Central America may only be little, but that doesn’t stop it from packing a serious punch in terms of tourist attractions. Of the various small states crammed into this compact isthmus, it is Guatemala which must take the prize for the highest number of quality tourism sites per square mile.
This is a country which is full of character, where people are welcoming and friendly, where natural attractions are plentiful, and where the food is tasty and cheap. An additional bonus is that the distances between tourist spots are all much shorter than those in South America, meaning that you can easily tick off all the big hitters in a comparatively short space of time.
Guatemala boasts a long list of attractions, but here are five which I’d definitely recommend you try and take in:
True, there are plenty of temple complexes knocking around in Central America, but Tikal is one of the best. The network of temples here are well preserved and visually striking, and this is not even the greatest thing about the site. Tikal's setting – in among dense jungle packed with exotic wildlife – is simply amazing. Make sure to get there first thing in the morning to witness the sunrise over the temple complex and to hear the jungle wake up with you, howler monkeys and all.
2. Semuc Champey
The limestone rock here gives the water a brilliantly bright blue color
Semuc Champey is a picturesque area with a river running right through it. The limestone rock here gives the water a brilliantly bright blue color, and has led to the creation of a series of small waterfalls and rock pools. Supplement the great views with any number of activities: visit an underground waterfall by swimming through a candlelit cave, jump off the nearby road bridge into the waters below, take a giant rope swing out into the river or hike up to the top of the hill for a stunning view of the vibrant blue lakes. You simply can't get bored.
3. Volcan Pacaya
Take a trip you up to the top of this active volcano, navigating your way across small lava flows and molten rocks along the way. Health and safety precautions are non-existent, which is a large part of the charm. Wear footwear which you can afford to get ruined though as you may find the soles of feet starting to warp from the heat on the way…
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Climb your way to the top of this active volcano, navigating your way past small lava flows and molten rocks
Livingston is worth visiting if only because of the striking contrast it represents to the rest of the country. Accessible only by boat, this coastal town is cutoff from the body of Guatemala. With its English-speaking, Afro-Caribbean population, and distinctly laid back coastal vibe, Livingston is much more reminiscent of a Caribbean island than it is of the Latin American mainland.
5. Lago de Atitlan
Atitlan is an enormous lake which formed when a volcano blew itself apart thousands of years back. Dotted round the substantial perimeter of the lake are a series of local settlements and tourist retreats. Particularly popular is San Pedro; a mixture of a hippy hangout and a mecca for language students attracted by eye-wateringly cheap Spanish tuition. Combine classes in the morning with kayak trips and swims out in the freshwater lake in the afternoon to make the ideal environment for improving your language skills.
One to Avoid
Not everywhere in Guatemala is quite so picturesque as the attractions above. One place you should definitely try keep off your itinerary as far as possible is Guatemala City. Dirty, unpleasant and with a distinctly unsafe feel, the capital is certainly not one of the country’s highlights. You may have to visit at some stage as it is a major transport hub. If forced to go there, do yourself a favor and make sure your visit is a brief one. You've got far better places to explore.