Guatemala is only about the size of Iceland, but it is an amazingly beautiful, diverse and complex land with a long and often tragic history. Breathtaking mountain landscapes, colorful markets, centuries-old Mayan culture, modern cities, colonial-era gardens and courtyards and magnificent ruins, are just some of the reasons that more travelers come to this small Central American country every year.
Guatemala is still probably best known to the western world as the site of a horrific civil war that lasted from the late 1950’s until the mid 1990’s, with the worst years coming in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Thousands were murdered or displaced, and entire villages were razed. Fortunately, the civil war is over, and Guatemala is once again safe to visit.
At the top of the can’t-miss list are Antigua, the old colonial capital, and Tikal, the majestic ruins of one of the most important cities in the Mayan Empire. Antigua is only about an hour away from Guatemala City, and it boasts colonial buildings and ruins as well as shopping, fine dining and adventure travel. Tikal is considered one of the most important Mayan archaeological sites and is more than just ruins: the lush jungle is also home to many species of monkeys, birds and more.
For those looking for a more urban experience, Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America. It is home to several interesting museums, cathedrals and government buildings, and also has good nightlife.
If the beach is more your thing, try Monterico on Guatemala’s south-west coast. Tranquil and undeveloped, it’s a popular destination for the backpacker set.
If you’re a shopper, the market at Chichicastenango is a must. The largest native artisan market in Central America is a great place to buy souvenirs, gifts, and art. Don’t forget to bargain!
On your way through the highlands, make a stop a Lake Atitlan. The picturesque town of Panajachel (pan-ah-ha-CHEL), situated on the lake and populated by hippies, is a relaxing, friendly town full of cafes, restaurants, hotels and shops, and you’re never too far from a breathtaking view of the lake.
Once you reach the highlands, check out the tiny town of Todos Santos Cuchumatan. It’s a traditional indigenous village, where the inhabitants still wear the same colorful clothes worn by their grandparents and speak Mam, the local language.
If you can’t make it all the way to Tikal but still want to see some Maya ruins, you can visit Iximche, Zaculeu, or Quirigua, which is famous for its stelae, or tall, hand-carved standing stones.