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Top 10 places to visit in Guatemala

April 29, 2024
Alfie Laurence

I spent a spontaneous 2 months exploring Guatemala and absolutely loved the country. It has a natural charm to it and it’s lush and green landscapes, proud Mayan past and colonial infrastructure across the country make it a destination worth visiting when travelling through Central America. It has certainly got it’s interesting culture and history: a huge Mayan civilization, natural disasters destroying its capital and a 30-year civil war offers a lot to explore and make it so precious. Take your time, listen to the locals’ stories and learn about Guatemalas' culture, tourism and history. I also recommend you do lots of the vast activities on offer, including an active volcano hike. Have a read of my Top 10 places to visit in Guatemala.

1. Antigua Guatemala

Let’s begin with Antigua, previously it was the capital of Guatemala and located close to 3 large volcanoes (Acatenango, Fuego y Agua). In 1773, there was a huge earthquake, which completely destroyed the city. Fortunately, the city has kept its beauty, colour and allure. The old town is stunning, its tiled roofs, cobbled streets and tall pavements make for perfect photo opportunities, too. Make sure you make a visit to the Artesanal markets, visit the Chocolate Museum to learn all about the origins of cocoa. If you’re like me and like vintage clothing, weave your way through the Mercado Central to find rail upon rail of clothes. I even travelled home with an extra suitcase full of nice shirts, sweaters that cost me about $3 each… no regrets. They’re called paces

To boast the best views of the city, head up the Cerro de La Cruz on a sunny evening to watch an awesome sunset with Volcan de Agua looking over the city. Guatemala is known for its tasty coffee, helped by the rich and fertilized volcanic soil producing rich and full-bodied chocolatey, nutty flavours and floral and citrus aromas. If you’re a caffeine addict like me, then you’ll want to get to one of the many speciality coffee shops or even over to a tasting at a coffee farm.

For accommodation, there are many great hostels in Antigua Guatemala that are worth visiting. I would suggest Tropicana Hostel or Somos Hostel. From Antigua Guatemala one of the great things to do is the overnight Acatenango Volcano Hike so let’s talk about that.

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Sunrise at the Top of Acatenango

2. Acatenango Volcano

Acatenango Volcano hike is undeniably the best activity and most challenging activity to do and without a doubt one of the most impressive places to visit in Guatemala. Volcano Acatenango’s peak has an altitude of 3,976 meters and boasts incredible views of Volcan de Fuego, which remains active. The reward of the ascent is that you can see eruptions at regular intervals, almost 15-30 minutes. The hike is approximately 5 hours climbing and has a medium to high difficulty. You have the option to descend and climb again up to Fuego. I did, but didn’t get the up-close views of the lava spewing. It was spoiled by an intense lightning and thunder storm! Pretty wild, as you can imagine. To do the tour, I’d highly recommend CA Travelers, they’re an amazing organisation that give tasty meals, equipment e.g. Warm clothing, hats gloves etc., comfortable accommodation in tents, tasty dinner and breakfast as well as a glass of wine and hot chocolate. Talk about glamping! It’s worth every penny.

3. Tikal

Parque Nacional Tikal, declared as a UNESCO Heritage Site is one of the most well-known  Tikal archaeological sites in the world and definitely one of the most impressive places to visit in Guatemala to learn about Mayan culture. Situated in the middle of the jungle, much of the temples remain hidden and were abandoned by the mayans over 1000 years ago, until Tikal was rediscovered in 1848. You’ll be treated to a multitude of temples, pyramids and squares that will be sure to captivate you. I’d recommend visiting in the afternoon so that you are there to watch the sunset before returning to Flores.

Warning: Tikal can be EXTREMELY BUSY. This means that there will be long lines, busy car parks and entrance isn’t particularly cheap. On top of that, if you want to do a tour, you may be spending around $50 for the day. If you’re like me and have seen and learned about other Mayan temples, an alternative is Yaxha National Park. It’s equally as impressive and you can actually climb to the top of the temples. Some places such as Tikal don’t allow this due to restrictions and safety.

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Sunset at Yaxha

4. Flores Island

Flores Island, located in Peken is one of the main base towns to then go to visit Tikal. It’s a magical little town situated on the Lago Petén Itza and is full of colour, culture, nature and delicious food. It’s one of the most colourful places to visit in Guatemala. It’s a great place to stay when visiting Tikal and on a sunny day you can enjoy a day at Johnny’s Place, a cute little spot on the lake, which is owned by a family who live there and can have food and there is a rope swing. It’s good fun, for sure. Other notable highlights included having breakfast at Casa de Grethel for lovely lake views looking back to Isla de Flores. Los Amigos Hostel is an amazing hostel and worth staying at.

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Cobbled Streets of Flores Island

5. Lake Atitlán

Lake Atitlan is situated about 3 hours on a bus from Antigua. It’s views are unbelievable and is another one of the most impressive places to visit in Guatemala. On the banks of the lake, you will find many different towns that continue to maintain Mayan culture and traditions through their art, food and celebrations. Lake Atitlan is a fantastic place to relax, explore the different villages and maybe even check you into a yoga retreat in San Marcos. San Marcos has a particularly spiritual vibe to it, lots of yoga, sound healing and meditation centers.

If you want to enjoy a lovely relaxed afternoon stroll and hang out in nature, head to Cerro Tzankjil Nature Reserve and head around the bay. Trust me, it’s gorgeous! If you’re daring enough, have a jump off the 13m diving platform. San Juan La Laguna is full of art and artisan and San Pedro La Laguna is more for your party scene. Check out Mr. Mullet’s boat party if you’re feeling a boogie. All around the lake are great places to visit in Guatemala. A lovely hike is Indian Nose, for an amazing sunrise over the lake.

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Views on Lake Atitlan

A special shout-out to Free Cerveza on Lake Atitlán. I volunteered there so may be slightly bias but it’s an outstanding place to visit in Guatemala. It’s a hostel, situated right on the lake facing Volcan Atitlan. On some clear days you can even see Volcan del Fuego erupt… it’s amazing. Free Cerveza is a boutique hostel with a really chill vibe, free SUP boards and kayaks for guests to enjoy the lake and an evening family meal every night. You’ve guessed it! There’s free beer between 5-7 every evening before dinner. Yoga classes, SUP excursions and sunrise hikes are some of the stand-out activities to do throughout your time there. Book in advance to avoid disappointment! You’ll be sleeping in tepee tents with up to 4 others; it’s adorable and very cozy.

Just along the lake is a gorgeous spot called Casa Fin del Mondo, it’s a nice place to stop to have breakfast and enjoy the views of the lake.

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Chilled Days at Free Cerveza

6. Semuc Champey

Natural Park Semuc Champey, located deep in the forest is another of the top places to visit in Guatemala. It’s known for it’s natural pools of green and turquoise waters produced by the water falls of the river that cross it and have made Semuc Champey possibly the most beautiful spot in Guatemala. Of course, you must hike to get a bird’s eye view of it (1 hour steep hike) but then you can enjoy the pools below for the day. There aren’t too many options for hostels so I’d book in advance. Zephyr River Lodge or Greengo’s are both really lovely places to hang out. I’d recommend doing an afternoon of caving and waterfall jump. It’s a nice way to do something active and fun and it’s pretty exhilarating! 

How to arrive:

Coletivo buses organized from Antigua, Flores or Guatemala City go to Lanquin. From there, you will meet your pick-up drivers who will transfer you to the hostels. As it’s in the middle of nowhere, journeys can take up to 8 hours to arrive there. Bear in mind buses do not run during the night.

semuc champey with turquoise natural pools in the background

7. Chichicastenango Market

Twice a week, on a Thursday and a Sunday, in Chichicastenango there is the most important indigenous market in Central America and another worth-while place to visit in Guatemala. Chichicastenango market is  absolutely huge and so if you can arrive early in the day, there will be less people. Precious artisanal products to souvenirs, passing by vegetables, incense, spices, fruits, seafood, hats and clothing give a huge rainbow to colour to the market. You can do day-excursions from Lake Atitlan.

8. El Paredón

If you’re feeling you want to get down to the Pacific coast for some surf, then get yourself over to El Paredon. It’s a pretty quiet up and coming town, which – if you’re a surfer is definitely one of the places to visit in Guatemala. Enjoy a relaxing stay at Mellow Hostel. If you’re feeling a party, they have great parties on a Thursday night. Paredon is easy to get to, only a few hours from Antigua in bus direct and they run a few times a day.

9. Livingston

Arriving by boat in Livingston, it feels like stepping into a completely different part of Guatemala. The home of the Garifuna culture, a mix of African freed slaves arriving by boat and mixing with the indigenous people of the area, it ended up having a mix of music, dance and gastronomy. As you walk through the streets, you’ll get a little bit of Africa and certainly feel that Carribbean vibe, too. The only way to arrive is by ferry boat from Río Dulce. It’s definitely another one of the places to visit in Guatemala.

10. Quetzaltenango

Quetzaltenango, better known as Xela is a lovely city situated in the north-west of Guatemala and is another very interesting place to visit in Guatemala. You can bathe in thermal baths, such as Las Fuentes Georginas, you can climb up to Volcán Chicabal & Santa Maria or you can simply enjoy the many delicious cafes and restaurants around the central square. Something different to move beyond the tourist destinations within Guatemala but definitely one of our top 10 places to visit in Guatemala.

Stay tuned for more Latin American content!

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Written by

Alfie Laurence
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