From hiking volcanoes to visiting ancient Mayan ruins, here are 15 EPIC things to do in Guatemala no one should miss when exploring the country for the first time.
There are many things to do in Guatemala. From exploring Tikal National Park to lounging around Lake Atitlan, from relaxing at Semuc Champey to wandering through the colonial town of Antigua, you will easily fall in love with this colorful, vibrant country.
Following a 2 week backpacking trip across Guatemala, I spent a few days catching up on much-needed sleep, recovering from a stomach flu, and reminiscing about the Acatanengo volcano hike that ended with a sunrise above clouds in Antigua. All in all, I was sun-kissed and satisfied.
Like most countries down south, Guatemala’s pleasant weather was perfect for my often-too-cold Canadian self. (Canada snowed until April this year, smh).
Other than the warm breezes and sunny mornings, the country was quick to capture my curiosity. From Mayan ruins to hot springs, there was much more to do in Guatemala than I imagined.
Below are a few things that you should do if visiting Guate for the first time!
1. Visit Mayan Ruins
Tikal National Park
As one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a mesmerizing combination of nature, myths, and history. Spending a day, or a night in Tikal National Park is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Guatemala.
For many, the Mayan civilization is synonym with mystery and enigma. From its art to architecture, sophisticated logosyllabic script to the astronomical system, its people were the most advanced in the pre-Columbian New World.
Located in the region of the Petén Basin, Tikal is a site that vividly depicts Mayan history. This ancient city reached its height in 200 CE and maintained dominance over the Maya region until 850 CE. Tikal’s eventual decline led to its abandonment.
Although locals led expeditions to the Lost City, it wasn’t until the 19th century that archaeologists began investigating the ruins and deciphering the hieroglyphics.
Home to 575 sq of jungle and thousands of ruined Mayan structures, Tikal National Park can be accessed by car or bus from Flores, Guatemala, or Belize. The park opens at 6 am and its gates shut at 6 pm. As of 2019, tickets are Q 150 and can be purchased by cash at the main gates.
There are 3 hotels and a camping ground on-site. A museum and a souvenir shop are also readily accessible. For some, a sunrise or sunset tour may be the best way to capture the beauty of the jungle. However, tickets must be purchased beforehand along with a guided tour.
Hike El Mirador
Bret Love & Mary Gabbett from Green Global Travel
Located in the northern Guatemala department of El Petén, El Mirador (which is also known as “the Lost City of the Maya”) is one of the most remote Mayan ruins in all of Latin America. It’s also one of the oldest, founded in the 6th century BCE, and the largest, at one time home to an estimated 200,000 people.
The ancient city reached its height in the 3rd century BCE, growing to encompass around 10 square miles and boast thousands of structures, with the tallest over 230 feet high. By the end of the first century CE, the city had been all but deserted, but it was later re-occupied and more construction occurred in the Last Classic Era before it was permanently abandoned in the latter part of the 9th century.
Because El Mirador (whose name translates as “the lookout” or “the viewpoint”) is shrouded in a thick tropical jungle, it remained relatively unknown even after being first discovered in 1926. It wasn’t until 1978 that the first detailed archaeological project began there, with a Brigham Young University team focused on excavations in the city center and a Catholic University of America team focused on mapping the bajos (seasonal swamps) that allowed early Mayans to create fertile agricultural systems.
Visiting the archaeological site today isn’t remotely easy. The locally-owned Beast Wildlife Adventures by K’uk Tours offers a guided 5-day El Mirador trek for around US 380, but it involves long days of hiking through jungles infested with mosquitos, venomous snakes, and high heat and humidity. This explains why El Mirador is one of the least visited ancient Mayan sites.
However you choose to get there, this remote archaeological site in Guatemala is well worth a visit. There are three huge temple complexes: The 157-foot tall “Los Monos,” the 180-foot tall “El Tigre,” and the 236-foot tall “La Danta” (which ranks among the largest ancient structures in the world). The pyramids have largely been reclaimed by the jungle, with trees growing out of the rocks.
You can also see intricately carved stelae, beautiful stucco friezes, and wildlife such as tropical birds and curious howler monkeys along the way. And you’ll be amazed to realize what a vast percentage of the city has still never been excavated by archaeologists!
Semuc Champey is a favorite amongst many backpackers. Although slightly difficult to get to, this natural monument is the perfect place for relaxation and rejuvenation.
Located in Central Guatemala, Semuc Campey can only be accessed from the nearby Mayan town of Lanquin. If you choose to go without a tour, simply catch a jeep that departs from Lanquin town center for Q 25/one way and enjoy the 45-minute ride across the rocky mountain roads! There are many jeeps that operate in the morning so don’t worry about missing a pre-scheduled ride.
The entrance fee for Semuc is Q 50 and paid in cash at the gates. Once inside, head along the path until a set of stairs that lead to the Mirador Viewpoint. This uphill battle will take 15-30 minutes and is a tad tough to tackle. Of course, the view on top is easily worth the effort. The wooden platform offers a mesmerizing view of the turquoise pools down below. I sat there for some time before heading back down to enjoy the waters.
It took me another 10 minutes before getting to the pools. People scattered along the pools created by sedimentation of calcite from the canyon water. The water was crystal clear and you relax alongside the shoals of fish swimming inside.
Walk in the Overflowing Peten Itza Lake at Flores
Bistra and Nace from The Magic of Traveling
The town of Flores in Guatemala is so picturesque that it’s no wonder it attracts many visitors. People usually arrive at the main bus station at its twin town – Santa Elena. From there you take a tuk-tuk for a crazy ride across jammed streets and the bridge to Flores. Flores welcomes you with its colorful colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. Hold on!
As you get to the Old Town of Flores (which basically occupies the whole tiny island), you get off the tuk-tuk and start exploration on foot. It’s magical, it’s beautiful. The streets are bustling with wandering people and crafts shops, there are some amazing restaurants overlooking the Peten Itza lake. But the most interesting part is that the lake is overflowing at places, completely flooding the coastal promenade.
Some people decide to walk back up and stay dry, others decide to take a boat trip to one of the nearby islands and villages. But you can also walk in the little floods all over the promenade. We jumped around and took photos with the reflections over the crystal water surface. It was another very fresh view over Flores and Peten Itza.
Needless to say, this experience comes for free. Well. you better wear sandals or flip-flops so you don’t have to dry your shoes later. And be prepared for the awkward looks of the passers-by. Some of them will eventually join you in puddle hopping. This was our experience spinning the negativity of the overflowing Peten Itza lake to a very memorable fun time in Flores and a highlight of our stay in Guatemala and Central America!
Classes in Xela
Roz from Irish Nomads
Guatemala is one of the best locations to learn Spanish in Latin America – cheap prices, professional tutors, one-on-one classes – what’s not to love? Learning some Spanish will help massively as you traverse the region and Xela (also called Quetzaltenango) is an excellent choice.
Why Xela and not Antigua or Lake Atitlan? The other two are often recommended for Spanish classes, but both towns are far more touristy than Xela, meaning you’ll probably end up interacting with other tourists rather than locals and, as a result, lapsing back into your own language. Xela is the perfect location to fully immerse yourself in Spanish.
You’ll find numerous Spanish language schools catering to tourists in Xela and, because there are so many, there’s generally no need to reserve classes in advance. You can drop into the most popular schools (PLQE, Celas Maya and Miguel de Cervantes), talk with the teachers and organize your program. Generally, classes run throughout the morning, with five to six hours of individual tutoring finishing around lunchtime. In the afternoon, you can partake in cultural learning activities (in Spanish, of course) such as trips to the market, hikes, cooking classes and watching movies. While the class structure is normally pre-defined, you can also choose to organize your own bespoke program – evening classes, classes every other day and more hours are all possible.
Class prices are approximately Q 38 (US 5) per hour for one-on-one tuition. To get to Xela, you have two options. If you’re looking for the budget option, take the daily ‘chicken bus’ from San Pedro at Lake Atitlan. But booking onto a shuttle bus is far easier and almost as cheap – you’ll find tour companies selling shuttle bus tickets in Antigua and Lake Atitlan. When you’ve finished your classes, we really recommend joining the Quetzaltrekkers hike from Xela-Lake Atitlan.
4. One of the Largest Markets in Central America
Audrey from Gumnuts Abroad
We love visiting markets whenever we’re in a new place. They’re bustling, busy places filled with bright colors, local flavor, and lots of tasty treats.
If you’re in Guatemala, then one of the best things to do is visit Chichicastenango Market. It’s said to be the biggest market in all of Central America. People have been shopping here for hundreds of years and it’s a great way to experience Guatemalan culture.
Visitors can expect to find textiles, wood carvings, leather goods, handmade jewelry, pottery, and souvenirs. This is a great place to pick up a Guatemalan blanket or souvenir. Sadly, we had months of travel ahead and had to settle for an easy-to-carry iPad cover instead. I loved the modern application of traditionally crafted fabric.
The market’s laneways are jam-packed with stalls and each street blends into the next in a riot of color. Allow plenty of time to explore. As you wander further away from the center, the stalls begin to cater more to the locals. Here you’ll see people buying fruit and vegetables, second-hand clothes and livestock stuffed into baskets.
A highlight of this market is the Santo Tomas Church where ancient Mayan rituals take place. Vendors gather on the church’s steps to sell their beautiful handicrafts and huge bundles of flowers. It’s the perfect spot to sit and take it all in.
Participate in the Burning of the Devil Festival
Michele from A Taste for Travel
From Holy Week to Day of the Dead, Guatemala is well-known for its many colourful traditional festivals and celebrations. One of the most unique of these festivals is the Dia del Diablo or Day of the Devil, a celebration that takes place on December 7th each year and ushers in the Christmas season.
During the first week of December leading up to the celebration, visitors to Guatemala will see roadside stands selling papier-mache figures of the devil in various sizes and shapes. The cartoonish characters look like pinatas but instead of being filled with sweets are actually packed with fireworks ( and other flammable materials) so don’t plan to buy one and take it home in your suitcase!
On the evening of December 7th, people throughout Guatemala ( but primarily in Guatemala City and Antigua) take these effigies of the devil and light them outside of their homes or in their backyards, courtyards or terraces. During this La Quema del Diablo ( Burning of the Devil) they’ll also often throw garbage, tires and other miscellaneous objects onto the fire to build up the flames. They then enjoy drinks, music, and chats with neighbours as the night progresses.
In order to better control the possibility of accidents, bonfires during La Quema del Diablo are increasingly being hosted by municipal authorities and supervised by firefighters. The largest of these festivities takes place in the Concepcion Neighbourhood of Antigua, Guatemala. The celebration features vendors selling various traditional street foods, live bands, sparklers and fireworks and as the grand finale, the setting alight of a giant statues of the devil. You’ll often see people in devil costumes or with painted faces.
The torching of the devil takes place after sunset and the sparks fly through the dark sky illuminating the night so is quite a dramatic sight to see.
Explore Pascual Abaj
Becky Pokora from SightDOING®
Although many tourists make their way to the highlands town of Chichicastenango, few see anything beyond the famous market that’s held twice a week. However, just a short walk outside of town, visitors have the chance to see a Mayan shrine and witness local ceremonies.
Pascual Abaj is a stone figure on the top of a hill and is said to represent the earth god, Huyup Tak’ah. Mayan shamans (or priests) perform ceremonies there, asking for blessings on marriages, harvests, or help with other problems. Locals bring offerings to please the god, leaving anything from flowers to candles, incense, or even alcohol.
Ceremonies can take place at any time of day or night, but there’s no guarantee that there will be one when you go to visit. Still, if you’re interested, you can make the short but steep walk to Pascual Abaj and watch respectfully from a distance.
To get there, you’ll need to walk or taxi to the mask museum and then head on the uphill trail for about 10-15 minutes. You can also arrange for an INGUAT guide in town (approximately Q 150-200 per group, or US $20-25) for context on the customs and procedures.
Eco-Lodge in Rio Dulce
Lora from Explore with Lora
Rio Dulce, translating directly to ‘sweet river’, is one of the most overlooked destinations in Guatemala. I hadn’t planned to visit Rio Dulce on my original itinerary but ended up there on my way to Honduras, and fell in love with the area.
The best way to experience Rio Dulce is to stay at one of the eco-lodges located on the bank of the river. Getting there is easier than it sounds. You just take a bus to the town of Lanquin (I caught a bus from Semuc Champey), and from the main dock, locals will bring you to your lodge via a small boat for just a couple of dollars.
As soon as the boat turned into the river I knew I had made the right decision coming here. The river is lush and full of life. In fact, the eco-lodge I stayed at, Dreamcatchers, was set in a Howler Monkey Preserve. It was modern and clean, yet felt like you were in the middle of the jungle.
Aside from spotting wildlife, in the surrounding area, you can also visit canyons and hot spring waterfalls. For any nature lover, Rio Dulce is a paradise, and just another reason to fall in love with Guatemala.
Stay at Finca el Paraíso
Lozzy from Cuppa to Coppa Travels
Imagine sitting in a refreshingly cold natural pool in the depths of the peaceful forest, and being given a steaming hot shower by a waterfall fed by thermal springs.
All this is possible at Finca el Paraíso, a natural wonder in the East of Guatemala, in a part of the country that is still fairly rare for tourists to visit.
Climb up the steep riverbanks to explore some of the caves and bathe in the hot springs above the waterfall, and then jump off the edge of the falls into the crystal clear water of the natural pool to cool back down. No need to worry about jagged rocks here – the bed of the pools is a silky layer of beautifully soft sand.
All in all, this is one of the true gems of Latin America. Finca el Paraíso is near the small town of El Estor in the Izabal region, but the closest main town is Río Dulce, a bustling, dusty town surrounded by natural beauty in every direction. Small colectivo buses leave from the center of Río Dulce whenever full, and the journey costs just Q 15 – make sure you tell the driver you wish to get off at Finca el Paraíso and he will drop you off near the forest entrance.
There is then a short walk through the forest to get to the waterfall, with an entry fee of Q 10; locals may offer to show you the way for a small tip. To return. just wait on the main road and flag a minibus as it passes.
7. Eat Your Weight
Pepian & Chiles Rellenos & Breakfast Everything
Guatemalan cuisine has never been on my radar. Even in a city as diverse as Toronto, I’ve never come across a café or restaurant that featured Guatemalan food. I didn’t realize how much I was missing out on until stepping into Guate City. From the sweet to the savory, there is a long list of recipes that I vowed to master once returning home.
I was lucky enough to have a local friend by my side while navigating through the many culinary options that Guatemala had to offer. We started off with some restaurant dining before giving market delicacies a go.
When asked what to eat in Guatemala, locals immediately point towards the many soups that the country has to offer. It’s true. Guatemala is full of savory soups and hearty stews. Caldo de Res pepian, jocón, kak’ik pepian, tapado, subanik, pulique, hilachas, jocón, kak’ik, caldo de gallina, and caldo de res, to name a few.
Pepian and Chiles Rellenos are my two favorite dishes. The former is a thick meat and vegetable stew common in Antigua while the latter is meat-and-veggie-stuffed pepper that will melt in your mouth. (It’s simply delicious!)
A must-do in Guatemala is to eat your weight away at one of the local breakfast cafes. Whether it be a sandwich or some sweet corn soup, there is no wrong option!
The Volcan Acatanengo hike was the most difficult thing I did in Guatemala. It is also one that I can’t stop talking about.
Located near the town of Antigua, this dormant volcano towers at the height of 3,976 m. It took us more than 6 hours of sweat and words of encouragement to hike the beast, but the view on top easily soothed my sore legs. While watching the sunrise above the clouds to the left and Fuego Volcano’s bursts and eruptions to the right, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Acatanengo.
It’s much easier to hike Acatanengo with a tour. They provide food and tents, so all we had to do was to bring our stamina (Ok, and a few liters of water and some snacks and extra layers for the top).
The organizer drove us from Antigua to a town near Acatanengo. Once there, we were driven to the foot of the volcano with our guide. It was around 11 am in the morning when we began our ascent. This journey lasted for around 4.30 hours before we reached our sleeping arrangement for the night.
The next morning at around 3:30 am, we hiked another 1.5 hours up a difficult path towards the top. Although tough, I’d recommend anyone to give Acatanengo a climb. It is stunning!
Hike Mount Tajamulco
Campbell from Stingy Nomads
Hiking to the top of Mount Tajamulco, the highest point in Central America at 4220m above sea level was one of our highlights traveling through the region. Mount Tajamulco is a dormant volcano in Guatemala and can be climbed independently, but guided two-day tours including camping equipment are offered by several companies.
Tours on different budgets are offered, ranging from only hiring a guide to including equipment and food. The hike starts at an elevation of 3000m and climbing the 1220m to the top is usually done over two days.
The town Xela is a popular tourist town and most companies offering guided hikes to the top of Mount Tajamulco are located here. On day one you make the journey from Xela to Tajamulco and start the climb to your base camp. We set up camp at about 3200m above sea level. The hike the first day is steep and it takes around 3 to 5 hours to hike the 8km to camp.
This should not be rushed since getting altitude sickness is a real risk at this height. There are no facilities at the base camp and it was very cold camping at night going below zero degrees Celsius. We started making our final ascend at 04:30 in the morning to reach the top in time for a spectacular sunrise. Doing the hike in one day is possible, but the early start is hard with public transport and you will miss the fantastic sunrise!
Roshni from The Wanderlust Within
Santa Cruz La Laguna is a quiet spot, away from the parties and souvenir shops and much more suitable for travelers looking to be charmed by an authentic and secluded Mayan village. Two nights weren’t enough for me and I could have happily spent a week relaxing in this blissful hideaway right on the lake front.
I chose to stay at La Iguana Perdida, after seeing a photo of the view from their breakfast spot (pictured). This green hostel has several shared and private cabanas, and due to the lack of restaurants in Santa Cruz, the hostel runs family-style dinners every night at 7 pm. The three-course homemade meals are only Q 65 per person, but you must sign up by 3pm each day.
If you want to do more than relax in a hammock (nothing wrong with that!), Santa Cruz offers kayaking, paddle boarding, cooking lessons, Spanish lessons, yoga and hiking tours. It is also the only village on Lake Atitlan with a dive shop. They run PADI courses from Open Diver to Divemaster as well as options for those who are already certified.
The only activity I managed to fit in during my time was backstrap weaving, which I organized via the hostel. I was welcomed into the home of a local indigenous family who showed me step by step how to create my own colorful belt. It took several hours, and I burned a LOT of calories but it was well worth experiencing the weaving process for myself and being able to take home a souvenir I’d made on my own!
If you’ve looked into transportations around Guatemala, you’ve probably come across chicken buses. These redecorated school buses are the local’s method of transportation and act as an affordable alternative to tourist shuttles.
To be honest, I was a tad worried about getting lost while taking the chicken bus (they don’t have scheduled stops), so ended up only taking it twice. But it’s such a unique experience that every traveler should give it a go!
In addition to a better understanding of local customs, these buses often blast 90s pop music that will take you back in time. I was completely confused yet charmed by the random Brittany & Madonna & NSYNC soundtracks. If you think this might be something worth a try, below are a few tips!
- Chicken buses are for both people, goods, and the occasional animal. You never know what you might find inside (it’s usually just people)
- It can be jam-packed, so keep your belongings with you at all times.
- There are numerous buses for short distances, such as between Antigua and Guatemala City, but there aren’t any for long-distance journeys
- Do ask someone for nearby stops if you aren’t familiar with the area! You can usually just wave a chicken bus down if they are going your way
- Grab a seat, and the operator will come by and collect the money afterward. I don’t know how they manage to remember those who’ve paid and those who haven’t. It’s a skill. (It was about Q 15 between Antigua and Guate City, which is really cheap)
- Again, they can usually stop anywhere along the route, just let the operator know (or shout it out) when the bus comes close to your destination.
That’s it! Have fun 🙂