Volcanoes, Caves, Jungles & Ruins: Five Places To Visit In Guatemala

Volcanoes, Caves, Jungles & Ruins: Five Places To Visit In Guatemala

Guatemala, inhabited by ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations prior to being colonized by the Spanish during the colonial era, is abundant with both exciting history and exquisite nature. Each city has a unique culture, landscape and climate. Visit Antigua for a colonial experience in a quaint town surrounded by volcanoes. Explore the indigenous influenced small towns scattered around the breathtaking Lake Atitlan, graced with the presence of three stunning volcanoes. Swim through the limestone pools and dark candlelit caves in the tropical sanctuary of Semuc Champey. Rent a paddleboard and walk through the streets of Flores, a fun tiny island in Lake Peten Itza. Hike to the top of the tallest temple in the ancient Mayan city of Tikal to be serenaded by the songs of monkeys, jaguars and birds as they greet the rising sun. Guatemala is diverse, unique and magnificent, offering adventure, serenity and culture to visitors.

Antigua: colonial town amidst volcanoes

Arco de Santa Catalina, Antigua
Source: Taylor Boyle

Antigua, Guatemala is a quaint colonial city established during the 14th century. Less than two hours from Guatemala City, a group shuttle from the airport costs 15 USD (110 GTQ). The architecture has a Spanish influence with cathedrals, churches and a central plaza (Parque Central). Surrounded by three volcanoes, Volcán de Agua, Acatenango and the still active Volcán de Fuego, Antigua’s scenic landscape is both humbling and energizing. This lovely city offers visitors adventurous volcano hikes, bustling market shopping and local dining experiences. With a population of less than fifty thousand, covering an area of less than 5 sq miles (12.9 sq km), Antigua has a small town sentiment and can make visitors feel at home right away. Culture, adventure and breathtaking views, here are some activities travelers can enjoy during their stay in Antigua.

Lake Atitlan: breathtaking lake surrounded by towns and volcanoes

Lake Atitlan
Source: Taylor Boyle

Lake Atitlan, also surrounded by three breathtaking volcanoes is a versatile place to visit with quaint towns known for hiking, yoga, indigenous culture and scenic landscapes. The lake is situated on the caldera that formed 85,000 years ago due to the site’s first volcanic eruption. San Pedro, the volcano west of the lake, is the oldest and least active of the volcanoes. To the south of the lake lie Tomalin and Atitlan, more active volcanoes which erupted into life after San Pedro.

The lake is surrounded by many small towns interconnected by a ferry system. Each town has its own unique characteristics. In San Pedro visitors can hike the oldest volcano. Panajachel’s bustling streets are lined with restaurants, shops, street food and markets. At the ferry drop off Santiago has a similar aura as Panajachel. Further into Santiago, there is a venue for concerts and events making it a popular destination during scheduled events, like Cosmic Convergence, a festival that takes place during the New Year. San Marcos is known for yoga retreats, spas and relaxation.

No matter where you stay along the lake, the most breathtaking part is the night sky. With hardly any light pollution, the stars shine bright amongst the volcanos and peaks. The moon’s reflection glimmers, rippling through the surface of the lake. Lake Atitlan is a perfect destination for stargazing and shooting star sightings.

The lake is easily accessible by shuttle from Guatemala City (~4–5 hours costing about 25 USD / 185 GTQ), Antigua (~3 hrs costing about 15 USD / 110 GTQ) and Lanquín (~10–12+ hours costings about 40 USD / 300 GTQ). Shuttles can be booked at the airport and most hostels and hotels.

Keep in mind that times and prices are based on travel by shuttle to Panajachel. Some shuttles will also drop off at San Pedro. These shuttles will take longer and may have different prices. Private shuttles are also available for booking. Please note: the roads in Guatemala are not fully developed and travel times are subject to change depending on conditions each day.

Semuc Champey: cave tours, limestone pools & outdoor adventures

Limestone Pools from El Mirador, Semuc Champey
Source: Taylor Boyle

Semuc Champey is a Guatemalan natural monument about twenty minutes away from the main town of Lanquín. This remote tropical paradise offers visitors opportunities to explore caves by candlelight, swim through limestone pools and admire breathtaking waterfalls. Entrance to the untouched park costs ~7 USD (50 GTQ) and will give visitors an opportunity to hike through the mountainous trails of the park.

The trails lead to overhead lookouts (el Mirador) and ground level entrance to swim through the limestone pools. If you prefer a guide to take you to the best spots, tours can be booked through the hotels and hostels in the neighboring towns for about ~20–30 USD (~150–220 GTQ). If you are looking for a more uncharted adventure, just buy a ticket and wander through the park to find less frequented trails. Tours can be booked for caves, tubing and to cacao plantations as well. When the sun goes down, the sky dances with stars typically concealed by streetlights and illuminated buildings. Semuc Champey offers peaceful serenity both day and night.

If you are looking for somewhere to stay in Semuc Champey, Greengos Hotel offers guests a peaceful home base for exploring all the magic this natural sanctuary has to offer

Semuc Champey is remote and will require a 10-12 hour bus ride from Antigua or Guatemala City for 40 USD (~300 GTQ) or an 8+ hour ride from Flores for 30 USD (~220 Q). The ride is extremely bumpy at times due to road conditions. This location is best for the adventurous traveler.

Flores: cozy island within a lake

Sunset at Lake Peten Itza
Source: Taylor Boyle

Flores, a tiny island city located in Lake Peten Itza, has a population of less than 15,000 people. Named Flores, the Spanish word for flower, due the circular island being shaped like a flower head with a bridge shaped like a stem connecting the island to the mainland. Flores is a peaceful small island with tons of restaurants and street food. It is very easy to walk around the island. Paddleboarding is a common activity that takes place on Lake Peten Itza. Flores has plenty of hotels and hostels, accommodating visitors of all budgets.

Visitors can travel to Flores by shuttle from Lanquín for 30 USD (~220 GTQ) in about eight to ten hours. For the more adventurous traveler, local transportation is available from the Belize border of Melchor for about 3 USD (20 GTQ) in about one to two hours depending on road conditions. These buses are typically very packed and pick up at strange locations and are only recommended for adventurous travelers in groups that can ideally speak Spanish. To take local transportation, ask your hotel or hostel for the pick-up locations as they may change. Visitors can also fly directly into the Mundo Maya International Airport.

Tikal: ancient Mayan city situated in a clandestine jungle

Sunrise at Templo IV, Tikal, ~200 feet above ground level

Just one to two hours from Flores, Tikal is a famous Mayan city, with seven temples, situated in the middle of the jungle. Take a sunrise tour to hike through the jungle trails to the tallest temple (over 200 ft high / ~61 m) guided by a flashlight, and the natural light of the star/moon-lit night sky. The dark jungle noises are exhilarating, an experience unlike any other. Once you arrive at the temple, sit back and watch the sky turn into a color show as the sun rises over the jungle, illuminating the expansive stretch of untamed trees. Just before the sun rises, a warning comes as the monkeys, jaguars, birds and other inhabitants of the jungle erupt in a choir of morning calls. After the sunrise, explore the rest of the jungle trails to find Mayan gathering centers, sacrifice stages, temples and more. The jungle is home to many cool creatures, like tarantulas, howler monkeys and unique birds so keep your eyes peeled on both the ground and in the trees.

There are hotels and hostels for visitors to stay in very close to Tikal, or most places in Flores can schedule transportation to the ruins for their guests. Entrance to the park cost ~20 USD (150 GTQ) for general admission and ~35 USD (250 GTQ) for sunrise or sunset admission.

Guatemala: beautiful country with adventures, culture, relaxation and more

Guatemala is a fantastic country full of culture, fresh local food, beautiful scenery and welcoming people. Between the volcanoes, jungles and Mayan ruins, Guatemala offers history, nature and adventure for its visitors. The various locations mentioned are suited for a multitude of travel styles, accommodating those looking for outdoor adventures, cultural experience or relaxation. For those that enjoy variety in their travels, Guatemala offers diverse landscapes, climates and cultures in a condensed area, making it simple to enjoy a vacation full of many unique experiences. Guatemala, both exciting and relaxing, is a must add destination to your travel list.

Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.

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I have a passion for yoga, mindfulness, meditation. As a yoga teacher, my goal is to use yoga philosophy and techniques to foster positivity and self-love, and create a happy, healthy, harmonious...Read more

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