The most populous country in Central America, Guatemala offers a wide variety of experiences for travelers in search of unique experiences. Between its rich history dating back to the ancient Mayan civilization, its imposing volcanoes, breathtaking lakes, and its array of charming towns and villages, Guatemala has some unique destinations to offer all sorts of tourists and adventurers. Read on to discover some of the most impressive sites in the heart of Central America.
Guatemala City: First Glimpse and Launching Point
The nation’s capital, Guatemala City is the most populous city in all of Central America. It is built upon the same site occupied by the Mayan city of Kaminaljuyu, which was founded as far back as 1,500 B.C.E. It served as the capital of the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America, formed when the territories that are now Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, as well as parts of Mexico and Belize, declared their independence from Spanish colonial rule in 1821.
Guatemala City is a starting point for many visitors to the country, as many international flights arrive at the nearby La Aurora international airport. The city has much to offer, including colonial-era architecture in the city center, markets filled with handmade goods, and museums that offer a first glimpse into the nation’s rich history and ecological diversity. It is also a perfect launching point for journeys to other destinations throughout Guatemala.
Tikal: History and Culture of the Mayans
Though not as popular among tourists as its Mexican counterpart, Chichen Itza, Tikal is Guatemala’s largest and most thoroughly-researched Mayan archaeological site, located in a remote forest in the northern region of El Petén. At its height during the Mayan Classical Period from 200 to 900 C.E., Tikal was the capital of a powerful state that exerted political influence throughout the whole of the Mayan civilization.
Today, Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the ruins of thousands of individual structures, including temples, palaces, ball courts, and pyramids. For anyone interested in the history and culture of the ancient Mayans, Tikal is a must-visit during your time in Guatemala.
Lake Atitlán: Views, Volcanoes, and Villages
The writer Aldous Huxley, famous for his novel Brave New World, once reportedly described Lake Atitlán as “too much of a good thing.” The deepest lake in all of Central America, Lake Atitlán is one of Guatemala’s top destinations, surrounded by three large volcanoes as well as a number of towns and villages that continue to practice elements of traditional Mayan culture and dress.
For those looking to embrace the natural beauty of the area, Lake Atitlán offers no shortage of opportunities to explore. The mountainous volcanoes that form the basin of the lake offer a host of hiking trails, some of which promise spectacular views of both the lake and its surroundings. Aquatic activities like paddleboarding, kayaking, and even scuba diving are popular choices too.
While in the area, be sure to also visit some of the towns that surround Lake Atitlán, such as Panajachel and Jaibalito. These towns are home to several different indigenous groups, many of which speak Mayan languages in addition to Spanish. Visiting these communities offers a special glimpse into Mayan culture, as well as opportunities to shop for locally produced goods.
Antigua: World Heritage Site
Antigua Guatemala, often referred to simply as Antigua, is a city and UNESCO World Heritage site in Guatemala’s central highlands. A former capital of Spanish colonial rule in Central America, Antigua is famed for its Baroque-influenced architecture. The city is a favorite stop for tourists thanks to its cobblestone streets, antique churches, and famous Santa Catalina arch.
In addition to appreciating the architecture, a trip to Antigua offers many opportunities to enjoy local specialties like Guatemalan coffee and chocolate. Visitors can also browse shops and markets for locally produced goods and textiles.
Semuc Champey: Natural Pools and Breathtaking Views
In the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language, the name Semuc Champey means, “where the river hides under the Earth.” It’s an appropriate name for the site, which consists of a natural limestone bridge surrounded by thick tropical forest, flowing above the Cahabón river.
But the thing that makes Semuc Champey really special – and that makes it one of Guatemala’s best sights – is the series of naturally formed, bright-turquoise pools formed in natural terraces along the length of the bridge. It’s well worth the effort to make the hike up to the nearby lookout point, called “El Mirador”, to get a breathtaking view of the pools from above.
Chichicastenango: One of Central America’s Largest Open-Air Markets
Every Thursday and Sunday, the streets of Chichicastenango, a mountain town about 140 km northwest of the capital, fill with colorful stalls selling all manner of local products. The Chichicastenango Market is one of the largest and most historic open-air markets in Central America, and as such is one of Guatemala’s most interesting places to visit. Walking among the many stalls, visitors and locals alike can browse a huge selection of fresh foods, handmade goods, textiles and clothing, livestock, tools, pottery, cookware, and much more.
In addition to the market, a trip to Chichicastenango should also include a visit to the historic Iglesia de Santo Tomás. This 400-year-old church is built on a site once occupied by a pre-Columbian temple, and is used as a venue for both Catholic religious services and ritual celebrations by the town’s Mayan population.
Pacaya Volcano: A Hike with Spectacular Views
If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, a visit to Pacaya, an active volcano less than 100 km from both Antigua and Guatemala City, can offer visitors a chance to get up close with the power and intensity of nature. The hike up the volcano brings travelers to a height of more than 1,500 m, though in total Pacaya measures more than 2,500 m from the base to the summit.
The hike up can be quite challenging, and while tours of Pacaya don’t usually offer a chance to see bursting flames or flowing lava, they do promise some spectacular views of the surrounding area, including two other nearby active volcanoes and, on clear days, the nation’s capital. Many guided tours also offer a fun opportunity to roast marshmallows using the heat of the volcano. After a strenuous hike, a visit to one of the nearby hot springs can make for a refreshing and relaxing end to a memorable day.
Quiriguá: An Impressive Example of Mayan Achievement
Quiriguá is another famous Mayan location in the country that is also a declared UNESCO World Heritage site. Despite being smaller than Tikal, the impact Quiriguá makes on visitors is no less impressive. The historic settlement sat at the intersection of several important trade routes, and the remaining structures reflect the power and influence that Quiriguá once exerted in the region.
The site’s most characteristic features are its various stelae, a type of monumental sculpture constructed throughout the Mayan civilization in which large stone shafts are carved to depict important rulers and tell the stories of their lives. The stelae at Quiriguá are notable for their size, with one being recognized as the tallest freestanding monument created in the New World. For those interested in the art and history of the Mayan people, Quiriguá offers a wealth of fascinating artifacts.
Rio Dulce and the Caribbean Coast
Sandwiched between the borders with Belize and Honduras, Guatemala’s Caribbean coast only measures about 150 km, but there are a lot of exciting opportunities packed into that small space. In addition to spectacular beaches like Playa Blanca and Punta De Manabique, the Caribbean coast is also the gateway to the Rio Dulce, which cuts a curving swath through thick jungle between the Gulf of Honduras and Lake Izabal to the southwest.
At the mouth of the river, visitors can explore the town of Livingston and enjoy its unique mix of Garifuna, Maya, Ladino, and Afro-Caribbean cultures, reflecting the town’s long history as a nexus of trade in the region. At the river’s other end, history lovers will enjoy a visit to the Castilla de San Felipe de Lara, a 17th-century fort constructed by Spanish colonists to ward off pirate raids.
The suggestions above are just a sample of some of the fascinating destinations awaiting visitors to Guatemala. The nation’s rich history, natural splendor, and vibrant cities and towns make it an ideal destination for any traveler in search of adventure.
Planning a trip to Guatemala? Send yourself money with Ria
Here’s an extra tip when planning your trip to Guatemala: send yourself a money transfer with Ria and have Guatemalan quetzales, the local currency, waiting for you when you arrive. Did you know that the quetzal gets its name from a species of bird native to the region? The Resplendent Quetzal is the national animal of Guatemala and appears on the nation’s flag and coat of arms. Before the arrival of European colonists, the Mayans used the bird’s colorful feathers as decorative adornments for royalty and even as currency, which inspired the name
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