From its wildlife to its people, Guatemala lives life in full-colour
This mountainous land, swathed in pristine rainforests and steeped in ancient Mayan culture is a joy to discover. Mysterious abandoned cities lie tangled amongst the jungles of the north, while colonial architecture adorns the country’s cities and towns. Indigenous highland villages retain their Mayan roots with rainbow-hued fabrics and fascinating religious rituals. It is this cultural mix that makes Guatemala so exciting. Natural beauty abounds too, with soaring mountains and volcanoes, rushing rivers, wide lakes and deep caves. Guatemala also boasts a Pacific coast, as well as its own little corner of the Caribbean.
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Top things to do in Guatemala
There are many wonderful experiences to be had here. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts at the foot of this page, but in the meantime here are our top three things to do in Guatemala.
Tread a path to the temples of Tikal
Central America’s most magnificent Mayan relics are found in Guatemala’s forested north, not far from the border with Mexico. Jungle-lined pathways lead to a series of impressive ruins - five towering pyramid structures standing proud among hundreds of other, smaller relics. For the most evocative experience visit at sunset when the surrounding sky is filled with the primeval sounds of the rainforest. Keep your eyes peeled for the wonderful birdlife flitting through the trees and listen out for the howler monkeys.
Soak up the atmosphere of Lake Atitlán
The glittering waters of Lake Atitlán are ringed by an awe-inspiring panorama of volcanic peaks creating a dramatic highland scene. The lake itself is in fact a massive crater caused by a volcanic eruption many millennia ago, now filled with fresh water. Nearby, picturesque indigenous villages invite you to linger a little longer. Come for the views, and the spectacular hikes that lead you to them. Come for the traditional culture. Whatever you do, just make sure you come.
Cloths of many colours
Souvenir hunters should look no further than the sprawling twice-weekly market at Chichicastenango, up in the western highlands. Rainbow textiles jostle for attention alongside leather goods, woodwork and ceramics. Smaller and more authentic, but no less of a spectacle, is the market at Sololá, accessible from the shores of Lake Atitlán. Make sure you leave a little space in your luggage for these inevitable temptations.
Lesser-known highlights in Guatemala
While there are many well-known things to do in Guatemala, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Guatemalan adventure.
Lesser-visited Mayan ruins…
While UNESCO-enlisted Tikal is a must-see for visitors to Guatemala, two more secretive sites slip under many a radar but are just as impressive. The pyramids and temples of ceremonial Uaxactún are far wilder and authentic feeling than Tikal, and the Mayan’s oldest astrological observatory is there. Solstices are impressive. Yaxhá offers another epic Mayan experience, with hundreds of buildings and several acropolises waiting to be explored by intrepid adventurers.
Let’s go fly a kite…
Every November, the people of Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango create and decorate immense kites to fly in Sacatepéquez cemetery during the All Saints Day Kite Festival. Tombstones are cleaned up and picnics are enjoyed on the graveyard’s grassy areas, making this festival a true celebration of life, love, death and family. Though knowledge of the Day of the Dead is only now entering popular culture in the West, Guatemala’s kite flying rituals have existed for over 3,000 years.
Known simply as Antigua, Guatemala’s former capital was established in the 1500s. Built in an earthquake-prone zone, serious quakes have reduced the glory of its monuments and colonial churches to ruins, but recent centuries have seen the city’s grandeur restored. Occupying a plum spot in the central highlands and famed for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture, Antigua is now a UNESCO-listed heritage site worth exploring.
Central America’s highest peak…
Tajumulco Volcano is Central America’s highest peak at 4,220m. From its summit, survey Guatemala, Mexico and, on particularly fine days, even El Salvador or the distant Pacific. Trekking and camping trips are popular, and our local experts know the prime routes to take and the pitfalls to avoid. This is an overnight adventure for all but the fittest contenders.
When is the best time to go to Guatemala?
The best time to go to Guatemala for minimal rainfall is between December and April, which is the drier season. Conveniently, many of the places on travellers' itineraries lie at altitude, meaning they escape the heat and humidity of the lowlands and remain pleasantly fresh and warm, with the notable exception of the Mayan temples. The wettest period starts in May and lasts until November, and although parts of the country experience the wet season as nothing more than an afternoon downpour, the lowland areas can become quite difficult to explore in this period.
Interesting facts about Guatemala
Guatemala is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top facts about it?
- Guatemala City is now the country’s capital. It used to be Antigua Guatemala, also known simply as Antigua, not to be confused with that of ‘Antigua and Barbuda’ fame.
- Guatemala is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of denim.
- Only three of Guatemala’s 30-plus volcanoes are considered active.
- Coffee is the country’s biggest export. Guatemala also exports a huge amount of jade, chocolate and cacao.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Guatemala. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Go colour-crazy in the cemetery…
Chichicastenango’s cemetery is on a hillside overlooking a town better known for its markets. The bright greens, blues, pinks that saturate this amazing site are steeped in Mayan symbolism. Colour-washed mausoleums, headstones and crosses all jostle for attention, with no-one knowing how to decipher the macabre Mayan colour-code today. The cemetery’s Day of the Dead rituals ensure that the resting place of the departed remains lively to honour the ancients entombed within.
Turtles’ nesting ground…
Guatemala is renowned for its diverse wildlife, the survival of some of which is under threat. Monterrico Wildlife Reserve exists to protect the habitats and breeding patterns of many such species, from caiman and sea turtles to armadillos and iguanas. Its exotic beach is the perfect spot to observe thousands of vulnerable baby turtles seeking the freedom of the ocean. Watch this natural spectacle or simply enjoy Monterrico’s black sand beaches, lakes and volcanic skyline.
Soak in San Pedro’s natural spa…
Lake Atitlan has many villages huddled around its extensive shoreline, but San Pedro is a favourite with adventure-seeking ex pats and more youthful crowds alike. What many don’t know is that it has its very own series of thermal baths, with the best of the bunch located in the fittingly named Los Termales. Juxtapose a cold sundowner with the sweat and steam for a natural spa experience to remember.
Chocolate pudding fruit…
Just when you thought Guatemala couldn’t impress any more, the existence of its chocolate pudding fruit comes to light. When really ripe, this usually bitter fruit’s flesh becomes dark and chocolatey to look at, with sweet overtones when eaten. Look out for one and if you’re lucky enough to find or forage for a rarer olosapo – custard fruit – pair the two for the ultimate low-calorie Guatemalan dessert.
What to read before you go to Guatemala
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to India, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'Beyond the Mexique Bay' by Aldous Huxley
Huxley published his travelogue a few years after his seminal work, Brave New World. On this richly textured journey, Huxley describes his trip through the Caribbean to Guatemala and beyond. Rather than a guide to Central America and Mexico, it’s more an intellectual meditation on the simplicity and poverty that pervaded local post-colonial culture at the time. A witty and poignant scene-setter.
'The Old Patagonian Express' by Paul Theroux
A rail journey that begins in Boston eventually delivers Theroux to the carriages of the Old Patagonian Express steam engine, having met with countless legendary folk and misadventures en route. Escaping the confines and carriages of his commute – a metaphor for a routine life – this is Theroux’s quest for freedom and tropical adventures. One to devour in departures.
'The President' by Miguel Angel Asturias
This work earned its author, Guatemalan diplomat Miguel Angel Asturias, the Nobel Prize for Literature. In an unnamed Latin American country, a ruthless dictator and his totalitarian government scheme and scam. A satirical and sometimes surreal offering, Asturias wants his writing to reflect ‘the voice of the people, gathering their myths and popular beliefs and seeking to give birth to a universal consciousness of Latin American problems.’
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