“So why are you going to Guantanamo??” … This was a question I had to answer several times when I first announced my Central America travel plans, and I was always replying, “No I’m going to Guatemala, a country just below Mexico!”
You may consider this an unorthodox start for a blog that is supposed to be singing Guatemala’s praises, but for me, the above exchange perfectly sums up one of my favourite things about the country – the fact that it’s that little bit off the radar. Guatemala is not as well-known as its neighbours Mexico and Costa Rica, this make it feel a little less touristy and a bit more adventurous!
Nowhere do you feel the spirit of adventure more than at the Maya ruin of Tikal, an Indiana Jones worthy temple complex that stretches far into the jungle, encompassing 575 square kilometres of national park land. The paths between the ruins wind through the trees and you can hear the calls of howler monkeys whilst you walk to the next temple, some of them towering above you (the temples not the monkeys!). You are allowed to climb up some of the temples and when you reach the top you can really appreciate the true extent of just how huge and remote the site is, as in every direction all there is is jungle jungle jungle as far as the eye can see. A lot of jungle means a lot of wildlife, with over 54 species of mammals and 333 species of birds, including toucans, parrots, wild turkeys and coatimudis inhabiting the area.
Another popular highlight of Guatemala is Lake Atitlán, a beautiful lake surrounded by 3 volcanoes and 12 small villages. This is a lovely place to relax and experience the local way of life. Most of the villagers still live their lives in a very traditional manner; out on the lake the men still fish in homemade canoes and farm the fertile hillsides while the woman wash their beautiful hand embroidered clothes by the side of the lake. This is great place to just sit back and enjoy the view. A highlight for me was learning about local folklore – be sure to ask about Maximon if you find yourself in the village of Santiago! There is also plenty of scope for adventure sport in Lake Atitlán, so if you’re feeling a bit more active go for a hike up one of the volcanoes, swim in the lake, kayak or bike to another village, you can even go diving.
I loved my time in Tikal and Lake Atitlan, but my favourite place in Guatemala has to be Antigua. The former capital is most traveller’s first taste of the country, and although it is only a 40 minute drive from Guatemala City – the bustling current capital – Antigua feels like it is in an entirely different world. The whole town is colonial and they have a rule that any new building or work on an existing building has to be in style with the rest of the town, which means that it has not really changed in 100’s of years. Another bonus of the location is that it is surrounded by 3 Volcanoes – Agua, Acatenango and Fuego. The latter of which is still very active and you can frequently see plumes of smoke rising from the top.
Unsurprisingly for a location with lots of volcanoes, earthquakes have played a significant part in Antigua’s history. As you wander the streets of Antigua you will see quite a few ruins and buildings which have been severely affected, including the cathedral in the main square. From the front this stunning and still used cathedral looks complete, but when you look behind you will find the ruins which remain from the last major earthquake.
The quakes have helped shape Antigua into what it is today – a pleasing mix of new and old, with new restaurants and hotels opening not far from traditional markets where people from the local villages come to sell and buy their produce. There is also a lovely craft market, which is perfect for buying some handmade souvenirs to take home. The only problem you may have here is trying to fit all of your purchases in your suitcase!
If you have been inspired and would like to experience all Central America has to offer, I would highly recommend our Grand Tour of Guatemala & Costa Rica holiday, where you get to take in the history and culture of the Mayans in Guatemala followed by the wildlife thrills of Costa Rica.
You can find out more information on all our amazing Latin American holidays by visiting our Holidays section, ordering our brochure or giving us a call on 020 7263 3000.