Travel Bug

Central America’s Diamond in the Rough — Discovering Guatemala

Tropical Livingston on the Carribean
Tropical Livingston on the Carribean

Colorful and shy Mayan women go about their day, much the same way they have for centuries in Guatemala. Within the country, there are 21 indigenous groups, many existing in traditional style.

But look around and you find a more modern Mayan/Spanish ethnic group known as mestizos, as well as the Garinagu of African descent.

It’s a colorful mix of people who bring the country to life. Just like the traditional woven tapestries handcrafted here, Guatemala is woven together of ancient cultural traditions and sites, modern and traditional art, colonial architecture, delicious foods, spectacular geography and a devout religious population made up primarily of Catholics (with a sprinkling of Evangelical Christians, Muslims and Jews).

Castillo San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce
Castillo San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce

For a visitor, it’s sublime. Magical. Everything you might want in a travel experience.

Guatemala is an up-and-coming travel destination. The country’s newly elected president, Alejandro Giammattei, will take office in January, and has vowed to clean up government corruption and decrease the economic divide of the people. Let’s hope he can do it — making Guatemala an even better destination to visit now.

Guatemala is not a big country (about the size of Tennessee) and in recent years, much improvement has been made to roads and infrastructure. Getting around by local bus, hired driver or rental car is fairly easy. Traveling in country by plane is another option. Visitors should be aware of pick-pockets, petty theft and occasional scams.

A first-time visit to Guatemala should include the top five sites listed below. A two-week tour provides enough time to see these sites, and more if desired.

In the Boquerone Canyon
In the Boquerone Canyon

1. Rio Dulce

Start your visit in the water-world of Guatemala. Surrounded by rivers and lakes and marshes, the population here thrives off the water.

Rio Dulce encompasses Livingston on the Caribbean coast (Livingston is only accessible by boat) to the town of Rio Dulce on Lake Izabal. A gorgeous stretch of water known as the Rio Dulce connects the two.

Enjoy a boat ride through the narrow gorge, through which the Rio Dulce drains into the Caribbean. Multiple accommodations are available in the area, all convenient for excursions to the ancient Castillo San Felipe de Lara, to the Agua Caliente waterfall known as El Paraiso and to the beautiful Boqueron Canyon via taxi boats or the local collectivo bus.

2. Flores

Bus or drive from Rio Dulce to the lovely little lake town of Flores. Situated on a tiny island in Lake Petenitza, the tiny town is colorful, historic, beautiful and yummy. It dates back to the 1400s.

Be sure to allow time for a scenic boat ride around the beautiful lake. Flores is tiny enough to see in a day, but linger longer and enjoy the beach and the many excellent restaurants.

Tikal Mayan temple and UNESCO Heritage Site
Tikal Mayan temple and UNESCO Heritage Site

3. Tikal

From Flores, hire a guided tour to Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization.

Mayan temples can be found in many Central American countries, but Tikal is one of the most amazing. It was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya.

The monumental architecture at the site dates back as far as the 4th century B.C., but research shows the site being used as late as 200-900 A.D. A must-see in Guatemala.

4. Antigua

One of the most beautiful cities in the world, Antigua sits in the shadow of several volcanoes, including the still-active Fuego, which erupted in June 2018 with fatal results. The historic city of Antigua is a safe distance from Fuego, and visitors can watch regular volcanic activity on the mountain.

Lake Petenitza Flores
Lake Petenitza Flores

Fuego is often called the most impressive volcano in Central America due to its intense eruptions. Two other volcanoes easily observed from Antigua are Acatenango and Agua.

The spectacular scenery surrounding Antigua is just a taste of all this beautiful city has to offer. Take a guided walking tour so you really delve into the history of this place and experience its architecture.

Visit the many cathedrals, galleries and museums. Don’t miss the bustling market — allow extra time to get lost in the Mercado, because you will. If time allows, take a cooking class, a wonderful way to taste the local Mayan culture through traditional and ancient recipes using only the freshest local ingredients. Muy bien.

Antigua is known around the world for its annual, weeklong Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebration. If your schedule allows, even if you aren’t Catholic, witnessing this city, its faithful and the spectacle it produces annually for Semana Santa is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Swimming in Lake Atitlan
Swimming in Lake Atitlan

5. Lake Atitlan

A crater lake surrounded by three beautiful extinct volcanoes, Lake Atitlan is encircled by 12 small villages, each named after one of the apostles. San Marcos is a teeny village known for its holistic offerings, yoga, health food and hippies.

Hike or swim or lounge around — Atitlan has something for everyone. Water taxis are available to transport locals and guests between the multiple cities on the lake. Cabins, inns, Airbnb homes, hotels and yoga retreats are available for guests who visit this beautiful region.

Guatemala is Central America’s diamond in the rough. One of the poorest countries in Central America is also one of the most beautiful. A violent past with a hopeful future — add Guatemala to your travel bucket list. And visit soon.