Spanning a mountainous slice of Central America immediately south of Mexico, Guatemala is loaded with incredible natural, historical and cultural appeal. As the birthplace and heartland of the ancient Maya, the country is in many ways defined by the legacy of this early civilization. Their rainforest cities were abandoned centuries ago, but Maya people continue to thrive in the Guatemalan highlands, where traditions and religious rituals, mingled with Catholic practices, endure to form the richest and most distinctive indigenous identity in the hemisphere.
Guatemala today is very much a synthesis of Maya and colonial traditions, fused with the omnipresent influences of twenty-first century Latin and North American culture. Baroque churches dating back to the Spanish Conquest coexist with pagan temples that have been sites of worship for millennia. Highland street markets prosper alongside vast glitzy shopping malls, and pre-Columbian festival dances are performed by teenage hip-hop fans.
Guatemala simply has it all – from colonial towns to Mayan ruins, great mountain lakes to vibrant religious festivals, sandy beaches to exotic jungles. Often visitors to the country find they leave ‘enlightened’, having found civilizations they believed long gone. Tomb Raider landscapes they thought fantasy, are shown to be real.
Antiquity is at the heart of Guatemala, and the country is home to many spectacular Mayan archaeological sites, most significantly the vast UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal, where great towers peep through the rainforest canopy, and monkeys swing past the sprawling ancient plazas. The pine-forested hills of the highlands are home to many Mayan communities, whose indigenous beliefs, traditional dress, religious practices, and craftsmanship flourish. Indeed, Guatemala has around 21 different ethnic groups, speaking some 23 languages, giving it a distinctive culture like nowhere else in the region.
Although Guatemala boasts some truly stunning cities – most notably Antigua, the most impressive colonial city in Central America with a tremendous wealth of architectural riches – Guatemala’s real joy is its nature. With not even 2% of its landmass urbanized, it’s not surprising that Guatemala offers some superb natural scenery. National parks are few, but impressive, particularly in the Petén region, and the lush canyons of the Río Dulce make for an unforgettable boat ride. The natural beauty of the volcano-ringed Lago de Atitlán – described by many as the most beautiful lake in the world – has been captivating travelers for centuries, while the Verapaces are riddled with more caves than a spelunker could explore in a lifetime.
Much of the east of the country is tropical, replete with banana and cardamom plantations and coconut palms. This region has some stunning lakes, including pristine, jungle-fringed Laguna Lachúa and Lago de Izabal, whose shores boast plenty of interesting spots, including an amazing hot spring waterfall and the Boquerón canyon. The lake drains into the Caribbean via the Río Dulce, which flows through a series of remarkable jungle-clad gorges. At the mouth of the river is the fascinating town of Lívingston, an outpost of Caribbean culture and home to Guatemala’s only black community, the Garífuna.
Guatemala is one of those rare finds, with a good mix of travel options to satisfy adventurers, culture seekers, beach worshippers, and travelers looking for a little relaxation. The country is a cultural highlight in Central America, from the colonial architecture and cobbled streets of Antigua Guatemala to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Small towns in the highlands and on the shores of beautiful Lake Atitlan offer a chance for unique cultural experiences. Tropical jungles, active volcanoes, mountain lakes, cloud forests, coral reefs, and beaches will entice nature lovers of all kinds. Those who venture down to the coasts will encounter lovely beaches for relaxing, and fishing villages where travelers can escape busy city streets and find solitude in a hammock. Throughout the country are markets with local goods for sale, particularly textiles, but these usually only operate on certain days of the week.
Over the past few years, Guatemala began to attract attention as a viable ecotourism destination. Popular ecotourism sites include Cerro Cahuí Nature Reserve, with 1,600 acres of jungle hosting howler monkeys and ocellated turkeys, and the Tortuguerio Monterrico Wildlife Reserve, where visitors get up close with giant sea turtles, tortoises, iguanas and alligators. Manatees, 180 types of migrating birds and 60 species of trees exist in the 17,791-acre Chocón-Machacas Nature Reserve. Travelers also can visit diverse parts of the country, from Caribbean beaches to fiery volcanoes to tranquil lakes.
The Rainforest Alliance works to promote tourism certification programs, best management practices, and educated travelers. It has signed cooperative agreements with businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, maintaining eco-friendly standards. In addition to restaurant and lodging ecotourism partners, the Rainforest Alliance has partnered with Guatemala tour operators, who are dedicated to preservation efforts and conserving resource. Ecotourism is important to help Guatemala grow economically, while minimizing the environmental impact of increased traffic. Since rain forests and wildlife are the main draws, local governments must boost their conservation efforts.
When to go to Guatemala?
Guatemala has one of the most pleasant climates on earth, often referred to as ‘land of the eternal spring’, with much of the country enjoying warm days and mild evenings year-round. The climate is largely determined by altitude, worth bearing in mind when deciding the best time to visit. The rainy season runs roughly from May to October, with the worst of the rain falling in September and October. In Petén, however, the season can extend into December. Even at the height of the wet season, though, the rain is usually confined to late afternoon downpours with most of the rest of the day being warm and pleasant. Visiting Petén’s more remote ruins is best attempted between February and May, as the mud can be thigh-deep during the height of the rains. The busiest times for tourism, are between December and March, and again in July and August, seen by most as the best time to visit.
Headquartered in Guatemala City, AirlinePros partner TAG Airlines, operates flights across Guatemala, as well as to other Central American destinations.