Situated between the frequently-visited destinations of Mexico and Belize, Guatemala is all too-often flown over. But with ancient Mayan ruins to peek at, a stunning lake to reflect in, and exotic local wares that are both beautiful and affordable, this fairly sizeable country is worth its own stamp on the ol' passport. What's more, any time is a good time to visit weather-wise. Here are the top 11 reasons to book today. Believe me, you'll be planning the next visit before you finish the first.
1. Really cool ruins
If you’ve ever fantasised about being Indiana Jones for a day or just love old, stone things, Guatemala’s ruins will blow you away. The most famous is coastal Tikal, which will impress even the most jaded traveller. Then you’ve got the remarkable ruins of Yaxha, Uaxactan and Quirigua scattered around the country looking fabulous. And if you’re up for a 5-day hike and a bit of roughing it, then El Mirador lies deep within the jungle and is believed to be the cradle of Maya civilisation.
2. Lake Atitlan
This crater lake is a big drawcard for travellers and there’s a very good reason for it – it’s amazing. Surrounded by three volcanoes and littered with villages where Guatemalans live a traditional life, Lake Atitlan is a place to relax and soak in some culture and nature. You can choose to get away from a more rambunctious atmosphere by staying in the villages outside of Panajachel, and there is hiking, biking, kayaking, swimming and sunbaking to wile away the days here.
3. Food like you’ve never tasted before
We all know how good Mexican food is, but the cuisine of Guatemala is equally as impressive (though not as spicy). There are some culinary crossovers, but on the whole Guatemalan cuisine is as unique as the country itself. Make sure to taste chiles rellenos, hilachas, shucos, pollo con loroco, pastel de banano and the thousand and one varieties of tamales.
4. Dazzling beaches
While everyone else is at Lake Atitlan, you can be swimming in the turquoise waters of the Pacific or Caribbean. Since most of the tourist attractions are inland, you’ll find Guatemala’s beaches are largely undisturbed. Playa Blanca near Livingston, Champerico, Iztapa and Playa Tilapa are all worth travelling for.
There are upwards of 25 volcanoes in Guatemala – many are dormant but some still threaten activity. The most recent scare was this January, when small amounts of lava flowed and ash erupted from the popular Pacaya, which led to the evacuation of people living closest to it. But despite the occasional fiery drama, Guatemala’s volcanoes are usually in gorgeous places and offer great hiking and spectacular views.
6. Lovely people
Travelling in a place where the locals are warm and welcoming makes all the difference on a trip away. We’ve often been overwhelmed by the friendliness and kindness of the Guatemalan people – who are usually quietly spoken and ready to smile.
It sounds like a dance and it often feels like it while weaving your way through the stalls here, but Guatemala’s most colourful – and famous – markets are certainly a highlight of any tour of Guatemala. Thursday and Sundays are when ‘Chichi’ comes alive and it’s a wonderful place to buy artisan souvenirs and do some serious people watching. Be mindful of using your camera here – always ask permission as ‘guerilla’ photography can often cause offence.
Devoting any less than a couple days to the massive Mayan ruins at Tikal would be an injustice of O.J. proportions. Set among lush tropical rainforest, the views surrounding Tikal are just as impressive as the ruins themselves. Don’t miss climbing the ridiculously steep steps of Temple I and Temple V (pictured right).
Spend the night at the nearby Jaguar Inn to explore the ruins just after dawn, a time when the howler monkeys outnumber the tourists many times over.
9. The Hiking
With a landscape dominated by volcanoes and mountains there’s no shortage of scenic and challenging hikes to enjoy. My favorite trekking experience in Guatemala was a sunrise hike up Indian’s Nose from San Pedro. The steep uphill 45-minute hike — and the early 4am meeting time — is worth the effort as you sit above a blanket of clouds hovering over the emerald green Lake Atitlan, watching hot pinks, oranges, yellows and purples streaking the sky and mixing with black clouds over San Pedro Volcano.
10. The Views
Whether you’re driving down the highway or lounging at Zoola’s pool on Lake Atitlan Guatemala has no shortage of striking natural views. My favorite view was from the treehouse of the above-mentioned Earth Lodge, where from my comfortable bed and private patio hammock I enjoyed clear aerial views of Ciudad Viejo, Hocatanengo Village, and the volcanoes of Agua, Acatango and the active Fuego. Gliding vultures that appear close enough to touch enhance the visual.
11. Budget-Friendly Holistic Offerings
Guatemala seems to attract a very hippie-style traveler, and you’ll find many lodges and venues offering yoga, delicious vegan meals, permaculture classes, massages and other holistic health and wellness offerings for very cheap. My personal favorite holistic offering was staying at the secluded Earth Lodge near Antigua, located up in the mountains and not accessible by car. Their most expensive accommodation is the Treehouse for $35 a night, totally worth the splurge to wake up to unobstructed views of the surrounding volcanoes. The property is located on a farm, and meals incorporate ingredients sourced onsite and from the market in Antigua. Enjoy complimentary morning yoga, a dry sauna, sports offerings like badminton and volleyball, scenic hiking and just lounging in hammocks with a Guatemalan Gallo beer and enjoying the natural beauty around you.
Guatemala city with the old ruins of the Mayan city of Kaminaljuyú
Tikal and its well-preserved archaeological sites
Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango with its Indian market and cobbled stone streets
Antigua is a colonial-style city, full of historic buildings
The northernmost of the Central American nations, Guatemala is the size of Tennessee. Its neighbors are Mexico on the north and west, and Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador on the east. The country consists of three main regions—the cool highlands with the heaviest population, the tropical area along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, and the tropical jungle in the northern lowlands (known as the Petén).
Spanish 60%, Amerindian languages 40% (23 officially recognized Amerindian languages, including Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, Mam, Garifuna, and Xinca)
The monetary system of Guatemala is decimal based, with the primary unit of Guatemalan money being called the Guatemalan Quetzal. As of March 2019, 1 U.S. dollar is worth about 7.7 quetzales.
The rainy season is generally from May to November. Climate variations are due to altitude, but it is generally hot throughout the country. The north has a hot, tropical climate with maximum rainfall between May and September. The coastal regions and north east are hot, with a dry (November to April) and rainy season, with temperatures averaging 68°F (20°C). The highlands, including Guatemala City and Antigua, have a pleasant climate with less rainfall than the coast, and cold temperatures at night
The Guatemalan cuisine incorporates Mayan ingredients such as herbs, species and vegetables blended with ingredients from the Spanish gastronomy. The Guatemalan gastronomy uses corn, the sacred grain in Mayan cosmology, as an important ingredient for many meals. Beef, chicken, pork or turkey meat is commonly used with savory sauces. Other staples used frequently are beans, avocado, rice, and many vegetables and herbs that make a colorful delight.Although you can taste the eclectic Guatemalan food in numerous restaurants, perhaps the best place to taste it is inside a market, but beware, a strong stomach is required when you eat in a marketplace.
The history of Guatemala can be traced back to the arrival of the first human settlers, presumed to have migrated from the north at least 12,000 years ago. For much of that time, the civilization that developed there flourished, with little to no contact with cultures from outside of Mesoamerica. The Maya civilization dominated the region for nearly 2000 years before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, although most of the Great Classic Maya cities of the Petén region of Guatemala's northern lowlands were abandoned by the year 1000 AD. The states of the central highlands, however, were still flourishing until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, who subjugated the native states, beginning in 1523.Guatemala remained a Spanish colony for nearly 300 years, before gaining its independence in 1821. It was then a part of the Mexican Empire until becoming fully independent in the 1840s. Since then, Guatemala's history has been divided into periods of democratic rule and periods of civil war and military juntas. Most recently, Guatemala emerged from a 36-year civil war, reestablishing a representative government in 1996.
Catholic 50-60% also Protestant 40%, Mayan 1%. Christianity was the only religion during the colonial era. The practice of traditional Mayan religion is increasing as a result of the cultural protections established under the peace accords. The government has instituted a policy of providing altars at every Mayan ruin found in the country so that traditional ceremonies may be performed there.There are also small communities of Jews estimated between 1200 and 2000, Muslims (1200), Buddhists at around 9000 to 12000, and members of other faiths.
Guatemala's culture is a unique product of Native American ways and a strong Spanish colonial heritage. About half of Guatemala's population is mestizo (known in Guatemala as ladino), people of mixed European and indigenous ancestry. Ladino culture is dominant in urban areas and is heavily influenced by European and North American trends. But unlike many Latin American countries, Guatemala still has a large indigenous population, the Maya that has retained a distinct identity. Deeply rooted in the rural highlands of Guatemala, many indigenous people speak a Mayan language, follow traditional religious and village customs, and continue a rich tradition in textiles and other crafts. The two cultures have made Guatemala a complex society that is deeply divided between rich and poor. This division has produced much of the tension and violence that have marked Guatemala's history.
Guatemala's national instrument is the marimba, an idiophone from the family of the xylophones, which is played all over the country, even in the remotest corners. Towns also have wind and percussion bands that play during the lent and Easter-week processions, as well as on other occasions. The Garifuna people of Afro-Caribbean descent, who are spread thinly on the northeastern Caribbean coast, have their own distinct varieties of popular and folk music. Cumbia, from the Colombian variety, is also very popular especially among the lower classes.Guatemala also has an almost 5 century old tradition of art music, spanning from the first liturgical chant and polyphony introduced in 1524 to contemporary art music. Much of the music composed in Guatemala from the 16th century to the 19th century has only recently been unearthed by scholars and is being revived by performers.
Flowers of the temperate zone are found in great numbers. Of particular interest is the orchid family, which includes the white nun (monja blanca), the national flower. There is also an abundance of medicinal, industrial, and fibrous plants.Indigenous fauna includes the armadillo, bear, coyote, deer, fox, jaguar, monkey, puma, tapir, and manatee. The national bird is the highland quetzal, the symbol of love of liberty, which reputedly dies in captivity. Lake Atitlán is the only place in the world where a rare flightless waterbird, the Atitlán (giant piedbilled) grebe, is found; this species, classified as endangered, has been protected by law since 1970. There are more than 900 other species of native birds, as well as migratory varieties. Reptiles, present in more than 204 species, include the bushmaster, fer-de-lance, water moccasin, and iguana.