7 Ancient Ruins of Central America

Many of the peoples of Central America were prolific builders and empire-makers; when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they found bustling metropolises and impressive monuments. Today, the ruins of cities built by the Mayans, Toltecs, Zapotecs and others serve as a testament to their civilizations, and many of them are preserved as World Heritage Sites scattered throughout the countries of Central America. A great way to begin learning about these ancient cultures is to visit 1 of these 7 sites; if you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet some of the descendants of these amazing builders.

7. Caracol, Belize

Long thought to be a relatively unimportant Mayan city, Caracol has revealed itself to be one of the most influential political centers in the Maya Lowlands during the Classical Period of the Mayan civilization. The complex was larger than Belize’s capital city today and supported a population twice as large. The site was rediscovered in 1937 and archaeological work has been ongoing since 1985. Caracol was a dense city, with approximately 270 structures per square kilometer, which is denser than Tikal at its height. Caracol weathered the initial collapse of the Mayan empire, but was fully abandoned by 1050. When Europeans arrived, the site had already been disused for 500 years. The largest building at the site is Caana, the Sky Palace; the ruin is, in fact, one of the largest buildings in Belize.

Caana, Belize

6. Las Mercedes, Costa Rica

Las Mercedes was an important political center for the Indigenous peoples of Costa Rica. Associated with the Huetar, a Chibchan-speaking people, Las Mercedes was rediscovered in the late 19th century, when a railway connecting the capital city to Puerto Limon was built. The site has been excavated several times, although the earliest “excavations” were unscientific and many artifacts were removed. Las Mercedes was inhabited from around 1500 BC until 1500 AD, when the Spanish arrived. Glass beads at the site indicate the Indigenous peoples may have traded with the Spaniards. Spanning 25 hectares, the site has 3 large complexes, with a total of 15 platforms and many plazas, retaining walls and causeways. The causeways, which are paved, are a particular testament to the skill of the people that built them.

Photo by: International Expeditions / Jim O'Donnell
Photo by: International Expeditions / Jim O’Donnell

5. Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

Popularly known as the “Pompeii of the Americas,” Joya de Ceren is remarkably well preserved. Much like its ancient Roman counterpart in Italy, this Mayan farming village was covered in volcanic ash when the nearby Loma Caldera erupted, dumping between 4 and 8 feet of ash over the town. The inhabitants fled, but they left behind utensils, ceramics, furniture and even half-eaten food when they escaped the town. Excavations have uncovered about 70 buildings since the site’s 1976 discovery, all of which give us remarkable insight into day-to-day life and Mayan civilization in the late 6th century. Even the farm fields, which had been planted just hours before the eruption, have been preserved. Joya de Ceren was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, and archaeological work has been ongoing since the late 1980s.

Joya de Ceren

4. Copan, Honduras

The ancient city of Copan lies in western Honduras, in the far reaches of the Mayan cultural region; in fact, Copan would have been almost surrounded by peoples from the Isthmo-Colombian cultural region. Nonetheless, the city was occupied for more than 2,000 years and, between the 5th and 9th centuries AD, became an important center of Mayan culture. The site contains multiple temples and the royal Acropolis, as well as a court for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame ōllamaliztli. Copan is famous for a series of stelae depicting rulers and Altar Q is the most famous monument in the entire complex. During the 8th and 9th centuries, the population of Copan declined, as did its influence. Today, Copan is the best-known Mayan site in Honduras, as well as a World Heritage Site.

Copan

3. Canta Gallo, Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Indigenous peoples are most closely related to the Choco-speaking peoples of Panama and Colombia. Most of these groups weren’t prolific builders, unlike the Aztecs and Maya further north. That’s part of what makes Canta Gallo so special; it’s one of the few sites in Nicaragua where you can see the ruins of ancient pyramids built by some of the country’s Indigenous peoples. To get there, you’ll need to travel deep into the jungle of Indio Maiz in southwestern Nicaragua. The site is sacred to the Rama Indians, descendants of the Chibcha. Relatively little is known about Canta Gallo, but some believe it is a lost city. Since the area is remote, the ruins have yet to attract mobs of tourists, meaning that this is a site where you’ll actually be able to get up close to the ruins.

Photo by: Niina  / Bizarre Globe Hopper
Photo by: Niina / Bizarre Globe Hopper

2. Teotihuacán, Mexico

Is it possible to write about Central America’s ancient ruins without addressing Mexico? Although not usually classed as part of Central America proper, Mexico’s Indigenous peoples were drivers of empire and modern Mexico is littered with the ruins of civilizations like the Maya, Zapotecs, Aztecs and Toltecs. The inhabitants of Mexico’s most famous ruins, however, remain unknown; the Aztecs claimed common ancestry with the Teotihuacans, but the ethnicity of the inhabitants is the subject of debate. Perhaps a multi-ethnic center, Teotihuacan was at one time the largest city in pre-Columbian America and its influence was felt throughout Mesoamerica, from Tikal to Copan. Today, it is is famous for its pyramids, including the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, as well as the Avenue of the Dead and its multi-family residences.

Teotihuacán

1. Tikal, Guatemala

The ruins of Tikal are instantly recognizable from the famous Tikal Temple I, a 47-meter tall limestone step pyramid with a Mayan roof comb. The temple is also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar. Of course, Temple I isn’t the only building at Tikal; there are many more buildings. Given that Tikal was once the most powerful city in the Mayan empire, the complex of temples, altars, palaces and pyramids only makes sense. The site is divided into several groups, including the Great Plaza located at the core of the site, the Central Acropolis to its south, the North and South Acropolises and the Plaza of the Seven Temples. Located in the Peten rainforest in northern Guatemala, this World Heritage Site is perhaps one of the best-known in Central America.

Tikal, Guatemala

10 Best Places to Learn to Dive the PADI Way

If you want to learn to dive the first thing you need to do is locate a reputable dive instructor. The gold standard in dive education is PADI which stands for: The Professional Association of Diving Instructors. PADI is the world’s leading scuba diving training organization and has courses for ages eight and up with certification courses for those age 10 and up. You can locate PADI certified instructors and facilities in landlocked cities, YMCA’s and dive shops all over the world. If you are going to learn to dive why not do it in place that you will always remember and take some time to also enjoy the surroundings. When planning your next vacation, why not also learn to scuba dive and give yourself another reason to look forward to that next adventure. We have compiled a list of some of the best places on earth to learn to scuba dive the PADI way while also experiencing a great vacation.

10. Bahamas

Bahamas is a popular destination and easily accessible for most Americans. There are several dive centers on the island including Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas. Stuart was a stunt diver in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”. After earning a reputation as a top notch underwater stunt coordinator, he saved his money and in 1987 bought a dive boat. Subsequent stints in various resorts and his role as the go-to film underwater coordinator, led Stuart to open a dive center. Offering various PADI certification classes and divemaster courses Stuart also takes certified divers on shark dives, has a kid’s certification course and even has an underwater wedding venue if you want to have the wedding experience of a lifetime. When not diving, the Bahamas offers great beaches, nightlife, boating, fishing, the world’s deepest blue hole and the third largest reef in the world. A wild horse preserve, various nature preserves and great weather. What more could you ask for?

Dean's Blue Hole, Bahamas

9. Scotland

Scotland you say? Scotland doesn’t necessarily come to mind when you think of scuba diving. For wreck divers, those that enjoy exploring sunken vessels and such, then Scotland is the perfect choice to learn to dive. Scapa Scuba is located in Orkney and the only dive shop in the area. Courses in open water diving, rescue diving and more are offered. One reason Scotland is an ideal place is that at the end of WW1, in 1919,  the German Navy scuttled 52 ships at Scapa Flow and this makes for what is today one of the world’s best wreck dives. When not diving, explore some of the Neolithic remains in the area that date back over 5,000 years, a cathedral founded by Vikings or visit some of the nearby towns.

Photo by: Scapa Scuba
Photo by: Scapa Scuba

8. Greece

Learning to dive in Greece has two advantages, the opportunity to learn to dive while enjoying the Aegean Sea and, well, the fact that you’re in Greece. One of the places you can learn to dive is the Atlantis Diving Center, located in the Halkidiki region. The Halkidiki region is in the Northern part of Greece and consists of three peninsulas jutting out into the Aegean Sea. Here the dive sites offer underwater caves, reefs and a variety of sea life. When not diving you can visit unique historical sites such as Mount Athos which holds monasteries and has been continuously inhabited for 1800 years. Visiting Mount Athos is restricted to a certain number of visitors per day, males only and special permission has to be obtained. The city of Thessaloniki is nearby and offers a mix of old world charm with modern city.

Roy Pedersen / Shutterstock.com
Roy Pedersen / Shutterstock.com

7. Spain

Costa del Sol is known for luxurious resorts and hotels, beautiful beaches, fine dining and a vibrant nightlife. Simply Diving, in Malaga Spain, has been operating in the area since 1999 and has a cadre of international instructors. The 5-star dive center has classes ranging from beginner to night diver, underwater photography, dive master and instructor training. Some of the dive sites visited are Gibraltar, the site of war vessel wreckage, and La Costa Tropical, Europe’s first ever National Marine Park. When you’re not diving you can enjoy any of the popular tourist destinations in Spain. If you want to escape the tourist areas for a few days then head inland and visit one of the many small villages and towns where you can enjoy hiking and cycling through the countryside surrounded by olive groves and fields.

Scuba Diving in Spain

6. Peru

Located in the northwestern part of Peru, the town of Mancora is a popular beach resort destination and home to the Spondylus Dive Center. Spondylus was the first PADI certified dive school in Peru and has all types of courses for children and adults. Popular dives include El Ñuro Beach where you can get up close to different marine life such as sea turtles, octopus, moray eels and different species of fish. Abandoned oil platforms have turned into artificial reefs and make for a unique experience also. For those that just want to have a fun day, a snorkeling tour can be arranged. Also, a day trip to the nearby Amotape Hills National Park provides the opportunity to do some river rafting and hiking. Mancora, known for being a popular beach and surf destination, has been likened to some of the popular Thailand beaches before they became overcrowded with tourists.

Mancora, Peru

5. Guatemala

When you sit back and hear other divers talk about where they got certified you may hear of a tropical beach paradise, but you can have a different story. Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is off the beaten path for tourists and is one of the best kept secrets among travelers. Surrounded by colorful Mayan villages the lake is located in the highlands and is the deepest lake in Central America. Formed by volcanic eruptions the region is part of the “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Ocean. ATI Divers run courses at the lake where you can dive among volcanic formations such as cliffs and overhangs. When you’re not diving you can experience the non-commercialized area of authentic Mayan villages where the women still wear traditional dress. Take a couple of day tours while you are there and you will have a story to tell about where you got dive certified.

Lake Atitian, Guatamala

4. India

India has a coastline of over 7,000 km so the chances of finding a good dive instructor are pretty good. One of the best places to learn to dive and also have a great vacation is the Andaman Islands located in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar. Dive India offer courses from open water to instructor training. Diving among pristine reefs while also offering dives to locations far off the beaten path, Dive India is a good choice to learn to scuba dive. During your down time you can learn a little about the history of the area. A popular destination is the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. The jail was built by colonial British and used to house political prisoners during the era. You can also take an island hopping tour, or just enjoy the many beaches.

scuba 1

3. Philippines

The Philippines is comprised of over 7,000 islands so you might think they have a few places to learn to dive and you would be right. With all of the places and options, the prices for learning how to dive have a wide range. One of the cheapest places is also one of the best places. Dumaguete is located in the province of Negros Oriental, the largest city in the province. Liquid Dumaguete is a 5-star PADI resort that not only offers courses, but runs a resort on location. Why Dumaguete for diving? The reason is that it’s close to APO Island which is probably the most famous and best diving sites in the region. Hard corals, schools of fish, sea turtles and an abundance of other sea life are encountered. Other popular dive site destinations are also available. The other reason Dumaguete is a great location is when you’re not diving the city awaits with all the hospitality of the Filipino people.

Learning to Dive in the Philipphines

2. Thailand

Thailand, the home of crystal clear blue water, white sand beaches and wild parties. Thailand is also the home to some of the best diving in Asia. Located on Koh Tao Island you will find the Crystal Dive Resort one of only a few 5-star PADI certified dive shops in the region. From beginner courses, refresher courses and specialized training, Crystal Dive Resort offers everything you need to get certified. With 16 dive sites around the island you can experience all types of diving. You may want to take a day dive to Shark Island where you could spot reef and leopard sharks. Don’t want to encounter a shark? You might want to try the area around the Japanese Gardens where there is little current and a fairly shallow reef populated with various tropical fish. Being an island, the majority of activities revolve around diving, hanging out on the beach or fishing, but there is always the nightlife. After spending the day diving you might want to  take a plunge into the famous Thai nightlife.

Soren Egeberg Photography / Shutterstock.com
Soren Egeberg Photography / Shutterstock.com

1. Australia

Australia is home to the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living thing on earth. Selected as a World Heritage Site and visible from outer space the Great Barrier Reef is undoubtedly the most famous dive spot in the world. Where better to earn your PADI certification and also have the chance to see and experience such a wonder? From 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises to the more than 1500 species of fish, this is why Australia is our number one pick.  Various sea turtles and coral species make for what has to be the most memorable dive of a lifetime. Pro Dive in Cairns is a 5-star PADI dive center and has been in operation since 1983. Pro Dive offers all the classes needed to get certified and for the more experienced, they have extended dive tours. Using their state of the art dive vessels that have Wi-Fi on board and comfortable quarters you can have an extended trip of three to seven days and hit all the great dive spots. Cairns is considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef but with its tropical climate and laid back atmosphere also makes for a great vacation destination.

Great Barrier Reef

The 15 Best Volcanoes Hikes in the World

What does it take to climb a volcano? In some cases it takes permits purchased months in advance, technical climbing skills and a paid guide. In other cases one can simply drive right into the volcano, or spend an hour hiking up a moderate hill to reach the top. How about the best volcanoes to hike, how do you determine that? We looked at hundreds of volcanoes and determined the 15 best hikes to take based on a number of factors including ease of access, views from the top, lava activity and the reward factor. From around the world, here are our top 15 choices for the best volcano hikes in the world.

15. Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland

This long but challenging hike takes trekkers through scenic landscapes including snow, ice and ash from the most recent eruptions. The trek starts at sea level and goes all the way to the top through a crevasse riddled glacier and finally to the summit where you can view an enormous crater that was left by past eruptions. Glacier equipment such as crampons are required as you literally will be climbing on ice. If you happen to reach the top on a clear day, expect unbelievable views of half the entire island including glaciers, more volcanoes and the Vestmannaeyjar islands. April to September is the time to go and if you are feeling extra adventurous it is possible to ski back down. The climb can take eight to 10 hours and although challenging, you will certainly feel on top of the world on this glacier volcano.

Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland

14. Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Arenal was one of the most active volcanoes from about 1968 to 2010 and since then has slowed down but this volcano still is known to spit out ash and sometimes even lava. It is classic in shape, being tall and symmetrical and there is no worry about being cold up here. Climbing to the summit of this volcano is actually both illegal and very dangerous, but luckily there are a few worthwhile hikes that are totally legal and still get you up on the mountain. The main trial inside the park is about 5 km in length and takes you through the rain forest with several opportunities to view the peak. Expect lots of wildlife including toucans and monkeys along with explosions from the peak. Expect to hike over old lava flows and hit many viewing areas where you can actually hear the volcano breathing, which is really quite impressive.

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

13. Mount Fuji, Japan

It is the highest volcano and highest peak in Japan where tourists and locals’ alike swarm to climb this volcano, known as one of the three Holy Mountains. More than 200,000 people a year to be exact. The last eruption of Mount Fuji occurred in 1707 and spread ash as far as what is now Tokyo forming a new crater on the east flank. July to September is the official climbing season where trails and mountain facilities are open. The most popular way to climb this volcano is to climb halfway up to one of the huts, take a break and set off again in the night, reaching the summit for sunrise. Worshipping the sun from the top of Japan’s highest peak creates something of a spiritual experience, no matter if you are religious or not. Avoiding the crowds is not possible on this mountain and some trekkers believe that climbing amongst so many like minded people just adds to the overall experience.

Mount Fuji 1

12. Mount Etna, Sicily

The largest active volcano in Europe, Etna soars into the sky often surrounded by mist and steam. Mount Etna is special in that it has this unique relationship with the people that live as the foot of it. They believe that Etna gives them fertile ground by spitting out lava and respect must be granted as it can also take away life. This volcano can be climbed year round and does not require any sort of permit or guide, but it is recommended to be informed about the activity status as it sometimes shuts down to hikers. It has recently come to the attention of many trekkers that the actual summit is unavailable to anyone who doesn’t have a guide, but that fact is up for debate. Plan on seeing solidified rivers of lava, views of the sea and the mainland, provided the top isn’t covered in clouds.

Mount Etna

11. Pacaya, Guatemala

You aren’t allowed quite to the top of this volcano but it should be on your list of things to climb for a number of reasons. First up, this trek can be done in half a day, which makes it perfect for someone on a time crunch. Secondly, not only are you climbing on an active volcano but you can actually see a second active volcano nearby and a third that is now a crater lake. The trek begins through lush green foliage and views are of surrounding fields and hills. The trail eventually turns into lava rock and dust, becoming really slippery. This is when it pays to have a walking stick. At the “top” the lava is literally running underneath you and it becomes clear as to why you need shoes with really good soles, they will literally melt. Marshmallows and hot dogs are routinely busted out and cooked over the lava.

Pacaya Volcano

10. Mount Vesuvius, Italy

This volcano is known worldwide as being responsible for covering the city of Pompeii with a blanket of ash in 79 A.D., which in turn preserved it until the re-discovery of it in the 1700’s. Since that time this volcano has blew its top more than 30 times throughout history and most recently in 1944. The climb to the summit is the easiest climb on this list and only takes about 30 minutes. It is best done in hiking shoes or running shoes and there is no need to carry any gear with you. What awaits visitors at the top is a stunning panorama of the city, islands and part of the Apennine Mountains. Admission to the volcano actually includes a guided tour of the crater at the top which many climbers are unaware of. You won’t find any spewing lava here but steam is often seen coming out of the crater. On a sunny day expect to see views out to the bay of Naples. If you are wanting to climb a famous volcano and don’t want to worry about tackling snow, steep ridges or carrying gear; this is the one for you.

Mount Vesuvius

9. Pinatubo, Philippines

This active volcano is actually located on the island of Luzon in the Philippines and last erupted in 1991, producing one of the most violent eruptions of the 20th century. As of now the volcano is quite quiet and it is the perfect time to summit and enjoy the blue green crater lake that didn’t exist 30 years ago. January is the best time to go as temperatures are at the coolest and the lake color at its finest. The one day trek is actually quite easy as a 4X4 will take you part of the way. The trek is done within a few hours at a moderate incline. If one desires it is actually possible to pitch a tent at the summit and spend the night, an outhouse is even provided at the top. Hikers will make their way up the path, passing sandy cliffs along the way as well as small tribes of indigenous people.

Pinatubo, Philliphines

8. Kilauea, Hawaii

Located on the Big Island, Kilauea is the world’s most active volcano and one of the most easily accessible. In the 20th century alone this volcano has erupted on 45 separate occasions with the most recent eruption beginning in 1983. To date this eruption continues and has spewed over 32 billion cubic yards of lava, forever changing the landscape. You can actually drive into this volcano, but hiking throughout is most recommended as it’s one of the only places on earth you can literally walk through an active volcano. Walking around Crater Rim Drive is one of the most popular activities as you can witness lava oozing out of it, witness steam vents and walk across the land that is only a few days old. There are numerous hiking trails throughout and although one can’t plan a visit around when and where to see the lava, helpful guides at the visitors center will point you in the right direction.

Mount Kilauea

7. Mount Stromboli, Aeolian Islands

Hiking up this volcano is only permitted with a guide and there is a strict limit on how many people are allowed to visit the crater each day, thus make sure to book your trip in advance. The trip to the top isn’t for the faint of heart and will take anywhere from two to four hours to reach the summit. The most popular time to reach the top is at nighttime and thus more tours leave around 4 pm. A gentle incline awaits hikers at first, taking you through lush vegetation. It quickly becomes steeper and one should expect to walk through volcanic sand that is strewn with black rocks. There are actually three craters at the top that billow out steam and smoke, making strange gurgling sounds. The light show at the top is what everyone waits for though as the craters explode with red fiery sparks, shooting high into the air.

Mount Stromboli

6. Mount Bromo, Indonesia

Indonesia is home to over 100 active volcanoes and daily earthquakes, making it a popular place for adrenaline junkies and hikers alike. Although Mount Bromo isn’t the tallest of the active volcanoes in Indonesia, it is the most visited and is quite easily accessible. The volcano has a constant stream of white smoke coming out of it, reminding visitors that it could explode at any time. Getting to the summit is easy without a guide and is best done in time to see the sunrise, meaning a 3 am wake up call is necessary. The well-defined path up should only take you an hour or so. An interesting fact about this volcano is that the Tengger people believe that in order to appease the Gods here they must offer food and money to them by throwing it into the crater of the volcano during the annual Kasada festival.

Mount Bromo, Indonesia

5. Cotopaxi, Ecuador

It is the second highest peak in Ecuador, lovely looking with its white snow and cone shape. This trek is not for inexperienced hikers though as it is more of a mountain climb than just a hike up the side. In the 18th and 19th century this volcano had a violent spell but now it is mostly just a plume of steam that comes out the top and melts its glacier surroundings. To get here most climbers take a 4X4 up to the border of the national park. They then climb with their guide up to a mountain hut and spend the night, summiting the next morning. It is currently illegal to climb to the summit without a guide and recent signs of eruption have limited the climbing that is allowed. If you have the chance though, summiting the world’s third highest active volcano is certainly something to put on the bucket list.

Cotopaxi, Ecuador

4. Mont Pelee, Martinique

In 1902 this dramatic volcano erupted and destroyed the entire town of St. Pierre killing about 30,000 people. Luckily since then you can climb this volcano without worries and without tourists at every bend in the trail. Being an integral part of France, visitors climbing here face no red tape or fees but will need some French to get by as English is not widely spoken. Because of the immense vegetation on the island there are three established routes that trekkers can take. The most popular of these is the Aileron Route as it is a well-constructed and wonderfully varied trail. Climbing before dawn is recommended as the clouds roll in day after day just after dawn and prohibit hikers from the magical views that await. Gorgeous lush green vegetation, flowering plants and jagged peaks surprise visitors along the way of this volcano that really looks nothing like the grey, lava strewn volcanoes you are used to.

Mount Pelee, France

3. Telica Volcano, Nicaragua

Nicaragua is full of volcanoes, both dormant and active and it can be hard to choose which one to climb but we highly suggest heading to Telica. The majority of the way up tends to be flat, through farm lands and over dirt roads. It is only the last hour or two where you finally start to hike to the top. The best season for climbing this mountain is up for debate as the dry season tends to be hot whereas the rainy season can make the lava harder to witness. Camping at the top of Telica is one of the most popular trips to do as seeing the lava at night is something special and the sunrise in the morning is truly spectacular. The lava is below the crater rim at a depth of about 120 meters and visitors should expect to have to lie down on their stomachs to look into the crater.

Telica Volcano, Nicaragua

2. Mount Aso, Japan

It is Japan’s largest active volcano and climbing it is certainly an adventure that should be on the top of your bucket list. There are three trails you can use to get up to the summit, with one of them not actually leading up to the volcano (hint: do not take the left trail). The hike itself can take anywhere from an hour or three depending on which trail and how many stops you take along the way. There are actually five separate volcanic peaks here and Mt. Nakadake is the most active spewing a constant stream of sulfuric gas from its peak. If you are feeling really lazy and still want to get to the top of the volcano, there is a choice of two cable cars that will get you there.

Mount Aso, Japan

1. Mount St Helens, United States

It is mandatory to have a permit to hike this active volcano, no matter what time of year and there are only a number of permits that are handed out each year if you want to make it to the top of the crater. Although it is not a technical climb it is strenuous and presents hazards such as ice, loose boulders and fast-changing weather. The scene at the top is what people climb for an it has been described as ‘surreal, unbelievable and awe-inspiring’. A huge crater with a dome that grows in size each year and has a horseshoe glacier around it, not to mention incredible views of Mount Adams, Mount Hood and Mount Rainier, as well as the blue green hills that surround them are all sights to take in from the top. This is truly one of the best volcano hikes in the world and must be at the top of your list to climb.

Mount St Helens, US

10 Things to See and Do in Guatemala

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?

Guatamala Coffee Beans

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.

Milosz_M / Shutterstock.com
Milosz_M / Shutterstock.com

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.

Pacaya Volcano

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.

Lago de Atitlan

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.

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

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.

Milosz_M / Shutterstock.com
Milosz_M / Shutterstock.com

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.

Santiaguito 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.

Chichicastenango Market
Stefano Ember / Shutterstock.com

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.

Visit Semuc Champey

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.

Tikal Ruins