Antigua is a small city surrounded by volcanoes in southern Guatemala, renowned for its Spanish colonial buildings, many of them restored following a 1773 earthquake that ended Antigua’s 200-year reign as Guatemala’s colonial capital. Notable architectural examples include baroque La Merced church. It is an integral part of the city’s famous Semana Santa, a holy week with parades and rituals. La Antigua was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979 and this beautiful and magical colonial city has almost five hundred years of history, with a privileged climate and an exceptional view of the Fire and Acatenango volcanoes. The city is also rich in handicrafts such as traditional weavings, ceramics, silver and gold products, ceramics, metallic products, typical sweets and gastronomy.
Chichicastenango, also known as Santo Tomás Chichicastenango and nicknamed Chichi by locals is a town in the Guatemalan highlands, 90 miles northwest of Guatemala City. Known for its open-air craft market and indigenous Maya culture, the town is surrounded by valleys with mountains serrating the horizons. It can seem isolated in time and space from the rest of Guatemala and when its narrow-cobbled streets and red-tiled roofs are enveloped in mist, it is simply magical. There are huge craft markets here on Thursdays and Sundays. Chichicastenango has been a main trading centre since before the conquistadors arrived in the Americas. For hundreds of years vendors and buyers throughout the Quiche region met to trade at Chichi.
Copán is a ruined ancient Mayan city, in extreme western Honduras near the Guatemalan border. It lies on the west bank of the Copán River, about 35 miles (56 km) west of the modern town of Santa Rosa de Copán. Discovered in 1570 by Diego García de Palacio, the ruins of Copán, were not excavated until the 19th century. The ruined citadel and imposing public squares reveal the three main stages of development before the city was abandoned in the early 10th century. The site was added to the World Heritage List in 1980. Copán began as a small agricultural settlement about 1000 BC. It became an important Maya city during the Classic Period (c. 250–900 CE), and at its peak early in the 9th century it may have been home to as many as 20,000 people. A dynasty of at least 16 kings ruled Copán from about 426 to 822, by which latter date the city had entered a serious decline. The Maya had completely abandoned the site by about 1200.
Flores is a town in Guatemala’s northern Petén region. It’s on an island on Lake Petén Itzá, linked by a causeway to the town of Santa Elena. Flores is known as a gateway to nearby Mayan ruins. These include the national parks of Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo, with its migratory birds, and Tikal, with its towering temples. It feels like the Caribbean. It’s hot, its humid, the locals are laid-back and, in every direction, you’re surrounded by water. It’s easy to forget that you’re 100 miles from the sea! The island was once one of many Mayan settlements in the areas near the lake. The natural protection afforded by the water helped protect the settlement for a while, but eventually, it succumbed to the Spanish. The settlement was razed, and the Spanish built their own colonial village there. They built a church in the centre of the island on the highest point fronting a small Parque Central, and they paved the streets with cobblestones. The island supports plenty of wildlife and aside from fish and birds, as you would expect, in some areas there are crocodiles, jaguars, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys. To see these, take one of the boats to nearby jungle-covered shorelines, where stops include a zoo and a lookout built into the trees with a panoramic view of the lake.
Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America, and the political, social, cultural, and economic centre of Guatemala. Lying in a valley of the central highlands at an elevation of 4,897 feet (1,493 metres) above sea level, it has a temperate and invigorating mountain climate. The capital is not a place to visit for its beauty or architectural charm. The last few years have seen a concerted effort to boost civic pride, improve transport, add greenery and address pollution. The once decayed heart of the city, the centro histórico, has been revitalized and streets here have been pedestrianized, buildings restored and new cafés and bars have opened. Guatemala City enjoys a moderate climate all year round, so you can visit almost any time and thanks to its high altitude, humidity is never an issue and the nights are mild.
Lake Atitlán is a body of water in a massive volcanic crater in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands. Ringed by steep, verdant hills, it nis known for its Mayan villages and volcanoes with striking pointed cones. The busy town of Panajachel, where vendors sell traditional textiles, is a popular gateway to the lake. On a former coffee plantation, the Atitlán nature reserve offers trails and a butterfly garden. In the Mayan language, "Atitlan" means "the place where the rainbow gets its colors". The lake is ringed by a series of villages, each with its own characteristics - party in San Pedro La Laguna, hang out with the hippies in San Marcos, visit Maximon in Santiago, San Pedro La Laguna is known as the most raucous village around the lake, Hostal Fe is a favourite with those looking for a good time and San Marcos is the most laid-back place at the lake with the Yoga Farm being the perfect place to relax and unwind. The local Mayans say that Lake Atitlan is the “bellybutton of the world,” and there are unique energy fields that run through the area. Whether you feel the vibes or not, there’s no denying the lake is a special place.
Livingston in eastern Guatemala, lies at the mouth of the Río Dulce at the Gulf of Honduras and despite not actually being an island, Livingston remains completely cut off from the rest of Guatemala with the only way in and out being by boat. You only need to spend a short while wandering through the streets of Livingston to appreciate the myriad of cultures that exist in this relatively small town - the melting-pot of Latinos, Mayas, Garifuna, and gringos are a reflection of Guatemala's colourful history. It’s quite unlike anywhere else in Guatemala and its Garifuna people, their colours, culture, rhythms, flavours, and disposition, are the best reason to visit. There are good beaches are nearby and the slow-and-easy take on life is enchanting. Here boats lie derelict in picturesque decay; people paddleboard or kayak lazily amid refreshing ocean breezes; and pelicans soar overhead as happy hour starts in late afternoon.
The vast northern department of Petén occupies about a third of Guatemala but contains just over 3% of its population. Both the birthplace and heartland of the ancient Mayan civilization, the region is peppered with hundreds of sites, and exploring the temples and palaces is an unforgettable experience. The ruins are surrounded by a huge expanse of tropical rainforest, swamps, and savannah, with ancient ceiba and mahogany trees that tower above the forest floor. Petén is also extraordinarily rich in wildlife: some 285 bird species have been sighted at Tikal alone, including hummingbirds, toucans, hawks, and wild turkeys. Among the mammals are lumbering tapir, ocelots, jaguars, and monkeys, plus thousands of species of plants, reptiles, insects, and butterflies. The superb Maya ruins of Tikal are the largest in the region, with over 3,000 structures, shrines, temples, ceremonial platforms, terraces, ball courts and plazas. The site is thought to have been occupied as far back as 300 BC and is set in lush semi-tropical rainforest over an area of 220 square miles. Lake Peten Itza has several pretty towns and villages along its shores and offers many relaxing water-based activities. In addition to the Maya ruins sites of Uaxactun, Yaxha, Ceibal and Aguateca, opportunities for spotting native wildlife in parks, forest reserves and environmental education centres abound.
Puerto Barrios is a city in Guatemala, located within the Gulf of Honduras. The bay in which the harbour is located is called Bahia de Amatique. The town was founded in the 1880s by President Rufino Barrios, but its port facilities soon fell into the hands of the United Fruit Company (UFC), who used their control of the railways to ensure that the bulk of trade passed this way. Puerto Barrios was Guatemala’s main port for most of the twentieth century but in the late twentieth century a decline set in as exporters used modern docks elsewhere. One of the most visited places in the area is a local river called ‘Las Escobas which is in the cerro San Gil, outside the urban area of Puerto Barrios and Santo Tomás de Castilla. The river is famous for its very cold crystalline water and is a beautiful hiking and swimming area in the middle of the jungle.
Quiriguá (along with the city of Copán in Honduras) are located in the south-eastern border of the Maya lowlands. The 34-hectare Archaeological Park covers an important remnant of tropical rainforest, which makes it a last refuge for wild species native to the area. It was declared a National Monument in 1970, and a Park in 1974. It is home to the ancient Mayan city of Quiriguá, which is mainly characterized by its majestic stelae, the largest and best preserved of the Mayan World. Located near the Motagua River in Guatemala, Quiriguá is an archaeological site dating to the Classic Maya period. The monuments include zoomorphic altars of exceptional artistic quality, which is why it was declared in 1981 a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The Dulce River is located in the department of Izabal, between Lake Izabal and Amatique Bay. At 43km long, the Dulce River is the gateway to the Caribbean Sea. The canyon at the mouth of the river on the bay offers scenic beauty and is unique for its vegetation, and for being a refuge for various native and migratory birds. To travel the 16km between the ‘Golfete’ (small gulf) and the ocean, the waters of the river enter through an enormous canyon that separates the mountains where high walls of limestone rock with lush vegetation make the journey an adventure. The Dulce River is located within the ‘Río Dulce National Park,’ an area that has protected this Guatemalan ecosystem since 1955, which contains a great diversity of fauna, along with manatees and crocodiles.
TIKAL NATIONAL PARK
Tikal National Park is located in Northern Guatemala's Petén Province within a large forest region often referred to as the Maya Forest, which extends into neighbouring Mexico and Belize. Embedded within the much larger Maya Biosphere Reserve, exceeding two million hectares and contiguous with additional conservation areas, Tikal National Park is one of the few World Heritage properties inscribed according to both natural and cultural criteria for its extraordinary biodiversity and archaeological importance. It comprises 57,600 hectares of wetlands, savannah, tropical broadleaf and palm forests with thousands of architectural and artistic remains of the Mayan civilization from the Preclassical Period (600 BC) to the decline and eventual collapse of the urban centre around 900 AD. The diverse ecosystems and habitats harbour a wide spectrum of neotropical fauna and flora. Five cats, including Jaguar and Puma, several species of monkeys and anteaters and more than 300 species of birds are among the notable wildlife. The forests comprise more than 200 tree species and over 2000 higher plants have been recorded across the diverse habitats.
Guatemala, birthplace of the Maya, is a land of kaleidoscopic colours. It is one of those rare finds, with a good mix of travel options to satisfy adventurers, culture seekers, beach worshippers, and travellers looking for a little relaxation.
The country is a cultural hot spot in Central America, from the colonial architecture and cobbled streets of Antigua Guatemala to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Small towns in the highlands and on the shores of beautiful Lake Atitlan offer a chance for unique cultural experiences.
Thick lush jungles in the North are home to howler monkeys and rare scarlet macaws. On everyone’s ‘must see’ list is Tikal, the majestic Mayan city buried deep in the jungle.
Antigua lies in the shadow of three volcanoes. Its cobbled streets are lined with pastel-coloured homes, toppled church arches, columned courtyards, flowers and fountains galore.
Visit the caves in the southern Petén region and mountain lakes, cloud forests, coral reefs, and beaches will entice nature lovers. If you venture down to the Caribbean coasts, you'll encounter white sand beaches ideal for relaxing and finding solitude in a hammock. On the black-sand Pacific Coast, turtles and fabulous orange sunsets can be found at Monterrico.
When to Visit
Spring (March to May). Spring is the perfect time of year to visit Guatemala as you won’t be hampered by the rainy season. This is the ideal time to visit Tikal and the ruins of Petén. Famous Mayan site El Mirador is perfect to visit in March and April, when the route is driest. The nesting season of the elusive quetzal starts in March and lasts until June - pay a visit to the Biotopo del Quetzal in Cobán and the Verapaces for the chance to catch a glimpse of one. During this time, you will also see a beautiful explosion of flowers and plants spread out beneath a towering canopy of trees.
Summer (June to August). July and August is peak tourist season. Summer is a fantastic time to experience the Guatemalan outdoors. River tubing is great fun - visit Chisec in Coban and the Verapaces to combine a river trip with a jaunt to the impressive painted cave of Bombil Pek, 3km north of Chisec. In Summer, you will have your pick of fiestas, particularly in the western highlands. Travel to the ruins of Petén in June as the rainy season starts in July. Turtle nesting season starts in July in Monterrico on the Pacific coast and if you’ve got the time, the turtle sanctuary in the tiny nearby village of Hawaii always needs volunteers, particularly between June and November.
Autumn (September to November). The rainy season is heaviest between September and October. Guatemala celebrates its Independence Day on September 15 with a nationwide public holiday and lots of fiestas and November 1 is All Saint’s Day, commonly known as the Day of the Dead. The best Day of the Dead celebrations include the pagan skull-bearing procession in San José, Petén on October 31 and the kite-flying festival in Santiago on November 1, one of the nation’s most spectacular. If you’re on the Caribbean coast in November, try to be in Livingston on November 26 to celebrate Garífuna day and be prepared to witness some of the best dancing you’ll ever see to the hypnotic drum patterns of Garífuna punta.
Winter (December to February). Visiting Guatemala in winter is ideal, as most of the country emerges from the rainy season during this time. While the days will be pleasantly warm, temperatures can drop to freezing at night in some areas. The Christmas season brings lots of fiestas, with the Caribbean town of Livingston holding a big carnival from Christmas Eve through to New Year’s Eve and the festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango. In January the fiestas are in full force –the Rabinal fiesta in Coban and the Verapaces and January also sees the biggest pilgrimage in Central America to Esquipulas in Oriente and Izabel. In February there is the country’s largest pilgrimage to the colonial church in the village of Chiantla in the western highlands. February is also the earliest in the year you should attempt to visit the remote ruins of Petén. For surfers, the waves of the Pacific coast are most consistent from December to April, averaging 2 meters, though conditions are usually tough for beginners.
The Guatemalan currency is the quetzal (Q). Quetzal bills come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200 and coins come in denominations of 1, 5, 10 , 25, and 50 centavos. The US dollar is widely accepted in Guatemala, but it is still recommended to always have quetzals to hand. It can be difficult to break larger bills (like Q100) in smaller towns and at local restaurants—for this reason it is always a good idea to keep some smaller bills in your wallet.
Banks are widespread and most keep long hours and are secured by armed guards. Exchanging money and travellers checks at banks is relatively easy and you will just be asked to show proof of identification.
ATMs are available throughout most of Guatemala. They usually charge a fee for foreign credit and debit cards.
Credit Cards are increasingly being accepted throughout Guatemala but are still mainly only accepted in larger cities or tourist destinations, and at upscale hotels, restaurants, and shops. Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted credit cards.
Visas and Vaccinations
You must have all visas (and vaccination) certificates that are necessary to enter or pass through Guatemala.
Visa requirements are subject to change so please check with a Visa Service Company in the country in which you are located, or you can check details online instantly with companies such as CIBT Visas (https://cibtvisas.co.uk/. Visas can be obtained through the relevant embassy or consulate.
General Note: Some countries refuse admission to travellers not meeting their accepted standards of dress or appearance (even if they hold a visa). Entry may also be refused to certain countries if your passport bears stamps or visas (valid or expired) for Israel.
A useful general health advice website for travellers is http://www.who.int/ith/en/ and there are also advice sites in individual countries.
Please note it is your responsibility to ensure you have the correct, current visa and vaccination information and that you act on it.