Guatemala hasn’t been the travel destination on everybody’s lips for a fair few years now; something that, with each that passes, I find increasingly flummoxing. Having travelled my person through Central America on two separate occasions, and spent time in each of its countries, it’s my humble opinion that – at least for those willing to take beaches out of the equation – peso for peso and acre by acre, this little land offers up some of the best adventuring to be had in Central America. Not only is travel here exceptionally good value, but it’s both easy enough to be safe and sufficiently roughshod to still feel adventurous. Guatemala’s locals are overwhelmingly friendly, the country’s indigenous heritage is palpable and its landscapes mind-blowing. The country’s main gloat, however, is the sheer diversity of attractions to be found in its borders. Here, to my mind, are the best of them:
Nicola Easterly via Intrepid Travel Photo Contest
Like many travellers to Guatemala, before setting off on my Central American Journey with Intrepid Travel, I booked in one week’s worth of Spanish lessons in Antigua, the country’s quaint former capital. This week, I’d figured, would be enough to verse me up in what was really only another Latin language. Naturally, I was wrong: Learning to speak all over again is way hard. But, with its gaily-coloured buildings and centuries-old cobbled streets; its pottering pace, buzzing markets, bounty of boozing spots and dramatic, volcanic backdrop, there are far worse places to spend whiling a week away in than Antigua. In fact, in what was to become quite the recurring theme on my trip, Antigua ended up my favourite colonial-era town. By comparison, Copan, in Honduras, was attractive, if a little lacking for things to do. Ditto El Salvador’s Suchitoto. Both Granada and Leon, both in Nicaragua, were both too big. Even ever-vaunted Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, which I got to years later, failed to enchant me as Antigua had.
Still bodies of water
The German explorer Alexander von Humboldt called Lago Atitlán ‘the most beautiful lake in the world’ and Aldous Huxley, citing its circumference of volcanoes, gave it the nod over Lake Como. Reckon the Hux might’ve been tripping? You wouldn’t be the first (He was). But with its reflecting waters, reflective vibes and smattering of picturesque shoreline villages, there’s little not to love about Atitlán. Plus the Mayan deity Maximon hails from here, and he smokes cigarettes. So you just know it has to be cool.
Moving bodies of water
Yes, Mexico has the cascades of Agua Azul but, at least for my money, Semuk Champey’s are better. Why? Fewer people, caves you can crawl through, better vantage points to peer down from, more pools you’re permitted to swim in and an assortment of vibe-rich hostels you can stay at only a short walk away.
It’s not the biggest, oldest or even best-preserved of the Mayan world’s pyramids, but dagnabbit if there ain’t something special about Tikal. George Lucas knew this, and chose the site as a ring-in for Yavin 4 in Star Wars Episode 4. Mel Gibson did too, and drew on the design of Tikal’s main temple for his epic Mayan chase flick, Apocalypto. Even for those of us not out sourcing locations for our next blockbuster though, the ruins of Tikal still have plenty to entice. For a start, crowds here aren’t a factor to the extent they are at Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza or Palenque. Secondly, the site isn’t as well maintained – which makes things feel way more adventurous (for better or worse, you’re still permitted to clamber about on many of Tikal’s structures). And thirdly, there’s the setting. Choked by tracts of jungle, Tikal still feels like it belongs to nature. Spider monkeys literally careen through the canopy, coatimundis actually snuffle the undergrowth, toucans genuinely fly overhead and there’s totally a road sign at the park entrance warning of jaguars. For those keen on some next level adventuring, there’s also the option of trekking into the lost city of El Mirador.
With 41% of its population considered of full Amerindian ancestry, Guatemala’s ethnic diversity is such that you’ll notice its manifestations wherever you are in the country. More than 20 ethnic groups coexist in Guatemala, making it the Central American country in which indigenous culture is most prevalent. To really get a feel for the customs and beliefs that preceded (and survived) the arrival of the Spaniards, however, you’ll want to head rural. Only a few hours bus ride from Antigua, the highland towns of Chichicastenango, Quetzaltenango and Panajachel are wonderful places to witness indigenous Guatemalans going about their days in brightly coloured traditional garb (and to nab yourself some handicrafts). Alternatively, travel east to the Caribbean hub of Livingston and you might just think you’ve stumbled into Jamaica. Garifuna – a culture and people born of African slave descendants’ marrying into the local indigenous population – is the vibe here. Lazy reggae beats drift into the streets from open windows, zesty Creole fare’s order of the day and slow-mo is the only way to go. Sure, for a snapshot of Central America you could travel through Mexico and Belize or Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Or you could just go to Guatemala.
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