15 Best Places to Visit in Guatemala

15 Best Places to Visit in Guatemala
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Whether Mayan peoples or descendants of African slaves from the Caribbean, in no other Central American country will you encounter as much cultural and multiethnic diversity as in Guatemala. An estimated 60% of the population is indigenous (Mayas, Garífunas, Xincas and mestizo Ladinos).

A trip to Guatemala will immerse you in deeply hidden worlds of jungle vegetation and the remains of former majestic Mayan kingdoms. The already known Mayan sites of Tikal and El Mirador are probably not the only ones slumbering under the rainforest veil…

In addition, there is probably the most beautiful lake in the world, as well as mountains and volcanoes that invite you to watch lava explosions. And on top of that: You can enjoy Caribbean feeling in the east of the country! Here are the 15 best places to visit in Guatemala.

15. Semuc Champey

About 12 kilometers from Lanquín, in the department of Alta Verapaz, is this natural paradise. Somewhat remote, this natural wonder is nevertheless a must-see for travelers to Guatemala.

Semuc Champey, which translates as “where the water disappears”, is one of Guatemala’s most popular tourist attractions. It consists of several ponds with a depth of up to three meters, which glow turquoise green in the morning and evening light, making them a feast for the eyes. The Cahabón River, which feeds the natural pools, runs mostly under the pools in a subway tunnel with great force and re-emerges from the rocks at the bottom of Semuc Champey.

Although it couldn’t be more idyllic and swimming here is a no-brainer, there are dangerous spots to avoid at all costs.

14. Todos Santos Cuchumatan

The town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, in the province of the same name, is a good place to see native Guatemalans wearing traditional clothing every day. It is one of the few places in the country where this still occurs.

The inhabitants are mostly Mayan and still speak this language. The town is located in the Sierra de los Cuchumatánes mountains and is known for its annual All Saints’ Day celebration (Todos Santos means “all the saints”). The festivities include music, dancing, lots of alcohol, and horse races.

13. Livingston

Livingstone is located at the mouth of the Rio Dulce in eastern Guatemala. The idyllic coastal town can only be reached by boat, however. Here live mainly Garifunas, an Afro-Caribbean ethnic group, which gives the place a bit of Caribbean feeling. The houses in Livingston are painted with bright colors and some of them stand on high stilts. The balconies are large and are ideal box seats to watch the colorful hustle and bustle on the streets. In many places you can hear the traditional music of the Garifuna. It feels as if you have landed in the Caribbean.

12. Quetzaltenango

Quetzaltenango is better known in Guatemala as Xela. This is the short form of the Mayan name Xelaju. The city is located at an impressive 2400 meters above sea level and has over 140,000 inhabitants. This makes it the second largest city in the country after Guatemala City.

The main reason to visit is its strategic location near the mighty volcanoes Siete Orejas, Cerro Quemado, Santa Maria and the extremely fearsome Santiaguito. Besides, Xela has a beautiful city center to offer and a lively nightlife.

Quetzaltenango has a small but very interesting city center. It extends mainly around the Parque Centroamérica.

The main attraction is a tour up Santa Maria. This is one of the highest volcanoes in Guatemala and is recommended in several ways. On a clear day and offers a spectacular view from there. With a little luck you can see the entire Pacific coast of the country. But from there you also have a good view into the Santiaguito, an active volcano. The Santiaguito is more or less a child of the Santa Maria. It was formed after the great eruption of 1902.

11. Pacaya

In the south of Lake Amatitlán is the village of San Vincente Pacaya. The village is located at the foot of the slopes of Pacaya and is therefore also an ideal starting point for climbing an active volcano. Although Pacaya is an ever-bubbling danger, it proves to be a real magnet for visitors. Many tourists visit the volcano to experience the force and power of nature live for once in their lives. It steams and hisses from crevices and holes. Glowing red lava flows down the slopes. Light, barely perceptible eruptions shake the earth. For safety reasons, the volcano should only be accompanied by an experienced guide.

10. Flores

Flores may seem at first glance to be just a way station to the Mayan sites in the north of the country of Guatemala, but the island town is just as worth seeing. The small town is located on an island in the middle of Lago Petén and is a pretty sight to see because of its location. If you stroll through the cobblestone streets, you will see colorful houses from the Spanish colonial period.

The red tiled roofs, which form a strong contrast to the house facades, are particularly striking. Visitors always have a wonderful view of Lake Petén-Itzá, which invites them for a swim or a boat ride. On a tour of Flores, the local cathedral with its twin towers is a must. With a little luck, vacationers will experience an unforgettable sunset there.

Travelers should definitely spend a few days in Flores. After all, not only day trips to the Mayan ruins can be made from there, but also excursions into the immediate surroundings.

9. Chichicastenango

That Guatemala is more than just a trip is evident in many places, but especially at the colorful market in Chichicastenango. It is one of the largest markets in Central America, and can be visited on both Thursdays and Sundays. Sweet and savory smells rise to the nose. The variety of spices is stunning. One gets the feeling that there is nothing here that is not available.

The stalls are well stocked and offer visitors an overwhelming variety of fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, as well as flowers and medicinal plants. There are also all sorts of woven and embroidered items, from colorful blankets and scarves to woven rugs, knitted clothing and hats. The market in Chichicastenango seems to be drowning in a sea of color.

8. Panajachel

Panajachel, a lakeside town in the southwest central highlands, is named after the indigenous word for a tropical fruit, the white sapote. The city sits on the shores of Lake Atitlan, which dominates the landscape with the volcanoes of the Sierra Madre on the other side.

Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America. This former Spanish colonial town with its bustling marketplace is considered the best place in Guatemala to buy souvenirs. It’s also a good place to explore the surrounding indigenous villages around Lake Atitlan, accessible by private boat.

The picturesque region surrounding Lake Atitlan is a natural playground where visitors can enjoy a range of outdoor activities. The lake itself offers boating, swimming, and kayaking, while the surrounding volcanoes, farms, and hills offer opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, visiting coffee plantations, and exploring Mayan archaeological sites such as Sambaj and Chiutinamit.

7. Antigua Guatemala

Many of the tourists use the colonial former capital of Antigua as a hub. From here they travel either to the highlands of Guatemala in the west, the Caribbean in the east and the lowlands of Petén in the north. Without a doubt, La Antigua Guatemala, known as Antigua for short, has a lot to offer itself. After all, it is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Central America.

Antigua, near the capital Guatemala City, is the country’s calling card and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But what makes Antigua so special? Although some of the Spanish colonial buildings were severely damaged by the great earthquake in 1976, the colonial cityscape of Antigua shines in new splendor. Numerous colonial buildings have been lovingly restored and offer visitors a magnificent backdrop. One of the highlights of the city is the Cathedral San José with the tomb of Bernal Diaz, former governor and chronicler of Antigua.

Another interesting sight is the baroque church of La Merced, a canary-yellow church with rich decorations. Particularly worth seeing is the spacious cloister with an impressive fountain. What also should not be missed during a visit to the city of Antigua is the church and convent of the Capuchin nuns from the 18th century.

6. Tikal

One of the most popular sights is the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. It probably originated in 900 AD and grew to a stately size over time. Pyramids, stelae, palaces and temples dot the Mayan city and illustrate how highly developed the Mayan culture once was. Highlights of Tikal include the Temple of the Great Jaguar, the Temple of the Masks, the Gran Plaza and the North Acropolis. In total, there are about 3000 Mayan ruins in Tikal, some of which are still hidden by the jungle.

5. El Mirador

The view from above reveals little that is spectacular at first. From the dense jungle rises something that looks like a huge, overgrown rock. Only very few people know that this is evidence of the sunken world of the Maya. Yet El Mirador (lookout point) holds many a secret.

It was abandoned by its inhabitants in 50 AD and only rediscovered in 1926: El Mirador is one of the largest Mayan metropolises ever. However, there is not much to see of the ruins. Because in the deepest jungle of Guatemala the ruins are overgrown by lianas. Once, more than 100,000 people probably lived here. Today, howler monkeys, coatis and pumas probably outnumber humans. Except for a few rubber collectors, only explorers actually stray into this area. These come mainly because of the temples La Danta, El Tigre and Los Monos.

The three main pyramids are among 33 other buildings on the site. El Tigre rises 55 meters, Los Monos measures 48 meters and La Danta is the tallest of the three at 70 meters. This makes it taller than the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico (65 meters) and, with a volume of 2.8 million cubic meters, even more massive than the Cheops Pyramid at Giza in Egypt.

4. Monterrico

Many people are drawn to white sand beaches for a little rest and relaxation. You won’t find them in Monterrico, a popular beach town on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. The beaches are volcanic black ash.

You should bring sandals if you want to take beach walks, as the sand can be too hot for bare feet. It has nice waves for surfing, but the main attraction of Monterrico may be the sea turtles. The beach is the breeding ground for four species of sea turtles.

3. Guatemala City

Those traveling to Guatemala arrive at the international airport Aeropuerto Internacional La Aurora. Many of the travelers neglect the capital of Guatemala, but there are some hidden gems to discover. Among these are without a doubt all the sights in the immediate vicinity of the Parque Central – the monumental looking presidential palace Palacio National (National Palace), the magnificent Cathedral San José and the tunnel-like Mercado Central de Guatemala.

On the outskirts of the Guatemalan capital, visitors have the opportunity to see the ruins of Kaminaljuyú. Also known as the Hill of Death, the site was settled by the Mayans more than 2,000 years ago. About 200 excavation sites have been discovered and excavated so far. Most of them can be visited by tourists.

To learn more about the Mayan culture, it is worth visiting the numerous museums, such as the Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena, the Museo Popol Vuh or the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Ethnología. Also worth seeing are the Museo Miraflores, the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno and the National Library.

2. Lake Atitlán

Surrounded by the imposing Tolimán, San Pedro and Atitlán volcanoes, densely forested mountainsides and picturesque Mayan villages lies the deep blue Lake Atitlán. The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt called Lake Atitlán the most beautiful lake in the world. Gentle wisps of mist often rise, giving the waters a certain mystique. Many indigenous people live around the lake; they speak the Mayan languages Cakchiquel, Tzutujil and Quiché.

1. Nebaj

In the small, traditional Mayan village of Nebaj, set apart in the mountains in the northwestern highlands, beats the heart of authentic Guatemala, untouched and off the beaten tourist path. Here you will find the gateway to the region of the indigenous Ixil-Maya people. The Ixil-Maya speak their own language (Ixil) and the women wear traditional clothing with red skirts and colorfully woven huipiles (= Mayan blouses colorfully embroidered with ornaments and figures). The mountainous area lends itself to enchanting hikes, such as the day trips to Chajul, Acul, and for the adventurous, the 4 to 6 day trip to Todos Santos Cuchumatan.