Things to do in Guatemala

Our top activities in Guatemala

Follow the Ruta Maya

Guatemala sits squarely on the Ruta Maya, running through the Yucatán Peninsula and Belize. The incredible archaeological site of Tikal shows the power of the Mayan civilisation. A sprawling city that stretched through many kilometres of jungle, much of which is still being excavated, there are five towering temples to climb for a panoramic view over the site. Less well known is the site of Iximché, capital of an ancient Kaqchikel Maya kingdom, with pyramids, temples and evidence of human sacrifice.

Take an overland tour

If you are lucky enough to have two weeks’ vacation or longer, then make the most of Central America’s tightly clustered borders and cross over into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for more Mayan exploration at Tulum and Chichen Itzá, at as well as a dip in a cenote. Travel overland to Belize, where you can relax on paradise cays, snorkel or scuba.
Belize also hides a Mayan “underworld” in the incredible Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave – complete with ancient ceramics and the calcified and crystallised skeletal remains of sacrifice victims. A longer tour can take you all the way along the isthmus, through Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, to the Panama Canal, using a combination of public transport, minibuses and purpose built overland vehicles. These little countries may seem superficially similar, but when you begin to look beneath the surface, they each have their own unique histories, indigenous cultures, coasts, jungles and wildlife.

These tours are made even easier by the Shengen-style Central America Border Control Agreement, which means that tourists can cross borders between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua for 90 days without lengthy entry and exit formalities.

Meet the Maya

‘Maya’ is not a homogenous term; over 21 Mayan languages are spoken in Guatemala alone, and the elaborately embroidered textiles and clothing will vary from community to community. Visitors can meet the Maya in thriving textile and food markets, during homestays and during village tours, particularly around Lake Atitlán, in which you might learn to grind blue corn or weave reed mats.

Spend time on the water

Beaches may not feature in a Guate itinerary, but there are plenty of opportunities to spend time on the water. Cruise down the Río Dulce to Livingston to meet the Garifuna people and look out for manatees in the mangroves. Kayak around Lake Atitlán, or boat across the lake beneath the looming volcanoes. Take a dip in the tepid waters of Lake Petén Itzá, with the island town of Flores as your base.
Real water babies can navigate the country by raft – rushing over the Class IV rapids and more tranquil creeks of the Cahabon and Dulce Rivers with expert adventure guides. This is a thrilling way to explore the dense jungle, where rivers often act as the only “roads” and you may catch glimpses of parrots, hummingbirds and toucans along the way. Reward yourself after a hard day’s paddle with a dip in natural hot springs or the impossibly turquoise waters of the Semuc Champey pools.
Photo credits: [Follow the Ruta Maya: Mike Murga] [Take an overalnd tour: Adam] [Helpdesk: David Amsler] [Meet the Maya: Emilio Labrador] [Spend time on the water: Mickaël T.]
Written by Vicki Brown
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