Known for its vast landscapes consisting of colonial cities, fiery volcanoes, ancient Mayan ruins, and deep rainforests, Guatemala has seen a vast increase in the number of tourists each year. In recent years, it has become an attractive destination for citizens of both neighboring countries and from all around the world. Even though you may be flying into the largest city, Guatemala City, your visit should not be restricted to the city. Scattered all over the country, there is so much more to do explore that you will not want to miss out on. And, if you don’t know where to begin, below are some of the top things to do in Guatemala:
1. Admire the colonial buildings in Antigua, Guatemala
Famous for its well-preserved Spanish-Baroque-style architecture, Antigua is the best place to witness colonial influences. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city is filled with ruins of colonial churches and structures available for you to visit. Some famous churches you may want to visit include San Francisco Church and La Merced Church.
For a great view over most of Antigua, take a moderate 30-minute hike up to the Hill of the Cross (Cerro de la Cruz). However, the most distinctive landmark in Antigua is the Santa Catalina Arch. Once serving as a connecting bridge that allowed nuns to travel from the Santa Catalina convent to the school, it is now a must-see for any visitor in Antigua.
If climbing a volcano has always been on your bucket list, Guatemala is the place to check this activity off. Not far from Antigua sits Pacaya Volcano, one of Guatemala’s most active volcano complexes that reaches an elevation of 2,552 meters (8,373 feet). Although it was dormant for a century, this famous volcano has seen continuous activity since 1965.
Join a guided tour and hike up Pacaya Volcano, a popular activity for both locals and tourists alike. The only thing that beats hiking up a volcano is experiencing the real threats of climbing an active one. Despite the steep uphill trek, you will be rewarded with a fun activity of roasting marshmallows among the volcanic rocks. Admiring the gorgeous views and this natural geographic landmark will make the entire journey worth it.
Tip: even though volcanic eruptions are out of human control, take note of the risks of hiking on an active volcano.
Pacaya Volcano Day Trip from Antigua
Duration: 7 hours
3. Explore the Mayan Ruins of Tikal
Guatemala is home to one of Central America’s greatest archaeological sites, the Mayan Ruins of Tikal. Located in a jungle in northern Guatemala near the border of Belize, Tikal was formerly one of the most important urban Mayan centers. It is also among the largest Mayan sites that still exist.
Devote a couple hours (or even a whole day) to explore over 3,000 structures amidst the ruins of this ancient city. Here, you will find all kinds of building blocks used in the early civilization. From pyramids and temples to plazas and an acropolis, you will be in awe at how impressive these structures are considering when they were built.
Tip: if you’re planning to visit, stay in the nearby town of Flores. Just over a 1-hour drive (64 kilometers / 40 miles) away, it is the most convenient location to start a trip to Tikal.
Address: Tikal, Guatemala
Opening Hours: 6 am - 6 pm
Duration: At least 4 hours
Price: 150 GTQ (19.70 USD) *Entrance before 6 am for the sunrise tour is 250 GTQ (32.80 USD)
Access: 1-hour drive (64 kilometers / 40 miles) from Flores; tours are also offered from Belize
4. Escape the crowds at Tikal and visit the ruins of Yaxha instead
Like Tikal, Yaxha is a famous archeological site from Mesoamerican times. Now the 3rd-largest ruins in Guatemala, the site was formerly the center of the ancient Mayan civilization. Featuring the remains of over 500 structures, there is no lack of sights to explore at Yaxha.
Although it is nowhere near as famous as Tikal, Yaxha may actually be a better option if you want to avoid mobs of tourists. You’ll have all the freedom you want to walk around the complex without having to deal with crowds. Surrounded by two lakes, Yaxha has been praised by some as the most beautiful Mayan ruins, even beating Tikal.
Address: Yaxha, Guatemala
Opening Hours: 6 am - 5 pm
Duration: At least 2 hours
Price: 80 GTQ (10.50 USD)
5. Connect with nature on a spiritual level at Lake Atitlan
Sometimes described as the most beautiful lake in the world, Lake Atitlan also earns the title of the deepest lake in Central America with an average depth of 220 meters (720 feet). Surrounded by 3 volcanoes, this renowned lake was formed in a volcanic crater, a defining feature that makes it unlike any other lake.
Sitting at 1,538 meters (5,046 feet) above sea level, Lake Atitlan offers more than just a scenic view. In recent years, it has increased in popularity as a hub for spiritual centers that offer yoga and metaphysical pursuits for the soul.
While you are there, visit one of the many quaint little villages and towns nearby. The most famous town is Panajachel, where you will find the most accommodation if you’re planning to spend a couple of nights by the lake. Paragliding and zip-lining over the lake are also available from Panajachel.
6. Hike up Volcano San Pedro by Lake Atitlan
If the thought of climbing up the active Pacaya Volcano sounded terrifying but you still want to experience a volcanic hike, this one’s for you. Of the 3 volcanoes that lie around Lake Atitlan, the dormant Volcano San Pedro is the shortest, making for an easy hike.
Take in the amazing views of the lake and the other surrounding volcanoes from the peak of Volcano San Pedro. The entrance fee to the volcano’s trail includes a tour guide, which is necessary because the path is mostly unmarked. It is a mere 5-mile (8-kilometer) hike round-trip, and it should not take you more than a couple of hours to complete the journey.
Volcano San Pedro
Duration: Around 5 hours
Price: 100 GTQ (13.10 USD)
7. Get a taste of the Caribbean in the small town of Livingston
In recent years, Livingston has become an increasingly popular destination. With a distinct culture and language, it is a town unlike the rest of Guatemala. This small town is known for its Caribbean-like feel, complete with colorful houses and a perfect tropical climate all year round.
Located at the end of the well-known Dulce River (Rio Dulce), Livingston is only accessible by boat or helicopter. The lack of roads connecting this little Garifuna town to the rest of the country makes it even more exclusive.
If you wish to spend your time lounging around by the seaside, do not fret; Livingston is not completely disconnected from the world. There are numerous beautiful beaches conveniently located a short taxi or boat ride away that you can visit as often as you desire.
8. Climb to Central America’s highest peak at Quetzaltenango (Xela)
Recognized as the second-largest city in Guatemala, Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela) is situated in a mountain valley at an elevation of 2,330 meters (7,640 feet) above sea level. It serves as a popular base for tours to nearby villages, famous for their hot springs and handicrafts.
If you’re interested in visiting a hot spring, join a tour to Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs. Emanating from the nearby Zunil Volcano, this thermal hot spring is one of the most famous in the area. Take a calming bath, or stroll along the trails at Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs. In the midst of the surrounding misty volcanoes, you are guaranteed to feel relaxed beyond words.
Don’t forget to explore the city itself while you are there too. Quetzaltenango is home to Tajumulco Volcano, the highest peak in Central America. Climb to the volcano’s summit at 4,222 meters (13,851 feet) above sea level. It isn’t a challenging hike, and can easily be done solo in one day. Apart from gaining bragging rights for climbing Central America’s highest point, you will also be rewarded with a spectacular view of Guatemala’s landscape.
9. Lounge around by the beach at Monterrico
Not only is Monterrico the most popular beach in Guatemala, it is also the closest to two major cities: Guatemala City and Antigua. Feel free to spend all day laying out in the sun here. With a laid-back feel and a stunning oceanfront, this beach is perfect for a relaxing holiday.
Another highlight of this area is the Monterrico Nature Reserve. Aiming to protect mangrove forests and sea turtles, this is the place to go if you want to get in touch with nature or the native wildlife. If you are lucky, you may be able to participate in the turtle release program. Watching baby turtles find their way back to the ocean is sure to put a smile on your face.
Tip: dominated by big waves, Monterrico creates the perfect conditions for surfing. However, due to a strong undertow caused by the steep ocean floor, it is recommended that only confident swimmers venture out into the water. Even though there are lifeguards, it is best to be cautious for your own safety.
10. Immerse yourself in local Guatemalan culture at Chichicastenango Market
Hosted only on Thursdays and Sundays, Chichicastenango Market (also known as Chichi) is reputed to be the largest market in Central America. It is a popular attraction, where locals and tourists alike flock from the surrounding areas to visit this vibrant market.
Take your time to truly explore all the little knick-knacks available. Vendors set up stalls selling a variety of handicrafts, food, flowers, pottery, condiments, candles, and much more. You will be able to find just about anything here at Chichicastenango Market.
Address: Plaza Central, Chichicastenango 14006, Guatemala
Opening Hours: 6 am - 6 pm (Thursdays and Sundays only)
Duration: At least 2 - 3 hours
Access: 2-hour drive (58 miles / 93 kilometers) from Antigua; 3-hour drive (87 miles / 139 kilometers) from Guatemala City
11. Zip line through the dense forests of Ixpanpajul Nature Park
There is no better way to explore the beautiful landscapes of Ixpanpajul Nature Park than by flying through it on a zip line. Home to local vegetation and some animal species (e.g. monkey and birds), this park allows you to come in close contact with the admirable flora and fauna of Guatemala.
If zip lining does not appeal to you, mountain biking and horseback riding tours are also available to take you through Ixpanpajul Nature Park. You could also keep it old-school and stick to using your own two feet with a hike through the lush green foliage. While you’re there, be sure to cross all 6 suspension bridges in the park for magnificent aerial views of the forest canopy.
Viator: Ixpanpajul Nature Park Zipline and Eco-Adventure Tour from Flores
Hours: Pick up at 8 am
Duration: Around 6 hours
Price: From 68 USD
A famous natural monument in the Alta Verapaz department of Guatemala, Semuc Champey has become an increasingly popular tourist destination. Although considerably difficult to get to, it is an attraction that should not be missed by any traveler in Guatemala.
Defined by a series of limestone bridges and caves, Semuc Champey is best experienced by crossing over the Cahabon River via its most prominent 300-meter (984-foot) limestone bridge. One thing that cannot be missed here is swimming in the famous stepped, turquoise pools. It is definitely a highlight of Semuc Champey. Strip down to your bathing suit and jump into the refreshing water. Life won’t get much better than relaxing in cool waters surrounded by a remarkable landscape.
Kanba Cave and Semuc Champey Day Tour from San Agustín Lanquín
Duration: 7 hours
13. Walk into the depths of the bat-filled Lanquin Caves
Conveniently located near Semuc Campey, Lanquin Caves is a great stop to make after your swim in the turquoise pools. Once believed to be the ‘Heart of Heaven’ by the ancient Mayans, this cave complex is made of countless chambers and limestone formations.
You have the option to pay a tour guide to show you around the caves. But if you’re feeling more adventurous, you could also choose to explore them by yourself. What makes these caves particularly unique is the underground bat colony. It is a whole different sensation as bats whizz past you in narrow alleys of the cave. Depending on yourself, it may just be the most terrifying or the coolest experience of your life.
Duration: At least 3 hours
14. Take a tour of a famous Guatemalan coffee plantation
If you love coffee and can’t live without it, this is perfect for you. Get a taste of local Guatemalan coffee and learn about the process of making it at a coffee plantation. As one of the top coffee producers in Central America and the world, Guatemala is the perfect place to learn about the art of coffee-making.
Most coffee plantation tours are offered in or around Antigua (see #1). While there are many options, visit Filadelfia Coffee Resort & Tours for a safe option. With a 150-year-old plantation and tours that have existed for over 15 years, the Filadelfia Coffee Tour educates you on the history, cultivation, and processing of coffee on their farm. A complimentary cup of locally-produced coffee is given at the end of the tour as a bonus.
Filadelfia Coffee Tour
Address: 150mts. North of the Church of San Felipe de Jesús, La Antigua Guatemala
Hours: Tours start at 9 am, 11 am, and 2 pm
Duration: 2 hours
Price: 18 USD
Access: 10-minute drive (3 kilometers / 1.7 miles) from Antigua, Guatemala
Website: Filadelfia Coffee Tour
15. Challenge yourself to a 5-day trek into the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador
Although it is the 2nd-largest Mayan city, El Mirador receives very little attention from tourists compared to Tikal (#3) or even Yaxha (#4). This is because of its remote location deep in the jungles, making it extremely difficult to access.
Prepare yourself for a long and tedious hike to get to there. Most people make their way by car the nearest village of Carmelita. But surrounded by forests, El Mirador still requires a gruelling trek of at least 5 days and 4 nights to arrive at the site. As exhausting as that may sound, it will all be worth it once you lay eyes on the untouched beauty of these historical ruins.
Amigos Hostel: El Mirador 5-Day Hike
Address: Peten, Guatemala
Duration: 5 - 6 days
Price: 250 USD per person for groups of 2; 500 USD for solo travelers *Includes 3 meals per day
Note: Guides only speak Spanish, but an English translator can be provided if needed.
Website: Amigos Hostel: El Mirador 5-Day Hike
Unearth the hidden corners of Guatemala
It is safe to say that a trip to Guatemala will, no doubt, be the adventure of your lifetime. Filled with volcanoes, rainforests, and ancient ruins, every corner of the country is worth exploring, and every second spent there will definitely be a blast. If travel for you is all about discovering nature and visiting historical landmarks, Guatemala should have been on your bucket list long ago. And if it’s not, now is the time to add it to your list!
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