February 12th 2020
Located in Central America, Guatemala is a vibrant mix of ancient Mayan sites, Spanish colonial cities, indigenous villages, active volcanoes, luxurious rainforests, coffee plantations and pristine beaches and lakes.
With its unique culture, stunning natural landscapes and pleasant climate it offers an eclectic range of experiences and sights that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else in the world.
It’s a fantastic place to mingle with the locals, explore the country on a traditional chicken bus and learn more about both the ancient Mayans and the Spanish Colonial cultures.
Known as the Heart of the Mayan World, its magical and mystical vibes will enthral you, its beauty will intoxicate you and the traditions and culture of its people will leave you wanting to experience more of their hospitality.
Travelling around Guatemala is easy, especially as the distances between places are short, so let’s take a look at some of the best places to go in Guatemala that will give you a flavour of the country.
Explore the Ancient Mayan Ruins of Tikal
If you’re a Star Wars fan, you may recognize the temples of Tikal as they doubled as the Yavin IV Rebel Base in the first movie which was filmed in 1977. The ancient ruins date back to the 4th century BC and are one of the most important archaeological ruins of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization.
Believed to have originally been called Yax Mutal, over the centuries the temple complex grew into a significant cultural, ceremonial and commercial centre with most of the huge temples being constructed during the 8th century A.D. when Tikal become the greatest city in the Maya world.
As the capital of the powerful Mayan kingdom, at its height during 200 and 850 A.D., it consisted of approximately 3,000 buildings in an area of about 6 square miles. However, by the ninth century, it had fallen into decline and by the end of the century, it was virtually abandoned.
The main attraction at Tikal is the Great Plaza flanked by the ruins of two temples in the shape of pyramids. The Temple of the Grand Jaguar (Temple I) consists of nine tiers which rise 50 meters above the plaza and the Temple of the Masks (Temple II) offers amazing views of the Great Plaza and the North Acropolis and Central Acropolis, two ceremonial and residential complexes close by.
The Grand Plaza is situated right at the centre of the site and surrounded by endless miles of lush green jungle and rainforest of the Tikal National Park in Northern Guatemala. The tropical forest is home to parrots, toucans, wild turkeys, monkeys and numerous other animals.
Close to Tikal is the community and Maya Site of Uaxactun. If you travel with Inspirit you will have a unique opportunity to camp in the jungle and be part of this community for a few days on our Uaxactun Glamping program.
Experience a Taste of Spanish Colonial Life in Antigua
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities and best places to visit in Guatemala is Antigua, a city that has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years.
Located in Guatemala’s central highlands and surrounded by a dramatic backdrop of volcanoes, this charming city was once the capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala and is often referred to as an ‘open-air museum’ due to its multitude of old buildings.
However, the natural world has also shaped the city, with earthquakes destroying some of what the Spanish so carefully built, including the church of San Francisco.
As you explore the cobblestone streets in this UNESCO World Heritage site, you can almost imagine that you’ve stepped back in time to the days of the Spanish conquistadors who came here in 1543.
There is so much to see if you’re interested in history and culture, from centuries-old churches and Spanish Baroque architecture to museums such as those at Casa Santo Domingo with their treasure troves of archaeological artefacts that document the area’s history.
Antigua also has an amazing street food scene and if you travel with Inspirit a street food tour will almost certainly be on the menu!!
The city of Antigua is also the perfect place to do a little shopping if you’re looking for textiles, jewellery and carvings.
Something to think about when you visit Guatemala and Antigua is if you love festivals – time it to coincide with Easter Week – Semana Santa – and enjoy the famous processions and incredible street carpets as well as all the food and festivities that accompany this great event. You’ll have to plan and book in advance though as the town gets booked out!
Discover Panajachel, Atitlán, or San Lucas to See the Most Beautiful Lake in the World
Described as the ‘most beautiful lake in the world’ by British writer Aldous Huxley, Lake Atitlan is an enormous body of water enclosed in a massive volcanic crater with depths of up to 350 meters. The shores of its stunning sapphire-coloured waters are ringed by steep verdant flower-covered hills and punctuated with three imposing volcanoes.
You’ll also find a number of indigenous Mayan villages and bohemian towns dotted along the shores. If you’re looking for good shopping and a busy nightlife, we recommend visiting Panajachel. There are also more laidback villages such as San Marcos which invite you to chill out, relax and unwind. San Pedro is also a must-see.
The lakeside area provides the natural habitat for the almost extinct quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala since 1871. Extremely important to the indigenous Maya, the quetzal represents liberty and it’s said that it will die of sadness if it is caged.
The stunning countryside surrounding the lake also offers the perfect opportunity to go hiking and find out more about the local communities who grow and harvest coffee at the Atitlan nature reserve that was once a former coffee plantation.
A great time to be in Guatemala and the Lake Atitlan and Antigua area in the highlands is the 1st November – All Saints Day/”Day of the Dead” – when we celebrate the Kite Festival in two local villages. Huge kites are constructed and erected and many flown and family members picnic on the graves of their departed loved ones to celebrate their lives.
Visit Chichicastenango for a Taste of Mayan Culture
Nestled in Guatemala’s western Highlands is the Mayan town of Chichicastenango, more simply known as ‘Chichi’. One of the main reasons people visit Chichi is to immerse themselves in the Mayan culture as almost all of the town’s population is of Mayan K’iche descent.
However, the pull of the amazing Thursday and Sunday Chichicastenango indigenous market is also responsible for the influx of visitors who arrive every week.
One of the largest of its type in Latin America, the market offers everything from food with the most delicious aromas and limestones for making tortillas to colorful hand-made products, clothing and traditional carved wooden masks.
It’s the perfect place to uncover authentic locally made handicrafts and exquisite traditional textiles and to try out the local liquor ‘Venado’. Expect to barter for your goods; it’s all part of the fun.
Not far from the market, you’ll find the Church of Santo Tomas which was built on the site of a pre-Columbian temple. And a little further out of town, you can get away from the hustle and bustle and relax in the natural pools, waterfalls and hot springs at Ojo de Agua, the Devil’s Caves and Rio Nicán.
Chichi is also home to a large number of festivals throughout the year, most of which take place during the summer months and are characterized by colourful processions, fireworks, dancing and revelry. It’s a vibrant and lively place that should definitely be on the list of the best places to visit in Guatemala for any savvy traveller.
Make Guatemala City Your First/Last Stop
Guatemala is not all about ancient history, outdoor pursuits and stunning scenery; the capital, Guatemala City, with its population of two and a half million people, is as cosmopolitan, lively and diverse as any capital in Central America.
The city abounds in history and Mayan tradition but is also full of trendy neighbourhoods filled with cafés, bars, shops, markets and nightlife and is well worth a stopover for a night or two.
Note that Guatemala’s capital is split into zones so it’s important to know what you’d like to get from your stay in the city. Looking for a central district that’s bustling with activity and bursting with cheap hotels, bars and hostels? Zone 1 is the best place to stay in Guatemala City.
Maybe you’d prefer an arty vibe with street art, quirky coffee shops and co-working spaces? Zone 4 will have everything you’re looking for. Perhaps you’re looking to splash out and stay in an upscale district? Zone 9 and 10 will be perfect. Think tree-lined avenues, expensive hotels, designer shops, posh restaurants, and swanky bars.
To Sum It All Up…
Although Guatemala may be a small country, it offers many amazing experiences. One of the best-kept secrets in Central America, its extraordinary history, culture and landscapes captivate anyone who takes the time to explore and get to know its towns, cities, people and traditions.
Set amongst a truly enthralling landscape filled with lush jungles, volcanoes, awe-inspiring landmarks and beautiful lakes, travelling through the countryside is an adventure in itself.
It’s a perfect destination for scuba diving, volcano hiking, adventure travel junkies, and nature and culture lovers too.
Are you ready to plan the trip of a lifetime? If so, we hope this guide to visiting the best tourist attractions in Guatemala will give you something to think about!
February 12th 2020