With its ancient Mayan ruins, crumbling colonial villages, and gorgeous lakes and volcanoes, Guatemala is full of surprises. The fact that its many indigenous cultures and cuisines are still thriving only adds to the appeal.
It doesn’t get more exotic and exciting than Guatemala. Like most Central American nations, it boasts incredible scenery, nature, and wildlife. But what really sets this country of 17 million apart is that around half of its population is of indigenous Maya ancestry. And the 23 different Maya etnías (ethnic groups) still speak ancient dialects, wear traditional dress (the women especially), play Maya music, and prepare the recipes of their ancestors on a daily basis.
Guatemala is the beating heart of the Maya world. So much so that visiting the country is a little bit like reliving the creation story from the Popol Vuh – the foundational sacred narrative of the K’iche’ people. “Before the world was created,” the tale begins, “Calm and Silence were the great kings that ruled.” After much deliberation, the Creators settled on a plan for their would-be world:
Let the emptiness fill! Let the water weave its way downward so the earth can show its face. Let the light break on the ridges, let the sky fill up with the yellow light of dawn! … “Earth!” the Creators called. They called only once and it was there, from a mist, from a cloud of dust, the mountains appeared instantly… Suddenly there were the Guardians of the Woods, the small animals, the little men-sprites of the mountains, deer, birds, jaguars, snakes…
While it’s tempting to quote at much greater length from the sacred text, it’s probably time we turned our attention to more practical matters. (Those who are interested can purchase the Popol Vuh – it comes highly recommended.)
Antigua, which once used to be the capital of the Americas, may only be a forty-minute drive from Guatemala City, but it feels more like three centuries away. This beautifully restored UNESCO World Heritage Site (in the US there’s a Starbucks on every corner, but in Antigua it’s a church) is located in an almost impossibly picturesque valley that’s surrounded by volcanoes with coffee plantations on their slopes. Two of the town’s biggest landmarks are the roofless ruins of the cathedral (partially flattened by an earthquake in 1773) and the Santa Catalina Arch, a covered bridge designed to allow the convent’s nuns to cross the street without being seen.
Antigua is small, safe, and extremely visitor-friendly – so much so that we’d actually advise trying to get lost – on foot or on two wheels – in its cobbled labyrinth! It’s also home to an incredible array of restaurants to cater for every kind of palate. While it’s good to know you can find authentic gnocchi in Guatemala, the real highlight is the high-end fusion cuisine which melds local ingredients and international culinary techniques. It goes without saying that Antigua also boasts some of the finest boutique accommodations in Central America, including the incredible Casa Santo Domingo, which used to be an old convent.
As if this isn’t enough, there’s also plenty to keep you busy on the outskirts of town. From tasting estate-grown coffee or doing a cooking class in a traditional Maya home, all the way through to trekking to the summit of an active volcano, Antigua really does have all bases covered.
Lake Atitlán is the kind of the place you never want to leave. This majestic crater lake ringed by three volcanoes boasts twelve indigenous villages and several gorgeous boutique hotels scattered along its shores. The villages, named after the Twelve Apostles, each have their own ancient traditions, typical foods, and unique handcrafts (tapestry is a big deal in these parts). A typical day might involve taking a boat to one village and, after enjoying a traditional meal with a local family, walking or kayaking to the next village … and then retiring to your luxurious retreat for the night.
While we’re on the topic of accommodations, you simply cannot beat Casa Palopó, an unforgettable spot overlooking the lake whose incredible attention to detail and amazing food have made it the only Relais & Châteaux property in Guatemala.
If you’re only going to visit two villages, we’d advise going to Santiago (the largest village) and tiny, off-the-beaten-path San Juan La Laguna – an extremely authentic indigenous settlement with great women’s co-ops specializing in everything from coffee and naïf painting to weaving and medicinal plants. It’s a great place to get real artisanal coffees, beautiful handwoven tapestries and colorful traditional artwork.
What makes Santiago really special meanwhile, is the town’s collective obsession with Maximón, who’s been described by National Geographic as “a mischievous folk saint with origins in indigenous Maya and Spanish Catholic beliefs… Those seeking miracles, good health, and love make offerings at his shrine in exchange for his favor—moonshine, hand-rolled cigarettes, and money are his vices of choice.” Read the full article here.
Every Thursday and Sunday, little Chichicastenango hums with activity as Maya farmers, artisans, and shoppers (not to mention curious world travelers) descend on the ancient market town. For the locals, it’s all about getting the best price for their fruit, veg, and other produce. But the market’s popularity means that Chichicastenango is now also a great place to stock up on handicrafts to take back home.
While the market is the main attraction (and deservedly so), we’d highly recommend poking your head through the door of Santo Tomás Church, where mass is habitually led by a Catholic priest and a Maya shaman – at the same time! While there are places to stay and things to do in and around town, Chichicastenango is typically visited en route to or from Antigua or Lake Atitlán.
After exploring the volcanoes, crater lakes, and pueblos of Guatemala’s temperate highlands, it’s time to venture into the steamy jungle lowlands near the border with Belize. The jungle here is among the wildest and most pristine in the world – monkeys, coatamundis, and exotic birds are plentiful, and if you’re very lucky, you may even spot one of the elusive jaguars which roam the Petén jungle. But what truly sets Petén apart is the incredible abundance of ancient Maya ruins hidden beneath the canopy. From your base in the regional capital of Flores – a charming town on an island in Lake Petén Itzá that’s accessed by a 45-minute flight from Guatemala City – you can explore the many Maya ruins in the area.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal is definitely the main attraction. The 2,500-year-old ruins are dominated by five temples, steep-sided limestone pyramids that rise to almost 200 feet above the forest floor. (You may have seen them in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, watch the clip here.) Beyond this central area, you’ll find thousands of other structures buried in the jungle. Exploring is encouraged, but be sure to take a map and a sense of direction – the jungle is so dense that visitors have been known to get properly lost.
Also highly recommended is Yaxha, a smaller site which isn’t as popular among travelers and boasts utterly unforgettable sunsets (the site served an astronomical purpose, so the sun sets in in just the right spots). If you’re feeling really intrepid (or especially flush) there’s also El Mirador. This large Maya ruin in the heart of impenetrable rainforest features one temple – La Danta – that is regarded as the largest construction of any ancient civilization, anywhere. Thing is, El Mirador is only accessible via a three-day trek in (and another three days out) or by chartering a helicopter. This experience doesn’t come cheap … But can you put a price on being shown around such an important site by the very archeologists who are working to preserve and unearth this enigmatic ruin?
Hit the high notes of Antigua, Atitlán, Chichicastenango, and Tikal on our 8-Day Antigua to Lake Atitlan & Tikal tour. Or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting a bespoke itinerary that indulges your particular passion for coffee, or birdwatching, or Maya ruins, or…