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11 Unforgettable Experiences that Await in Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala-Guatemala

| 15 mins read

Adventure is out there…in Guatemala! Even though it is one of the most underrated countries to visit, Guatemala is a treasure trove of experiences for curious adventurers, and not just of the adrenaline-pumping sort. Whether you crave cultural immersion, outdoor activities, or a taste of authentic flavours, this captivating country has something to offer everyone. Here are 11 amazing experiences that are unique to the country and will make your vacation in Guatemala unforgettable!

R.I.P (Remarkably Interesting Places) in Guatemala

A glimpse into the afterlife is very, very colourful in Guatemala! The country has a culture of respecting and celebrating the dead and thus offers a unique cultural experience by encouraging visitors to explore its cemeteries. These cemetery tours are not macabre but serve as a reminder of the perseverance of the country’s history and tradition.

The prime destination to visit is the Cemetery of Chichicastenango, with its brightly coloured tombstones painted in shades of red, blue, green, and yellow. Local legends denote that each colour has a specific significance, representing the status and personality of the deceased. Our local guides say that to get the most out of the region, plan your visit on a Thursday or Sunday, which coincides with the famous Chichicastenango Market. This way, you can experience the vibrant market life and the cemetery in one trip. If you visit around November 1st and 2nd, you can also witness the lively (ironic, we know) Day of the Dead celebrations. During this celebration, families gather to honour their ancestors with flowers, food, and music, transforming the cemetery into a festive arena.

Guatemala City General Cemetery, the largest in the country, features graves and mausoleums of many famous historical figures, presidents, writers, and artists and is also considered a popular place for cemetery tours. The cemetery also offers panoramic views of the city and the surrounding volcanoes, making it a picturesque place to visit, and hence is a popular photography spot for visitors. Santa María de Jesús Cemetery is another popular photography spot, as it is situated on the slopes of Volcán de Agua and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscapes. Combining the cemetery visit with a hike up Volcán de Agua makes for a day of cultural and natural exploration.

You Know What They Say - The Hotter, The Better!

Some more S’more, anyone? The iconic Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala is thrilling by virtue of being one of the very few hike-able active volcanoes, but what makes it really fun is that the boiling volcanic craters invite tourists to roast marshmallows over the hardened-but-still-hot lava. With the help of local guides, you can even have homemade pizzas cooked over a volcano! When the pizza is cooked on top of still-hot lava, the process only takes a couple of minutes, as the magma can reach up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 °C)!

The volcano is a mere hour and a half away from both Guatemala City and Antigua, so it is a must-visit destination on a Guatemalan vacation. It is important to note that only guided tours are permitted in the region, as the volcano is active and erupted as recently as in 2021. Both sunrise and sunset tours are available from Guatemala City and Antigua, so you will be able to choose between watching a breathtaking sunrise or taking a thrilling hike down the rocky lava fields in the dark - no matter which one you choose, there will be no losers!

Forget B.Y.O.B, Embrace M.Y.O.M (Make Your Own Meal)!

Guatemalan cuisine is rich in both palate and history, with its roots in Mayan, Spanish and Afro-Caribbean cultures - which is a pedantic way of saying that it is utterly delicious and unique in its flavours. The country has a plethora of opportunities for foodies in all of its major tourist destinations like Antigua, Guatemala City, and Lake Atitlán, where you can enjoy hunting for street food and fine dining alike.

If you want to get some hands-on experience, plus take home some Guatemalan skills to impress your family and friends, you can learn how to make your favourite dishes from scratch. However, just like its cuisine, the country adds its own unique spin to the cooking classes by making the participants a part of the process from the very beginning and taking them to local markets to buy regionally sourced ingredients.

The cooking classes in remote villages like San Pedro La Laguna are especially geared towards this wholesome experience. The lively market of San Pedro is packed with numerous stalls that often sell unrecognisable locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables alongside vendors who hawk rice, beans, meat, and freshly made tortillas. The village is a picturesque little place standing on the shores of a lake, providing a tranquil ambience for cooking classes. Here, you will learn to make traditional dishes like tortas de papa (potato pancakes), halacha (beef with potatoes, carrots and spices in a tomato sauce), tamales made with a leafy vegetable commonly used in Guatemala and the fan-favourite rellenos de platano (banana balls filled with chocolate).

If you want to just relax and fill your stomach with tasty food, you can just try the traditional Guatemalan cuisine such as pepian de pollo and black bean soup in restaurants in Antigua, or sample street food such as mixtas, shucos and tortas with chile rellenos. Wash it all down with a Gallo beer, a picosita (a unique ceviche meets Michelada Guatemalan drink invented in Antigua) or the award-winning local rum, Ron de Zacapa. The best street food tours also include a market tour and a ride in a ‘chicken bus’ the brightly coloured local transportation. You can often combine cooking classes with Spanish language classes in Antigua or Panajachel, as Guatemala is popular for language classes due to the dialect being slower and easier to learn than its counterparts.

The other famous thing in Guatemala is everyone’s favourite dessert, chocolate! Did you know that the Mayans were the first to actually consume Cacao, or rather drink it? They believed that drinking pure Cacao (raw chocolate) was a sacred act in their social rituals. From there, the Aztecs in present-day Mexico also adopted Cacao into their rituals, adding spices to the drink. If you want to learn how real cacao and chocolate are made (without any additives), Guatemala is a great place to do it! There are chocolate shops all over Antigua and Lake Atitlan that make amazing chocolate with cacao grown in the Verapaz region.

Get Some Quetzales

Guatemala is a haven for birdwatchers with around 762 species of birds, including the iconic (and gorgeous) Quetzales, so much so that one of its major cities, Quetzaltenango (or Xela), literally translates to the place of Quetzales.

Outside of Xela, Tikal National Park is home to as many as 400 species of bird, including keel-billed toucans. The mangroves around Puerto Barrios and Rio Dulce are home to many swamp forest birds like egrets and herons. A birdwatching tour will also take you to the border of Mexico, where you can see endemic species like the pink-headed warbler. Because the highlands reach 2,500 to 4,000 meters in elevation, you will see an entirely different set of species here than, say, the Biotopo del Quetzal near Coban, home of the Quetzal.

Goth is Back at Monterrico's Black Sand Beaches

Visiting Guatemala is often synonymous with Mayan ruins, majestic volcanoes, picturesque lakes, and dense jungles. But for all the beach bums out there, there is one place that should not be missed - the volcanic Black Beach of Monterrico! Located just a few hours away from Antigua, Monterrico is a place to slow down and relax after the busy travel schedule in Antigua. Due to its close proximity to the city (about 2 hours), the beach town makes for a perfect day trip to wind down.

One of the most compelling reasons to visit Monterrico is the breathtaking sunsets. With no mountains or volcanoes obstructing the view, the sky puts on a dramatic and unobstructed show as the sun dips down the horizon. To enjoy the view without crowds, make sure to visit the beach on weekdays, as on weekends the place is bustling with residents. 

The beach town is also a nesting site for sea turtles, which provides ample opportunities to witness these adorable creatures laying eggs. To maximise your chances of this, plan to visit Monterrico with your local guide between June and September. Joining a guided night walk with locals affiliated with conservation efforts to witness sea turtles ambling along the black sands, just having the time of their lives. You will even get an opportunity to collect the eggs (with the guidance of expert naturalists) to protect them from predators like crabs (or humans!) or release the hatchlings back to the sea!

Another attraction of the town is the Monterrico Nature Reserve, where early morning boating or kayaking tours offer a journey through Chiquimilla Canal’s mangrove swamps. Guided tours start from Tortuguero, which is led by experienced conservation professionals and showcases the intricate root systems of white, black, and red mangroves, water lilies, and various bird species. The reserve is also part of a larger conservation initiative dedicated to protecting the local mangrove and bird populations. Because of this, visitors get a chance to collect floating mangrove seeds and plant them in areas lacking vegetation to promote growth and ecological expansion.

Get your Cloth on in Santo Domingo Xenacoj

Guatemala’s textiles and fabrics are intricately woven (pun intended) into Mayan history and culture. The handicraft production in this country is a part of the Mayan’s daily life, and the locals still wear their traditional clothing. Some of the best places to shop include Panajachel, Chichi, and Antigua, and San Juan.

San Juan grows its own organic cotton and dyes it with natural resources. The entire dyeing and weaving process takes months, but guided tours provide a crash course on spinning cotton and a demonstration of the weaving process! Even if you are not into weaving or fabrics, you will find the process very interesting and can buy hand-made woven work.

It is advisable to combine the textile workshops with a scenic boat ride to the village and experience the many ways this community keeps their traditions alive. Guided visits to a women’s textile cooperative will provide an opportunity to witness the hand-weaving and natural dyeing processes, drop into the studio homes of naïf painters and see the shrine of the Mayan God Maximon, where you can learn about the beliefs of the Tz’utujil Maya. 

Another important place for the textiles is the sustainable tourism hotspot Santo Domingo Xenacoj, which is just a forty-minute drive from the beautiful colonial city of Antigua. Its main attractions include its buzzing traditional market, where you can encounter local foods or just spend time absorbing the chaos of a busy rural market.

Further into the town, the Consejo de Tejedoras de Santo Domingo Xenacoj (The Weaving Council of Santo Domingo Xenacoj) is another truly fascinating attraction for visitors, leading a workshop where you actually have the chance to weave your own textile. The women who started this collective a few years back are working together to both revive ancient Maya textile patterns and ensure that the art of weaving using laborious, traditional back-strap looms is not lost.

Semuc Champey - Better at Relaxing You than Some Champagne!

Semuc Champey is a series of blue natural swimming pools located near Lanquin and an 8-hour ride from Flores or Antigua. It is one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala, where you can escape from the heat and crowds of the cities. After you have finished swimming in the turquoise pools, do not forget the cave located at the entrance. The only way to enter it is with a local guide…and a candle to stave off the darkness!

Even though it is a major tourist attraction in Guatemala and quite popular, Semuc Champey is a difficult place to reach. A local guide is essential in planning the hows and whens of reaching the area. They are also necessary to traverse the route to the Champey, as the ride there is described by the locals as “strenuous to say the least”. Due to poor road conditions, plan to overnight in Lanquín or Semuc Champey.

Fly High with the Spirits at the Day of the Dead Kite Festival

One of the most unforgettable experiences and best things to do in Guatemala is to participate in the spectacular All Saints Day Giant Kite Festival in Sumpango Sacatepéque. The belief is that the kites communicate with the spirits of the ancestors, and as the kites fly high into the heavens, they carry messages to those in heaven. It is an easy day trip from Antigua and Guatemala City, so it is no problem to include it in your plans should you happen to be visiting Guatemala between October 31 and November 2nd. A must-see during this unique festival are the giant, hand-crafted kites constructed by hand by community groups and local artisans.

Feel like a Dwarf or Gollum at the Underground Candelaria Caves

While heading north towards the island town of Flores, you should definitely make a stop at Candelaria Caves, located just north of Coban. Made up of seven interconnected caves, all connected by an underground river, this is the largest cave system in the country, stretching out for a staggering 32 kilometres. The main cave is absolutely breathtaking, reaching up to two stories high, with a central fire pit inside. To make the most of your visit, join one of the guided tours offered by the locals from the Mayan community. They will take you on an incredible adventure where you get to float through the caves on tubes along the Río Candelaria!

Did you know that the K’iche’ Mayans believe this incredible underground system is the entrance to the underworld? This is also the reason a shaman performs rituals here, even to this day! The ritual consists of the shaman offering candles that symbolise the four elements, plus an extra one for the selva (jungle). One of the absolute highlights of this experience is the chance to participate in a captivating Mayan ceremony right there in the main cave.

Say Hi-story! To History at Flores

Flores is a super charming town that you have to check out when you're in Guatemala. It's located on a circular island right in the middle of Lake Peten Itza, and only an hour away from Tikal!

So, here's a cool history lesson for you - Flores was actually founded by the Itza people after Chichen Itza (Mayan temples in present-day Mexico) collapsed. They used the stones from those ancient temples to build the Roman Catholic Church in the main square. Today, when you walk around Flores, you will see cobblestone streets that are all laid out in circles. At the top of the hill in the middle of the island, you will find the main square and a really old church. The best part is that this area is pedestrianised, so you can take your time and explore the colourful buildings and wooden balconies with a local guide.

Even though Flores is small, it has everything you need for a relaxing time. You can kick back, do some shopping, and enjoy a tasty meal at one of the many restaurants. Plus, there are many lakeside spots where you can grab a drink and soak in the stunning views. And if you are feeling adventurous, you can even take a dip in the lake from one of the jetties or rent a boat or canoe to explore even more.

Expedite Your Need for Expeditions at the Mangroves of Río Dulce

Río Dulce, meaning “sweet river,” links Guatemala’s largest lake to the Caribbean coast and is enveloped by verdant vegetation and diverse birdlife. The locals, who harmonise their lives with the rhythm of the river, add to its unique charm, and their heartwarming hospitality lends to an immersive experience learning about the daily lives of the local people.

A guided boat journey along Río Dulce offers a remarkable adventure through mangroves. You can stop for lunch on the river and visit nearby waterfalls and hot springs, making this experience feel like a real-life jungle cruise.

How to plan your journey?

Your travel itinerary in Guatemala will vary depending on whether you are travelling from San Cristóbal, Mexico, and continuing to Honduras or flying in and out of Guatemala City. Here’s our recommended two-week itinerary, including the ideal number of days to spend in each location.

Insider Tip: Remember that transportation between towns can take most of the day when planning your route.

Antigua: 3-5 days

  • Explore the town and take a day trip to Monterrico.

Lake Atitlán: 4-6 days

  • Consider splitting your time between two villages around the lake, as each offers a unique atmosphere. The journey from Antigua to Lake Atitlán typically takes 4-6 hours, depending on traffic and stops, and varies based on the specific village you’re visiting.

Flores/Tikal: 2 days

  • Allocate one day for exploring the Tikal ruins, but keep in mind that reaching Flores takes nearly a full day.

Semuc Champey: 2 days

  • While you only need one day to explore the pools, having an extra day for relaxation is nice if your schedule allows. Travel to Semuc Champey also takes most of the day.