Top 35 Things to Do in Guatemala

by | Dec 11, 2022 | Guatemala, Travel

Are you in the middle of planning your trip to Guatemala?

Wondering what there is to do in the country?

In this post, I’m going to share with you the 35 things you can do in Guatemala. This list is perfect for those who love culture, history, food, nature, and a bit of adventure when they travel.

The ideas in this post are based on my 3 months in the country–traveling, studying Spanish, and working online.

So, jump right in!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links.  As an Amazon Associate and a Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Please see this website’s Disclosure for more info.

First, I need to admit something to you:

I wasn’t 100% excited about visiting Guatemala.

Actually, I was a bit nervous.

You’ve got to understand that people from the U.S. hear a lot of news about how dangerous Central America is. Lots of Guatemalans cross the border to live in the U.S. and people wonder why. What Americans hear is that people flee because of violence and poverty.

It’s true. Statistically, Guatelama is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. It has the 19th highest murder rate per capita in the world. And 90% of the illegal drugs that enter the U.S. pass through Guatemala. It’s easy to get a certain impression of the country.

And so, the day I crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala, yes, I was filled with excitement but also anxiety.

And then I arrived, stayed a while, and realized that these warnings and statistics aren’t the whole story.

Yes, I’m sure that Guatemala can be dangerous.


Not in places that tourists visit.

The drugs, the murders, and the kidnappings take place in neighborhoods in Guatemala City and areas around the border where drug trafficking is common. These are not places foreigners hang out.

So really Guatemala is safe to travel in.

I can’t guarantee that nothing bad will happen. Pickpockets everywhere in the world like to target clueless tourists. Not just in Guatemala.

Take a few precautions, of course (you can read about these safety tips in this post).

It is really too bad that Guatemala has such a bad reputation because there is so much beauty in this country, and there is so much to see and do here. The country should be a world-class tourist destination.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about all the 9 wonderful places to visit and 35 things to do in Guatemala.

Check out my 2022-2023 Guatemala Travel Guide for more tips, tricks, ideas, and inspiration for visiting the land of eternal spring. You’ll find over 15 travel articles to help you explore the history, culture, food, and natural beauty of Guatemala.

Table of Contents

I’ve divided the 35 things to do in Guatemala into 5 categories: culture, history & architecture, food, nature, and adventure. Click on the link to jump to the category that most interests you.

9 Best Places To Visit in Guatemala

These are the 9 best destinations to visit in Guatemala. You definitely don’t need to visit all of them. I’ve indicated which places are must-stops to add to a Guatemala itinerary and which places to add if you have more than 2 weeks.

1. Antigua

Antigua is a beautiful colonial city surrounded by three volcanoes

  • Highlights: Hiking volcanoes, beautiful architecture, ruins, food, museums, history and beautiful views
  • Should I visit? Definitely
  • How long to stay: 5 – 7 days
  • Antigua Travel Guide & Antigua Hotel Guide
People standing in front of Santa Catalina Arch
Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua

2. Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is a beautiful lake surrounded by three volcanoes and several traditional Mayan villages.

Chairs and a temple on a terrace overlooking Lake Atitlan
Hotel La Cas del Mundo in Jaibalito, Lake Atitlan

3. Flores & Tikal

Flores is a small island in Lake Peten and the Tikal is an archaeological site of Maya ruins

aerial view of Flores Island
Flores Island

4. Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango is a small highland town inhabited by the Q’iche Maya

  • Highlights: A massive biweekly market, churches, museums, and a cool cemetery
  • Should I visit? Definitely
  • How long should I stay? 1 day
  • Chichicastenango Travel Guide
people selling flowers on the steps of Santo Tomas Church in Chichicastenango
Flower sellers on the steps of Santo Tomas Church in Chichicastenango

5. Rio Dulce & Livingston (Caribbean Coast)

Rio Dulce and Livingston are 2 small towns located on the Dulce River

  • Highlights: Garifuna culture, ancient ruins, hammock-chilling, kayaking, wildlife spotting, beaches, hot springs, waterfalls, river tubing
  • Should I visit? If you have 2 – 3 weeks
  • How long should I stay? 2 – 4 days
  • Rio Dulce and Livingston Travel Guide
kayaking on the Rio Dulce
Kayaking on the Rio Dulce

6. Lanquin & Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey is a series of cascades an hour outside of the town of Lanquin.

  • Highlights: Swimming, river tubing, and spelunking
  • Should I visit? Yes, but only if you have over 2 weeks; it takes a whole day to get to
  • How long should I stay? 1 – 2 days
Aerial views of Semuc Champey cascades
Semuc Champey cascades

7. Quetzaltenango

Quetzaltenango is a western highland city surrounded by volcanoes and Mayan villages

  • Highlights: hiking, hot springs, Maximon deity, a cool church, and visiting Mayan villages
  • Should I visit? Not necessary; if you have 3-4 weeks
  • How long should I stay? 3 days
the Central Plaza and main Church of Quetzaltenango
The Central Plaza and main Church of Quetzaltenango

8. Huehuetenango

Huehuetenango is a remote western highland city surrounded by mountains and Mayan villages

Highlights: Hiking, ancient ruins, remote lake, and visiting Mayan villages

Should I visit? Not necessary; if you have 3-4 weeks

How long should I stay? 3 days

A boat in Lake Brava
Lake Brava near Huehuetenango

9. El Paredon & Montericco

El Paredon and Montericco are 2 small towns along the Pacific coast.  

  • Highlights: Surfing, watching turtles nesting, releasing baby turtles into the ocean, boat tours through mangroves, ancient ruins
  • Should I visit? Only if you have 3-4 weeks or it’s turtle nesting or hatching seasons
  • How long should I stay? 2 – 3 days
Sunset at a beach with black sand
Sunset at a black sand beach in Monterrico

Things to Do in Guatemala – Culture

Guatemala is a multicultural and multi-lingual country. It has 25 ethnic groups. Each group has its own distinct culture and language. These groups are the Ladino, Xinca, Garifuna, and 22 distinct Maya groups. Exploring these cultures and languages is one of the greatest joys of traveling through Guatemala.

Let’s take a look at some of the things you can do to experience these different cultures:

1. Experience traditional Mayan culture

Mayan woman performing a ritual in front of the Santo Tomás church
Mayan woman performing a ritual in front of the Santo Tomás church

Don’t leave Guatemala without experiencing a part of traditional Mayan culture.

The Maya make up a good chunk of Guatemala’s population—between 40% – 60% depending on a variety of factors. Some have given up a lot of their traditional way of life and become part of the Ladino mainstream culture. However, a good percentage have retained their traditional dress, religion, language, and way of life.

Best destinations for exploring Mayan culture:

  • Lake Atitlan
  • Chichicastenango
  • Quetzaltenango
  • Huehuetenango

Best ways to learn about Mayan culture in Guatemala:

  • Wander around the local markets
  • Visit Guatemala’s churches, cemeteries, and religious brotherhoods with a guide
  • Attend a fire ceremony
  • Stop by a weaving cooperative to see how the locals make their beautiful textiles
  • Check out art galleries and handicraft stores
  • Take a cooking class
  • Visit the villages of the Western Highlands
  • Study Spanish — your private teacher is a great way to ask about local culture
  • Stay with a local host family while studying Spanish in Xela or Lake Atitlan
  • Go on a walking tour with a local
  • Get to know locals

2.      Visit the Mayan god, Maximon

2 guys sitting around Maximon and with candles burning on the floor in front of them
Visiting the cult of Maximon is one of the best things to do in Guatemala.

Truly the most unique and unforgettable experience I had in Guatemala was when I visited the god, Maximon, in the village of Santiago at Lake Atitlan. The town of Zunil near Quetzaltenango also has its own Maximon, but they call him San Simon.

Maximon is a Maya deity. He is represented as a wooden effigy. He wears a black cowboy hat, a green tie, several scarves, and many layers of clothing. He smokes cigars and drinks rum. Two assistants sit on each side of him to light his cigar and feed him rum.

The Maya visit him to ask for help in love, money, family, friends, and health as well as protection against their enemy or help in getting revenge upon their enemy. 

There are many legends about Maximon’s origins—he was either a revolutionary figure fighting Spain, a trickster who slept with the villagers’ wives, or a person who protected a village against some witches.

Maximon’s statue resides in the home of one of the town’s shamans. Each year the statue is guarded by a different shaman.

Tourists are allowed to enter the shaman’s home and see Maximon. You can visit either on your own or with a guide. I recommend the ladder so that someone can explain what is going on. You can book a boat tour with a guide who will take you to Santiago and a few other towns around the lake. READ REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR HERE

I got lucky during my visit to Maximon. A shaman was conducting a ceremony for a young man when I arrived, so I got to see Maximon’s assistants feeding him rum and the shaman chanting and waving incense around. It was incredibly fascinating. You can read about my experience in this guide to Lake Atitlan.

Visiting Maximon is one thing you must do regardless of how much time you’re spending in the country-1-week, 2-weeks, or even a month backpacking in Guatemala.

3.      Watch a shaman perform a fire ceremony

a shaman waving incense around next to a fire blazing on the ground
A shaman is conducting a fire ceremony at the Chichicastenango cemetery.

Another really cool thing to see is a Mayana fire ceremony.

Fire ceremonies have been a part of Mayan society for centuries. Nowadays they usually take place in front of Catholic churches, in sacred caves, at cemeteries, or at holy sites, and they’re conducted by shamans.

I saw three fire ceremonies in Chichicastenango. At the ceremony, a shaman lit a fire using different colored candles and sprinkled pine needles around the outside. In one ceremony, a shaman killed a chicken and blew cigar smoke at a photograph of someone to whom he was offering protection to.

Fire ceremonies are done for a variety of reasons.

  • give people protection from enemies, disease, or bad luck
  • cleanse one of bad energy
  • heal someone who is sick or injured.
  • help you get revenge on an enemy

You can just watch a fire ceremony taking place or you can participate in your own ceremony by booking a private tour.

Where and how you can see fire ceremonies in Guatemala:

  • Lake Atitlan – The highly-regarded tour operator, Los Elementos, offers group and private tours to a set of sacred caves on the outskirts of Panajachel. READ REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR HERE
  • Chichicastenango – I came across three fire ceremonies in Chichicastenango. One was in front of Capillo del Calvario Church and two others were at the city cemetery.  You can read about my experience in my Chichicastenango guide.

4. Walk through the cemeteries of Guatemala

a cemetery with rows of gravestone mounds covered in pine needles and colorful mausoleums on a hill
The cemetery in Chichicastenango is only a few blocks from the main market.

I bet cemeteries are the last place you think of visiting when planning a trip somewhere.

But hear me out: The cemeteries in Guatemala are really cool. They are beautiful places full of color—pink, blue, purple, green, yellow, orange, and red. Any color you can think of. Perfect if you love to take photos.

There are mausoleums for those with some money and simple mounds covered in pine needles and a cross at the head for the poorer residents.

There’s also a lot going on in these cemeteries. I ran into two shamans performing fire ceremonies. One actually sacrificed a chicken.

These cities have cemeteries worth checking out:

  • Chichicastenango – This cemetery is a few blocks from the main market. Super easy to visit. For more details, check out this useful guide to Chichi.
  • Quetzaltenango – I didn’t get a chance to go to the city cemetery when I was in the city. It was closed due to COVID. But I have heard it’s just as beautiful as the one in Chichi.

Visiting the cemetery during the Day of the Dead

During the Day of the Dead celebrations (November 1 – 2), Guatemalans go to the cemetery to honor their loved ones.

a crowd of people and 4 kites at a Kite Festival
A Kite Festival in Guatemala

But the people in Santiago at Lake Atitlan go one step further during this religious holiday. They hold a Kite Festival at the local cemetery. Weeks or even months before November, the people of Santiago begin creating these gigantic colorful kites that they then fly over the cemetery. Everyone comes out to see the kites. Visit this jam-packed Lake Atitlan travel guide for info on how to experience the Kite Festival.

5.      Destress in a traditional Mayan sweat lodge

the interior of a temazcal
When visiting Guatemala, experience a temazcal.

Before leaving Guatemala, try out a traditional Maya sweat lodge called a temazcal. It’s like a sauna in the U.S. but it’s more rustic. Hot volcanic rocks and medical herbs are placed in the center of a small hut-like structure. Then hot water is poured over the hot rocks to produce steam.

The indigenous people of Mexico and Central America have been using temazcals for centuries for medicinal purposes—women who just gave birth or those who are sick. Warriors would use them after returning from a battle.

Not only is visiting one a cultural experience but temazcals can also help you destress, calm your mind, and cure insomnia.

You can find them all over Lake Atitlan, especially in San Juan and San Marcos. Check out this fabulous guide to Lake Atitlan for a list of temazcals.

Cool hotels and hostels with their own temazcal:

6.      Study Spanish and stay with a local family

People say that Guatemalans speak the slowest and clearest Spanish in Latin America, making the country a good place for anyone wanting to learn—even beginners.

The other reasons Guatemala’s Spanish courses are so popular are their price and format. You get your own private teacher for only US$6 – $10/hour.

Lessons are usually around 20 hours a week, but you can do fewer. In most cases, you can set your own hours, too. Usually, the minimum length of your course is one week. I recommend doing 2 weeks.

Try staying with a host family while doing your Spanish lessons. This is a great way to learn about the local culture. I did this and although I didn’t have the best experience, I got to eat really good traditional Guatemalan food and I got to experience sexism Guatemalan style (the latter is not something I recommend, however!).

There’s just one problem.

There are so many Spanish language schools in Guatemala that it’s hard to choose.

Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Quetzaltenango all have language schools. From my experience researching and studying in Guatemala, the prices at Lake Atitlan were the cheapest, but the schools in Quetzaltenango seem to have the most interesting classes. One school in Xela has activities or excursions every afternoon! You’d be lucky to get even one outing at a school in Antigua. My only issue with studying in Xela is that, to put it kindly, it’s not a pretty city.

How to find a Spanish school?

I just looked on Google maps and then visited their website or went directly to the school. I didn’t book my course until I got to Guatemala.

PRO TRAVEL TIP: When you’re backpacking in Guatemala, you don’t want to carry too much stuff, but you also don’t want to forget to pack something. I recommend at least packing these items for your trip: a flashlight or headlamp (necessary for overnight hikes and hostels), a pair of tiny scissors (an all-around useful item), a padlock (for staying in a hostel), and a power bank (recharge your phone). You can get a complete list of what to pack for Guatemala.

7.      Shop for the best art and handicrafts in Central America

a painting showing a bird's eye view of a vegetable market
A painting of a bird’s eye view of a vegetable market in Guatemala

Guatemala is the best place in Central America for art and handicrafts. I think it’s the fact that Guatemala has such a large indigenous population that still retains its traditional crafts, and the other countries in Central America don’t.

Handwoven textiles, wooden masks, and paintings are the best things to buy.

Where to get handicrafts and paintings in Guatemala?

  • Visit the women’s weaving cooperatives in the village of San Juan on the shore of Lake Atitlan to see how the Maya create their beautiful textiles by hand.
  • Check out the Mask Museum in Chichicastenango to see how the beautiful wooden masks are made or head to the stalls selling Maya textiles.
  • San Juan and San Pedro are famous for the paintings of Lake Atitlan and Maya life—check out the paintings of the bird’s eye view of a vegetable market.
  • Shop at N’im Pot in Antigua for a huge variety of handicrafts

8.      Wander through the local markets

a bird's eye view of a vegetable market filled with people
Don’t skip this photogenic vegetable market in Chichicastenango.

Some of the most fascinating markets in Central America can be found in Guatemala. Full of locals in their traditional clothes, fruits and vegetables that you most likely had never seen before (I hadn’t), everyday items that give you an insight into how locals live, and handicrafts from some of the best craftsmen around.

For me, the best part of visiting the markets was trying the different kinds of fruit that I couldn’t get in my own country: passion fruit, ice cream bean, cherimoya, chico zapote (sapodilla), jocote, nisporo, zapote mamey, and of course, mangoes.

You’ll also find that avocados are abundant and super cheap in Guatemala.

The best markets can be found here:

  • Chichicastenango Market is the BEST
  • Solola Market at Lake Atitlan
  • Santiago Market at Lake Atitlan
  • Antigua Central Market for its exotic fruit and vegetable – do a cooking class with Cuscun and they’ll do a market tour

9.      Experience the Caribbean culture in Livingston

a motorcycle riding down a street in Livingston
A street in Livingston.
outdoor laundry basins under a palabra
These public laundromats are found all over Guatemala.

Livingston is a small town on the Caribbean Coast and the Dulce River. The people here have a culture and language that’s very different from the rest of Guatemala. Garifuna culture is an African-Caribbean culture that has its origins in the Caribbean islands.

If you make it to Livingston, make sure to check out the bars in town for the drumming music. Try some of the Garifuna dishes like tapado (a seafood and coconut soup) and coconut bread.

Head to the waterfalls and beaches outside of town.

You can read about it in my guide to Rio Dulce and Livingston.

10.      Celebrate Semana Santa Guatemalan style

colorful sawdust carpet on Semana Santa in Antigua
Alfombras for the Good Friday procession during Holy Week in Antigua, Guatemala.

Experiencing Semana Santa in Guatemala is as fascinating as celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico and Carnival in Brazil.

Semana Santa means “Holy Week” in Spanish. It’s the week before Easter Sunday. However, festivities begin 40 days beforehand, on Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent.

By far, the best city to celebrate this holiday is Antigua.

The highlights of Semana Santa are the alfombras and processions. The alfombras are carpets made of sawdust, pine needles, flowers, and fruit. Churches, families, and businesses create these colorful carpets on the cobblestoned streets of the historic center.

Then every Sunday during Lent churches lead religious processions throughout the city. As the processions make their way around Antigua, they trample over the gorgeous carpets.

The grandest procession is on Good Friday. Another one is held on Saturday for the Virgin Mary. And then a final huge celebration takes place on Easter Sunday.

You need to book a place to stay in Antigua months in advance. However, you could avoid this annoyance by visiting another weekend during Lent.

Things to Do in Guatemala – History & Architecture

If you love history or architecture, Guatemala has loads to offer. For history, you’ve got lots of ancient Maya ruins and museums. For architecture, Guatemala has some charming colonial architecture in Antigua and some striking churches in Antigua and the Highlands.

11.      Learn about the history of Guatemala

a display of glass vases and stone vases
The Hotel Santo Domingo Museums in are some of the best museums I’ve visited in the world.

Guatemala is a land with a long, glorious, but also tragic history—from the ancient Maya to a 36-year civil war. Learning about this history while traveling in Guatemala is a mixed bag. If you want to learn about the good parts of Guatemala’s history, it’s easy. The country has loads of museums and ancient ruins.

But you need to look harder if you want to learn about the civil war and the overthrow of democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz. I visited a lot of museums in Guatemala, and I found no mention of these two important times in history. The best way is to hire a guide and steer the conversation around to these topics.

If you want to read up on Guatemala’s history, check out this list of books on Guatemala and this list of books on the ancient Maya.

Ancient Maya History

  • Pre-Classic Maya period (1,000 BCE – 250 CE)
  • Classic Maya period (250 CE – 900 CE)
    • Quirigua ruins – Rio Dulce
    • Ceibal ruins – Sayaxche
    • Aguateca ruins – Sayaxche
    • Dos Pilas ruins – Sayaxche
  • Post-Classic Maya period (900 CE – Spanish conquest in 1500s CE)
    • Iximche ruins – Kaqchikel capital – Lake Atitlan or Antigua
    • K’umaracaaj ruins – Q’iche Maya capital – El Quiche
    • Zaculeu ruins – Mam capital – Huehuetenango

My favorite museums in Guatemala:

  • Museo Popol Vuh – Guatemala City
  • National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology – Guatemala City
  • Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena – textiles – Guatemala City
  • Hotel Santo Domingo Museums – archaeology – Antigua
  • Jade MuseumAntigua
  • Museo Nacional de Arte de Guatemala (MUNAG) – history of Guatemala – Antigua
  • Tzunun-ya Museum – local history and culture – Lake Atitlan

Walking Tours

Walking Tours are another great way to learn about Guatemala’s history. Usually, guides are eager to answer your questions about Guatemala.

  • Elizabeth Bell Walking Tour of Antigua – Excellent!
  • FREE Walking Tour of Antigua with Klaudia G – Excellent!

Civil War

Guatemala’s latest Civil War lasted from 1960 – 1996. Over 200,000 people died or disappeared. It’s estimated that 83% were Maya. If you want to learn about the Civil War (1960 – 1996), I recommend hiring a guide and heading to Santiago at Lake Atitlan, Quetzaltenango, El Quiche, and Huehuetenango.

  • Parque La Paz – a memorial to a massacre of locals by the military in Santiago (Lake Atitlan)
  • Saint James Apostle Church – an American priest was murdered by paramilitary soldiers during the Civil War (Lake Atitlan)

12.      Visit the magnificent ruins of Tikal

Jaguar Temple at Tikal
The Jaguar Temple is one of the most beautiful temples at Tikal.

Mexico and Central America are full of ancient ruins—Chichen Itza, Teotihuacan, and Palenque. But the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala are maybe the best of them all. It is also one of Guatemala’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Tikal was one of the two most powerful cities in the Mayan world from 200 – 900 CE. The rulers of Tikal built magnificent temples, pyramids, and palaces to rival anywhere else in Mesoamerica. The place is so stunning that one of the Star Wars movies was filmed here.

It’s very easy to visit this archaeological site. Head to Flores, a city on an island in the middle of a lake. Tikal is an hour and a half from Flores. Buses and tourist shuttles take people out to the ruins.

You can even watch the sunrise or sunset from the top of one of the pyramids at Tikal.

Check out my travel guide for Flores and Tikal on how to visit the ruins and how to see do a sunrise or sunset tours.

PRO TRAVEL TIP: Wondering whether to bring a suitcase or backpack? I recommend using a backpack–easiest to carry across the cobblestoned streets, up and down stairs, and over rough terrain. Plus! If you’re doing the Acatenango hike, El Mirador hike, or the Xela-Lake Atitlan hike, you’ll need a backpack. Check out this Guatemala packing list for some great ideas!

13.      Go on a journey to the remote ruins of El Mirador

carvings on the exterior of the El Mirador ruins
Archaeologists recently uncovered these beautiful reliefs on the exterior of the palace at El Mirador.

The 2,000-year-old El Mirador ruins are the remains of one of the greatest Mayan kingdoms of the pre-classic period (from about the sixth century BCE to the first century CE).

They are pretty much located in the middle of nowhere–in the middle of the jungle. There are no roads going to the ruins. No villages. No convenience stores. Nothing. Just trees, mud, wild animals, and some simple structures for the park rangers.

The easiest but also the most expensive way to get to El Mirador is by helicopter. The hardest and cheapest way is by hiking for 2 days (40 kilometers) into the jungle, staying one day at the archaeological site, and then hiking 2 days (40 kilometers) out of the jungle back to civilization. It’s long but the terrain is relatively flat. You can do a combination helicopter and hike trip as well.

Check out this fabulous guide to Flores for specific info on getting to El Mirador.

14.      Check out Mayan art at the ruins of Quirigua

Zoomorph P
Zoomorph P is one of the most beautiful works of art in the Maya world.

The Maya ruins of Quirigua are nowhere near as famous as Tikal. They also lack magnificent temples and pyramids.

So why visit them?

However, if you’ve got the time in your Guatemala itinerary, definitely try to squeeze in a visit. Quirigua has some of the most beautiful works of art in the Maya world. The city’s artists erected beautiful and intricately-carved stelae. The stelae stand as tall as  35 feet (10.6 meters). On the front and back sides are carvings of the figures of past rulers. On the sides are the ancient Maya script recounting the history of Quirigua.

Quirigua is also one of only three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Guatemala.

Who were the Maya of Quirigua?

For most of Quirigua’s history (426 – 810), the city was a minor trading port and was under the thumb of the powerful Copan. Then in 738, through treachery and deception, Quirigua overthrew its overlord and gained independence from Copan to become one of the wealthiest cities in the Mayan world.

After its victory, Quirigua controlled trade routes between Tikal and the Caribbean Coast. They also controlled the Sierra de las Mines (Mountain Range of the Mines), the home of some of the Mayan world’s most valuable resources: obsidian, cacao, and jade.

Check out this detailed guide on how to get to Quirigua.

15.      Admire the beautiful colonial architecture of Guatemala

Santa Catalina Arch at night in Antigua, Guatemala in Central America
An architectural highlight of Guatemala is the Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua

Take some time when you first arrive in Antigua and just walk around and admire its colonial architecture. Cobblestoned streets lined with adobe buildings painted red, yellow, orange, and blue and topped with red-tiled roofs. Take away all the cars and motorcycles, and it feels like time stopped 300 years ago.

To understand why Antigua is so beautiful you need to know a bit about its history.

The city was founded in 1542. Over the next 230 years, Antigua was hit several times by earthquakes. It was always rebuilt. That is until 1773 when a massive earthquake destroyed the city. The leaders of Guatemala decided that this last earthquake was the last straw. They abandoned Antigua and moved their capital and its citizens to present-day Guatemala City.

Antigua became stuck in time. Nobody bothered to tear down the old buildings and replace them with parking lots and shopping malls.

But then in the 1800s during the coffee boom, people slowly returned to Antigua. The poor farm laborers moved into the crumbling mansions and villas.

Finally, In 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. People who cared about the city and those who wanted to make a buck started restoring the neglected buildings. Today they are architectural gems.

There aren’t any other cities in Guatemala with colonial architecture quite like Antigua.

16.      Tour the marvelous ruins of Antigua

ruins of cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala
The best ruin to check out is the remains of the old cathedral of Antigua

When the 1773 earthquake caused the citizens of Antigua to hightail it out of there, the people left their damaged churches as they were. They didn’t bother to tear them down or restore them.

Two hundred fifty years later, these churches, monasteries, and convents are still ruins.

And they are an absolute hoot to visit!

I felt a little like Indiana Jones as I wandered through a church without a roof or as I climbed over a wall and an arch that had fallen down or as I walked up a staircase whose second floor had disappeared or as I entered a tiny cubicle where a cloistered nun had once slept.

It’s a great way to get a sense of how glorious Guatemala’s past must have been.

For more info on the ruins, check out this terrific guide to Antigua.

17.      Stop by the beautiful churches of Guatemala

San Andres Xecul Church
San Andres Xecul Church is one of the most fascinating churches in Guatemala.

If you’re into architecture, Guatemala has some beautiful churches. You’ll find ones similar to the baroque churches in Mexico. These are pretty. My favorite is La Merced in Antigua and the yellow church in San Andres Xecul,

But my absolute favorites are the simple white-washed ones found in the Highlands of Guatemala. These have a beautiful simplicity to them that you can’t find in European or North American cities. I love Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol in Santiago at Lake Atitlan and Santo Tomas in Chichicastenango.

Another reason to visit the churches in the Highlands is the opportunity to see the Mayan folk religion up close. In Chichicastenango, there are 2 churches situated at each end of the market where you’ll find parishioners and shamans involved in rituals that you’ll never see in a church outside of Guatemala or Chiapas in Mexico.

Finally, many of the Catholic churches of Guatemala were involved in the country’s 36-year civil war. As liberation theology took hold, many priests became some of the strongest defenders and protectors of the poor and indigenous people. Visit Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol in Santiago at Lake Atitlan to learn about the murder of an American priest at the hands of the paramilitary.

I highly recommend the book The Art of Political Murder for more about the church’s part in the civil war.

Things to Do in Guatemala – Food

Guatemala is a great place for food lovers. It’s got some delicious traditional dishes, great street food, world-class coffee, and exotic and tasty fruit. It’s also where chocolate originated.

Here are a few things to do in Guatemala for food lovers:

18.      Try traditional Guatemalan food

a bowl of Jocon with a tortilla on the side
Jocon de pollo is one of my favorite dishes in Guatemala.

Guatemalan food might not be as famous as its neighbor Mexico, but it does have some delicious traditional dishes that you must try before leaving the country.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • Pepian
  • Jocon de pollo
  • Rellenitos
  • For a complete list of all the country’s best traditional dishes and recommended restaurants, check out this fabulous Guatemalan food guide.

However, if you really want to dig more deeply into the cuisine of Guatemala, do a cooking class. There are 2 fabulous ones:

  • AntiguaCuscun Tours has a combined market tour and cooking class that I did, and I absolutely adored. BOOK TOUR HERE
  • Lake Atitlan – the community organization, Amigos de Atitlan that runs the fabulous restaurant, La Sabor Crucenos in Santa Cruz also offers a cooking class where you can learn how to cook traditional Guatemalan food. READ REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR HERE

19.      Sample the delicious street food of Guatemala

a plate of shucos
Shuco is one of the most popular street foods in Guatemala.

The street food in Antigua is particularly delicious and inexpensive—schuco, buffalo, chuchitos, tostados, and rellenitos.

Locals in Antigua told me that the food stalls next to La Merced Church are the cleanest, while the food stalls at the central market should be avoided.

But if you really want to indulge yourself in all the street food that Guatemala has to offer, take a street food tour. Here are two that I am aware of.

  • Cuscun Tours – I did this tour and I can say it was one of the best things I did in Guatemala. Besides visting a street food market in Antigua, we went to two other nearby towns. BOOK HERE
  • Authentic Street Food Tour with Klaudia G – I didn’t take this particular tour, but I took Klaudia’s other free walking tour and it was fabulous, so I suspect this one is also good. It’s tipped-based, which can be both good and bad. BOOK HERE

20.      Delve into Guatemalan coffee

a cup of coffee
The coffee at San Juan cafe is one of the best cups I’ve ever had.

Guatemala has some of the best coffee in the world. Sadly, most of it’s grown for export, so it can actually be hard to find in stores and restaurants in the country.

Coffee Shops

But if you know where to look, you can drink the best cup of coffee in your life. Here are some places to get the perfect cup of coffee.

Coffee Tours

If you want to delve more deeply into the world of coffee, tour a coffee plantation. You can see where and how the coffee bean grows and then how the bean is processed, dried, and roasted. I enjoyed my tour of Finca Filadelfia in Antigua. At the end of the tour, I got a free cup of the best coffee I’d ever tasted in my life.

Read this amazing Antigua guide and this Lake Atitlan guide on how to have these coffee experiences.

21.      Experience chocolate the Mayan way

a person straining chocolate into a small cup
Take a chocolate workshop at Ek Chuah Chocolateria in Antigua.

Chocolate originated in Central America and Mexico. So, it’s a no-brainer to not just eat or drink chocolate in Guatemala but also learn how to make it from bean to bar.

Chocolate Workshops

Antigua has workshops that teach you all about chocolate’s history and its cultivation process. You’ll learn about the 3 (now 4) different types of cacao beans. But the best parts are the chocolate tasting and the opportunity to make your own chocolate starting from roasting the cacao beans.

Read about how to attend a chocolate workshop in this fabulous Antigua travel guide.

Cacao Ceremonies

Another interesting way to experience chocolate in Guatemala is to take part in a cacao ceremony. Mayans have been drinking cacao in ceremonies for centuries. Today these ceremonies have become popular in the hippie communities around Lake Atitlan.

In a cacao ceremony, participants drink hot chocolate and then do some meditation, sing, or dance. The hot chocolate uses high-grade cacao beans called Criollo. This kind of cacao bean has certain compounds that cacao used in commercial chocolate doesn’t have. The compounds in Criollo can alter your mood and give you a feeling of connectedness or greater peace of mind.

When you’re at Lake Atitlan, stop by Keith’s Cacao to do a cacao ceremony with the Chocolate Shaman.

Things to Do in Guatemala – Nature

Guatemala has so much nature and beautiful scenery. Some of my best experiences were just chilling out in a remote jungle, next to a peaceful river, on the shore of a lake, or on a mountain looking down a valley below.

22.      Take in the natural beauty of Lake Atitlan

view of lake and volcanoes at sunrise from Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Village has the best views of the lake and volcanoes.

Even if you’re traveling on a shoestring, try to make room in your budget for at least one or two nights at a hotel or Airbnb with views of Lake Atitlan and its three volcanoes,

My favorite times in Guatemala were when I would sit out on my balcony in San Pedro and watch the sun come up over Lake Atitlan.

Or look out my bedroom window in San Marcos and look at San Pedro Volcano.

Or lie in a hammock at my hotel in Jaibalito and just stare out at the lake and its 3 volcanoes.

Or sit out on my terrace in Tzununa with a glass of wine and watch the sun set over the lake.

The cool thing is that you don’t have to pay an arm and leg for this million-dollar view.

Check out my list of the best places to take in the stunning views at Lake Atitlan.

23.      Chill out along the river in Rio Dulce

An aerial view of Rio Dulce town and Rio Dulce river and Lake Izabal
Book your accommodations along the Dulce River

If you’re looking for a stop during your travels in Guatemala where you can just chill out in a hammock surrounded by nature for a few days, then Rio Dulce is just about perfect. And what’s even more perfect is that the price for a hotel along the river is pretty reasonable compared to other places in Guatemala.

If you don’t want to just lie in a hammock all day, there’s also kayaking, swimming in waterfalls, soaking in a hot spring, and visiting ancient ruins.

Check out my guide to Rio Dulce and Livingston for a list of hotels and hostels to get away from it all.

24.      Explore Flores Island and Lake Peten Itza

a dock going out into the ocean and people swimming around the dock
Kayak out to the remote beach at Playa Chechenal at Lake Peten Itza.

Most people head to Flores in order to tour the Tikal ruins. But don’t leave the area too quickly. There’s a lot to see and do in Flores and around Lake Peten.

Flores was actually the site of the last remaining Maya kingdom—the Itza Maya. Spain was not able to conquer the Itza until 1697. Sadly, all of their temples, pyramids and palaces are gone.  

However, the island of Flores is still an interesting and charming place to explore. And the lake has loads of fun things to do—kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, hiking, and sunset watching. You can find a list of things to do in this awesome guide to Flores.

The shore of Lake Peten has some interesting towns to stay in. You can stay on the island of Flores. But I think it’s best to stay in one of the other quieter villages along the lake for a bit more peace and tranquility and opportunities for water sports and jungle treks. Check out this terrific guide on where to stay in Flores.

25.  Stay in an eco-lodge in the middle of the jungle

The Round House is a great place to stay near the river in Rio Dulce (Photo credit: Agoda)
Utopia Eco Lodge is a great place to stay near Semuc Champey. (Photo credit: Agoda)

Another really cool thing to do is to stay at a secluded eco-lodge in the middle of the jungle or high up in the mountains.

Guatemala has a few lodges for every kind of price point: from basic budget ones to luxury ones.

Staying in one of these lodges can be a great way to get away from it all. Except for waking up to the sounds of howler monkeys howling and birds chirping, it’s pretty much all peace, quiet, and serenity. Maybe you’ll be able to spot a quetzal or a jaguar. Because many of the lodges are located next to lakes or rivers, you might also spot a manatee, crocodile, or caiman.

Here are some highly-rated lodges that are all located in remote areas in the middle of a jungle or mountain:

26.  Visit the black sand beaches of the Pacific Coast

sunset at a black sand beach
Sunset at Beach with Black Sand in Monterrico, Guatemala.

One part of Guatemala that is getting more love from foreign tourists recently is the black sand beaches of the Pacific Coast.

The two main destinations are the laid-back small towns of El Paredon and Monterrico. There are several backpacker places to rest your head, but they’re not all listed on online booking sites.

Here are just some of the main activities on the Pacific Coast:

  • Surfing,
  • watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean
  • walking along the black sand beaches
  • fishing
  • whale-watching
  • taking a boat tour of the network of mangroves and lagoons
  • birdwatching
  • spotting turtles lay their eggs
  • helping release a baby turtle into the ocean

There is a strong riptide, especially in Monterricio, so it’s not an ideal place for swimming.

27.      Release baby turtles into the ocean

a hand is releasing a baby turtle to go into the ocean
A highlight of a trip to the Pacific Coast is releasing baby turtles into the ocean.

If you’re looking for an authentic and unforgettable wildlife experience in Guatemala, then head to Montericco on the Pacific Coast.

The endangered leatherback turtles, ridley turtles, and green sea turtles lay their eggs on the black sand beaches not far from Montericco. The nesting takes place from June to November, and the babies usually hatch between September and December.

You can either watch the turtles lay their eggs in the sand at night, or once they hatch, you can help the hatcheries release the baby turtles into the ocean. Both are truly amazing experiences!

If you are in Montericcio during these months, you can visit the hatcheries to sign up for either experience:

28.      Relax in the hot springs of Guatemala

a waterfall
El Paraiso waterfall near Rio Dulce is also a hot spring.

Given the fact that there are so many volcanoes in Guatemala, it should come as no surprise that there are also a lot of hot springs.

What’s lovely about the ones in Guatemala is that they’re found outdoors in unique places like rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. The only downside is that the water does not get very hot as it does in the hot springs in Japan.

Here’s where you can find some of Guatemala’s unique hot springs:

  • Fuentes Georginas (Quetzaltenango)
  • El Paraiso is both a waterfall and a hot spring (Rio Dulce)
  • Hot springs at one small part of the Rio Dulce (river) – most boat tours will stop here
  • Hot springs at Lake Atitlan (Santa Catarina)

Things to Do in Guatemala – Adventure

I think most travelers visit Guatemala for adventure. The #1 thing to do is a true adventure: climb Acatenango Volcano to see El Fuego erupt.

But there are other adventurous things you can do in Guatemala. Here are a few:

29.      Climb to the top of a volcano

El Fuego Volcano errupting and lava flowing down its sides at night

The most thrilling experience for me in Guatemala was climbing to the top of Acatenango Volcano and then seeing and hearing El Fuego erupt and finally the next morning watching the sun rise over the horizon.

Guatemala has 37 volcanoes. Three are still active (El Fuego, Pacaya, and Santiaguito). Even if you’re not in the best of shape, you can still climb to the top of some volcanoes (Pacaya). But for others like Atitlan, Acatenango, and Santa Maria, you need to be in really good shape.

Hiker with panoramic view of Lake Atitlan and volcano San Pedro and Volcano Toliman
A panoramic view of Lake Atitlan and Volcanoes San Pedro and Toliman early in the morning from the peak of Volcano Atitlan.

Here are the popular volcanoes you can climb:

  • Acatenango (Antigua – 3,976 meters; 13,045 ft) – A strenuous but very worthwhile hike. Many who make it to the top say this is the best thing they’ve ever done in their life. You can see Volcan El Fuego erupt and spew lava out of its top. Visit this amazing Antigua guide for information on how to do the hike.
  • El Fuego (Antigua – 3,768 m; 12,362 ft) – This active volcano erupts every 20 minutes. El Fuego and Acatenango are connected to each other. The easiest way to get to El Fuego is first by ascending Acatenango and then crossing over to El Fuego. Check out this amazing Antigua guide for info on El Fuego.
  • Pacaya  (Antigua – 2,552 meters; 8,373 ft):  An easier hike that’s not so steep and that most people can do. Pacaya is an active volcano that last erupted in 2019. You can still climb to the top and roast marshmallows and sausages in the vents among the volcanic rock. Check out this amazing Antigua guide for info on Pacaya.
  • Agua (Antigua – 3,760 m; 12,340 ft) – This beautiful volcano tours over Antigua like it owns the city. When I was in Antigua, it was considered too dangerous to climb due to the bandits that hang out and rob hikers (even ones with local guides). This might have changed now, so check when you get to Antigua.
  • San Pedro (Lake Atitlan – 3,020 m; 9,908 ft) – A challenging hike with great views of Lake Atitlan. When I was at Lake Atitlan, it wasn’t safe to climb it due to bandits hiding out along the route up to the summit. As of December 2022, it’s safe to climb as there are police along the route. You can book a guide here that will take you to the summit.
  • Atitlan (Lake Atitlan – 3,535 m; 11,598 ft) – Another strenuous hike with great views of Lake Atitlan. You can camp overnight on the top or just hike up and back down in a day. Visit this fabulous Lake Atitlan guide for information on how to do the hike.
  • (Quetzaltenango – 4,230 m; 13,789 ft) – The tallest volcano in Central America – You can do this strenuous hike in a day or camp overnight on the volcano.
  • Santa Maria (Quetzaltenango – 3,772 m; 12,375 ft) – You can hike this volcano in half a day, but it is still a very difficult hike as the slope is quite slippery (according to Lonely Planet). You are rewarded with spectacular views of Santaguito erupting. Santa Maria exploded in 1902 causing massive destruction and 10,000 deaths.
  • Santiaguito (Quetzaltenango – 2,500 m; 8,202 ft) –This is an active volcano, and erupts 20-30 times a day.  It is considered the most dangerous volcano to climb in Guatemala. I’m not sure whether you can climb up the volcano now or not since in 2016 there was a massive explosion. You might only be able to get to the Santaguito Mirador.

PRO TIP: If you don’t want to climb Acatenango to see El Fuego erupt, you can still see it from Antigua. Just find a rooftop terrace at a bar, restaurant, or hotel and you should be able to see the lava flow from the top on most clear nights. Try to stay in a hotel or hostel in the southern part of the city since this area is closer to the volcanoes than the rest of the city. This practical guide on where to stay in Antigua has info on the best hotels to stay in for views of the volcanoes.

30.      Swim in the waterfalls of Semuc Champey

aerial view of the Semuc Champey cascades
Semuc Champey

I warn you: Once you see a photo of Semuc Champey, you’re going to want to visit. The bird’s eye shot of its blue-green waters and its multiple layers of cascades entices even the most jaded traveler.

Semuc Champey is a park with a series of cascades located about an hour outside of the town of Lanquin. You can stay in the town and take a public pickup truck out to the waterfalls. However, I think it’s better to stay at one of the hotels or hostels along the Rio Cahabon river that are within walking distance of the waterfalls.

The waterfalls are super popular with locals, so if you want to avoid the crowds, avoid holidays and weekends.

To capture that iconic shot of Semuc Champey, you can climb to a lookout point high above the falls.

How to get to Lanquin?

You can take a tourist shuttle from Flores, Antigua, or Lake Atitlan. If you’re staying near Semuc Champey, your hotel or hostel should pick you up where the tourist shuttle drops you off in Lanquin.

How about public transportation?

You can take a chicken bus to Coban and then another one to Lanquin.

31.      Hike up Indian Nose to watch the sun rise over Lake Atitlan

The sun rising over Lake Atitlan
You can watch the sunrise from the top of Rostro Maya (commonly called Indian Nose).

One of the most popular things to do in Guatemala is to hike up Indian Nose Mountain (Rostro Maya) to see the sunrise over Lake Atitlan. The hike is short (30 minutes) but steep.

Rostro Maya is located on the outskirts of San Juan, so ideally, stay in San Juan or San Pedro the night before. You’ll have difficulty getting a boat from other villages around the lake so early in the morning.

Book your tour online beforehand or sign up with a tour once you get to Lake Atitlan.

Another way to see the sunrise (and sunset) over Lake Atitlan is by spending the night on the top of Volcano Atitlan.

For more info on how to do these hikes, check out this jam-packed Lake Atitlan travel guide.

What if you don’t want to climb anything to see the sunrise?

Book accommodations with views of the lake and the volcanoes facing east or west. Check out this detailed guide to the best places to stay at Lake Atitlan.

32.      Attend a yoga retreat at Lake Atitlan

Photo Credit: Agoda (Eagle’s Nest)

Guatemala is home to some of the coolest yoga retreats in the world. It is worth spending a week or even just a day doing yoga at Lake Atitlan.

A lot of the yoga centers are located on cliffs overlooking the lake. The views are just spectacular! You might find yourself doing upward dog or cobra while gazing out at a volcano or two or three. 

I’ve met several people who have done yoga retreats at Lake Atitlan and they ALL rave about the experience.

Here are some of the most popular retreats:

If you don’t want to do a retreat, you can simply attend a class or two. Contact the yoga retreats to see if you need to register ahead of time or if you can just drop in.

The retreats offer a variety of other activities like meditation, temazcal, and cacao ceremonies. Check out their websites for details.

33.      Drive an ATV around the mountains and villages of Guatemala

a person sitting on an ATV in front of a church
Driving an ATV around the villages near Antigua is a lot of fun.

The most fun way to explore the mountains and villages around Antigua and Lake Atitlan is by driving an ATV (all-terrain vehicle).

Simoon’s Tours has loads of different tours you can do on an ATV. I did two tours with them.

  • Villages around Antigua
  • Villages around Lake Atitlan
  • Mountains to see the sunset at Hobbitenango
  • Coffee plantation

34.      Kayak along the lakes and rivers of Guatemala

a kayak moving through a mangrove swamp

With so many fabulous lakes and rivers, Guatemala has loads of opportunities for kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding.

  • Kayak on Lake Atitlan – You can rent a kayak or get one from your hotel and take it out on the lake in the morning. You can even kayak between the villages.
    • Los Elementos Adventure Center has a kayaking tour where you kayak from Santa Cruz village to San Marcos village. Go swimming at the Nature Reserve in San Marcos. Then hike back along the trail that runs along the shore. READ REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR HERE
  • Los Elementos has another cool 2-day tour from Antigua that combines kayaking and hikingREAD REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR HERE
  • Another well-known tour operator, Old Town Outfitters, has a really adventurous tour that combines kayaking and mountain biking – READ REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR HERE
  • Kayak on Lake Peten de Itza – On Lake Peten, you can rent a kayak on Flores or get one from your hotel or hostel in El Remate. It’s nice to kayak as the sun sets over the lake.
  • Kayak on Rio Dulce and Lago Izabal – especially amongst the mangroves and lagoons that connect to the Rio Dulce. Maybe you’ll be lucky and see a manatee.

35.      Get off the beaten path in the Western Highlands

A person rowing a boat on Brava Lake in Guatemala
Lake Brava near Huehuetenango

If you want to see the real Guatemala that hasn’t been impacted by foreign tourists, then your best bet is the Western Highlands. You’ll find dramatic mountain scenery and erupting volcanoes. The area is dotted with traditional villages that are home to the Mam Maya and Q’iche Maya. All of these features make it a great area to visit for those who want to hike and dig deeply into Maya culture.

The two main cities are Quetzaltenango (Xela) and Huehuetenango. Neither are very charming cities. The real gems are outside of the cities.

Things to do in and around Xela:

  • Study Spanish
  • Fuentes Georgina – hot springs
  • Volcano Tajumulco – the highest volcano in Central America
  • Volcano Santa Maria – a challenging climb with views of Santiaguito
  • Volcano Santiaguito – you can climb to the mirador to see the volcano erupt
  • Lake Chicabel – a sacred lake in the crate of Volcano Chicabel
  • Villages around Quetzaltenango have a traditional Maya culture, some interesting churches and markets, and striking mountainous scenery
    • San Andres Xequl – the church is one of a kind!
    • Zunil – home to another Maximon deity called San Simon
    • Almolonga – wealthy evangelical Christian town
    • San Francisco el Alto – Friday market is huge; beautiful views
    • Momostenango – famous for their thick, woolen blankets and ponchos

Things to do in and around Huehuetenango:

  • Zaculeu – post-classic archaeological site – Mam capital
  • Sierra de Los Chuchumatanes – mountains
  • Todos Santos Chuchumatan – stunning scenery, lots of trekking opportunities, colorful horse races, and a fascinating local traditional culture in which the men, as well as the women, wear traditional clothing, a rarity in Guatemala.  
  • Lake Brava – a remote lake with crystal clear water

Final Thoughts

So that’s it!

I hope you’ve now got some ideas for your trip to Guatemala.

If you still have questions about the country, check out this jam-packed list of things to know before visiting Guatemala. It’s got loads of info such as:

  • Visa requirements
  • COVID requirements
  • Crossing land borders
  • Getting around Guatemala
  • Using an ATM
  • Getting a SIM card
  • and so much more

Where to go after Guatemala?

You can easily cross the border to Belize and stop in San Ignacio. There’s so much to do and see there.

Another cool place to visit during your trip to Guatemala is Copan in Honduras. It’s another quick border crossing.

More Posts on Guatemala:

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About the Bamboo Traveler

The Bamboo Traveler

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.

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