Guatemala is one of my favorite countries in the world. It is cheap, easy to get around and there’s something for everyone. There are beaches, highlands, jungles, lakes, Pacific and Caribbean coasts, magnificent ruins, Mayan culture, old colonial towns and so much more. The best part is that all this variety is located so close together that you can easily experience a few of these things within one day.
It is easy to get around and if you are not fussy about your mode of transportation, there are buses going everywhere all the time for basically nothing. If you don’t have long, there are also lots of tourist shuttles going to all the main destinations which are easy and cheap. Try to get a chicken bus at least once though. They can be lots of fun and are an attraction in themself!
There are many places that are worth a visit in Guatemala. Here are some of my top picks!
No visit to Guatemala is complete without a visit to the magnificent ruins of Tikal, one of the largest sites of pre-Colombian Mayan civilization. One of the things that make Tikal so amazing is that it is set in the jungle. You can be walking around a jungle-covered hill, only to discover it is actually a pyramid! Tikal is such a big site, that it is easy to leave the crowds behind and feel like you are an explorer discovering Tikal for yourself. The nearby town of Flores is also quite nice and a good option to base yourself while exploring the ruins of Tikal. There are many bus options, as well as flights between Flores/Santa Elena, and Guatemala City, and Antigua.
Possibly the most touristy place in Guatemala, Antigua still retains its colonial charm. It’s located in the central highlands, a quick drive from Guatemala City, so you can come here straight from the airport. It’s a very pretty town, surrounded by volcanos, with colorful buildings and cobblestone streets. There are lovely shops, restaurants, bars, and services. It is a fun place to be. There are also lots of excursions, and you can do things like climb active volcanos. If you want to learn Spanish, this is a great place to do it and there are many Spanish Schools.
3. Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is also located in the Guatemalan highlands, and it is a gorgeous area. The deepest lake in Central America is ringed by volcanoes and Mayan villages. Mayan culture is not just prevalent in the dress worn by the women, but also in their cultural practices. A visit here would not be complete without a visit to Maximon in the lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan. Maximon is a local animist god worshipped in the Mayan highlands. There are a few versions of him in Mayan communities in Guatemala and in Santiago, he takes the form of a small cigar smoking, rum drinking, statue. You can show your respects by giving him a cigar or rum! Lake Atitlan is reached easily by chicken buses or tourist shuttle from Antigua.
Chichi is famous for its market held on Thursdays and Sundays. The market is full of pretty much everything you can imagine, and it attracts a lot of locals as well as tourists. It is a good place to buy souvenirs, such as the local handicrafts, and bargaining is expected. You can come here on a day trip from Antigua or Lake Atitlan, but I recommend going the night before the market and checking out the town while the market is being set up.
Monterrico is located on the Pacific coast of Guatemala and is a great place for a weekend beach break from Antigua. It is a relaxing place with small guesthouses lining the beach. It is a black sand beach, and the currents in the ocean are quite strong, so this is something to keep in mind if you are traveling with kids. The highlight of a visit to Monterrico is the opportunity to set a baby turtle free on Saturday evenings in the turtle egg-laying season. For a couple of dollars to the local turtle conservation project, you are given a baby turtle which you get to set free in a race to the ocean. If your turtle gets to the water first, then you get the bonus of free dinner!
To experience a very different Guatemala, it is worth heading to the Caribbean coastal town of Livingston. Livingston is home to many people of Garifuna and Afro-Caribbean descent which gives the town a very different feel from other Guatemalan places. It can feel more like you are on a Caribbean island than in Guatemala. One of the best things about a visit to Livingston is getting here. There are no road links to this town, so you need to catch a boat from nearby towns. The boat ride from Rio Dulce, which is located on the main road between Tikal and Guatemala City, is particularly enjoyable.
For a very different experience in Guatemala, go to Esquipulas. Despite not being well known amongst foreign tourists, it is actually the second most visited place in Guatemala, primarily by religious pilgrims. Esquipulas is home to the Black Christ, and Catholics flock here to see it, including the Pope in 1996. The town is centered around the basilica where the Black Christ is housed. If possible, visit on a weekend when there is far more people here to see the Black Christ which gives the town a party-like atmosphere. You may have to line up for a couple of hours to view the Black Christ at busier times though.
These are just a few of the destinations on offer In Guatemala. There are many more! If your time is limited, the short distances mean that you could pack in most of these places in a short period of time, but I recommend that you take your time and soak up all that Guatemala has to offer.