“More than half of Guatemalans are pureblooded Indians, descendants of the proud Maya – Quiche tribes. In their mist-shrouded villages, the Indians worship the corn god and the rain god, only vaguely concerned with the political entity known as Guatemala.” - Stephen Kinzer
In an area slightly larger than the state of Kentucky, Guatemala packs a surprising number of fun opportunities for sightseers of all types. A trip to this Central American land offers natural diversity, rich and turbulent history, colonial cities, lush jungles, ancient Mayan ruins, interesting culture, volcanos, lovely lakes, and friendly people.
Via air, Guatemala City, the capital, is the primary gateway to the country. Colonial architecture, old Catholic churches, Mayan culture, appetizing street food, and more abound in this Central American country. While the capital has plenty to keep travelers entertained, venturing outside Guatemala City is where the real fun begins.
When visiting Guatemala, be sure not to miss the following:
Guatemala City: Visit the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, the former presidential palace turned interesting museum educating visitors on the country’s tumultuous history. Shop for souvenirs at the expansive Mercado Central. See the intriguing architecture of Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago of Guatemala. If you have kids seeking age-appropriate fun, IRTRA Munda Petapa is an amusement park sure to entertain them.
Antigua: Only 26 miles from the capital, this city in Guatemala is not the island most people think of when they hear the name. This World Heritage Site is home to the ChocoMuseo, a museum dedicated to the education of cacao and its transformation into chocolate. The Santa Catalina Arch is easy to find and admire. This iconic landmark has become the image most notably representing Antigua Guatemala.
Xela: Don’t be confused if you hear it called by its Mayan name, Quetzaltenanango. Be sure to visit the crystal-clear crater water of Lake Chicabal. Stand in awe of the Qutzenaltenange Cathedral. Shop at the local markets and visit the San Andrés Church, located a short distance from the town, but well worth the ride. Hike up Tajumulco, the highest volcano in Central America and then relax in the medicinal hot springs of Fuentes Georginas.
Lake Atitlán: This body of water inside a massive volcanic crater is home to several interesting towns and Mayan villages. Panajachel is considered the gateway to Lake Atitlán and is known for its local market. San Pedro offers spectacular views, the best nightlife, and Spanish schools for those wanting to learn the language. San Marcos is home to many who practice healthy alternative lifestyles. Visit this town to find the best vegetarian food or to attend a yoga retreat. Take a short boat ride from San Pedro to visit lovely San Juan. Here you’ll find a plethora of amazing textiles, opportunities to learn about them and even pick up some Guatemalan cooking skills by attending a cooking class. Santa Cruz is known to have the best lake views. To satisfy your inner daredevil, head to Santa Catarina Palopó for a paragliding adventure.
Tikal National Park: Home to the Mayan civilization beginning in the 6th century B.C. and ending in the 10th century A.D., this UNESCO World Heritage Site is deep in the jungle and surrounded by lush vegetation. Explore the area to see remains of temples, palaces, and dwellings. There aren’t many places in the world with more intact remains of ancient villages dating back as far as Tikal.
Semuc Champey: This popular natural monument is located near the Mayan town of Lanquín. A nearly 2/10 of a mile wide natural bridge over the Cahabón River is the focal point. Walk across the bridge and stop for a swim at any of the many gorgeous turquoise pools dotting the landscape.
El Paredon: Stroll along the unique black sand beaches or surf Guatemala’s best waves. If you’re new to surfing, check out one of the affordable surf schools in this area to hang ten.
Enjoy a little taste of Guatemala from the comfort of home. Dating back to Mayan times, chicken pepian has become Guatemala’s national dish. This savory dish in the form of a rich, spicy stew, delivers substantial comfort and deliciousness.
By Lisa Osborne Blalock
Footloose Travel & Tours