Guatemala is a relatively undiscovered treasure in Central America, offering a wide range of sights and experiences, from the Mayan history and culture, to the lush jungles and steaming volcanoes, to the uncrowded black-sand beaches. The largest country in Central America, Guatemala offers travelers a multitude of fascinating activities. The 1996 peace accords that ended the decades-long Civil War removed a major obstacle to foreign investment in Guatemala, and tourism has become an increasing source of revenue.
The Mayans built some of their most impressive cities in what is now Guatemala, and Tikal and El Mirador are among the greatest ancient cities built anywhere in the Americas. The spectacular ruins of both of these cities are located in the sparsely populated northern Peten region, and trips to explore the cities are usually arranged in the tourist-friendly city of Flores. The Tikal site, located in Tikal National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest excavated site of all the Mayan cities, covering nearly 10 square miles, and is one of Guatemala’s cultural gems. The temples of Tikal tower over the jungle canopy, reaching more than 200 feet into the sky.
Tours are offered to Guatemala’s mountain lakes, indigenous villages and volcanoes. Eco-tourism is also on the rise in Guatemala, featuring the jungles, mountainous terrain and steamy lowlands. Organized tours are usually fairly reasonably priced, and can be one of the best ways to explore the country.
For a more urban attraction, visit the Chichicastenango Market, one of the most popular locations in Guatemala. Located a few hours northwest of the capital of Guatemala City, this mountain village is renowned for its market and its traditional Mayan culture. Every Thursday and Sunday, the Chichicastenango Market is a colorful, often chaotic bazaar that brings in vendors from around the country to sell their immaculate hand-made products. Besides the array of high-quality items you will find here, the atmosphere itself is enough to make the trip worthwhile. All sorts of textiles are available, but the most popular are the colorful women’s blouses made by the Maya women. Weaving is a popular business in Guatemala, and villagers’ hand-woven clothes are popular with visitors. Each indigenous village has its own unique pattern and color. The Chichicastenango Market also features the carved masks that have helped to make the city a well-known woodcarving center.
The Pacaya volcano is one of the most popular destinations in Guatemala for climbers. Rising to an altitude of 8,371 feet near Lake Atitlan, the Pacaya volcano has been continuously active since 1965. Reaching the top offers a reward of the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, as well as a chance to peer into the volcano’s crater.
The Lake Atitlan region is one of the most scenic in Guatemala, and one of the most popular for tourists. Surrounded by volcanoes at an elevation of over 5,000 feet, the Lake Atitlan region includes the tourist village of Panajachel, offering hotels and a vast array of fine restaurants.
For a relaxing day at the beach, Guatemala offers both Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Along the Pacific are a multitude of seaside stretches of black sand, due to the country’s volcanic activity. One of the country’s best beaches is Monterrico, a calm and idyllic spot on Guatemala’s Pacific coast that is ideal for escaping the cities and highlands for a bit.
In the heart of the capital, Guatemala City, is the main square, Plaza Mayor, fringed by the National Palace, Cathedral and National Library. Modern Quetzaltenago (or Xela) contains narrow colonial streets and broad avenues and is surrounded by volcanoes. Esquipulas is the seat of the Central American Parliament. Pilgrims flock to the Basilica of Esquipulas, with its Icon of the Black Christ from 1595.
The restaurants in Guatemala City offer the widest variety of tastes, and you can expect to find especially exotic fare at the Guatemala cities that attract the most visitors, including Quetzaltenango and Panajachel. The main staple of Guatemalan food is corn, usually served in the form of tortillas, but also featured in tamales and corn on the cob. Black beans are almost always on the menu.
One of Guatemala’s best restaurants is La Esquina, in the central highlands, with a menu of local and international dishes. For spectacular French dining, try Bistrot Cinq. The sauve and stylish Tamarindo’s in Guatemala City offers a menu featuring some of the country’s best Thai food.
Guatemala’s main airport for international travel is La Aurora International Airport, near Guatemala City. The airport has been recently renovated and expanded, and serves carriers including American, Delta, Spirit, United and Mexicana airlines, as well as regional and international carriers. Taxis are available at the airport, and cars are available for rental in most large cities.
Like the rest of Central America, Guatemala’s weather is usually divided into the rainy season, from May to October, and into November and December in the northern and eastern parts of the country, and the dry season, from November to April. The weather in Guatemala also varies significantly by altitude, with three basic climate zones. The lower areas are hot, humid and tropical, while the areas from 1,000 to 2,000 meters above sea level -- which includes the Guatemala City, Coban and Lake Atitlan regions -- are more temperate. Above 2,000 feet, including Quetzaltenango and the northwestern highlands, the weather is much cooler, and temperatures can dip to freezing at night.
The dry season is the high season for tourists, so you may find higher prices and more crowded areas if you travel then. There is, however, never a bad time to travel to Guatemala.