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 Classic Maya sites of Yaxhá, Nakum and El Naranjo form a triangle that is the basis for a national park covering more than 37,000 hectares and bordering the Parque Nacional Tikal to the west. Yaxhá, the most visited of the trio, stands on a hill between two sizable lakes, Lago Yaxhá and Lago Sacnab.
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.
A scientific research center within the Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre, Scarlet Macaw Biological Station offers wildlife-watching/archaeology tours and the chance to tag along with researchers as they monitor macaws and butterflies. Overlooking the broad lazy river, it's a splendidly isolated spot and there is comfortable, ecofriendly accommodations in several thatched-roof houses.
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.
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.
Templo I, the Templo del Gran Jaguar (Temple of the Grand Jaguar), was built to honor – and bury – Ah Cacao. The king may have worked out the plans for the building himself, but it was actually erected above his tomb by his son, who succeeded him to the throne in AD 734. The king's rich burial goods included stingray spines, which were used for ritual bloodletting, 180 jade objects, pearls and 90 pieces of bone carved with hieroglyphs.
This church on the plaza's east side dates from 1540 and is often the scene of rituals that are more distinctly Maya than Catholic. Inside, the floor of the church may be dotted with offerings of maize, flowers and bottles of liquor wrapped in corn husks; candles are arranged in specific patterns along low stone platforms. Enter through the side door rather than the front entrance and note that photography is very strictly not permitted inside.
Templo IV, at 65m, is the highest building at Tikal and the second-highest pre-Columbian building known in the western hemisphere, after La Danta at El Mirador. The view east is almost as good as from a helicopter – a panorama across the jungle canopy, with (from left to right) the temples of the Gran Plaza, Temple III, Temple V (just the top bit) and the great pyramid of the Mundo Perdido poking through.