10 Must-Do Experiences in Guatemala

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From active volcanoes, ancient Mayan ruins, immaculate colonial cities to quite possibly the world’s most beautiful lake, Guatemala boasts plenty of reasons for you to plan your getaway to Central America. Home of the most Mayan ruins in the world, over 30 volcanoes, more than 720 species of birds, and even dubbed “Billfish Capital of the World,” Guatemala showcases a long list of unique travel experiences. Ever considered going to Guatemala, but not quite sure where to begin? We’ve got a list of the 8 must-have experiences when visiting this charming, rustic Central American country:

Antigua: Rich in history and architectural charm, the colonial city of Antigua is a vibrant area that takes visitors back in time. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, the city dates back to the early 16th century and today still boasts fantastic characteristics of the time with its cobblestone streets, decorative fountains, colorful massive buildings and fantastic baroque-style churches. The Church of La Merced, for example, is distinguished for its white stucco designs set against a yellow façade. Antigua, also known as the “old Guatemala,” enjoys fantastic natural views of three surrounding volcanoes.

Tikal National Park is one of those places that merits at least two visits during a lifetime. The adventure begins in the jungle, trekking through lush vegetation while becoming acquainted with the sounds of nature. Once the giant ruins of this National Park and first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site peak through, visitors are transported to ancient times. Tikal, once a major city of the Mayan civilization, houses temples, palaces and remains of dwellings that can leave even the most avid traveler speechless. The area protects 22,100 hectares of rainforest and 54 species of mammals, amongst them spider monkeys, jaguars, anteaters and deer.

Lake Atitlán, Central America’s deepest lake, was created by a massive volcanic explosion. In his book, Beyond the Mexique Bay, English writer Aldous Huxley called Atitlán, “…too much of a good thing.” Indeed, the expansive lake is surrounded by breathtaking views of volcanoes and 15 distinct indigenous towns (all with biblical names).

Quetzaltenango, also known as “Xela” by the locals, is the second largest city in Guatemala and well-known for its Spanish schools for those looking to immerse and perfect their language skills. Surrounded by natural resources such as hot springs, mountains and rivers, Xela is one of the country’s main commercial hubs for the production of coffee and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Here, it’s not uncommon to find women in traditional Mayan clothing mingling with men in suits.

Quirigua is an ancient Mayan archaeological site that holds the tallest stelae (stone sculptures) erected in the New World. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is easy to navigate and its visit can be completed in only two hours. The enigmatic relics found at Quiriguá tell tales of ancient rulers, deities and rivalries.

Rio Dulce is a popular boating destination located in the department of Izabal. At the mouth of the river stands a small Spanish fort, The Castillo of San Felipe de Lara, which served as protection from pirates entering from the Caribbean when the city was an important trade destination in 1644.

Yaxha, made famous during the hit TV show, “Survivor,” is a lakeside archaeological site is home to more than 500 structures that live in perfect harmony with its natural surroundings. One of Yaxha’s main attractions is its blue-green lagoon, which reflects the color of the sky and lush vegetation.

Pacaya volcano: Walk across a cooling lava bed and cook marshmallows over the hot rocks as the sun sets. This half-day excursion from Antigua is one of Guatemala’s most talked about experiences. Pacaya is Guatemala’s most active volcano rising 8,373 feet above sea level.