Oh, Guatemala. You are one of the most lovely and dynamic gems of all of Latin America, but yet, you are so grossly underrated. There is so much to see and do in your beautiful country: from colorful colonial cities to lively and traditional markets, lush landscapes, and ancient Mayan ruins, there is truly something for everyone.
So why aren’t more people traveling to Guatemala? Well, for one thing, many mistakenly think that the country is dangerous. While that’s certainly the case in Guatemala City, the remainder of the country is relatively safe. My best friend Amy and I traveled around the country on our own over a decade ago and never felt the least bit unsafe. Of course, whenever traveling (especially for females), always be aware of your surroundings and belongings, exercise good judgement, and do your best to avoid situations and places that are known to be unsafe or just don’t feel right.
Another reason you won’t find Guatemala on the most popular list? My guess is that it’s often overshadowed by its more known and sought-after neighbors like Belize and Costa Rica. While we adore both of these amazing countries and all of the hype surrounding both countries is more than deserving, Guatemala offers just as much beauty and culture, if not more, and at a fraction of the cost.
You will most likely fly into Guatemala City…my advice? Avoid the city entirely and arrange for a car or shuttle directly from the airport to Antigua, a quaint colonial town set amid majestic mountains that’s about an hour drive from the airport. Guatemala City isn’t exactly known for its safety, in fact we were warned by several locals to stay as far away as possible. Also, as far I’ve read and heard, there really isn’t much to see or do to even make the risk remotely worth it. There is just too much to see and do outside of the city to waste your time here.
Which brings me to…
FIVE REASONS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH GUATEMALA:
REASON #1: ANTIGUA
Founded in the 1500s by Spanish colonials and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Antigua is a charming colonial town that’s defined by its rich colors, Baroque-style architecture, adorable restaurants and cafes, and a spirited culture. We absolutely loved exploring this captivating city.
Things to do in Antigua:
*Stroll the cobble stones streets and instantly fall in love with this quaint and well-preserved historical city. Soak in the stunning architecture and admire the craftsmanship as you explore the numerous churches, ruins, and archways throughout this endearing city.
*Get lost in its palette of colors. From the radiant building facades to the bustling markets that permeate the city, Antigua is as colorful as it is vibrant.
*Hike a volcano! We hiked Pacaya Volcano, one of only three of the Guatemala’s thirty-seven volcanoes that is active. Our climb was exhilarating, exciting, and exhausting. The 40 mph winds (or at least we think) were the biggest challenge–we could barely stand up, let along climb a vertical incline.
Once we climbed 7,430 feet to the top of the Cero Chino Crater Rim, we foolishly thought we were done, until we were informed that we still had to climb to the cone. The final climb to the cone is only another 500 feet, but with each steep step in the loose ash and scoria, you gain one step and slide back two! A challenging pursuit, but easily one of my favorite and most memorable moments of our trip.
*Eat your way through Antigua’s numerous eateries and cafes. You can eat and drink very well and spend very little here. Guatemalan food is delicious and relatively healthy, revolving largely around beans, maize, and local produce. Two restaurants that we loved were Cafe Condesa and La Fonda de la Calle Real.
*Get a massage at a ridiculously low price. We traveled to nearby Jocotenango, about a five minute taxi ride from Antigua, and each got 45 minute massage for $6.50 USD! That’s right. Now, it wasn’t the Four Seasons by any means, and we were basically gathered in one large room filled with massage beds, so privacy is pretty much non-existent here, and they use so much oil that I’m still not sure how we managed to not slide off of our beds mid-massage, but for a completely different and somewhat comical “spa” experience for a fraction of the price you would pay most anywhere else in the world, it’s so worth it.
Where to stay in Antigua:
Hotel Posada La Merced: A lovely hotel conveniently located within walking distance of pretty much everything. Our room was comfortable, service was friendly, and the rooftop views are spectacular. At less than $50 USD a night, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better deal in the heart of Antigua!
Hotel Posada San Pedro:
Another charming little gem of a hotel that boasts a delightful courtyard and a peaceful setting. Rooms run around $65 USD/night.
REASON #2: CHICHICASTENANGO
One of my all-time favorite outdoor markets in the entire world makes for a perfect day trip from Antigua. Located about ninety minutes away in the small indigenous Mayan town of Chichicastenango, this lively market is one of the largest and well-known markets in all of Central America.
This busy market is held on every Thursday and Sunday and locals travel from various villages to sell their beautiful handicrafts, vibrant textiles, fresh produce, and traditional clothing. This massive market is always crowded and teeming with vendors who are just waiting to be bargained with, so put on your negotiating hat and don’t settle for anything less than half-off the original asking price!
Thing to know: There are numerous shuttle and transport services available that can be arranged online, as well as in travel agencies around Antigua. Costs vary, but on average, expect to pay around $20 USD per person each way.
REASON #3: LAKE ATITLAN & SURROUNDING VILLAGES
Lake Atitlan is as gorgeous as it is immense. Its natural beauty is accentuated by its surrounding mountains and volcanoes. The lake basin was formed nearly 85,000 years ago as a result of volcanic activity.
The lake is surrounded by more than a dozen towns, each village being unique in its own right. It’s also home to a primarily indigenous community of Mayans and their vibrant culture is portrayed through their handicrafts, food, and clothing.
We divided our time between two towns:
Located on the north shore of the lake, Panajachel is the most popular lake town to visit. Cafes, bars and stalls selling handicrafts and textiles spill into the main street of Calle Santander as tourists and locals flood the area.
One of the highlights of our trip was our horseback riding tour with Aventura en Atitlan at Santiago. We chose the “lunch ride” which included extensive horseback riding through the untouched nature of Santiago. We ascended into the cloud forest and then back down before arriving at the guide’s expansive and stunning farm where we were served a delicious gourmet lunch (and arguably the best Gazpacho we’ve ever had).
Our guide and tour company owner, Jim, who kindly tied my unruly horse to the back of his horse during our trek. And thank God for that, because I was absolutely terrified. #noshame
Things to know: Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations, Our six hour tour, including lunch and transport, cost $50/person.
Reason #4: tikal
One of the most important citadels of the Mayan civilization and the largest of the excavated Mayan ruins, Tikal is an ancient archaeological wonder. Situated in the rain forests of northern Guatemala, this sprawling complex is so impressive: 3,000 buildings set amid a striking jungle setting.
Planning your trip to Tikal:
*Just a short ten minute walk to the center of Tikal, in terms of location, you can’t get much better than the Jungle Lodge Hotel. Nestled in the jungle, the verdant grounds and walkways are beautiful, and each bungalow includes a bed enveloped in a mosquito net to help keep bugs and insects out. Rates average around $100 USD/night.
*From Guatemala City, there are multiple daily flights to Flores, which is about a ninety minute drive from Tikal. Flights are about one hour in duration and roundtrip airfare is about $200 USD. One thing to know, flights seem to take off no matter what. There was a horrible storm when we flew out of Flores to return to Guatemala City and our flight was plagued by incessant lighting–thirteen years and countless flights later, and this still ranks as the scariest flight I have ever been on. But you’ll be fine! Absolutely nothing to worry about here! #dontsayididntwarnyou
That feeling when you walk out to your plane amid a thunderstorm and are reminded of your mortality.
Reason #5: It’s affordable & Easy to navigate
Okay, so technically, that’s two reasons. But five is so much more catchier than six, don’t you agree? By the mention of the costs above, you’ve probably realized that your money goes pretty far in Guatemala. Contrary to what many might think, not all of Central America is cheap to travel around–Belize and Costa Rica are not exactly what most would consider bargain countries, whereas Guatemala certainly is. You really can have an incredible trip here without spending a fortune.
Between busses, shuttles, boats, tuk-tuks, and reasonably-priced airfare, traveling around Guatemala is easy and relatively cheap. The options are pretty much endless and vary greatly depending on budget and timeframe. While rental cars are widely available, we didn’t see the need for one and easily got around via the aforementioned modes of transportation. Many areas like Antigua and Panajachal are walkable and best explored by foot.
Chicken buses are popular among locals and tourists and provide transport between communities at a very low cost.
Similar to places like Bangkok and Honduras, tuk-tuk taxis are a popular and cheap way to travel.
Bottom line: Guatemala is an underrated gem that should be on everyone’s travel radar. This delightful country will surely satisfy anyone who’s seeking a trip full of culture, history, and active pursuits. I hope this post inspires you to consider Guatemala for your next Latin American adventure!