It’s hard to say which is more striking, the natural beauty of Guatemala, or the wonder of its ancient ruins. With virgin rainforests, sulphurous lakes, volcanic mountains, underground caves and wonderful waterfalls, traveling through the country is a feast for the eyes. Stumbling upon the pyramid ruins in the monkey-infested jungle in Tikal is simply a must. Spend as little time as possible in the capital Guatemala City and as much time enjoying the landscape, culture, historic ruins and local coffee as you can.

Why You Should Go

What’s Cool: Colorful Sunday markets, the sound of marimba, smoking volcanoes, local coffee, the ruins at Tikal, the caves near Cobán.

What’s Not: Local beer, the state of the roads and public transportation, the glaring inequality between rich and poor, petty crime in Guatemala City.

When to Go

The best time to visit is the dry season from November to May. Don’t be put off by the wet season (from June to October), as typical late-afternoon downpours are short-lived.

Getting There & Away

Guatemala City International Airport is only four miles south of the city and is served by buses and taxis. Flights from other Latin American countries often fly into Flores Airport due to its proximity to the ruins of Tikal. There are several international ports and a railway line between Mexico and El Salvador, which is still not quite back to its pre-Hurricane Mitch efficiency.

Border crossings by road from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama are subject to frequent delays and particular caution should be exercised when crossing or when traveling near the border with Belize, as there is still some tension between the two countries. There are 380 airstrips in Guatemala and when scheduled flights are unavailable, there is always the option of avoiding the muddy roads by chartering your own plane.

Health & Safety

Petty crime is fairly commonplace, particularly in Guatemala City. Unfortunately, if you do get into trouble, you’ll probably find the police to be of little help beyond filling out the incident report you’ll need if you have insurance. Before traveling, consult with your doctor about malaria prevention and be sure to take along a good mosquito repellant to prevent becoming infected with dengue fever. To avoid the common problem of diarrhea, watch what you eat and stick to bottled water. If you do get sick, avoid the state-funded hospitals and find yourself a private clinic.

Food & Hospitality

Don’t think that by paying more, you’ll necessarily get better food. Some of the best food in Guatemala is to be had in small, cheap eateries. Marimba music is the most popularly played music in Guatemala, with concerts and live performances held even in small rural communities. In Guatemala City, you won’t have any difficulty finding international sounds at the many nightclubs and discos.

Itineraries

You can save a lot of time in Guatemala by taking internal flights, which allow you more time to explore the Mayan ruins and less time on the muddy roads of the interior.

  • One day in Guatemala City.
  • One day in Antigua Guatemala.
  • Three days in Tikal.
  • Two days in Cobán and the surrounding areas.

Extra time

  • One more day in the national park near Tikal.
  • One more day hiking or caving in Cobán.
  • One day in Quetzaltenango.

Highlights

Guatemala City: although only a few colonial-style buildings remain, there are more than enough museums in the capital to make up for it.

Antigua Guatemala: this ancient capital was destroyed by an earthquake, but it still contains the ruins of old churches and covenants, and is surrounded by towering volcanoes and a nearby coffee museum.

Tikal: the most spectacular of Guatemala’s Mayan ruins is in the middle of a national park full of rare forests, howler monkeys and migratory birds. There are over six square miles of ruins in the ‘City of Voices’.

Flores: formerly a Mayan ceremonial site, this island city now has an international airport and is the starting point for many tours of the Mayan ruins.

Cobán: makes some of the best coffee in Guatemala and is a good base if you are exploring the Languin Caves, the Caves of Candelaria or the 985 foot tall Semuc Champey Waterfalls.

Quetzaltenango: also known as Xela, this is the city to visit if you want to shop for traditional handicrafts or relax in the nearby hot springs.

Activities

Mountain climbing: there are many volcanoes in Guatemala, the highest of which is over 13 000 feet and considered a fairly easy climb.

Fishing: the Pacific coast of Guatemala is said to be one of the best places in the world for sport fishing.

Cycling: if the mountainous terrain, crazy drivers and muddy roads become too much for you, you can always throw your bike on top of a bus.

White water rafting: you can sign up for this adrenaline rush for a day or as long as a week.

Caving: there are several well-known cave complexes in Guatemala including Lanquin and Poptun.

Festivals & Events

A festive country as a whole, the people really come alive during some of these fairly bizarre festivities:

April: Antigua and Santiago Atitlan are the most colorful places to witness Semana Santa, the music and dance of this pre-Easter celebration.

October: one word describes the birthday party for the local god San Simon, celebrated near Antigua in San Andres Iztapa: wild.

November: Day of the Dead sees hundreds of bamboo and tissue paper kites flown in Santiago Sacatepéguez in honor of the dead.

December: Quema del Diablo sees music and mad fireworks to celebrate the burning of the Devil in this bizarre festival.