Moon Guatemala (Moon Handbooks) - Al Argueta (2015)
Guatemala has always been the stuff of legend. Wherever you go, you will sense its magic. When you leave its cosmopolitan capital, Guatemala City, the green landscape unfolds before you—its misty mountains, pine forests, and agricultural fields look like something out of a fairytale. You might visit a highland market where Mayan crafts are sold, or climb an active volcano to witness a lava light show. In a fancy Antigua restaurant, you can dine beneath Spanish colonial arches set beside a gurgling fountain, as live music from modern dance clubs floats through the warm air.
Despite the beauty of its landscape, the richness of its culture, and its diversity of flora and fauna, Guatemala is a country that remains the playground of a few fortunate souls. It’s not an easy place to navigate, no doubt. Like much of Latin America, the country still struggles with endemic poverty and inequality. Shantytowns sprawl in the shadows of luxury high-rise condos, while a citizen movement clamors for political reform.
Whatever the outcome, I can tell you I’ve never loved my country more. I love its majestic mountains, conical volcanoes, sweltering jungles full of half-excavated Mayan pyramids, black-sand beaches, and the sense of magic that permeates everyday life here. Come see it for yourself: Discover the mysteries of this magical land.
El Mirador’s La Danta temple at twilight
the ruins of Yaxhá in Petén
detail of the tropics in Río Dulce National Park
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
The largest city in Central America, Guatemala City has long history of being overlooked by travelers. Among its numerous attractions are recommended museums, vibrant nightlife, and a range of excellent restaurants and accommodations. The Zona Viva is the place to go for nightlife, pleasant streetside cafés, and some of Latin America’s finest restaurants.
La Antigua Guatemala
La Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its sublime collection of convents, churches, and monasteries. It features Guatemala’s loveliest town plaza, graced by the elegant facade of the Catedral de Santiago, and its pleasant cobblestone streets are lined with restaurants, accommodations, and shops housed in beautiful old colonial homes. The surroundings are perfectly suited to outdoor recreational activities.
The Western Highlands
The Western Highlands boast not only Central America’s highest mountains and volcanoes, but also its most authentic and vibrant indigenous culture. You’ll find colorful Mayan markets, quaint mountain villages, and gorgeous alpine scenery. On the shores of spectacular Lake Atitlán are three volcanoes and several Mayan villages. Guatemala’s second-largest city, Quetzaltenango, is a popular language-school destination, while Chichicastenango is home to Guatemala’s most famous market. An emerging eco- and cultural tourism scene can be found in the Ixil Triangle.
The Pacific Coast
On the western end of the Pacific Coast, Retalhuleu is a hot spot thanks to the twin theme parks of Xocomil and Xetulul. Bird-watchers and nature lovers will find several private reserves, including a fantastic lodge built on the ninth terrace of the Mayan site of Takalik Abaj. East along the coast, you’ll find the small village of Sipacate, home to Guatemala’s emerging surf scene, and Iztapa, Guatemala’s sailfishing capital. Monterrico is the region’s most popular resort town.
El Oriente and Izabal
The dry plains of El Oriente are populated by ladino cowboys and cattle ranchers. Heading east toward Izabal is the Caribbean town of Puerto Barrios, the gateway for adventures to the seaside Garífuna town of Lívingston, the Belize cayes, and tranquil Río Dulce.
If You Have ...
✵ A WEEKEND: Spend your time in Antigua Guatemala.
✵ ONE WEEK: Add Pacaya Volcano and Lake Atitlán or Tikal.
✵ TWO WEEKS: Add Atitlán and Tikal; visit Quetzaltenango and Cobán, saving some time for the museums in Guatemala City. If Quetzaltenango is too chilly, head to the Pacific Coast.
✵ THREE WEEKS: Enjoy all of the above at a more leisurely pace, adding Río Dulce and Lívingston.
Las Verapaces are Guatemala’s green heartland. Here you’ll find the country’s best-preserved cloud forests in the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve, the Cloud Forest Biological Corridor, which includes the Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera, and the pleasant town of Cobán. Nearby attractions include the spectacular limestone pools of Semuc Champey, white-water rafting on the Río Cahabón, and splendid Laguna Lachuá.
Petén is to Guatemala what the Amazon rainforest is to Brazil. In this lowland jungle frontier are the remains of several Mayan cities. The best-known Mayan site is Tikal, a must-see. In addition to the impressive temple pyramids, Tikal and the neighboring Maya Biosphere Reserve harbor Mayan ruins and varied wildlife. Flores, occupying an island on Lake Petén Itzá, is a transportation and services hub rivaled by El Remate, along the road to Tikal.
flying over the Maya Biosphere Reserve
Know Before You Go
When to Go
Guatemala has two seasons—rainy and dry. The rainy season usually begins at the end of May; the summer months are characterized by short afternoon or early evening showers that clear up by nighttime. By September or October, however, the weather is often socked in for days. During these two months, many hotels offer discounts in hopes of filling their rooms. Some parts of the country, most prominently the Caribbean coast, are rainy throughout the year.
The dry season runs from November to early May. December through February are the coldest months, with cold fronts from the north bringing temperatures into the mid-60s for daytime highs in mountain areas such as Antigua, Quetzaltenango, and Guatemala City. Temps warm up dramatically in March and April. During this time, thick haze from heat, dust, and agricultural burning clouds the views of Guatemala’s stunning mountain scenery.
The high tourist season runs from December to Holy Week (usually in April) with a second high season between mid-June and early September. Language schools in Quetzaltenango and Antigua are full with college students during the summer; rates go up accordingly. School lets out in late October, with vacations taking place until January. Families with children take over many of the popular destinations.
U.S. citizens will need a passport with at least six months’ validity after arrival. Residents of other countries will also need ticket documents for onward or return travel.
No vaccinations are required for entry into Guatemala, though it’s a good idea to be up to date on rabies, typhoid, measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), yellow fever, tetanus, and hepatitis shots.
Guatemala City’s modern La Aurora International Airport has several daily flights from numerous U.S. gateways. Mundo Maya International Airport serves the northern department of Petén and the ruins of Tikal.
The majority of inter- and intracity buses are recycled U.S. school buses known as “chicken buses” (cargo often consists of live animals); however, robberies and armed hijacking are increasingly common. Tourist shuttle buses are more expensive, but are recommended for safety reasons.
Arco de Santa Catalina in La Antigua Guatemala
Rental cars can be acquired in Guatemala City, Panajachel, Antigua, Quetzaltenango, Cobán, and Flores. Unless you plan to stick to urban areas such as Guatemala City and Antigua or along the Pan-American Highway, it’s probably best to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Taxicabs are available in almost any town or city. When in smaller towns, the best way to find a taxi is in the central square, or parque central. Otherwise, it’s always best to call a cab rather than hail one from the street.
What to Pack
Dress in layers: Pack an assortment of short-sleeved T-shirts, sweaters, fleece jackets and/or a light rain jacket, shorts, and pants. Quick-drying synthetic fabrics wick away moisture during strenuous hikes in the backcountry. In jungle areas where mosquitoes are rampant, stick to light-colored and lightweight shirts with long sleeves you can roll up and lightweight travel pants. Also pack sunscreen, bug spray, and a wide-brimmed hat or ball cap. Footwear is extremely important. For serious jungle hiking, high, military-style boots protect against mud and snakes.