10 best places to visit in Guatemala

The best places to visit in Guatemala include colonial villages, impressive Mayan temples, active volcanoes and deep blue lakes. Guatemala is a dream destination, combining lush green jungle with charming pastel-coloured towns. We explored both the well-known highlights of Guatemala and the hidden gems, while traveling around this part of Central America for two months. This blog will tell you about the most beautiful places in Guatemala, hoping to inspire you to put this destination in Central America on your bucket list.

Rio DulceGuatemala | The Orange Backpack

Guatemala tips: things to know in advance

Prepare your trip to Guatemala well and read up on the local culture, travel tips and other travel matters. To start with, we give you a few tips to take into account before you travel to Guatemala.

#1 Combine your trip with Belize. Guatemala has charming towns, beautiful lakes and lush jungle, but is not known as a great beach destination. Do you wish to add some beach days to your itinerary? Then spend a few days in the Caribbean neighboring country of Belize. When planning your Guatemala itinerary, you will eventually come across the question of how to get from the southwestern jungle destination Rio Dulce to the northern Mayan city of Tikal. We can highly recommend traveling through Belize and adding some Caribbean island and beach days to your trip.

#2 Use the chicken bus. As one of the most popular destinations in Central America, Guatemala has perfect transport with minivans, coaches and low-cost Ubers. But if you want to travel like a local, we recommend taking the chicken bus. We’ve heard ghost stories about the safety of these local buses, but we ourselves actually had a wonderfully authentic experience. The chicken bus won’t travel fast, so only do this for short distances.

#3 Pack clothes for adventure activities. Guatemala is the perfect destination for hikers. We absolutely recommend that you pack your backpack for outdoor activities because you don’t want to miss out on them. Especially the multi-day hikes – such as the hike from Lake Atitlán to Quetzaltenango or the two-day hike to the top of the Acatenango volcano – are among the highlights of Guatemala. Although you usually borrow camping equipment from your guide, think of packing your hiking boots, outdoor clothes, etc.

#4 The best time to travel to Guatemala is November to May. Guatemala is great to visit all year round. The country is close to the equator, so there are no major seasonal differences. The rainy season is a possible factor that you want to take into account though. It runs roughly from April to September, making November to May the most popular travel time for the country.

#5 Allow 2 to 3 weeks travel time for Guatemala. Although we spoke to travelers who traveled all over Central America and only spent a week in Guatemala, we do not recommend this. This versatile country has many beautiful destinations to offer and you would miss out on them if you only allow a week for your trip. In two to three weeks you can visit all the sights of Guatemala without traveling too fast and even add some beach days in Belize to your trip.

Acatenango Fuego Vulcano | Old Town Outfitters | Guatemala

The perfect Guatemalaitinerary

The ideal Guatemala itinerary combines the colonial villages, volcanoes and lakes in the west of the country with the Mayan cities in the north and the lush jungle in the west. To really make the most out of your trip, your itinerary should also allow a few days in Caribbean Belize.

Read more: tip: the perfect Belize and Guatemala itinerary.

Perfect itinerary Guatemala and Belize | The Orange Backpack

#1 Guatemala City. Spend your first day in Guatemala in the capital, combining hip hotspots and street art with historic buildings and local markets.

#2 Antigua. Take a few days for the best place to visit in Guatemala, so you can fully enjoy the colonial town of Antigua and climb two active volcanoes (and camp there!).

#3 Lake Atitlan. Relax in one of the villages on this clear blue lake against a backdrop of volcanoes and mountains. Go to local markets, do a yoga class, eat a buddha bowl and enjoy the sunset.

#4 Quetzaltenango. Visit Guatemala’s second city, a hidden gem where few tourists come. Enjoy the authentic city atmosphere and hike to the impressive volcanoes.

#5 Semuc Champey. Spend a few days in this nature reserve in the heart of Guatemala, where you can swim in the famous turquoise limestone pools and watch small fish nibble at your feet.

#6 Flores and Tikal. Enjoy the relaxed atmosphere on the Flores peninsula and visit Tikal for the most famous Mayan ruins in Central America.

#7 Caribbean Belize. Cross the border into Belize and visit the Caribbean beaches, lush jungle and impressive Mayan temples of this neighboring country. Highlights include the jungle town of San Ignacio, the island of Caye Caulker and the idyllic beaches of Hopkins. From Punta Gorda you can easily cross the border again to Rio Dulce and Livingston in Guatemala.

#8 Jungle paradise Rio Dulce. Visit this beautiful area of jungle, lakes and the Rio Dulce River, where you can canoe, learn about the Garifuna culture in Livingston and stay in unique jungle lodges.

Mayan site Yaxha | El Sombrero Ecolodge | guatemala | TheOrangeBackpack.nl

The 10 best places to visit in Guatemala

#1 Tikal

The most famous of all Mayan temples in the world is the city of Tikal, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tikal was once the largest Mayan city. Not only in size, but certainly also in power and influence. For about 1400 years, this place in the jungle of Guatemala was the location of a powerful city-state, now leaving the remains of thousands of ruins, temples and pyramids. Tikal may have had as many as 100,000 inhabitants and still consists of 6,000 to 10,000 buildings. Only a small percentage of the ancient Maya city has still been excavated, but that part is enough to keep you entertained while wandering for hours through the archaeological park of Tikal.

Read more: a practical travel guide to visiting Tikal.

The vast area that Tikal covers, includes pyramids, temples, royal palaces, houses, administrative buildings, cisterns, terraces, monuments and much more. Most impressive are the enormous pyramids and temples that tower high above the tops of the jungle. You can climb some of these for a phenomenal view of the ancient Maya empire. Make sure to visit the Grand Plaza, where the most famous temples are located, such as the Temple of the Great Jaguar and the Temple of the Masks. As popular and touristy as Tikal may be, a visit to this Mayan city should be on your bucket list. The archaeological area is large enough to spread out the many visitors, although you will of course also meet many other people at the largest and most beautiful Mayan temples.

#2 Colonial Antigua

Antigua Guatemala is one of the most popular and beautiful destinations in Guatemala. The colonial town has a relaxed atmosphere, colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, delicious restaurants and a beautiful environment where you can conquer volcanoes.

Read more: best things to do in Antigua.

The picture-perfect streets of Antigua are characterized by low-rise buildings, pastel-colored facades, cozy squares, ancient monastery ruins and small streets. Well-known and not to be missed are the much-photographed Santa Catalina Arch and the richly decorated, yellow Iglesia de la Merced. Although the colorful city is one of the most visited highlights of Guatemala, you hardly notice this popularity in the streetscape. Although every street has at least one trendy restaurant and great hotel and many facilities are aimed at tourists, the town does not seem to be overrun by travelers.

One of the best things to do in Antigua is a day trip or multi-day excursion to the volcanoes of Antigua. The most famous volcanoes in the area are the Acatenango and Pacaya, two of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes. The hike to the Acatenango is one of the most popular things to do in Guatemala. It takes two days and you’ll camp on the volcano. You can visit the Pacaya volcano during a day trip, but also with an overnight tour of the volcano so that you can see the red lava glowing in the dark. We recommend visiting at least one of them during your days in Antigua for an unforgettable travel experience.

#3 The deep blue Lake of Atitlan

Lake Atitlán, along with Antigua, is one of Guatemala’s most visited destinations. It is a picture-perfect place with a clear blue lake surrounded by charming villages and impressive volcanoes and mountains.

Read more: best things to do at Lake Atitlán.

Most travelers choose the villages Panajachel, San Pedro or San Marcos as a base. Panajachel is the largest and busiest town on the lake. Especially during the weekend it is pleasantly busy here and the main street is packed with souvenir stalls. San Pedro is known for its affordable hostels and parties, attracting mainly young backpackers. The tiny San Marcos is a relaxed hippie village with hotspots, yoga classes and shops. But Lake Atitlan also has the most beautiful hotels and resorts to offer outside these well-known villages.

As Atitlan is extremely popular with travelers, it offers many great restaurants, fun excursions on the lake and beautiful places to stay. The best things to do at Lake Atitlan include exploring the villages, hiking to beautiful viewpoints, shopping at local markets, kayaking on the lake and enjoying the great restaurant scene. The easiest and most fun way to get around is by the boat that connects most Atitlan villages like a bus would do.

#4 The Acatenango Volcano

The Acatenango Volcano near Antigua is one of Guatemala’s most adventurous attractions. The hike to the top of the volcano should be on everyone’s bucket list and offers an unforgettable experience for your Guatemala trip.

Read more: climbing the Acatenango Volcano.

It is not only the impressive view from the top or the unique experience of camping on a volcano, but also the amazing hike to the top. In about five hours you will climb with your guide from the base of the volcano through four ecosystems to the base camp. Every hour of hiking offers a completely different environment with different views from the Acatenango volcano. You then spend the night at the base camp, where you sleep in tents. All tents have a view of the active and erupting Fuego, which is especially a unique sight at night when you can see the red lava and red ash clouds coming out of the volcano. After waking up early in the morning (or middle of the night), you climb to the top of the Acatenango. There awaits one of the most spectacular sunrises you’ll ever see!

The two-day Acatenango hike is one of the most extraordinary things to do in Guatemala. The combination between the tough hike, the beautiful views, the magical sunset, the adventurous overnight stay and the special volcano make this an unforgettable experience.

#5 The jungle of Rio Dulce

The beautiful area of jungle, lakes and the Rio Dulce River is a totally different side of Guatemala. Forget the colonial villages and volcanoes and spend a few days in a beautiful jungle paradise full of tropical birds and noisy howler monkeys. The tropical atmosphere and beautiful nature make this area one not to miss on your trip.

Read more: best things to do at Rio Dulce.

The highlight of the Rio Dulce region is the river of the same name. You can visit the San Felipe Castle, the Finca El Paraiso waterfalls, the Seven Altars, the hot springs Agua Caliente and Playa Blanca in the area, but in the end it’s all about the Rio Dulce River. The best way to explore the area – and therefore also the main attractions in the region – is from the water. You can book a boat tour or arrange a private boat, but it is best to go out on the water yourself or with a guide in a kayak or canoe. We paddled through the jungle via tributaries without a guide and loved every second of it. We even spotted a pod of howler monkeys high up in the trees!

Scattered through the jungle and along the water of the river you will also find some extraordinary places to stay at Rio Dulce. Think of charming wooden cabins with thatched roofs, cabanas hidden in the lush jungle or ecolodges surrounded by howler monkeys. Some of the best places to stay are Boatique Hotel & Marina, Dreamcatcher Ecolodge and Hotellito Perdido.

The village of Rio Dulce is small and rather uninteresting. Its counterpart is the colorful village of Livingston, located where the river meets the ocean. The boat trip from Rio Dulce to Livingston is a beautiful experience, sailing past islands full of birds, lush jungle and a beautiful canyon. It is one of the highlights of any stay in Rio Dulce. After arriving in Livingston, you can enjoy this remarkable town, which is known as one of the largest bases for the special Garifuna culture. The Garifuna are the descendants of a shipwrecked slave ship, settling in the Caribbean as free people. Their language, music and culture are African with Caribbean influences. It is a unique culture that is completely different from the other ethnic groups in Guatemala.

#6 Yaxha, hidden gem of Mayan culture

Not far from Tikal is the Mayan city of Yaxha, a much lesser-known, but also very impressive temple complex. While all travelers flock to famous Tikal, neighboring Yaxha is more of a hidden gem in Guatemala. The size of the complex is enormous, the view from the highest temple is phenomenal and the location on a deep blue lake is unique. Yaxha probably had a population of over 20,000 and about 500 buildings have been found in the area.

Read more: visiting Mayan city Yaxha in Guatemala.

One of the highlights of a visit to Yaxha is the sunset from the main temple (Structure 216, also known as the Temple of the Hands). With a height of 30 meters, this temple towers above all other temples and the jungle treetops. You’ll have a perfect view of the two lakes on which Yaxha is located. The views are stunning all day long, but at the end of the day visitors gather at this amazing spot to watch the sun go down behind the lakes, just before the archaeological park closes.

Yaxha is unique in Mayan archaeology because of its waterfront location. The lakes were once part of an important riverine trade route between major Mayan cities. With a bit of luck, you can find a motor boat (a lancha) at the jetty at Yaxha that will take you to the island in the lake and back. Because there is another temple complex on this lake island called Topoxte. The temples themselves are not that interesting, but they are said to be among the oldest Mayan ruins in Central America. The magical atmosphere of temples on an island, the roar of the howler monkeys and the few other visitors make this a special experience.

#7 Quetzaltenango and its volcanoes

The city of Quetzaltenango – also called Xela – will rarely be included in Guatemala travel itineraries. The second-largest city in the country may not be a bustling metropolis and certainly not a tourist destination, but that is actually the charm of Xela. The town offers a more authentic city life of Guatemala, while being surrounded by beautiful landscapes where you can make great day trips.

Read more: best things to do in Quetzaltenango.

The main attractions of Quetzaltenango are the volcanoes in the area. The volcanoes might even be the main reason to visit Xela. The city is a great base for lovers of nature and hikes, with climbing one of Guatemala’s impressive volcanoes being the best outdoor activity. You can undertake a multi-day hike to the Tujimal, the highest volcano in the country, or to the top of Santa Maria. We can also highly recommend the half-day trip to the Santiaguito, one of Guatemala’s three still active volcanoes.

Others highlights of Quetzaltenango are the authentic city center, the volcanic hot springs, the hip restaurants, the impressive cemetery and the fun day trips in the area.

#8 Colorful Isla de Flores

Pastel-colored facades, coble-stoned streets, dazzling sunsets and famous Mayan temples draw all travelers in Guatemala eventually to the Flores peninsula. Isla de Flores is a well-known base from which to explore northern Guatemala, with the Mayan ruins of Tikal being the best-known and most popular day trip.

Read more: best things to do in Flores.

Even though Flores is extremely popular with travelers, it is quite small and there is not that much to do on the island. But that is actually the biggest charm of this destination! There is a relaxed vibe around the peninsula and you don’t have much to do other than relax. The best things to do in Flores – besides visiting the famous Mayan temples of Tikal of course – are wandering through the colorful streets, walking on the promenade along the water, enjoying the great restaurant scene, taking a boat trip to the viewpoint over the lake, kayaking and relaxing on the beach. Flores has the most beautiful sunsets and the atmosphere is wonderfully relaxed. It is one of those places where many travelers linger a bit longer than originally planned and you will understand that immediately after spending a few days in Flores.

#9 Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey is a practical stopover between the destinations in western Guatemala and Flores/Tikal in the north. But even without that practical location, this nature destination is one of the most beautiful sights in Guatemala because of its green surroundings with naturally formed water basins with clear blue water.

A visit to Semuc Champey revolves around the natural park where a beautiful river with clear blue water runs through. One of the literal highlights is a – fairly short, but quite steep – climb to the viewpoint over the river. It offers that famous view over the limestone water basins of the river filled with turquoise water. The view is surrounded by lush nature, which makes this a magically beautiful picture. Be sure to descend to the limestone baths themselves as well. You can take a swim and enjoy the beautiful nature park.

#10 Hidden Mayan City of El Mirador

Located deep in the jungle near the border between Guatemala and Mexico, is one of the largest and most mysterious of all Mayan cities: El Mirador. Places like Tikal and even Yaxha attract many visitors, but El Mirador is so remote that few people come here. You can only get there by helicopter or multi-day hike through the jungle. Not much of the ancient city has not been excavated and restored, compared to other Mayan complexes, adding to the mysterious atmosphere surrounding this place.

The highlight of El Mirador is the temple El Dante, which is also said to be the tallest Mayan pyramid of all. The temple is said to be 77 meters high. Just as impressive is the temple El Tigre with a height of 55 meters and a popular spot for sunset or sunrise, as this temple is close to the base camp where you will camp during a hiking tour. As one of the largest Mayan complexes, there is much more to see than just these two temples, although a large part is completely overgrown by the jungle and there is still a group of archaeologists on site for excavations. You’ll need at least a full day to explore El Mirador with your guide.

Tip: watch the documentary Finding the Lost Largest Pyramid, created by Yes Theory, which shows a group of influencers and filmmakers hiking deep into the jungle to visit El Mirador.

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