I’m sharing some of the best things to do in Guatemala. Whether you’re looking for adventure, want to relax on an exotic beach or are planning a family vacation there’s something to do for everyone in Guatemala. This small Central American country is one of the most interesting and colorful, offering everything from lush rainforests and active volcanos to colonial architecture and ancient Mayan cities.
Colorful and magical, Guatemala is one of the most diverse, interesting and exciting countries in Latin America. As a native Guatemalan (now an expat living in Florida) I have compiled a list of my favorite destinations in Guatemala. You will find many lists of the best things to do in Guatemala but this one is a list that will continue to grow as I discover more beautiful Guatemalan destinations. If you’re looking for the best things to do in Guatemala with kids you can get some ideas here as I travel with my kids to Guatemala at least a couple of times every year and we love discovering new thing to do together as a family.
Often overlooked by travelers who think that Guatemala is a destination only meant for the more adventurous Guatemala has something for everyone from solo travelers to families and from budget travelers and digital nomads to travelers looking for a relaxation and a personalized, authentic and unique experiences.
Take A Trip Back in Time in Antigua Guatemala
Walking through the cobblestone streets of Antigua Guatemala feels like taking a trip back in time. This 500 year old city has been named a UNESCO Wold Heritage Site but much more than being a historical treasure Antigua is a city that is very much alive. Surrounded by majestic volcanoes this charming city is filled with Spanish Baroque churches, some of them in ruins, and bright colored mansions with their thick walls framed by flowing bougainvillea giving you postcard perfect views around every corner.
From visiting its magnificent churches and monasteries to learning how to make traditional dishes and riding or riding a mule through a coffee plantation there are lots of things to do in Antigua Guatemala so plan to stay for a few days.
Discover the Mayan Ruins in Petén
The densely jungle covered area of Petén in Guatemala used to be inhabited by the Mayan civilization and it was dotted with ancient cities, most of them now covered with vegetation and some even yet to be discovered. Although most people travel to Petén the visit the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most impressive ancient cities
Visit Beautiful Lake Atitlán
Considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world lake Atitlán has inspired poets and writers for decades and has been regarded as a sacred place by the Mayan people for centuries. Even the most beautiful pictures of lake Atitlán fail to capture it’s essence. Ever since I was a kid Lake Atitlán always seemed like a magical place to me, there’s a certain mystical air to it an unmistakable positive energy that goes beyond its beauty.
Of volcanic origin, the lake is surrounded by volcanoes and its shores are dotted with charming and quaint towns like Santiago Atitlán, with its flourishing indigenous culture, and San Marcos, a refuge for those who want to connect to the cosmic energy of the lake. From feeding coatis at the Reserva Natural de Atitlán in Panajachel and paragliding in Santa Catarina Palopó to kayaking in Santa Cruz La Laguna, visiting the pottery makers in San Antonio Palopó or hiking along the numerous trails along its shores there’s plenty to do here.
Take a Magical River Ride In Rio Dulce
Rio Dulce (which translates to Sweet River) connects the largest lake in Guatemala with the Caribbean coast and is located about 5 hours from Guatemala city. Take a boat ride to experience the natural beauty along the river shores. There are few roads in the area and the river is the main means of transport as well as a way of life for those living in there. From the spectacular Boquerón canyon with its steep cliffs and the waterfall and hot springs at Finca Paraiso to the wildlife you will find along the river Rio Dulce is one of the most beautiful destinations in Guatemala.
Rio Dulce is also the home of one of the oldest Spanish Colonial forts in the area, the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara which was built in 1644 at the entrance of Lake Izabal; this historical site is not to be missed. The city of Livingston, located where the river meets the Gulf of Honduras offers a unique look into the Garifuna culture and an opportunity to sample the delicious traditional Caribbean dishes unique to this area.
Take A Dip in the Turquoise Waters of Semuc Champey
With it turquoise waters and surrounded by verdant lush rainforest Semuc Champey (where the river hides beneath the Earth. In my opinion, Semuc Champey is the most beautiful place in Guatemala. It’s hard to capture it’s beauty in images but this series of clear pools formed above a natural bridge under which the Cahabon river passes is the best example of Guatemala’s striking and unspoiled natural beauty.
A little challenging to get to, this only adds to it’s magic in my opinion as it has yet to be invaded by hordes of tourists keeping it’s beauty untarnished. Swim in it’s beautiful pools, take a hike to the “mirador” to look at it from above and take a guided tour to explore the water cave underneath the pools to get the complete experience.
Explore the Candelaria Caves
The Candelaria Caves are usually not on most lists of the best things to do in Guatemala, the only reason for that is that they are not as well known. Growing up in Guatemala I visited the Candelaria Caves for the first time as a teenager and to this day those memories are some of my favorite as this trip into the largest cave system in Central America was one of the most exciting and fun adventures I’ve ever been on.
My favorite part of the Candelaria Caves is the fact that many of the caves have skylights that let light in and from which you can see the verdant rainforest outside, making this a unique experience. You can also go tubing in the river inside the caves which is sure to be an unforgettable adventure!
Experience Market Day in Chichicastenango
Climb a Volcano
Whether you’re an experience mountain climber and decide to take on a challenge by climbing the Acatenengo volcano or prefer to leisurely ride a horse up an active volcano and roast marshmallows on the hot volcanic rocks with the kids there’s a volcano climbing experience for everyone in Guatemala. With over 33 volcanos, many of them easily accesible from Guatemala City and Antigua Guatemala or Xela getting to experience a volcano from it’s summit, as opposed to just enjoying their commanding beauty from below, is an adventure you’re sure to cherish forever.
Visit the Black Sand Beaches of the Pacific
Guatemala’s Pacific coast features hundreds of miles of volcanic black sand beaches. Far from the white sand beach postcard pictures, Guatemala’s Pacific coast is something quite different yet I find these black sand beaches to have a special energy and appeal because they are so unique and because there are no big hotels or resorts and nature here takes center stage.
Although there are many different beaches Monterrico is the most popular as there are lots of small hotels here. Don’t expect lavish resorts or turquoise waters, but rather an untamed natural beauty that is sometimes rough around the edges, an ocean that refuses to be tamed and small villages who’s people depend on fishing and agriculture.
Check out my article about Guatemala’s Pacific coast for tips and recommendations of what to do and where to stay in Guatemala’s Pacific coast.
Don’t Forget Guatemala City
Many people traveling to Guatemala skip Guatemala city, however this modern metropolis, the largest and most developed in Central America offers a unique look into Guatemalan life, culture and history.
Plan to spend a couple of days there and be sure to include in your itinerary a visit to the Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena, where you will learn all about the amazing Mayan weaving techniques and colorful designs as well as visiting the historic downtown and the trendy and artsy area of 4 Grados Norte.
Do not miss sampling some of the amazing food offerings in Guatemala City from the many up and coming chefs using local flavors to create amazing dishes that can not be found anywhere else.
If you’re traveling with kids be sure to read my article about the best things to do in Guatemala City with kids.