Volcanoes wreathed with thick clouds and ready to be climbed; rural towns and villages alive with chaotic but thrilling street markets, where locals dress in brightly coloured clothing whose patterns testify to the identity of their home towns; the great, chugging bulks of monstrous Chicken buses that roar through the streets of colonial Antigua Guatemala; crumbling Maya ruins dating over 1,400 years old retrieved from encroaching jungle.
While many tourists overlook Guatemala in favour of neighbouring Belize and Mexico, there are enough fascinating and unusual things to do in Guatemala to keep you occupied for weeks.
I spent eight days in Guatemala back in October 2018, learning about new sustainable tourism initiatives across the Antigua Guatemala and Lake Atitlán regions. However, those who follow the blog regularly will know that I aim to write about places where I’ve spent a significantly longer amount of time – ensuring that readers get the best, most detailed information about what to do and where to go in a country.
It’s for this reason I’ve enlisted the help of a slew of other travel bloggers to find out, from their collective wisdom, exactly what they would consider to be the top things to do in Guatemala.
Make chocolate in Antigua Guatemala
James Ian from Travel Collecting
One of my absolute favorite things to do in Guatemala is taking a chocolate making workshop. The Mayans have been drinking chocolate for hundreds of years (in fact, chocolate was first discovered in this part of the world) and cocoa beans, which chocolate is made from, are grown all around Antigua Guatemala. So what better place to learn how to make chocolate?
The workshop starts with an overview of the history of chocolate, and then gets into the fun part. Participants roast cocoa beans and then separate the husks from the beans. The husks are used to make several chocolate teas – without sugar (very bitter) and with sugar (nicer!). The beans are ground into a paste using a traditional mortar and pestle; the chocolate is frothed by pouring the liquid from one container to another and back again, in quick succession; then the paste is used to make two types of hot chocolate.
Mayan hot chocolate has chilli and water and again is quite bitter. Spanish hot chocolate is made with milk and vanilla and is more what we are used to. Finally, the remainder of the chocolate paste is used to make chocolate candies in a mould, using a variety of different flavours and fillings.
This is a really enjoyable thing to do in Antigua Guatemala!
Explore the Maya ruins of Tikal
Halef from The Round the World Guys
One of the most important pre-Colombian Maya ruins in Guatemala – and the country’s most famous tourist attraction – is Tikal. It is located in the eastern part of the country, and many people opt to visit Tikal from Belize City instead of the capital, Guatemala City.
The Tikal archaeological site is huge. The 100-square-mile city is still largely unexplored because of the dense El Petén jungle that still surrounds it. But those structures that have been excavated and restored are simply amazing.
Some of highlights of Tikal include the Temple of the Grand Jaguar and all of the numbered temples. Don’t miss Temple IV, where you can climb its wooden staircase to the mid-pyramid platform overlooking the thick jungle below. This was the setting for Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope Episode.
One tip to help you experience Tikal to the fullest: stay in one of the three hotels inside Tikal National Park, such as the Jungle Lodge Hotel. At night, you can hear the sounds of the jungle with its famous howler monkeys. Be sure to arrange a sunrise tour before the park opens to the public.
Take a cooking class in San Pedro la Laguna
Katja from Globetotting
One of the best activities that we did during our trip to Guatemala was to take part in a cooking class on Lake Atitlán. The half-day class is run by a local woman, Anita, and takes place in her home in the village of San Pedro La Laguna.
Our lesson started with a trip to the local market to buy ingredients. The lively market is packed with dozens of stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables (many of them completely unrecognisable!) alongside vendors hawking rice, beans, meat and freshly made tortillas. Ingredients bought, we headed back to Anita’s house and began cooking on her rooftop terrace overlooking the lake.
Together we made tortas de papa (potato pancakes), halacha (beef with potatoes, carrots and spices in a tomato sauce), tamales made with a leafy vegetable commonly used in Guatemala and, our favourite, rellenos de platano – banana balls filled with chocolate.
Once we finished cooking, we all sat down to eat together and enjoyed what was probably our best meal of our trip. What really made the experience, however, was Anita herself. She is incredibly entrepreneurial and her story is very inspirational.
For good food and great company, you should definitely make this cooking class part of your Lake Atitlan adventure.
Dine at Tenedor del Cerro
Daniel James from Layer Culture
When travelling to Guatemala and looking for new activities, get yourself up to Tenedor del Cerro in Antigua Guatemala. Not only it is one of Guatemala’s best and most famous places for breakfast and dining, but it’s a cultural centre which marks the home to some permanent contemporary sculptures, urban art installations and other interesting mosaics that rotate throughout the year. The restaurant itself is located on a high mountainside with spectacular views of Antigua Guatemala and two volcanos.
You’ll also be glad to find an open-air market that offers various products, souvenirs and local crafts for sale. You can easily spend a few hours without getting bored and have a great time here.
Tenedor del Cerro is a must visit destination for anyone that finds themselves in Antigua Guatemala with a half a day to spare, and there’s no need to learn Spanish as there are signs in English.
Getting here is a hard but wonderful hike if time permits you. If not, there is always the free shuttle bus option which leaves every hour on the hour and is provided free by Hotel Santo Domingo for anyone who wants to visit.
Explore the market in San Francisco El Alto
Wendy from The Nomadic Vegan
Exploring Guatemalan markets is a great way to gain insights into the culture and see what life is like for the locals, and there’s no better place to go and do this in Guatemala than at the market in San Francisco el Alto. The weekly Friday market is one of the largest and most authentic in the whole country.
Whereas the markets in Antigua and other towns popular with tourists are filled with arts and crafts souvenirs, in San Francisco el Alto the market is really for the locals. People come from nearby villages to shop for fresh produce, housewares, and other basic necessities.
The region is known for its fabric industry, so you will see plenty of ready-made clothes as well as huge rolls of fabric for sale. The traditional Maya cloth comes in beautiful designs and is sold by the meter.
To get a bird’s-eye view of all the action, climb up to the roof of the 18th-century church in the town’s main plaza. From here, you’ll see stalls, vendors and shoppers spreading out in all directions.
One section of the market is dedicated to the sale of live animals, so vegan travelers or other travellers concerned about animal welfare may want to skip that bit.
Take a textile workshop in Santo Domingo Xenacoj
Steph, found of Worldly Adventurer
Just a forty-mind drive from the beautiful colonial city of Antigua Guatemala lies Santo Domingo Xenacoj, a small town of mostly indigenous inhabitants and just one of the sustainable tourism projects opening their doors to tourists in Guatemala. Its main attractions include its buzzing traditional market where you encounter local foods or just spend the absorbing the chaos of a busy rural market.
Further into the town, the Consejo de Tejedoras de Santo Domingo Xenacoj (The Weaving Council of Santo Domingo Xenacoj) is another truly fascinating attraction for visitors. The women who started this collective a few years back are working together to both revive ancient Maya textile patterns and ensure that the art of weaving using laborious, traditional back-strap looms is not lost. They’ve founded a weaving school for young girls and women in the local area and have begun working with tourists to both educate them on the issues facing indigenous rights when it comes to textile production, as well as leading a workshop where you actually have the chance to weave your own textile.
Local operator Guate4You lead English-language tours both to Santo Domingo Xenacoj and other sustainable tourism projects in the Guatemala.
If you’re interested in learning more about Guatemala’s textile tradition and want an adventure granting you exceptional proximity to local people in the country, readers of Worldly Adventurer can also get 10% off a women-only Guatemala trip being operated by the fantastic Purposeful Nomad team.
Learn Spanish in Guatemala
Sarah from A Social Nomad
Guatemala has been one of the best places in Latin America to learn Spanish for more than 30 years now! There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that the style of speaking is slow here – so it’s much easier to learn – along with the fact that the accent is very neutral. You’ll also find the cost of living extremely low here, and the cost of lessons also low compared to this high quality of teaching available.
Most Spanish schools – and there are lots – offer what’s called full immersion costs – the idea being that you speak no English at all during your time at the schools. Lessons in Guatemala are also traditionally one on one, or for couples or friends travelling together, one teacher per two people. This greatly increases the learning potential. You’ll find that Spanish language classes run five days a week for four or five hours a day. You’ll also be offered the chance to stay with a local family in a homestay – MORE learning!
We paid just US$125 a week for five hours of Spanish lessons five days a week – AND all our meals and accommodation at a homestay. Plus our school provided Spanish language activities six days a week!
There are schools throughout the country – from Antigua Guatemala to Lake Atitlan and our favourite, Quetzaltenango, where we recommend the school Sol Latino for great teaching and a superb social program.
Paddleboard on Lake Atitlán
Bradley Williams from Dream Big, Travel Far
One of the highlights from our time spent in Guatemala has to be when I went paddle boarding on Lake Atitlán, one of the country’s top vacation spots. I’d never tried paddle boarding before, so was pretty apprehensive when I first got on the board. But after about five or 10 minutes of severe wobbling, I finally started to get my balance and relax. After that, it was so much fun!
Lake Atitlán is the perfect place to head out on a paddle board, as the water is so calm and peaceful and there is very little traffic around. It was wonderful paddling further and further away from the shore until it was just me and the peaceful beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains. But do be careful, as there are ferries that pass by occasionally.
To make the most of paddle boarding here, it is a good idea to stay at a hotel or resort that has its own private dock. They will likely also provide free paddle boards so it’s a cheap and fun activity to try. Better yet, ask the guys running it to show you the ropes as getting your balance can be surprisingly tricky at first!
Hike up Volcán Pacaya
Claudia Tavani from My Adventures Across The World
Much like the rest of Central America, Guatemala is scattered with volcanoes and one of the most adrenaline filled things to do here is going on a volcano hike. One of the best ones is Volcano Pacaya, which is within easy reach from Antigua Guatemala.
The hike has to be a guided one, as the volcano is highly active and regularly throws smoke and lava into the air. The best time of the day to go on a hike is the afternoon, so that you can reach the highest point at around sunset time and you’ll be able to enjoy a show of smoke and explosions before heading back down, in the dark, using only a torch for light.
It is not a strenuous hike, but the terrain is very sandy so you may find it difficult. It gets windy at the top, and chilly, so make sure to bring a wind proof jacket and an extra layer.
The hike can take anything between four and six hours, depending on how fast you walk. Beware that there is an entrance fee to the national park, which is of about $7 USD. A guide can be hired at the information centre at the entrance to the park, or else you can join one of the main guided tours leaving every day from Antigua Guatemala, which usually include transportation.
Summit Volcán Acatenango
Claire from Claire’s Footsteps
Climbing to the summit of Acatenango Volcano is without a doubt one of the best things to do in Guatemala. With a guide, you’ll embark on an overnight trek to one of the base camps, from where you’ll watch Fuego (its neighbouring volcano) erupting.
After a night at base camp, you’ll get the chance to summit Acatenango volcano for sunrise. Two words of advice: DO IT. You do get the option to stay at camp, but sunrise at the top of the volcano is one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen and should not be missed on a trip to Guatemala.
After sunrise, and admiring the spectacular view over Antigua Guatemala and beyond (on a clear day you’ll be able to see all the way to Lake Atitlán), it’ll be time to descend back down to base camp and to the bottom of Acatenango Volcano.
The climb is difficult and really tests your endurance, but trust me – it’s worth it. It was without a doubt the best and most rewarding thing I did during my time in Guatemala.
Tours leave from Antigua; they are bookable from hostels, hotels or agencies. They include a tour guide, food, transportation and camping gear. I’d recommend shopping around to find the best deal.
Swim in Semuc Champey
Claire Sturzaker, Tales of a Backpacker
Semuc Champey is one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala and this natural wonder is the highlight of many people’s trip to this special country. In this natural park, turquoise water tumbles down a series of natural pools hidden in the middle of the jungle, creating a surreal destination that is as hard to get to as it is beautiful!
A full day’s journey by bumpy shuttle bus from either Antigua Guatemala or Flores, you need to allocate at least three full days for visiting Semuc Champey, including two days of travel and a minimum of one day visiting the pools.
Once you have reached Lanquin (the closest town to Semuc Champey) most people choose to take a tour to visit Semuc Champey, which also includes a visit to some nearby caves, tubing down the river and the chance to try a huge swing over the river, as well as entrance to the natural park and pools.
You can also visit independently if you prefer, but the price of the tours is excellent value for what you get. No matter how you choose to visit, don’t miss the hike up to the viewpoint for a stunning view of the pools from above. For sheer beauty, Semuc Champey is hard to beat!
Paragliding in Panajachel
Mitch from Project Untethered
Let me start out by saying that if you travel to Guatemala, you can’t miss Lake Atitlán – a mystical lake surrounding by mountains, volcanoes, and small traditional Mayan pueblos.
I was doing a homestay and taking Spanish classes in one of these pueblos, San Pedro, when a fellow traveller recommended I take a short (but choppy) ferry ride over to neighbouring Panajachel. She had just gotten back from a once-in-a-lifetime experience paragliding over the gorgeous Atitlán. She said if I didn’t do it, I’d regret it forever.
I took her word for it.
To be honest, I was a bit nervous. After all, running off the side of a mountain in Guatemala doesn’t seem like the safest activity. But after researching the company my friend recommended, Real World Paragliding, I found only positive reviews.
This was before I started working on the road, and at a cost of 700 quetzales (~$90 USD), it was a little pricey for my tight backpacker budget. But let me tell you – it was worth every penny. I doubt you’ll find anywhere else you can paraglide in such a beautiful place for that price.
So, have I convinced you yet?
If so, all you have to do is visit the Real World Paragliding website to make a reservation.
And remember, even though the flight usually only lasts between 20-45 minutes, make sure you have an entire day dedicated to paragliding. Since flights depend on weather conditions, you might have to wait a few hours (that you can spend exploring the Panajachel markets).
My last tip: Don’t worry about taking pictures (they’ll take care of that). You’ll probably only paraglide over Lake Atitlan once in your life. Live in the moment. Soak up and enjoy every second.
Ride a Chicken bus
Eoin from DollysQuest
Taking public transport when in a different country can always be an adventure. Especially when you don’t speak the language or are unsure how to communicate the destination you wish to visit.
But, one of the most fun and enjoyable ways is to take the local transport that might not exist in your home countries such as tuk-tuks or the metro. In Guatemala, the most unique and fun way I found to travel was via the infamous Chicken buses.
These are essentially old converted American school buses. They can be found in several Latin American countries but nowhere are they as prevalent as in Guatemala. These buses serve most of the major cities and some of the regional areas.
A favourite among locals and some of the more adventurous travellers, Chicken buses can be cramped, a little dangerous and not where you want to be if you follow the rules of the road.
A much cheaper alternative to private hires, Chicken buses can usually be boarded at the local bus stations or along designated streets in many popular locations. It is always best to ask a local where to find your bus. Then simply listen out and jump on board as fast as possible as these guys don’t like waiting.
I would recommend packing some snacks and holding onto your valuables as people jump on and off at a rapid rate and you don’t want to have your belongings go missing.
Birdwatch in San Juan La Laguna
Isabella from Boundless Roads
I spent 3 months in Guatemala, housesitting in the colonial and charming Antigua and exploring the country. From Semuc Champey to Rio Dulce, Tikal and Lake Atitlán, the country is brimmed with spectacular natural monuments and history.
However, what I enjoyed the most in Guatemala was discovering off the beaten track places, such as San Juan la Laguna*, to me the most charming town on the shores of Lake Atitlán. It’s actually one of the most authentic and where the local communities strive to keep their precious traditions alive and to let the world know about them.
When we arrived, we went directly to the local community association office where we were warmly welcomed and told about their homestay availability and the activities they offered. My friend and I agreed to take a tour through the locals, both because we were curious and also it was a good way to support the community.
We spent just one night and two days there and the highlight of the whole time was bird watching. Our host organized it for us and at 6am the following day we met our guide, ready to hike to the nearby Mirador La Cruz. It was a short hike and on the way up we stopped to spot many different birds species and admire spectacular views. When we arrived to the top, I was really fascinated by the knowledge of our guide, a very young guy so passionate about his job and so excited to spot and show us all the birds species as much as we were to learn about them.
By 10am we were back to hour breakfast in our homestay and then ready for the next stop. But I remember this hike at San Juan La Laguna as the best experience on the Lake Atitlán.
*Steph’s note: San Juan La Laguna has hit the headlines recently due to the upsetting disappearance of British backpacker Catherine Shaw, who was later found dead at the top of El Naudiz, a nearby peak. Although the cause of death has since been identified, no further information has been released by the police investigating. While Guatemala is certainly a country that requires visitors to travel with care and caution, having visited San Juan La Laguna myself in October, I would certainly not be advising backpackers to avoid the region.
Explore the colonial town of Flores
Clare from Travels in Peru
One of my favourite places to visit in Guatemala is Flores, in the Petén Department.
This beautiful little colonial town is on a circular island on Lake Peten Itza and as it is only one hour from Tikal, it attracts many tourists.
It was originally built by the Itza people after the collapse of Chichen Itza (a series of Maya temples built on the Yucatán Peninsula in what is now Mexico) and who the Spanish finally defeated in 1697. The stones from the Mayan structures were used to build the Roman Catholic Church in the main square and it was during this period when the town was renamed Flores.
The towns’ streets go in circles and are cobbled. Cars can come onto the island but luckily this is limited. It is a great place just to walk around and explore. The old colonial buildings that were built on the island are very colourful and beautiful with wooden balconies.
In the centre of the island at the top of the hill, there is the main square and a beautiful historic church.
The town itself is very small and a great place to relax, go shopping or eat in one of the many restaurants. Along the edge of the lake are some restaurants and bars with great views.
If you want to be a bit more energetic then you can go swim in the lake from one of the many jetties, or rent a boat or canoe to explore the lake further.
Walk from Livingston to Seven Altars
Juozapas Žygas from Nomad Joseph
After visiting Antigua, Atitlan, climbing the Tajumulco and San Pedro volcanos and exploring Tikal (all of Guatemala’s most popular tourist attractions), you might want somewhere relaxing to rest for a while. Livingston might be the perfect place to spend a couple of days. It is a town near the sea and it is only possible to reach Livingston by boat, although, there are tuk-tuks and cars in town. Livingston is a great place to eat sea food, enjoy relaxing vibes and rest.
One of most fun things to do while you’re here in Livingston is to visit Seven Altars which are natural water pools a little bit outside of Livingston. You can either walk for roughly an hour and a half from the center of Livingston or you can take a tuk-tuk for five quetzals to the bridge where the trail begins. From here, it’s only around a 30-minute walk along the beaches.
You will pass some restaurants and coconut water vendors until you reach the entrance to Seven Altars. The entrance fee to visit these fresh water pools is 20 quetzales per person. You can use toilet for this price and spend as much time as you want inside these fresh water pools. After swimming you can either walk back to Livingston or return via tuk-tuk. They are waiting just behind the bridge.
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