Guatemala: For the Intrepid Explorer

Guatemala offers the traveller precious natural wonders, ancient ruins, colonial architecture and extreme adventure making it the perfect destination for a whole range of intrepid explorers. The country is relatively easy to get around with bus services criss-crossing the land. You can be deep in the jungle one day and sipping lattes in a café the next. Here are a few experiences not to be missed.

Visit the Mayan Ruins of Tikal

The Mayan ruins of Tikal located in the northern part of Guatemala in the El Peten region, are a must-see for anyone with or without an interest in this amazing ancient civilization since it would be nearly impossible to walk away from Tikal without wanting to learn more! The towering pyramids strike awe into all visitors as you stand beneath them, and if you dare to climb their steep stairways, amazing views over the surrounding jungle canopy. Get a guided tour to learn about miraculous engineering feats, with the structures aligning perfectly to certain astrological and solar movements. As an added bonus, don’t be surprised if you see monkeys and other wildlife as you hike around the park.

Visit Lago de Atitlan

Lago (Lake) de Atitlan was once described by author Aldous Huxley as “the most beautiful lake in the world”. Its deep blue waters surrounded by towering volcanoes make it easy to see why he was besotted with this natural wonder. Villages are dotted along the lake’s shores, each one boasting its own unique intricacies. The local Mayan women generally still dress in traditional clothing, consisting of brightly coloured hand-woven blouses known as huipils and long-skirts. Take a boat-ride around the lake to experience its magic.

Take a boat ride down the Rio Dulce

The river Rio Dulce runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the mouth of the giant lake Lago Izabal. Where the river meets the sea, the town of Livingston sits on its banks, home to Guatemala’s largest Garifuna population. At the mouth of Lago Izabal is the town of Rio Dulce, known by locals as Fronteras. It is populated by an ecletic mix of sailers hiding out the hurricane season and farmers. Apart from having the longest bridge in Central America, it is also the location of the Castillo San Felipe, a former Spanish fort built to provide resistance against pirates that once frequented the river. Between the two towns winds the river, flanked by jungle and nearer to Livingston, white cliffs. Pelicans swoop down on boats running along the river. If you are super lucky, you may even spot a Manatee along the journey. They used to live abundantly in the river, but now are much fewer in numbers.

Visit the Colonial City of Antigua

The former capital was ravished by earthquakes forcing it to be relocated to Guatemala City. It now offers visitors cobble-stone streets and stunning colonial architecture. More than 30 churches, many still in partial or complete ruin, are scattered across the city, many have become tourist attractions. The city is surrounded by volcanoes, some still active, making it a photographers dream. The nearby volcano Fuego often spews ash and smoke plumes high into the air reminding everyone of the volatile nature of this land. After walking around for the day, relax in one of many bars, cafes and restaurants.

Climb a Volcano

Volcanoes spring up out of the landscape across the span of Guatemala, almost daring you to scale their heights. From both Antigua and Xela it is easy to find a tour group for an organised climb, the highly recommended option due to the dangers involved. The most popular to climb is Pacaya, located not too far from Antigua, which often offers close-up experiences with lava. The hike up is relatively easy considering you are tackling a volcano. Be aware, there are no fences or anything else separating you from the lava.

Get off the Beaten Track at Todos Santos Cuchumatan

A rarely visited area of Guatemala situated in the north-western highlands, and one of the few towns where the men still dress in traditional clothing. The friendliness of the people here is overwhelming with many still finding it a strange novelty to see a foreigner in their midst. Having a bit of Spanish does wonders here because you will undoubtedly be stopped for a chat. Just be respectful if you choose to get your camera out, as some of the locals are wary of having their picture taken.

Visit Maximon

Maximon is a patron Saint, often linked to drinking alcohol and smoking cigars. While he exists in varied forms in different towns across the country, probably the most well-known version is the one in Santiago de Atitlan. There his form is a wooden puppet, dressed in silk ties, a cowboy hat and traditional clothing. A cigar burns in his mouth and cheap rum in his hands. His location within the town changes annually, and is usually not too far from the dock. Local kids will be happy to show you the way, for a small tip of course. The history of Maximon is a strange one with a few different opinions on his origin, but seems to be a mix between what the Christian Spanish brought with them and ancient Mayan traditions.

Swim in the Pools of Semuc Champey and get deep in the Nearby Caves

About an hour or so drive from the city of Coban, a river pounds down through the mountains powerfully before dipping underwater and out of sight. On top, several green pools form idyllic swimming locations. Take a tour through the nearby Las Marias caves where you can swim, climb through waterfalls and jump off small cliffs, all under a surreal candlelight. The closest town of Lanquin offers another caving experience, where swarms of bats leave on sunset in an incredible display to begin their nightly hunt.

This guest post was written by Jess and Jamie from Adventures with Cloud People. They have recently returned from travelling and volunteering throughout Central America and are currently posting photos, art and stories about their time there.

13 Comments

  • Cam

    February 8, 2011

    We’re very close to booking out flights for a trip to Guatemala and Belize, so the timing of this post couldn’t be better. So excited! 😉

  • Christy @ Ordinary Traveler

    February 8, 2011

    I can see why Visit Lago de Atitlan has been called the most beautiful lake in the world. That photo is stunning!

  • robin

    February 8, 2011

    Great piece and great pics. I want to go now…

  • jade

    February 8, 2011

    the photos are stunning and yes- this is totally on our **hope to be** soon list!

  • Adam

    February 8, 2011

    Great post! We are also contemplating a Central America trip sometime this year, so this comes at the perfect time. Looks like an amazing country!

  • Laurel

    February 8, 2011

    Great list, Guatemala is one of my favorite countries for all the reasons you’ve listed above. Plus I really like all the monkeys 🙂

  • Matt Hope

    February 8, 2011

    Love the post, and love Guatemala. It was the first country I ever backpacked in last year. I’ll also add visiting the beachside town of Montericco! Cool place to relax for a little while!

  • Michael Figueiredo

    February 8, 2011

    Very cool! I’ve never really thought about visiting Guatemala before but it looks like it has a lot to offer. I especially love the photo at the bottom of the Pools of Semuc Champey.

  • Cathy Sweeney

    February 9, 2011

    Wow – great photos and article. Would love to go to Guatemala and explore these places. The story of Saint Maximon is very interesting, too.

  • Norbert

    February 9, 2011

    Guatemala is high on my list for this year. Will definitely check out this post again later. I’m so looking forward to go to Tikal, Antigua, and to hike Pacaya! 🙂

  • Migrationology

    February 9, 2011

    This post has made me want to catch the next flight into Guatemala. I can see so many outdoor adventure similarities between parts of SE Asia and Central America, yet the cultures.
    I want to be relaxing on Lago de Atitlan right now!

  • Tarek

    February 9, 2011

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  • Rebecca

    February 9, 2011

    Great places to visit in Guatemala! I didn’t get the chance to visit Rio Dulce or Livingston – but want to get back there one day so I can see that totally different side of Guatemala.

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