Guatemala: A Central American Adventure

Your bucket list is about to get even longer.

 
Guatemalan woman carrying flowers
 
 
 

Guatemala is a tiny Central American country nestled between Honduras, Belize, El Salvador and Mexico. All the fixings for a perfect trip are here: rainforests, volcanoes, coffee fields, mountains, Mayan ruins, and most importantly of all, amazing people. Nevertheless, Guatemala is still massively underrated. Instead of opting for the road less traveled, so-called adventurous backpackers flock to Central American spots deemed safer (ahem, Costa Rica).

We won’t deny it: the country’s colonial background is dark and the string of dictators that followed left behind a bloody history. Nowadays, much like the rest of the region, Guatemala does suffer from the drug trade, but the country is managing this situation much better than some of its neighbors and most of the violent crime is away from the usual tourist destinations.  The narcos do not dictate the life of the general population, and the government is putting a great deal of its resources into taking care of this issue. With tourism becoming a greater part of the economy, it is Guatemala’s best interest to keep you safe.

The “Land of Eternal Spring” is not to be ignored or bypassed. Can’t you just picture it? Horses trotting along colorful cobblestoned streets on their way to the market, jungle treks that lead to barely discovered Mayan pyramids, and all the memories you’ll make along the way. And don’t you just want to see the shock on people’s face when you debunk all of their misconceptions?

Guatemala Has a Bad Rep

Is Guatemala safe? Some embassies seem to say no, some say yes. It’s entirely up to you how you respond to those mixed signals. Like most Central American countries, Guate isn’t without its flaws, but it is a supremely welcoming country and will embrace you with open arms.

Be as vigilant here as you’d be in your own backyard. Here are the facts: violence is present in Guate, but it isn’t directed at tourists.

Keep your wits about you and don’t do anything reckless (unless it’s cliff jumping or something) and you’re in for a great trip.  

 
 

Must-Sees:

Antigua

 
Antigua Guatemala old town with colorful buildings
 

Arguably one of the prettiest cities in Central America, few people visit Guate without actually making the time to come to Antigua. Antigua has a bit of everything: bright markets, colonial architecture, nightlife, coffee plantations...and it’s all surrounded by breathtaking nature.  

Wherever you find yourself in Guatemala, you’re never too far from a volcano -- and Antigua is no exception. Fuego and Agua are the two peaks looming over the city. Take some time to hike to the active Pacaya Volcano and day dream about grilling marshmallows over the lava.

Lake Atitlán

 
colorful sunset at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
 

As we’ve already stated, volcanoes are kind of Guatemala’s thing and these wonders tend to blow up. As the aftermath of one of these eruptions, a volcanic crater was created, and Lake Atitlán happened.

Surrounded by even more volcanoes, the lake is crystal blue, framed by green, and just all around amazing. You’ll have your pick of villages nearby to lay your head at night. Hike an extinct volcano, kayak to your heart's contempt, buy some colorful textiles at the market, and boat your way from one village to the next.

Chichicastenango

 
artisan market in Chichicastenango, Guatemala
 

Say that three times fast. Chichicastenango. Chichicastenango. Chichicastenango.

A bit in the middle of nowhere (but not that far from Atitlán), you’ll find this market mecca. Thursdays and Sundays, the central plaza floods with merchants and flowers and colors and oh my! While the shopping is well worth the trip, getting up early and watching all the vendors set up shop is an experience in and of itself.

While you may not be able to pronounce its name properly, you’ll surely remember this spot from all the souvenirs you’ll buy.

Tikal

 
ancient ruins in Tikal, Guatemala
 

If you visit this country and don’t experience Tikal, you’ve made a serious mistake. This is the must-see to end all must-sees.

Tikal isn’t just an amazing archeological site, it’s an experience. Once the height of Southern Mayan civilization, Tikal is now a gigantic jungle bound collection of towering pyramids. This sight is best experienced at sunrise or sunset and you can even stay within the national park, what’s not to like?

Off-The-Beaten Path:

El Mirador

 
backpackers hiking through the countryside
 

While Tikal is the popular one, El Mirador is its dark and mysterious relative: it takes a bit more work to get to the good stuff but it’s oh so worth it.

When we say it takes a bit more time…we mean it. El Mirador is the rewarding end to a 5-day trek. If you’d like to avoid treading through mud and clouds of mosquitoes, head on over between December and April. Whether you hire a guide, follow a tour, or hike out independently, the trek is sure to be a memorable one.

Deep in the jungle, barely excavated and almost forgotten is one of the largest Mayan pyramids ever. And you can follow the local spider monkeys’ cues and climb straight to the top!

If you’ve always dreamt of being Indiana Jones, this is your time to shine.

Semuc Champey

 
aerial view of blue water terraces in Semuc Champey, Guatemala
 

A bit over all the hiking? This is the spot to go. Not over the hiking? Still the spot to go.

Semuc Champey is an all around winner in terms of natural beauty. Limestone pools of freshwater interconnected by rivers are the perfect swim break. Semuc is a bit remote, but it’s mystical quality has made it a popular spot, so hop on a shuttle and get on over.

Surrounded by impossibly blue waters and verdant jungles, you won’t get bored here: rafting, swimming, caving, and hiking are only some of the things you can do in Semuc.

Hidden Gems:

The Pacific Coast

 
leafy palm trees against a blue sky
 

What, you mean you didn’t think Guate had any beaches to offer? There’s plenty of quaint villages along the Pacific Coast who are more than happy to welcome adventurous travelers.

Montericco is a good place to start. Mangroves and sea turtle hatcheries, what more do you need? The waves might be a bit rough here, so head on over to El Paredon if you’re hitching for a surf.

Two words: black beaches. Won’t that look great in your travel pics?

Festivals and Holidays

 
woman dressed up in traditional clothing for dia de los muertos
 

This may be a bit of a cheat as it’s not exactly a place, but it still counts as a hidden gem. Why? Cities change completely during these holidays. So much so that they become new little hidden experiences that you’ll only catch if you know where, and more importantly, when to look.

Semana Santa or Holy Week is mostly an Antigua thing. This tradition takes place a week before Easter. Hundreds of thousands of people come to the colonial city to celebrate this mix of indigenous, religious, and Spanish culture.

You may have thought Dia de los Muertos is only a Mexico thing, but in fact, the holiday is celebrated all over Guatemala. On November first and second, Guatemalans honor their lost loved ones in grand ways. Visits to the cemetery, traditional foods, and a giant kite festivals are all part of this amazing tradition.

Día de la Independencia is on September 15th in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. It’s a celebration of liberation from Spanish colonial rule. A relay race is held every year from Guatemala City to Cartago in Costa Rica where runners carry with them a torch of hope and are greeted like heroes, with the bonus of marching bands.

Festival Folklórico de Cobán is a bit more off-the-beaten-path and features Rabin Ajau as the culminant moment of the celebration. To make it simple, Mayan girls compete for the coveted title of “Mayan Princess”. Dressed in traditional regional outfits, the girls’ values are not only based on looks but also on intelligence, knowledge, grace, charm, and so much more. Picture Miss America, but better.

 
Guatemala travel infographic
 

Like any country, if you keep your wits about you, this adventure will treat you well. Guatemala is still a developing country, and there are still some kinks to iron out, but it just makes for a richer and more authentic experience.

Just picture this: you’re wearing your new favorite colorful sweater you picked up at the market, you can hear the howler monkeys in the distance and the lively conversation of some locals not far off, you’re steps from the jungle and you can just catch a glimpse of some Mayan ruins on one side, and a volcano on the other. This is the kind of memories you’ll come back from Guate with.

Go on, what are you waiting for?


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