Today, it all adds up to create one of the largest Mayan sites you can see firsthand.
Like other Mayan ruins, part of the grandeur of the experience is the ruins rising out of thick jungle as if nature is slowly reclaiming its place after centuries. This aura is on display here and when you add on the remoteness of the archaeological site, it becomes an inspiring experience. The surrounding landscape is a part of the Tikal National Park and is teeming with the sounds of birds and monkeys, which also make regular appearances on the steps of the ruins.
Get lost at Chichicastenango Market
It’s not often you see a small and remote town become known for its market. Let alone a market that belies the town’s size. But that is the case in Chichicastenango. The local market is a prismatic burst of color and aroma as locals and nearby residents gather en masse on Thursdays and Sundays to trade herbs, meats, textiles and artifacts.
You’ll find one of the largest markets in Central America, about two hours from Xela. Such is its popularity that you can jump on a shuttle from Xela along with Lake Atitlan purely to peruse the offerings. It’s an enormous outdoor market, one that you can load up on fresh eats to nibble on as you wander down the seemingly endless collection of aisles.
Travelers will be happy to know that it’s far from a tourist trap. The market is steeped in tradition with ample connection to Mayan culture. The handicrafts are authentic, the fashion finely woven with immaculate (and vibrant) threads and you’ll even discover a row of traditional healing herbs.
Out of the two days the market runs, plan to visit on Sunday. Sure, it’s busier, but the market is also a place to observe how Mayan rituals and modern religion play a role in local culture.
See the Incredible Semuc Champey
Guatemala is packed with amazing nature. It’s rugged and wild in a similar vein to Hawaii. Now that you’ve climbed some volcanoes, it’s time to head in the other direction and venture deep into a stunning gorge.
Semuc Champey is a veritable paradise and shows the architectural genius of Mother Nature. South of Lanquin, Semuc Champey translates to the water beneath the stones and is a natural bridge that spans almost 1,000 feet (300m) above the Cahabon River. To form the bridge, the river chipped away at the limestone rock for thousands of years.
Today, the top of the bridge has formed a series of pools with sparkling turquoise water where you can step in, kick back and relax. But like anything good, you’ll have to work for it. The shortest hike to the bridge is only twenty minutes. However, the best way to get there is along the El Mirador.
This hour-long trek first leads you to the El Mirador, which is a viewpoint where you’ll be able to admire the bridge and its six baby blue pools from above. In the distance you’ll hear wildlife clamoring around the trees, including howling monkeys. After taking way too many photos, head down the Semuc Champey. Jump from pool to pool (some have depths of up to 15 feet or 4.5m). Over time, the water moves along the bridge to form a series of waterfalls that tumble spectacularly down to the river below.
Don’t rush your Semuc Champey experience with the help of this three-day adventure.
Hit the Beach
So far, your time in Guatemala has been all volcanoes and culture. Sometimes it’s good to experience that vacation life and kick back at the beach for a day (or three). If that’s something that piques your interest, then you’ll be stoked to know that Guatemala has coastlines facing both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Those with plenty of time can easily do both, but picking one is (in my opinion, at least) an easy choice. Livingston is both a beautiful coastal town on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, but also rich in cultural diversity. This allows you to continue to experience Guatemalan life, all while sipping cocktails on the golden sand.
Livingston is in the northeastern corner of the corner and offers a wonderful mix of Guatemalan, Caribbean and African heritage. It’s both vibrant and relaxed. This cultural melting pot goes back centuries, with its beginnings in the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Today, the Garifuna, as they’re known, have an amazing blend of distinct arts, food and lifestyle.
Once you’ve tried tapado (seafood stew) and washed it down with a rum called gifiti, head to Los Siete Altares, a beach home to waterfalls and swimming holes.
Grab Your Surfboard and Let it Rip
From one side of the Guatemala to the other, we now turn our attention to El Paredon on the Pacific Coast. Sure, you can come here to laze on the postcard worthy black sands, but the real fun lies just off the coast.
You can make your way to El Paredon from much of the country, with regular chicken buses and shuttles departing from Antigua and Xela. It won’t take you long to see why El Paredon has developed an international surfing reputation. Not only does the swell create some thrilling challenges for experienced surfers, but the breaks closer to shore allow even beginner surfers to get in on the action.
The black-sand beach heats up quickly in the early morning hours, providing all the motivation to grab your surfboard and dive in. Intermediate and experienced surfers can do just that, but for everyone starting out, you’ll be happy to know that El Paredon has several outfits that run surf lessons.
After a day out on the waves, wander into the sleepy beach town of El Paredon where you’ll find a laid back community, plenty of budget-friendly hostels and some of the best sunsets in Guatemala.
Experience an Infamous Chicken Bus
The infamous chicken bus is common throughout Central America and it’s the most popular form of public transport in Guatemala. These rickety, colorful old buses help connect far off communities and cities with pizzazz. They zoom from A to B, defying the old age of the mechanics, with the driver yelling out stops as if his or her life depends on it.
The chicken bus gets its hilarious name not from the shape of the bus but rather the proclivity of locals to carry small livestock (usually chickens) on the bus. This adds an extra layer of atmosphere to the ride, ensuring that not only will you have the chance to sit among total strangers but also make friends with a clucking hen as well. For newcomers, we suggest a short route. Not only is it hectic, but there is seemingly always room for one more passenger. Yep, even once everyone is crammed in.
It’s a classic local experience. One all travelers must participate in. It’s a rite of passage, a chance to take part in what feels like an adventure to you, yet regular life for everyone else. If that doesn’t define the beauty of travel, then I don’t know what does.
Try Your Hand at Making Chocolate
Over 1,200 years ago, the Mayans learned how to make chocolate.
Although their word for it — xocolatl — roughly translates to bitter water, they still knew it was the “food of the gods” and I don’t think much has changed in the centuries since.
Traveling through Guatemala is the perfect opportunity to do as the Mayans did and make your own chocolate. Trust me: it’s a hell of a lot of fun! Techniques have changed dramatically since the 9th century, of course, when the ancient civilization crushed cocoa beans and chili peppers together, mixed it with water and poured it repeatedly between two cups. But it’s still an insightful way to learn about traditional chocolate making methods.
Most lessons will begin with a trip down memory lane, comparing modern techniques with the old, before learning about the cocoa plant. Then you’ll roast the beans in a pan, de-husk them, and ground them into a paste. From there, you’ll have the chance to experience the difference between Guatemalan and Spanish chocolate (one’s bitter and the other’s sweet).
You can take this class within the Antigua Chocolate Museum, which offers amazing insight into Mayan culture away from the ruins, and will show you how chocolate has evolved around the country.
Explore Guatemala City
Central America’s largest city, with a population of over 2.5 million people, has garnered a rather troublesome reputation over the years. And although you don’t need to spend multiple days there, it’s still an important piece of the Guatemalan puzzle, and I do recommend visiting.
Guatemala City is unlike any other part of the country. It still harbors some of its history, but you’ll find as many trendy boutiques and upscale restaurants as you will traditional culture and historic buildings. Yes, Guatemala City is home to a hipster food scene!
It’s a big, bustling place, far removed from the subtle charms of Flores and the villages around Lake Atitlan.
There are 22 zones in Guatemala City, with towering skyscrapers placed beside sprawling slums. In Zone 1, you’ll find cheap eats and three course menus, along with shopping at Mercado Central. Zone 10 has international options and upscale steakhouses.
Ultimately, the strength of Guatemala City lies in its museums. Aside from learning local culture firsthand elsewhere, places such as Archaeological and Ethnological Museum and the Museo Ixchel showcase the nation’s past from a natural, human and cultural perspective, in bite-sized chunks.
Take a Cooking Class
Guatemalan cuisine has strong connections to Mayan foods, with ample Spanish, Caribbean and African influence. This mix gives each meal a sense of history, alongside its burst of flavor.
Like much of Central America and the Caribbean, those traveling around Guatemala will no doubt eat plenty of the local staple, rice and beans. And yes, you’re probably going to get so sick of it. But each dish comes with its own twists and interestingly, some foods, such as tamales, are only consumed on specific days of the week.
The best way to learn more about the local cuisine, and even bring those flavors back to your home kitchen, is to take a cooking class.
If you’re going to be spending time in Antigua, I recommend taking this class, where you’ll learn how to cook four local dishes. The class will take you through the process of creating one traditional main course, two side dishes, and a delicious dessert. So good!
Spend Some Time in Flores
You may have made your way through Flores on your way to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, but Flores is well worth a few days on your Guatemala itinerary.
Located in the Peten Department (district), Flores is a small town that exudes colonial influence. Adding to its eye-catching beauty is the fact that it’s found on a circular island in the heart of Lake Peten Itza. The word Itza may feel familiar, as the island town was originally developed by the same Mayan community that created the famous Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Much like the island, the town’s cobblestone roads rotate in a circle around the island. Its relatively small size makes it a joy to explore on foot, with each road guiding you by colorful colonial buildings and views out to the lake. Eventually, you’ll stumble upon Flores’ main square, where you’ll be able to see a church; one that was built using stones from the island’s original Mayan structures.
To escape the hot Guatemalan sun, wander down to the water’s edge and go for a swim in the lake. You can also get your hands on a kayak to explore where you can’t go on foot. Speaking of water fun, nearby is the popular Jorge’s Rope Swing. It’s found in a remote alcove around the lake where visitors can knock back a cocktail and chill in the many hammocks before grabbing the swing and flying into the lake.
Try Guatemalan Coffee
Did you know that almost three percent of the world’s coffee hails from Guatemala? It may seem like a small amount, but when you consider the nation’s size, it’s remarkable that they’re the 9th largest coffee exporter. Not only does Guatemala hold their own in this field, but their coffee is also exceptional and Antigua is one of the top places to try it.
What makes Antigua such a great coffee-growing region is its rich soil. Surrounded by a trio of volcanoes, the soil is packed with minerals. Add in plenty of rainfall and the appropriate climate and growers are able to produce a handful of unique Arabica coffee.
Plantations aren’t in short supply around Antigua, with many opening their doors to travelers who can take a peek behind the scenes and see the magic at work. On this day tour, you can combine all the highlights of Antigua with a trip to a plantation before tasting a cup of true Guatemalan coffee.
The experience, in particular, will inspire you to choose fair-trade coffee. In a similar vein, if you love your coffee, then you’ll wake up excited to try local cafes around Guatemala. Not only is it delicious, but you can see the impact each cup can have on each community.
Experience Tranquility in Monterrico
On Guatemala’s Pacific Coast, Monterrico may just be the chillest place on earth. The small, sleepy village is a world away from the chaos of Guatemala City and the bubbling volcanoes further inland. Like El Paredon, Monterrico enjoys a laid back surf-bum culture mixed in with its sparkling black sand beaches burnt to a char from ancient lava flows.
It’s an unspoiled town with a bit of a wild soul. You could spend days lazing on the hot sand staying out into the Pacific as the waves crash down with a vengeance. It makes for some adventurous swimming for those that know their way around a decent current, and surfing is usually left to the experienced.
The town’s beauty goes to another level within the nearby Monterrico Nature Reserve, one that protects a swath of beautiful mangrove habitats and popular nesting grounds for sea turtles, including leatherbacks and the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles. Covering both land and sea, visitors will find unspoiled habitats teeming with native flora along with marine life and migrating birds.
Experience Semana Santa
Otherwise known as Holy Week, Semana Santa is one of Guatemala’s most vibrant festivals. The Catholic festival hails back to the arrival of the Spanish and takes place throughout the Easter period. Crowds flock to major towns, especially Antigua, causing a large spike in population, one that only adds to the sense of occasion.
Religious or not, experiencing Semana Santa is a wonderful and exciting way to enjoying Guatemalan culture, which as a traveler is all we can really hope to do. Although a week long, the festival technically begins over five weeks prior at the beginning of lent. Leading up to it, you’ll find more and more incredible art placed around various churches, including the spectacular carpets that boast vibrant colors and intricate designs.
For travelers, the Wednesday leading up to Easter is when the fun really begins with major processions making their way into Antigua from nearby towns and the experience only goes up a notch each day.
See the Bats in Coban
In Guatemala’s high alpine region, Coban is another prominent coffee-growing region. It’s packed downtown belies a city that is beautiful at its core. Traffic crawls slowly and the noisy central plaza is a far cry from other beloved towns. However, as you move away from the inner-city, you’ll find a charming suburbia that slowly fades into the mountains. If you don’t look back, you’ll discover a town that is more akin to a mountain village.
You can spend your time here trying some of the best coffee in Guatemala, checking out Coban’s interesting German influence, visiting the Mayan archaeological museum and a church from the early 19th century. However, one of the highlights of Coban is the nearby Languin Caves.
Northeast of town, the caves are a series of vast limestone caverns that feature an underground river. Visitors will be able to walk partway into the cave to see the lagoons that sparkle under low-hanging light, not to mention the caves eye-catching rock formations.
The real spectacle, however, are the thousands of bats that make the cave their daily home. They hang patiently, waiting for the sun to fall upon which they depart the cave in unison and at great speed.