Beautiful scenery, colorful and overflowing agriculture, and delicious food are all staples of any trip to Guatemala, Central America’s center of Mayan culture. The country’s landscape, rich history, and interesting combination of religious cultures make it a must-visit destination — here's 14 reasons why:
1. Go Shopping in Chichicastenango
“El País de la Eterna Primavera” or “The Land of the Eternal Spring”... you’ll quickly see the origins of this moniker when visiting the market at Chichicastenango. The indigenous town, in the mountains northwest of Guatemala City, is famous for its busy market days on Thursdays and Sundays. Indoors, you’ll find rows upon rows of fruits and vegetables—tomatoes, onions, beans, squash, peppers—responsible for the country’s most delicious cuisine, sold seasonally by local farmers.
2. Cook Like a Local
Outside, vendors line the stalls, selling traditional trinkets and handicrafts. On your shopping list: popular items like carved wooden instruments and masks, colorful Mayan fabrics and blouses, and beautiful ollas de barro, handmade clay kitchen pots. From simple black beans to Pepián, a traditional stew seen as Guatemala’s national dish, local cooks swear that ingredients cooked slowly over a wooden fire in an olla de barro taste much better than those made in metal pots.
3. Tour the Cultural Hotspots Around Lake Atitlán
Dive deep into Guatemala’s Mayan culture with a visit to Lake Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central American and touted as one of the most beautiful in the world. The lake, in the Guatemalan highlands and shaped by surrounding volcanos, is ringed by traditional Mayan towns and villages where visitors can see traditional dress and learn about local customs. Where to stay: Hotel Atitlán in Panajachel.
4. Visit the Mayan Weavers
On the hunt for the colorful and unique fabrics so popular in Central America? Look no further than San Juan La Laguna, a small village on the southern shore of Lake Atitlán and easily accessible by boat. Here, the Mayan women of the region have shops set up where you can watch them dye and hand weave the colorful garments—huipils and cortes—that are there signature.
5. Stock Up On Clay Treasures
If pottery and ceramics are more your thing, venture to San Antonio Palopó on the lake’s eastern shore. Years of volcanic activity in the highlands of Guatemala have left local rivers with exposed channels of clay. In San Antonio, the town’s artisans painstakingly handcraft and paint pottery in a modern style with roots traced back to the ancient Mayan craft.
6. Pay Homage to the Mayan’s Maximón
Maximón, a mishmash of Catholic saint and Mayan deity, is clearly living his best life. A venerated folk saint and cult hero who calls the lake village Santiago Atitlán home, Maximón is worshipped by Mayans in several towns in Western Guatemala. Here’s the deal: ply him with booze, cigarettes and money in exchange for good health, good crops, and good luck in general. Mustachioed and rakish, he’s fashionably decked out in scarves and a hat, usually with a lit cigarette in his mouth. His elaborate shrine is moved to a different house each year in a procession during Holy Week. Honored to be his guardians, the owners of the home or their family members attend to Maximón’s sanctuary round the clock. Visit and snap a photo... but don’t forget your offering.
7. Dine High Atop Lake Atitlán
For a taste of the luxe life while visiting Lake Atitlán, look no further than Casa Palopó. The hotel is housed in a beautiful villa built on the hills surrounding Santa Catarina Palopó village. High above the lake, with stunning, unbroken vistas of the three volcanoes that surround its banks, Casa Palopó is both charming and luxury. If you can’t score one of the boutique hotel’s seven rooms or two suites, make sure to swing by 6.8 Palopó, preferably at sunset, for a relaxed and delicious dinner. The restaurant boasts one of the country’s best views and guests can nosh on classic Guatemalan recipes with a twist.
8. Travel Back in Time With a Visit to Mayan Ruins
Some of Guatemala’s most recognizable sites are Mayan ruins. Smaller remains of ancient buildings can be seen throughout the country. We visited Iximche, a site roughly 60 miles west of Guatemala City. Abandoned in 1524, you can now walk among a number of pyramid-temples and traditional ball courts and imagine the Mayan life of centuries past.
9. Take Part in a Fire Ceremony
For a truly unique Mayan experience, visit the ruins with an Aj q’ij—a spiritual guide— and take part in an elaborate and fire ceremony. Built from sugar, corn, chocolate, cinnamon, honey and a variety of herbs, such as sage, tobacco, lavender, cedar and rosemary, and a variety of colored candles, the sacred fire is built and presided over by the Aj q’ij. They are trained to read the fire and learn from their ancestors and nature gods. Believers use the powerful and complex ritual for healing and to answer prayers.
10. Roam the Charming Streets of Antigua
A UNESCO world heritage site, this picturesque colonial city is a must on our list. Antigua’s architecture, colorful buildings, fountains and plazas, and cobble stone streets take you back to another time. Founded by the Spanish nearly 500 years ago, it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in the late 18th century. The city—the heart of the Guatemalan highlands—is small and walkable... take a day to explore its monuments, most of which have been preserved as ruins. To get an arial view, head up to the Hill of the Cross, on the north end of the city. Where to stay: Porta Hotel Antigua or Casa Santo Domingo.
11. Learn All About Guatemala’s Coffee Culture
If you’re a java lover, chances are you’ve had a cup of joe brewed from Guatemalan beans. Guatemala is one of the top 10 coffee producing countries in the world and Antigua is one of it’s main coffee-producing regions. Antigua is surrounded by three immense volcanoes and the rich volcanic soil is ideal for coffee growing. We ventured north to the beautiful Finca La Azotea, a small coffee planation and museum, to learn how to pick, process, and roast coffee. We also got to sample some of the good stuff.
12. Enjoy a Night on the Town in Antigua
Switch to the hard stuff and start your night off with a tasting of Guatemala’s national liquor at La Casa del Ron. The boutique lounge serves as a storefront, bar and tasting room for Ron Zacapa Centenario. If wine is more your speed, look for Tabacos Y Vinos, tucked under the famed Santa Catalina Arch. After sipping on some spirits, head one block east of the arch and let Karla and Alberto Blanco, the brother-sister duo behind Angeline, treat you like you’re part of the family. Highly recommended by the locals, the restaurant focuses on local, seasonal ingredients and the 7-course tasting menu, with optional wine pairing, is quite a treat. Cap off the night with a drink (or a few) at the bohemian and colorful Café No Sé.
13. Hike an Active Volcano
Here’s something we never thought we’d do. Pacaya is one of Guatemala’s 33 volcanoes—but one of only three in the country that are active. Roughly 50 kilometers from Antigua and easily accessible from Guatemala City, it sits at an elevation of 8,373 feet. Dormant for more than a century, it erupted violently in 1965 and has been doing so continuously ever since. It’s about a two-mile hike from the trailhead at San Francisco de Sales, a national park with an entrance fee. Rent a walking stick and grab a guide for another small fee before heading up to Pacaya’s highest accessible point where you’ll catch a glimpse of its summit before descending into a sprawling—and growing—lava field. While you’re there, visit perhaps the most unique store on the planet: the Lava Store, the only shopping experience housed on the surface of an active volcano. And... don’t forget the marshmallows (and chocolate and graham crackers). Another must when visiting Pacaya is to nosh on a s’more made from a lava- roasted marshmallow.
14. Soak at the Spa
A morning of hiking calls for an afternoon at the spa. We couldn’t think of a better way to end our trip than with a soak and a massage. The Santa Teresita Spa and Thermal Baths harness the fire and heat from and are conveniently located near the base of Pacaya in Amatitlán. Relax and indulge before wrapping up your trip. Where to stay: Kawilal Hotel in Amatitlán.