When it comes to traveling around Central America, Guatemala is without a doubt one of the most tourist-friendly countries in the group. It has a fabulous and well organized tourist path which allows visitors to experience a great variety of locations, environment, cultures, and activities all across Guatemala. Guatemala is warm and it is colourful. It has a rich history and accessible tourism. While enjoying Guatemala, these were my top 6 cities to visit.
Antigua, Guatemala! It is one hour from the airport and one hour from Guatemala City. Due to safety issues in Guatemala City (read up on safety in Guatemala here), chances are you will use Antigua as your home-base, and rightly so. Antigua is a beautiful, brightly coloured colonial town. It is absolutely pleasant walking along the cobblestone streets of Antigua with colourful buildings on either side of the road, sometimes blue, sometimes yellow, sometimes red. The colonial buildings, usually some form of shop, restaurant or coffee shop, have beautifully crafted windows covered with flowers and doorways that will make every instagrammer look twice!
There are ruins and wonderful churches throughout the city, making every turn of the corner a pleasant surprise. With the constantly erupting Volcano Fuego in the background, wandering the little streets of Antigua is a wonderful experience. Antigua is also the base for all mountains climbs including Volcano Fuego, Volcano Pacaya, Volcano Acatenango. It is also the hub of coffee tours and market visits. Antigua is the perfect place to acclimatize to Guatemalan life. It is safe. It is friendly, and best of all, it is walkable.
Where to stay:
Social Hostel: Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel
Quiet Beautiful Hostel: Hostel Maya Papaya
Mid-Range Hotel: Hotel Casa Cristina
Classy Hotel: Camino Real Antigua
Lake Atitlan is located in the beautiful highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range in Guatemala. It is the deepest lake in Central America and has a 130km2 surface area. Surrounded by three (climbable) volcanoes. Lake Atitlan is volcanic in origin. It is an enormous caldera filled with water, formed by an eruption 84,000 years ago. Lake Atitlan is renowned as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and is one of Guatemala’s most important tourist attractions.
The 15 towns surrounding Lake Atitlan are heavily Mayan, with many still speaking Mayan as their first language. As you traverse the streets of the towns and villages you will see the locals dressed in traditional beautiful woven fabrics. There are of course restaurants, hotels, and bars in these towns but the true purpose of a trip to Lake Atitlan is to relax and enjoy the scenery.
Waking up every morning to a misty lake surrounded by towering volcanoes is something to appreciate. Hiking through the nature of the highlands, be it on one of the volcanos or simply on the shore of the lake will deliver views nothing short of magical. At night the lights of all the little towns surrounding Lake Atitlan shine bright enough to put on a show.
There are a variety of towns to choose from on the lake. Towns like San Pedro and Santiago that appeal to the backpacking crowd deliver awesome places to go out. By contrast, San Marcos provides a more relaxed atmosphere which appeals to the new age, you know, yoga studios and meditation. Panajachel is the big city here and has the most hotels, restaurants and shops. It is also the location of the ferry docks which provide transport to towns around the lake. Without a doubt you will find your place on beautiful Lake Atitlan.
Where to stay
Budget Hostel: Hostel Pachamama in San Marcos La Laguna
Classy Boutique Apart-Hotel: Lush Atitlan in San Marcos La Laguna
Boutique Hotel: Casa del Mundo in Jaibalito La Laguna
Classy Hotel: Casa Palopo in Santa Catarina
The Island of Flores is a charming and colourful city situated in the middle of Lake Peten-Itza and connected to the mainland by a bridge from its sister city, Santa Elena. Flores is one of the most aesthetically pleasing towns in Guatemala with brightly coloured buildings lining the city streets in blue, yellow, green and even pink. You can’t help but feel cheerful walking down the streets here.
On your first walk around Isla de Flores which takes only 30 minutes, you will be treated with a relaxed island vibe. It almost feels as if you are enjoying a Caribbean island except, you are on a lake, in the middle of the jungle. With people hanging out on the malecon, swimming in the lake, and enjoying copious amounts of wonderful street food, Flores is a great place to explore. There are tons of great hostels and hotels, as well as restaurants and bars on the island for your enjoyment. There is also a pretty decent nightlife.
The best part about Flores is that it is connected to one of the largest UNESCO sites in the Americas, Tikal National Park. With 576km2 of preserved jungle and extensive Mayan ruins, Tikal is a true treat for all, and Flores is the base for visiting Tikal. Visiting Tikal is one of my best travel memories thus far, check out my story about my exploration of Tikal Ruins.
Where to stay:
Budget Hostel: Hostel Yaxha
Mid Range Hotel: Hotel Peten
Classy Hotel: Hotel Isla del Flores
The little town of Lanquin is home to one of Guatemala’s most famous natural treasures, the beautiful Semuc Champey. Semuc Champey consists of natural clear blue pools which collect the spring water flowing down from the mountains while the great Rio Cahabon runs in a tunnel beneath. There are many tours which leave from Lanquin and head into the national park where Semuc Champey resides so that you can enjoy a day of swimming in these beautiful natural pools. Also near to Lanquin is a system of caves which, with a tour you can explore up to 1km inside. The caves are explored via candlelight and you can read more about that experience here.
The town of Lanquin itself is very small with a few restaurants, a market, and a variety of hostels and hotels in and around the town. You can arrive to Lanquin from Coban, Antigua and Flores via INGUAT tourist shuttles. These shuttles can be booked from almost any hotel or hostel in Guatemala. The road into Lanquin from the highway is one of the wildest rides I have ever taken. Just to traverse 10km can take over an hour as the shuttle bounces carefully around on a rocky path cut into the side of the mountain. Traveling anywhere in the town of Lanquin can be exciting based solely on the quality of the roads. Looking to survive transportation in Guatemala? Ive listed 11 must know things to get you through the journey.
The view in Lanquin is one of the most stunning in Guatemala combining a vista of rolling green mountains and a rushing river running throughout. Everywhere you look in Lanquin the panorama is most impressive.
Where to stay:
Eco Hostel with a wicked view: Hostel Vista Verde Lanquin
Mid-Range Hotel: Vinãs Hotel
Eco-Lodge: El Portal de Champey
It is hard to imagine exploring Central America without visiting the beach at least once, so I am happy to announce that while Guatemala is not exactly a beach focused destination, there is at least one tourist ready beach available for exploration.
Monterrico is a volcanic black sand beach only a 2.5 hour drive from Antigua. INGUAT tourist shuttles run to the beach at 8:00am and back to Antigua at 4:00pm daily. While this is not your pristine soft white sand beach, the black volcanic sand does add a little cool character to the area. Surfing is possible at Monterrico but be careful as this beach has a reputation for a few deaths by rip tide. What I am trying to say is, the waves are strong so be careful.
There are a variety of hostels and hotels in this small town. The main street is full of restaurants and shops boasting that beach-like reggae vibe. Outside of walking the beach, purusing the town, and getting a tan there is very little to do here but relax. However, if you arrive between July and October it is possible to watch turtles hatch on the beach at night then crawl into the ocean!
Monterrico is not very busy during the week but hosts a lot of local Guatemalan’s holidaying on the weekend, so a night out on Friday and Saturday are bound to be enjoyable.
Where to stay:
Relaxed Hostel: Johnny’s Place
Mid Range Hotel: Hotel El Delfin
Classy Resort: Dos Mundos Pacific Resort
Located in the western highlands of Guatemala is the small Mayan town of Chichicastenagno. It is famous for having one of the greatest markets in all of Central America. Every Thursday and Sunday, local people from all over the countryside gather in Chichicastenango to sell everything; food, live animals, handicrafts including textiles, traditional clothing and home décor items.
You can wander the streets of this huge open market doing your best shopping, haggling, while enjoying the food. It offers a similar experience to the great Otavalo Market of Ecuador. There are hundreds of vendors, many shouting in hopes to sell more product. There are bright colours everywhere and so many people it can feel shoulder to shoulder, at times.
If you are in Chichicastenango on days other than Thursday and Sunday do not fret, there are many things to see in this colourful traditional Mayan town. But, the market is best and not to be missed if possible.
Where to stay:
Mid-Range Hotel: Hotel Museo Mayan Inn
*Most people who visit Chichicastenango choose to visit from nearby towns, including from popular Lake Atitlan*
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