Some of my fondest memories of Central America are from my time in Guatemala, a country that quickly became one of my favourites and which offers everything that Central America is known for: breathtaking nature, historical sites spanning centuries, bright towns and vibrant cities.
Whether you want to be one with nature, stroll down the streets of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, or indulge in a challenging physical adventure, Guatemala will not disappoint. If you are considering a trip to Central America, keep reading to see seven top reasons why I recommend you add Guatemala to your travel list:
Explore the most beautiful city in Central America
With its cobblestone streets, brightly painted colonial buildings, crumbling churches and ancient fountains, it’s no surprise that Antigua has repeatedly been named the most beautiful city in Central America. Add to that views of the surrounding fuming volcanos from nearly every corner, and you could argue it’s one of the most beautiful in the world. Antigua has beauty, but it also has a great atmosphere with its many cosmopolitan restaurants, trendy cafés and rooftop bars, not to mention endless historic sites and museums to admire. It’s easy to see why visitors fall in love with the city at first sight, and why so many expats have decided to make Antigua their permanent home. For the a picture-perfect scene, go up to the cross at Cerro de La Cruz to see the entire city and its surroundings from above – the half-hour hike is easy, and the view is breathtaking.
Hike an active volcano
If you are looking for an exciting adventure, take a day trip from Antigua over to the active Pacaya Volcano. Be prepared for rough conditions here, as the crater’s 9.9-mile hike can be challenging at times. The path is full of sharp surfaces and loose ash and rocks from its last eruption in 2010, and the lack of vegetation towards the summit means there is no cover from the scorching sun. Bring lots of water and wear sturdy shoes and long trousers to protect your legs from the jagged rocks when you fall down – believe me, you will do so more than once! The hike up Pacaya Volcano will not only reward you with beautiful vistas; it is also a unique Central American experience you can brag about to your friends back home.
Take a side trip to Honduras
If you want to check another country off of your bucket list, you can always take a side trip to Honduras. The town of Copan Ruinas, and the corresponding Copan archaeological site, is a mere 15 minute from the Honduras/Guatemala border, and can be done as a side trip from Antigua or Guatemala City. I recommend spending a night in Copan Ruinas to get the full experience, as the town is pretty and the locals are friendly. As for the archaeological site itself, make sure to hire a guide who will teach you about the history of the ancient city and explain the stories told by the many stone carvings which have been beautifully preserved.
Visit a unique natural monument
Located in the middle of the country and accessible only though a treacherous gravel road just outside of the quaint Mayan town of Lanquin, the Semuc Champey Natural Monument is one of the most unique places in the world – and a must-visit for those intrepid travellers looking to get off the beaten path. Amidst a thick jungle you’ll find a series of tiered natural terrace pools formed of a golden limestone, and filled with glittering turquoise water which flows downstream from one pool to the next. Go for a hike in the jungle paths and reward yourself with a refreshing swim in the natural pools. You can also opt for a calm tube ride down the lower part of the river, with or without a beer on hand!
If you are looking for the adventure of a lifetime, go caving in Semuc Champey. The half-hour expedition in the flooded, pitch-dark natural caves, is hands down the most daring experience I’ve ever had in my life. Our guide was a local resident, and the only light we had was a single candle carried by each of the six people in my group, which we had to keep alight while swimming, climbing up rope ladders, and jumping through rushing waterfalls – no joke! Seeing the light of the sun as we approached the end of the cave was a relief, and while caving was challenging, scary at times, and probably more dangerous than I am willing to admit, I would recommend it to anyone seeking an unforgettable experience.
Enjoy small town life
The northern town of Flores is a laid-back spot with pretty colonial architecture, cobbled streets and red tiled roofs, built on a tiny island on Peten Itza Lake. Small enough to cover entirely by foot in less than half an hour, Flores has a surprising amount of nice restaurants and rooftop bars with stunning views of the town and the surrounding lake. If you are looking for something active, the town offers ample opportunities to go and explore Peten Itza by boat or kayak, and the lake is safe for swimming. For culture, the town is perfectly situated for visiting various archaeological sites nearby.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Tikal is one of the ancient Mayan empire’s most important cities, and one of the most impressive historical sites in Central America. The towering pyramids are simply magnificent, and the jungle setting is a hub for local wildlife including tapirs, monkeys, and a plethora of colourful birds. History lovers will have plenty to discover around the archaeological site and in Tikal’s on-site museum, while Star Wars fans will recognise the view from atop the Temple IV pyramid as that of the jungle-covered moon Yavin 4 seem in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope. No matter what your reason for visiting is, you are sure to enjoy the atmosphere of the well-preserved temples surrounded by endless rainforest.