Sandwiched between Mexico, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras, Guatemala is one of Central America‘s new superstars. You probably haven’t been yet, and you may not know anybody who has. But trust us: this place is going to be big. It’s got everything you could want in a proper Americas adventure: food that will ruin all restaurants for you ever, gorgeous volcanic beaches, mirror lakes, jungle, Maya ruins and friendly locals.
If you want to see the place in action, check out this footage. We shot it in 2015, and we’ve been dreaming of Guatemala ever since:
8. Maya ruins to rival Mexico
If you’ve ever fantasised about being Indiana Jones for a day or just love old, stone things, Guatemala’s ruins will blow you away. The most famous is coastal Tikal, which will impress even the most jaded traveller. Then you’ve got the remarkable ruins of Yaxha, Uaxactan and Quirigua scattered around the country looking fabulous. And if you’re up for a 5-day hike and a bit of roughing it, then El Mirador lies deep within the jungle and is believed to be the cradle of Maya civilisation.
7. Lakes from your daydreams
This crater lake is a big drawcard for travellers and there’s a very good reason for it – it’s amazing. Surrounded by three volcanoes and littered with villages where Guatemalans live a traditional life, Lake Atitlan is a place to relax and soak in some culture and nature. You can choose to get away from a more rambunctious atmosphere by staying in the villages outside of Panajachel, and there is hiking, biking, kayaking, swimming and sunbaking to wile away the days here.
6. Our favourite food in the world
We all know how good Mexican food is, but the cuisine of Guatemala is equally as impressive (though not as spicy). There are some culinary crossovers, but on the whole Guatemalan cuisine is as unique as the country itself. Make sure to taste chiles rellenos, hilachas, shucos, pollo con loroco, pastel de banano and the thousand and one varieties of tamales.
5. The perfect spot to practise your Spanish
Guatemala has long been a haven for people wanting to learn Spanish. It’s inexpensive, there are loads of reputable schools in Antigua and Xela, and it’s a friendly and undaunting place to practice what you learn.
4. Beaches sans tourists
While everyone else is at Lake Atitlan, you can be swimming in the turquoise waters of the Pacific or Caribbean. Since most of the tourist attractions are inland, you’ll find Guatemala’s beaches are largely undisturbed. Playa Blanca near Livingston, Champerico, Iztapa and Playa Tilapa are all worth travelling for.
3. Stunning volcanoes
There are upwards of 25 volcanoes in Guatemala – many are dormant but some still threaten activity. The most recent scare was this January, when small amounts of lava flowed and ash erupted from the popular Pacaya, which led to the evacuation of people living closest to it. But despite the occasional fiery drama, Guatemala’s volcanoes are usually in gorgeous places and offer great hiking and spectacular views.
2. The warmest smiles in Central America
Travelling in a place where the locals are warm and welcoming makes all the difference on a trip away. We’ve often been overwhelmed by the friendliness and kindness of the Guatemalan people – who are usually quietly spoken and ready to smile.
1. Chichicastenango. Trust me.
It sounds like a dance and it often feels like it while weaving your way through the stalls here, but Guatemala’s most colourful – and famous – markets are certainly a highlight of any tour of Guatemala. Thursday and Sundays are when ‘Chichi’ comes alive and it’s a wonderful place to buy artisan souvenirs and do some serious people watching. Be mindful of using your camera here – always ask permission as ‘guerilla’ photography can often cause offence.
Want to check out Guatemala for yourself? Bueno. You’ll need an Intrepid small group adventure.
Feature image c/o Aurimas, Flickr