From charming, colonial towns and spectacular, ancient Mayan cities, to pristine, natural wonders filled with adventure and wildlife, Central America’s best-kept secret—Guatemala—has much to offer travellers. Home of the most Mayan ruins in the world, over 30 volcanoes, more than 720 species of birds, and even dubbed “Billfish Capital of the World,” Guatemala showcases a long list of unique travel experiences. Here are the seven must-have experiences when visiting:
Rich in history and architectural charm, the vibrant, colonial city of Antigua takes visitors back in time. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, the city dates back to the early 16th century and today still boasts fantastic characteristics of that era with its cobblestone streets, decorative fountains, colourful buildings and baroque-style churches. The Church of La Merced, for example, is distinguished for its white stucco designs set against a yellow façade.
Tip: Visit the ChocoMuseo to roast cacao beans and make Mayan chocolate while learning about the history of the super food. Later, sit by the Parque Central and mingle with locals while enjoying a tamalito (tamale). For an adventurous journey, hike to the Acatenango Volcano (a six-hour walk). The view above the clouds will make the challenging trek worth it.
Stay: Casa Santo Domingo (casasantodomingo.com.gt), a five-star hotel and museum located on the grounds of the Santo Domingo Monastery.
Tikal National Park
Tikal National Park is one of those places that merits at least two visits during a lifetime. The adventure begins in the jungle, trekking through lush vegetation while becoming acquainted with Guatemala’s nature sounds. Once the giant ruins of this national park and UNESCO World Heritage site appear, visitors are transported to ancient times. Tikal, once a major Mayan city, houses temples, palaces and remains of dwellings that can leave even the most avid traveller speechless. The area protects 22,100 hectares of rainforest and 54 species of mammals, including spider monkeys, jaguars, anteaters and deer.
Tip: To get the best seat in the house, get to the park in time to experience the sunrise atop temple IV, the largest structure (approximately 230 feet) in Tikal, which provides a magnificent view of the jungle.
How to experience it: The town of Flores is located approximately 45 minutes from the park’s entrance. Guided tours are available and shuttle services begin at 4:30 a.m.
Central America’s deepest lake, Atitlán was created by a massive volcanic explosion. In his book, Beyond the Mexique Bay, English writer Aldous Huxley called Atitlán: “…too much of a good thing.” Indeed, the expansive lake is surrounded by breathtaking views of volcanos and 15 distinct indigenous towns (all with biblical names).
Tip: For great views without too much physical strain, visitors are encouraged to take a hike from the San Marcos village. The village is known for its “hippie” community, where yoga and meditation are often practiced.
How to experience it: Step into a hand-carved canoe to explore the lake. For local crafts, visit the shops of Panajachel.
Quiriguá is an ancient Mayan archaeological site that holds the tallest stelae (stone sculptures) erected in the New World. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is easy to navigate and can be explored in just two hours. The enigmatic relics found at Quiriguá tell tales of ancient rulers, deities and rivalries.
Tip: The Jade Museum and shop is a hit for those visiting by cruise.
How to experience it: The ruins are within walking distance from the village of Quiriguá or Los Amates. The scenic walk takes visitors through banana fields and the entrance to the site will cost approximately $10.
Rio Dulce is a popular boating destination located in the department of Izabal. At the mouth of the river stands a small Spanish fort, the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, which served as protection from pirates entering from the Caribbean when the city was an important trade destination in 1644.
Tip: There is a small, family-owned hideaway approximately halfway between Rio Dulce town and Livingston called Finca Tatin (fincatatin.centramerica.com). The hotel blends in with the natural foliage and treats guests to hammocks, bungalow-style rooms and home-cooked meals.
How to experience it: Rio Dulce promises a serene retreat. While navigating its waters, visitors encounter a myriad of tropical birds and turtles basking in the sun. Kayak around the vast networks of lagoons surrounding the river, a sanctuary for manatees and wildlife.
Yaxha, made famous during the hit TV show, Survivor, is a lakeside archaeological site that is home to more than 500 structures that live in perfect harmony with their natural surroundings. One of Yaxha’s main attractions is its blue-green lagoon, which reflects the colour of the sky and lush vegetation.
Tip: The historic information available at the park for each complex is thorough and helpful; park keepers are so knowledgeable that visitors won’t need an additional guide.
How to experience it: Yaxha’s lake can be seen from atop temple 216, the highest of the site. Also, Yaxha is the perfect ending to a Guatemalan vacation as the trip only takes a day and the ruins are not as busy as Tikal. Sometimes travellers have the place all to themselves.
Walk across a cooling lava bed and cook marshmallows over the hot rocks as the sun sets. This half-day excursion from Antigua is one of Guatemala’s most talked about experiences. Pacaya is Guatemala’s most active volcano rising 8,373 feet above sea level.
Tip: Afternoon climbs will guarantee the best views since the mornings are usually filled with fog.
How to experience it: Set out from Antigua (approximately a one-hour ride) to the village under the volcano. The climb is not rigorous and can be completed in about two and a half hours. Stunning views of the Agua, Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes can be seen throughout the hike.
For more information on how to discover the beauty of Guatemala, visit GUATEMALA.COM