Not only is Guatemala among the most affordable countries to visit, but tourists have the opportunity to explore archaeological sites, natural wonders, and beautiful towns. Around 2 million people visit Guatemala each year, and the locals are happy to help you on your journey through the country. They also have the Tourist Assistance Program, known colloquially as the Tourist Police, who are available to help visitors have a safe and pleasant stay.
Guatemala was at the center of Mayan civilization, so there are many sites around where you can explore this history. The ruins of Tikal are among the largest and most well-known sets of Mayan ruins. Energetic visitors can climb some of the pyramids and explore modern ruins, which are the remains of abandoned archaeological sites. Other interesting places to check out include the engraved monoliths at Quirigua and the well-preserved city of Mixco Viejo.
The Mayan culture is very much alive in this country, with many women wearing traditional dresses and people speaking indigenous languages. Mayan art is also seen every day with murals that explore both ancient and modern Mayan life. Chichicastenango has been a trading spot since before Europeans arrived and still houses a market today. Locals display traditional Mayan textiles, wooden handicrafts, and jade jewelry for shoppers to take home.
Guatemala is known for its beautiful cultivated gardens. The country is home to the Vivero Verapaz orchid sanctuary, a large greenhouse home to hundreds of beautiful yet difficult to grow flowers that bloom between October and February. Rose-lovers can explore the botanical gardens that are located beside Lake Atitlan. The property has over 200 varieties of roses growing in three gardens, including antique roses that date back to the 18th century.
There are hot springs and natural saunas spotted throughout the landscape, heated by Guatemala's volcanoes. Located near Quetzaltenango, the steam baths of Los Vahos are situated above a volcanic vent. You can choose between tiled rooms or dark, cave-like rooms for a more volcanic experience. The town is also home to Las Fuentes Georginas, three pools of naturally-heated hot springs. Locals can often point you towards other popular hot springs spots in Atitlan, Izabal, and Antigua.
Semuc Champey is one of the most Instagrammed destinations in Guatemala, mainly because of the turquoise waters and lush green mountains. Semuc Champey consists of six pools on a natural limestone bridge, some of which are deep enough to dive into and others which are perfect for wading into and relaxing. A 45-minute hike through the jungle takes you to the perfect viewpoint of the area, where you can also explore water caves or go tubing down the river.
If you can handle heights and a little adventure, climbing a volcano is a great addition to your Guatemala trip. The hike up Acatenango is challenging and takes two days, but sleeping on an active volcano is worth it. A less challenging option is Pacaya Volcano, which is only a short distance from Antigua and allows you to get close to the lava where you can toast marshmallows and make s'mores.
Lake Atitlan is known as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, whose shores are dotted with many villages. San Marcos La Laguna is the hippie capital of the lake, with yoga retreats and vegan foods on offer, while San Pedro is full of backpackers and has a good party scene. Make sure to get on the water to see the true beauty of Lake Atitlan. Many villages have kayaks or stand-up paddleboards for hire.
The word antigua means old and the city was given the name Antigua Guatemala because it was the old capital of Guatemala. You can still explore the ruins of the old colonial buildings, remnants of the 1773 earthquake that destroyed the city. Antigua is also home to many ornate cathedrals and the beautiful yellow stone of the Arch of Santa Catalina. If you can manage to get accommodation near Easter, the city's Holy Week celebrations include elaborate decorations, parades, and fireworks.
If you have some extra time, Guatemala is a great place to learn Spanish. The country has some of the cheapest Spanish schools around, plus a host of other attractions for when you're not in classes. Antigua has a large expat community and Western amenities, making it a popular place to learn the language. To immerse yourself in the local culture, check out Quetzaltenango, known commonly as Xela. Many visitors also take classes at Lake Atitlan, choosing the village that suits their interests.
There's a huge range of biodiversity in Guatemala. If you venture into the jungle, you can expect to see some of the country's 700 bird species, including the colorful toucan. If you want to go looking for animals, Tikal is a great place to spot spider and howler monkeys. Small animals like white-nosed coatis, kinkajous, and jaguars are also spotted while hiking in the country. Conservation centers on the coast allow visitors to experience releasing sea turtles into the ocean.
Guatemala grows one of the best coffees in the world. Caffeine addicts can see where the beans are grown, roast them over a fire, and share a cup with other people who love a good cup of Joe. Chocolate was first discovered in Central America and Guatemalans have been drinking it for hundreds of years. You can learn how to make chocolate, from roasting the beans to getting a sip of the hot beverage, a good reward for your hard work.
Guatemala isn't all jungle and mountains. There are beaches to relax by as well. Monterrico has sea turtles, black sand and beautiful scenery, while Champerico is the best surfing spot in the country. Livingston is off the tourist track and only reachable by boat. The town is populated mainly by African refugees, which makes it culturally distinct from the rest of the country. There's a great hike from the village to Seven Altars natural pools, where you can relax and enjoy the amazing seafood.