Guatemala is so diverse the six regions outlined here could just as easily be six separate countries. Travel 100km or so and everything changes, from the scenery down to the food and the way people talk and dress. The capital is all big-city buzz, while it’s hard to imagine things getting any more laid-back than they do in the little beach towns down on the coast. Antigua is the epitome of stately colonial charm, whereas the temple-laden jungles and small towns of El Petén have a very rough-and-ready frontier atmosphere. The highlands of the center and west are probably the most similar, but where the volcano-studded west gets chilly and starkly beautiful, the cloud forest–covered center is much milder and more lush.
Art & Archaeology
Museums & Galleries
Don't be tempted to dodge the capital – if you’re at all interested in art and archaeology, you need to spend some time here. All the best pieces end up here, often in world-class, superbly curated spaces.
The Big Night Out
The capital’s massive population of students, the live-music scene and burgeoning nightlife district just off the Central Park make it the best place to go out in the country, hands down.
For all its craziness and stress, you’re not going to get that big-city kick anywhere else in the country. Just walking down the street will show you murals, architecture, markets and more that the city has to offer.
Though much of the Spanish legacy in the former capital lies in ruins, the remaining fragments add allure to the streetscapes, offering picture-postcard views at every corner and a chance to scramble through history.
Back to School
Despite some tough competition, Antigua remains the capital of Spanish-language study in Latin America. Dozens of small, affably run institutes offer personalized instruction in charming surrounds at bargain prices.
Owing to its globally varied visitor profile, Antigua rivals much loftier destinations as a cuisine capital. Here you can enjoy everything from French fine dining to Argentine empanadas at restaurants run by transplants from their culinary places of origin.
From the pom-pommed headdresses of women in Chajul to the flamboyant red-and-white striped trousers of men in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, traditional Maya clothing is a dazzling display of identity throughout the highlands.
With a chain of 33 volcanoes, four of them active, climbers, geology buffs and landscape painters find plenty to inspire them here. An early-morning hike up the Santa María volcano leads to a mesmerizing view of the periodically erupting Santiaguito.
Every highlands town likes to let its hair down at an annual fest, and outsiders are always welcome. Good bets include Quetzaltenango’s late September toast to its Virgen del Rosario and Todos Santos Cuchumatán’s patron saint’s day on November 1 with madcap horse racing and drunken marimba dancing.
The Pacific Slope
Sun, Sand & Surf
If you’ve been up in the hills or traveling hard, the Pacific coast is dotted with little beach towns where you can dial it back a notch or two and get in some quality do-nothing time.
This Fish is Delish!
With so much coastline it’s no surprise that the seafood here is excellent – fried fish and shrimp are staples, but don’t miss out on the caldo de mariscos (seafood stew) if you see it on a menu.
With whales and turtles in the waters off the beaches and the mangroves buzzing with birdlife, this region is a wildlife-watcher’s paradise.
Central & Eastern Guatemala
From the lush cloud forests of the Verapaz and the pools of Semuc Champey to the verdant landscapes of Lago de Izabal and the Río Dulce, the rivers, lakes, canyons, waterfalls and jungles of this region showcase Guatemala at its natural best.
A Cultural Mosaic
Ethnically diverse and at times intensely traditional, the center and east of the country are home to Achi’, Poqomchi’, Ch'ortí and Q'eqchi' Maya, many of who maintain traditional customs. Over on the Caribbean, the culturally distinct Garifuna represent one more ingredient in Guatemala’s ethnic stew.
The limestone crags, particularly north of Cobán, play host to a network of caves and caverns, making for great photo opportunities and fascinating forays for casual strollers and serious spelunkers alike.
Classic Maya Sites
With literally hundreds of sites sprinkled across the jungle lowlands, you may delve as deeply as you choose into the mysteries of Classic Maya civilization, from the fabulously dramatic temples of Tikal to the seldom-seen astronomical observatory of Uaxactún.
Rare and endangered creatures still roam the protected expanses of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, and guides from petenera communities can help you track them down, whether it’s nocturnal crocodile cruising at the Estación Biológica Las Guacamayas or awakening to howler monkeys at Biotopo Cerro Cahuí.
Seasoned guides at places such as Ni’tun Ecolodge on Lago de Petén Itzá or Aldana’s Lodge in Uaxactún accompany you on multiday odysseys through the mud and mosquitoes to such remote Maya sites as El Zotz and El Mirador.