Ruins, volcanoes, lakes, villages & markets… Guatemala is a country of adventure & culture, with Maya traditions alive & well – find out what to see & do in our ultimate travel guide to the Best of Guatemala!
Like the rest of Central America, Guatemala has a reputation for crime & violence but we here at DIY Travel HQ didn’t have any problems in our 3 months in the country. Guatemala City has the worst reputation but we also saw more police & security there than in any other city in Central America. Do some research on how to stay safe in Guatemala, use common sense & precaution and you will be ahead of the game.
Without further ado, here are the 15 places we visited in Guatemala in chronological order:
As a base town for trips to Tikal, there’s not much to do in Flores itself. But the cobblestone streets are nice to walk around & the nightly food market is amazing.
For a taste of local life, check out the markets across the causeway in Santa Elena. For panoramic views, take a boat over to San Miguel & hike to the lookout tower treehouse!
No trip to Guatemala is complete without a visit to the mighty Maya ruins of Tikal. You can choose to make a trip from Flores or stay at the site itself.
What sets Tikal apart is its vast jungle environment – amidst ancient pyramids & ruins, you’ll find plenty of wildlife like howler & spider monkeys, coatis, toucans & turkeys.
Entrance fee: Q150 ($20.00)
#3. Rio Dulce
Rio Dulce may be a hectic river town but it’s a necessary stop if you want to take the scenic boat tour to Livingstone. Along the way, the boat passes the old fort at Castillo de San Felipe, gardens of water lilies, nesting pelicans & cormorants and a hot spring on the banks of the lake.
While you’re in Rio Dulce, don’t forget to make a trip out to the natural hot & cold waterfall at Finca El Paraiso.
Boat tour: Q125 ($16.50) one-way, Q200 ($26.50) same-day return
There’s little to see or do, except for wandering the streets & people watching. Livingston is home to a large Garifuna population, former African slaves who have settled along the Caribbean coast. They have a unique culture so try to seek out some Garifuna drumming or delicious local food.
Quirigua lies in the shadows of Tikal but it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But rather than grand ruins, the highlights of Quirigua are its impressive stone-carved zoomorphs (animal-form art) & stelaes (upright stone slabs).
Stelae E is the tallest in the world, measuring 10.6m in height. You can also visit the partially restored ruins of the Acropolis & enjoy the green forest environment.
Entrance fee: Q80 ($10.50)
If you’re heading to Semuc Champey, chances are you’ll have to pass through Coban. It’s certainly a transportation hub but the pagan church of El Calvario is worth a quick stopover. You may come across some interesting rituals inside – witnessing a duck sacrifice is something we won’t forget!
Parque Central La Paz & Mercado Central are also good examples of a typical Guatemalan city.
#7. Lanquin & Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is one of the most popular places in Guatemala, especially with young backpackers. It’s a unique natural phenomenon, made up of a series of pools formed on a rock bridge over the Cahabon river. Catch a birds-eye view from the mirador before cooling off in the pools below.
While you’re at Semuc Champey, take a short detour over to the Kanba Caves. Get set for a thrilling candlelit adventure tour! If that’s not enough, you can also go tubing & rope swing into the river.
For these adventures & more, stay in the friendly mountain town of Lanquin.
Semuc Champey entrance fee: Q50 ($6.50)
Kanba Caves tour: Q60 ($8.00)
#8. Nebaj & Chajul
Head to the highlands & base yourself in Nebaj, the perfect town for exploring the Ixil region. Here, the temperature is cooler, the men & women wear traditional clothing and there are plenty of DIY hiking opportunities in the area.
From Nebaj, you should also take a bus to the lovely town of Chajul. This is the most traditional village in the region, with gorgeous mountain scenery & curious, playful children.
#9. Todos Santos
Todos Santos is a special little village tucked away in the Guatemala Highlands. It’s known for it’s unique, traditional men’s fashion – every good Todosantero man wears an outfit of a pinstripe shirt, red pants, black chaps & a wide brimmed hat… and they all look fantastic!
#10. Xela (Quetzaltenango)
Xela (Quetzaltenango) is a city that grows on you, where many visitors find themselves staying longer than planned. It’s a mid-sized authentic, Guatemalan city with good tourist infrastructure and many economical food, accommodation & transport options – it’s also one of the most popular places to study Spanish or volunteer in Guatemala.
There are no standout sights in Xela but there are numerous plazas, museums, churches, theatres, markets & cemeteries around the city to explore.
#11. Around Xela (Quetzaltenango)
Xela is also an excellent base town for day trips to the surrounding market villages & for volcano hikes.
On an ideal 5 day itinerary, we recommend the following places according to market days:
- Friday: San Francisco El Alto animal market and San Andres Xecul church
- Saturday: Laguna Chicabal volcano lake
- Sunday: Momostenango market and Los Riscos geological park
- Monday: Volcan Santa Maria hike
- Tuesday: Zunil, Fuentes Georginas and finding San Simon (Maximon)
Chichicastenango may host one of the most colourful markets in Guatemala but it offers much more than that.
Locals hold both Christian & Maya beliefs and you can witness both traditions at the Iglesia Santo Tomas & El Calvario churches, as well as the Pascual Abaj shrine & local cemetery
Of course, it’s the Sunday & Thursday markets than are the biggest draw cards to Chichi. Most of the stock is geared towards tourists so expect to find plenty of woven clothes, purses & bags, hammocks, masks & trinkets.
#13. Lago de Atitlan
Lago de Atitlan is the most picturesque lake in Guatemala, surrounded by volcanoes & traditional villages.
We recommend staying in San Pedro La Laguna & making daytrips to the surrounding villages:
- Search for San Simon (Maximon) & visit the markets in Santiago Atitlan
- Embrace your inner hippy & take a spiritual course in San Marcos La Laguna
- Shop for artisan handicrafts at the weaving village of San Juan La Laguna
- Pass through Panajchel on the way to the markets at Solola
And don’t miss these must-do activities:
- Take a kayak out on Lake Atitlan
- Climb Volcan San Pedro for excellent lake views
- Hike & watch sunrise from Indian Nose
- Learn to cook at Ixiim Cooking School
- Study Spanish at San Pedro Spanish School
Antigua is Guatemala’s #1 tourist destination & it doesn’t disappoint! Antigua is a former capital city, which has been rocked by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions & floods over the centuries. Today, many of its ancient churches & structures lie in magnificent ruins.
Another side of Antigua is its colonial architecture & style – there’s nothing better than simply strolling the cobblestone streets, passing pastel-coloured buildings under terracotta roofs.
#15. Guatemala City
Most travellers to Guatemala City head straight to the airport but the capital is worth visiting for a day or 2. The historical centre in Zone 1 is safe to wander during the day & it’s also where most of the sights are.
Throughout the rest of the city, you can find museums, government buildings, botanical gardens & a zoo.
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*** The Final Word: Visit Guatemala today & experience the heart of the Maya world ***
Have you visited Guatemala? Where was your favourite place?
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