If you’re looking for a county big on variety and easy on the wallet, look no further than Guatemala. I spent three fantastic weeks exploring this Central American country and these were my five favourite activities:
1. Relaxing in Antigua
All international flights land in the country’s capital, Guatemala City, which you’ll want to get out of as soon as possible. Head for the cobbled streets of Antigua, a city that immediately makes you feel welcome. The town has a number of fantastic hostels and it’s the perfect place to meet people and ease into your trip.
Just outside town is the active Volcan Pucaya, which you can climb with an organised tour. It’s not a difficult hike and there’s very little health and safety here so bring along marshmallows to roast in the flowing lava, no jokes!
If you’re keen to study some Spanish, I’m told this is one of the best cities in South America to do so – both in terms of choice of schools / teachers and prices. I didn’t do this personally but many people I met in town, and at various point on my travels, were studying for a few days, or weeks, and they all had super positives things to say.
2. Hiking volcanoes in Xela and trekking to Lake Atitlan
I had no idea Guatemala offered such awesome hiking and I spent probably close on a week exploring the country on foot.
First up, I climbed the Santa Maria volcano outside Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s 2nd largest city and known by its Maya name of Xela. Unlike Pucaya, this is not an active volcano but it offered beautiful views of the countryside and was a rewarding hike. Before leaving town, I popped into the nearby natural hot springs – Fuertes Georginas. They’re situated up in a cloud forest so your view while you enjoy the soothing hot water is this mist that cascades down the high walls of the tropical vegetation that surrounds you.
Next up we walked from Xela to San Pedro on the beautiful Lake Atitlan, the country’s largest and in fact Central America’s deepest. Many people arrive by bus but on a recommendation from people I met in Xela, we walked across and it was an awesome three days hiking through varied terrain, including pine forest and corn fields, and a number of villages. We slept under the stars both nights, with accommodation for the second night being a very kind lady’s back garden. She also made us a home-made sauna, which was well needed!
The town itself is very chilled and we spent a few days doing very little other than eating, sleeping and lazing in hammock. Unfortunately algae had invaded the lake so we weren’t able to swim but we did enjoy a spectacular sunrise and I also celebrated my first Thanksgiving with new American friends I met in town.
3. Climbing Central America’s highest mountain
In a addition to some super day walks climbing volcanoes round Xela and the three-day hike to Lake Atitlan, we climbed Tajumulco, Central America’s highest peak at 4,220m. The two-day trek stats at around 3,000m in the small town of Tuichan and takes about four hours to ascend to base camp, a climb of almost 1,000m.
It’s a further hour to the summit and as we had time, we headed up that afternoon and enjoyed a spectacular sunset as the sun set over a blanket of clouds. Sunrise the next morning wasn’t as clear unfortunately but nevertheless still beautiful with the clouds almost inviting you to dive in! Tours with Quetzaltrekkers are around $70.
4. Swimming in the pools at Semuc Chempey
This series of freshwater pools, each a beautiful turquoise colour, are simply stunning and well worth the effort to get to. It’s at least a four hour trip from Antigua to Lanquin, on notoriously bad roads and in local buses that travel way too quickly, before a bumpy 30 minute ride on a back of a pick-up truck.
While people do visit on a day trip from Antigua or Guatemala City, I think it’s worth staying in nearby Lanquin because having at least a full day will allow you to hike up to the viewpoint (an hour up) and while away the rest of the day floating downstream through these gorgeous pools.
I can happily recommend basing yourself at the wonderfully fun and festive El Retiro hostel on the banks of the Cahabon River in Lanquin. They also offer tubing on the river and there are caves nearby that can be explored.
5. Exploring the Mayan ruins at Tikal
Last but certainly not least, it’s a richly interesting experience visiting Tikal, outside the town of Flores. Once one of the largest and most important Mayan cities, the ‘ruins’ are incredibly well preserved and many temples rise above the forest canopy that surrounds the site. You can climb to the top of a few of the temples to enjoy panoramic views over the tree tops.
Given the size of the site, I would highly recommend hiring a guide for the day – we learnt so much and he really brought these ancient ruins to life.
Finally, the Los Amigos hostel in Flores, with its wonderful garden, is absolutely brilliant and I would definitely recommend staying here.