This small action packed country offers tourists an escape from reality, into a country where the weather is beautiful but not too hot, the people are welcoming and interesting and there is no shortage of active volcanoes to climb. This is a country that is full of highlands producing gourmet coffee beans, historical cities that have been rebuilt after tragedy and natural wonders that will have you wondering why you haven’t been here before. It is hard to narrow the list to just 10, but we did it and here are the 10 things we recommend you do and see in Guatemala.
10. Tour a Coffee Plantation
It wouldn’t be a trip to this country without exploring one of the many coffee plantations that produce some of the best coffee in the world. If you have ever done a coffee tour before expect to find something a little different here. Besides just the regular tours that take you through the coffee process from start to finish, many of the plantations here offer specialty tours such as coffee tasting and latte art sessions. Coffee growing in this region is very different than others as they specialize in shade grown coffee beans that are grown in high altitudes, thus producing some of the most gourmet beans. For any coffee lover out there, experiencing a Guatemalan coffee plantation is often much more informative and surprising than you would think. If you are really into learning more, why not stay the night at one of the amazing coffee plantations?
9. Explore Colonial Antigua
It may just be the most popular tourist destination in all of the country and deservingly so as this former capital boasts an impressive number of colonial relics in a glorious setting. Despite it being a global hot spot, this city has remained true to its heritage and is a vibrant town featuring churches, markets and plazas that flock with activity. Renting a scooter to get around the city and surrounding area is a popular choice of transport and can easily be obtained from the rental office for just $30/day. There is no shortage of things to see around here as the city is loaded with historic buildings, monuments, fountains and ruins. Make sure to check out the extremely large market that is located just outside the town center where it is easy to get lost amongst the many stalls and shops.
8. Hike Pacaya Volcano
This is Guatemala’s most active volcano and one of the easiest to climb in the country, making it a popular destination for tourists. The trail is only 1.5 miles up with multiple overlooks along the way, providing sweeping views of the lagoon of Calderas and three other volcanoes. This family friendly hike will let you get up close and personal with hot spots, cooled lava chambers and if you are trekking with a guide plan on toasting a marshmallow or two at the top. It is possible to camp overnight on this volcano where if the action is right, you will be privy to red hot lava sighting in the dark night. Although this volcano tends to be crowded with tourists; it is still one of the most fun mountains to climb in the country and truly anyone can do so. If you don’t think you can make the hike there are plenty of guides offering horses to take you up.
7. Visit Lago de Atitlan
This dramatic crater lake should be on anyone’s list of places to see while in this country. The shorelines are dotted with traditional Mayan villages, the lake itself surrounded by towering volcanoes and the color of the water has to be seen to be believed. The towns surrounding the lake are all unique and some feature luxury resorts while others cater to backpackers and have no roads, simply offering paths to travel on. Where you stay will effect your experiences here as there are many hiking paths to explore, while some travelers prefer to lounge on the beach and swim in the waters. Sunrise and sunset are both amazing at this lake and provide ample opportunity to snap amazing photos. Do your research ahead of time to find out which town is suitable for you.
6. Visit Quetzaltenango
This city also known as Xela, is located in the Western Highlands and definitely worth a visit while you are in the country. Besides being extremely safe, clean and open to tourists; this city acts as a base for a range of amazing hikes through the surrounding countryside. Volunteering and/or taking Spanish lessons are the two most popular activities here and if you have more than a couple days, it is worth it to explore these options. Visiting the hot springs is perhaps the most favorite thing to do while in the area though and Fuentes Georginas is the place to do so. This hot springs resort offers pools of varying temperatures in a lush, volcanic setting that lets your body unwind and your mind relax. Other things to do in this city include exploring the churches and touring a nearby coffee farm.
5. Lake Izabal
Guatemala’s largest lake is quickly becoming a tourist hot spot as people are now discovering its natural beauty and tranquil vibes. For now though it is largely undeveloped and that just adds to its natural charm. Visitors on the eastern edge of the lake can visit the Spanish castle that was reconstructed in the 1950’s which is home to cannons, secret rooms and fabulous views of the lake. On the other end of the lake is the wildlife preserve that is home to many species of birds and animals including manatees, howler monkeys and jaguars. North you will find warm waterfalls, hot springs, caves and limestone canyons that beg to be explored. There are a variety of eco-lodges, hotels and guest houses to choose from here, but hurry before everyone else starts to find out about this magical place.
4. Hike Santiaguito Volcano
We don’t suggest hiking alone up this extremely active volcano that erupts every 30-40 minutes; although some adventure seekers have done just so and lived to tell the tale. Instead we highly recommend that you join a guided tour up to one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. The tours up to the crater are two-day adventures and have hikers climbing first to a viewpoint which you can see gorgeous views of the volcano and then on to a strenuous hike to the campsite. From the campsite you will see eruptions destroying rocks and forming lava like lines. There is also another viewing point about 150 meters away from camp that gets you even closer. Just make sure you are in good enough shape, can carry your own bag and are comfortable sleeping on an active volcano.
3. Chichicastenango Market
It is the country’s largest and perhaps most colorful market, some people have been known to describe it as downright chaos but it is truly something to experience if you are in this country. Every Sunday and Thursday the tiny village of Chichicastenango, complete with tiny houses and cobblestone streets gets flooded with tourists and locals looking to buy…well…anything. This market has existed for centuries and draws vendors from all over the country and it is where you will find everything Guatemalan. From vegetables to pottery to fashion to wood carvings; you name it and someone will have it. Expect to see locals haggling over prices, pigs and chickens for sale and plenty of families taking part at this market. Most of the vendors arrive the night before to set up their stalls and the best time to shop this market is before 10 am, when the tourists haven’t arrived yet and the prices are lower.
2. Visit Semuc Champey
It may just be the hardest place to reach on this list but certainly is one of the most rewarding. Semuc Champey is a natural monument that consists of a natural 300m limestone bridge which the Cahabón River passes underneath. Water still passes over the top though and has formed bright turquoise pools and small waterfalls, perfect for swimming in. Some of the water is deep enough to dive into from the higher limestone shelf, while other pools are perfect for just lounging in. The water is incredibly clear, so clear you could read a book if it were underwater at the bottom. The sounds of nature, the butterflies all around you and what can only be described as a tropical paradise is what Semuc Champey promises every visitor. Make sure to check out the hidden caves behind the waterfalls for an even cooler experience.
1. Explore the Tikal Ruins
It is the largest excavated site in the Americas and the country’s most famous cultural and natural preserve. It was once a Mayan city of great power and size from 600 BC to 900Ad and is now a fascinating collection of beautiful building and temple ruins. The jungle setting and remoteness of this site means that it is hardly ever crowded. It is full of orchids, trees and over 285 exotic birds and animals. It is almost impossible to explore this park in just one day as the park is a total of 222 square miles and includes five large temples, nine groups of courts and plazas, two museums and a visitor’s center. There are three hotels on site that many visitors choose to stay at in order to experience the full vastness of these ruins. Many of the temples can be climbed and offer spectacular views above the treetops, especially during sunrise.