5 Reasons We Want to Go to Guatemala Next
Jungle-shrouded Mayan ruins patrolled by toucans. Pastel-hued colonial towns best explored on foot. Volcanoes, lakes and stepped turquoise pools—each more surreal than the last. Any one of Guatemala’s greatest hits would justify a visit, but the fact that you can easily combine a few into even a long weekend (though a week would be better) makes a trip particularly tempting.
Why so easy? To begin with, there are more direct flights than ever from the U.S., including new ones from Chicago, Houston, Orlando and Los Angeles—many on low-cost carriers. But whatever major U.S. city you’re flying out of, chances are, you’ll find a direct flight now. Plus, forget jet lag: Guatemala is in the Central Standard time zone.
Read on for the best of what you’ll want to do on arrival.
La Antigua Guatemala
This UNESCO World Heritage-listed colonial-era jewel is about an hour’s drive from Guatemala City’s International Airport, and the perfect starting point.
You’ll be welcomed by the best kind of sensory overload: Lavishly draped women toting baskets of crafts; layers of patina adorning ancient facades; and the smell of freshly roasted coffee mingling with mountain air. In the distance, and visible from almost anywhere in the city: the perfectly cone-shaped Fuego Volcano.
Wandering on foot is the best way to explore. You’ll come across restored historic buildings that have been turned into charming hotels, restaurants and shops—and some that are gloriously unrestored, pigeon encampments and all. Wear comfortable shoes for the uneven stone roads—and for the exploring you’ll want to do in the main market, where you’ll find a dazzling array of fruits, vegetables and crafts. (The local shops and galleries also sell locally mined jade pieces and leather goods).
Though you’ll find plenty of international fare here, one of the best (and most budget-friendly) ways to get to know the place is to duck into a small cafe that offers a menu del dia (a daily set menu of Guatemalan specialties that typically include chicken, fish, pork, rice, potatoes and tortillas). This is where you’ll experience the local flavor in every sense.
About two and a half hours from Antigua, this volcano-ringed lake has constantly shifting light that makes the inherently colorful trappings of Mayan life look all the more kaleidoscopic. But the water is dazzling unto itself.
Plunge into Central America’s deepest and highest elevation lake for a cool swim, or rent a kayak to paddle around. Boating along San Pedro’s forested shores and flooded homes that peek halfway out of the lake is a must. For a deeper look, go Scuba diving to see hotels and houses that have been entirely submerged by geologic and weather activity—you can even visit thermal vents along the volcanic fault line down at 65 feet.
Back on land, hike or mountain bike any of three volcanoes that afford vertiginous views over the glimmering lake and surrounding mountains. Birders in particular will want to check the upper portion of the San Pedro Volcano, where you may spot the red-crowned and turkey-like horned guan (Oreophasis derbianus—found only in high altitudes in Mexico and Guatemala).
For a lower-key (and lower altitude) adventure, head to one of the lakeside Mayan villages. A few favorites: Santiago Atitlan, a boat building and arts and crafts center famed for, among other things, the striking purple local garb. Then there’s the boat-in only town of Santa Cruz, which is wonderfully isolated (its cobblestone village is worth the short hike up the hill). For its part, San Marcos La Laguna is a center for spiritual seekers who mingle with the indigenous Kaqchiquel in a central plaza that’s shaded by a magnificent strangler fig.
Be there on Thursday or Sunday to experience the chaos, colors and cacophony of one of Guatemala’s largest indigenous markets. Some vendors walk hours from their villages to sell vegetables, flowers, livestock, handicrafts and even chalk that’s used to soften dried maize. Then again, the town feels magically serene on non-market days—its red tiled roofs and narrow ancient lanes set in a misty valley between mountain ranges.
Part of this otherworldly ambiance comes from the mixing of a dedication to pre-Christian Mayan beliefs with Catholicism. The whitewashed mid-16th-century Iglesia de Santo Tomás may be Roman Catholic, but the tributes laid out inside, from maize to flowers, are distinctly Mayan—as are the church’s archaeological foundations. A short walk away, Pascual Abaj is a pre-Columbian idol where Mayan shamans regularly perform ceremonies. You can visit the shrine and witness traditional rites if your timing is right.
Among the most significant and stunning archaeological sites in the hemisphere, the jungle-shrouded pyramids of Tikal are an easy flight from Guatemala City.
Spend at least two days here to see the hundreds of ancient structures, but also to wander in the dense rain forest canopy that smells of earth and flowers. If you walk quietly you’ll get to see bird life, monkeys and agoutis. The highlight is climbing to the top of 144 foot-high Temple IV to see the complex’s other pyramids rising out of the forest. (You’ll want to hook up with a tour guide, given the site’s astounding history and biodiversity.)
There are plenty of options to stay the night including a few inside the park, where your early morning wake up call will be delivered by howler monkeys, parrots and toucans. But whatever kind of alarm clock you’re using, wake up early: Getting to the site when it opens and/or staying til sunset will let you to take in the most animal and bird life—to say nothing of the honeyed hues that color the stone temples with the shifting light.
A bumpy road seemingly in the middle of nowhere leads to this stepped succession of pools that are tinged such a bright blue-green, they look like an artist’s rendition of paradise—and are well worth the all-day drive from Antigua or Tikal.
Start with a one-hour trek through dense emerald forest to the Mirador, a small terrace that juts out from a cliff, where the view over the pools is unreal. Then it’s back down for a dreamy swim in the shallow, warm waters.
If you’re extra adventurous, opt for a tour into the large, limestone Lanquin Caverns. Wander down through the dark passageways to wade through a river, climb up an underground waterfall and plunge into an icy, dark pool. Back out in the sunshine, there are also opportunities to tube down river rapids. Don’t expect helmets or safety nets, so you’ll want to be water proficient and surefooted to commit to these activities.
There are a few small hotels in lovely San Augustin Lanquin, only a half-hour drive from the pools, and more choices can be found in Coban, two and a half hours away.