Must see attractions in Central & Eastern Guatemala

  • Top ChoiceSights in Semuc Champey & Around

    Semuc Champey

    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.

  • Sights in Alta & Baja Verapaz

    Cuevas de B'ombi'l Pek

    A mere 3km north of Chisec, these painted caves remained undiscovered until 2001. They haven't been fully mapped yet, but some claim that they connect to the caves of Parque Nacional Cuevas de Candelaria. The community-run guide office is by the roadside. Pay the entrance fee and the guide will take you on the 3km walk through cornfields to the entrance. The entire tour takes about four hours. The first, main cavern is the most impressive for its size (reaching 50m in height; you have the choice of rappelling or descending via a slippery 'jungle ladder' to enter), but a secondary cave – just 1m wide – features paintings of monkeys and jaguars. River tubing (Q70) is also possible, starting at the guide office. Any bus running north (Q3) from Chisec can drop you at the guide office.

  • Sights in Lívingston

    Playa Blanca

    The best beach in the area is Playa Blanca, around 12km from Lívingston, a strip of white sand with chaise longues and umbrellas, restrooms and coconut-palm jungle behind. This is privately owned and you need a boat to get there – ask Captain Daniel at Manatee Tours.

  • Sights in Lívingston

    Rasta Mesa

    This is a friendly, informal, enthusiastic cultural center where you can drop in for classes in Garifuna cooking (Q125 per person, fish stew Q150), drumming (Q125 per person) and dancing (Q125), or even get a massage (from Q250). It also offers volunteering opportunities.

  • Sights in Alta & Baja Verapaz

    Cancuén

    This large Maya site hit the papers when it was 'discovered' in 2000, even though it had already been 'discovered' back in 1907. Excavations are still under way, but estimates say that Cancuén may rival Tikal for size. It's thought that Cancuén was a trading center rather than a religious center, and the usual temples and pyramids are absent. In their place is a grand palace boasting more than 150 rooms set around 11 courtyards. Carvings here are impressive, particularly at the grand palace, but also along the ball courts and the two altars that have been excavated to date. Cancuén's importance seems to stem from its geographical/tactical position. Hieroglyphics attest to alliances with Calakmul (Mexico) and Tikal, and its relative proximity to the southern highlands would have given it access to pyrite and obsidian, prized minerals of the Maya. Artisans certainly worked here – their bodies have been discovered dressed, unusually, in royal finery. Several workshops have also been uncovered, one containing a 17kg piece of jade. Casual visitors will need about an hour to see the main, partially excavated, sections of the site and another hour or two to see the rest, about five hours total. Cobán tour companies make day trips to Cancuén. To get here independently, catch a pickup (leaving hourly) from Raxruhá to La Unión (Q20, 40 minutes), from where you can hire a boat (Q350 for one to 16 people, round trip) to the site. You can also hire a guide (Q100 to Q200, depending on group size) to take you on the 4km walk to the site from La Unión, but in the rainy season this will be a very muddy affair. If walking or going by lancha (small motorboat), pay at the small store where the bus stops – the boat dock is an easy 1km walk from there. Pay your entrance fee at the site when you arrive. The last pickup leaves La Unión for Raxruhá at 3pm. Coming directly from Chisec, expect to pay Q50 for a ride to La Unión.

  • Sights in Alta & Baja Verapaz

    Biotopo del Quetzal

    In the lush cloud forests south of Cobán is the Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera nature reserve, commonly called Biotopo del Quetzal. You need a fair bit of luck to see a quetzal, as they're rare and shy, though you have the best chance of seeing them from January to June. Even so, it's well worth stopping to explore and enjoy this lush high-altitude cloud-forest ecosystem, which is the quetzal's natural habitat. Early morning or early evening are the best times to watch out for the quetzal – they're actually more prevalent around the grounds of the nearby hotels. Two excellent, well-maintained nature trails wind through the reserve: the 1800m Sendero los Helechos (Fern Trail) and the 3600m Sendero los Musgos (Moss Trail). As you wander through the dense growth, treading on the rich, spongy humus and leaf-mold, you'll see many varieties of epiphytes (air plants), which thrive in the reserve's humid atmosphere. Deep in the forest is Xiu Gua Li Che (Grandfather Tree), some 450 years old, which germinated around the time the Spanish fought the Rabinal in these mountains. The reserve has a visitor center, a little shop for drinks and snacks, and a camping and barbecue area. The ruling on camping changes from time to time. Check by contacting Cecon, which administers this and other biotopes. At certain times the mosquitoes can be vicious: bring bug repellent and make sure you use it.

  • Sights in El Oriente

    Basílica de Esquipulas

    A massive structure that has resisted the power of earthquakes for almost 250 years, the basilica is approached through a pretty park and up a wide flight of steps. The impressive facade and towers are floodlit at night. And if waiting hours to view a famed 'Black Christ' is your cup of tea, this is the right place to do it. Inside, the devout approach the surprisingly small El Cristo Negro (Black Christ) with extreme reverence, many on their knees. Incense, murmured prayers and the scuffle of feet fill the air. When there are throngs of pilgrims, you must enter the church from the side to get a close view of the famous shrine. Shuffling along quickly, you may get a good glimpse or two before being shoved onward by the crowd behind you. On Sundays, religious holidays and (especially) during the Cristo de Esquipulas festival (January 14 to 15), the press of devotees is intense. On weekdays, you may have the place to yourself, which can be very powerful and rewarding. Cruising the religious paraphernalia sold by the throngs of vendors around the basilica is an entertaining diversion. When you leave the church and descend the steps through the park and exit right to the market, notice the vendors selling straw hats that are decorated with artificial flowers and stitched with the name 'Esquipulas' – perfect for pilgrims who want everyone to know they've made the trip. These are very popular rearview mirror novelties for chicken-bus drivers countrywide.

  • Sights in El Oriente

    Quiriguá Archaeological Site

    Despite the sticky heat and (sometimes) bothersome mosquitoes, Quiriguá is a wonderful place. The giant stelae on the Gran Plaza (Great Plaza) are all much more worn than those at Copán. To impede further deterioration, each has been covered by a thatched roof. The roofs cast shadows that make it difficult to examine the carving closely and almost impossible to get a good photograph, but somehow this does little to inhibit one's sense of awe. Seven of the stelae, designated A, C, D, E, F, H and J, were built during the reign of Cauac Sky and carved with his image. Stela E is the largest Maya stela known, standing some 8m above ground, with another 3m or so buried in the earth. It weighs almost 60,000kg. Note the exuberant, elaborate headdresses; the beards on some of the figures (an oddity in Maya art and life); the staffs of office held in the kings' hands; and the glyphs on the sides of the stela. At the far end of the plaza is the Acrópolis, far less impressive than the one at Copán. At its base are several zoomorphs, blocks of stone carved to resemble real and mythic creatures. Frogs, tortoises, jaguars and serpents were favorite subjects. The low zoomorphs can't compete with the towering stelae in impressiveness, but as works of art, imagination and mythic significance, the zoomorphs are superb.

  • Sights in Lanquín

    Grutas de Lanquín

    These caves are about 1km northwest of the town, and extend for several kilometers into the earth. There is now a ticket office here. The first cave has lights, but do take a powerful flashlight (torch) anyway in case of emergencies. You'll also need shoes with good traction as inside it's slippery with moisture and bat droppings. Though the first few hundred meters of the cavern have been equipped with a walkway and lit by diesel-powered electric lights, much of this subterranean system is untouched. If you are not an experienced spelunker, you shouldn't wander too far into the caves; the entire extent has yet to be explored, let alone mapped. As well as featuring funky stalactites, mostly named for animals, these caves are crammed with bats. Try to time your visit to coincide with sunset (around 6pm), when hundreds of them fly out of the mouth of the cave in formations so dense they obscure the sky. For a dazzling display of navigation skills, sit at the entrance while they exit. Please be aware that bats are extremely light-sensitive, and tempting as it may be, flash photography can disorient and, in some cases, blind them. The river here gushes from the cave in clean, cool and delicious torrents. You can swim in the river, which has some comfortably hot pockets close to shore.

  • Sights in Caribbean Coast

    Turicentro El Paraíso

    On the north side of the lake, between Río Dulce and El Estor, this tourist spot is in an incredibly beautiful jungle setting. Here, a wide, hot waterfall drops about 12m into a clear, deep pool. You can bathe in the hot water, swim in the cool pool or duck under an overhanging promontory and enjoy a jungle-style sauna. To reach the waterfall, head north (away from the lake) where the bus drops you off – you pay the admission fee there, from where it's about a 2km walk to the falls. You can also stay at Finca El Paraíso, a collection of simple little cabins located along the lakefront. This place can get rowdy on weekends. This spot is on the Río Dulce–El Estor bus route, about one hour (Q15) from Río Dulce and 30 minutes (Q10) from El Estor. The last bus in either direction passes at around 4:30pm to 5pm.

  • Sights in Alta & Baja Verapaz

    Lagunas de Sepalau

    Surrounded by pristine forest, these turquoise lagoons are 8km west of Chisec. Developed as a community ecotourism project by local villagers, tours of the area include a fair bit of walking and some rowboat paddling. The obligatory zipline is also present. The area is rich in wildlife: jaguars, tapir, iguanas, toucans and howler monkeys are all in residence. There are three lagoons, the most spectacular of which is the third on the tour, Q'ekija, which is ringed by steep walls of thick jungle. From February to June the first two lagoons dry up. Pick-ups leave Chisec's plaza for the village of Sepalau Cataltzul throughout the day, and there's usually a bus (Q10, 45 minutes) at 10:30am. On arrival at the village, you pay the entrance fee and a guide will take you on the 3km walk to the first lagoon.

  • Sights in Lívingston

    Los Siete Altares

    About 5km (1½ hour walk) northwest of Lívingston along the shore of Bahía de Amatique is Los Siete Altares, a series of freshwater falls and pools. It's a pleasant goal for a beach walk and is a good place for a picnic and swim. Food here costs Q70 to Q80, drinks Q10 to Q20. Follow the shore northward to the river mouth and walk along the beach until it meets the path into the woods (about 30 minutes). Follow this path all the way to the falls. Boat trips go to Los Siete Altares, but if you're a walker it's better to go by foot to experience the natural beauty and the Garifuna people along the way. About halfway along, just past the rope bridge, is Hotel Salvador Gaviota, serving decent food and ice-cold beers and soft drinks. You can stay out here, too.

  • Sights in El Oriente

    Volcán de Ipala

    The 1650m Volcán de Ipala is notable for its especially beautiful clear crater-lake measuring nearly 1km around and nestled below the summit at 1493m. The dramatic hike to the top takes you from 800m to 1650m in about two hours, though you can drive halfway up in a car (parking costs Q10). There are trails, a visitor center and a campsite on the shores of the lake. To get there, take a bus from Chiquimula (Q20, 1½ hours) or Jalapa (two hours) to Ipala and transfer to a microbus to Agua Blanca (Q10, every 15 minutes). The trailhead is at El Sauce just before Agua Blanca; look for the blue INGUAT sign. If you're lucky, you might encounter a pick-up to Aldea Chigüiton, where the road ends, 2km from the highway, running south from Ipala. You may also be able to hire a horse in Chigüiton.

  • Sights in Alta & Baja Verapaz

    Parque Nacional Laguna Lachuá

    This national park is renowned for the perfectly round, pristine turquoise lake (220m deep) for which it was named. Overnight visitors can use the cooking facilities, so come prepared with food and drink. There is only one shower. You can no longer rent canoes for exploring the lake, but there are about 4km of interpretative trails to explore. Until recently, this Guatemalan gem was rarely visited by travelers because it was an active, violent area during the civil war and the road was in disrepair. Now it fills up quickly on weekends and public holidays, and if you're thinking about coming at these times, it's a good idea to call and reserve a space.

  • Sights in El Oriente

    Volcán de Quetzaltepeque

    About 10km east of the village of Quetzaltepeque, this volcano tops out at 1900m. The walk to the top is tough going – through thick subtropical pine forest, with the trail disappearing in sections. But if you have a car, you can drive almost all the way to the top. From the summit there are excellent views of the nearby Ipala and Suchítan volcanoes and the surrounding countryside. Due to the condition of the trail and some security concerns, you really need a guide to undertake this trek. Ask in the Quetzaltepeque municipalidad on the main plaza to be put in touch with a local guide.

  • Sights in Cobán

    Orquigonia

    Orchid lovers and even the orchid-curious should not miss the wonderfully informative guided tour of this orchid sanctuary just off the highway to Cobán. The 90-minute to two-hour tour takes you through the history of orchid collecting, starting with the Maya, as you wend your way along a path in the forest. There are sweet little cabins on the grounds where you can stay for Q550 to Q750 per night, as well as campsites (Q40). The last entry is at 4pm, as people must be out by 5pm. To get here, catch any bus (Q2) from Cobán headed for Tontem and get off when you see the sign, about 200m up the dirt road off Hwy 14.

  • Sights in Semuc Champey & Around

    K'anba Caves

    About a kilometer before Semuc Champey, just before the large bridge crossing the river, you'll see a turnoff to the right for these caves, which many find to be much more interesting than Grutas de Lanquín. Bring a flashlight for the two-hour tour or you'll be stumbling around by candlelight. A half hour of river tubing costs an extra Q10. There have been reports of serious overcrowding on these cave tours. If you can, arrive for the 9am tour, before the tour groups start showing up. And, as always, evaluate the conditions before setting out.

  • Sights in Alta & Baja Verapaz

    Salto de Chilascó

    What's claimed to be Central America's highest waterfall lies 12km down a dirt road from a turnoff at Km 145 on Hwy 14 to Cobán. Surrounded by cloud forest, it's an impressive sight, especially if it's been raining and the fall is running at full force. Another waterfall, the Lomo de Macho, lies 8km away – an enjoyable walk, or you can hire a horse from the visitor booth in Chilascó (about 5km from the falls). Buses to Chilascó leave every half hour from Salamá (Q20, 1½ hours), passing La Cumbre Santa Elena (Q10, 45 minutes) on Hwy 14.

  • Sights in Lago de Izabal

    El Boquerón

    This beautiful, lushly vegetated canyon abutting the tiny Maya settlement of the same name is about 6km east of El Estor. Pay your Q10 entry fee, and for around Q20 per person, villagers will paddle you 15 minutes up the Río Sauce through the canyon, drop you at a small beach – where you can swim and, if you like, scramble up the rocks – and wait or return for you at an agreed time. Río Dulce–bound buses from El Estor will drop you at El Boquerón (Q10, 15 minutes), as will El Estor–bound buses from Río Dulce.

  • Sights in Cobán

    Templo El Calvario

    You can get a fine view over the town from this church atop a long flight of stairs at the north end of 7a Av. Indigenous people leave offerings at outdoor shrines and crosses in front of the church, and it's an interesting stop if you have time. Don't linger here after dark, though, as muggings are not unknown in this area. The Ermita de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, a chapel dedicated to Cobán's patron saint, is 150m west of the bottom of the stairs leading to El Calvario.