What to do in Guatemala, 10 top attractions to visit in the country
Ancient Maya ruins, charming colonial towns, indigenous communities, active volcanoes, and one of the world’s most beautiful lakes will surprise you during an unforgettable trip to Guatemala. If you are feeling overwhelmed at the amount of things to do in the country, here are our list with the 10 best things to do in Guatemala.
1. Spend some time in Antigua, the most charming city in Guatemala
Antigua is one of the best places to stay in Guatemala. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as soon as you enter the city you will understand why you cannot miss Antigua. Filled with cozy boutique hotels, great restaurants and lots of fun activities, this charming colonial style city is bursting with culture, amazing views, delicious food and incredible nightlife. The historic town is known for its warm decor elements and rich history. The most iconic monument in Arco de Santa Catalina. An essential part of any visit to Antigua is to frame Volcán Agua through its arch, which was built in 1694 and is surrounded by opportunities to watch artisans transform local products into art. Plenty of the tourist spots are located in an 8-by-8 block, and it only requires a few hours to explore the entire city. Cooperacion Espanola, Convento Capuchinas and the Mercado are a few places you must visit. In addition to buying the perfect souvenir from the artisans, make sure to reserve a spot and make your own chocolate. Thought to have descended from the gods, cacao is a popular and highly regarded food throughout the country. It comes in many forms, from steamy liquid to solid spiced bars, and the traditional hot chocolate is the preferred method of chocolate consumption around there. After the cacao lesson, explore the beautiful town.
Antigua is one of the most compact cities in Guatemala so the best way to get around is simply to walk! Most hotels and tourism agencies offer a shuttle bus from Guatemala City to Antigua and visitors can easily go in the morning and come back in the afternoon when staying in the capital.
Tip: Semana Santa, or Holy Week is a very important time of year for Catholics in Guatemala, and some believe that the Semana Santa of Antigua is the world’s most beautiful. Thousands of locals fill the streets for processions and vigils. Make sure you plan ahead.
2. Hike and roast marshmallows at the Pacaya Volcano
Guatemala has 37 volcanoes in total. When traveling around the country, although it is easy to do on your own, volcano hikes are best attempted with a guide. The five of the most beautiful volcanic hiking trails easily accessible for beginners are: Chicabal Volcano and Chicabal Lake, Santa María Volcano, Acatenango Volcano, Fuego Volcano and Pacaya Volcano.
During our trip we decided to hike the awesome Pacaya Volcano. The hike was around 3.5 miles with elevation gain of 1,430 feet. Aside from the impressive views from the top, one of the most exciting things about this hike is that Pacaya Volcano is still active. Along the way, you’ll see hot spots of lava flows and magma fields and visitors can roast their marshmallows and buy souvenirs made with lava in a local store in the middle of the trail. Remember that hiring a guide is essential for this tour. The park entrance with a guide costs around $25 USD (200 Quetzales). You can pay the ticket at the entrance or arrange the entire trip with an agency.
3. Visit a finca to see the authentic Guatemalan coffee in the trees
Are you a coffee lover? Guatemala is well known for its coffee and if you love coffee as much as we do, we highly recommend you to take a coffee tour. Any travel agency can organize this tour and most of them include transportation from/to the Antigua downtown. We visited La Finca Filadelfia.
The family-run Filadelfia Coffee Resort has been producing coffee since 1864 offering coffee tours where visitors can visit the plantation and understand the entire process to create one of the most renowned coffees in the world. Guests can request shuttle services to and from Antigua’s Central Park, which are available 5 times a day and free of cost and at the end of the tour taste and buy freshly roasted coffee.
4. Recharge at Lake Atitlán
Lake Atitlán offers travelers the chance to see unique perspectives of the country. Indigenous culture, scenic mountains, volcanoes, at Lake Atitlán, you can experience all that makes Guatemala famous in one place. Because it’s always a constant temperature of 25 degrees Celsius, the lake is known as the “eternal spring” and attracts not only adventure visitors eager to tackle sunrise hikes but also romantic couples trying to relax in the breathtaking atmosphere.
Situated in the Guatemalan Highlands among the Sierra Madre Mountain Range and surrounded by three volcanoes: San Pedro, Atitlán, and Tomlimán, the volcanic lake makes you feel like you’re being transported to another beautiful world. There are several great accommodation options around the bright blue waters and this is the best place to choose your favorite one and spend time in nature. During our stay we chose La Fortuna Atitlán, which is considered one of the top 10 best small hotels in the world. What a great surprise, this is a magical place!
Don’t worry too much if you’re unsure of what to do in the area, boats run constantly between all the villages, making travel between all the lakeside communities and towns very easy. Choose Lake Atitlán as your home base and gear up for at least 2 days of adventure around this stunning lake.
5. Explore the villages and the local communities
Panajachel is the bustling market hub that welcomes the daily influx of travelers and local tourists that need to take a boat to go to their hotels or visit the closest villages. From Lake Atitlán there are a few towns you MUST visit in the region.
The liveliest village with the largest number of backpackers, bars, and hostels is San Pedro La Laguna; The hippie haven stacked with yoga studios, holistic centers, and wellness workshops is San Marcos La Laguna; while the cultural hub that blends traditional Mayan life with restaurants, shops, and tour agencies is San Juan La Laguna. San Juan it’s one of the smaller and less-frequented villages around the lake, but the authentic food and cultural activities can fill a whole day. Residents in this area showcase their talents with depictions of Mayan history and ancestral traditions through murals and paintings. It’s beautiful and fun.
Make sure to reserve at least one day of your trip to explore the villages around Lake Atitlán. Tip: tourists are warned against walking alone between the villages, especially at night!
6. Enjoy the gorgeous views up Indian Nose
One popular tour you can book through one of the travel agencies in any of the villages around Lake Atitlán is the Indian Nose (La Nariz del Indio), which is also referred to as Mayan Face (El Rostro Maya), a rocky perch with face-like characteristics and the highest point in Lake Atitlán. The hike over there takes around 45 minutes and the views from the lookout point are memorable. Sunrise and sunset tours with guide, transportation and lunch on the summit are popular in the area. We didn’t go at the peak times to avoid the crowds, but we guarantee you won’t regret visiting, no matter what time you decide to go.
This hike is popular for sunrise because Lake Atitlán becomes more and more visible as the sun spills over the lake revealing perfect panoramas of the landscape with the three iconic volcanoes standing in stark contrast against the pale sky. What a great way to start the day, hm?
7. Indulge yourself in the culture
Are you interested in experiencing how the indigenous community of Mayans live on a daily basis? Why is corn so important in Guatemala ‘s history and culture? In the isolated village of Saint Laguna Lachua, the Q’eqchi community welcome you to share about their lives.
However, even if you don’t have a chance to visit the remote villages, observe how corn tortillas are a staple of each meal: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. To the Q’eqchi, corn is like God, one central force in their creation story. Their culture goes beyond the villages.
A popular day trip to go deeper in the culture is to visit the Chichicastenango Market (also known as “Chichi Market”), which is one of the biggest in Central America. It’s a two-hour drive from Lake Atitlán and has the biggest selection of handicrafts, textiles, wood carvings, pottery, jewelry and also fresh produce, animal products, household necessities. The village is very remote and the streets are rough, but Chichicastenango has been a trade center for hundreds of years and offers a great opportunity to observe the daily life and local customs in rural Guatemala. Chichicastenango market is open on Thursdays and Sundays only.
Don’t have time to go too far? Lake Atitlán is the center for women weaving co-ops and coffee co-ops. Traditional textiles are also sold all over Guatemala, and Lake Atitlán is the source that supplies many of the markets and shops throughout the country. In the Atitlán Women Weavers in San Pedro visitors can contribute to the local economy by buying handmade jewelry, scarves, blankets, bags, and clothing. Visitors are welcome to watch the weavers perform a free, 20-minute demonstration of how they transform the cotton in sustainable textiles or tour the coffee plants where the coffee is organically-grown and harvested. The boat ride around the villages cost $2 and the public boats stop by your hotel. Casa Flor Ixcaco is a great farm to visit in the area.
8. Visit Guatemala City, the busy capital of Guatemala
As any other capital, Guatemala City has traffic jams and makes it tempting to skip over when compared with the interesting attractions in the surrendered cities. However, the fine museums, the intriguing mercado central and colorful architecture make it worth investing at least a day in the country’s capital. We decided to book a Full Day Sightseeing Tour of Guatemala City in the Hotel Travel Agency and explore the main attractions with a guide.
The chicken bus (local transportation) is not recommended for tourists, so this is the best way to visit the city in a short time. Zona Viva (Zona 10) is where most hotels are located in Guatemala City, this region is full of great places to attend the tourists, we highly recommend the Fontabella to walk and eat – the restaurants are top-notch. And if you want to enjoy an authentic panaderia #thebestpatriesinthecity make sure to go to San Martin. (Even if your hotel has breakfast included, do yourself a favor and go there!). We stayed at Westin Camino Real, the hotel is great.
9. Explore the Mayan ruins at Tikal National Park
Visiting the Mayan ruins is certainly one of the most important attractions to add on your itinerary. Tikal National Park is a vast archaeological site which dates back thousands of years. This magical place is loaded with so much historical importance that there is no surprise it’s a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most popular places to visit in Guatemala.
Located in the northern part of the country,(not far from the border with Belize) the most common option for getting to Tikal is with a tour. Day trips from Guatemala City are popular among the hotel travel agencies and include round trip flights (in the small airplane you can imagine), lunch, guide and a day in the National Park.
The history of settlement at Tikal stretches back as far as 1000 BC and the Mayan ruins are in the middle of the jungle. The site’s temples are linked by walking paths, so you’ll be spending the day walking from one to the next and climbing your way to the top of some of the pyramids.
The ruins of Tikal can easily be explored in a single day, but if you decide to stay in the region the closest town is Flores. Most visitors stay in the area to watch the stunning sunrise with all animals waking up in the jungle! Can you imagine? No matter what places do you decide to add in your itinerary, walk around the ruins at this unique National Park will be the highlight of any vacation in Guatemala.
10. Swin at the turquoise waters of Semuc Champey
What is missing? If you have time, visit the Turquoise Pools of Semuc Champey and explore the Black Sand Beaches of Monterrico. Both of these attractions were part of our bucket list but extra time is required. It’s a great excuse to return and hope you can add in your vacation to Guatemala.. Let us know what inspire you most to visit this beautiful country and enjoy your trip.