Guatemala: A Journey Into Underrated Beauty
What do you know about Guatemala? I would guess not a lot, unless of course you have experience in this remarkable country. Nestled in the heart of Central America, Guatemala is a country rich in natural beauty and cultural diversity. From its rugged highlands to its tropical rainforests, Guatemala's varied geography is a wonder to behold. But it's not just the landscape that makes Guatemala so captivating – it's also the warmth and resilience of its people, who have overcome centuries of hardship and struggle to create a vibrant and diverse culture. Among the many treasures of Guatemala are two of its most iconic destinations: Antigua, the beautifully preserved colonial city, and Tikal, the ancient Mayan ruins that rise majestically from the jungle. Both offer visitors a glimpse into Guatemala's rich history and cultural heritage, making it a truly unique and unforgettable destination. For such a small country, the story is quite extensive.
Where is Guatemala located? I have sadly been asked this too many times while planning my trip there. Guatemala is one of the seven nations which make up Central America, a region of North America between Mexico and Colombia. This slice of land sits between the Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean and offers up a diverse selection of landscapes within three regions. The flat southern plains stretch from the Pacific Ocean before giving way to the highlands, home to 37 volcanoes, four of which are active and falling back to the lowlands of Peten. Lake Atitlan, an ancient volcanic crater located in the highlands, is the deepest lake in Central America.
One of the most interesting aspects of Guatemala's people is their indigenous heritage. The country is home to 23 distinct Mayan languages, and the indigenous communities are known for their vibrant traditional dress and intricate handicrafts. Many of these communities live in remote villages in the highlands, and still practice ancient traditions and customs passed down through generations. At the same time, Guatemala also has a large population of Ladinos, or people of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent. Ladinos make up the majority of the urban population, and are often more economically and politically powerful than their indigenous counterparts. Despite this division, the people of Guatemala are generally friendly and welcoming, and take great pride in their country and its diverse cultural heritage. The country has faced many challenges in recent years, including political corruption, violence, and poverty, but the resilience and strength of the people of Guatemala continue to inspire hope for a better future.
I was fortunate enough to spend three months in this beautiful country. Upon first arriving, I was collected from the airport by the shuttle I prearranged through GuateGo and brought to the Airbnb in Antigua. Later in the day, this was a painless ride through the mountainous terrain. Antigua is the former capital of the country and in present day is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tourism board has done a great job of maintaining the feel of this historic city with cobblestone streets found throughout as well as many preserved points of interest which highlight the past. Antigua is the most popular destination for tourism with plenty of infrastructure in place and endless restaurants and cafes to enjoy.
From anywhere in the city, you can see three volcanos, Agua, Fuego and Acatenango and another, Pacaya, on the opposite side of Agua. Tours are available to hike up Pacaya and Acatenango. Acatenango is a more difficult hike and usually consists of camping overnight in order to witness the constant eruptions of Fuego nearby. I opted for a day hike up to just below the summit of Pacaya which is also active and has most recently erupted just a couple of months prior to my visit. Antigua Tours by Elizabeth Bell provided a great experience with pickup right at my front door, transportation to and from the volcano, the hike with an amazing guide and a delicious lunch for the day. I highly recommend an excursion to one of these amazing sites.
Growing in popularity over the past few years, particularly with the expat community, is the region surrounding Lake Atitlan. Panajachel is the primary town bordering the lake and serves as the commercial and tourism hub. I stayed at two different Airbnb’s during my time in this town. The first was just outside of the town proper in a beautiful spot standing on the banks of the river. The second apartment was located in the heart of the town and provided easy access to the lakefront. Calle Santandar is home to most of the restaurants as well as seemingly unending markets for local wares. The street ultimately ends at the lake, in front of where you can easily catch a water taxi to any of the other numerous towns bordering the lake. San Pedro and San Marcos are the next most popular towns, located opposite of Panajachel and closer to the volcanos San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan. South of Panajachel and connected by road is also Santa Catarina Palopo, a quaint town full of culture and some of the kindest people.
Tikal & Peten
On the northern edge of the country along the borders with Mexico and Belize is this region of jungles. From the highlands, it is much easier to access this beautiful place via a short flight from Guatemala City to Flores. I opted to stay across Lake Peten Itza from Flores in a small town called El Remate, specially at Alice Guesthouse. As much as I enjoyed every other aspect of my time in Guatemala, my experience staying here was the highlight. The guesthouse overlooks a bio-reserve a which is home to Spider Monkeys, Howler Monkeys, countless beautiful bird species and much more.
Tikal is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world, and a must-see destination for anyone visiting Guatemala. Located deep in the heart of the jungle, this ancient Mayan city is thought to have been inhabited as far back as the 4th century BC, and reached its peak in the 8th century AD. Today, visitors to Tikal can explore the remains of the city's towering pyramids, monumental temples, and sprawling plazas, all set against the backdrop of the lush, green jungle. The sight of the sunrise over the ancient temples is a truly breathtaking experience, and the sounds of the jungle – from the calls of howler monkeys to the rustling of leaves in the breeze – add to the sense of magic and wonder. With its rich history, stunning natural beauty, and sense of mystery and intrigue, Tikal is a true wonder of the world, and an unforgettable experience for any traveler.
For such a small country, Guatemala offers so much. Despite a longer visit, there is a lot that I missed this time. I have heard great things about Quetzaltenango, Rio Dulce and Coban. I do plan to visit the country again to experience this and will be sure to write a follow-up guide. If you are looking for a beautiful place with great weather, friendly people, delicious local food, rich culture and a plethora of history, Guatemala should definitely be on your list. Guatemala also provided the world with chocolate!