It’s hard not to fall in love with Guatemala; though it is easily one of the more compact countries on the planet, it packs in quite a punch! In just over hundred thousand square miles, there are over 29 active volcanoes, the largest amount of UNESCO heritage sites than any other Latin American country, and a vibrant culture where over 20 different Mayan dialects and languages are still spoken today. Here are the five best ways to be introduced to a country that is brimming with so many unique things to do and places to see, from climbing volcano mountain tops to traversing ancient rainforest jungles and everything in-between.
1. Explore the coast of Lake Atitlán
Located in the Guatemalan Highlands, Lake Atitlán is a picturesque lake surrounded by volcanoes. Too many tourists make the mistake of visiting this breathtakingly beautiful place for just a day or two of sightseeing; in truth, the lake offers a lifetime of exploration! Eco adventures abound, and the lake is surrounded by small towns and villages, each with its own indigenous populations sporting a distinct local culture right up to the point of different clothing styles and accents.
Panajachel is the perfect town to start your tour since it’s the best developed, with plenty of resources for visitors and expats. Local tour guides often recommend taking a sunset cruise from the town’s harbor as one of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of the town.
San Marcos is a well-known hippie town, and has a great place to go swimming in the lake. The trail at Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil winds its way through the coastline to a dock at the water’s edge that is hands down the best place to perfect the art of cannonballing into the warm lake.
San Pedro attracts plenty of the backpacking crowd; the town is infamous for its cheap accommodations and inexpensive hole-in-the-wall eateries. From here one can explore more of the area’s landscape and wildlife; San Pedro tour guides offer day trips to the nearby San Pedro Volcano for hiking and breathtaking vistas of the lake.
Do try and engage your Lake Atitlán tour guide from Antigua to ensure economical rates as well as plan your tour itinerary well in advance, be it for kayaking in the lake or to make a shopping expedition to any of the Mayan towns.
2. Hike the Mayan Ruins
The capital of one of the most powerful Mayan states, Tikal National Park is one of the best places to visit and learn more about the ancient Mayans who ruled Guatemala for centuries. This World Heritage Site still has a lot left to be unearthed, even after decades of research and over 10 square miles of excavated ruins.
There is much more to do at Tikal National Park than just walk around. Climb the wooden steps of Temple 4 for an aerial view of the layout, or sit back under the trees at the Great Plaza to imagine the splendour of the Mayan civilisation while surrounded by its temples. The park has a gift store as well, and there are several restaurants located nearby in the town of Tikal. It is a good idea to ask your Tikal National Park tour guide to arrange for a Sunrise tour, to enjoy the mystique of the Mayan structures against the rising sun and calls of the rousing wildlife. There is an entrance fee to the park, and getting there from Guatemala's major cities requires driving through miles of dense rainforest. Often, tour guides to the park can arrange for a discount on passes as well.
Located just over an hour from the Tikal National Forest, Yaxhá is a smaller Maya site though ideal for those who wish to explore its ruins away from the tourist crowds. The forest here isn’t as dense, and visitors can wander the trails in peace and quiet to catch views of the wildlife around. A trip to the Yaxha ruins can take up to 4 hours, but the best time to visit the park is in the evening; the ruins are thought to be one of the most picturesque places to view the sunset in Guatemala.
3. Go Horseback Riding Up A Volcano
There are well over 30 volcanoes in Guatemala, providing options aplenty for hikers. Visitors can also horseback ride up Pacaya, one of the more popular volcanoes in the country. The volcano is an easy 2-hour drive from Antigua or Guatemala City, and takes another hour and a half or so to hike to the summit on foot, or about an hour on horseback.
The best way to celebrate your successful hike up the Volcano Guatemalan style? By strumming up dessert at the peak! Pacaya is still an active volcano, which means that there is plenty of sulfuric gas and hot steam at the peak, and hence hikers can take the opportunity to roast marshmallows at the top!
4. Learn About the Coffee Industry
Guatemala, like much of Latin America, is famous for its excellent coffee. While its coffee plantations are established mainly in the western highlands, try and fit in a plantation visit at a city closest to you for a fantastic learning experience about this special brew. Many of the coffee farms have tailor made tours, where visitors can explore all aspects of the coffee trade, from its history, to growing, harvesting, and roasting the coffee bean. You even get to savor a cuppa of the final product; some coffee reserves offer add on activities like hiking, biking and bird watching through the plantation grounds.
5. Swim at Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is a natural wonder of Limestone Bridge and turquoise blue pools set deep in the heart of the Guatemalan rainforest. The terraced swimming pools are warm all year round, with small waterfalls and limestone caves waiting to be explored. The best way to reach the park is from nearby Lanquín, and there are places to stay and eat inside the park as well. The entire park is very visitor friendly, with well marked hiking trails leading through the rainforest and to the swimming pools, plenty of fun lookout points, and easy public transportation to and from the park’s entrance. Guided tours through the park often include a trip through the Kan’Ba caves, where visitors can enjoy swimming in an underground river as well.
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