Central America’s most diverse country captivates travelers with its extraordinary landscapes and a civilization-spanning culture that reaches back centuries.
Land of the Maya
The dizzying pyramids of Tikal are Guatemala's most famous tourist drawcard. And what's not to love about this mighty monument to Central America's greatest civilization? The Maya villages in the highlands, where locals still wear traditional dress, are the most visible indicators of this centuries-old culture. But look closely when you're visiting an archaeological site and you'll see altars with modern offerings to ancient spirits.
The Spanish left behind plenty of footprints from their colonization of Guatemala, the most visible being the architecture. The most well-known are dotted around Antigua, the old capital, with its neat plazas and crumbling ruins. From the grandiose coffee-boom buildings of Quetzaltenango, to Guatemala City’s stately cathedral, to the churches and municipal buildings clustering around central squares in even the smallest towns, Guatemala bears the marks of its European occupation in vivid brick and tile.
With barely 2% of its landmass urbanized, it’s not surprising that Guatemala offers some superb natural scenery. National parks are few but impressive, particularly in the Petén region, and the lush canyons of the Río Dulce make for an unforgettable boat ride. The natural beauty of the volcano-ringed Lago de Atitlán has been captivating travelers for centuries, and you can get high in the Cuchumatanes mountains or below ground in the cave-riddled Verapaces. The swimming hole that launched a thousand postcards, Semuc Champey, has to be seen to be believed, and you can dip your toes in both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Active souls tend to find their agenda very full once they get to Guatemala. Stunning trekking routes through the jungles and up volcanoes, world-class white-water rafting, miles of caves to explore, and what seems like a zipline strung between every two trees in the country are just the beginning. Like to take things up a notch? How about paragliding around the high-altitude Lago de Atitlán? Or scuba diving in the same place? You might even luck onto some good swell on the surfer-friendly Pacific coast. Or you could just find a hammock and languidly consider your options. Your call.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Guatemala.
Founded by Dominican friars in 1542, Santo Domingo became the biggest and richest monastery in Antigua. Following three 18th-century earthquakes, the buildings were pillaged for construction material. The site was acquired as a private residence in 1970 by a North American archaeologist, who performed extensive excavations before it was taken over by the Casa Santo Domingo Hotel. The archaeological zone has been innovatively restored as a 'cultural route.' The zone includes the picturesque ruined monastery church, the adjacent cloister with a replica of the original fountain, workshops for candle and pottery makers, and two underground crypts that were discovered during the church excavations. One of these, the Calvary Crypt, contains a well-preserved mural of the Crucifixion dating from 1683. Also part of the archaeological zone are six museums, with extraordinarily rich collections presented in top-class exhibitions. All can be visited with one admission ticket. This museum route may be entered either through the hotel or the Universidad de San Carlos extension on 1a Av Norte. Starting from the hotel side, the route includes the following museums: the Museo de la Platería, with silverwork masterpieces including incense burners, candelabras and crowns; the Museo Colonial, with canvases and wooden sculpture on religious themes from the 16th to 18th centuries; the Museo Arqueológico, with ceramic and stone objects from the Maya Classic period; the cleverly curated Museo de Arte Precolombino y Vidrio Moderno, with Maya sculpture and ceramics shown as art pieces alongside glass works by modern artists; the Museo de Artes y Artesanías Populares de Sacatepéquez, with exhibits on traditional handicrafts from the Antigua region; and the Museo de la Farmacia, a restored version of a 19th-century apothecary's shop from Guatemala City.
A former coffee plantation being reclaimed by natural vegetation, this reserve is 200m past the Hotel Atitlán on the northern outskirts of town. It makes a good outing on foot or bicycle. You can leisurely walk the main trail in an hour: it leads up over swing bridges to a waterfall, then down to a platform for viewing local spider monkeys. You should also see pisotes (coatis), relatives of the raccoon with long snouts and long, upright, furry tails. The reserve includes a butterfly enclosure and herb garden, an interpretive center, a small coffee plantation and an aviary. For more extreme thrills, there are various zip lines spanning canyons and forest, the longest of which extends nearly a kilometer.
Some villagers still walk for hours carrying their wares to reach Chichi's market, one of Guatemala's largest and a highlight of many people's trips to the country. It's a rich mix of the traditional and the tourist, where local women shopping for a new huipile rub shoulders with travelers looking for a textile souvenir. Sunday is the busier of the two market days, when Spanish school students and weekenders from Guatemala City descend en masse on Chichi. At dawn on Thursday and Sunday vendors spread out their vegetables, chunks of chalk (ground to a powder and boiled with dried maize to soften it), handmade harnesses and other merchandise, and wait for customers. In the past vendors erected their stands of tree limbs and covered them with cotton sheeting each market day, but these days a sea of tin roofs remains a permanent fixture atop the plaza. Tourist-oriented handicraft stalls selling masks, textiles, pottery and so on now occupy much of the plaza and the streets to the north. Things villagers need – food, soap, clothing, sewing notions, toys – cluster at the north end of the square and in the covered Centro Comercial Santo Tomás off the north side, whose upper deck offers irresistible photo opportunities of the fruit- and vegetable-selling business conducted below.
Semuc Champey is famed for its great natural limestone bridge, 300m long, on top of which is a stepped series of pools with cool, flowing river water good for swimming. Though this bit of paradise is difficult to reach, the beauty of its setting and the turquoise perfection of the pools make it arguably the loveliest spot in the country.
While you're in Zunil, visit the image of San Simón, the name given here to the much-venerated Mayan deity known elsewhere as Maximón. His effigy, propped up in a chair, is moved each year to a different house during the festival of San Simón, held on October 28. Ask any local where to find him. San Simón appears as a dapper white man with hat and dark glasses, a disguise he took to help him hide from the conquistadors. He is known to be particularly fond of the pleasures in life and always has a glass of rum at his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. Candles and incense surround him. Members of the cofradia that look after San Simón can also tell your fortune (Q25), counting out piles of red beans to the cardinal points to answer questions about your life.
At the northern end of 5a Av is La Merced – a striking yellow building trimmed with white plaster filigree. Its facade is one of the most beautiful in Guatemala The squat, thick-walled structure was built to withstand earthquakes, and three centuries after its construction it remains in good shape. Only the church is still in use; a candlelit procession, accompanied by bell ringing and firecrackers, starts and ends here on the last Thursday evening of each month. Inside the monastery ruins is a fountain 27m in diameter, said to be the largest in Hispanic America. It's in the shape of a water lily (traditionally a symbol of power for the Maya), and lily motifs also appear on the church's entrance arch. Go upstairs for a bird's-eye view of the fountain and the town.
The Arco de Santa Catalina is Antigua's most iconic monument, and an early-morning or late-afternoon photo opportunity framing Volcán Agua through its arch is an essential part of any visit to the town. It was built in 1694 to enable nuns from the Santa Catalina convent to cross the street without being seen; the clock tower is a 19th-century add-on.
Maximón is a traditional Maya deity who resides in Santiago Atitlán. He appears as a life-sized but broken-legged effigy in a hat, dark suit and glasses, surrounded by candles, flowers and the scent of burning incense. His cofradía (brotherhood) looks after him, and receives visitors who give offerings. In the syncretic way of much tradtional Maya belief, he is also associated with Judas Iscariot. Maximón ceremonially moves to a new home every year on May 8 (after Semana Santa).
A wonderfully presented museum and cultural center set in a house dating from the late 19th century. The owners of the house were collectors with eclectic tastes ranging from French neo-rococo, Chinese and art deco to indigenous artifacts. The place is set up like a functioning house, filled with curios and furniture spanning the centuries, such as top hats, an Underwood typewriter and a vintage Sunbeam blender.