Situated between the frequently-visited destinations of Mexico and Belize, Guatemala is all too-often flown over. But with ancient Mayan ruins to peek at, a stunning lake to reflect in, and exotic local wares that are both beautiful and affordable, this fairly sizeable country is worth its own stamp on the ol' passport. What's more, any time is a good time to visit weather-wise. Here are the top 11 reasons to book today. Believe me, you'll be planning the next visit before you finish the first.
1. Really cool ruins
If you’ve ever fantasised about being Indiana Jones for a day or just love old, stone things, Guatemala’s ruins will blow you away. The most famous is coastal Tikal, which will impress even the most jaded traveller. Then you’ve got the remarkable ruins of Yaxha, Uaxactan and Quirigua scattered around the country looking fabulous. And if you’re up for a 5-day hike and a bit of roughing it, then El Mirador lies deep within the jungle and is believed to be the cradle of Maya civilisation.
2. Lake Atitlan
This crater lake is a big drawcard for travellers and there’s a very good reason for it – it’s amazing. Surrounded by three volcanoes and littered with villages where Guatemalans live a traditional life, Lake Atitlan is a place to relax and soak in some culture and nature. You can choose to get away from a more rambunctious atmosphere by staying in the villages outside of Panajachel, and there is hiking, biking, kayaking, swimming and sunbaking to wile away the days here.
3. Food like you’ve never tasted before
We all know how good Mexican food is, but the cuisine of Guatemala is equally as impressive (though not as spicy). There are some culinary crossovers, but on the whole Guatemalan cuisine is as unique as the country itself. Make sure to taste chiles rellenos, hilachas, shucos, pollo con loroco, pastel de banano and the thousand and one varieties of tamales.
4. Dazzling beaches
While everyone else is at Lake Atitlan, you can be swimming in the turquoise waters of the Pacific or Caribbean. Since most of the tourist attractions are inland, you’ll find Guatemala’s beaches are largely undisturbed. Playa Blanca near Livingston, Champerico, Iztapa and Playa Tilapa are all worth travelling for.
There are upwards of 25 volcanoes in Guatemala – many are dormant but some still threaten activity. The most recent scare was this January, when small amounts of lava flowed and ash erupted from the popular Pacaya, which led to the evacuation of people living closest to it. But despite the occasional fiery drama, Guatemala’s volcanoes are usually in gorgeous places and offer great hiking and spectacular views.
6. Lovely people
Travelling in a place where the locals are warm and welcoming makes all the difference on a trip away. We’ve often been overwhelmed by the friendliness and kindness of the Guatemalan people – who are usually quietly spoken and ready to smile.
It sounds like a dance and it often feels like it while weaving your way through the stalls here, but Guatemala’s most colourful – and famous – markets are certainly a highlight of any tour of Guatemala. Thursday and Sundays are when ‘Chichi’ comes alive and it’s a wonderful place to buy artisan souvenirs and do some serious people watching. Be mindful of using your camera here – always ask permission as ‘guerilla’ photography can often cause offence.
Devoting any less than a couple days to the massive Mayan ruins at Tikal would be an injustice of O.J. proportions. Set among lush tropical rainforest, the views surrounding Tikal are just as impressive as the ruins themselves. Don’t miss climbing the ridiculously steep steps of Temple I and Temple V (pictured right).
Spend the night at the nearby Jaguar Inn to explore the ruins just after dawn, a time when the howler monkeys outnumber the tourists many times over.
9. The Hiking
With a landscape dominated by volcanoes and mountains there’s no shortage of scenic and challenging hikes to enjoy. My favorite trekking experience in Guatemala was a sunrise hike up Indian’s Nose from San Pedro. The steep uphill 45-minute hike — and the early 4am meeting time — is worth the effort as you sit above a blanket of clouds hovering over the emerald green Lake Atitlan, watching hot pinks, oranges, yellows and purples streaking the sky and mixing with black clouds over San Pedro Volcano.
10. The Views
Whether you’re driving down the highway or lounging at Zoola’s pool on Lake Atitlan Guatemala has no shortage of striking natural views. My favorite view was from the treehouse of the above-mentioned Earth Lodge, where from my comfortable bed and private patio hammock I enjoyed clear aerial views of Ciudad Viejo, Hocatanengo Village, and the volcanoes of Agua, Acatango and the active Fuego. Gliding vultures that appear close enough to touch enhance the visual.
11. Budget-Friendly Holistic Offerings
Guatemala seems to attract a very hippie-style traveler, and you’ll find many lodges and venues offering yoga, delicious vegan meals, permaculture classes, massages and other holistic health and wellness offerings for very cheap. My personal favorite holistic offering was staying at the secluded Earth Lodge near Antigua, located up in the mountains and not accessible by car. Their most expensive accommodation is the Treehouse for $35 a night, totally worth the splurge to wake up to unobstructed views of the surrounding volcanoes. The property is located on a farm, and meals incorporate ingredients sourced onsite and from the market in Antigua. Enjoy complimentary morning yoga, a dry sauna, sports offerings like badminton and volleyball, scenic hiking and just lounging in hammocks with a Guatemalan Gallo beer and enjoying the natural beauty around you.