Offical languages: Spanish
Currency: The Quetzal
Guatemala is the most heavily populated country in Central America, with close to 16 million inhabitants. The total area of the country is a little over 42,000 square miles. This country is famous for its impressive Mayan ruins and incredible biodiversity. It is a highly diverse country, with mountains, desert, valleys and plains. The name Guatemala is believed to have come from the phrase Land of Many Trees in a native language.There have been a number of natural disasters as well as social and political issues in Guatemala in the past. However, right now it is fast gaining a reputation as an intoxicating and intriguing destination with a huge amount to offer. Tourism is something that is really starting to take off in Guatemala. The richness of the landscape and the cultural treasures housed here mean that many more tourists are making plans to travel here every year. There are over 30 volcanoes in this country, along with lakes, mountains and great beaches. Of course, it is also famous for its ancient culture and the wonderfully intricate textiles that are still made here.
Must see places in Guatemala
La Antigua Guatemala (Antigua)
The stunning city of Antigua is quite simply one of the finest places you will ever see. Just 30 miles outside of Guatemala City, this was the capital of the region in Spanish colonial times and one of the most important cities in the New World. It was partly abandoned after an earthquake and is now a World Heritage site. This city offers some incredible colonial architecture and when you are here you will feel as though you have been transported back in time.
A city population of over 1 million and a metropolitan population of 4 million means that the capital of Guatemala is also its biggest city. This is the heart of the country in many ways and where you can enjoy the biggest selection of culture, food and entertainment possibilities. It is a great location for buying some of the famous local textiles and for looking out signs of the ancient Mayan city of Kaminaljuyu that once stood here.
If you are in Guatemala City or Antigua and want to hit the beach then this is the easiest and best option. Monterrico is the country’s most popular beach by far. You might not want to swim here, though, as there are strong waves and steep ocean floor drop off sharply. The beach is made up of black volcanic sand and gets really hot early in the day. Sunday is when the local families come here but there is still usually enough room for everyone to have their own bit of beach to enjoy.
Lago de Atitlán
This volcanic lake is the setting for one of the finest tourist experiences in all of Guatemala. It is located in the western part of the country and the pretty towns around it captivate many travellers each year. Each of the towns in the region offers a different type of experience, with Panajachel probably the best known of them. You can get around by boat instead of taxi here and you don’t want to miss a trip up to the Indian’s Nose.
We already know that the Mayan ruin of Tikal will take your breath away but what if you want to see more? El Mirador is a big Mayan site in the jungle whose location is both its strong point and the reason that not many people go there. It is light on tourists because it is difficult and relatively time consuming to make the trip to this place. Excavation work is still going on, so we can expect this site to get progressively more popular over time.
Even if you speak Spanish to a good level you might struggle to pronounce the name of one of the biggest cities in Guatemala. The good news is that it is called simply Xela by many people. This is likely to be your base if you plan on exploring the Western Highlands of the country. This is a good place to visit if you want easy access to volcanoes, mountains, hot springs and lovely countryside. The city itself has a pleasant colonial feel and a laid back charm that is hard to resist.
Once one of the most important Mayan cities, these days Tikal feels like a magnificent lost world in the jungle. This is a popular archaeological site and it is still being worked on in current times. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is truly humbling to come here and see how these beautiful temples and other buildings have survived the passing of the centuries. If you choose to climb up to the top of one of the temples you will be treated to a glorious view and might see some of the monkeys and toucans that live here now.
Rio Dulce means Sweet River and you will feel that life has got a bit sweeter as you explore it in a small boat. The scenery is marvellous and this is also a popular market area, so you can get a glimpse in the culture and everyday life of the people. The impressive fort called Castillo de San Felipe is a highlight, as is the Rio Dulce National Park that it is located in.
About 4 hours from Guatemala City lies the interesting town of Cobán. It is popular with travellers mainly because of the picturesque villages scattered around near it. The locals are famously friendly and you shouldn’t have many problems finding ways to get out and explore the countryside and nearby caves. The Sunday craft market is small but delightful, while there is another market behind the cathedral.
The town of Flores sits on an island in Lago Peten, close to the famous historic Mayan ruins at Tikal. It is a surprisingly fantastic place, with cobbled streets, colonial buildings and a huge dollop of charm. In the neighbouring area you will find plenty to do, from the Cave of the Serpent to the small zoo of rescued animals and the chance to head out in a boat to enjoy some unbeatable views.
Things to do in Guatemala
There’s a lot to cram into any trip to Guatemala. From arguably the best shopping experience in the region to world famous historic attractions and great food and drink, you will find lots to enjoy once you get here.
Try the Food
The traditional cuisine here is largely based on the country’s Mayan and Spanish influences. These days there are also international influences, especially in the big cities. Tropical fruits are all around here and you will definitely want to try the delicious mangoes, bananas and other fruits here. Main meals tend to include the likes of tortillas, beans, plantain bananas and rice. Don’t forget to try the excellent coffee while you are here.
A lot of people who are new to the Spanish language choose to learn it in Guatemala. This is because it is seen as an interesting place to make your base while you learn by speaking to the friendly and helpful locals. While the full immersion courses involve a relatively long stay in the country, you can pick up a lot even on a short stay. If you need to get a decent base in the language or brush up on some faded Spanish skills this is an ideal destination.
Do Some Shopping
This is a wonderful country in which to do some shopping. Guatemala is especially famous for its arts and crafts, with the handmade textiles being simply stunning. The good value prices and the huge variety of high quality products on offer mean that this is commonly regarded as the best shopping destination in Central America. No matter which part of the country you are going to, it pays to check out what local markets you can visit and what days they take place.
Soak up the History
There are few places in the world where you will feel the history and rich culture of the place as much as you will in Guatemala. From the incredible pre-Hispanic ruins of Tikal to the lost in time city of Antigua and the laid back colonial towns, you will feel as though you are surrounded by the long and fascinating history of this Central American country.
Get Off the Beaten Track
It is far easier to get off the beaten track in Guatemala than it is in many other places. While the main tourist attractions are becoming ever more popular, there are many charming towns and villages where you are likely to be the only foreign visitor there. This is where you are going to most experience the famous Guatemalan hospitality and be able to try authentic cuisine as well.
Best time to visit Guatemala
Tourists visit Guatemala from December to April
You could enjoy a trip here at any time of year, although December to March or April is when most foreign tourists come here. The rainy season can make it difficult to get around in the more rural areas where roads aren’t always paved. The fact that the weather changes across the country means that you might want to check out the specific details of the places you want to visit. For example, the humidity levels in El Petén make the rainy season an uncomfortable time to be here for most people. The first thing to understand about the weather in Guatemala is that the rainy season, which is called winter here, runs from May to October, although this season does vary from one place to another. The rest of the year is known as summer and is generally dry. The temperature varies according to factors such as altitude and microclimates.