Guatemala is brimming with historical sites, culture, and natural wonders, so it can be difficult to know where to start when planning a trip. Antigua is where most people start their time in the country, so I’m going to assume it was already on your travel itinerary (though if it wasn’t then it should be), and here’s five other places you need to visit during your time in Guatemala.
Tikal is the ruins of an ancient Mayan city found in the rainforest of Northern Guatemala. The archaeological sites are part of Tikal National Park, and the ruins were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Tikal is also the largest excavated site in the Americas
Tikal National Park consists of the rainforest and ruins, a parking lot, three hotels, a museum and visitors’ center, guide service, post office, campground, souvenir shops, and four local eating places. There is NOT an ATM in the park, so you’ll want to bring cash with you.
If you don’t want to stay in the park, there’s lodging in Flores and El Remate, but the park opens at 6:00 am and closes at 6:00 pm, so if you don’t stay in the park you can’t do the two best excursions Tikal has to offer (more on that below).
Maps are available outside the Visitor’s Center, and walking trails wind through the jungle and temple complexes. You can do self-guided hikes, but I’d recommend doing the following two guided tours, which can only be done if you’re lodging is inside the park:
Sunset tour where you’ll hike into the jungle when it’s daylight, explore some of the ruins, climb up a temple to watch the sunset, and hike back in the dark.
Sunrise tour where you’ll hike into the jungle when it’s still dark, climb up a different temple where you’re actually above the forest canopy, watch the sunrise, then hike back once it’s daylight. The morning hike does involve getting up around 3:00 am, which I know can be a tough “sell,” but it was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had (in eight years of traveling through three continents and 12 countries). Plus, after the sunrise hike, I just went back to my hotel and took a nap during the hottest part of the day!
Trip Advisor has an abundance of tour options from birdwatching to sunsets and sunrises to multi-day trips paired with other Mayan ruins. The guide and visitor center on-site in the park can also help you book guided tours.
Fun Fact: the Jaguar Temple in Tikal was a filming site for Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope (1977). The temple can be seen near the end of the movie as a lookout station for the rebel base.
Pacaya Volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America, and it's also one of the most accessible, making it a perfect day trip from Antigua or Guatemala City.
Guides are required for hiking Pacaya. If you're driving to Pacaya National Park on your own, you can hire a guide at the visitor's center at the entrance to the park. If you don't have a car, I recommend going with a tour group where transportation will be provided. It can take up to four different buses and half a day to get to Pacaya via public transportation from Antigua or Guatemala City (as opposed to an hour and a half by car or coach).
Most tours are either a morning or sunset hike as half-day trips from Antigua or Guatemala City, but you can also do a trip that lasts all day or camp overnight on the volcano. Viator and Get Your Guide have multiple tour options for visiting Pacaya.
You should expect the hike up Pacaya to take around 4 hours, depending on your pace. The first part of the trail takes you through farmland and forest, so there's great views no matter how frequently you take breaks.
The second part of the hike is through the lower caldera of the volcanic crater.
Pacaya is monitored for geological activity and safety, park rangers patrol the area, and all trails are well marked and maintained. You'll also be sharing the trail with lots of other people, and there are food stands, restrooms, trash cans, and rest stops along the trail.
Found in the lush jungle mountains in the department of Alta Verapaz, Semuc Champey is a remote tropical paradise.
Semuc Champey is an almost 1000 feet (300 meters) long limestone bridge made of six turquoise pools. Semuc Champey means “where the river hides under the stones” because the Cahabon River runs under Semuc Champey, disappearing under the first pool and reappearing downriver of the sixth one.
The first thing you’ll want to do when you get here is swim in the crystal clear pools. After you’ve slid down some waterfalls and floated in the pools, hike to the El Mirador viewpoint for the iconic shot of the limestone bridge and pools from above.
Other activities you can do are tubing down the calm part of the Cahabon River and the Ba Cave tour where you’ll hike and swim through a cave using only candlelight.
To get to Semuc Champey, you have to get to Lanquin first. Lanquin can be reached from Antigua by shuttle, Guatemala City by shuttle or bus, and Coban by bus. GuateGo is a great resource for comparing and booking your transportation.
Once you get to Lanquin, you can do a two and a half hour hike through the jungle to Semuc Champey, or you can take a 30 minute pickup truck (local taxi) ride. Lanquin is where most visitors stay (plenty of hotels and restaurants), but there are some more luxurious lodges and resorts in the jungle closer to Semuc Champey such as the Utopia Eco Hotel and Greengos Hostel.
Located in a massive volcanic crater in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands, Lake Atitlán is ringed by volcanoes with those iconic pointed cones.
If you’re spending the night, I recommend staying in the town of Panajachel, one of the larger hillside villages known for its textiles. But Lake Atitlán can also be seen as a day trip from Antigua or Guatemala City. Trip Advisor has lots of tour options.
A boat tour around the lake is an (obvious) must-do excursion, but there are many other activities in the area. One option is the Atitlán nature reserve, located on a former coffee plantation, that has a butterfly garden and several hiking trails.
You can also visit one of the active coffee and avocado orchards, “soak in” the Mayan culture in any of the lakeside towns, take a cooking class, or (if you’re feeling more adventurous) take a motorcycle ride around the lake for higher-up panoramic views.
Fun Fact: In 1938, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the famous children’s book, The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), crashed his plane near Lake Atitlán. Legends say that during his recovery at Lake Atitlán, he saw the Cerro de Oro, “hill of gold,” that inspired a drawing and scene in The Little Prince.
Cerro de Oro does (sort of) resemble an elephant with a boa trailing off at its head and tail as if it were being consumed, so when you’re here you can decide for yourself if you think this mountain inspired the book, or just the legend about the book.
Monterrico is a picturesque town along Guatemala’s Pacific coast. While Monterrico is known for its volcanic black sand beaches and nesting sea turtles, it’s also part of a nature reserve that stretches inland to preserve the town’s mangrove swamp.
When you’re here, you must visit the Tortugario Monterrico, a wildlife reserve that raises endangered species of sea turtles, caimans (a cross between crocodiles and alligators), and iguanas. The staff offer lagoon trips and night walks from August to December to look for turtle eggs to rescue. And at sunset from September to January, you can help workers release baby turtles into the ocean.
The Monterrico beach is narrow and the waves break close to the sand, so if you’re wanting a full swim-in-the-ocean day you should probably visit the nearby beaches of Iztapa or Tilapa. But what Monterrico beach does give you is some of the most extraordinary sunset views.
Another activity I’d highly recommend is taking a boat tour of the mangrove canals. Tours usually take about one and a half to two hours. It’s worth getting up early to take a boat tour at sunrise when you’ve got the best chance of seeing the most wildlife (you can always take a nap on the beach later!)
You can arrange boat tours through most of Monterrico’s hotels, but I’d recommend booking a tour directly through Tortugario Monterrico because it has the most knowledgeable guides and you’re supporting a good cause. Most tours are on a motorboat, but if you’ve got more time, you can arrange a paddled tour.
written by Lucy
About the author: “I’m a travel blogger and photographer who’s traveled across parts of Central America, Asia, and Europe. Some of my favorite things are: tiramisu, my selfie stick (gotta take pictures of yourself if you want to be an influencer), white wine, and just barely getting my camera out in time to capture a moment I want to remember forever. My goal is for my photographs, insights, and stories to inspire you to travel to places - old and new - that could be halfway around the world or just a walk away.” -Lucy Maynard
My blog: https://www.lucyonlocale.com/blog
My Instagram handle: @lucyonlocale