Guatemala has it all: fascinating culture, rich history, colonial architecture and spectacular countryside. Not sure where to start? Latin America expert David Horwell shares his top tips
Antigua is one of the most spectacular colonial cities in Central America. The city’s cobbled streets are small enough to get around on foot, and it is easy to lose yourself in the gorgeous Spanish colonial architecture. You’ll come across pretty little squares, street markets, beautiful churches and friendly locals – all set against a backdrop of smoking volcanoes. Antigua is the perfect introduction to this fascinating country.
Lake Atitlán was once called “the most beautiful lake in the world” by British novelist Aldous Huxley. He wasn’t wrong. Formed over 100,000 years ago, it is surrounded by volcanoes and a patchwork of Mayan farms. Hugging the lake are several charming indigenous villages where the locals still wear traditional Mayan dress. A good base is Panajachel. From here you can take a boat trip across the lake or, if you're feeling active, go hiking on trails that lead to the volcanoes and pine forests.
Step back in time as you walk through the vast ruins of Tikal, a huge complex of Mayan pyramids that soar up through the jungle canopy. As you enter the site, monkeys swing through the trees and toucans show off their colourful beaks from the branches. Be sure to climb one of the pyramids to get spectacular views across the site. For such an epic man-made wonder, it gets far fewer crowds than other ancient sites like Machu Picchu in Peru.
Few markets in Latin America measure up to the ones in Guatemala. There are dozens of colourful indigenous markets throughout the country, piled high with handicrafts and textiles – perfect for nabbing a unique bargain. Wander through the fresh markets to taste some delicious local produce, too. The fruit in Guatemala is particularly good.
The king of markets is Chichicastenango, affectionately known as Chichi. On market days (Sunday and Thursday), the place comes alive with more than 20,000 locals who descend to buy and sell their wares.
The natural pools of Semac Champey are utterly beautiful, with turquoise-coloured water surrounded by towering granite cliffs and forest. It might be a pain to reach the pools on a long bus journey, but your efforts will be richly rewarded. I recommend hiring a 4x4 or taking an organised excursion. In the midday heat, you can splash around in the refreshing cool waters.
You’ll need to be fit to climb Acatenango. If you take on the challenge, you’ll see one of the world’s most awe-inspiring sights: an erupting volcano. Make sure you're physically prepared before you arrive in Guatemala. You’ll leave very early for the seven-hour climb to the top of the 3,976m monster. When you arrive at the top, you can look down on Volcán de Fuego which shows off every hour or so by erupting.
Most people skip Guatemala City and head straight for Antigua, but the capital has much to offer those who decide to stay. The winding streets are home to some of the finest Spanish colonial architecture in the country. Enjoy mouth-watering restaurants and street food. Explore historic ruins, fine parks, some excellent museums, local markets and vibrant nightlife. You won’t regret spending a few days in this fascinating city, which is rarely visited by gringos.
Guatemala produces some of the finest coffee beans in the world – and the industry is vital to the country’s economy. There are plenty of places to tour the farms and learn about the production process from bean to brew. Most of the best coffee is exported, so it can be hard to get a good cup of coffee in much of Guatemala. Of course, at a plantation, you can sip on some fine Guatemalan varieties. Whether you’re a coffee lover or not, this is an experience not to be missed.