In the heart of Central America, lies a small corner of heaven named Guatemala. With a population of almost 17 million people and a history of civil unrest, the country can only be described as a human jungle where tradition is met with modern development, creating a powerful land of possibility which dates back to the Mayan empire.
Described as one of the ‘lungs of the Americas’ together with Belize and Mexico, the name originally derives from a Mayan language and rightfully means ‘Land of Many Trees’. Indeed, the country is well worth being the setting of any spiritual film attempting to draw on people’s attachment with nature, with long patches of rainforests making you feel small and meaningful at the same time.
In order to visit the country fully, I have compiled a list of must-see spots for you all to check out. I would like to point out that this list is in no way limited and it’s simply meant to suggest some sightseeing spots across the country, also taking into consideration the fact that I had a relatively short timeframe to travel around. If you have more suggestions, feel free to add them in the comments below and I’ll make sure to include them in the blog post!
Without further ado, let’s get started:
The deepest lake in Central America, Lago de Atitlán is located in the Guatemaltecan Highlands of the Sierra Madre and, more specifically, within the department of Sololá – a tiny gem in the country’s mountain peaks. After being instituted as a National Park in 1955, the lake has since been attracting heaps of tourists each year from across the globe. Constellated by 12 towns reachable by boat or through mountain roads, it serves as a haven in the heart of the Guatemaltecan nature and won’t fail to take your breath away once you see it. Read more about it here.
Chichicastenango is short for Santo Tomás Chichicastenango and, with such a zealous denomination, the town’s popularity doesn’t come as a surprise. Originally named Chaviar, Chichicastenango was re-baptised by the Spanish conquistadores, adopting the Nahuatl wording for ‘City of Nettles’ which is used at the present time.
Standing at an altitude of 1965m, the town is located in El Quiché department of Guatemala and stands as a highly vibrant cultural centre for the indigenous population of the K’iche Maya. This is interesting because whilst K’iche means ‘many trees’, the Nahuatl translation – Cuauhtēmallān – is actually the origin of the name Guatemala itself.
The major attraction in Chichicastenango is the massive market, which takes place across the whole town centre every Thursday and Sunday. Here, anything from food, to utensils, to quality fabrics can be found, bringing life to the small town with its cheerful displays. Additionally, the town also sports one of the most colourful cemeteries of the country, sitting on top of a hill overlooking Chichicastenango and beautifully described by Atlas Obscura as a ‘color-coded clue to the puzzle of the dead’. Although a seemingly grim travel destination, this is a great sport to observe the Guatemaltecan culture, where one can often find families performing traditional rituals to honour the dead.
Commonly referred to simply as ‘La Antigua’, Antigua Guatemala used to be the Kingdom of Guatemala’s capital under the Spanish Empire, and is currently a recognised UNESCO World Heritage site. Famous for its Spanish-baroque architecture, the city is often preferred by locals and tourists alike for its authentic feel when compared to the current capital – Guatemala City.
Founded in 1543, Antigua’s cobblestone streets are a popular destination amongst both locals and international travellers. The most famous architectural wonder – El Arco de Santa Catalina – is indeed accompanied by several religious spots such as the Cathedral, which overlooks the city’s main square, the Iglesia de San Francisco and most importantly Iglesias de la Merced, where a Jesus entirely made of SWEETCORN can be observed. Walking up the church’s steps will also lead you to an adjacent terrace where Antigua can be observed from above.
The city’s colourful markets and street food displays will once make sure you get everything you need out of your trip, throwing you into a sea of locals to truly experience the Guatemaltecan lifestyle.
Once the home of the pre-Columbian Maya civilisation, Guatemala unsurprisingly boasts one of the biggest cities dating back to the its ancient times. Formerly known as Yax Mutal, Tikal is located in the Peten department of the country and surrounded by the country’s natural rainforest, presenting numerous paths which lead from one stone construction to the other.
Like Antigua, Tikal has also been denominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, attracting millions of tourists each year. What the average visiter might not know though, is that the site was completely obscured to the outside world until mid-nineteenth century, when gum-sapper Ambrosio Tut’s report on the city was first published on a Guatemalan newspaper and subsequently brought to the international spotlight by the Berlin Academy of Sciences’ Magazine in 1853.
Now go onto your quest to find the stone face I shot in the photo above and good luck.
Guatemala has an extremely high volcanic activity. With the most recent eruption dating as recently as June 2018, when the country’s population was hit by several eruptions caused by the Volcan de Fuego – one of the most active volcanos in the whole world – a visit to Pacaya is definitely a must when travelling through Guatemala.
Rising at an altitude of 2552m, Volcan de Pacaya is currently active and has been displaying frequent eruptions since 1961, after being dormant for roughly 70 years. Located in the Esquintla department of Guatemala – just 30km south-west of its capital – the volcano has experienced a gradual increase in tourism in recent years, making it a popular destination to explore the country’s volcanic scenery. The reason for this dates back to 2006, when a slight increase in the volcano’s activity led to the creation of several lava rivers slowly travelling down Pacaya’s walls. Indeed, the spectacle offers a quiet and relatively safe view of the volcano, making it an ideal spot to admire Guatemala’s nature whilst warming up next to a lava hole (which you can also cook marshmallows in – FYI).
Quetzal does not just refer to the Guatemaltecan currency – in fact, the name derives from the homonymous bird Quetzal, a beautiful two legged creature sporting majestic green, red and blue hues. Inhabiting the Central American rainforests, the resplendent Quetzal is a rare sight that only a few selected ones have the luck to see during their lifetime.
To increase your chances, a stop at the Biotopo del Quetzal is highly advised. Located in the province of Cobán, this natural reserve is indeed a great spot to look out for the creature whilst admiring the region’s dense rainforest, so that even in case of failure, the incredible views from El Mirador’s terrace will make the disappointment feel a bit sweeter.
Who needs a subscription to the aquatic park when you have breathtaking nature at your disposal? Nestled in the Alta Verapaz, Semuc Champey is a natural forming limestone bridge which runs for 300m over the the Carabón River, creating a series of turquoise-colored pools that people can swim and relax in. Although getting there is a bit tricky (a pretty shaky jeep ride awaits you for several km’s), the trouble is well worth the wait as locals and tourists alike are able to take a dip into the water whilst being surrounded by lush rainforest.
A hike up the hill will reward you with an incredible view of the scenery from El Mirador terrace, whilst a walk further into nature will lead you to the Lanquin caves, an underground network where stalagmites, bats and hidden waterfalls await those who dare to walk in.
Once part of the Mayan Great Western Trade Route, the Candelaria Caves were instituted as a National Park in 1999 and are currently managed by an associtation of Q’ueqchi, after a long battle with the government over this control. The caves span over a length of 22km – making them one of the largest cave sites in Central America – and follow the underground path of the Rio Candelaria for over 12km, which connects seven different caves.
Believed by the K’iche to be an entrace to the underworld known as Xibalba, these caves were often the site of Mayan rituals and ceremonies, which still take place to this day. Pottery artefacts and rupestral painting are evidence of this, as the walk through the caves takes any visitor onto a mystic experience of still and vibrant life.
These are all my suggestions so far. I will spend the next week writing in-depth blog posts on most of these (and posting more photos), so that you can get more information without this one becoming way too long for anyone’s interest. Also, I’d like to point out that these are simply bullet points and that Guatemala has a lot more to offer! Lake Atitlan in itself is surrounded by beautiful travel spots, as is Antigua.
Nevertheless, I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post and that it gave you a rough idea on what’s good to see in the breathtaking Guatemala.
I hope you’re all having a great week!