The remarkably restored Maya temples that stand in this partially cleared corner of the jungle astonish for both their monumental size and architectural brilliance – as an early morning arrival at the Gran Plaza proves. Occupied for some 16 centuries, they're an amazing testament to the cultural and artistic heights scaled by this jungle civilization. A highlight is the helicopter-like vantage from towering Temple IV on the west edge of the precinct. Equally compelling is the abundance of wildlife, which can be appreciated as you stroll ancient causeways between ceremonial centers.
With mammoth volcanic peaks and coffee-covered slopes as a backdrop for the scattered remnants of Spanish occupation, the former capital of Guatemala makes an appealing setting for learning Spanish, and a globally varied population comes to Antigua to study at one of the many quality institutes. Nowhere else in the country packs in such a great culinary and nightlife scene, along with fabulous souvenir shopping in the markets, a sweet little central plaza replete with bubbling fountain, and picture-postcard vistas around every corner.
'Chichi' is a vivid window on indigenous tradition, an ancient crossroads for the area's K’iche’ Maya–speaking inhabitants, and a spiritually charged site. At Santo Tomás church in the center of town and the hill of Pascual Abaj on its southern edge, Maya rituals blend with Christian iconography to the point where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The enormous and colorful twice-weekly market is a fabulous place for souvenir hunting, though – particularly if you’re after finely woven textiles or carved wooden masks.
Lago de Atitlán
Possibly the most beautiful destination in Guatemala, Atitlán elicits poetic outbursts from even the most seasoned traveler. This blue mirrored lake is ringed by volcanoes and its shores are studded with villages such as Santiago Atitlán, with its thriving indigenous culture, and San Marcos, a haven for seekers who plug into the lake’s 'cosmic energy.' Plus there are enough activities – from paragliding and kayaking to hiking the glorious lakeshore trails – to make a longer stay highly attractive.
Sacred to the Maya and integral to the country’s history, Guatemala’s volcanoes dominate the skylines of the country’s west, and are one of its emblematic features. You can gaze upon their domed beauty from the comfort of a cafe in Antigua or on Lago de Atitlán, or get up close and personal by climbing (at least) one. Favorites include the lava-spewing Pacaya, Tajumulco – Central America’s highest point – and San Pedro, with its sweeping views over picturesque Lago de Atitlán.
The Río Dulce (literally, 'sweet river') connects Guatemala’s largest lake with the Caribbean coast, and winding along it, through a steep-walled valley, surrounded by lush vegetation, bird calls and the (very occasional) manatee is Guatemala’s classic, don’t-miss-it boat ride. This is no tourist cruise – the river is a way of life and a means of transportation around here – but you get to stop at a couple of places to visit river-dwelling communities and natural hot springs, making for a magical, unforgettable experience.
Turquoise-colored water cascades down a series of limestone pools at jungle-shrouded oasis Semuc Champey, creating an idyllic setting that many consider the loveliest spot in the country. You can make it out here on a rushed day tour, but you'd be mad to – Semuc and the nearby village of Lanquín are rural Guatemala at its finest.
Quetzaltenango & Around
Its blend of mountain scenery, highlands indigenous life, handsome architecture and urban sophistication attracts plenty of visitors to Quetzaltenango – ‘Xela’ to most everyone. Come here to study Spanish at the numerous language institutes, or make it a base for excursions to such excellent high-altitude destinations as Laguna Chicabal, a crater lake/Maya pilgrimage site, or the Fuentes Georginas, a natural hot-springs resort ensconced in a verdant valley, and the mysterious Maya deity of San Simón who resides at Zunil.
Vibrant and raw, often confronting and occasionally surprising, the nation’s capital is something of a love it or leave it proposition. Don't blindly listen to the naysayers who'd give it a wide berth, though – those who choose to embrace it look behind its scruffy edges to find a city teeming with life. For culture vultures and museum fans, fine diners, mall rats, live-music lovers and city people in general, the capital has a buzz that’s unmatched in the rest of the country.
There are several species worth keeping an eye out for in Guatemala’s jungles, rivers, oceans and mountains. The Pacific coast is popular for whale-watching and turtle-spotting and there are manatees around the Río Dulce region. The Verapaces are a popular birding destination – you might even spot an endangered Quetzal – as are the jungles of the Petén region, where you also stand a chance of spotting jaguars, howler monkeys, armadillos and agoutis, among others.
Handicrafts & Textiles
Inextricably woven into the country’s heritage, Guatemalan fabrics are much more than tourist tat. The designs tell the stories of the wearer’s community and beliefs. Likewise, handicraft production has always been a part of local life. Fine examples of craftwork and weaving can be seen on the streets all over the country, but if you’re looking to take some home (or even to just get some priceless pics), you’ll find the best selections in the markets in Guatemala City, Antigua, Panajachel and Chichicastenango.
For true adventurers, the trek to El Mirador is a thrilling chance to explore the origins of Maya history; it is still being uncovered by archaeologists whom you’re likely to meet at the site. Among the hundreds of vegetation-shrouded temples is the tallest pyramid in the Maya world, La Danta, which can be climbed for panoramic views of the jungle canopy. It’s at least a six-day hike here and back through the mud and mosquitoes, unless you hop a chopper to the site.
An isle of calm at the threshold of a vast jungle reserve, Flores is both a base for exploring El Petén and a stunning spot to recharge your rambling batteries. Unwinding at the numerous dining and drinking terraces that look across Lago de Petén Ixtá, or cruising in a weathered longboat to even smaller islets, you’re likely to find companions for forays to Tikal or more remote places. But the picturesqueness of the town, with its captivating tableau of distant villages, is reason enough to head here.
Nebaj & the Ixil Triangle
A pocket of indigenous culture in a remote (though easily accessed) alpine setting, Nebaj is little visited, yet it is essential Guatemala. Homeland of the resilient Ixil Maya people, whose language and vivid culture survived the harshest persecutions during the civil-war era, it’s also a starting point for hikes through the spectacular Cuchumatanes mountain range, with dozens of intensely traditional villages, such as Cocop and Chajul, where community-run lodgings offer locals much-needed extra income and visitors a glimpse into this fascinating corner of the world.
Garifuna Culture in Lívingston
Descended from Carib, Arawak and formerly enslaved West Africans, the Garifuna are probably the most strikingly different of Guatemala’s 23 indigenous language groups. They have their own religion, (delicious) cuisine, (funky) dance and music styles, and a strong cultural identity that has survived despite direct and indirect attempts to quash it. The Garifuna are historically coastal dwellers – their heritage is strongly linked to the Caribbean – and the best place in Guatemala to immerse yourself in Garifuna culture is in the accessible-by-boat-only enclave of Lívingston.