Guatemala, what to see

1) Antigua

Antigua is a colonial town, beautiful in my opinion, located in the center of Guatemala and in the middle of the mountains. From any street in the city, you can admire the Acatenango volcano, which towers over 3500 meters. Sometimes you can even see smoke, because nearby Mount Fuego is active and can be visited on a hike, which takes you to both volcanoes and allows you, if you are lucky, to see lava.

Here’s what to see in Antigua: you can get lost between El Parque Central which is the main square, pedestrian streets, markets, admire the remnants of old churches and colonial buildings, stop for coffee at one of the many fine cafes, book a chocolate tour, have a vegetarian lunch in one of the inner courtyards of the buildings, and then in the evening dine at a contemporary cuisine restaurant and dance salsa in some downtown club.

I lived there for a month and was never bored. If you want to learn Spanish, it is also the ideal place, because there are many Spanish schools, as well as many families offering room and board packages, if you want to have an authentic experience and spend a few weeks in the company of a Guatemalan family.

Guatemala what to see: Antigua the colonial city
Rodrigo Escalante, Antigua

2) The Acatenango Volcano

One of the hikes to do in Guatemala that everyone recommends is to the Acatenango Volcano. It is a two-day trek with an elevation gain of 1,600 meters and you will reach the summit at 4,000 meters. It is quite strenuous if you are not trained and in fact I do not recommend it to everyone. Also as a matter of altitude, because you go up too fast.

The walk is all uphill, takes 5 hours including all breaks, and it is mandatory to do it with a guide because a number of accidents have occurred. Once you get to the top, you have two alternatives: if you still have breath and weather conditions permit, you can reach Fuego Volcano, which is still active, so you can see the lava up close. It is a strenuous walk of about a couple of hours, round trip. I recommend that you proceed only weather conditions permit, and I will explain why below.

Relax at base camp, because the next morning your alarm will go off at 4 a.m. so you can keep climbing and see the sunrise. The idea is that you climb so high that you find yourself surrounded by clouds.

Guatemala what to see: the Acatenango Volcano
Jeferson Argueta, Acatenango Volcano

Here I didn’t see all this beauty because I got so much water and cold during the hike to Fuego Volcano that I couldn’t then do the hike the next day at sunrise that was the focus of this trip. Because my shoes were still damp, I was advised against it, because once I got to the top, there would be a risk of freezing my feet with consequences like hypothermia. Here, I didn’t want to risk it. I recommend using a good agency, precisely because there are many variables in this excursion. One of them is the weather, which is really unpredictable on a volcano.

For example, in my case, given the weather conditions, they should have advised me and my group against even going to see the Fuego Volcano to save energy and have dry robes for the next day. Apparently the agency that offers the best service is called Ox Expedition.

Me, volunteer in Guatemala

I will preface this by saying that I have never felt equal. And one says, of what? About everything! I never felt I was good enough. And because of that, I started everything and quit everything. I still didn’t know that perseverance rewards. And so, after a while of not seeing results, I would quit. And so it was with yoga.

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3) Lake Atitlán

Here is another thing to see in Guatemala: Lake Atitlan. You can hike from Antigua to the lake. Every day, four times a day a series of mini-vans they call shuttles leave to drop you off in Panajachel, the largest town on the lake. It takes about three hours to reach this lake with a mystical flavor, from which you can see the volcano and the jungle. I, in fact, stayed living in a tiny village on the lake for a month.

My advice is to stop at least one night in Panajachel as an arrival point and then maybe the next day take the tour of the three main villages located on the lake which are San Marco, San Juan and San Pedro.

You might also decide to spend a night or more in one of these villages, which are only reachable by small boat. There are many expats who have decided to live on the lake, which has become a hippy destination with yoga centers, perma-culture activities, small stores selling organic and natural products, and places where you can have retreats and rituals. Through it all, there are also bars, hotels, and restaurants that are decidedly less hippy and suitable for a couple of relaxing nights on the lake.

Guatemala what to see: lake Atitlán
Parker Hilton, Lake Atitlán

4) Semuc Champey

If you want to know what to see in Guatemala, I’d like to remind you that another must-see stop in the heart of the country is Semuc Champey-they are natural pools that are as blue as they are cold, in the middle of the jungle. And to think that I was going to skip it, because it didn’t particularly convince me. I had labeled it as a backpacker place and in fact it is visited by very young people on the road and there are some party hostels with swimming pools and wonderful views. But it is actually perfect whether you are very young, so you can participate in the festivities, or if you are a little older, because you can have fun and also take advantage of the relaxation that this natural oasis offers.

You can only get there by land, and the journey is really tiring. You can start from Guatemala City, Panajachel, and Tikal in northern Guatemala. Whatever choice you make, it will take you about ten hours in a mini-van. And it will not be a relaxing trip, but at least it will be very cheap. Try to drink little water during the trip because there are few stops.

Your destination is Laquín, another small town whose existence you don’t understand, where basically people are very hot and don’t have many job opportunities except those related to tourism, which don’t seem well distributed. You can choose to sleep in one of the hotels or hostels in Laquín, or move closer to the natural park and sleep in the jungle, immersed in beautiful landscapes, including beers and breathtaking sunsets.

I slept in a glamping and I had a very good time, everything is very quiet and relaxing, you go to sleep early and wake up at dawn. I recommend that you stay at least two nights, one to recover from your trip and the other at the conclusion of your day among the jungle and natural pools. You can also do a very fun activity which is tubing, basically you sit aboard a huge life preserver and get pulled by the river current for a couple of hours. The river might have a postcard blue color, or it might be greenish depending on the season. In the second case, know that you will never know what animals are splashing in the river with you.

To enter the national park, you have to board a 4×4 that will take you to the entrance, where they will try to sell you any items, food and tours. I must say that river shoes are really useful to rent, so you can swim in the natural pools in peace and walk on the rocks. Otherwise, you can bring a pair of sneakers to use in the water.

For the rest, you don’t need a guide because you can make your own way on your own, first reaching the Mirador, from which you can admire the river and puddles from above and then, find yourself exhausted and sweaty and then dive into the icy water. For me, three hours was enough in the park, so you can choose whether to take a morning entrance or an afternoon entrance. On the way back you resume the usual 4×4. I remember that when I say jeep in South or Central America, it means you are crammed together with twenty other people in the box and often you are standing. In short, not exactly in compliance with safety regulations.

Guatemala what to see: Semuc Champey
Conor Murphy, Semuc Champey

6) Tikal and the Mayan ruins.

Among the things to see in Guatemala, you cannot miss Tikal. It is located near Mexico in the north of the country and is a very unique place, not only for the Mayan ruins but also for the small town Flores where you will stay during your visit. I, to make sure I didn’t miss anything, got there by mini-van from Samuc Champey, another 10 hours of travel those definitely a bit more missable. There is a small airport in Flores, so you can decide to fly to Tikal from Guatemala City; it takes about an hour or so and the prices are really cheap. You can do the same route by mini-van, and the trip takes 10 hours. I understood that in Guatemala all the trips are 10 hours long.

Tikal is this wonderful place nestled in the jungle and is what remains of one of the most extensive civilizations in Mayan culture. We are talking about more than 3,000 buildings. You can visit it at different times starting at 6 a.m. Consider that from Flores, it takes about an hour and a half by bus, so if you want to admire the sunrise, you have to take the 4:30 a.m. bus.

An early rise, which I didn’t do since it is a bit more cloudy in the rainy season and you risk waking up in the middle of the night to not even see dawn. In addition, you can also choose evening tours that end with the sunset. In Guatemala, the sun sets early and rises early. Everyone will recommend that you visit Tikal with a guide, and perhaps that is a good suggestion both to hear the history of the place and to move nimbly through the immense park.

Unfortunately, some time ago, a very serious incident occurred: a man never came out of the park again, and they searched for him for weeks, to no avail. The park is large, we are talking about more than 500 square kilometers of jungle, it is easy to get lost and there are many animals, including snakes, monkeys and jaguars, so it is not really a safe place. I am used to moving around independently, but I have to say that I was happy to have a guide available, because I learned a lot about where I was, and my group consisted of people from all over the world, all of whom were very nice. I’ll also remind you that all the guides are Mayan descendants, so that aspect also makes it much more interesting. So it was fun and I recommend it and you can take advantage of Viator’s excursions. I include links of excursions, only I consider a guide or organized excursion necessary.

Guatemala what to see: Tikal
Paweł Wielądek, Tikal

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