I’ve always wanted to visit Guatemala. The coffee, the picturesque landscapes, the beautiful handwoven textiles, the ongoing Mayan culture… the list of reasons to visit just go on and on.
I spent three weeks exploring this beautiful country, which is not nearly enough — you need at least 4 to 6 weeks to do this country justice, not least because the transportation situation means that you’ll be spending lots of long days on cramped shuttle buses in transit.
But it’s worth every moment in transit to see natural wonders like the emerald pools of Semuc Champey, the manmade wonders of Tikal, and the beautiful colonial cities that dot the map of Guatemala. Come see for yourself and you’ll understand why.
1. Visit the natural pools of Semuc Champey
If you’ve ever spent any time on Instagram or Pinterest, visiting Semuc Champey is undoubtedly one of the top items on any Guatemalan bucket list. It’s popular for a reason: the bloggers aren’t lying wrong. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in my lifetime, and for me, the #1 thing to do in Guatemala.
That said, getting there is quite a hassle and had me questioning if it was worth it many times over. Even taking a direct tourist shuttle will take you upwards of 8 hours from Flores or Antigua, the two closest popular tourist destinations. Cobán is closer, but doesn’t offer much to tourists. You do essentially have to spend two full days on a cramped bus in order to get to Lanquín. Once you’re there, all that transit-induced rage will float away as you behold the most beautiful turquoise pools you can imagine. No filter needed, y’all.
Note: DO NOT stay at Zephyr Lodge, even if it comes highly recommended by others on the road. I got horrible food poisoning there, and I wasn’t alone. At least 10 other travelers I spoke to had food poisoning there, and at separate times than I did — meaning it’s likely an ongoing hygiene issue. I rarely ever get sick, so something was seriously amiss here.
2. Visit the Mayan market in Chichicastenango
Mayan culture is alive and well in Guatemala, and nowhere is this more obvious than in Chichicastenango’s twice weekly markets. Chichicastenango (mercifully abbreviated to Chichi) is one of the most popular market towns, as it is only a 2 hour bus ride from Antigua. It’s a frequent day trips and for tourists interested in culture it’s one of the best things to do in Guatemala.
You can typically arrange for a roundtrip shuttle on Thursdays or Sundays, or you can take local transportation – a chicken bus – if you
don’t value your life are brave and don’t mind being squished three to a seat while the driver swerves wildly around curves.
Seeing a Mayan market is one of the best ways to fully appreciate the craftsmanship and tradition that have been passed down from generation to generation. It’s also a great way to peek into the life of locals who eke out a living by farming, weaving, collecting honey, and more. Try learning a little Spanish before you go — English is not widely spoken here — and be sure to bargain (respectfully, that is).
3. Climb Acatanenango and witness a live volcano erupting
Climbing Acatenango is not for the faint of heart. To be honest, I didn’t attempt it because I’m extremely prone to altitude sickness and have failed to climb mountains of similar height. Everyone I spoke to who did the Acatanenago hike said it was one of the most amazing sights they’ve ever seen — and also that it was supremely difficult and very cold sleeping overnight there at the top. Research your guide wisely, as they can make or break your trip.
That said, if you’re better at handling altitude than I am, Acatanenango is a can’t-miss thing to do in Guatemala. My friends over at Our Escape Clause did it and have a great guide about hiking Acatanenango if you’re curious for more information.
4. Take classes at a Spanish school
Guatemala is one of the cheapest places to learn Spanish. Prices vary wildly, so don’t be afraid to ask around and get a good idea of what’s on offer. Antigua is definitely one of the prettiest cities in Central America, making it a popular spot to settle down for a few weeks and take Spanish lessons. It has the most Western restaurants and amenities as well due to the large expat community, making it pricier but perhaps a little more comfortable.
If you want a more local experience while you learn Spanish, Xela is well-known for being a Spanish language hub, and supposedly it’s one of the cheapest places in the country to learn the language. San Pedro La Laguna is another popular destination for Spanish learners, and has a fun party scene and lake views to boot.
5. Kayak in a volcanic crater in Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is simply stunning, and there’s no better way to enjoy the serenity of the lake than by going for a kayak ride surrounded by water and volcanoes all around you.
The water tends to get really rough and choppy in the afternoons, and clouds and rain have a tendency of settling in after 3 PM. Make the most of your morning and go for a morning kayak, then stop by for a 5 quetzal (less than $1) fresh juice afterward!
6. Climb the pyramids of Tikal
Star Wars nerds will immediately recognize the lush jungle setting of Tikal. Tikal is a UNESCO world heritage site and is one of the largest sets of ruins in the former Mayan empire, and it’s in remarkably good shape. Some of the pyramids you can climb; others, you can only gaze upon from afar due to the need to preserve them.
The best option is to go either at sunrise or just after sunrise (sunrise shuttles leave at 3 AM; “early bird” leave at 4:30 AM). If you do the sunrise or sunset tour, you’ll have to pay an extra 100 quetzales ($14) fee, but you will pay the normal price if you do the early bird or any other daytime tour. It gets incredibly hot during the daytime though, so I recommend forcing yourself out of bed early and giving it a go!
7. Stroll the colorful streets of Flores
Flores is a teeny tiny island in Lake Peten, and it’s been painted so colorfully that it’s hard to walk anywhere without stopping to take a ton of photos. It’s a very touristy island, honestly perhaps the most touristy place in all of Guatemala, but it’s a great base for Tikal and the lake is perfect for sunsets and quick dips in the water.
8. Get spiritual in San Marcos La Laguna
San Marcos is the hippie hub of Guatemala. People say that Lake Atitlan holds mystical powers, swearing that they have more intense dreams while they’re there. While that may well be the altitude, the hippies are undeterred and have colonized the little town of San Marcos. There are tons of yoga classes on offer with lake views, or you can sign up for a longer-term yoga or meditation retreat. There are also plenty of vegan and vegetarian food options here.
It’s not a place I’d stay for that long, personally, as I’m allergic to hippie nonsense, but it’s definitely a nice place to relax when in Lake Atitlan.
9. Party (or just relax) in San Pedro
If you’re a party person, San Pedro La Laguna is your spot on Atitlan. There’s one main “backpacker street” with plenty of restaurants, bars, and party hostels if that’s the vibe you’re after. Hostal Fe is the big party hostel, with a lakeside lounge area just a stone’s throw from Bar Sublime, the late night spot in Atitlan.
I’m not a big party hostel person (read: party hostels are the bane of my socially anxious existence) so I stayed at a hostel called Casa Felipe, which I loved so much I stayed there for a week!
Despite the party scene in San Pedro, there are also lots of opportunities to interact with locals. I went to the market on the top of the hill nearly every day, and stopped to buy tortillas from different vendors who worked out of their houses. San Pedro really has a mix of both experiences, so it’s a nice place to base yourself when in Atitlan.
10. Check out the smaller towns of Atitlan
The most popular touristic towns ringing Lake Atitlan are Panajachel, San Pedro, and San Marcos. But make sure to take a day trip or even stay a few nights at one of the other less visited towns in Atitlan, like Santiago Atitlan, Santa Clara, or San Jose. You’ll get a more complete picture of Mayan life in this special part of Guatemala.
12. Wake up before sunrise to hike Indian Nose
Indian Nose is the non-politically correct name for a nearby mountain flanking Lake Atitlan, a short distance from San Pedro. Tour companies will offer a transfer and guided tour for a reasonable 100 quetzales ($14). I recommend going with a guide as I have heard stories of people being robbed walking independently to Indian Nose; this should not happen if you have a guide.
13. Give back to the local community
There’s no denying that Guatemala is a developing country. The poverty rate hovers around 50%, with indigenous peoples typically far more impoverished than non-indigenous. If you’re planning on spending a significant amount of time in Guatemala, volunteering in Guatemala is a great way to give back to a community that you’ve enjoyed traveling in. Definitely one of the most meaningful things you can do in Guatemala.
14. Roast marshmallows on an active volcano
Because s’mores always taste better when roasted over lava, am I right? It’s a bit of a touristy thing to do in Guatemala, but there’s nothing more fun than roasting marshmallows on an active volcano. Marshmallows come included on most tours leaving Antigua to visit Pacaya, so join the fun!
15. Go caving by candlelight in Lanquín
If you go on one of the popular tours of Semuc Champey, you’ll get a chance to visit Las Grutas de Lanquín, a series of caves which you navigate in the dark — while holding a lit candle in one hand! There’s a rope you can use to keep yourself afloat – and your candle lit – as your guides bring you into the center of the cave where the brave can do a small cliff jump into a deep pool of water.
This is definitely not for the claustrophobic or the faint of heart. Being a bit of both, I managed, though climbing up a slippery ladder with candle wax dripping down my arm is not an experience I think I’ll repeat!
16. Visit the colorful cemetery of Chichicastenango
A short walk away from the hustle and bustle of the Chichi market, you can find one of the most colorful cemeteries on Earth. When I stumbled across it, at first I was puzzled at what I was seeing. Closer inspection revealed that it was indeed a cemetery, painted in a swath of rainbow colors. According to Atlas Obscura,
Steeped in Mayan tradition, the vibrant rainbow of pigments celebrates the afterlife, and can symbolize different family roles, like a color-coded clue to the puzzle of the dead.
17. Experience Semana Santa in Antigua
Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is the weeklong festivities in many Catholic countries in which they celebrate the life and death of Christ. Nowhere do they take this more seriously than Antigua, Guatemala. Many roads are shut down for a week for alfombras (rugs), which are made of colored sawdust and placed on the ground in extravagant designs each night — only to be trampled upon by the parades the following day.
Self-flagellation (that’s the fancy term for whipping yourself until you bleed) is also on display, as are fits of open weeping, women carrying enormous floats while tottering down the streets in high heels, loud music, fireworks, the works. Truly an experience like no other and a thing you must do if in Guatemala around Eastertime.
18. Explore the ruins of Old Antigua
Well, old Antigua is a bit redundant — as the word Antigua means old. But Antigua is short for Antigua Guatemala (whereas signs that just say Guatemala, in fact refer to Guatemala City), as Antigua Guatemala used to be the capital of Guatemala.
A major earthquake in 1773 reduced nearly the whole city to rubble, and aftershocks continued for nearly six months. Rather than rebuild in Antigua, they relocated the capital to what is now Guatemala City. It’s a bit eerie to explore what remains of the former capital, but a must-do thing when in Antigua.
19. Explore the cathedrals
Catholicism is deeply important to Guatemalans, and even many Mayans have incorporated aspects of Catholicism into their religious practices. The churches in Guatemala are beautiful, just as ornate on the exterior as they are in the interior. Some of the country’s most beautiful churches are located in Antigua, but you’ll find beautiful ones in Xela as well.
20. Explore the Rio Dulce and Livingston region
I have to admit – I didn’t make it to Rio Dulce, not for lack of wanting but for lack of time. As my flight back home quickly approached, I kicked myself for spending so much time in San Pedro and not making it all the way north to Rio Dulce. However, I know I’ll be back in the region to visit Honduras and El Salvador, and Rio Dulce is right on the way to Honduras.
Rio Dulce is supposed to be incredibly lush and scenic and rather off the typical tourist trail. So if you’re tired of Antigua and want something a little more off the beaten path — head to Rio Dulce or the beaches of Livingston for something truly different.
21. Admire Antigua’s colonial grandeur
Antigua reminded me a lot of one of my other favorite cities in Central America, Granada. Only Antigua is a bit more understated in its colorfulness – but only by comparison to Granada.
The shopfronts are painted in all sorts of beautiful vibrant hues, making it the perfect spot for an impromptu photoshoot when you find a wall that matches your outfit perfectly. The cobblestoned streets do nothing but add to the charm!