The Best Things To Do In Guatemala

There are many incredible things to do in Guatemala – probably more than you’d ever imagine. This is a country of many wonders, and I only know too well! I visited for the first time years ago, using it as the starting point of my 5-months backpacking trip across Central and South America, and I was so hooked that went back two more times.

I must admit that traveling around Guatemala isn’t always easy. But if you stick around and face the challenges, you will be rewarded with incredible experiences – beautiful colonial cities; unique archeological sites; volcanoes and lush forests; deeply rooted cultures and traditions; lovely people; delicious food and more.

Curious to find out more? Continue reading for my selection of strictly the best things to do in Guatemala. This is not an exhaustive list!

coffee in Guatemala

25 Unmissable Things To Do In Guatemala

Visit a Coffee Plantation

Guatemala is the 10th largest producer of coffee in the world, and the second-largest producer of high-grade coffee after Brazil. So it’s no wonder that you can get a great cup of coffee pretty much everywhere that sells it. Antigua or Atitlan boast easy to reach coffee plantations, which owe their fertility to the mineral rich soil created by volcanoes.

You can learn about the history and process of coffee-making at plantations such as Finca Filadelfia in Antigua.

For information about coffee plantation tours, click here or here.

Delight in Guatemala’s Delicious Chocolate

As well as coffee, Guatemala is famed for its chocolate. You’ll be able to enjoy chocolate all over the country in various forms and flavors, but a great way to learn all about it is to visit the Choco Museo in Antigua. Alternatively, you can stop by Dalileo in San Marcos to sample chocolate and learn all about cacao.

For chocolate workshops in the Choco Museo in Antigua, click here.

volcano Pacaya
The incredible view of Volcano Pacaya – photo courtesy of Martina Santamaria

Trek Up the Very Active Pacaya

With so many volcanoes, it’s only natural that one of the unmissable things to do in Guatemala is hiking one!

Antigua happens to have many active volcanoes right on its doorstep. One of them is Pacaya. Soaring to 2,552 meters (8373 feet) above sea level, this conical volcano is a popular destination for intrepid visitors who want to hike to its summit—it’s so popular there are even food vendors.

Quite often spewing lava flows, it’s hot enough to cook marshmallows at certain parts (the perfect hiking snack).

For guided hikes of Pacaya Volcano, click here. For more information, read my post Everything You Need To Know To Hike Pacaya Volcano.

Soak Up the Colonial Architecture of Antigua

Antigua may be a small city, but what this place lacks in size it makes up for in charm. It’s awash with breathtakingly beautiful colonial buildings, some of which date back to the 16th century. Here you’ll find pastel-colored facades of old houses, Baroque-style churches, and ornate city squares and public buildings—all inspired by the Italian Renaissance.

It’s so well preserved that it’s even been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

To make the most of the city, you may want to join a guided tour such as this one or this one. For tours departing from Guatemala City, click here.

Learn Spanish

Although there are multiple indigenous languages spoken throughout Guatemala, the main language is, of course, Spanish. A trip to this Central American country is a great way to brush up on your Spanish skills, or even learn from scratch.

There are many ways to learn and practise, from chatting to locals, all the way to enrolling yourself in a language school. Or you could simply stay for a few days in a homestay and immerse yourself in Spanish with your host family.

Unwind in a Hot Spring at Fuentes Georginas

Fuentes Georginas is a natural spa located in a beautiful natural setting, making for the ideal way to relax and unwind. Located close to the town of Xela, the hot springs are set on a scenic backdrop of volcanoes. There are four pools of differing temperatures in total, all fed by sulphur hot springs and surrounded by tropical vines and ferns.

Marvel at the Beautiful Semuc Champey

Designated a national monument, Semuc Champey is a must-visit destination in Guatemala. This picture-perfect natural attraction, situated just south of Lanquin, is a limestone formation featuring six stunningly blue pools that are ideal for swimming.

The beautiful location, surrounded by lush jungle, is best enjoyed from the Mirador viewpoint, around a 45-minute hike through the jungle. From here you can see just how impressive the landmark is.

For guided tours of Semuc Champey, click here. For an all-inclusive 3-day tour departing from Antigua, click here.

For more information, read my post The Best Guide To Semuc Champey.

Venture into the Grutas de Lanquin

Just west of Lanquin lies the very impressive Grutas (or “Caves”) de Lanquin. Declared a national park in 1955, this cave system is a labyrinthine complex of tunnels and caverns, much of which has yet to be mapped or explored.

For the less intrepid there are pathways nearer to the entrance which are lit, so you can see the impressive stalactites and other rock formations. If you don’t like the idea of caving, come to the caves at sunset when you can see thousands of bats flying out from the entrance.

Lake Atitlan

Discover Lake Atitlan

This beautiful body of blue water is actually located in a huge volcanic crater. You’ll find it in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands. A visit to Lake Atitlan means plenty of peace and tranquility, and days spent relaxing at the water’s edge.

The lake itself is edged by various villages and green hills, as well as volcanoes. Explore by boat and visit local communities, visit nature reserves and buy some traditional textiles—and swim in the lake itself, of course.

I recommend spending a few days in Lake Atitlan to soak up its incredible energy. If you are short on time, you can visit Lake Atitlan on guided day trips departing from Antigua such as this one.

Chill Out With a Yoga Class

Did you know that one of the most popular things to do in Guatemala is actually yoga?

If you want to get spiritual and stretchy when you’re in Guatemala, then you’re in luck: yoga is most definitely a thing you can do here. If that sounds like you, then you should make sure you opt to stay at Lake Atitlan for a while.

The lakeside is dotted with yoga studios and retreats, including Yoga Forest in San Marcos la Laguna, Villa Sumaya in Santa Cruz la Laguna, and Mystical Yoga Farm, also in San Marcos. It’s a very peaceful destination to zen out and meet like-minded people.

Learn About Guatemalan Culture and History at Museo Popol Vuh

To get to grips with what Guatemala is all about, it’s best to head to the Museo Popol Vuh. Located in Guatemala City, on the campus of the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, this museum is packed full of ancient Mayan art and various pre-Colombian collections of pottery and other significant artefacts.

The Museo Popol Vuh is particularly well known for its funerary art, as well as some of the best-preserved Maya vases on display in the world. Exhibits are organized chronologically, from Paleoindian (9000 BC) to the end of the colonial period in the 19th century.

Get a Taste for Traditional Textiles at Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena

Located in Guatemala City, this museum is the ideal place to learn all about Guatemala’s traditions through its textiles and clothing.

Also situated on the campus of Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena plays host to a colorful collection of handwoven fabrics, ceremonial costumes and a variety of traditional garments. It represents the country’s unique diversity, from pre-Colombian times to the Spanish colonial-era.

Guatemala things to do

Pay a Visit to Iximche

If you’re interested in Mayan ruins, you should definitely make a beeline for Iximche. Situated in the western highlands of Guatemala (around 90 kilometers / 56 miles west of Guatemala City), this was once the capital of the Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until it was abandoned in 1524.

Though less ancient than other Mayan ruins in Guatemala, Iximche is still nonetheless impressive; the grounds are scattered with pyramids, ball courts, murals, and palaces. It’s certainly interesting discovering this mysteriously deserted city. What’s best is that Mayan rituals still take place at the site, so during your visit you can observe Mayan ceremonies too.

For guided tours of Iximche, click here.

Travel to Guatemala

Haggle at Chichicastenango Market

Chichicastenango Market is not only the largest market in Guatemala—it also has the accolade of being the largest outdoor market in all of Latin America. Hosting markets on Thursdays and Sundays, Chichicastenango sees merchants and shoppers alike pour in from the surrounding areas.

Here you can find pottery, medicinal plants, food, flowers, handicrafts, clothing, and even livestock. While you’re here, don’t forget to stop by the neighboring 400-year-old church of Santo Tomas.

While exploring the market, take care of your belongings as pickpockets – often just children – are very active in the most crowded areas. Don’t keep your wallet in your pocket, even if it zips up, and don’t carry your passport. Just bring whatever amount of money you think you may need for the day and keep it in a discreet internal pocket.

You can visit Chichicastenango Market on day trips departing from Antigua such as this one. If you want to include Iximche, you may want to consider this tour.

Admire the Colorful Chichicastenango Cemetery

Also in Chichicastenango is the very colorful Chichicastenango Cemetery. While many graveyards around the world are somber spots, this one is very different. With colorful mausoleums and headstones, this place really is more of a brighter outlook on life and death than many people are used to.

As much of the population is K’iche Mayan, you may be able to spot some interesting rituals taking place—particularly on Day of the Dead.

Lose Yourself in Nature at Rio Dulce National Park

Close to the Caribbean Coast, situated between Lake Izabal and Amatique Bay, you’ll find Rio Dulce. A more off the beaten track destination in Guatemala, this national park is home to a colonial-era fort, Mayan ruins and plenty of jungle to explore. Because of the rich natural environment here, Rio Dulce is a haven for native and migratory birds.

Hit the Caribbean Coast at Livingston

For when you want to kick back on a beach, the Caribbean Coast awaits. Livingston is a small village situated at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. It’s a slice of a tropical coastline, complete with palm-lined beaches and several hotels—an ideal spot for enjoying a slower pace of life for a few days.

Splurge on Dinner at Tamarindos

If you’re looking for a delicious bite to eat, and you’re not on a shoestring budget, you should definitely head to Tamarindos when you’re in Guatemala City. One of the best restaurants in the capital, this place is an upscale spot that’s been raved about in Fodors, Lonely Planet, and Conde Nast Traveller among other top publications.

It serves up an eclectic selection of Asian and Italian inspired dishes, with Guatemalan flavors. The interiors of this restaurant are decked out just as eclectically as the menu.

Eat a Breakfast Tortilla

For something much more budget-friendly than the above, the humble breakfast tortilla will always be a staple of Guatemala. So if you want to start your day right, I recommend opting for one of these.

Consisting of a tortilla served with egg, avocado, beans, and fried plantain, you’ll be able to enjoy a breakfast tortilla at cafes, hostels and guesthouses and more local restaurants. Best served with a cup of Guatemalan coffee, of course!

For more information about what to eat in Guatemala, click here.

things to do in Guatemala Tikal

Spend a While Wandering at Tikal…

Tikal is the ruin of an ancient Maya city, thought to have been properly called “Yax Mutal,” situated near Flores in the Peten region. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tikal is one of the most impressive of Guatemala’s ancient Mayan ruins.

Tikal was once a major metropolis made up of a network of buildings and streets, which saw its peak from 200 to 900 AD. Here your mind can wander back to times when the temples and palaces thronged with life. Let your imagination run wild.

To make the most of Tikal, you are better off joining a guided tour such as this one.

… And Stop By the Abandoned Archaeologists’ Camp

While the ancient ruins are the major attractions of Tikal, within the Tikal National Park itself you can find a less ancient relic of the past: an archeologists’ camp. It was used by archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania between 1956 and 1969; during this time they explored the area, creating topographical maps, and carrying out research.

All that remains today are rusty old cars and camp equipment, overgrown with rainforest, making for a creepy and curious spot.

Embrace Your Inner Explorer at El Mirador

For more ancient Mayan goodness, make sure you don’t miss out on a visit to El Mirador. Tucked deep within the Peten jungle, close to the Mexican border, El Mirador is a sight to behold.

El Mirador was once a powerful metropolis that was at its peak between 6th century BC and 1st century AD. What makes it extra special is the fact that it’s almost completely swallowed by the jungle, so a visit here feels like a true adventure.

Guided tours to El Mirador depart from Flores. For more information, click here or here.

Explore the Ancient City of Yaxha

Situated in the northeast Peten region, Yaxha is a sprawling site of archaeological wonder. Thought to be first inhabited between 1000 and 350 BC, the name “Yaxha” translates to “Blue-green Water.” The ruins of this once powerful city can be easily visited on a day trip from Flores. Allow yourself plenty of time to see the numerous relics of this ancient civilization.

For guided day trips, click here or here.

Be Awed by the Magnificent Crater Azul

Guatemala is not short on stunning natural beauty, and that’s particularly apparent at the amazing Crater Azul.

Around a 90-minute boat ride from Sayaxche, this spring-fed tributary is beautifully clear, perfect for taking snaps under the water—it looks like an otherworldly garden—and cooling off after a warm boat ride. The ride here is picturesque in itself, taking you past farmlands and rainforests alike.

For more information about visiting Crater Azul, click here.

Ride a Chicken Bus

Chicken buses may be more a mode of transportation rather than one of the thinsg to do in Guatemala, but trust me: riding on one is definitely an experience, and a rite of passage for any traveler in the country.

If you’re wondering what a chicken bus is, these are retro school buses from the U.S. that have been updated and painted with bright colors. There’s no regard for capacity, and they pick anybody up who wants a lift, but you should make at least one trip on a chicken bus to experience this part of local life.

What other things to do in Guatemala do you recommend?

Further Readings

Make sure to read my other posts:

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Discover the best things to do in Guatemala - via @clautavani

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