Where to Go in Guatemala
Guatemala, located in Central America, is known for its beautiful mountainous and forested landscapes as well as its rich cultural history and heritage.
Sharing borders with four countries – Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico – Guatemala has coastlines on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It’s home to volcanoes, lakes, rainforests, and pristine beaches, making it a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.
The country was the first home to the ancient Mayan civilization, and today, there are several phenomenal historical sites just waiting to be explored.
Contemporary Mayan culture is characterized by distinct Spanish and Mayan influences, making it a fascinating holiday destination with unique landscapes, culture, heritage, and history.
Is it Safe to Visit Guatemala?
The best thing to do as a tourist wanting a safe, worry-free holiday is to book a guided tour, as most Ministries of Foreign Affairs recommend.
If you’d like to be escorted by a guide 24/7, we’d recommend a tour that starts and ends at the Guatemala City Airport (or your hotel) and takes you to all the highlights nearby. If you’re particularly interested in history and archeology, you can choose a tour that focuses on Mayan ruins and more.
Another option is to base yourself in an area considered safe for foreigners – including Antigua, Atitlan, Copan, and Flores. From there, you can book day tours or multi-day tours.
What to Do in Guatemala
Where to go in Guatemala? Here are the best places to visit in Guatemala and the top things to do in each of them.
Located in the central highlands of the southern part of Guatemala, the city of Antigua was once one of the most prominent capitals of the Spanish Empire in Central America. It’s also one of the country’s best-preserved colonial cities, and today, you can still wander down the old cobblestoned streets.
The city is situated in an active tectonic zone, meaning that it’s surrounded by volcanoes – but it also boasts beautiful surrounding scenery, including mountains that loom large and lush green forests. Antigua is also known for its cuisine, so make sure you try the local food – you’ll find the best options are often local street food or hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
There’s plenty to do and see in Antigua City, so we’d recommend staying for at least two full days to visit the main attractions. The best introduction to the city would be on a walking tour of Antigua, after which you can visit a few of the other attractions yourself – a few of which include San Francisco Church, the ruins of the Cathedral De Santiago, and Santa Catalina Arch.
As we’ve mentioned, Guatemala is known for its volcanoes, and while some of them are simply marveled at as a backdrop to local towns and cities, others can be climbed – led by licensed local guides, of course!
Two of the most popular volcanoes to climb in Guatemala are both accessible from Antigua. The first, Pacaya Volcano (2,552 m), is about 35 kilometers from Antigua City, while Acatenango (3,976 m), the second option, is about 22 kilometers.
We suggest these guided tours for each volcano:
The climb up to Pacaya Volcano is pretty steep but doable for those who are reasonably fit. Hiking Acatenango, on the other hand, is more challenging – it’s nearly 4,000 meters high! It’ll take about six to eight hours in one go, and it is usually done over two days.
Tikal Archaeological Site
Tikal is another of the top places to visit in Guatemala. Found in the northern department of Petén, in a rainforest in Guatemala, the Tikal was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. The area was first occupied between 300 and 90 BCE and later became an important ceremonial center during the Mayan Classic Period.
Today, the Tikal ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to more than 12 different pyramids and a Royal Palace. The best way to visit the Tikal Archeological Site properly is to do a guided day trip during which your guide will tell you all about the history and culture of this powerful city. If you want, you can also take a tour of the Tikal Ruins from Belize.
For a total experience, we recommend sleeping within the archaeological site. The Hotel Jungle Lodge Tikal always gets excellent reviews.
Other Mayan Ruins in Guatemala
If, like me, you are interested in the Mayan civilization, there are many fascinating archaeological sites in Guatemala other than Tikal. The Mayan city of Tikal belongs to the Classic Period, so it would be good if you could visit sites from different periods.
During my Guatemala trip, I also visited Yaxha (Petén department, Northern Guatemala), Quiriguá (Izabal department, South-Eastern Guatemala), and Iximche (Chimaltenango department, Western Highlands), and it was interesting to see the architectural and artistic evolution of the cities.
The Mayan city of Yaxha was inhabited during the pre-Classic period, and it is considered the best-kept secret in the Mayan World.
Iximche, instead, is from the post-classic period, and one of its particularities is the two ballcourts.
Quiriguá is also a UNESCO Heritage Site, and it is best known for its amazing stelae representing the different rulers. Quiriguá shares its architectural and sculptural styles with the nearby Classic Period city of Copán (Honduras), whose history is closely intertwined.
Lake Atitlan is located in the Guatemalan Highlands and amongst the picturesque Sierra Madre mountains. It covers 130 square kilometers and is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It was formed more than 84,000 years ago as a result of a volcanic eruption, and today, the lake is surrounded by forests, Mayan villages, and several other volcanoes.
We’d recommend Panajachel as the best place to stay for foreigners, and from there, you can embark on boat tours to explore the surrounding towns – including Santa Catarina Polopó and San Antonio Polopó, among others. Note, however, that while the towns are wonderful to visit, you’re better off visiting by boat, as it’s not considered particularly safe on the roadside.
Coban is a popular tourist destination in central Guatemala’s lush, mountainous and forested area. It started as an ancient Mayan settlement before later passing through the occupation of both the Spanish and, the Germans. These days, it’s known in particular for coffee and cardamom production.
While you’re there, make sure you have time to visit a coffee plantation and orchid sanctuary, as well as Museo Principe Maya – for insight into local Mayan history – and the Hun Nal Ye Eco Park, full of fun activities for all (including swimming, tubing, canopying, and more).
Chichicastenango Mayan Market
Found about 140 kilometers northwest of Guatemala City, Chichicastenango Mayan Market is one of the busiest and most colorful markets you’ll find in Latin America. The town of Chichicastenango has been a center for trade in the country since before the 16th century, and today, you can still find just about anything you can think of – from fresh, colorful fruit to wooden handicrafts and traditional medicine and more!
The Mayan Market is one of the best places to visit in Guatemala to appreciate the local culture. The Market is open on Sundays and Thursdays, and it’ll take you just under two hours to drive from Antigua or just over an hour from Panajachel in Atitlan – perfect for a day trip or a guided day tour. Guided day trips like these below will remove the inconvenience of organizing transport and more.
- Guided day trip from Antigua to Chichicastenango Mayan Market
- Guided day trip from Panajachel to Chichicastenango Mayan Market
While in town, use half an hour to visit its colorful cemetery. I visited Chichicastenango a few days after the All Saints festivity, so it was full of flowers.
Semuc Champey National Park
Located in the Central Guatemalan Highlands, near the town of Lanquin (10 kilometers away), Semuc Champey National Park is a picturesque area full of lush greenery and beautiful blue pools of water. It’s known in particular for the Cahabon River that passes under a natural limestone bridge, as well as the local caves – but you need to be escorted by a guide to visit the latter.
From Lanquin, you get there by truck, taxi, or on foot. Or, much easier, you can book a tour for an all-encompassing experience from the cities of Coban and Antigua:
- Day tour of Semuc Champey National Park from Coban
- Three-day guided tour of Semuc Champey National Park and Coban from Antigua
Copan Archaeological Site (Honduras)
The Copan Archaeological Site is home to more ancient Mayan ruins, but these are actually in Honduras, near the Guatemalan-Honduran border. It was discovered in 1570, and in the late 20th century, it was declared a UNESCO Archaeological World Heritage Site.
The site is incredibly impressive and is known in particular for its famous intricately carved structures.
You can visit on your own or as part of a guided tour from Antigua or Guatemala City. I visited from Guatemala City, on the way to Flores, and we had an excellent local guide.