Just south of the frequently visited destination of Mexico lies the often overlooked and diminutive Central American country Guatemala. This small country is packed with everything you need for a diverse and unforgettable vacation: Pristine colonial cities to wander around, ancient Mayan ruins to be explored and the maybe most beautiful lake in the world, everything wrapped in an incredible bright and colourful environment. Guatemala has it all and boosts with numerous reasons to give up your daily routine and spend some month in Central America. The country grabs you and will never let you loose again. And the best, you can have all this for very affordable and low, low prices. It has never been so easy to escape for a couple of month to an incredible place without worrying about having enough money.
1. Feel like Tarzan and climb ancient Mayan ruins
Like most Central American countries, Guatemala has more than only one Mayan ruin on offer. However, the most known one is probably Tikal, declared Unesco world heritage site in 1970. Situated in the tropical region El Petén, this site impresses with countless Mayan ruins – 3’000 in total – hidden in the thick and deep Guatemalan jungle. Howler monkeys swing through the trees, coatis cross your way, leafcutter ants creep on the floor, you can smell the humidity of the trees and thousands of birds hide in the thicket, chirping their symphonies.
The first buildings were constructed in 200 BC and under the reign of king Yax Ehb’ Xoc in 230 BC, Tikal became one of the ruling dynasties. The most recent stelae in Tikal dates back to the year 879, which leaves Tikal as one of the longest surviving Maya cities of the classical period. Nowadays, Tikal is flocked by tourists, everybody wants to see this magical place, where mighty temples tower over the green treetops. Do not miss out to climb at least one of the temples – especially temple IV – to get an impressive overview of the whole site.
If you prefer a more quiet site, or if you just do not have enough of Mayan ruins yet, consider visiting Takalik Abaj. It is situated in the lowlands of Retalhuleu, close to the Pacific coast. The site is obviously not comparable to Tikal, as it is much smaller and the temples are by far not that high. However, it is also less known and thus less touristy. Maybe you will even be the only person exploring this wonderful and peaceful place. The best is, the entrance always includes a tour guide (who is pleased to receive a small tip afterwards).
2. Go back in time and explore colonial style architecture
Antigua is definitely another reason to come to Guatemala. It is maybe the best city in whole Central America to immerse yourself in a stunning colonial style atmosphere. You will find no other city in the region, that offers so many churches, ruins and plazas to visit and to explore! It is not for nothing, that Antigua is the most visited city in Guatemala. It has even be declared a Unesco world heritage site for its beauty and cultural richness.
Get lost in the narrow cobblestone streets, look into the blue sky through the open roof of the cathedral ruins and feel overwhelmed by the buildings shining in every imaginable bright colour. Old horse buggies decorated with flowers and horse-drawn carriages add to the city’s colonial atmosphere. The city is loaded with backpackers and travellers, which contributes to a vibrant nightlife and an interesting culture mix. However, it also means, that you are not alone exploring the blisses and wonders of the Colonial era.
3. Get into your boots and discover hidden outdoor gems
Guatemala’s stunning and incredible countryside gives room to numerous secret spots and hidden gems. Most of them are actually not so secret anymore, but because of their remote location, not everybody takes the time and muse to visit them. This leaves them unspoiled and you will find an intact and untouched nature. Guatemala still has these places that feel like paradise and when you see them they will evoke that wow-effect in you, making you think, that you just reached the most beautiful place on earth. And the best is, your friends have probably never heard of it, so you will have some stories to tell once back home! Isn’t that a good reason to come here?
One of these places is Semuc Champey: numerous turquoise waterfalls, emerald green water pools and all this surrounded by lush green nature. Semuc Champey is a 300 meter long natural limestone bridge with various water pools. The pools are filled by the water of the Río Cahabón, which passes through a cave beneath these pools. This does not only sound pretty awesome, it also is! Do not forget your swimming suit and dive into the crystal clear water of the pools, after visiting the viewpoint, which gives you the most fantastic view of this place.
Another gem is the mysterious Laguna de Chicabal near Quetzaltenango. This is a real secret spot and most probably you will be the only person far and wide. Of course, you might have already guessed it, that makes it also even more difficult to reach. The beautiful lagoon is a spiritual Maya center surrounded by cloud forest and breathtaking nature. You will walk through impressive flora and fauna. Maybe you will even spot a Quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird. Going around the lake, you will encounter various Mayan altars floating in the water, decorated with colourful flowers. Hold on for a moment and feel the peace and spirituality of this place.
Of course, there are much more secret spots to discover. Have eyes and ears open and you will find them!
4. Plunge into the beautiful blue Lake ‘Lago Atitlan’
Guatemala is also home to the maybe most beautiful lake in the world. Undoubtedly, many people will tell you this and it truly is one of the most heavenly places on earth. And there is more than one reason, why you can easily spend a whole week or more at Lago Atitlan. The deep blue lake is surrounded by three volcanoes – San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan – as well as lush green mountains, a beautiful countryside and traditional Mayan villages. An incredible combination, which you will not find at so many places around the world.
The lake and the surroundings invite you for various outdoor activities. The water is clear enough to have a refreshing dip into the cold blue. You can rent kayaks and canoes in almost every town around the lake. The volcanoes challenge you with incredible day walks up to the top. Small boats will bring you across the lake, connecting all the small villages and towns. Shop around at the lake’s most tourist town Panajachel, immerse yourself in a laid back backpacker culture in San Pedro or connect with your spirituality in the hippi and yoga village San Marcos.
5. Get active and volunteer at a local NGO, farm or women association
Guatemala is still a pretty underdeveloped country and you will find many volunteering possibilities, especially in the highlands. A good reason to come and volunteer in Guatemala is, that you will get to know the country and its culture from a totally different perspective. Guatemala suffered a lot after the Civil War and many people, especially women, try to secure their income and build up their small dreams. Many Mayan women lost their husbands during the war and now they are in the way to become independant and to earn their own income by weaving the typical textiles. You can make a difference by volunteering and helping with administrative, financial and marketing skills. If you are interested check out ‘Trama Textiles’ in Quetzaltenango or ‘Cojolya Weaving Association’ at the Lake Atitlan.
Quetzaltenango and its surrounding have a lot of volunteering possibilities to offer. How about working for an independent newspaper ‘Entremundos’ as a journalist? You will get the possibility to engage in the current social and political situation of the country and do some real research deep into the topic. You are more interested in farming and helping out at a rural environment. The highlands around Quetzaltenango are full of farm and ecotourism projects, which try to get a foot into agriculture again after the Civil War. Check out ‘Finca la Florida’ if you want to spend some time at an isolated, organic farm.