Guatemala travel guide
2 minute guide
Guatemala’s physical beauty is what first strikes many travellers. A nation whose landscapes have been carved up by volcanoes, many of which are still active; there is no lack of dramatic backdrops for photographs. Sacred lakes sparkle at the volcanoes’ bases, giving way to dense tropical forest which is reclaiming ancient Mayan cities and temples. In the temperate highlands, tranquil, colonial beauties such as Antigua belie a tumultuous past – of Mayan-Spanish conflicts, and of devastating earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, believed by the devout conquistadores to be divine punishment.
But as our Guatemala travel guide explains, the Maya were never truly conquered, despite conflicts that raged even through the 20th century, as over 80 percent of Guatemalans still identify as Maya or mestizo. They permeate these stunning landscapes with their rainbow coloured textiles, indigenous dishes, vibrant markets and peaceful villages, just as their ancient cities and pyramids still rise up through jungle canopies, wrapped in vines. Resplendent, indeed.
hugely diverse, with wetlands, Pacific and Caribbean coasts, volcanoes, rainforests and lakes.
quite over its tumultous past. Drug conflicts have replaced the civil war which ended in 1996.
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Guatemala map & highlights
make the most of your time
It’s a fascinating destination in itself, but Guatemala’s convenient location, sandwiched between Mexico, Belize and Honduras, means it is most commonly explored on Central America overland trips. This is also more convenient for flights, which can take you direct to Cancún. Tours arriving from Belize will cross the border at San Ignacio and head for Tikal, and those from Copán in Honduras will head to Antigua. Expect some long travel days due to the road conditions and moving between high and lowlands, though fortunately most towns and cities can easily be explored on foot. You can also travel by boat (on the lakes or along Río Dulce to Livingstone) as well as by canoe, to mix things up a bit.
Possibly the most beautiful spot in all of Guatemala, the colonial capital of Antigua was almost destroyed during a volcanic eruption in 1773. Happily, its multicoloured, tile-roofed buildings have been beautifully restored, and this UNESCO site is a great place to lose yourself for a couple of days as you explore markets, meet Mayan women in traditional dress, visit ornate churches and enjoy the fresh, highland air.
Chichicastenango/San Jorge La Laguna
The best way to discover the indigenous Mayan culture is to head to the markets and villages. Chichicastenango’s colourful textile and food market on Thurs and Sun is a thrilling place to start, followed by a homestay in San Jorge La Laguna, a traditional village overlooking Lake Atitlán. Share a meal with your host family, and learn a few words of Spanish – or Mayan.
On an island in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá, Flores is reached by a causeway. It’s a convenient base for visiting Tikal – but also worth exploring in itself. This tiny town has a glorious plaza, Spanish church and well preserved colonial buildings, and you can walk around the whole island in around 15 minutes. Canoe or go for a swim in the warm waters, or seek out characteristic local woodcarvings.
This stunningly beautiful lake sits at the foot of conical volcanoes, and is ringed with indigenous villages where life has changed little over the centuries. Explore the thriving market town of Panajachel, swim or kayak in the lake hike to San Pedro Volcano or cruise across the waters to San Pedro Laguna. Visit women’s textile cooperatives, Mayan painters’ studios and learn how mats are woven from reeds.
A world away from the rest of Guatemala, little Livingston can only be reached by boat. It is home to the Garifuna people – the descendants of African slaves and indigenous Arawaks from the Caribbean islands. Amid the stupor-inducing heat you can explore this unique culture through the African-style punta music and dance, seafood coconut stews called tapao, and the unusual sounds of the creole language.
Tikal National Park
Tikal is the largest excavated site in the Americas. The thick Guatemalan jungle has tried to reclaim this ancient Mayan city – but climbing to the top of one of the five enormous granite temples takes you above the canopy for a toucan’s-eye view of the ruins, which once covered 16 sq km. Expert guides reveal the fascinating history – as well as helping you spot coatis, macaws and howler monkeys.