Tikal, Semuc Champey, Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Chichicastenango, Xela, Nebaj, Todos Santos & Guatemala City
[This is a brief excerpt, one of several suggested itineraries, from Eric Larson’s travel guide to Guatemala, published by Other Places Travel Guides.]
The easiest way to see the best of Guatemala without backtracking much is to enter Petén by land through Belize or Mexico or by airplane into Flores. Those who don’t enter via this route can still use this itinerary by heading north to Flores from Guatemala City (a long road road trip or a short flight). This trip is for people who can stay for an extended time (about 3-4 weeks), do not mind long bus trips, and are up for an adventure.
Start in the island town of Flores and swim in Lake Petén Itzá before heading to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal. Spend the day exploring the park, climbing its impressive temples, and hanging with the spider monkeys. Camp or stay at the park entrance to be there for a sunrise tour of the Gran Jaguar Temple, or head back to Flores to catch a bus south towards Cobán the next morning. Make your way toward tranquil Lanquín, followed by spectacular Semuc Champey. Take a candlelit swimming tour of the park’s caves, relax and bathe in crystalline pools, and hike up to the glorious viewpoint for some pictures.
Head back through Cobán on a daylong trip to Antigua, Guatemala’s dazzling colonial city. Marvel at its cobbled streets and Spanish architecture, take a tour of an active coffee plantation, and enjoy the city’s vibrant nightlife. Venture out to climb Volcán de Pacaya or, if you time it right, check out the giant November 1st kite festival in Sumpango.
Travel west along the Pan-American Highway before zipping down to Lake Atitlán, a picturesque freshwater lake ringed by three volcanoes. Shop and eat in touristy Panajachel, cross the lake to the hippie-inundated San Pedro la Laguna to summit Volcán San Pedro, or relax in style in the quieter Santa Cruz la Laguna. On Thursday or Sunday, make a day trip to Central America’s largest artisan market in Chichicastenango.
Continue west towards Quetzaltenango (Xela), the economic hub of the Western Highlands. Take a dip in the natural hot springs at the Fuentes Georginas of Zunil, be one of the brave few to summit Volcán Santa María, or experience the life of Xela’s markets before getting in touch with Quetzaltrekkers (www.quetzaltrekkers.com/xela/), a local NGO that offers adventure treks to benefit local youth. Whether you decide to join a Quetzaltrekkers trip or not, it’s time to go back whence you came, leaving the “Gringo Trail” as you move north into the department of Quiché.
Spend a day in Santa María Nebaj, a predominantly indigenous town that was devastated by Guatemala’s armed conflict. Observe local women in their bright red skirts (corte) and colorful blouses (huipiles). Enjoy the local delicacy, boxbol, a plate of corn dough wrapped in spinach-like herbs and topped with ground pumpkin seeds and tomato sauce. If you decide to join a Quetzaltrekkers group, begin your hike west into Huehuetenango, trekking several days through the majestic Cuchumatanes Mountains before descending into Todos Santos Cuchumatán, a village where both men and women still wear traditional clothing. If you decide to go it alone, you can also reach Huehuetenango by bus from Quiché. Head back towards Xela, from where you can continue your travels or return to Guatemala City.
Want more recommendations for traveling in Guatemala? This page is a small sample from our 398-page comprehensive travel guide for Guatemala. Written and researched by a long-time resident and Peace Corps Volunteer, the book is quickly becoming the go-to resource for travelers looking to get off the “Gringo Trail” and experience the real Guatemala. Click here to learn more about the book and what others are saying about this unique travel guide.