For most travelers, visiting new countries typically produces one of two effects: Either it’s another dream destination checked off the bucket list, or it’s the beginning of a life-long fascination with the place. For many people, traveling to Guatemala tends to have the latter effect.
Guatemala is one of those places that seems to completely entrance visitors and bring them back for more. It’s not just the people. It’s not just the scenery, or the amazing accommodation options or budget-friendly prices. It’s not just the cuisine, the vast swaths of pristine nature, or timeless architecture. It’s got all of the allure of ecotourism in Costa Rica, and more.
The country is addictive because it’s simply a treasure chest of distinctive culture and regional peculiarities. It has many Here are 15 great reasons to travel to Guatemala NOW:
TIKAL NATIONAL PARK
For history buffs, nature enthusiasts, and mystical movers, the jungle-clad ruins of the ancient Mayan capital of Tikal is… Well, it’s so out-of-this-world that George Lucas used it as the setting for one of the planets in the original Star Wars. It’s got towering pyramids. It’s got monkeys and tarantulas and pisotes (a tropical cousin of the raccoon). The flora is phenomenal as well. Tucked in its own little corner of the country, Tikal should feature on everyone’s Guatemalan itinerary.
Central America is aces when it comes to coffee, and Guatemala is arguably the cream (and sugar) at the top. A favorite supplier for all the big-name chains— Starbucks, Costa, etc.— Guatemala is abound with delicious fresh roasts and quirky cafes ready to serve them up. There are lots of opportunities to tour coffee fincas and see how some of the world’s best coffee is processed. And these tours usually include enough samples to keep you moving and shaking until bedtime!
THE MAYA PEOPLE
Guatemala has a huge indigenous Maya population, and many of the old traditions still hold true here. Amongst the myriad Maya groups, there are over 20 separate languages, differing regional attire and varying local customs. In run-of-the-mill market stalls, it’s quite common to hear words unspoken anywhere else on the planet. Many tourists like to take cooking or arts & crafts classes with local women to learn the ancient ways. And the Children of the Maya are some of the cutest kids you’ll ever meet.
NESTING SEA TURTLES
Guatemala’s Pacific coastline– a series of black sand beaches and gnarly surf– is a favorite spot for nesting sea turtles, especially the Olive Ridley and the very rare Leatherback (which on the IUCN endangered species list). There are several NGOs working in the area to protect turtle eggs from being harvested for sale. At certain times of year, it’s possible to visit the hatcheries and watch baby turtles being released en masse into the wild.
While Guatemala may be known as the land of coffee, historically it’s also where the world’s most beloved sweet treat originates. The ancient Maya were the first to unlock the power of cacao, and the practice is still alive here today. Not only is their first-rate chocolate available for purchase, but there are informative tours for learning to make your own “bean-to-bar” chocolate. It’s also possible to participate in spiritual ceremonies centered on cacao.
Like the majority of Latin America, Guatemala spent some centuries under Spanish rule. While those days may be long gone, the stunning architecture— which is in varying states of ruin and renovation— still remains. Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala, with its dozens of churches and cobblestone streets, is arguably the most remarkable colonial city remaining in Central America.
Although it’s not the country’s largest lake (but definitely its most frequented), Lake Atitlán is regularly included in lists of the most beautiful lakes in the world. This high-altitude body of water is surrounded by a host of volcanoes, scenic vistas, and distinct villages. It’s a great place for hiking, yoga, scuba diving, clubbing, shopping, or doing nothing more than simply swinging in a hammock with a drink and a good book.
Nothing says Guatemala like the snap of hands clapping out corn tortillas. Guatemala has a very special blend of fruits and vegetables, some of which are difficult to find elsewhere. Regional specialties like pepian— a stew with too many ingredients to list, but including special dried peppers and pumpkin seeds— are completely unique from neighboring countries. And the tipico plate of rice, beans, fried plantains, pico de gallo and fresh tortillas is incredibly addictive.
If the cooking of corn tortillas is the sound of Guatemala, then the country’s colorful textiles are a stunning visual representation of the country’s culture. Coming in an innumerable array of colors, patterns and textures, Guatemalan textiles are renowned throughout Central America (so much so that neighboring countries sell them in their markets). Traditional traje (outfits) change from region to region, as do the beautiful tapestries, quilts, tablecloths, dolls, and bags. It’s a challenge not to leave the country without a suitcase full for friends back home.
The central region of Guatemala is extremely mountainous, with altitudes often pushing upwards of 10,000 feet. It’s no wonder, because there are several active volcanoes still changing the landscape… often on a daily basis! The most popular and easiest to visit is Volcan Pacaya, near Guatemala City. But active and dormant volcanoes are dotted throughout the country, especially around Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Xela.
OPPORTUNITIES TO HELP
In lower-income countries such as Guatemala, there is always a lot of need. Thankfully there are a lot of different people who devote months and years of their lives trying to help. Charitable NGOs and volunteering opportunities are everywhere, providing plenty of ways for thoughtful travelers to lend a helping hand.
Like other countries with large Catholic populations, Guatemala is replete with holidays for the various different saints. But unlike those other countries, there’s also a host of Mayan festivals to enjoy, including one for Maximon– a hybrid Catholic-Mayan figure and patron of booze and tobacco. Antigua’s celebration of Semana Santa is the largest and likely most splendid in the world. Something festive is always on the go, with fireworks to boot.
Though not necessarily a traditional food of Guatemala, licuados (fresh fruit smoothies) are a ubiquitous item on most restaurant menus. The selection of fruits tends to be largely tropical and plentiful. A massive licuado– blended with either water, milk or yogurt– often only costs a couple of bucks. Despite being slightly more expensive than other Guatemalan eateries, Pitaya in Antigua has the absolute best smoothies I’ve ever tasted, anywhere.
This is a beautiful spot that many travelers miss simply because it takes a little effort to get there. But, when it comes to natural wonders, this series of pools and cascades may be the ultimate slice of humble pie for mere mortals. It’s also got caves to explore, as well as lazy river tubing. With a great collection of eco-lodges and hip hotels in the area, Semuc Champey is a place that seriously rewards those who brave to get off the beaten track.
RIO DULCE NATIONAL PARK
Wedged between Belize and Honduras, there’s a sliver of Guatemala that stretches from Lake Izabal (the country’s largest) to the Caribbean Sea. Through the center of this strip runs the Rio Dulce (“Sweet River”), one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. The river is bordered by miles upon miles of thick jungle, as well as stunning cliffs that rise high above the water’s surface. In Livingston, where the river meets the sea, there’s also a chance to see Garifuna culture.
This is just a sampling of the reasons Guatemala keeps us coming back from more. History abounds here. Nature ranges from massive mountains and cloud forests to the steamy black beaches of the Pacific. The country simply oozes colorful culture.
In other words, it’s impossible to pin down just one thing we like about traveling to Guatemala. There’s simply too much about it to love… –Jonathon Engels
BIO: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer & teacher currently on a slow travel trip from Central America to Patagonia, volunteering his way throughout the journey. He’s also the founder of The NGO List, a compilation of grassroots NGOs seeking international volunteers. His work can be found at Green Global Travel and Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad.