Guatemala has been gaining international attention as a top tourist destination. If you are looking for a trip out of the ordinary, make sure to add this beautiful country in Central America to your list.
This Guatemala travel guide was originally written by Daniel of Destinationless Travel who spent a month exploring the country. It has been updated by The Planet D who also spent a month in Guatemala and we’ve added some new tours and attractions for 2023 thanks to our team.
Best Things to do in Guatemala
As one of the most diverse countries in the world with 37 volcanoes, 360 microclimates, lakes, beaches, and land on both the pacific ocean and the Caribbean Sea, how can you not visit Guatemala? These are the best things to do in Guatemala to suit every type of traveler. Are you ready to fall in love with this amazing Central American country? Let’s get started.
1. Acatenango Volcano
If you speak to anyone who has completed this hike, you will likely have heard some rave reviews. Hiking the Acatenango Volcano is a hike unlike any other. Guatemala has 37 volcanoes and 3 of which are active volcanoes. During this trek, you will see one of the most impressive.
It involves hiking for 4-6 hours to a base camp on one side of the Acatenango Volcano. From this camp, it isn’t Acatenango that is impressive, it is the neighboring volcano called Fuego that really makes the overall experience.
Fuego is a very active volcano that sits parallel to the camps on Acatenango. It erupts every few minutes, putting on a show of exploding lava for all of the excited hikers to see. The volcano erupts roughly every 4 to 5 years and it was most recently active in December of 2022.
Several different tour companies offer two-day tours from Antigua for as little as $90 USD including camping equipment, food, and a guide. This highly rated overnight tour lets you observe sunrise and sunset from Acatenango where you’ll sleep at Basecamp in front of Fuego Volcano
Breakdown of Trip
Day one consists of a short 1-2 hour drive to the base of Acatenango followed by 4-6 hours of hiking up towards camp. The afternoon and evening are spent around a campfire waiting for any clouds to part to reveal Fuego’s incredible show. The following morning starts at 4am for a hike to the peak of Acatenango. From here, the sun rises above the cloud line and the Fuego volcano continues to erupt right in front of your eyes. Then, it is a hike back down the same way to the base of Acatenango. The short duration, cheap price, and tours including all equipment make the Acatenangovolcano hike a greatl activity for most travelers.
I would rate the Acatenango Volcano hike as one of the most exciting and unique travel experiences I have ever had. For more information about booking and preparing for the Acatenango Volcano hike check out our blog here.
2. Antigua Guatemala
Often referred to as simply Antigua, Antigua Guatemala is probably one of the first stops you’ll make in the country. Most tourists are attracted to Antigua Guatemala as it is the city where Acatenango Volcano tours start, but it is much more than that. This colonial city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the former capital city of Guatemala.
Antigua Guatemala means Old Guatemala and today, it is a popular tourist hot-spot for good reason. When visiting Antigua part of the charm is to get lost in its cobblestone streets as you enjoy historical tours of the city, museums, shopping, markets, amazing restaurants, and street food.
Iglesia de La Merced translates to the Church of Our lady of mercy was originally built in 1545. However, it was destroyed by two earthquakes and was later restored in the 1700s. It is said to be the largest in Central America and it is worth visiting for its Spanish baroque style architecture with its beautiful yellow and white facades.
Where to Stay in Antigua
Luxury: Hotel Museo Spa Casa Santa Domingo is just 10 minutes walk from the city center. With 5-star luxury, it has a pool, spa and gym. Mid-Range: Hotel Soleil La Antigua is just minutes from Antigua Guatemala Cathedral. There is a spa, free parking and an outdoor pool. Plus a free shuttle to Antigua Central Park. Breakfast and WIFI included.
Vibrant Culture of Guatemala
A great way to immerse in the culture of Guatemala is through food. This half day cultural tour takes you on a gastronomy and history tour all at once. Walk through its cobblestone streets as you admire its colonial architecture. You will then visit a food market before tasting local dishes and as you learn about Guatemala’s cuisine. Other sights you will see on this tour include the Santa Catalina Arch, and the Baroque Church, La Merced Church, one of the most recognizable buildings in Antigua.
Antigua has become very touristy, but that is not a bad thing, the high volume of tourists has made the city much wealthier, and therefore safer, than the likes of Guatemala City or other places in the country.
How to Get to Antigua
Antigua is only 1.5 hours from Guatemala City and there are even frequent Collectivos from the Guatemala City international airport to Antigua. Because Antigua is such a popular tourist destination getting there is very simple. Colectivos in Guatemala is frequent and cheap, allowing one to access the city from pretty much any other city in the nearby vicinity.
3. Chocolate museum / ChocoMuseo
No visit to Guatemala would be complete without tasting some chocolate. Learn about the history and cultural aspects of chocolate at the ChocoMuseo located in Colonial Antigua . A fun interactive hands-on experience that takes you through the process of transforming cocoa beans into delicious amazing chocolate. The chocolate museum has its chocolate processing factory where they make chocolate from Guatemalan cocoa beans.
They also offer a chocolate making workshop where you get to play, eat and learn about the beautiful art of making chocolate. Taste raw and roasted cocoa beans, drink chocolate tea, and other different types of chocolate drinks. A fun experience that the whole family will love.
4. Tikal Mayan Ruins
Located in northern Guatemala sits what many consider to be the “best Mayan Ruins in the world.” I know we did! This is interesting considering Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins are only a few hours from Tikal and were named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
After visiting Tikal and Chichen Itza, I and Dave and Deb would agree that Tikal has more to offer tourists. One reason is that the ruins are within the protected Tikal National Park. This is a special place filled with excavated and unexcavated ruins that are thick in the jungle. Because it is within a protected area, there are plenty of animals roaming around.
But the temples themselves are astounding. The North Acropolis 1 is the highest and most impressive, while the Plaza of the Seven Temples is one of the largest plazas in Tikal dating back to 600 and 900 AD.
People are also allowed to climb almost all of the ruins and we highly recommend going up for sunrise to listen to the sounds of howler monkeys roaring in the mist. The views are spectacular from above the jungle canopy. The whole experience feels authentic and is much more adventurous then most other ancient ruin sites I have visited in the past with many of the pyramids still buried under the earth.
How to Get to Tikal
I would recommend a guide as they will make the experience more significant offering lots of information and making sure you don’t get lost. It is also best to visit Tikal early in the morning when the animals are active. When I was there at 7am I saw Toucans, Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, and Peacocks.
Flores is 8 hours by ;Collectivo from Laquin(Semuc Champey) or 4 hours from Belize City making it easy to get to.
5. Lake Peten Itza
Located near Tikal is Lago Peten Itza (Lake Peten Itza), a scenic lake located in Northern Guatemala. Its most famous for the city of Flores which is a good jumping-off point to explore the Mayan ruins of Tikal. When we visited Guatemala, we seemed to spend a lot of time in this laid-back town of cobblestone streets and pastel buildings. There are beaches and other Maya ruins located along its shores.
Paseo Cayala is just 20 minutes from Guatemala City and this small town attracts a lot of visitors due to its unique urban design. Designed to mimic European neighborhoods with lots of walkable spaces, hotels, lodges, and other residential facilities. Paseo Cayala is modern, cozy, and safe at all times. You can spend a whole day walking around. Lots of eateries to choose from all serving different cuisines.
6. Maya biosphere reserve
Maya biosphere reserve is the second-largest rainforest in Central America and the largest in Guatemala. Tikal is located within the massive reserve. This reserve is one of the most important tropical forests outside the Amazon.
It consists of four national parks and three wildlife reserves. There is only one way to describe the reserve – nature at its best. Spanning more than 2.5 million acres, it is home to elusive animals such as jaguars and pumas.
Expect to see lots of howling monkeys, spiders, parrots, crocodiles, and spider monkeys. If you’re lucky, you might even stumble upon a jaguar. Set aside a day or two for a full experience.
Spend a night at the jungle lodge and sleep to the sounds of nature and howling monkeys. A truly magical experience. This is also the best way to ensure you don’t miss out on the sunrise hike to the temple.
7. Lake Atitlán
Lake Atitlan is a unique spot in Guatemala. It is literally a huge lake surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. Small towns are located along its shores, making for a chilled-out area for travelers to relax for a couple of days.
The higher altitude of 1500m means it isn’t quite so sweltering hot. It is still warm enough for an afternoon swim in the lake though. Other popular activities around the lake include boat tours, kayaking, hiking, yoga classes, watching sunsets, and guided tuk-tuk tours.
Where to Stay at Lake Atitlan
8. San pedro la laguna
The town of San Pedro is the largest “backpacker-oriented town” with cheap food (lots of it), good shopping, and budget places to party at night. It isn’t the most relaxing area but definitely has a fun vibe. This small town located in the Southwest of Lake Atitlán has lots to offer for outdoor enthusiasts. Take Spanish language classes or a cooking class in a locals home.
Take a horseback ride as you explore coffee plantations, or take the Indian Nose hike for scenic views of Lake Atitlán, and shop at local markets for fresh produce or handcrafted souvenirs. Spend a full day exploring and taking in the sights and sounds of the Lake.
This holiday home has a great location on the lake and within walking distance to restaurants and shops. Newly renovated apartment with private balcony and shared kitchen.
9. Towns Around Lake Atitlán
San Marcos is also located. on Lake Atitlan and is popular with tourists but is much smaller than San Pedro and more relaxed. San Marcos is commonly known as the “hippie town” which has attracted many yoga-enthusiast ex-pats.
The other less common options are Santa Cruz, which is mainly inhabited by locals with only a couple of accommodation options or restaurants, or Panajachel which is the biggest city without too much to offer tourists. You can also visit Santiago Atitlén and San Antonio which you can visit by boat.
Getting Around Lake Atitlan
The great thing about Lake Atitlan is that no matter where you choose to stay, it is easy and inexpensive to get around the lake. Transport around the lake is for locals and tourists alike in the form of boats that operate much like public buses in cities.
There are set fares from one destination to the next and set schedules. Locals jump on the boats with baskets of produce and sometimes live chickens while tourists lug on suitcases. The whole boat system as the main form of public transport is a fun and interesting experience in itself.
10. San Juan La Laguna
Not so far away from San Pedro is San Juan La Laguna also located Southwest of Lake Atitlán. This charming town is worth a visit when in Guatemala. San Juan La Laguna is often described as an artsy town as its full of streets with beautiful art murals painted in striking colors.
Lots of activities to do here such as; visiting Cerro de la Cruz for scenic views of the towns, enjoying locally grown artisanal coffee, visiting the local market, shopping for textiles, cooking classes, and visiting other local communities around Lake Atitlán.
You can book this highly rated tour to visit the mountain villages and the villages of Guatemala’s indigenous people. Tale a public boat across the lake to the colorful village of San Juan La Laguna. You’ll visit Santiago where people still live the Mayan culture and lifestyle dressed in traditional clothing. And the town still practices Mayan rituals. You’ll then head to Panajachel, a pre-Columbian town for lunch and more sightseeing.
11. Sign up for Spanish lessons
Learning Spanish is one of the best things you can do to make your trip memorable. Having a grasp of basic Spanish will make your interactions with locals much more pleasant and easier. There are lots of Spanish schools for foreigners. If you want you can also sign up and learn with locals in their homes. Besides, understanding Spanish is the first step to understanding Mayan culture.
Popular places to take Spanish classes are in Antigua Guatemala, Lake Atitlán, and Quetzaltenango (Xela). It’s easy to find a course once you are there.
12. Atitlan Nature Reserve
Located just outside Panajachel is the Atitlan Nature Reserve, a sanctuary was built to help spread awareness and raise support for the conservation work being done by scientists and students.
Outdoor lovers will enjoy ziplining over waterfalls and coffee plantations. There is a butterfly dome for nature lovers. The walking trails are easy, well-maintained, and very relaxing. Walk down to the waterfall, or the beach. You can also set up camp on the grounds and sleep to the beautiful sounds of nature.
13. Semuc Champey Natural Monument
On the other side of the country is the famous National Park called Semuc Champey. Many travelers skip it due to the long bus ride from other destinations close to the Antigua area, which is a shame because it is fantastic!
Semuc Champey is an area of bright turquoise water which flows through hundreds of small waterfalls and natural pools.. Between these waterfalls visitors can swim in natural pools, jump off waterfalls, slide down them, or find small caves. There is also a short one-hour long hike to a viewpoint about the swimming pools offering some awesome photo opportunities.
Information and Costs for the Park
Tours offer transport to the park, a guide to explore the falls, a guide for the hike, and a caving experience. They are quite affordable at $25 USD for a full day trip. However, for those on a tighter budget, it is possible to get public transport to the park for $2 and pay the entrance fee of $7.
The park is easy to explore independently as it is well-marked with English signs.
Accommodation options near the park also make for an exciting experience. There are a few budget eco-lodge-type places within walking distance of Semuc Champey.
These places are fun as they have little to no electricity and do family-style dinners and games. For those happier to stay in a town, the town called Lanquin is just over an hour’s drive from the park. Here there are affordable hotels with pools or budget backpacker accommodations. For more information on visiting Semuc Champey check out our blog here.
14. Pacaya Volcano
Pacaya Volcano is another active volcano that isn’t quite as difficult as the Acatenango hike, and you don’t need to stay overnight on the mountain. It is only a 2 hour walk to the summit giving you beautiful views of the volcanoes, Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango, the pacific lowlands, and even neighboring El Salvador. You may see small eruptions and even flowing lava.
Some people have been known to roast marshmallows in the steaming vents and warmed pizza on the hot lava rocks.
15. Xela (Quetzaltenango)
Quetzaltenango is often referred to as Xela (pronounced Shel-ha). This is the perfect place to get off the beaten path and explore the Guatemalan Highlands. There are plenty of volcano hikes here including the Tajumulco Volcano which is the highest peak in Central America.
The city itself is the second largest city in Guatemala after Guatemala City where you can enjoy plenty of outdoor markets including Chichicastenango Market, the largest outdoor market in Central America. Make sure to stop to see the Quetzaltenango Cathedral in Central Park (Parque Centro)
One of the most popular places to visit in Xela is Fuentes Georginas hot springs located in the town of Zunil.
16. Explore the Rio Dulce
In Rio dulce, you have two things. Water and a chance to explore local life inland. Start by visiting Castillo de san Felipe, a fortress that was built to protect Rio dulce against pirates. Interact with locals, learn about the local culture, and admire the wildlife and town before heading out to the river.
The river Rio Dulce also known as the sweet river is known for its calm waters and beautiful scenery. It also connects Lake Izabel, the largest lake in Guatemala to Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. Lots of birds such as pelicans overhead as you enjoy a boat ride. There are also hot springs inside the caves nearby. Rio Dulce should be on top of your list when visiting Guatemala.
The best way to experience Rio Dulce is to book a hut on the river. Boutique Hotel is a hotel and marina located on the river with water sports, and jungle activities. There’s a terrace and bar and rooms range from private tree tents to jungle view rooms.
17. Monterrico Beach
If you are looking for some beach time in Guatemala, Monterrico Beach on Guatemala’s Pacific Coast is one of the most popular beach towns in the country.
The black sand beach makes for a great change of pace from exploring the highlands. You can enjoy the surf, watch for sea turtles or go for a paddle amongst the mangrove forest of Hawaii-Monterrico Biotopo. It’s a different vibe from the Caribbean Sea that is more wild and not exactly great for swimming. But it is a nice escape from the rugged volcanoes and treks you’ll be used to within the country.
18. Guatemala City
A lot of people don’t put Guatemala City on their best things to-do lists, but chances are you’ll be flying into Guatemala City, so why not spend a day or two in the capital city before taking off to explore Guatemala?
This Guatemala City tour is a highly rated tour that lets you discover all of the highlights in one afternoon. Explore La Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, the cultural, business and religious center of Guatemala. Your guide will take you through the colonial architecture mixed with its modern building. There are plenty of museums and monuments to see. As the largest city in Central America, you’ll begin at Las Americas Avenue to Berlin Plaza and a view of the Pacaya volcano. More modern buildings include the Supreme Court, City Hall and the Bank of Guatemala.
Spending time doing city tours is one of our favorite things when traveling to a new country and Guatemala City has plenty of attractions that are worth seeing.
18. Ride in a chicken bus
A visit to Guatemala will not be complete with a ride on the chicken bus. It’s easy to spot these buses with their loud music and bright colors. Also known as a Colectivo, for many Guatemalans, this is the most popular mode of local transport. As a visitor, this is a great way to experience modern-day Mayan culture.
Why Visit Guatemala
I loved my time spent in Guatemala and will encourage anybody who is considering a trip to Latin America to plan for a good amount of time in Guatemala. It is still a destination that feels untouched and you’ll have many authentic experiences. If you want to get off the beaten path, Guatemala is the place to travel.