Things to Do in Guatemala
This 8,373-foot (2,552-meter) smoking peak is one of Guatemala’s most accessible active volcanoes. Its upper reaches feature lava formations formed by recent flows, as well as vents that puff up steaming hot air, while its summit affords spectacular views of nearby volcanoes including Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego.
Looming above the shores of Lake Atitlan and the village of San Pedro La Laguna, Volcán San Pedro is one of the region’s most accessible for volcano trekking. The views from the top make it well worth the effort of getting there.
Two routes lead to the volcano’s summit 9,908 feet (3,020 meters) above sea level. Both are strenuous, mostly uphill climbs through corn fields and coffee plantations, oak and pine forests. The volcanic soil coating the dormant peak is rich in nutrients, so many Guatemalans grow their crops along the volcanic foothills.
The third-largest archaeological site in Guatemala is not well known, overshadowed by the fame of neighboring Tikal. Archaeologists are only now sorting out the secrets of this city on the northern shore of Laguna Yaxhá, named “Blue-Green Water” for the lake’s unusual color. Founded around 800 BC atop a long, limestone ridge, the city was home to more than 40,000 people at its peak, around 250 AD.
Yaxhá’s sophisticated builders left behind more than 500 structures, including nine temple pyramids, two ball courts, forty unusually carved stelae, and numerous causeways. Climb to the top of Temple 216 for remarkable views over the lakes and rivers. While the city must have become quite isolated during the Mayan civilization’s (and Tikal’s) collapse between 800 and 900 AD, it continued to function well into the 1500s.
Today, Yaxhá is rarely visited, and therefore offers a peaceful and introspective experience of the Mayan world. Birders and wildlife watchers will especially appreciate the solitude, as well as the numerous crocodiles in the lake.
With its glistening blue waters framed by a trio of volcanic peaks and a fringe of lush greenery, Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán) is surely one of Guatemala’s most stunning natural wonders. The deepest lake in Central America lies in an ancient caldera amid the mountainous landscapes of the Guatemalan Highlands.
Considered to be one of the best zoos in Central America, La Aurora Zoo (Zoólogico la Aurora) opened in 1924. This small zoo offers four permanent exhibits: Africa, Asia, Granita and American.
Not only does this zoo give visitors the chance to learn more about Guatemala’s animals, it also has a large collection of Central American creatures. Experience animals including giraffes, elephants, farm animals, lions, tigers, pythons, hippos and more.
The zoo does a good job living up to its mission – to educate, conserve and rehabilitate animals. It even offers lectures and other programs daily.
Guatemala’s Pacaya is one of the most popular volcanoes to visit, but travelers shouldn't skip its neighbor, Acatenango. Towering nearly 13,123 feet (4,000 meters), it is Guatemala’s third-tallest volcano and one of the tallest stratovolcanoes in Central America.
Acatenango’s first eruption was in 1924 —relatively recent in comparison to many other volcanoes—though some evidence of its volcanic activity dates back to prehistoric times. Other eruptions occurred shortly after, but it then remained quiet until an eruption in 1972. Since then, Acatenango has been declared dormant.
Acatenango is part of the Fuego-Acatenango massif, or string of volcanic vents, which includes Yepocapa, Pico Mayor de Acatenango, Meseta and Fuego. Acatenango has two main summits: Yepocapa, the northern summit at 12,565 feet (3,830 meters) and Pico Mayor, the southern and highest cone at 13,054 feet (3,976 meters). These are known as Tres Hermanas, and when joined with Fuego, the complex is collectively known as La Horqueta.
Both Acatenango and its twin, Fuego, offer stunning views overlooking the city of Antigua. Ascending Acatenango takes visitors through four different temperate zones — high farmland, cloud forest, high-alpine forest and volcanic. Acatenango is the perfect spot to watch Fuego’s regular activity, which includes audible moans and groans, plumes of smoke and large lava rocks hurling into the air.
This stoic structure in the heart of Guatemala’s capital city was built in 1939 entirely by local hands and using only local materials. As a result, the National Palace offers up an homage to Guatemalan heritage and is ranks tops among the buildings prized by locals. Its green-tinged exterior is a nod to the favorite color of the former dictator’s wife, and the result of concrete and copper used to cover the exterior to avoid painting. As a result, it’s affectionately known by some locals as 'The Big Guacamole.'
An impressive bronze plate at the entrance to the Palace marks a spot known as 'Kilometer 0.' According to residents, this is the official starting point of all roads in Guatemala. Travelers will find a beautiful courtyard at the center of the five-story building, which is surrounded by five archways on every side. A touching Monument to Peace is located in the center of the palace to commemorate the end to the nation’s most recent civil war. Because the National Palace is also home to a national museum, travelers will find unique and historically significant artifacts like the first switchboard and hand painted murals depicting scenes from the nation’s past. Be sure to check out the stained-glass windows along the presidential balcony and the palace salon, used only for ceremonial events.
Located in the Centro Historico (Zona 1) district of Guatemala City, the Plaza de la Constitución (Parque Central), is considered the best place to kick off a tour of Guatemala City. (You can translate the names as Constitution Square, Constitution Plaza, or Central Park.)
A number of important sites are located around and the Parque Central, as locals refer to it, which follows the standard colonial urban-planning scheme found in the New World. The plaza's concrete “park” is always bustling with activity, especially on public holidays and Sundays. Plaza de la Constitución is also surrounded by important structures like the National Plaza of Culture, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the underground Central Market, the Portal of Commerce and Centenarian Park. The National Library and Periodicals Library and General Archive of Central America are found here too.
Near the Parque Central is the pedestrian-only area of Paseo Sexta Avenida (Sixth Avenue Passage), a beloved shopping and entertainment area that is a great introduction to Guatemalan culture and habits.
The Metropolitan Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Guatemala City, is the main church of Guatemala City. Located in the heart of town, the main portion of it was built between 1782 and 1815. About 50 years later, the towers were finished. The impressive baroque/neo-classical building with a blue dome is earthquake proof – it’s withstood numerous quakes (it was damaged by two earthquakes and repaired).
Inside there is a collection of work which was originally from the Cathedral of Antigua Guatemalan. In addition, the altars are preserved and feature images of saints and other work from the Cathedral of Antigua Guatemala as well.
Be sure to take a moment and pay respect to the tragic recent history of the country at the 12 pillars, located in front of the cathedral. These pillars were resurrected to pay tribute to the murders and disappearance of thousands of people during the civil war from 1960s through 1996.
Built during the 1540s upon the ancient foundation of a Maya temple site, Santo Tomas Church (Iglesia de Santo Tomás) is a Roman Catholic church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. It remains a venerated holy site for people of both Catholic and Maya faiths and blends of the two. The stone stairs leading to the gleaming white Dominican church are reminiscent of those at ancient temple sites, and the steps have turned black from prayer sessions in which shamans waft copal incense and set purification fires. Inside, the church is adorned with offerings, everything from maize to liquor, and numerous candles, which have colors and patterns that correspond with those they've been lit for.
More Things to Do in Guatemala
Tranquil, tiered turquoise pools suspended over limestone are what you can expect to find when visiting Semuc Champey. A natural limestone bridge supports the pools, which change shades of turquoise due to climatic variations throughout the year.
Semuc Champey is one of Guatemala’s best-kept secrets—one that is quickly getting out. Its remote location was often bypassed for more popular and certainly more accessible destinations and sights in the country, but the turquoise pools and surrounding scenery have helped Semuc Champey garner attention from backpackers traveling between the Western Highlands and Tikal.
Despite the increase in visitors, you can still easily find a quiet spot to enjoy the tranquil pools. You can stick close and lounge (or swim) in the shallow waters, or venture off for some further exploration. A slippery path leading upstream a few hundred meters brings travelers to Río Cahabón, the river that feeds the pools. Be careful in this area as the fast-flowing river “gets lost”in the underground caves, an area called “El Sumidero.”
If you’re up for a bigger adventure, head up a pretty steep, slippery trail to the mirador, high above the pools, where you can snag postcard-type photos of the entire area.
Once a powerful seat of the Mayan empire, the Tikal ruins are now the most famous archeological site in Guatemala and one of the most-visited sets of Mayan ruins in all of Latin America. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of temples, plazas, and pyramids, was first settled around 700 BC, and modern visitors still get swept away by their beauty and powerful aura.
Get a different kind of look at Guatemala with the Relief Map (Mapa en Relieve). This larger open-air map of the entire country (and Belize) was inaugurated more than a century ago, on Oct. 29, 1905 and created by Lieutenant Colonel and Engineer Francisco Vela and Engineer Claudio Urrutia.
Not only does the map feature cities, but there are also rivers – some complete with running water – and other natural landmarks which makes Guatemala’s landscape unique.
Located in the Parque Minerva, of interest is a railing with six medallions – the National Shield, Central American Shield, The Quetzal, Ceiba, The Prosperity, and (in every column), the monogram of the Republic of Guatemala and Spain.
The Lanquín Caves (Grutas de Lanquín) are limestone caves near the city of Cobán that were once considered sacred to the Mayan people, believed to be the "heart of heaven." The Mayans believed the "secret of the ages" was hidden deep inside the caves. Today, they are a popular tourist destination, although some locals still utilize the caves in the manner of their ancestors. Travelers, on the other hand, come to explore the caves’ beauty, learn about their historyand come face to face with some of their most notable residents: the thousands of bats that leave the caves nightly.
Take the time to wander the various chambers and limestone formations. Rooms of importance include the Altar of the Pillory, where Mayans performed rites and burned incense, and the Bridge of the Fall of the King, a name given after King Leopold of Belgium visited the caves and a wooden bridge collapsed under his weight. When the bridge was rebuilt, it was named after the incident.
Visitors to Lanquin Caves can also float down the Lanquin River during the day, giving them a chance to explore the interesting rock formations and minerals lining the cave walls.
The Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) is a 30-minute walk that, upon arrival, treats its guests to expansive views of Antigua and the Volcan de Agua. While this walk is not easy, it is worth it. For those who prefer to skip the hike, cabs can whisk people to the top as well.
Located on the north side of the city, it offers the best views of Antigua. And an enormous stone cross.
Jade is a rare and precious stone dating back to the pre-Columbian era in Mesoamerica. Some of the world’s best jade was found in Guatemala. Historically, it was used in culturally significant ways, including in hieroglyph inscriptions and carvings of symbolic figures.
There are two types of jade — Jadeite and Nephrite. Jadeite is more dense and renowned for its rich colors. Nephrite is more of a carving stone, found in many places around the world. Jadeite contains the bright green and apple colors you find in quality jade jewelry. Those colors were prized by both Chinese emperors and Maya kings.
To learn more about jade, visitors to Antigua can visit the Jade Factory and Museum, also called Jade Maya, founded in 1974 by archaeologist Mary Lou Ridinger and her husband, Jay. Fine jadeite is mined here in the same manner of the Olmec, Maya and Aztec people. Guatemalan workers at Jade Maya cut and polish the mined jade following the same traditions of their ancestors.
The jade is transformed into pre-Columbian-style, museum-quality replicas and beautiful handmade fashion jewelry and accessories. There is an online catalog that shows some of the designs Jade Maya has created to date. The small museum has a nice chronological timeline on the history of jade and various displays depicting jade artifacts discovered on excavations. Visitors to Jade Maya will appreciate the knowledge Ridinger shares with visitors as an expert in mining jade. She and her husband discovered the jade mining zone, an area lost for more than 500 years after the start of the Spanish conquest.
This authentic Mayan town is located on the shores of picturesque Lake Atitlan in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. Visitors in search of old world Guatemala will find plenty to explore amid the streets of this quiet village that is a far cry from touristy, and instead offers a true slice of the local daily life.
Known for its handmade pottery and brightly colored traditional dresses, travelers can loop through the steep, uneven streets of San Antonio and visit the iconic church of Saint Anthony of Padua. In addition to its stunning colonial architecture and beautifully white-draped interior, the hilltop offers breathtaking views of the lake and town.
Canary yellow with white trim, the baroque La Merced Church (Iglesia de la Merced) is one of Antigua’s few colonial churches to survive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Inside its thick walls are notable artworks such as a sculpture of Jesus carrying a golden cross, which is paraded through the streets on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
Antigua Central Park (Parque Central) is considered one of the most beautiful parks in Guatemala. It’s the main outdoor area in town and where people go to sit, stroll, or meet up for an afternoon of relaxation and nice weather. From Central Park you have a superb view of the Agua Volcano, which towers over Antigua.
Travelers looking for a relaxing, natural escape will find all they desire in the hidden trails, hot springs and stunning landscapes of Funestes Georginas Hot Springs. Located just outside Xela, this popular destination has been attracting travelers for decades. Although a major hurricane damaged much of the grounds in 2010, a huge rebuilding effort has restored most of the property to its original splendor.
Visitors can slip into one of four pools fed by nearby sulfur hot springs, wander through the tropical forests on one of the well-marked trails, or head to Volcan Zunil or Volcan Santo Tomas using one of the longer, more technical paths. Fuentes Georginas has a restaurant and bar to insure visitors are well fed and travelers can even spend the night at one of the quiet mountain cottages to insure there’s plenty of time to enjoy all Fuentes Georginas has to offer.
The Santa Catalina Arch (Arco de Santa Catalina) is one of the most iconic structures in Antigua. Located on Fifth Avenue North, it was built in the 17th century to connect the Santa Catalina convent to a school. This allowed the cloistered nuns to pass between buildings without ever having to enter the street and come into contact with the general public, thereby violating the strict laws regarding seclusion. On either side of the arch you will find the Convents of Virgin and Mártir Santa Catalina.
The Santa Catalina Arch is one of the most photographed spots in Antigua, and its prime location creates a beautiful frame for the Agua Volcano in the background. Although technically owned by the Guatemalan government, the Santa Catalina Arch is looked after by the Santos family, which also owns the Reino del Jade store and Hotel El Convento.
If you’ve been to Guatemala City, this arch may seem familiar, and for good reason; the Guatemala Post Office Building was patterned after this iconic arch.
With quaint valleys, red-roofed houses, and cobblestone lanes in the highlands of Guatemala, Chichicastenango is perhaps best known for its enormous Thursday and Sunday market. You’ll find handmade pottery, medicinal plants, machetes, traditional clothing, and other items that pay homage to the area’s rich culture.
The Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera Nature Reserve, commonly referred to as Biotopo del Quetzal, is one of Guatemala’s best nature sites. It gets its name from the country’s national bird, the endangered Quetzal, which has found a home within the sanctuary.
Quetzals are rather elusive within Biotopo del Quetzal, but they are sometimes spotted near local restaurants, as they prefer to feast on avocado-like fruits from neighboring aguacatillo trees. Some say December and January are the prime months to spot them; keep your eyes open for birds with bright-red chests; green, fuzzy feathers on their heads; and exotic, long tail feathers.
If you don’t manage to spot one, there is still plenty to see at Biotopo del Quetzal. Despite the fact that only a small portion of the vast reserve is open to visitors, there are a number of different mosses, ferns, orchids and epiphytes to see, as well as other birds, including the emerald toucanet and highland guan. Howler monkeys and other wildlife also make their homes in the reserve.
Two trails begin at Biotopo del Quetzal’s visitor center, branching off into the vegetation. The first trail, Los Helechos, is shorter at 1.24 miles (2 km), while Los Musgos (The Mosses) is twice that length. Whether you opt for the shorter or the longer trail, you will pass by scenic waterfalls where you can stop and enjoy a quick swim.
Worth the effort for adventurous travelers and history buffs, El Mirador is a truly ancient urban center that flourished almost a thousand years before Tikal had constructed its first pyramid. With an estimated population of close to 100,000 in 600 BCE, it was one of the first megacities in the Americas.
Archaeologists who began excavating El Mirador (“The Viewpoint”) thirty years ago have basically rewritten early Mayan history based on their findings. The Mayans were organized and technologically advanced centuries before previously thought, their accomplishments preserved here in a city they now believe was the capital of the region’s first true political city-state.
The site is centered on three huge temple pyramid sites, “El Tigre,” “Los Monos,” and “La Danta,” the last of which is one of the largest pyramids in the world. Set atop natural summits, they offer outstanding views to other ruined cities rising above the rainforest, only a few of which have been studied by experts.
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