Guatemala Travel Guide
Step into a country where history, culture, and nature weave a vibrant tapestry, creating an unforgettable travel experience. Welcome to Guatemala, a place where the ancient and the modern coexist in harmonious balance.
Whether you're an intrepid explorer yearning for archaeological discoveries, a nature enthusiast seeking untouched landscapes, or a culture lover drawn to vibrant markets and historical cities, Guatemala delivers beyond expectations.
Embark on a journey that reveals Mayan mysteries, indulges your senses with colorful folklore, and immerses you in the awe-inspiring vistas of volcanoes, lakes, and rainforests.
Capital city: Guatemala City
Currency: Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ) – 1 USD = 7.82 GTQ
Electricity: Power voltage is 120 Volts. Power sockets type A and B.
Languages: Spanish is the main language, but there are 25 languages in the country! Other languages include Garífuna, Xinca, and 22 Mayan languages.
Fun fact: Guatemala is often called the “Land of Eternal Spring”. This nickname comes from the fact that its climate is mild and fairly constant throughout the year.
10 Handpicked Highlights of Guatemala
Guatemala is a treasure chest of natural beauty, historical landmarks, and cultural richness. The diverse landscape offers a perfect backdrop for many adventures, from exploring ancient Mayan ruins to trekking in lush jungles and relaxing in serene lakeside towns.
Here are ten handpicked highlights that encapsulate the enchanting allure of Guatemala.
Tikal National Park
In the heart of Guatemala’s jungle, the archaeological site of Tikal National Park unfolds like a voyage back in time. Tikal, once a powerful city of the ancient Maya, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring over 3,000 structures including temples, palaces, and plazas.
Its majestic pyramids protrude above the rainforest canopy, with Temple IV being the highest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas at 70 meters tall. The site is also a haven for biodiversity, home to howler monkeys, jaguars, and over 300 bird species.
Antigua Guatemala, often simply called Antigua, is a city of rare beauty, outstanding historical significance, and well-preserved Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture.
Walking its cobblestone streets, you can’t help but be enchanted by the colorfully painted colonial buildings, beautiful courtyards, and stunning vistas of volcanoes looming in the distance. The city’s signature landmark is the ruined church of El Carmen, where local artisans sell traditional handicrafts. For a remarkable sunrise view, hike up the Cerro de la Cruz.
Enveloped by steep, verdant hills and three dramatic volcanoes, Lake Atitlán is mesmerizing. Each of the dozen or so towns and villages around the lake has its own distinctive vibe and character.
Visit Santiago Atitlán for its vibrant Maya culture, San Pedro La Laguna for hiking opportunities, and San Marcos La Laguna for holistic therapies. The lake itself, the deepest in Central America, is ideal for kayaking and swimming.
Semuc Champey, a hidden gem in the thick jungles of Alta Verapaz, is a natural monument consisting of a 300m limestone bridge under which the Cahabón River passes.
On top, a series of stepped, turquoise pools offer an idyllic setting for a refreshing swim. Trek to the El Mirador viewpoint for a breathtaking panorama of the site. Nearby, you can also explore the Lanquin Caves, known for their impressive stalactite formations.
Experience the riotous color and fervor of Chichicastenango Market, the biggest outdoor market in Central America. Known locally as “Chichi”, the market is a testament to Guatemala’s rich and vibrant culture.
Every Thursday and Sunday, indigenous K’iche’ Maya people come from the surrounding hills to sell their goods. This is the place to buy intricate textiles, wooden masks, ceramics, and traditional Maya clothing.
If you’re in for a thrilling adventure, trek up the Pacaya Volcano, one of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes. A two-hour hike brings you to the lava fields where, with luck, you can see small eruptions or flowing lava.
The surrounding landscapes are surreal and moon-like, often covered in a layer of black ash. Some tours offer a unique experience: roasting marshmallows over volcanic heat!
Quetzaltenango, also known by its indigenous name, Xela, is a beautiful blend of Indigenous Maya and Spanish cultures. It’s a city where traditional markets coexist with neo-classical architecture.
Xela’s Parque Central is a great place to start exploring, and don’t miss the ornate Municipal Theatre. Nearby, the Fuentes Georginas hot springs offer a soothing dip amidst a lush mountain landscape.
Rio Dulce and Livingston
Traveling down the Rio Dulce river is a journey of natural beauty, passing bird-rich wetlands, hot springs, and a lake-bound castle, the Castillo de San Felipe.
At the river’s mouth lies Livingston, a town with a distinctly Caribbean feel due to its Garifuna population. Their culture, with unique music, dance, and cuisine, significantly differs from the Maya and Spanish influences seen in the rest of Guatemala.
The island town of Flores, with its red-roofed houses and cobblestone streets, is charming and picturesque. Sitting on Lake Petén Itzá, it’s connected to the mainland by a causeway.
The town is a gateway to the famous Tikal, but also a destination in its own right with lake activities, local cuisine, and a welcoming atmosphere.
Yaxha is the third-largest Mayan site in Guatemala, yet receives far fewer tourists than Tikal. The site, nestled between two lakes, encompasses 500 structures including nine temples and two ball courts.
Climbing to the top of Temple 216 at sunset is a magical experience as the forest canopy turns into a sea of green beneath you, pierced by the tops of distant temples and the shimmering lakes.
Guatemala's Geography & Landscapes
Guatemala’s landscapes are diverse and awe-inspiring, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. Here are some of the geographic regions that shape the country:
- Pacific Lowlands: This region is characterized by fertile soils ideal for agriculture, thanks to the many volcanoes in the area. It includes the bustling city of Escuintla and several coffee and sugar cane plantations.
- Highlands: The Highlands are home to the majority of Guatemala’s indigenous communities and include several active and dormant volcanoes. This region houses the country’s second-largest city, Quetzaltenango, and the picturesque Lake Atitlán.
- Peten Lowlands: This northern region is covered by a dense tropical rainforest and includes the magnificent Mayan ruins of Tikal. The area is rich in biodiversity and also includes the charming island town of Flores.
- Caribbean Coast: With only 118km of coastline, this area includes the Garifuna town of Livingston and the biodiverse river network of Rio Dulce.
- Eastern Plains: This region, known as the “dry corridor,” is relatively flat with xerophytic vegetation and is home to cattle ranches and tobacco plantations.
Best Time To Go To Guatemala
Guatemala’s climate is often referred to as the “Land of Eternal Spring,” with pleasant temperatures year-round. However, it’s still useful to know the country’s seasons:
- Dry Season (November to April): Known locally as “summer”, this is the best time to visit Guatemala for outdoor activities. The weather is warm and the chances of rain are low. It’s a great time for exploring ancient Mayan ruins, hiking volcanoes, or relaxing by Lake Atitlán.
- Rainy Season (May to October): Known as “winter,” this period experiences afternoon showers, but mornings are typically sunny and bright. The rain brings a lush, vibrant color to the landscapes, making it a fantastic season for photographers.
- Peak Season (December, January, and Holy Week): During Christmas, New Year, and Easter, Guatemala experiences a surge in local and international tourists, especially in Antigua and Lake Atitlán. It’s recommended to book accommodations and tours well in advance during these periods.
Traveling in Guatemala
While Guatemala offers a unique and enriching travel experience, it’s essential to take some safety precautions. Here are ten tips to help you stay safe:
- Use reputable tour operators: When booking tours or adventures, ensure you’re using a reputable operator.
- Travel during daylight: As much as possible, try to schedule your travel during the day. Night travel, especially in remote areas, can be risky.
- Respect local customs: Guatemala is home to many indigenous communities. Understanding and respecting their traditions and customs will enhance your experience and ensure positive interactions.
- Stay hydrated and use sunscreen: The Guatemalan sun can be harsh, especially during the dry season, so remember to drink plenty of water and protect your skin.
- Avoid flaunting valuable items: To avoid attracting unnecessary attention, keep expensive gadgets, jewelry, and large amounts of cash out of sight.
- Guard your belongings: Petty theft can occur, particularly in crowded areas. Always keep an eye on your belongings.
- Use safe transportation: Stick to using licensed taxis or reliable ride-sharing services.
- Mind your health: Make sure you’re up-to-date on routine vaccines before every trip.
- Follow the law: Always respect local laws and regulations.
- Stay connected: Have the contact information of your country’s embassy and the local emergency services.
Getting to & Around Guatemala
The main entry point into Guatemala is La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. From there, you have several options to get around the country:
- Buses: Chicken buses, brightly colored and repurposed school buses, are a common and cost-effective way to travel. However, for longer distances and comfort, you might prefer the ‘Pullman’ coaches.
- Taxis and Rideshares: In cities, taxis are plentiful. Uber also operates in Guatemala City and Antigua.
- Shuttles: Many hotels and tour companies provide shuttle services, particularly for popular routes like Guatemala City to Antigua or Lake Atitlán.
- Car rental: This is an option for those comfortable with driving in Guatemala, but be prepared for heavy traffic in urban areas and challenging rural roads.
Guatemala offers a wide range of accommodation options to suit all budgets and tastes. From luxury hotels and eco-lodges to budget hostels and homestays, you’re bound to find something that suits your needs.
In tourist hotspots like Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and Tikal, you can find accommodations that blend luxury with a traditional aesthetic. If you’re traveling on a budget, there are numerous hostels and budget hotels. Homestays, particularly in the Highlands, can provide an immersive cultural experience.
Prices can vary greatly, but on average, a budget room can cost around $15-20 per night, while a mid-range hotel might be between $50-100. Luxury hotels and lodges can cost upwards of $200 per night.
Remember to book ahead during peak travel periods, such as Semana Santa (Holy Week), to secure your preferred accommodations.