10 Great Things To Do in Guatemala
Growing up, there were no rock star posters on my walls. I was a weird kid – I had tacked up maps and pages torn from National Geographic. The wanderlust bug bit me pretty hard, and nothing stirred up my travel itch more than imagining myself on the steps of Tikal after a rewarding Indiana Jones-style hike through the rainforest (hopefully with monkeys and possibly snakes, preferably dodging some sort of boulders).
A few months ago, we found ourselves with the extreme good fortune of exploring the beautiful Belize. And I realized… the ancient stone steps of Tikal were finally within reach! Guatemala is widely known for Tikal, a sprawling Mayan city hundreds of years old. Even if you’ve never dreamed of visiting Guatemala or had a thing for pyramids, I bet you’ve seen pictures of Temple IV rising out of the rainforest like a majestic slumbering giant.
But what else can you see in Guatemala? Aside from iconic ancient pyramids, Guatemala is a Central American country absolutely awash in culture, history and adventure! Without further ado, here are my favorite things to see and do in Guatemala.
1) Climb Pyramids at Tikal
I didn’t really understand the scale of this ancient city before we hopped off the bus. I’d seen countless pictures of Temple IV and the carved calendars and ball courts. Tikal is massive. You could easily wander around for a day and not see the entirety. There are paths that meander through temples and houses in various stages of being swallowed up by (or excavated from) the rainforest. You can walk into homes where someone lived two thousand years ago. The journey here can be as adventurous or tame as you’d like. You can snack on termites (good protein, I’m told), climb temples and pop out above the tree line, sharing your view with howler monkeys and vivid orange caterpillars. If necessary, you can also ask for a Jeep to help you around.
2) Marvel at Architecture in Antigua
A beautiful yellow arch stretches across the main street of Antigua, where you can buy fresh fruit or watch artists paint or weave along the cobblestone streets. Scenery (and pictures) here are even more dramatic with the volcano directly in the background. You can also visit cathedrals in Antigua, some in ruins and some still in use. The Cathedral de Santiago is my favorite, a visually stunning blend of history. Find a place to sit in the plaza to enjoy a fried plantain or a plate of rice and beans while you people watch or simply soak in the rhythm of the town.
3) Swim Surrounded by Volcanoes at Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is actually surrounded by several Guatemalan towns, each with their own charm. When you read about Atitlan in guide books, it sometimes comes across as one destination, but you can find pretty much any atmosphere in this lovely place. Dive in the lake and observe submerged buildings by Santa Cruz. Take an immersive class in Spanish or a Mayan dialect, or learn to weave traditional Mayan patterns near San Pedro. Have your star charts done at a fondly named hippie community in San Marcos. If you want to soak in even more local beauty, visit towns like Jaibalito, which you can only reach by boat (or hike). Atitlan is a smorgasbord for travelers with something for everyone, all encompassed by a truly stunning lake.
4) Dive into Limestone Pools at Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is a turquoise paradise for the adventurous traveler. There are six limestone pools carved out of the rainforest in such a jaw-dropping shade of blue, you’ll want to move here. The pools all vary in depth, with some perfect for lounging and others you can dive into (or rope swing). Feeling even more adventurous? Tube down the river or explore K’an Ba, a cave you can explore by candlelight. All that gorgeous water is more clear when it’s not raining heavily, but it’s a beautiful spot any month.
5) Hike Volcanoes (and maybe roast a marshmallow over lava)
Guatemala has almost 30 volcanoes, some active and others not. At Pacaya (near Antigua), you can hike to the top of an active volcano. If the gods are smiling upon you, the fog will lift, the lava will be gently seeping and you will have marshmallows in your bag. Why do you need marshmallows to climb a volcano? To roast, of course! I’ve heard stories from travelers that every day was a marshmallow day at Pacaya. Be prepared – you may not be allowed close enough to the lava to roast your marshmallow (or hot dog) depending on what’s going on at the top. Regardless, it’s an absolutely beautiful hike up an active volcano (and your calves will be screaming the entire way, especially if you’ve developed a love affair with carbs like me).
6) Look for Wildlife
Guatemala is home to a huge variety of animals, many of whom may fill you with shock and awe (and maybe dread) if you come upon them. Keep your eyes open as you hike the pyramids, swim around the lakes and frolic near the volcanoes of Guatemala. There are jaguars, ocelots, howler monkeys, truly spectacular butterflies and reptiles of all sizes. The snakes freaked me out (thankfully we only ran into two, who had absolutely zero interest in us). We also saw tiny tree frogs that patiently let us take pictures of their little suction cup toes, more butterflies than I could count and quite a few howler monkeys. If you’re hoping to spot a jaguar, there are night tours through the jungle that improve your chances.
7) Immerse Yourself in Local Culture at Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango is known as the marketplace of Central America. Twice a week (Thursday and Sundays), the town overflows with local crafts of all sorts, from finely woven textiles to beaded jewelry, hand carved wooden masks and clay pottery. Everyone barters and haggles. Visiting Chichicastenango is literally like a riot to the senses. You can smell the roasting blue corn tortillas and plates heaped full of beans and rice. Between the huipiles (traditional Mayan shirts), the masks and the baskets full of peppers, tomatoes and bananas, walking down the cobblestone streets here is like walking into a kaleidoscope. The language here is a mix of Spanish and K’iche’ Maya (and English) blending together as merchants and customers strike bargains. Yes, it’s chaotic. Yes, you might find cheaper souvenirs in Antigua. If you’re here for the shopping alone, it might not be the favorite part of your journey. But if you’re here to immerse yourself in Guatemalan culture, Chi Chi is a wonderful place to visit.
8) See Coffee on the Bush
I’m not a huge coffee fan, but my husband is a veritable bean snob. I’ve picked up bags at the roasters for him before, but never had I seen an actual coffee berry (or cherry). Before they’re green, or that lovely deep brown, they’re red, and you can see the process start to finish, from plantation to roasting, on tour in Guatemala.
9) Visit a Cemetery
If you’ve stopped by Chichicastenango for the market, take a few hours and meander through the local above ground cemetery – the multi-hued oranges, blues and pinks, each with their own social meaning, are a beautiful picture of local history. The cemetery in Solola is no less colorful. It sits along Lake Atitlan with a hulking volcano seeming to guard the brightly colored tombs. This cemetery is laid out like a city with a main plaza, with the tombs looking like turquoise, canary yellow and marigold orange apartment buildings. I know cemeteries aren’t common tour fodder, but in Guatemala, the mix of history, culture and visual appeal is stunning.
10) Make a New Friend
We felt welcomed as we traveled through Guatemala with our two children. We always try our best to be conscious of local customs, to not take pictures without permission and to respect the environment we’re exploring. Though my Spanish is woefully rusty, we found several people willing to stumble through with us, and many more who switched to English (I’m determined to brush up on my Spanish! Goals, goals….). Get to know your hotel/hostel host, your tour guide, your fellow backpackers and volcano hikers. Sometimes you find lifelong friends along the way!