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Central Highlands, Guatemala: Things to Do, Towns to Visit, and More

sunset over the mountains in a town in central highlands guatemala
The central highlands of Guatemala are home to some of the country’s most important and attractive destinations, as well as some amazing hidden gems like traditional and quiet towns.

One of the most fascinating and beautiful regions of Guatemala is the central highlands. This mountainous area lies between the Sierra Madre de Chiapas to the south and the Petén lowlands to the north.

The central highlands of Guatemala are home to some of the country’s most important and attractive destinations, like:

  • The capital city of Guatemala City
  • The Colonial Gem of Antigua Guatemala
  • The volcanic wonders of Acatenango, and Pacaya Volcano
  • The cloud forests of Cobán and Biotopo del Quetzal
  • The coffee plantations of Verapaces and Huehuetenango
  • The Mayan ruins of Iximche, Mixco Viejo and Kaminaljuyu

The region is also rich in culture and cuisine, as it hosts a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups, and offers a unique and unforgettable experience for travelers who want to discover the natural and cultural wonders of this amazing country.

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What are the Central Highlands of Guatemala?

The Central Highlands of Guatemala are a series of high valleys enclosed by mountains and dominated by volcanoes, some active and some extinct.

The region is also known as the Altos, meaning “highlands” in Spanish.

It’s the heartland of the Maya civilization, and over a dozen distinct Maya groups live in the region, each with its own language and clothing. The Central Highlands are also the political and economic center of Guatemala, as they include the capital of Guatemala City and Antigua.

Why visit the Central Highlands?

The region offers a wide variety of attractions and experiences for travelers of all interests and budgets.

Whether you are looking for culture, history, nature, adventure, or relaxation, you will find something to suit your taste in the Central Highlands.

Here are some of the main reasons why you should visit the Central Highlands of Guatemala:

  • Explore the cultural and historical attractions of Guatemala City and Antigua, from museums, and old churches, to parks, and markets.

  • You can hike up the Acatenango volcano and enjoy the stunning views of the surrounding landscape and the active eruptions of Fuego.

  • Visit a coffee plantation and taste some of the best coffee in the world, grown and harvested in the highlands of Guatemala.

  • You can discover the natural beauty and biodiversity of the Verapaces region, where you can find lush forests, waterfalls, caves, rivers, and lakes, as well as a variety of flora and fauna.

  • Marvel at the Mayan ruins of Iximche, and Mixco Viejo, an impressive and well-preserved archaeological site.

town Alta Verapaz central highlands Guatemala
The region has several towns and cities that are worth visiting, each with its own charm and personality, like the capital Guatemala City, and the popular UNESCO site Antigua.

Things to see and do in the Central Highlands of Guatemala

This area is full of amazing sights and activities that will make your trip unforgettable. You can explore the cultural and historical attractions, hike up volcanoes, visit a coffee plantation, discover the natural beauty and biodiversity of the region, and a lot more.

Here are some of the best things to see and do in the Central Highlands of Guatemala:

Explore the cultural and historical attractions of its towns and cities

Guatemala City and Antigua are two of the most important and interesting cities in Guatemala, and they have a lot to offer to travelers who are interested in culture and history.

Guatemala City

Guatemala City is the capital and the largest city in the country, and it has a mix of modern and colonial architecture, as well as many museums, churches, parks, markets, and monuments that showcase the history and diversity of Guatemala.

Some of the highlights of the city are:

  • National Palace of Culture
  • The Metropolitan Cathedral
  • The Central Market
  • The Relief Map
  • Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing
  • Popol Vuh Museum of Maya History and Culture

Antigua

Antigua is the most beautiful city in the country that preserves the charm and elegance of the colonial era.

It is surrounded by three volcanoes, and it has stunning scenery and a pleasant climate. Antigua is famous for its colorful and well-preserved colonial buildings, its cobblestone streets, churches and convents, and its plazas and fountains.

Some of the highlights of Antigua are:

  • The Central Park
  • The Arch of Santa Catalina
  • Cathedral of San José
  • Church and Convent of La Merced, Capuchinas, and Santa Clara
  • Museum of Colonial Art
  • ChocoMuseo
antigua cathedral central park
 Antigua is one of the most charming and beautiful towns in the country, and a living museum of colonial architecture, from churches, and convents, to monasteries, and ruins.

Visit other traditional towns in the Central Highlands

Chisec

Chisec is a small town that lies along the highway that connects Petén and Cobán. Some development agencies have been encouraging sustainable tourism projects that have caused fast growth in the town.

A good way to ensure locals benefit from the exploitation of the area’s substantial natural and cultural attractions.

Local guides can take you to several area attractions, including the Lagunas de Sepalau and Cuevas de B’onb’il Pek.

Rabinal

To the west along a wonderfully scenic road, you will find Rabinal. This is a small town filled with history.

It was founded in 1537 by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Here you will find very high-quality pottery and citrus products.

This town is filled with pre-Columbian traditions, dance, and folklore, especially during the annual fiesta (January 19–25).

Sebol & Fray Bartolomé de las Casas

It is a small village in the northern area of the Alta Verapaz Department, set on the banks of the Río La Pasión with waterfalls flowing into it.

It might make an attractive stopover someday, though there is no infrastructure to accommodate visitors of yet. But if you continue east to Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, you will find a few basic accommodations.

Raxrujá

This is another great option for a place to stay if you want to visit the Candelaria Caves National Park and the nearby ruins of Cancuén.

You will find it a few kilometers east of the “Cruce del Pato” Junction. You will find some basic accommodations and minibusses that offer transport to Coban & Sayaxché.

Salamá

Salamá is mostly a ladino town and the best time to visit it is during their annual fiesta (Sept. 17–21).

The things that are worth looking at are the old crumbling pedestrian bridge on the edge of town and the San Mateo Apóstol Church.

Tactic

This town is located 32 kilometers north of Cobán, here is where you will find the so-called Pozo Vivo (Living Well), named as such because its muddy waters supposedly bubble up when there are people nearby.

Another attraction is the Chi-ixim church, which overlooks the town from a high hill reached by a steep staircase.

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view of fuego volcano from acatenango volcano guatemala
One of the most striking and thrilling features of the central highlands of Guatemala are the volcanoes, and you can embark yourself on the adventure of hiking some of them to the top.

Hike up the Acatenango and Fuego volcanoes

One of the most adventurous and rewarding activities that you can do in the Central Highlands of Guatemala is to hike up the Acatenango volcano, it’s challenging but is something you need to do at least one time in your life.

The Acatenango volcano is the third highest peak in Central America, with an elevation of 3,976 meters (13,045 feet), and it offers a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape and the neighboring Fuego volcano.

On the other hand, the Fuego volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in the country, and it constantly erupts with lava, ash, and smoke, creating a thrilling and awe-inspiring spectacle.

The hike to Acatenango is challenging and demanding, it involves a steep and rocky ascent, a high altitude, and cold and windy weather.

It usually takes two days and requires good physical condition, proper equipment, and a guide.

If you decide to try this adventure make sure to keep the safety and preparation on point, here are some quick tips:

  • Check the weather and the volcanic activity before you go, and avoid hiking during rainy or stormy days, or when there is a high alert of eruption or evacuation.
  • Hire a reputable and experienced guide, and follow their instructions and recommendations. Do not hike alone or stray from the trail.
  • Wear comfortable and sturdy shoes, a hat, sunglasses, and a backpack. Bring enough water, food, sunscreen, insect repellent, a flashlight, a first aid kit, and an emergency phone.
  • Respect nature and the environment, and do not litter, damage, or disturb the plants, or animals.
  • Do not touch or approach the lava, fumaroles, or craters, as they can be very hot and dangerous.

Visit a coffee plantation and taste some of the best coffee in the world

Guatemala is one of the top producers and exporters of coffee in the world, and it is renowned for its high-quality and distinctive coffee beans, which are grown and harvested in the highlands of the country.

It’s one of the best regions for coffee cultivation, as they have fertile soil, a mild climate, and a high altitude, which create the ideal conditions for the coffee plants to thrive.

The highlands have several coffee regions, each with its characteristics and flavors, and one of the best ways to learn about the coffee culture and industry of Guatemala is to visit a coffee plantation and taste some of the best coffee in the world.

You can find many coffee plantations in the area, some of which offer tours and tastings, like Finca Filadelfia or Finca La Azotea.

During the tour, you can see the coffee plants, processing facilities, roasting machines, and packaging areas, you can learn about the history, the different types, methods used, and the challenges of coffee production in the country.

You can also taste different types of coffee, and buy some coffee beans or souvenirs to take home.

woman and kid riding a mule finca filadelfia antigua
There are many coffee farms, or “fincas” around the central highlands, and many of them offer tours and have accommodated to give more than just a coffee tour!

Discover the natural beauty and biodiversity of the Alta Verapaz Department

The Verapaces region is one of the most beautiful and biodiverse regions in Guatemala, and it is located in the northern part of the Central Highlands. It is characterized by its lush forests, waterfalls, caves, rivers, and lakes, as well as animals and exotic plants.

The region is a paradise for nature lovers and adventure seekers, it offers many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and explore the wonders of nature.

Some of the best places to visit in the Verapaces region are:

Semuc Champey

A natural monument and a national park that features a series of turquoise pools and waterfalls that are formed by the Cahabón River. Semuc Champey is one of the most stunning and popular attractions in Guatemala, a great place to swim, relax, and admire the scenery.

You can also hike to a viewpoint that offers a panoramic, or you can explore the nearby caves and rapids.

Lanquín Caves

Lanquín Caves are a complex of limestone caves that are located near the town of Lanquín, and they are one of the largest and most impressive cave systems in Guatemala.

The caves are home to thousands of bats, which fly out of the caves at dusk, creating a spectacular show.

You can also see stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and other interesting rock formations inside the caves, as well as some Maya artifacts and paintings.

rock formations inside Lanquin cave Guatemala
You can also find many impressive caves, but one of the most popular by far is Lanquin Caves, you can do a tour or take a day trip from Antigua and check out its stunning rock formations.

Biotopo del Quetzal

Biotopo del Quetzal is a nature reserve and a wildlife sanctuary that is dedicated to the conservation of the quetzal, which is the national bird and the symbol of Guatemala.

The quetzal is a colorful and elusive bird that lives in the cloud forests of the Verapaces region, and it is considered sacred by the Maya people.

The national park is one of the best places to spot the quetzal, especially during the breeding season from March to June. You can also see other birds, like toucans, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds, as well as other animals, from monkeys to coatis, and agoutis.

It’s a good place to take a hike through the trails and enjoy the fresh and cool air.

How to get to the Central Highlands of Guatemala

The Central Highlands of Guatemala are easily accessible from different parts of the country and the world, thanks to the presence of the international airport in Guatemala City and the extensive network of roads and buses that connect the region.

Here are some of the ways you can get to the Central Highlands of Guatemala:

By air

The easiest and fastest way to get to the Central Highlands of Guatemala is by flying to the La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City, which is the main airport in the country and the hub for domestic and international flights.

By bus

Another way to get to the Central Highlands of Guatemala is by taking a bus from other parts of the country or from neighboring countries. Guatemala has a well-developed and affordable bus system that covers most of the destinations in the Central Highlands, like Antigua, Cobán, and the border with Honduras.

By car

If you prefer more flexibility and independence, you can also get to the Central Highlands of Guatemala by renting a car and driving yourself. The network of paved roads connecting the main cities and towns in the Central Highlands is decent, and you can enjoy scenic views along the way.

Need to Rent a Car?

Rent a car here, it’s one of the best options to go for if your car stops working or is stuck at the mechanic getting services.

Laguna lachuà central highlands guatemala
Laguna Lachua is a hidden gem of the Guatemalan central highlands, a crystal clear lake that reflects the sky like a mirror, you can take a swim and just relax in its waters.

Where to stay in the Central Highlands of Guatemala

You can find a wide range of accommodations in the Central Highlands, depending on your budget and preferences you can stay in luxury hotels like Villa Bokeh or hostels, guesthouses, and even apartments, as well as some more unique and rustic options, such as camping, cabins, or eco-lodges.

Here are some of the best places to stay in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, depending on your destination:

Guatemala City

The largest and most cosmopolitan city in Guatemala, it has a variety of accommodation options to suit different needs and tastes.

You can find anything from luxury hotels and boutique hotels to business hotels, and budget hotels. As well as some Airbnb and VRBO options.

Some of the best areas to stay in Guatemala City are:

  • Zone 10, is the most modern and upscale area, with many restaurants, bars, shops, and malls
  • Zone 1, the historical and cultural center, with many museums, churches, and monuments
  • Zone 4, a trendy and artistic area, with many cafes, galleries, and coworking spaces.

Antigua

Antigua is one of the most charming and attractive destinations in the country, and it’s usually where most tourists set their holiday headquarters.

It has a wide range of accommodation options too from colonial and boutique hotels to budget hotels, and hostels.

Some of the best areas to stay in Antigua are:

  • Around the Central Park, which is the main square and the heart of the city, with many restaurants, cafes, shops, and attractions
  • The Arch of Santa Catalina, which is the iconic landmark and the most photographed spot in the city;
  • The Cerro de la Cruz is the hill that offers a panoramic view of the city and the volcanoes.

Cobán

Cobán is the largest and most important city in the Verapaces region (Alta Verapaz Department), and it is a good base to explore the natural beauty and biodiversity of the country.

You can find hotels, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts, and hostels, as well as some more rural and eco-friendly options, like cabins, lodges, or farms.

Some of the best areas to stay in Cobán are:

  • Near the main plaza and the center of the city, it has many restaurants, cafes, shops, and attractions
  • Calvario Church, which is a beautiful and historic church that overlooks the city
  • Cobán Imperial Stadium, which is the home of the local soccer team and a popular venue for sports and events.

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Cobán is the capital of the department of Alta Verapaz, and the gateway to the cloud forests of the central highlands, a large and busy town that has some interesting sites too.

FAQ

When is the best time to visit the Central Highlands?

The best time to visit the highlands is from November to April, which is the dry season and the peak tourist season.

The weather is sunnier and more enjoyable but it can get really hot, and the roads and trails are in good condition.

However, this is also the most visited and crowded time to visit, so you may want to book everything in advance.

 What are the main festivals and events in the Central Highlands?

The Central Highlands of Guatemala have many festivals and events that celebrate the religious, cultural, and historical heritage of the region.

Some of the main festivals you can enjoy are:

Semana Santa (Holy Week), is the most important and colorful celebration in Guatemala. It features processions, floats, carpets, and ceremonies. Antigua is the best place to experience Semana Santa, as it has the most elaborate and spectacular festivities.

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is a traditional and joyful celebration that honors the deceased and their ancestors, and it takes place on November 1st and 2nd. You can spot giant kite flying, music, and dancing. Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez are the best places to experience this.

How much does it cost to travel to the Central Highlands?

The cost of traveling to the Central Highlands depends on your budget and preferences.

However, you can expect to spend around $50 per day on average, including accommodation, transportation, food, and activities.

Do I need a visa to enter Guatemala?

Most visitors from North America, Europe, and Australia do not need a visa to enter Guatemala for up to 90 days.

However, you should check the latest requirements before your trip, as they may change.

Are the Central Highlands Safe?

The main risks and challenges of traveling to the Central Highlands are related to crime and health.

You should be careful of pickpockets, scams, and theft, especially in Guatemala City. You should also avoid drinking tap water, and avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes as much as you can, as they may cause diseases.

Conclusion

The Central Highlands of Guatemala are a wonderful and diverse region that offers a lot of attractions and experiences for travelers who want to discover the culture, history, nature, and adventure of this amazing country.

The highlands are a region that will surprise you, delight you and inspire you, they are a must-see destination for anyone who visits Guatemala.

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Tips

If you want to travel without the hassle and confusion – check out a complete guide for traveling to Guatemala.

Places

For more travel ideas to add to your bucket list, check out a complete guide to all the best places to visit in Guatemala.

Food

Guatemala has a huge variety of food, check out the guide to the top 15 Guatemalan Food and Dishes.

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Last Updated on June 15, 2024

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