Guatemala was my first “solo travel” experience.
I was 17 years old and decided I wanted to learn Spanish somewhere unique. Back then, 14 years ago, nobody I knew had ever been to Guatemala so that sounded exotic enough to me!
So off I went: to Guatemala for 6 weeks with 2 weeks of Spanish classes planned and 4 weeks to explore, maybe volunteer somewhere or who knows…
It turned out to be my most memorable travel experience! My first time leaving Europe, my first time in a developing country with a culture so different from my own… It’s an experience I will never forget. That young, naive 17 year old girl got a quick lesson into how different life can be, how welcoming people can be even if they have nothing and how happy and fulfilling life can be no matter how much or how little you have…
Guatemala and its people will forever have a special place in my heart.
But, because this was so many years ago I never felt I could write a travel guide for Guatemala. Until I met Chelsea. Owner of Theheartoftravel.org, Chelsea might have fallen in love with Guatemala even more than I have and by now knows it inside out.
Chelsea: “When I first started sharing my travel experiences in Guatemala with people back home in the United States I was typically met with one of two responses. The first, and the minority, being one of enthusiasm from a fellow traveler who had also grown fond of this Central American gem. The latter response, however, tended to go something like this: “Isn’t it dangerous?” “Isn’t is dirty?” “Isn’t it poor?” “Why would you go there?” “What part of México is Guatemala in?”
While there is some validity to these questions, the same could be said for many places all over the world, including cities in the United States. Unfortunately, these kinds of assumptions about Guatemala only serve to further perpetuate a negative reputation that fails to show the whole picture. While issues of poverty, corruption and violence continue to exist in Guatemala (and around the world) it is also a country rich in cultural diversity, gorgeous landscapes, ancient history, stunning wildlife and much more. Guatemala’s complicated, and at times gritty, socio-political past and present also make it a fascinating place to visit and we could all learn a thing or two from Guatemala’s resilience and ability to persist despite the obstacles it faces.
So, if you’re looking for somewhere friendly, beautiful, interesting and affordable to explore on your next trip then you don’t want to miss out on Guatemala!”
5 Places You Must Visit in Guatemala
1. San Juan La Laguna, Lake Atitlán
Located on the southern shore of Lake Atitlán, the community of San Juan is almost 95% Tz’utujil, one of the 22+ different indigenous Maya groups living in Guatemala today. The town itself is nothing short of charming with vibrant murals painted along the walls of the steeply inclined road that looks out over Central America’s deepest lake. Here in San Juan you can participate in a variety of free workshops to learn more about the local culture, history and economy be it through a coffee tour, chocolate making demonstration or a tour of a medicinal plant garden.
It is the people, however, that make San Juan La Laguna truly special as they greet you with a warmth and authenticity that is hard to come by in most parts of the world these days. Nowhere in the town is this more true than at the women led textile cooperative Casa Flor Ixcaco. The women behind this impressive community effort will gladly give you an in-depth presentation on all the steps that go into producing their intricately woven products, from growing and harvesting the cotton, removing the seeds, spinning it out into yard, dying it naturally and the actual process of weaving with a backstrap loom.
Take a day trip into town or if you really want to have an immersive experience do an overnight stay with one of the families from the Casa Flor Ixcaco community!
2. La Antigua Guatemala
A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s almost impossible to escape cliché when describing La Antigua Guatemala: it’s that storybook of a place. Sitting 5029 feet (1535 meters) above sea level and surrounded by three volcanoes, La Antigua Guatemala was the former capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala which encompassed the present-day nations of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize and Guatemala along with Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas.
Antigua initially draws people in for its cobblestone roads, beautiful examples of Spanish-Baroque architecture and former churches and palaces left in ruins after various earthquakes. Its beauty, safety and close proximity to the Guatemala City airport make Antigua a logical starting point for most travelers in Guatemala and you can easily book a tour to anywhere else in the country through one of the town’s many travel agencies.
As you meet fellow travelers, and Guatemala City transplants, you will find that beyond the charm of the superficial characteristics of the town that Antigua possesses an inexplicable magic. Like a vortex, this town tends to suck people in and keep them there for much longer than they anticipated. Perhaps it’s the sound of marimba music that floats through town on Sunday afternoons, the taste of mezcal inside the town’s iconic dive bar, Café No Sé, or the smiling faces of women selling chuchitos, tostadas and pan con chile on the sidewalk. Go and see for yourself, just don’t be surprised if three years from now you’re fluent in Spanish and own a bar with your Guatemala lover. It’s been known to happen once or twice 😉
3. Río Dulce
If peace, tranquility and being one with nature are what you seek then look no further than Guatemala’s expansive Río Dulce. Flowing out of Lake Izabal and ultimately spilling into the Caribbean Sea, a boat ride down the river and through its impressive gorge is nothing short of idyllic. Make sure to spend an entire day out on the water stopping along the way to visit the area’s attractions.
Start with a self guided tour of the Castillo de San Felipe, a former fortress designed to fight off pillaging pirates that was later used as a prison before becoming a historical landmark. Next up you can cruise by the Island of the Birds to observe a variety of different species before taking a leisurely ride through the mangroves adorned by thick fields of lily-pads. Here, you will get a first hand look at life on the Río Dulce for most of its inhabitants as they sit on the porches of their wooden homes perched on stilts just feet above the water. Women and children will paddle up to you in wooden canoes in hopes of selling handicrafts while the men cast their fishing nets where the river widens further downstream. The wooden crafts and woven baskets being sold are fairly unique to this area so it’s a good opportunity for those who like to get their shopping on.
Another must see along the river are the natural hot springs where you can pop off to drink fresh coconut juice (order a coco-loco if you want them to fill it up with rum) as you relax riverside in the steamy hot springs. Finally, make sure you stop in the Garifuna town of Livingston, close to Belize. A former British slave trading port, Livingston has a unique history and is unlike any other town in Guatemala. Learn about Garifuna language and culture and enjoy Afro-caribbean drum music and the local dish “tapado” which is a coconut milk based seafood stew served with a side of freshly made coconut rolls!
4. Semuc Champey
Are you a lover of adventure, nature, stunning turquoise water pools and meeting new people over a couple of beers at Guatemala’s coolest lodge? If yes, then Semuc Champey is the place for you. Located in the department of Alta Verapaz, Semuc Champey is definitely off the beaten path with the last leg of the journey requiring piling into the back of a pickup truck for an off roading adventure. You’ll soon discover that the bumpy ride is well worth it when your trek through the sticky hot jungle rewards you with a spectacular view of cascading waterfalls and sparkling natural pools. It’s paradise.
After a few hours splashing around with new friends or a nice spiritual solo float session you can really ramp up the adventure factor by spelunking in the nearby caves. Equipped with a long dimly lit candle in one hand you’ll start out walking through the bat filled caves as the water slowly rises to your knees. Before you know it you’ll really get your workout on as you paddle through the cave and keep your head, and light source, above water. Bats, climbing up rickety old ladders, unsure footing, and flickering candlelight that’s bound to blow out at least once definitely don’t make the caves at Semuc Champey the most relaxing, or safe, destination but man is it a fun adventure and a great story to take home. As long as you’re a good swimmer and reasonably fit you should make it out feeling more alive than ever.
Be sure to finish your time in Semuc tubing down the river, bridge jumping or rope swinging from the trees into cool fresh waters.
Semuc Champey is one of those destinations where it’s highly advisable to plan ahead in order to make the experience as enjoyable possible. So take the time and the extra cash to book a shuttle and lodging in advance and get a local guide for the cave exploration part of your day, it’ll be well worth it. Check out Zephyr Lodge for accommodations, tours and transportation options!
5. Petén & Tikal National Park
Most travelers breezing through Guatemala on limited time tend to make the long journey to the Petén region to visit the famous Mayan ruins inside the Tikal National Park only to turn around and move onto the next place. However, there’s much more to see in the department of Petén and since it’s a bit of journey getting there it’s worth lingering around a while longer to explore.
An easy way to see all that the region has to offer is to set up a home base in the island town of Flores. Originally inhabited by the Mayan Itza ethnic group, who had come down from the Yucatan region, they were able to resist the Spanish conquista all the way up until 1697. Eventually the Spanish did colonize the town, giving birth to the cheerfully painted colonial buildings and the narrow cobblestone roads that offer a more vibrant and tropical feel than colonial Antigua. While in Flores you can enjoy affordable accommodation, international cuisine, handicraft and textile shopping and upbeat nightlife complete with live music on rooftop terraces looking out over the water. My personal favorite way to end the night is with a lazy stroll along the malecón accompanied by some street food.
From Flores you can easily visit the nearby Tikal ruins as well as the lesser known Mayan archaeological sites Yaxha and Uaxactun which all give you a glimpse into the past of the ancient Mayan civilizations as well as the opportunity to appreciate the jungle and all of its plants and critters. If you’ve really got some time on your hands you could go all the way north to El Mirador, a site that many are speculating to be the largest Mayan city in existence. As of now, however, visiting El Mirador requires entry by helicopter or a fairly gnarly 3-4 day hike in rugged jungle so it’s not for the faint of heart or those low on funds.
In addition to the national parks the Petén region also has some great lakes and caves to explore and your visit wouldn’t be complete without stopping to zipline through the jungle just outside of the main entrance to Tikal!
I really hope you will visit Guatemala some day and if you do, take your time, get to know the people and fall in love with this country as much as we both did!
Based out of Sacramento, California, but constantly on the go. Chelsea dedicates herself full time to her boutique travel agency, The Heart of Travel. Be it organizing and guiding trips to Guatemala, researching new destinations, writing articles or snapping shots for Instagram, she lives and breathes travel.
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