The Central American country of Guatemala lies just south of Mexico and has both a Pacific and Caribbean coastline, offering miles and miles of beaches, lagoons, wetlands, and mangrove forests. Inland you can expect to find a mountainous and volcanic landscape of great diversity that offers outdoor enthusiasts a huge variety of hiking and trekking trails, which include climbing active volcanoes and swimming in natural rock pools. Guatemala is a fascinating country for historians to visit and is home to many ancient Mayan ruins, including fabulous Tikal, the largest excavated Mayan site on the continent. You can admire beautiful Spanish colonial buildings in cities like Antigua and Quetzaltenango and then head off to numerous market towns to buy traditionally woven textiles, blankets, and ponchos.
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Located in the north-central part of Guatemala, Alta Verapaz is a largely agricultural area surrounding the city of Coban. The area is famous for its biodiversity and fertile valleys where coffee and cardamom have been the principal crops for hundreds of years. In the city of Coban, you can visit the 150-year-old church of El Calvario and the Cathedral, which dates back to 1543, but the areas’ greatest riches are concentrated on the great outdoors where there are numerous amazing caves, waterfalls, hiking trails, and bird-watching sites to uncover. At Semuc Champey and the Laguna Lachua National Park, you can combine hiking with swimming in pristine natural pools, and there are abundant opportunities for eco-tourism.
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Surrounded by volcanoes in the southern part of Guatemala, the small city of Antigua was the original colonial capital for over 200 years. Art, history, and architecture enthusiasts should definitely add this UNESCO World Heritage Site to their Guatemala itinerary to see several examples of beautiful Spanish colonial architecture. Some of the highlights of your visit will include the Santa Catalina Arch, the Church and Convent of las Capuchinas, the San Francisco Church, and the Antigua Guatemala Cathedral. Besides seeing the historic sites, you can join a variety of tours (including coffee, chocolate, and cultural tours) or get outdoors and active on a zip line, hiking trail, or kayak adventure.
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Located in the highlands northwest of Guatemala City, the town of Chichicastenango is the place for shoppers to buy genuine Guatemalan fabrics and crafts at the weekly markets. The open-air markets are held all day on Thursdays and Sundays and attract sellers and shoppers from near and far – a long line of busses carry potential shoppers up the steep winding roads from Guatemala City, Antigua, and Panajachel. Other interesting sights in the town include the Santo Tomas Church, which dates back to the 1600s, the Archaeological Museum, and the Museum of Ceremonial Masks. Also fascinating is the colorful Chichi Cemetery, where all the graves are built above the ground.
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The historic colonial city of Cobán was founded in 1543 in the Cahabón River Basin in the Alta Verapaz district of Guatemala. There are several interesting attractions and activities to keep visitors busy for a few days, including exploring the remarkable scenery. Within the city you can visit a few architectural gems such as the Church of el Calvario (reached by climbing over a thousand stairs), the Cathedral, and the spectacular Vero Verapaces or Orchid Nursery, which showcases over 60,000 specimens. At the Lachua National Park and Semuc Champey, you can go hiking and swimming surrounded by spectacular natural beauty, and the enormous cave system at Candelare simply demands to be explored.
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5.El Mirador Peten
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One of the greatest adventures you can have in Guatemala is to take an expedition to see El Mirador, a very large pre-Columbian Maya settlement found in the heart of the El Petén rainforest. It is thought that the fascinating site, which includes three enormous pyramids, could possibly date back to before 2000 BC, and the large scale of the complex indicates that it was an important center for trade and culture. However, the five-day trek required to reach this remote site is no simple matter, and you will need to be both physically fit and able to do some horse-back/mule riding.
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Escuintla is a department located along the Pacific coast of Guatemala, offering visitors a perfect playground to enjoy all that nature has to offer. The many beaches along the coastline are dotted with resorts, offering a perfect base for a relaxing coastal holiday. You can soak up the sun, swim, snorkel, scuba dive, and enjoy some of the best game fishing in the world. Outdoor enthusiasts can spend some time exploring the wonderful Pacaya Volcano, where hiking trails take you right up to the edge of the crater rim. At San Pedro Martir, you can do some cave exploration before cooling down in the pools around the impressive waterfalls. In addition, there are several archaeological sites to explore, and the area is marvelous for bird watching.
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Unless you have been researching an excursion to the Maya ruins at Tikal, you will probably never even have heard of the charming small town of Flores, which is usually only visited due to its location close to Tikal. The town is located on an island on Lake Petén Itzá and can be reached via a causeway that links it to the mainland. Once inside the town, you can explore a maze of ancient cobbled walkways that wind through a treasure-trove of historic red-roofed buildings dotted with restaurants and bars. There is also an old church to visit and a lovely Spanish plaza. Allow yourself a few hours to explore before or after you catch the bus to Tikal.
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Guatemala City is the place to go to polish up your knowledge of Guatemalan history and culture, see some fine art, and eat, shop, and drink like a local. Culture vultures and historians can visit National Archaeology Museum, the Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Dress, the 12th century Mayan ruins of Mixco Viejo, and the Pophul Vuh Museum, which showcases the history, culture, and mythology of the K’iche people. Art lovers can head to the Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias fine-arts complex while those who love architecture can visit the National Palace and several historic churches. After a busy day of exploring, you can enjoy wining and dining at a multitude of great city restaurants and nightspots.
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The department of Huehuetenango (pronounced way-way…), lies in the northwestern Highlands of Guatemala, along the country’s border with Mexico. It comprises a very large area with large variations in altitude and climate and a mixed population of Mayan ancestry, who speak several different dialects. The main tourist attractions in Huehuetenango City are the central park, around which you will find the City Hall, a colonial church, and a variety of neo-classical buildings – guided city tours are available to show you the sights. There are many outdoor activities to try in the area, including a visit to the Ruinas de Zaculeu (Mayan ruins), hiking, and camping at Laguna Brava Yolnabaj or exploring other parts of the majestic landscape.
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The department of Izabal is located in the east of the country and is Guatemala’s gateway to the Caribbean, attracting many annual visitors who come to enjoy the beaches, sailing, snorkeling, diving, and other water sports. In addition, Rio Dulce offers easy access to some fascinating Mayan archaeological sites such as Tikal and Quirigua. Outdoor enthusiasts can visit some of the region’s many natural reserves where you can enjoy hiking, orchid-hunting, boating, and tours of the mangrove forests. Some of the must-see attractions in Izabal include San Filipe de Lara Castle, Lake Izabal, and wonderful nature reserves like Bocas de Polochic, Chocon Machacas, and the Rio Dulce National Park. Beach lovers should not miss Punta de Palma and Amatique Bay.
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Jalapa is located about two hours by road from Guatemala City and is one of the best places in the entire country for outdoor enthusiasts who are looking for outstanding ecotourism. The mountainous region is dotted with volcanoes, lakes, and rivers, providing the ideal terrain for trekking and hiking. In addition to discovering beautiful forests, valleys, and waterfalls, you can also savor the chance to swim in a natural hot spring in the Balneario Los Chorros near San Pedro Pinula or at the Aqua Tibia outside Monjas. If you enjoy climbing, you can go all the way to the top of the Jumay Volcano for outstanding views.
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Hidden inside an enormous volcanic crater in the Southwestern Highlands of Guatemala, you will find beautiful Lake Atitlán. The steep sides of the volcano ring this lovely lake with a circle of green hills and striking cone-shaped volcanic peaks. You can easily reach the lake from the town of Panajachel, where you can also do some souvenir shopping from the many craft vendors. You can go hiking around the perimeter of the lake, which will lead you through a succession of small Mayan villages and coffee plantations. Other ways to experience Lake Atitlán include scenic boat cruises and a variety of water sports, including stand-up paddleboards and kayaking.
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Originally a small fishing village, the town of Livingston is located on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala and can only be accessed by boat along the Rio Dulce River or by sea from Puerto Barrios. Most visitors come to Livingston for a relaxed beach holiday, spending their time swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking or stepping ashore to do some cave exploration or trekking. You can take a 90-minute hike along the shore to find Los Siete Altares (which translates as the Seven Altars), a series of waterfalls and freshwater pools where you can bathe, picnic, or simply relax and do some bird watching. As befits a fishing village, you will find plenty of restaurants serving fresh fish and prawns in Livingston.
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Visitors wanting to take home an authentic and unique memento of their visit to Guatemala should add a visit to Momostenango to their vacation itinerary. The small town is located in the department of Totonicapán in the Western Highlands of the country and is famous for its production of chamarras, the thick woolen blankets the local people weave using age-old treadle looms. The blankets and ponchos from Momostenango are all one-of-a-kind items and are on sale at the weekly Wednesday and Sunday markets. While you are in the area, you can visit the Riscos de Momostenango, a large group of curiously shaped sandstone formations.
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Located on the north shore of beautiful Lake Atitlán in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, Panajachel is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Lake Atitlan is the main attraction, and taking scenic cruises on a lancha (private ferry) to visit other lakeside towns is one of the most popular activities. Energetic visitors can hike to the top of Tolimán, Atitlán, or San Pedro Volcanoes for amazing views of the lake and its surrounding volcanic landscape – guided tours are available. Bird watching tours at a private reserve are also popular, and you can also join a tour to learn about the Mayan culture and watch a Mayan Ceremony at a sacred cave altar.
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Petén is the largest of Guatemala’s regions or “departments” and is home to the largest number of ancient Mayan archaeological sites, making this area a must-see for any visitors who want to learn more about the lost Mayan civilizations. The principal city in Petén is Flores, which most visitors use as a base from which to explore the area. In addition to the fascinating Mayan sites such as Tikal, El Mirador, Yaxhá, and Aguateca, Petén also has many interesting natural wonders you can visit, including the Actún Kan Caves, the zoo of Petencito, and the Ixpanpajul Natural Park where you can enjoy hiking, zip lines and more.
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Puerto Barrios is located on the Caribbean coastline of Guatemala and is an important commercial center in the area, offering visitors a spring-board to near-by Belize, which is a popular destination for snorkeling, scuba diving, and other water sports. If you are spending a few days in Puerto Barrios, you can visit the Las Escobas waterfall, which is just a short distance from the town – here you can hike through the rainforest and then swim in the very pretty pool at the base of the waterfall. Nature lovers can explore Punta Manabique, a wildlife refuge and Ramsar Wetland of International importance, to see the mangrove swamps and do some fabulous bird watching.
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The colorful city of Quetzaltenango (aka Xela) is another of Guatemala’s Western Highland gems, offering visitors an authentic glimpse of historic colonial architecture combined with a wide variety of outdoor activities. It is located against a backdrop of several volcanoes (both active and dormant), so there are excellent opportunities for hiking and nature observation. You can also go on a tour to visit the Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs, where you can hike and bathe in a natural environment. Architecture enthusiasts can go on a self-guided walking tour through the cobbled streets to see a wealth of historic old buildings, including La Iglesia del Espiritu Santo, La Casa del Cultura, and many more. You can shop for authentic souvenirs at the La Domocracia Market.
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Quiche is one of the largest departments in Guatemala, encompassing about one third of the entire country. In the main city of Santa Cruz del Quiche you can visit the 17th century church before moving on to visit the near-by K’umarcaj archaeological site where you can learn more about the Quiche culture as you tour the ruins and the museum. Chichicastenango is a famous market town in the department where you can buy a variety of traditional fabrics and other crafts at the weekly markets held on Thursdays and Sundays. While you are in the area, you can visit the town of Chajul, which is famous for the colorful traditional dress worn by residents.
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The department of Retalhuleu is a nature-lovers’ delight on the Pacific coast, where mangrove swamps, lagoons, wetlands, and flood plains provide diverse habitats for hundreds of birds, reptiles, and small animals. The shoreline is lined with beautiful beaches, both developed and wild, which provide access to amazing bird watching, hiking, swimming, snorkeling, surfing, and boating. History enthusiasts can learn about early Olmec and Mayan culture at Takalik Abaj, one of the oldest ceremonial centers in the region, before moving on to see the Encanto Cave, one of many caves in the region that can be explored on foot or by boat.
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Located close to the Pacific coast of Guatemala, Santa Rosa is primarily an agricultural area producing large quantities of coffee, milk, and cheese. The landscape is dominated by four volcanoes, which are a great attraction for hikers. Along the coastline, you can visit several very lovely lagoons that offer safe swimming, fishing, and bird watching; one of the most popular lagoons is the Ixpaco Lagoon, which features a huge pool of hot geothermal water thought to be therapeutic. You can go camping along the banks of the Los Esclavos River where natural pools invite moonlit swims or explore some of the beaches along the 45km shoreline.
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Semuc Champey is a remarkable series of turquoise limestone pools that have been carved out of the natural limestone bridge, which crosses the Cahabón River near the Maya town of Lanquin in Alta Verapaz. The pools were a well-kept secret for many years but are now attracting a growing number of tourists who wish to experience the pleasure of bathing while being at one with nature in an outstanding setting. You will have to work quite hard for this privilege however – the only way in is via a 30-minute drive along a rough road from Lanquin, followed by a fairly steep 45-minute hike. Visitors who make the effort will be rewarded with the chance to enjoy a surreal experience in the heart of the tropical rainforest.
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Located in the West Highlands of Guatemala, the Sololá department is home to three tribes that are direct descendants of the Mayans, and the entire area is rich in history, culture, and costume. In Sololá you will find most of the inhabitants proudly wearing their colorful and elaborate traditional clothes, the colors and styles vary from town to town. There are several interesting small town to visit including San Lucas Tolimán (where you can hike up the Tolimán Volcano), San Andres Semtabaj (which boasts ruins of a beautiful colonial church), and Santiago Atitlán, where you can hike the King Tepepul Mirador Trail and access the quetzal bird reserve. There is a great deal of beautiful scenery in Sololá, making it well worth a visit.
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Tikal Park is the most famous archaeological site in the country and an absolute must-see destination for all visitors to Guatemala. The entire Tikal site is a national park and has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What makes Tikal stand out (Guatemala is proudly home to many Mayan Archaeological Sites) is that it is the largest excavated site on the continent, encompassing over 222 square miles of pristine jungle surrounding the Maya ceremonial center. Thirteen years of excavation have unearthed extensive temples, plazas, and multi-storied buildings that were once inhabited by kings and priests. Guided tours of the site and the surrounding bird-filled jungle are available. Come and see this wonder for yourself as you ponder upon why the elaborate city was simply abandoned 1000 years ago.
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Totonicapán is a mountainous region of Guatemala known primarily for its beautiful handcrafts and lovely old historic buildings. There are several interesting towns to visit in the department, allowing you to get a glimpse of how the local people go about their daily lives. In the state capital (also called Totonicapán), you can attend lively parades, dances, and festivities during the last week of September or shop for handcrafts at the very colorful Saturday Market all year round. Other towns worth mentioning are the important textile center of San Christobal, San Juan Xecul (which boasts a bright yellow 16th century temple), and the market town of Momostenango where you can buy traditionally woven blankets.
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25 Best Guatemala Points of Interest
- Alta Verapaz, Photo: Courtesy of Bram - Fotolia.com
- Antigua, Photo: Courtesy of javier_garcia - Fotolia.com
- Chichicastenango, Photo: Courtesy of nikla - Fotolia.com
- Coban, Photo: Courtesy of lauraelise1301 - Fotolia.com
- El Mirador Peten, Photo: Courtesy of aguilaro - Fotolia.com
- Escuintla, Photo: Courtesy of loca4motion - Fotolia.com
- Flores, Photo: Courtesy of Fotos 593 - Fotolia.com
- Guatemala City, Photo: Courtesy of Hencer Oliva - Fotolia.com
- Huehuetenango, Photo: Courtesy of Ariane Citron - Fotolia.com
- Izabal, Photo: Courtesy of aguilaro - Fotolia.com
- Jalapa, Photo: Courtesy of Marcus - Fotolia.com
- Lake Atitlan, Photo: Courtesy of genesisstudios - Fotolia.com
- Livingston, Photo: Courtesy of loca4motion - Fotolia.com
- Momostenango, Photo: Courtesy of Fotos 593 - Fotolia.com
- Panajachel, Photo: Courtesy of Aleksandar Todorovic - Fotolia.com
- Peten, Photo: Courtesy of Simon Dannhauer - Fotolia.com
- Puerto Barrios, Photo: Courtesy of Jorge - Fotolia.com
- Quetzaltenango, Photo: Courtesy of attiarndt - Fotolia.com
- Quiche, Photo: Courtesy of anabanana1988 - Fotolia.com
- Retalhuleu, Photo: Courtesy of Ariane Citron - Fotolia.com
- Santa Rosa, Photo: Courtesy of loca4motion - Fotolia.com
- Semuc Champey, Photo: Courtesy of travelphotos - Fotolia.com
- Solola, Photo: Courtesy of loca4motion - Fotolia.com
- Tikal Park, Photo: Courtesy of OFranz - Fotolia.com
- Totonicapan, Photo: Courtesy of Rafal Cichawa - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Fotos 593 - Fotolia.com