Guatemala Tours and Travel Guide
Guatemala Attractions & Landmarks Guide
This smallish Central American country, about the size of Kentucky, still packs a lot punch: you’ll find Mayan ruins, volcanoes, beautiful lakes and beaches, rainforests, colorful markets, colonial cities, and intriguing cultures. While in many ways a highly desirable tourist destination, various safety concerns mean that Guatemala is best explored by guided tour.
Bordering southern Mexico and Central American neighbors Belize, El Salvador and Honduras, as well as the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, Guatemala rivals any nearby country for sheer dramatic beauty, historic sites, and intriguing culture.
But like much of Central America it has a long history of political unrest and corruption, and lacks the infrastructure that helps attract visitors to tourist favorites like Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize. Crime, sometimes violent, is also a concern.
That said, a guided tour to Guatemala can be a perfectly safe and extremely rewarding experience. The country contains outstanding Mayan ruins, splendid colonial cities, colorful markets and pageants, and numerous opportunities for eco-tourism adventures.
Sprawling in the jungles near the Belize border, Tikal (“Place of Voices”) is one of the most extensive and best preserved Mayan ruins in existence. Dating as far back as the 6th century BC, it especially thrived in the first millennium AD, when a quarter million people or more made it their home.
Today you can still view Tikal’s impressive temples, soaring pyramids, and grand plazas. Some 3,000 structures lie amidst the rainforest and wildlife in Tikal National Park.
Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala until a huge 1773 earthquake left much of it in ruins, is now a well preserved Spanish-style colonial town known for its wealth of churches and convents, many of them reconstructed. It enjoys a beautiful mountain-ringed setting as well. Wandering through the old city with its cobblestoned streets, you may come upon a parade or fiesta; during spring Holy Week, the festivities are spectacular.
Surrounded by volcanoes and itself located in a volcanic crater in Guatemala’s highlands, Lake Atitlan won plaudits as the most beautiful lake in the world. A number of villages line its shores, and you can take boats across the lake to visit them and their craft shops. Boats leave from the city of Panajachel.
Markets, Beaches, Eco- and Other Adventures
While you can find shops and stalls throughout the country selling traditional crafts and textiles, the most colorful – and hectic – market is located at Chichicastenango (often shortened to “Chichi”). Vendors flock here from around the region to sell vegetables, fruit, textiles and crafts, mainly to locals. Chichi is off the beaten path so it’s best to limit your visit to market days: Thursdays and Sundays.
Guatemala is blessed with a number of good beaches, but some of the prettiest are found around the Caribbean coastal town of Monterrico, where the hot, humid air draws visitors to the shore – but beware of the big surf here. Monterrico is also known for its nature reserve that protects sea turtles, birds, and mangrove forests. You can take boat tours through the mangroves to view birds and other wildlife.
If hiking is something that appeals to you, there are many great hiking and walking tour options in Guatemala.You’ll want to take a guided hike up Pacaya Volcano near Antigua, with an elevation of more than 8,000 feet. The volcano has been active for the past 40 years and lava flow is always a potential hazard.
Another less volatile volcano, Tajumulco, is Central America’s highest mountain and is open to climbing. Tajumulco is near Quetzaltenango (“Xela”), the country’s second largest city (after the capital, Guatemala City), Xela has a number of Neoclassical buildings dating from the 1800s and the attractive Parque Centro America.
With time, other activities beckon as well. Guatemala City boasts a number of excellent museums and vibrant nightlife. The coastal town of Livingston, reached only by boat, has an interesting culture, a hybrid of Mayans and the descendants of escaped slaves known as Garifuna. And the town of Coban can be used as a base to search for the rare, resplendent Quetzal.
Birding and Fishing Tours in Guatemala
Guatemala is one of the best birding spots on the planet, and as result there are plenty of options if you’re interested in going on a birding tour of the country. In the jungles of the country, you have the chance to see the infamous Quetzal, keel-billed toucans, and over 20 species of hummingbird. The wide swathes of coastline also mean that there are dozens of species of seabirds to see, as well.
Fishing is another a popular wildlife-based activity. With access to the Pacific and the Caribbean, there will be plenty of opportunities to charter a boat for a day on your tour, especially if you’re targeting pelagic fish. Marlin, yellowfin tuna, and dorado are all within easy reach.
Food in Guatemala
With a combined Spanish and Mexican influence on their national food, Guatemalan food is flavorful and usually not too spicy. Most dishes somehow incorporate beans, corn, tortillas, and rice. If you like stews in particular, you will love Guatemalan food.
Guatemala is famed for their delicious street food, and so you should take the opportunity to try it. This will guarantee you and authentic food experience. However, there are still some delicious restaurants for those who want to treat themselves on their vacations. There are some truly incredible steakhouses and seafood restaurants in Guatemala City, and along the coasts.
Other popular Guatemalan attractions are food related. For example, in Guatemala you can experience the unique opportunity to go to a coffee finca of macadamia nut farm. A small group tour in Guatemala might even take you to several coffee farms -- Guatemala is known for its renowned and flavorful coffees, which are considered by some to be the best in the world -- in order to get a taste for the different kinds of coffee produced by the country.
National Parks in Guatemala
Guatemala is full of natural beauty, featuring some distinct and exciting national parks to help protect these areas. The parks are often relatively small, but they serve a great purpose and provide a wealth of information for travelers eager to explore Guatemala’s incredible nature and wildlife.
1. Sipacate-Naranjo - Situated along the Pacific coastline, this national park was specifically created in effort to help protect the sea turtle population. Sea turtles use the beaches for nesting, and on of the great joys of a visit to Guatemala is witnessing the turtles in their natural habitat.
2. Biotopo del Quetzal - Spotting Guatemala’s famous national bird, the elusive and rare Quetzal, is not easy, but it might be slightly less difficult in the national park that bears its name. The surrounding cloud forest provides the perfect conditions for Quetzal spotting, and an early morning or early evening hike with an experienced guide will increase your chances.
Even if you don’t end up seeing a Quetzal the park is quite beautiful and you will certainly spot many other colorful plant and animal species.
3. El Mirador - Near the Mexican border, this Guatemalan national park contains several Mayan ruins. It’s a great place to visit for those who have already seen the famous ruins at Tikal and are looking for more Mayan history off the beaten track.
4. Naciones Unidas - Guatemala’s first national park, this area was officially designated in 1955. It’s not particularly wild, but does feature some lovely hiking trails, lakes, and vistas overlooking Guatemala City.
5. Pacaya - Fans of areas with volcanic activity will love visiting this park, which is home to an active volcano. The first eruption was 23,000 years ago, and the most recent eruption was in 2015. You can climb the volcano, or take a journey on horseback, to the summit for excellent views.
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