Wander Ancient Mayan Ruins in Petén
The largest and northernmost department of Guatemala, sparsely populated Petén makes up a third of the country’s territory, yet less than seven percent of its population lives here. What the region lacks in population, however, it makes up for in natural and ancient man-made beauty. Once considered one of the lungs of the Earth, Petén’s extensive oxygen-pumping jungles are now threatened by the increasingly greedy eyes of loggers and cattle ranchers. To slow the spread of deforestation, the Reserva de la Biósfera Maya was established to protect over 5 million acres of subtropical rainforest in the department’s northern third. The dense reserve is dotted with lakes, rivers, and innumerable species of exotic flora and fauna. Though far too large for a handful of park rangers to protect, the mind-numbing diversity of the Maya Biosphere Reserve has become wildly popular among adventure travelers and eco-tourists.
The great variety of animal and plant life, including jaguars, tapir, monkeys, toucans, parrots, and more, is only surpassed by some of the most magnificent ruins on the planet. Petén is the birthplace of Mayan civilization, and its crowning jewel is undoubtedly the restored kingdom of Tikal, a must-see stop on any visitor’s itinerary. A short trip away, on the shores of serene Lake Petén Itzá, is charming Flores, the departmental capital and a tourist-friendly base for excursions to dozens of archaeological sites. Among them are the isolated Piedras Negras, fascinating Aguateca, and even the lakeside Yaxhá ruins of Survivor Guatemala fame. Petén’s (literally) hidden gem, the ruins of El Mirador, have until recently gone unnoticed, though it won’t remain this way for long. Here, deep in the untouched jungle, explorers unearthed what is arguably the world’s largest pyramid.
Stroll the Cobblestone Streets of Picturesque Antigua
Once the center of Spanish power in colonial Central America, La Antigua Guatemala (Old/ Ancient Guatemala) is a gem of a city with pristine cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, and magnificent architecture. One of the few places in the country where city ordinances are respected and enforced, one could never say that Antigua is a typical Guatemalan city. However, its magnetic charm, impressive history, and near-perfect climate make it a must-see stop for any traveler. Only an hour from the airport, Antigua is often the first stop for visitors and an easy place to set up camp before venturing out into the rest of the country. An entire weekend is the bare minimum needed to explore Antigua and get a feel for the city, but many tourists end up staying much, much longer.
Antigua manages to look towards the future while gracefully juxtaposing the present with vestiges of its imposing past. Its bustling markets are home to vendors hawking everything from fruits and vegetables to used clothing and electronics. The ruins of centuries-old monasteries and convents lay just down the street from Domino’s Pizza. Gourmet Italian dishes are just as easy to find as a plate of eggs, beans, and tortillas. The imperfect union of Guatemalan life with international entrepreneurship has created a bizarre yet somehow seamless mesh of modern services, excellent food, and plenty to see and do.
Climb a Volcano (or two, or three, or…)
Boasting more than 30 volcanoes (depending on what is classified as an actual volcano, as compared to a large volcanic hill), and four of them active, Guatemala is a paradise for the vertically inclined. The majority is possible to summit, and the views from the peaks are always worth the hike. Our travel guide will give you advice on the best volcanoes to tackle, which ones to avoid, and some insightful tips along the way. The following are the major volcanoes found in Guatemala: Acatenango, Agua, Almolonga, Atitlán, Chingo, Cerro Santiago, Cerro de Oro, Chicabal, Chiquimula Volcanic Field, Coxóm, Cuilapa-Barbarena, Fuego, Ipala, Ixtepeque, Jumaytepeque, Moyuta, Pacaya, Quetzaltepeque, San Pedro, Santa María, Santo Tomás, Siete Orejas, Suchitán, Tacaná, Tahual, Tajumulco, Tecuamburro, and Tolimán. (Check out this post for volcanoes to climb around Antigua.)
Ride a Boat Across Stunning Lake Atitlán
Famous English writer and explorer Aldous Huxley once compared Lake Atitlan to Italys Lake Como, describing it as “Como with the additional embellishment of three immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Atitlan is arguably the most beautiful place in Guatemala, and it is without a doubt the most visited spot in the Western Highlands. Atitlan’s near-perfect weather is complemented by paradisiacal blue-green waters and the triumphant Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro volcanoes directly across the horizon. The angle changes as you travel around the lake, but the view remains impressive. An occasional fog rolls in after noon and sits heavy over the water, but unbelievable sunsets are just about routine. Surrounding the lake are 12 small villages, ranging from tourist hubs like Panajachel and San Pedro la Laguna to quiet villages like Santa Catarina Palopó and Santa Cruz la Laguna. Many of the towns have biblical names, so they are sometimes referred to as the 12 apostles. The majority of the lake’s inhabitants are indigenous peoples of Tz’utujil or Kaqchikel descent, famous for the production of the colorful textiles that line artisan markets throughout the country. (Santiago Atitlán is the cultural center for the Tz’utujil people.) Nowadays, most boats on the lake have been rigged with outboard motors, but fishermen still paddle near the shoreline in dug-out cayucos.
Affordable and Easy to Reach
For some, Guatemala may seem like an exotic vacation reserved only for true adventure seekers. But in realty Guatemala is very accessible for North American travelers (remember, it’s just south of Mexico) and very well connected to Europe. Nearly all major airlines offer direct flights directly into Guatemala City’s international airport and with a valid passport, you should be able to enter Guatemala without paying a dime.
On the whole, Guatemala is a very affordable country to visit. Almost everything, except for electronics and automobiles, is significantly cheaper than it would be in the United States or Europe. Even compared to other Central American countries like Costa Rica and Panamá, Guatemala is quite cheap. Tourists on a strict budget can reasonably expect to get by on Q200 (US $ 26) or less a day, not including park entrance fees, souvenirs, and beer. This quote will be considerably more for visitors who pay for private shuttle services and more comfortable hotels.
The following gives a list of common prices for everyday items:
- Average Prices Night in basic guesthouse Q40-80
- Public transportation per hour Q10
- Set-menu meal in a comedor Q12-20 // Meal in a restaurant Q30-50
- Bottle of water Q4
- Night in most nicer hotels Q100-200
- Bottle of beer in a bar Q15-20
- 1 week Spanish classes Q1000-1600
- 15-minute taxi ride Q50
Take a Dip in the Crystalline Pools of Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is arguably Guatemala’s most beautiful natural attraction. A geological masterpiece, Semuc is a bridge of natural limestone terraces and waterfalls; each magnificent step is filled with crystal-clear, mountain-spring-fed water. While the Cahabón River passes underneath, you can spend the day swimming in the refreshing turquoise pools, exploring the Cuevas de K’an Ba by candlelight, or hiking up a challenging trail to an impressive lookout point. Guides are available in the parking lot, but you’ll be better off exploring on your own. To have the place to yourself, avoid visiting on holidays. Visitors typically stay at one of several hostels in Lanquín and take an hourly pickup (Q10, 1hr, 14km) from near the central park each morning, but more options are opening up near the park. Semuc Champey is usually uncrowded, but unless you spend two full days in the park, you may leave feeling you should have stayed more time. Any of the tour services in Lanquín or Cobán can organize shuttles. To reach Semuc in a car you’ll need 4WD after El Pajal, as the road deteriorates greatly with the winter rains. Alternatively, you can walk from Lanquín to Semuc in around 2.5 hours.
Hold on to your seat on a Camioneta
The cheapest and easiest way to get around Guatemala is by camioneta, or as it’s commonly known in English, the “chicken bus” – the name refers to the tendency of passengers to transport live poultry on board. Chicken buses are school buses that have broken down or no longer pass emissions standards in the United States. They are purchased at auction and driven to Central America, where they are souped up and decked out with colorful paint jobs, powerful sound systems, and gaudy electronic scrollbars advertising their destinations.
Camionetas run frequently between almost all destinations in Guatemala and offer a convenient, affordable form of transportation for both locals and tourists. An hour-long bus ride will run you only Q10 on average. To understand these low prices, the Guatemalan joke, “How many people can fit on a camioneta? One more!” is very telling. It wouldn’t be surprising to find yourself sitting three to a seat with an indigenous woman asleep on your left and two drooling children on your right. While this chaotic atmosphere is not for the high-maintenance traveler, if you want to experience the real Guatemala, a camioneta ride is a must.
— Did we miss anything? Let us know what you think in the comments below!