With a little something for everyone – ancient ruins to volcanic peaks, Mayan chocolate to rainforest hideaways – Guatemala is a near-ideal destination for travelers looking for something just slightly off the beaten path, with a rich cultural history and no shortage of stunning landscapes. Still, it's not quite as well known a vacation destination as neighboring Belize, or Costa Rica, but it's quickly moving up the list. With romantic colonial cities brimming with charm, and verdant jungle, it won't stay a secret for long.
But, in a country so expansive, how do you decide what to see or do? Here are our top picks.
1. Roast marshmallows on an active volcano
Often an unexpected highlight for visitors, it’s no accident that trekking Pacaya Volcano is one of the most popular activities in Guatemala. Though the ascent may seem daunting, it’s short, and the views along the way provide plenty of opportunities for photo (and water) breaks. Plus, the effort is all worth it when you reach the top. Not only does the summit boast amazing panoramic views – best enjoyed at sunset – but there’s nothing quite like roasting a celebratory marshmallow over a red-hot vein of molten lava.
2. Watch the sunrise from Tikal's Temple IV
In the heart of the Guatemalan jungle; half buried under earth and trees, the ancient Mayan city of Tikal is one of the most spectacular ruins on Earth. The massive complex is awe-inspiring, and warrants at least a full day’s exploration, starting with a spectacular jungle sunrise witnessed from atop Temple IV, or the Temple of the Two-Headed Snake. It’s the tallest structure in Tikal, standing over 230 feet tall, and the climb to the top, up rickety scaffolding and steep, uneven stone stairs, can be heart-pounding, but all of that will melt away as you sit in silence watching the sky turn pink and the sun appear on the horizon. As a bonus for sci-fi and movie buffs, Temple IV’s view is famous for having appeared in the Star Wars film, A New Hope. Filmed from the pyramid’s top, there’s a shot where a Rebel is watching the Millennium Falcon coming in to land above the jungle, with Tikal’s Temples I, II and III clearly visible.
3. Have breakfast at Chichicastenango Market
On Sundays and Thursdays, thousands of Mayan vendors from all over Guatemala congregate in the highland town of Chichicastenango to sell their wares – everything from local produce to colorful handicrafts – at the largest outdoor market in the Americas. It’s lively, colorful and crowded, with nearly as many tourists as locals, so come early to beat the crowds, grab a tasty Guatemalan breakfast with local coffee, and take a seat to do some people watching before set off to peruse the goods.
4. Kayak the volcanic crater at Lake Atitlán
From the descriptions in some guidebooks, you might get the impression that Lake Atitlán is a singular destination worthy only of a few days’ visit, at most. In reality, the lake, picturesque and serene, is huge, with more than a dozen towns resting on its shores, and plenty to explore. Though there are many ways to check out the lake, our favorite is by kayak. Some of the best lake views are in and around San Pedro, so it’s a great place to start from. Paddle from town to town, to secluded beaches, or opt to just cruise around the lake aimlessly and enjoy the sunshine and the scenery. Don’t forget your camera!
5. Take in an epic sunrise from the Indian's Nose
Want to see the best sunrise in Guatemala? It doesn’t get better than this one. The Indian Nose, on the northwest shore of Lake Atitlán is one of the most rewarding climbs in the country. Arrive in the dark, above a moonlit lake with the lights of San Pedro and San Juan sparkling in the distance. Then, as the sky begins to glow before sunrise, you’ll be able to see east along the volcanic chain that runs toward El Salvador. If there’s anything in this world worth a 3 am wake-up call, this is it.
6. Dance salsa in colonial Antigua
No list of Guatemalan must-sees is complete without a mention of Antigua. Few cities in Latin America can compete with the charm of the UNESCO recognized city, known for cobblestone streets lined with brightly colored colonial buildings, and warm, friendly people. It’s a first stop for nearly every traveler passing through Guatemala, and often leaves a long-lasting impression that will have you yearning to return. Along with its beautiful daytime sights, Antigua has an active salsa dance community that comes alive after dark. Locals and foreigners alike flock to the lively dance floor at Las Palmas, which features a live band on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights.