Before booking an impulsive 47-day Intrepid trip called Central America Explorer, I didn’t know much about Guatemala — except that it had some very enthusiastically painted buses, a famous market and a temple shaped like a pyramid wearing a hat. But as someone who’s happiest outdoors, it was easy to fall in love with the country.
Guatemala is a geographic wonder, with hissing fumaroles, jewel-blue lakes, cloud forests hiding crumbling temples, and volcanic crags like dinosaur backs against the sky. All that beauty begs to be explored, not just watched from a window.
So if, like me, you’re more of a hopping frog than a lounge lizard, Guatemala’s got you covered — although there’s plenty of relaxing to be had at the end of a long, fun day.
1. Trek an active volcano
Guatemala was forged by volcanoes, fiery beasts sleeping under the earth. It’s right smack along the path of the Ring of Fire, a pattern of intense volcanic activity that wraps around the earth. There are 37 volcanoes in the country, so I figured it was probably the best place on earth to feel the heat under my hiking boots.
While most of Guatemala’s volcanoes are dormant, three are active — and Pacaya volcano, doable as a half-day trip from nearby Antigua, is an accessible place to start. I hopped on a minibus with a few others from the group and away we went, not sure exactly what to expect.
It was a medium-difficulty two-hour trek. The first hour was a winding half-shaded walk through the trees, before we emerged into a lava field of bare, loose lava rock and made a slippery scramble up the summit. It was a clear day, so we enjoyed stunning views of the three volcanoes cradling the city of Antigua in the distance — Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. Bonus: our hiking guide surprised us with some marshmallows to toast up some tasty volcanic s’mores on a vent in the rocks (although some friendly but very sneaky neighborhood volcano dogs chomped mine right off the stick!).
2. Swim under a hot waterfall
All that volcanic activity means that Guatemala is peppered with hot springs, boiled in the depths of the earth for your soaking pleasure. You may have blissed out in a hot spring before, but have you ever encountered a hot waterfall? When our guide told us in a vaguely mysterious tone that we were going swimming, I was not expecting this particular surprise.
Finca el Paraiso is a unique feature where a steaming hot waterfall cascades into a refreshingly cool forest river. The setting is spectacular, with the dappled jungle canopy overhead and rock formations carve out a natural wall around the swimming hole. We had a blast splashing around the hot waterfall, jumping off the rocks above and hovering between the hot and cold water to find the perfect temperature like it was our own outdoor spa — and at midmorning, our group happened to have the whole place to ourselves. You could even dive under the falls to emerge in a secret cave behind the watery curtain. After visiting every country in Central America, this was a tie with Mexico’s magical cenotes for my favourite swimming spot!
3. Kayak to a pirate fort
Riverside destination Rio Dulce, or the “sweet river”, is a great place to try your paddling skills. The waterway is a hub for international boaters because it’s a safe spot to hole up during the Caribbean hurricane season. But who needs a fancy yacht when an agile little kayak will do?
A friend from the group and I borrowed kayaks from our river lodge and set off around the shoreline to explore, paddling under low-hanging branches and exploring down other smaller channels of the river. We saw pelicans, white egrets, some giant turtles sunning themselves on the logs and even the tail-end of a howler monkey! The sun was hot on our necks and knees, so after having been confidently assured there are no crocodiles in Rio Dulce, we pulled up to a floating island-style dock and had a dip in the river to cool off.
Next, we hopped back into our kayaks and made our way downriver to Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, a real 17th century pirate fort — built by the Spanish to scare off raiding Caribbean pirates. (Spoiler: it didn’t work.) We paddled all around the imposing stone walls and towers with a grudging respect for the pirates, imagining 30-pound cannonballs flying in our direction. Eventually, we found a sandy spot and pulled our kayaks onshore to explore the fort further on foot.
4. Feast on Guatemalan food
All that activity fires up the appetite, and Guatemalan food doesn’t disappoint! As well as being a stunning city, with pastel colonial buildings set against a dramatic volcanic backdrop, Antigua in particular had a lot to offer in terms of tasty local cuisine and became a homey spot to return to in the later afternoons.
If you try one thing, make it pepián, Guatemala’s national dish! It’s a spiced stew with slow-cooked meat, fresh vegetables and potatoes, thickened with pureed nuts and seeds.
A hearty breakfast to get your energy up is desayuno tradicional, a big plateful of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions, mashed beans, avocado, plantains and corn tortillas on the side. Antigua is overflowing with brunch spots, and you can find this dish just about everywhere.
For lunch or dinner, my absolute favourite was pupusas — corn tortilla stuffed with pork, beans, cheese or other fillings and garnished with some fresh salsa and spicy cabbage slaw. Technically this is a Salvadorian dish, but it’s served all over Central America.
And finally, you can’t talk about Guatemalan treats and not mention coffee or chocolate. I’m a big coffee fan, and Antigua produces some of the world’s best; kicking back around the Central Park with a tasty brew and a good book was a nice way to relax. I also wandered by the ChocoMuseo to sample some traditional chocolate — the velvety, strong and seriously buzzy drinking kind, just the way the ancient Mayans liked it!
5. Bonus: Spot a quetzal
Guatemala is home to its very own near-mythical creature: the resplendent quetzal, a very rare (but very real) long-tailed green bird that has become a national symbol. You’ll find him hiding on the Guatemalan flag, and the currency is named after him too! Once sacred to the Aztecs, the quetzal now attracts a new bunch of fans — binocular-wielding birders from around the world who trek hopefully through the jungle to try and find one.
So while you’re out adventuring, keep your eyes open – who knows, you might catch a split-second flash of that elusive green tail.
Feature image by Damien Raggatt.