Guatemala — Attractions
Most people go to Guatemala with the intention to visit some of the 1,500 Mayan ruins, although the stunning landscapes offer much inspiration in their own right. Tikal is one of the largest and most important pre-Columbian cities in Latin America, and is easily accessible from the nearby city of Flores. An island town with pastel houses, terracotta roofs and cobblestone streets, Flores is a delightful place to visit in itself. For a burst of charming colonial-era architecture, the city of Antigua Guatemala is worth a trip. Breathtaking scenery and more Mayan heritage await you around Lake Atitlan, the site of one of the four active volcanoes in Guatemala, two more of which are attractions in Guatemala City.
Tikal National Park
Home to the Mayan ruins of the ancient city of Tikal, remnants of the civilization that flourished in Central America around 200 AD and then fell at the arrival of the Spanish invaders can be seen here. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979 for its historic and cultural significance, the area is also set within a beautiful rainforest where spider and howler monkeys roam. The Tikal complex is comprised of many pyramid-shaped structures with giant steps leading to the top, as well as other archeological relics. Many of the buildings are yet to be discovered due to the site’s remote Guatemalan location deep within the jungle.
Address: Tikal National Park, Peten Region
Guatemala’s crater lake was formed as a result of volcanic activity in the area around 1.8 million years ago. Now the deepest lake in Central America, it reaches a maximum depth of 1,115 ft. Not only will you be awarded with inspiring natural beauty, but the area is home to interesting Mayan villages which provide insight into the culture. Treks around the area are easily accessible and along the way you’ll see many plant and animal species that are endemic to the high-altitude region. If you’re feeling adventurous, climb one of the three surrounding active volcanoes for a better view. It is also possible to go out on the water in a blissful kayak or boating excursion.
Address: Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Atitlan Region
Pacaya National Park
Containing one of the two active volcanoes visible from the capital, Pacaya National Park is an ideal daytrip from Guatemala City. Residing 19 miles southwest, it is considered dangerous to attempt the trail without a guide, but many tour operators can bring you here from the capital or Antigua Guatemala, another city close-by. It is estimated to have first erupted some 23,000 years ago, and stands 8,373 ft tall. Pacaya is said to be one of the most active volcanoes in Central America over the last 500 years, as it is continuously spewing a low-level lava flow (“Strombolian” eruptions).
Address: Pacaya National Park, Escuintla Region
Located 30 miles away from the capital, Antigua Guatemala (referred to by the locals as simply “Antigua”) is a city which was the main seat of Spanish rule during the colonial era. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979 due to its well-preserved architecture in the Mudejar style, with the city containing a collection of admirable Baroque buildings, as well. Highlights include the Plaza Central, the Merced Church with its intricate façade and the Recoleccion architectural complex containing church and monastery ruins. The city is also surrounded by volcanoes and offers stunning scenery.
Address: Antigua Guatemal, Sacatepequez Region
Although most people just use the city as a starting off point to visit key Mayan sites nearby like Tikal, the town itself is a wonderful destination to spend a few days. It is a famed island town located on Lake Peten Itza, with much of its charming architecture preserved. It’s a great place to slow down and take in a relaxing pace of life by absorbing the atmosphere. Renting a covered motorboat is a popular pastime, as is going to the local zoo.
Address: Flores, Peten Region
Rio Dulce, which translates to “Sweet River,” is a city on the Guatemalan section of the Caribbean coast. It is a popular moorage spot for people sailing around the islands and from here it is possible to rent a boat to venture out on your own. Or embark a boat tour, which will take you to the top spots, including Castillo de San Felipe, a historic fort built for protection against pirates, and the hot springs waterfall, where you will be invited to take a swim. An excursion into the surrounding national park is a good way to take in the area’s ecological diversity and a three-day trek can be arranged from Rio Dulce.
Address: Rio Dulce, Izabel
With black volcanic sands, Monterrico is the closest beach to Guatemala City on the Pacific coast. It is a popular spot to relax, sunbathe and take a dip in the ocean to cool off. The beach is easily accessible from the capital (about 2 hours away), as well as from Antigua Guatemala (1 hour, 30 minutes). There are many places to eat and drink and it gets especially lively on weekends. A curious activity is to watch the “turtle release,” where locals release a mass of newborn babies into the sea - quite the spectacle.
Address: Monterrico Beach, Monterrico