- 1 Week
On a short break and want to see it all? Well, that’s not going to happen, but with a week you can at least see Guatemala’s Big Three – Antigua, Lago de Atitlán and Tikal – no matter how tight or expansive your budget.
Flying into Guatemala City, shuttle or taxi directly to Antigua. If you don’t arrive too late, grab dinner at one of the city’s many fabulous restaurants and maybe a nightcap in a cozy bar.
The next morning, take a walk around town – cut corners if you like, but don’t miss the Iglesia Merced or the Las Capuchinas convent.
You’ll probably want an early night because the next day you’ll be climbing a volcano – check with the locals to see which one is safe/recommended to climb at the moment. Back in town, catch dinner at the wonderfully atmospheric Mesón Panza Verde.
The next day it's on to Lago de Atitlán. Panajachel is great for shopping and eating, but read up on the other villages around the lake – each is different and has its own appeal. Regardless of where you end up, spend half a day exploring 'your' village and the next day exploring the rest of the lake.
Next it's off to Tikal, so shuttle back to Guatemala City and then on to Flores. Head straight for the site, spend the day exploring and then return to Guatemala City for your flight home.
- 10 Days
Guatemala's most spectacular scenery and strongest Maya traditions await along this well-traveled route. It could easily take a few months if you stop off to learn some Spanish or to take advantage of the great sightseeing and hiking possibilities along the way.
From the capital head first to picturesque Antigua, enjoying the country's finest colonial architecture, the great restaurants and the traveler and language-student scene. Several volcanoes wait to be climbed here including the fiery Volcán Fuego – but ask around for current conditions before planning anything. From Antigua move on to Panajachel on volcano-ringed Lago de Atitlán. Hop in a boat to check out some of the quieter, more traditional Maya villages around the lake such as Santiago Atitlán, where the curious deity Maximón awaits, or San Pedro La Laguna, a party town with a certain fame countrywide. San Marcos La Laguna is much more laid-back and a magnet for yoga and natural-healing types. Santa Cruz La Laguna, meanwhile, is just plain tiny and gorgeous. From the lake, hop a shuttle or 'chicken bus' north to Chichicastenango for its huge Thursday or Sunday market and, if you’re lucky, a religious ceremony where it’s hard to tell where the Maya-ism ends and the Catholicism starts.
From Chichicastenango you can follow the Interamericana Hwy west along the mountain ridges to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's clean, orderly second city, with a host of intriguing villages, markets and natural wonders waiting within short bus rides away. From Quetzaltenango it’s possible to go further into the hills to Todos Santos Cuchumatán, a fascinating Maya mountain town with great walking possibilities.
If you have extra time, consider pushing east to explore Nebaj and the Ixil Triangle, where you'll find great hiking opportunities and a strong Maya way of life amid stunning scenery. A rough but passable road leads further eastward from here, passing Uspantan and providing a back-door route to Alta Verapaz, where you can check out Cobán, Semuc Champey or head further north toward Tikal.
The Maya loop
- 3 Weeks
This 1900km round trip takes you to the best of Guatemala's Maya ruins, into its dense jungles and to some of its spectacular natural marvels, covering the center, east and north of the country. Really pushing, you might do it in two weeks; if you have four, you'll enjoy it even more.
Start out northeastward from Guatemala City and then detour south into Honduras to see the great Maya site of Copán. Don’t just make it a flying visit, though – Copán is a great town and there’s plenty to do in the surrounding countryside. Return to Guatemala and continue northeastward to another fine Maya site, Quiriguá, where you can marvel at the 10m-plus carved stelae and you may just have the place to yourself. From here move on to the curious Garifuna enclave of Lívingston on the sweaty Caribbean coast. Soak up the atmosphere in this entirely different corner of Guatemala and get in some beach time on the country’s finest beaches. Take a boat up the jungle-lined Río Dulce, stopping for a dip in the hot springs along the way before reaching Río Dulce town. Head north up Hwy 13 to chill out at Finca Ixobel before continuing to Flores, a quaint small town on an island in the Lago de Petén Itzá. From Flores, head for Tikal, the most majestic of all Maya sites. Spend a night at Tikal itself or nearby El Remate. While in the Flores/Tikal area, you should have time to take in further impressive Maya sites such as Yaxhá and Uaxactún.
From Flores head southwest to the relaxed riverside town of Sayaxché, which is at the center of another group of intriguing Mayan sites – Ceibal, Aguateca and Dos Pilas. The road south from Sayaxché is now paved all the way to Chisec and Cobán, jumping-off points for a whole series of pristine natural wonders, such as jungle-ringed Laguna Lachuá, the Grutas de Lanquín and the turquoise lagoons and waterfalls of Semuc Champey. Finally, make your way back to Guatemala City for your flight home.
- 2 weeks
With two weeks to play with you can work your way around the best that Guatemala has to offer without breaking too much of a sweat – unless you count the jungle heat of Tikal, of course.
After taking in the museums and restaurants of Guatemala City, head northeast to the hot and sticky Caribbean coast and the beaches and Garifuna culture of Lívingston. From here you can take the spectacular boat trip upriver to Río Dulce and its hot springs.
From Río Dulce town, head north to traveler-friendly Flores on Lago de Petén Itzá. You'll use this town as your base to visit the extraordinary ruins at Tikal, where you can spend as much time spotting monkeys as Maya ruins.
When you've had your fill of ancient culture, travel south to Cobán, the springboard to the gorgeous jungle waterfalls and swimming holes of Semuc Champey. It's one of the prettiest corners of the entire country.
Bypass the capital on the second half of your trip to take stock in the old colonial capital of Antigua, with its beautiful buildings, great food and lively traveler scene. It's a short hop from here to Chichicastenango: time your visit to take in the twice-weekly market, which is one of the largest and most colorful in Central America.
Continue to volcano-fringed Lago de Atitlán, where you have a wide choice of lakeside towns and villages to stay in according to your taste. You might choose busy Panajachel, the yoga-chilling San Marcos La Laguna, backpacker party hub San Pedro La Laguna or eco-friendly Tzununá. As ferries zip constantly between them, there's time to visit more than one, and still squeeze in a quick volcano hike.
Finish your adventure with a dash down the Pacific Coast to the up and coming town of El Paredón, where you can grab a surf board, do a wildlife tour of the mangroves or simply laze a in a hammock. When you're done, pack up your souvenirs and take a shuttle back to Guatemala City for your flight home.