Where to go in Guatemala
A land of bold colours, mysterious ruins, colonial cities and volcanoes, lots of volcanoes, the Central American country of Guatemala is one of my favourite countries. Popular with backpackers and the occasional cruise ship (yes, really!), Guatemala is still a relatively undiscovered family destination. We travelled in Guatemala for 10 days, however, and discovered a country that simply loves kids.
There’s a lot to see in Guatemala and it’s especially good for doing stuff; really fun stuff such as zip-lining, kayaking, swimming in caves and diving from cliffs. Or, for the non adrenaline junkies (or those travelling with toddlers like we were), it’s a wonderful destination to learn about the country’s incredible arts and crafts and even how to cook!
Guatemala is also wildlife-rich with tapirs, lemurs, macaws, crocodiles and more calling the country home. The distances between the most popular destinations are relatively short, meaning that it’s easy to travel with kids, and there’s a good selection of accommodation for families, too. If you’re planning to visit and wondering where to go, take a look at this 10-day Guatemala itinerary that takes in the country’s most popular sights including Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Iximche, Xela and Tikal.
10-day Guatemala Itinerary
If you fly into Guatemala it’s highly likely that you’ll land in La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. This is a big city with a justified reputation for violent crime and, in my opinion, best avoided. There are some things to see (take a look at this list by Culture Trip for ideas) but there are so many other places in Guatemala to visit that I’d recommend bypassing Guatemala City and heading straight to Antigua.
The drive from La Aurora airport to Antigua is by no means pretty but this lacklustre stretch of scenery pales into insignificance when you arrive in the beautiful colonial town of Antigua. Filled with brightly painted homes, cobblestone streets and graceful churches, monasteries and convents, the town is a joy to explore. Surrounding Antigua are a handful of dormant and active volcanoes including the Volcán de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire” which erupted in June 2018. Check what the travel situation is like before you visit. There is lots to see and do in Antigua from walking tours and chocolate-making-workshops to markets overflowing with colourful textiles and a lively main square where you can watch local life go by. Antigua is also a great destination for kids of all ages (although the cobblestone streets are a nightmare for pushchairs, bring a baby carrier instead!).
The drive from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, another one of Guatemala’s star attractions, is beautiful but if you have time it’s worth taking a detour to Chichicastenango. Located in the Guatemalan highlands, this wonderfully-named town is famous for its market, one of the largest and busiest in Central America. Every Thursday and Sunday, Chichi transform from a sleepy hillside town into a riot of colour with locals selling everything you could possibly imagine, including a huge array of beautiful textiles and handicrafts.
You can visit Chichicastenango in a day but if you do want to stay overnight, there are a couple of options to choose from. Take a look at these Chichicastenango hotels on TripAdvisor.
One place where you should definitely stop on your way from Antigua to Lake Atitlan is the ancient site of Iximche. This small Mayan archaeological site is not terribly well-known (most visitors are locals) but it’s historically important and we loved exploring the site. When we visited we were approached by an English speaking official guide, Alex, who was brilliant at explaining the history of Iximche (and great with kids, too). If he’s still there when you go, make sure you hire him! Built over 1,000 years ago the ruins include pyramid-temples, ball-courts, royal palaces and a museum. After the city was abandoned, it lay undiscovered until the 17th century but formal excavations didn’t start until the 1940s. If you’re lucky, you may witness Mayan rituals taking place at the site. We didn’t come across any when we visited, but apparently they are fairly common.
Your next stop should be Panajachel, the biggest town on Lake Atitlan. This lake, the deepest in Central America, was once described by author Aldous Huxley as “the most beautiful lake in the world” and it’s easy to see why. Surrounded by steep, green hills, cone-topped volcanoes and characterful Mayan villages, the cobalt blue lake is simply stunning. A steady stream of lanchas and wooden fishing boats criss-cross the cobalt blue waters of the lake daily, ferrying passengers between the dozens of villages that line its shores. Each village has a distinct personality and it’s fun to hop from one to the other visiting weaving cooperatives, art galleries, taking part in cooking classes and simply wandering the streets.
One option from Lake Atitlan is to travel to Xela, a mountain town set at an altitude of almost 8000ft. The drive up to the Guatemala highlands involves a lot of climbing and breathtaking views over Lake Atitlan as you drive out of Panajachel. Once you’re away from the lake the drive takes in some of the country’s prettiest scenery with views over emerald green mountains and volcanoes. The official name of Guatemala’s second biggest city is Quetzaltenango but locals call it Xela in reference to its’ ancient Mayan name of Xelajú. It’s a vibrant town that has largely resisted outsider influence, maintaining its own customs and traditions.
For family hotel ideas in Xela, here are some TripAdvisor recommendations.
If you’re feeling truly adventurous (and have a lot of time!) you can try and tackle the trip from Guatemala City to Flores, the gateway to Tikal, by car. This route takes in some of the country’s most impressive scenery as well as plenty of off-the-beaten-path attractions that few visitors see. Alternatively, you can fly from Guatemala City to Flores, which is what we did. It’s hard to describe accurately just how impressive the ancient Mayan site of Tikal is but what I will say is that it must be visited! Imposing pyramid structures pierce the jungle canopy where howler monkeys scramble and Technicolor birds roost. It’s an huge site, made all the more mysterious by the fact that only 20% of the 3,000-4,000 buildings hidden within the dense foliage have been uncovered. Adventures don’t get much better than this!
We stayed at the amazing La Lancha Lodge, part of the Coppola family luxury hotels. It’s a beautiful location and well worth the splurge! For more hotels ideas in Tikal, take a look at these reviews on TripAdvisor
When to go to Guatemala
- High Season: December to April are Guatemala’s busiest months; expect high hotel prices.
- Rainy Season: April to September can see daily afternoon showers. The good news is that prices drop and crowds are fewer during these months but it can be wet.
- Shoulder Season: October and November bring mild temperatures and clear days although you may still experience the odd shower or two.
- National Holidays: Christmas, New Year and Easter are busy in Guatemala with hordes of people heading to Antigua in particular. Make sure to book accommodation well in advance if travelling during these periods.
Guatemala Travel Planning Tips
Visas: Many nationalities will be given a 90-day visa upon entry into Guatemala although some countries will require a tourist visa. Make sure to check with the Guatemalan embassy or consulate in your own country prior to travel.
Health & Vaccinations: Visitors need to take special precautions against illnesses not normally encountered at home. Contact your doctor well in advance of your departure date to ensure that you receive all the necessary vaccinations. Country specific information and advice is published by Travel Health Pro. Bring any medication with you in its original, labelled container. A signed prescription note from your doctor is useful to have. Pharmacies are wide spread and stock the basic essentials. UK health authorities have classified Guatemala as having a risk of Zika virus transmission. Chikungunya has been confirmed in Guatemala as has Dengue fever. Talk to your doctor and take steps to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.
Water isn’t generally safe to drink unless filtered. Make sure you have up-to-date travel insurance that includes medical treatment. See the NHS’s fitfortravel website for further advice.
Getting There: Airlines La Aurora International Airport (GUA) serves Guatemala City and is located 6.4 km (4m) south of the city centre. The flight time from London, U.K. is approximately 11 hours. Flores Airport is the gateway to Tikal. There are daily flights from La Aurora International Airport to Flores. .
Money: Guatemala uses Quetzales (Q). ATMS are found in most towns and cities and credit cards are accepted.
Safety: Crime statistics for Guatemala don’t make for pleasant reading but while crime does happen, violent crime does not tend to be directed at tourists. You’re most likely to be a victim to pickpocketing, bag-snatching or bag-slitting in crowded streets. Be careful in particular when visiting busy areas such as the market in Chichicastenango. Similarly, semana santa in Antigua is a prime target for pickpockets. Guatemala City is home to some dangerous neighbourhoods. Please consult your own government’s travel advisory for safety advice such as fco.gov.uk
Dress: What you pack very much depends on which areas of Guatemala you will be visiting but, in general, layers are your friend. High altitudes mean that the mornings and evenings can be cool (or even, as we found out, quite chilly!). Good walking shoes for traipsing around Tikal (and if you plan to do any further walking) and a swimsuit will come in handy.
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