An eclectic blend of colours painting over some the richest landscape diversity in the world, Guatemala remains one of the most exciting hidden treasures of the American continent.
Though small in size, Guatemala—meaning ‘land of many trees’ in ancient K’iche Mayan—manages to stand out amongst its Central American neighbours thanks to the overwhelming density of natural beauty, architectural marvels, enticing flavours and intact cultural heritage preserved within its borders. Majestic volcanoes, tranquil lakes, lush forests and jungles, deep Pacific lowlands and an unassuming strip of Caribbean coastline, set the stage for a journey through the depths of ancient Mayan civilization, the relics of Spanish colonial rule, and a contemporary fusion of culture, beliefs, and way of life that remains rooted in millenary tradition as if time had stood still.
As the former colonial capital of Guatemala, the UNESCO city of Antigua remains to this day one the best preserved legacies of the Spanish Empire, who ruled over its territories in the New World from this enclave. Situated in a central highland valley guarded by three volcanoes, Antigua’s cobble-stoned streets, pastel-coloured facades, majestic baroque-style architecture, and quaint colonial-style plazas make it one of the most captivating cities in Central America.
When Aldous Huxley first set his eyes on Lago Atitlan, he struggled to describe the beauty and character of this place; In his later writings, he compared it to Italy’s Lake Como, with the added ‘embellishments of several immense volcanoes.’ Formed more than 80,000 years ago by a violent volcanic eruption, Lago Atitlan’s iridescent emerald waters set the pace for a peaceful getaway. Along the verdant shore, small villages are home to Guatemala’s strongest Mayan customs and traditions.
Amongst the mist-enveloped valleys of the highlands endures Chichicastenango, one of the most ancient and mystical villages in Guatemala. Its inhabitants—the Masheños—are renown for their preservation of pre-Christian beliefs and traditions, best seen during auspicious street processions led by local cofradias. Chichi, as its popularly called, is also home to Guatemala’s biggest traditional market that takes place on Thursdays and Sundays, a sensorial experience that has been luring travelers for decades.
Tikal & Peten
Guatemala’s biggest draw might well be the mesmerizing Mayan ruins of Tikal, standing tall above a dense canopy of jungle that once housed the most advanced civilization in Mesoamerica. The Mayas, who are believed to have arrived in the region around 11,000 BC crossing over from Siberia, developed highly complex systems in every realm of life, from architecture and astrology, to sciences and social construct. They are also to thank for providing us with some of the most popular foods to this day, such as coffee, chocolate, guacamole or tortillas.
Located in the central cardamom and coffee-growing region, Semuc Champey—which in ancient Maya means ‘sacred water’—is perhaps Guatemala’s most beautiful natural sanctuary. Within the park, a natural limestone bride of around 300 meters sits above a series of stepped fresh-water pools from the Cahabon river. While its isolation and almost-impenetrable surrounding landscape make this area a challenge to get to, the untarnished natural beauty of the forest and pristine turquoise-coloured natural pools make the effort very worthwhile.
Rio Dulce & Livingston
While Rio Dulce and Livingston are contrasting destinations, they go well together thanks to the emerald-coloured waterway that links them through the dense, tropical jungle of Izabal. Rio Dulce is an ideal place to retreat at the end of a journey through Guatemala’s culture-rich highlands and Mayan ruins of Peten. Livingston, on the other hand, offers a glimpse into the distinctively unique culture of the afro-caribbean Garifuna people.