In 2017 I headed out to Central America for a little over 3 weeks, spending most of that time in Guatemala. I can tell you with confidence it is an absolute must see. Here are four reasons why:
1. Tikal, A Maya Site Hidden in the Jungle
Tikal is a large Mayan city that was buried deep in the jungle until the mid-19th century. It has not one, but five stunning temples (the tallest being 70m in height), along with 3,000 other structures covering an area of 15 square kilometres. While each plaza and temple was impressive in itself, moving around the site as a whole was really fun. You had only to walk into the jungle and emerge 5 minutes later into another area of architectural wonder. The experience did not begin and end with one stunning view, it continuously changed as we explored this magical city.
Tikal is a lesser-known site, however during my visit I was very glad this was the case as it never felt crowded. My advice is to visit before that inevitably changes.
Our guide was fantastic and the history of this historical super power centre was a pleasure to absorb. Tikal is a place I will not forget for many years to come. As far as lost cities go, this is my favourite.
2. Lake Atitlán, the Most Beautiful Lake in the World
It is hard to convey in words the beauty of this spot. Eight miles in length, it is surrounded by three picturesque volcanoes and boasts a pleasant temperature due to its altitude at 1,500m. Lake Atitlán is one of the most scenic places I have ever been.
There are many small towns dotted around the lake, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my visit to Santiago. The town is pretty and the market is interesting – the stalls sell a variety of items from fresh produce to souvenirs. What really struck me though was how friendly and helpful people are in this calm, quaint village, despite many having lived through the violence of the Guatemalan Civil War.
I left feeling humbled, and glad that I was a little less naive about Guatemala’s recent past (the war ended in 1996). The next morning I opted to rent a kayak so I could enjoy the sunrise from a unique perspective, and I can tell you it was the best £2 I have ever spent.
3. Chichicastenango Market, a Vibrant Market with a Twist
Chichicastenango is exactly what I look for in a local market: not overly touristy, a dash of organised chaos, and a friendly feel - no one here will badger you relentlessly until you buy something.
In three weeks of travelling, this was by far the most exciting place to purchase local products and souvenirs, and I found it entertaining even with souvenir shopping out of the way. Furthermore within the market we visited a church where a very unique situation has occurred: it is the only church where the Mayan beliefs have merged with Catholic practices and are depicted within the statues of the church. The story of this unique blend of beliefs adds yet another element to the experience of this fantastic market.
4. Antigua, A Colonial Wonder
I have been to many cities in Latin America with beautiful colonial districts, however in Antigua almost the entire city is colonial. Every street is beautifully cobbled (expect a bumpy ride when going in and out), and the buildings are a pleasure to behold. While cruel dictators are never to be lauded, it was the dictator Jorge Ubico who started the process of restoring Antigua to its former colonial glory when his government declared Antigua a National Monument.
Architecture aside, there is delicious street food, and the city’s setting is also stunning, nestled between three majestic volcanoes. And that is before you scratch into its history. Throughout history Antigua has been battered from all angles – the war, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have all damaged parts of the city to greater and lesser degrees but each time it is rebuilt better than before.
Between the great climate, setting, food and architecture, I could have stayed here for weeks, and in fact many do. Some even stay forever, so be warned!
Having travelled and lead expeditions all over the world, I would happily put Guatemala as one of my favorite destinations. This special country really is an unmissable destination, one which you will never forget. Putting its past behind it, it is now ready for tourism, and soon, I am certain, it will be become one of the new "go to" destinations of Latin America, so get there before it happens!
Is your interest piqued? If you'd like to visit Guatemala for yourself, you can our Guatemala holidays here.