Guatemala is a spellbinding concoction: lava-carved landscapes, hazy cloud forests, crayon-bright chicken buses and the haunting ruins of one of the world’s truly great civilizations.
Limited vacation time? That’s okay, a week is a great taster—take a deep-dive into this country for seven days and it’ll be hard to say goodbye.
This itinerary is loosely based on the Guatemala segment of Central America Explorer, an epic 47-day trip I took across the continent with Intrepid. Grab your sunscreen, bug spray, sense of adventure and extra stomach compartment—vámonos!
Day 1: Tikal
Start your adventure in Tikal, the mighty jungle-choked kingdom in northern Guatemala whose ruined temples tower through the forest canopy. It’s a truly remarkable site, so grab a map and get ready to plunge back in time.
Tikal is a massive complex that was one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. It was home to up to 200,000 people at its peak from 200 to 900 AD—and then by 950 AD, it was mysteriously abandoned. Deforestation? Drought? No-one really knows why, but it was lost to the jungle until Europeans “rediscovered” it in 1848.
You can wander for hours around Tikal’s jungle paths, stumbling across the ruins of palaces, monuments, houses and temples. Keep an eye out for ceiba trees, sacred to the Maya—their giant buttress roots help stabilize the trunk, allowing them to grow up to 70 metres high.
The tallest ruin is Temple IV, the Temple of the Two-Headed Snake—climb the steps for a dazzling view from the top of the 230-foot pyramid. Snag a seat on the highest tier and settle onto the Mayan “bleachers”. The peaks of lower temples emerge like rocky islands in the sea of rainforest; in the wind the leaves hiss and sway like waves.
Day 2: Rio Dulce
After yesterday’s trek, you’ve earned some chill time on the “sweet river”. Riverside town Rio Dulce is a hub for yacht-lovers, as it’s known as the safest place on the western Caribbean for boats to hunker down during the hurricane season.
After a nice sleep in, borrow a kayak from a river lodge and paddle downriver to UNESCO-listed Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, an imposing Spanish colonial fort built to guard the entrance to Lake Izabal from Caribbean pirates invading from the sea. It only deterred them temporarily, though, and they destroyed, burned and looted the fort a good few times. Approaching from the water, we had the attackers’ view of its stone towers and walls; we pulled up our kayaks onshore and explored the fort from the landlubbers’ side.
If you feel like something less strenuous, hop on an hour-long boat ride downriver to Livingston. You’ll cruise past spectacular limestone cliffs before emerging from the river mouth to the Caribbean. In Livingstone, a chilled-out coastal town accessible only by boat, you’ll meet the local Garifuna people, whose unique culture is distinctly different from the rest of Guatemala. Tasty seafood abounds here—try the Tapado, a fragrant seafood stew with coconut milk, spices, prawns, fish and crab.
Back in Rio Dulce, jump in for a dip and then settle in at riverside restaurant Tortugal. As the sun falls like fire on the water, sip a cold Gallo beer and enjoy the slap of the waves against the dock.
Day 3: Antigua
Next up is Antigua, the pretty colonial capital cradled in the looming shadow of three volcanoes. After a stomach-stretching lunch of pupusas—a Central American specialty of corn tortilla stuffed with savory fillings and accompanied by spicy cabbage slaw—our leader led us on a walk around the city to get our bearings, and then there’s plenty of time to explore. In 1773, a major earthquake destroyed Antigua, but many of the buildings have been restored to their original glory.
To get a sense of the city, take a short 20-minute hike up 333 steps to Cerro de la Cruz lookout for an amazing view southward over town towards Agua Volcano. The towering cross up here is devoted to St. James, Antigua’s patron saint.
If you fancy a pick-me-up after your walk, you’re in luck. Antigua produces some of the world’s best highland coffee, and there are countless cafes to get your fix. Grab a brew and sit around lovely Central Park and its fountain for some people-watching.
For a spot of afternoon shopping, Antigua is home to many markets. The Mercado de Artesanías is a popular spot for visitors to pick up a souvenir or two, but you can also check out the less crowded Mercado del Carmen (next to the ruined Iglesia del Carmen church) or the Centro de Arte Popular for works by indigenous Guatemalan artists.
Day 4: Pacaya Volcano
Today is an early morning, because we’re hiking a volcano! Guatemala is home to 37 of them, and Pacaya is one of the most accessible—so it’s a great optional activity to tick this must-do off your bucket list. Bring sturdy shoes, water and some snacks and dress in layers, as temperatures can vary at elevation. And don’t forget the marshmallows (they’re pink and blue here!)
Pacaya is an active volcano, with steaming fumaroles and hotspots peppering the mountainside. It’s 8,373 feet tall with an elevation gain of about 1,500 feet, making for a two-hour trek to the top. The steepness and altitude put it at a medium difficulty level, but I recommend buying a walking stick at the beginning of the hike. There are also lots of benches along the way to take a breather.
For the first hour you’ll be winding your way through trees, but eventually you’ll emerge onto bare slopes of loose black and rust-coloured lava rock—watch your footing here. Finally, you’ll reach a part of the slope where the rock is warm to the touch and toasty air hisses out of the crevices—you’ve found a hot spot. This is the marshmallow moment you’ve been waiting for. Volcanic s’mores!
Back in Antigua, have a rest and freshen up before visiting Café Condesa for a massive wedge of pie, decadent layer cake or cheesecake towering with fruit. Sip a coffee in the secret courtyard and take a well-deserved break.
Day 5: Antigua
Back in Antigua, it’s another full day to explore. Seek out some desayuno tradicional for breakfast, a hefty plateful of scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions, refried beans, avocado, stewed plantain and corn tortillas on the side.
Save room for dessert! Guatemala is the birthplace of chocolate, and the cacao bean played a big part in its cultural history. Make sure to visit ChocoMuseo, a chocolate lover’s paradise, to learn the art and history of old-world chocolate-making and try some seriously top-notch stuff. The Maya traditionally served chocolate as a drink, which is rich, velvety, strong and a tad bitter—prepare for a wallop.
Wander over to Antigua’s bus station to catch a glimpse of the startlingly bright chicken buses, a ubiquitous form of public transportation and unofficial Guatemalan symbol. These are retired yellow American school buses renovated with painted portraits, bright colours, slogans, wrestling posters, Christmas lights and more.
They’re dubbed “chicken buses” because passengers often used to transport live animals on board, which made for some very noisy, furry and feathery hand luggage. It’s not common to share the cabin with chickens anymore, but the name stuck.
To celebrate your last night in Antigua, there must be dancing! If you’re into salsa or want to practice some fancy footwork, this city’s the place to be. Many local bars offer dancing lessons, so you can have a fun night out and learn some moves (or just gawp at the amazing talent on the dance floor).
Day 6: Chichicastenango/ San Jorge La Laguna
Next stop is Chichicastenango, home to one of Central America’s largest and most famous open-air markets. The town’s narrow lanes explode into a kaleidoscope of colour on Thursday and Sundays: everything from ceramics, fruit and vegetables, spices, textiles, local crafts and leather goods to powdered chalk and farming supplies. If you’re after souvenirs, though, keep in mind that prices will be lower at Panajachel in a couple of days’ time.
When you’re satisfied from all the shopping (or window-shopping), find the covered Centro Comercial Santo Tomas on the north end, where locals buy their day-to-day supplies. Climb the stairs to the upper balcony for a great photo angle over the rows of stalls below.
Wander over to Iglesia de Santo Tomas, a unique white-walled church from the 1500s fronted by a weatherworn flight of stairs reminiscent of a Mayan pyramid. Flower-sellers congregate on the steps, local prayer leaders swing censers of incense and clouds of ceremonial resin-scented smoke billow over the plaza. Enter through the side door to see offerings of corn, flowers and candles laid out inside.
Continue on to San Jorge La Laguna on the shore of Lake Atitlan. On my Intrepid trip, we spent the night in a local family homestay. We helped make a massive batch of corn tortillas (mom got a kick out of our misshapen results), played with the family’s mischievous five-year-old boy and tried on a traditional huipil (blouse), faja (belt) and corte (skirt).
Day 7: Lake Atitlan
Cobalt-blue Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan highlands lies in a massive crater, ringed by dramatic volcanic cones. Its shores are dotted with wildflowers and more than a dozen villages, each with their own distinct vibe.
After breakfast (more tasty tortillas), we said goodbye to our host family and headed to Panajachel, a great base for visitors with cheap shopping (check out the main street, Calle Santander) and convenient cross-lake connections. From here, we hopped on a lancha to visit several lakeside villages.
First up was Santa Catarina Palopo, where we visited an Indigenous women’s weaving centre and marveled at the colours and craftsmanship. For lunch, we crossed to tiny San Marcos, famous for its stunning views and hippie vibe. Lake Atitlan has a mystical pull, and this attracts a thriving community of spiritual seekers.
Next was Santiago, the largest town on Atitlan, known for its colourful markets and its church—every year, local women make brand-new clothes for the wooden saint statues inside. Santiago is also home to a womanizing Mayan folk saint named Maximón, whose effigy moves annually to a new local house and is assigned two guardians who must stay with him at all times. You can visit Maximón and bring him an offering like alcohol or cigarettes—he’ll even drink it!
Back in Panajachel, have a last toast to Maximón and prepare to head back to Antigua, brimming with adventures—or, if you’re on a longer Intrepid journey, onward to Honduras!
Ready to experience incredible Guatemala for yourself? Check out Intrepid’s small group adventures there.
(Kayaking photo courtesy of Vanessa Stoffer. All other images courtesy of Intrepid Travel.)