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9 Top Places to Visit in Guatemala

Guatemala is a small country in Central America that packs a lot of things to do and to see in relatively few kilometers. You may be thinking, where to visit in Guatemala? Once you do some research, you will start finding more and more and more things to do in different areas of the country, so how do you decide what you want to do and the places to visit in Guatemala that are for you?

Guatemala, is the country of eternal spring, Mayan Indians, active volcanoes, and amazing landscapes. This country will fulfill every visitor’s experience and leave them wanting to come back for more.

Below you will find information about some of the top areas in the country where you can go and explore, with information about what to do in each of them. You should take a look at the travel guide to Guatemala by region.

tikal national park in Guatemala

What Is Waiting For You in Those Places?

  • Enter the world of the ancient Mayan Empire as you explore Tikal and other ruins in the midst of dense tropical forests.
  • Take a horse ride and ride through exquisitely preserved cobblestoned streets of Antigua’s colonial splendor.
  • Get lost among Chichicastenango, one of the largest native artisan markets of Central America, where you’ll bargain your heart out for exquisite, handmade crafts.
  • Take a boat ride on Lake Atitlan, one of the largest volcanic crater lakes in the world, and explore the tiny villages all around it which are populated by indigenous, hippies, and friendly locals.
  • In Panajachel, the main town of Lake Atitlan, you’ll enjoy your large selection of yummy cafes, gourmet restaurants, and amazing hotels with breathtaking views of the lake and Guatemalan volcanoes all around it.
  • Todos Santos is one of the last remaining traditional indigenous villages where the residents wear their colorful Trajes with pride and follow, almost lost, Mayan traditions.

Below is a list of the best places to travel in Guatemala with information about what to do in them.

Top Places to Visit in Guatemala

1. Peten Department

This is the place to see! Peten Department is home to the most impressive and mightiest Mayan ancient ceremonial cities. Tikal, the main ruin, is located in a tropical forest part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, full of wildlife and exotic birds that will capture your heart and take you back to the ancient days of the powerful Mayans.

Tikal is without a doubt breathtaking and one of the most magical places of Guatemala, aside from being a nature lover’s paradise. But don’t overlook the other fascinating lost cities of the Maya (Yaxha, El Mirador), and the colorful island town of Flores located on Lake Petén Itzá.

1.1 Tikal National Park

Tikal National Park is located in Peten Guatemala and its name means place of voices. Nowadays, it is the biggest known and studied Mayan City. This park in Guatemala has an area of 576. It was declared a Human Heritage Patrimony by UNESCO in 1979. It consists of a group of temples and plazas scattered around, but the most popular ones are:

  • Major Plaza: It is surrounded by Temples I and II, the North and Central Acropolis, as well as a big range of wakes and altars.
  • Temple I: Known also as Big Jaguar Temple, it was built around year 700. Its crest reaches 45 meters high above the Major Plaza.
  • Temple II: It is also known as Masks Temple. You will find it very close to the Big Plaza by the west, with 38mts. high. The temple was built around 700 A.C.
  • North Acropolis: It is a religious area within the ceremonial complex of Tikal. It is the most complete individual construction to this date in the area.
  • Central Acropolis: It is formed by a small courtyard on different levels with large and low buildings called palaces.
  • Temple IV: With its 70mts. it is the highest structure of Tikal and is called Two-headed Snake Temple. Here the visitors can go up to the crest base and have the most beautiful sight of Tikal.
  • Big Pyramid Plaza or Lost World: It is one of the oldest monumental complexes of Tikal. Its architecture, science and art are that of the second century before our era and the fourth after our era. It is also a very important astronomical complex.

2. Antigua

tree, lamp and sky in antigua guatemala

This is a can’t-miss-this destination. The colonial city of Antigua lies beautifully between three volcanoes and will have you snapping more pictures than a 2-gigabyte memory stick can hold. There are delicious restaurants at every corner, clean and well-manicured cobblestoned streets great for a horse ride, and crumbling ruins that have become part of the scenery among colorful houses.

Antigua Guatemala was once the third capital of this country. It was founded in 1543 and named Ciudad de Santiago de Los Caballeros de Guatemala. After many earthquakes and floods, the telluric movement of 1773 finally destroyed it. Despite this, it is now one of the major touristic attractions of Guatemala. It is a colonial architectural jewel, which keeps its characteristics as if time had stopped. That is why it was designated by UNESCO  as World Heritage Site in 1979. Its highlights include:

  • The Old Cathedral: It was built between 1543 and 1680. It has wooden columns, a body, and a bulrush, that had to be rebuilt after the Santa Marta Earthquake in 1773. The title of Metropolitan was given to it in 1743 by “Papa Benedicto XIV”. Also in the back, visitors can visit its ruins.
  • Capitan-General’s Palace: It is located in front of Central Park. It has a two-level and a two-tiered arched facade. During the centuries XVI to XVII it was home to the representative of the king.
  • Noble City Hall Palace: This construction has kept its original design since 1743. Presently, it hosts the municipal authorities’ offices and the Museum of Antique Books.
  • Church and Convent La Merced: The facade of this church is without a doubt the best example of baroque style. The fountain inside the Convent’s ruins is the largest that remains in La Antigua Guatemala.
  • The church of San Francisco el Grande: It is surrounded by a wall with battlements. Here is where the body of Santo Hermano Pedro de San Jos de Betancourt is kept, as well as a museum where relics, clothes, and objects that he used are on permanent exhibit.
  • Agua Volcano: It is a classic visit for those who love to climb. It is the sixth-highest volcano in the country, and yet it has easy access and a camp.

3. Western Highlands

Get off the tried-and-true trail to explore the homelands of the Maya people and Guatemala’s second-largest city, Quetzaltenango, better known as Xela (Shay-la). Here you can enjoy a trip through the bustling mountain town of Huehuetenango on your way to Todos Santos Cuchumatan, one of the last remaining traditional indigenous villages of Guatemala.

These Guatemalan highlands, also known as the altiplano, are great for adventure travelers. Here you can hike volcanoes and soak in natural thermal springs while enjoying spectacular views of mountains and volcanic lakes.

3.1 Quetzaltenango – Xela

buildings and trees in quetzaltenango xela, guatemala

This department is cold in the highlands and warms in the coastal area. The languages that are spoken here are Spanish, Quiche, and Mam. Named Quetzal after the National bird, Quetzaltenango is settled in an extensive valley surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. Its inhabitants still have the old traditions of the Mayan-Quiche, mixed up with a colonial past and dynamic modern life. It is considered the second most important city in Guatemala. Its highlights are:

  • Municipal Theatre: This Neoclassical building is an architectural jewel. It has a capacity of 1,050 seats. The stage was built in 1916.
  • Central America Park: It is located in the center of the city. The park is surrounded by an impressive monumental complex from which the baroque facade of the Church stands out.
  • Holy Spirit Cathedral: It is settled on the west side of Centro America Park. The complex has two structures: the ruins of the facade of the Holy Spirit Church (1535-1898) at the bottom, and the Cathedral of the Diocesis de Los Altos from 1899.
  • Chicabal Lake: It is located on the volcano summit with the same name. To get there, all you need to do is a short, easy walk.
  • Volcanoes: In Quetzaltenango there are six volcanoes that offer great climbing opportunities. They are: Santa Mari­a, Santiaguito, Cerro Quemado, Siete Orejas, Chicabal and Lacandan.
  • Hot Springs: Due to the volcanic manifestations in the area, you will find many natural warm, sulfured bathes. There are many hot springs in Guatemala and most accessible are the Almolonga, Cantel, and Aguas Amargas baths.

4. Panajachel

trees and lake in atitlan lake, guatemala

Its complete name is San Francisco Panajachel. This is a pre-colonial town of Kakchiquel origin, settled next to the river with the same name and on the lakeshore of Atitlan Lake. It witnessed the final battle between Spaniards and their Kakchiquel allies against the Tzujiles. Currently, this town is located amid large coffee plantations, gardens, and vegetable orchards.

It is the most important center of the area. The reason? It hosts most of the hotels, restaurants, disco clubs, recreational areas, and commercial stores. It is great for doing some handicraft shopping. But what really makes this place stand out is Lake Atitlan, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.

West of Panajachel in the San Buenaventura Valley, a natural wildlife reserve of 120 acres and one butterfly reserve can be found. The forest has many traits and an organic coffee plantation.

Some of the many things to do in Panajachel and in the local towns are: kayaking, hiking in the volcanoes, going on boat rides, enjoying the sunset from a beachside restaurant, and partying.

5. Livingston

What you will find here is a beautiful town with a population of Afro-Caribbean origins called Garifuna. It is located in the Rio Dulce or Dulce River outlet to the Caribbean Sea. It can only be accessed by sea from Puerto Barrios, on private boats.

Holy Week, the feast day in honor of San Isidro Labrador (November 26), and the feast day in honor of Guadalupe Virgin (December 12) are magnificent opportunities to appreciate the folklore of the Gari­funa population of this place. The combination of beautiful beaches and warm people makes this place a great getaway.

6. Guatemala City

Guate (as the locals call it) is the largest Central American city. The city is zonified starting at zone 1 in the center and radiating outward. Some zones are full of lively cafés, top-notch restaurants, and cultural centers. For museum lovers, it’s a don’t-miss-out destination.

Sure, Guatemala City has earned its violent and dangerous reputation for good reason, but you wouldn’t go out flaunting your jewels and trinkets in any Central American city. If you follow a few basic safety guidelines and don’t enter gang territory, you’ll be amazed at how modern and alive this city really is! Plus, you have to come here to catch any mainline transport, either bus, shuttle or plane. So while you’re here, enjoy yourself.

7. Pacific Coast

black sand beach in Monterrico, Guatemala

 Better known as the “Southern Coast”, This is the Guatemalan’s favorite place to go when looking for a beach vacation. Monterrico, the most popular of all, is where Chapins come to bask in the sun and enjoy the black sanded, volcanic beaches.

Granted the beaches are nowhere as beautiful as the surrounding countries such as Mexico or Honduras. But if you’re craving a beach experience, you’ll definitely have a blast here, try a bit of surfing, and party it up with the locals!

8. Central Highlands

The Verapaces, Central Guatemalan Highlands, are mountainous regions with cloud forests, El Biotopo del Quetzal – where you’ll find the Resplendent Quetzal, the gorgeous national monument of Guatemala Semuc Champey, and a number of incredible waterfalls and parks great for rafting, exploring caves and so much more.

semuc champey. guatemala Highlands

 Although the word Verapaz literally means true peace, it was far from a peaceful place at one time. This particular region had seen the most amount of bloodshed, starting in the 1600’s when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived and reformed the native population to Christianity. Also in the 1980’s during the civil war, this particular area was hit the hardest. Nowadays, it’s a great get-away and cultural experience with the main city of Coban and its surrounding areas where the predominant languages are Q’eqchi and Pocomchi.

9. Atlantic Lowlands and Coast

Kid in a beach with a boat in livingston,Guatemala Caribbean Coast

 The Atlantic Coast is really the Caribbean Sea, but I won’t tell if you don’t. Do you know What makes this area so special? It’s the different water cruise adventures to be had: A beautiful boat tour along the Rio Dulce to visit the bustling town of Puerto Barrios then sail on over to the isolated, Caribbean funky town of Livingston. Where reggae beats sway through the air like you can on a hammock!

Plus, there is no shortage of hotels in Guatemala that will make your stay just as memorable as the locations themselves. So, now you can stop wondering where to go in Guatemala,

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5 of The Top Places to Visit in Guatemala

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