Alright, I’ll be honest. I haven’t been to every Central American country. And while I’m certainly open to being proven wrong (preferably through much more travel in this incredible region), I’m going out on a limb here to explain exactly why Guatemala has stolen my heart.
From the people and their kind nature, to the vast diversity in experiences and burgeoning colour palette that decorates their cities, I was enamoured from the moment our tour bus rolled across the border. If Guatemala is on your ‘must-see’ list, here are a few things you’ll undoubtedly fall in love with too.
1. The culture
While I’m a long way from fully understanding the complex culture of the Guatemalan people, the pockets of personality I saw on my journey through there are embedded in my memory in the best kind of way. The Maya culture is prominent and perpetual – not just in the rural highlands – representing a civilisation that spans centuries. But there’s no denying the colonial characteristics left behind by the Spanish, from the architecture, churches and language, which competes with the 20+ traditional Mayan dialects still in existence.
One of the most beautiful culminations of these two cultural influences can be found in the old capital, Antigua. A city of cobblestone, crumbling buildings, expansive plazas and kaleidoscopic buildings, it’s up there with some of the most picturesque places I’ve been to. And I haven’t even gushed about the local market offerings, or the bizarre sight of brightly coloured buses stuffed with people, possessions, and chickens at the bus station next to the markets.
Alongside the old-worldly vibe of Antigua, there’s plenty of modern influences that make it such a unique destination. When I was visiting, I learnt to salsa dance, before being taken to a local bar with my instructor and given the chance to show off my new moves; I sampled delightful treats at the ChocoMuseo near the central park, enjoyed rich Guatemalan coffee on a tour of a coffee plantation, and dined at my tour guide’s family restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall place with a single table to share traditional food, like pepian and tamales.
2. The tradition
Guatemala has no shortage of traditions woven into daily life, and while you’ll find it all over the country, one of the best places I came across it was in the highlands in the southwestern region; I’m talking Lake Atitlan, San Jorge La Laguna, and the Chichicastenango markets. On my tour through Central America, the highlight of Guatemala was easily the few days we spent visiting lesser-known Maya villages peppered around the edge of Lake Atitlan, getting lost in one of the most colourful and energetic markets I’ve ever visited, and spending the night conversing with hand signals and making tortillas with a humbling Maya family in San Jorge.
Lake Atitlan is, in its own right, an absolute knockout of a natural wonder (but more on that later) and has cultivated its own unique lifestyle steeped in Maya tradition. The local women of the lakeside villages still kneel in the cobblestone streets, weaving elaborate garments on back-strap looms, while farmers turn up their tiny farms on the mountain’s slope, and fisherman navigate the lake in their simple fishing boats.
Meanwhile, higher up the hills of northwest Guatemala, about 1.5 hours from Lake Atitlan’s Panajachel, the indigenous Maya people come together to create a labyrinth of market stalls at Chichi, bursting with vibrant colours, handcrafted ceramics and woodwork, fresh fruit and vegetables, and delicate artworks. There’s an otherworldly charm to the open-air markets, with its paved paths, red-tiled roofs, and ancient churches for the locals to honour their pre-Christian beliefs, such as the church of Santo Tomás and Calvary Church.
The homestay incorporated on most tours through Guatemala gave me a true insight into the humble lives of these indigenous Maya people. For me, kicking a soccer ball around a town square with the locals, pressing and cooking tortillas (the old-fashioned way) and admiring their carefully embroidered clothing they showed us after dinner, was something I’ll remember forever.
3. The natural wonders
Guatemala’s abundance of natural beauty can sometimes be shrouded by all the other stunning spots in Central America, but for a little country, it packs a punch. About 2.5 hours from the border with Belize lies the incredible Tikal National Park, housing five towering granite temples, and plenty of smaller ones, enveloped by a thick jungle. Dating back to the first century AD, this iconic Maya city spans almost 600 square kilometres, with the tallest structure standing at 70 metres. Climb one of these giants all the way to the top (sweating a-plenty, if you’re anything like me) and you’ll be able to see the tallest of these structures peeking out above the canopies, while other areas in the citadel have been cleared to showcase the myriad of detail in every stone, step and carving.
If that’s not enough outdoor adventure, Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan is another must-see if you want to coast along a shimmering lake residing in a volcano crater, with views of said volcano towering above. The 130-square kilometre lake in the highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range is circled by steep hills, and a hike in any direction will bring you through farmlands of beans, squash, and corn, expansive canopies of forests, and – if you’re in the lakeside village of San Pedro – to the top of the volcano itself.
If relaxing in nature is more your style, Rio Dulce and the lush river flowing from Lake Izabal is the place to be. When I was travelling through here, the hotel I stayed in – Tortugal River Lodge – was right on the river. I’m not kidding; it was built over the river, and we had to get a boat to reception. We had fly screens in place of some of the walls, with the sound of the river and buzzing of wildlife the only things I could hear. Just a short boat ride down the river, you’ll find the chilled out town of Livingston on the Caribbean coast, with options to go boating on the lake, tour the protected homes of manatees, or check out Rio Dulce’s nearby natural hot springs – another adventure I’d highly recommend to any nature lovers.
Guatemala’s top spot in my Central American experience might be controversial to some travellers, but in my case, it’s an easy decision. The quaint country is brimming with unbelievable views, iconic treasures and welcoming communities, and while it was a short and sweet visit, I’m still itching to get back and dive even deeper.
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