Guatemala has it all. From volcanoes to limestone pools, Mayan ruins and lakes full of manatees – whatever you are after, you will find it here. The country might be tiny, it has roughly the same size as the state of Tennesse, but it is so varied that you can easily spend weeks exploring every corner.
The main issue is that most of us don’t have weeks or even months to travel to every Guatemalan village. But even in a week or two, or maybe four, you can have a brilliant holiday here. To make sure you don’t go home without having missed any of the country’s highlights, we have put together this list that will help you decide what to do and what to see.
#1 Visit the villages around Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan was my first stop in Guatemala and I couldn’t have chosen a better introduction to the country. Volcanos rise up high on the lake’s shore and on their slopes, you can find tiny villages.
We spent two days exploring these villages and crossing the impossibly blue water by boat. Santa Catarina Palopo charmed me with its colourful housed. In San Marcos La Laguna, I had drinks on the shore of the lake, learned about chocolate and considered taking a yoga class.
Panajachel was my home base and the best place to get souvenirs and postcards (which, by the way, you should never attempt to send from Guatemala because the postal system does not work). Santiago Atitlan is another great town to look for handicrafts and visit its large and unique church.
Lake Atitlan is not just amazing for hopping from one village to another, it also offers a wide range of outdoor activities. From kayaking to climbing volcanos, you can do all of it here.
Click here to learn more about the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan.
#2 Visit Tikal
Tikal is Guatemala’s biggest Maya city and one of the most impressive ones you can visit. If you only have time for one single Maya ruin, make it this one. The site spreads out over 65 square kilometres and reached its peak in between the 5th and 8th century.
These days, you can visit the pyramids that are all over the large complex. Many of them are barely recognisable while others are either still standing or have been reconstructed. It is possible to climb some of the pyramids and from their tops, you have a great view of the whole area, with only the peaks of pyramids peeking out over the jungle.
To visit Tikal, you first need to go to Flores. From here, buses leave regularly to the Mayan ruins. You can either go by public transport or with a tour operator, but if you want to see sunrise or sunset from the top of a pyramid, you won’t have a choice but to join a tour.
Be careful with the tour operators! Ours sold us a tour including transport and a guided tour of the site. Unfortunately, our guide never showed up and our driver left us, telling us that he wasn’t responsible for getting us a guide. We managed to get some money back (after we threatened to leave a 1-star rating on TripAdvisor), but the whole incident tainted our experience. Talk to other travellers first and read reviews online before booking anything.
#3 Stroll through colonial Antigua
Antigua is Guatemala’s most beautiful city. With its colonial houses and cobbled streets, it instantly charmed me. I am not surprised that many travellers decide to stay for a couple of weeks and take a Spanish class.
I unfortunately only had a day and a half but it was enough to walk through the streets, take hundreds of photos, visit the main sites and eat crepes in Luna de Miel. We even managed to sneak in a visit to a macadamia nuts farm.
You can reach Antigua easily from Guatemala City. If you arrive or leave by plane, base yourself in Antigua because it is so much nicer than Guatemala City.
#4 Learn to cook Garifuna food in Livingston
Livingston is unlike any other place in Guatemala. Founded by the Garifuna who moved here from St. Vincent, it is known for its unique culture. The inhabitants here are descendants of African slaves, who were shipwrecked on St. Vincent and ended up living together and mixing with the indigenous population there.
A good way to get a glimpse into Garifuna culture is by taking a cooking class. Rasta Mesa offers daily classes and they are very flexible with their schedule. It took about two hours to prepare tapado, a coconut soup with fish and coconut rice. I now know how to crack coconuts with the back of a knife and how to prepare coconut milk from scratch.
I also learned a lot about life in Livingston and the Garifuna community. Since the cooking class takes place in a home, it gives a great glimpse into Guatemala’s most unique community.
#5 Float in the natural pools of Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is a series of natural pools filled with crystal clear water. Hidden in the mountains, this place is not easy to reach – but it is totally worth the effort.
The pools are actually located on top of an underground river. You can see the river disappear in the depth and come out again at the other end. And in between, you have the turquoise pools in which you can cool down.
You also have the option of climbing up to a viewpoint and see everything from above. I recommend doing the hike first. It takes about 45 minutes one way and you’ll be very happy to cool down in the pools afterwards.
You don’t need to join a tour to visit Semuc Champey. Take a pick-up truck from Lanquin (try to leave before nine). It’s very easy and way cheaper than the tours. Or you can walk, which should take around two and a half hours. It’s very hot and a lot of uphill – I would always go with the pick-up truck.
Also, remember to bring a padlock so you can lock away your valuables.
#6 Relax in a hammock at Rio Dulce
I absolutely loved Rio Dulce. It’s one of my favourite places in Guatemala. We stayed at the Dreamcatcher Eco Lodge, a beautiful resort inside a monkey reserve, where we were woken up by howler monkeys in the morning.
We went on a wildlife watching tour one morning and saw pelicans, manatees and even more howler monkeys, we walked around the tiny but beautiful Castillo San Felipe and, most important, we spent a lot of time relaxing by the water, reading books and talking to other travellers.
Make sure to take your time to stop by Rio Dulce!
#7 Sunset from Yaxha’s highest pyramid
The Mayan site of Yaxha might not be as large as Tikal, but it does not have as many tourists either. And it is still very impressive.
We came here on a tour from Flores, this time with a guide. All tours leave at noon because that leaves you with enough time to stroll through the ruins before climbing the highest pyramid for sunset. We walked through the jungle, from the temples to the ball court and on to more temples.
The Mayan ball games were brutal, with the losers getting sacrificed after especially important games. It was like the gladiators in Ancient Rome. If you were good, you could be a hero. If not, you were dead. In any case, it is very impressive to stand on the playing ground, knowing what it was used for.
As already said, you can visit Yaxha from Flores. There are even tour operators who offer to take you to Tikal and Yaxha on the same day. I think that’s overdoing it, especially considering the heat and humidity. Take your time to properly enjoy those ruins.
#8 Learn about Guatemala’s chocolate
Who doesn’t love chocolate?
But do you know how it is produced? Have you ever seen cocoa beans? Guatemala is a great place to learn about chocolate production. While the country doesn’t produce much cocoa, it does have a couple of good chocolate museums. The biggest one is located in Antigua, where you can also try lots of free samples or buy fruit covered in chocolate.
I also recommend the chocolate museum in San Marcos La Laguna, on the shore of Lake Atitlan. It might be smaller than the one in Antigua, but the people there are extremely friendly. The guy working there offered us one sample after another. It was brilliant!
#9 Roast marshmallows over lava
Okay, I didn’t actually do this one. But I would have loved to and everyone I met who had done it was very excited about it.
Close to Antigua, you can find Volcan Pacayo. You can hike this volcano as a day trip. The two highlights are, without doubt, seeing the lava and roasting marshmallows over a lava vent. How cool is that?
If you are in Antigua and get the chance, climb Volcan Pacayo. And then leave me a comment and let me know how you liked it. Or, even if you didn’t hike to the volcano, leave me a comment. Have you ever been to Guatemala? Or are you planning to go?
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