Everyone has been talking about Costa Rica, but not much is said about Guatemala.
It’s still seen as a destination for backpackers.
But that reality is changing, and so much so that I was surprised at what I found there.
Let me guide you around a few of the things to do, places to see, and unique travel experiences that make Guatemala a very authentic destination — so you can decide if you want to be surprised too.
A country packed with cool stuff to do
One experience that deserves an article all of its own is climbing Acatenango Volcano.
You climb the volcano and camp the night on the top — and all the while you are looking across at another volcano that is continually erupting.
It’s a remarkable experience to be there in the night, hearing a rumbling guttural sound coming from the earth, and looking out to see showers of lava exploding out of a mountain.
Acatenango is easily accessible from the town of Antigua, in Guatemala.
This is the country’s jewel — a charming old city with beautiful cobbled lanes, old architecture, history and culture, surrounded by volcanoes that you can walk up and explore.
Antigua is a very calm place to go, but it’s very colorful as well. It’s the destination that nobody misses — and I wouldn’t miss it. I didn’t find it to be over popular or over touristic either.
Antigua is a great base at the start or the end of any Guatemala trip.
You don’t have to go very far west from it to get to the coast. Guatemala has a long Pacific coastline. It’s rugged, unexplored, not developed at all. It really is pristine — if you can find somebody to take you there.
For me, the best beaches in the whole of Central America are in that section of the Pacific — from the Michoacán area and Oaxaca in Mexico, down through Guatemala, to El Salvador.
They’re stunning beaches, with big waves and turbulent waters — completely different to the Caribbean on the other side, where everything’s calm and placid.
Volcanoes, lake, canyon — and Mayan ruins
Guatemala is covered in volcanoes, and there are so many things you can do — a short hike, a helicopter tour above them, a multi-day trek.
Also close to Antigua is Lake Atitlan, an alpine lake surrounded by — you’ve guessed it — volcanoes.
It’s a very relaxed place to be, and there are a couple of great high-end lodges on the lake. It’s got a reputation of being a place for backpackers and yogis, but that reputation is more based on two specific villages around the lake — nice places, but which I didn’t find authentic.
Because to be in Guatemala, to have an authentic experience everywhere, and then turn up at these two villages on Lake Atitlan and find it’s just tourists everywhere and everything’s geared towards the tourist experience — I didn’t like that much.
But the lake itself is very peaceful.
I loved kayaking across it, and doing some hikes in the area. And again, just taking some downtime, without being at the coast. Lake Atitlan is great after some of the adventures you can have in Guatemala.
One destination I’d also recommend is called Semuc Champey.
It’s a series of rock pools — a canyon going through the jungle. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and quite difficult to get to, but you can go with private transport or even public transport. And if it fits your budget, you can also get there by helicopter.
Once you are in Semuc Champey, you can go down the river exploring the pools — then stay in a jungle lodge, relax, check out the birds and just enjoy this place that seems a part of a fairy tale.
Then another destination — and this is what I mean about Guatemala being packed with cool stuff to do — is Tikal.
It impressed me much more than Chichen Itza, which is not that much further north, in Mexico.
Tikal is in the jungle, and it’s still being excavated, so only a couple of the temples have been restored. Most of it, they’re still digging it out of the dirt. And that was fascinating — to see those temples, not in a pristine remade version, but in an evocative state of ruin.
I’ll soon publish another article exclusively about Tikal, with some tips to get the most out your visit there.
These are the famous places in Guatemala — but they’re not really famous.
A developing destination
I think Guatemala is going to develop in the next 10 or 15 years, because there’s now a focus on more comfortable, high-end tourism.
It’s the same we’ve seen in Costa Rica.
Twenty years ago, Costa Rica was off the beaten track. Then they developed their ecotourism and created options for all types of visitors — from high-end visitors who want a luxury experience, to families, to the backpackers that had always gone through.
And Guatemala is doing the same right now.
You have places like Las Lagunas Hotel, La Lancha Lodge, Las Cruces, El Convento in Antigua, Casa Palopo — great hotels and accommodations that are just developing.
There’s that focus on ecotourism, sustainability — on using tourism to protect the environment, whether that’s in Atitlan Nature Reserve, Volcan Pacaya, or taking a bicycle tour.
There’s also the cultural aspect, to the country — especially the Mayan culture, which is not dead. It’s very much alive. You can learn the language, get involved with some of the handicrafts, and learn to cook traditional dishes, as well as going to see the ruins of the ancient empire — not just in Tikal, but also in Yaxha.
Then you’ve got the downtime — Antigua, Atitlan, going onto the Pacific coast, whether it’s just on the beaches or to go fishing.
There’s all this in one country and I believe it’s all developing truly sustainably.
Guatemala is also very accessible. If you’re in the States, it’s a short flight — shorter than a flight to Costa Rica.
I was in Guatemala in early 2019. I was blown away by the country and I’m excited to go back in a few years to see what’s happened. In the next 10 or 15 years I see it becoming one of the world’s next big travel destinations.
So, now’s the time for you to ask yourself — can I go to Guatemala? Do I want to experience this country as it’s on its way up — when it can still take me by surprise?
I hope you will say yes.
By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.