By Dani and Jessica of Globetrottergirls
By far one of the most visitor-friendly and affordable destinations in Central America, Guatemala is a land of bright colours, indigenous faces and Mayan ruins. It provides a varied but always beautiful landscape of striking green countryside, erupting volcanoes, soothing, peaceful lakes – and many budget-traveller friendly hostels to boot. After spending 10 weeks in Guatemala, these are our Top 5 recommended must-see destinations.
Set in a spectacular valley of three looming volcanoes (one of which, Fuego, releases puffs of smoke daily), Antigua is one of the best-preserved colonial towns in Central America. Without a doubt it’s an absolute must on any Guatemala itinerary and, being only an hour from the airport in Guatemala City, it’s a perfect first stop for visitors to acclimatise to Guatemalan life.
Antigua’s magnificent one-storey pastel-collared houses could be something straight out of a Van Gough painting and are beautiful to behold. Its grid plan streets with the Parque Central at its heart make Antigua one of the easiest towns in Guatemala to explore on foot. The city’s old colonial ruins, shook to pieces by the San Marta earthquakes in 1773, act as reminder that Antigua was once held to be the capital not only of Guatemala, but of Central America as a whole.
Food, drink and sleep
Despite of its relatively small size, Antigua has much more to offer visitors than cobble-stone streets and pretty colonial buildings with yards filled with flowers and fountains. The city also has a buzzing restaurant and bar scene where locals, travellers and ex-pats alike meet to speak ‘Spanglish’ and enjoy authentically prepared international food from Indian and Thai to French (including fondue), American bagels and German bread. While Antigua might be your first stop in Guatemala, it’s also a great place to rest and relax after time on the road as the range of budget hotels and hostels in Antigua is by far the best in the country. Careful, though, as many of the permanent ex-pats were also once just visitors, until Antigua slowly became home!
Lake Atitlan, famously described by Aldous Huxley as ‘the most beautiful lake in the world’, should be on the list of every visitor to Guatemala. Formed when the lid of a volcano was blown off during an explosion, Lake Atitlan is located in the scenic Highlands of Guatemala and, like Antigua, sits neatly nestled between three volcanoes. These three can be climbed, as can Indian’s Nose mountain.
For less steep hikes, try walking between the dozen little villages spread out along the shores of Atitlan. The three most popular villages for tourists each have a distinct feel: San Pedro tends to be for backpackers looking to have a good time, with plenty of restaurants, bars, and ways to relax including saunas, heated pools and swimming pools. Nearby San Marcos is known to target those in the market for meditation and yoga retreats, and many of the small village’s restaurants cater to a vegan/vegetarian diet. Panajachel acts as the ‘big city’, despite having a population of only 11000, as it’s where most travellers first arrive when visiting the area. It has the most hotels, restaurants, bars, and the streets are lined with typical Guatemalan trinkets and handicrafts. Boats leave from ‘Pana’ to most of the other villages around the lake, including those that most tourists never see.
Despite rising tourism, Lake Atitlan is still home to a massive Maya population who go about their traditional daily lives, alongside selling handicrafts. Catch a glimpse of the ladies making tortillas and weaving the traditional costumes or washing clothes in the lake. While the men carry wood on their backs strapped to their heads, pick coffee and sell their produce at local village markets.
The Maya ruins of Tikal are often described as one of the greatest – if not even the greatest – and most important pieces of ancient Mayan architecture in all of Central America. Once the capital of the Mayan world, it was built in the late-classic Mayan period, around AD 550-AD900. Tikal is spread out across more than 2.5sq km, offering visitors some of the highest towering pyramids of the entire Mayan world, jutting like skyscrapers above the jungle tree-line.
Temples, pyramids and monkeys
Even if you are not a huge fan of ancient ruins or, like many backpackers, have been following the Mayan trail through Mexico’s Yucatan and Belize, Tikal still won’t disappoint. Each of the temples and pyramids are enormous and will literally take your breath away, albeit at least in part due to the climb to the top of each being several hundred steps. Once at the top, listen for and try to spot the many howler monkeys, spider monkeys, jaguar coatis, crocodiles, pacas, tarantulas and the great variety of beautiful birds that call the national park home.
Often connected to a trip to Tikal, the little town of Flores is located on an island in Lake Peten, and is reached by bridge from its ‘sister city’ of Santa Elena (itself as dusty and dirty as Flores is charming) – make the journey using the distinctive Guatemalan chicken bus.
Wining and dining
With its red-roofed houses painted all the colours of the rainbow and the bright white church on top of the hill, Flores is one of the most beautiful towns in all of Guatemala, especially when seen from a boat out on the lake. Dine at one of the restaurants on the shore and witness the spectacular sunrises and sunsets over the lake every single day. A well-constructed promenade surrounding the island town is inviting for long strolls along the water, and the various piers are perfect for sunbathing or jumping off for a swim in the lake.
Flores is not only the ideal base for your trip to Tikal; it’s also an enjoyable place to relax for a few days. Connect with other travellers at Las Gardenias hostel, hang out in a hammock and read. Make sure to take a boat ride to one of the nearby beaches or to Petencito, a small zoo on an island in the lake which is home to animals indigenous to the region.
Chichicastenango, or just ‘Chichi’, as it is commonly called, is most famous for its colourful market, held on Thursdays and Sundays. A visit to the market should not be missed, as it is the showcase market in a country of amazing markets. Get great bargains on typical clothes, souvenirs and jewellery.
At the market
The market is not only considered the best for tourists, as the indigenous Mayans come from all over to sell (in areas off the main square) everything from fruit and vegetables to live chickens, turkeys, flowers and even kittens.
Sacrificial coca cola
Just make sure to stay the extra day or two in Chichi, as the town itself is an entirely different place on non-market days. Take the chance to chat with locals, visit the brightly-coloured cemetery overlooking the town, or take a hike out of town to Pascual Abaj, a Mayan shrine on a hill above town. Meaning “sacrificial stone” in a local Mayan language, Pascual Abaj is a shrine to Huyup Tak’ah, the Mayan earth god. Visitors are welcome here, and the local indigenous Mayans make the short trek regularly to bring good luck or good health. ‘Sacrifices’ are made too; everything from corn to Coca Cola, or if you are lucky to catch the real deal, even a rooster may be sacrificed.
Author Bio: Guest bloggers, the Globetrottergirls, are German-American couple Dani and Jessica who try, test and investigate budget travel around the world…
Been to Guatemala and have any recommendations on where to go? Let us know in the comments…
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