Discover the Wonders of Guatemala
While tourist-trodden Mexico and eco-trendy Costa Rica have been basking in the travel spotlight for years, Guatemala has been slightly off the radar for those visiting Latin America. It offers just as many outdoor adventures as Costa Rica — including 33 volcanoes to climb, if you’re so inclined — as well as incredible Mayan heritage and ancient ruins to explore, like Mexico. So what makes Guatemala rise to the top of our list (besides, of course, the fact that it’s a much better value than some of its expensive neighbors)? It has a unique amalgam of cultural and natural wonders, such as volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan, which is brimming with Mayan mystique and breathtaking beauty.
Here are our musts for experiencing under-the-radar Guatemala.
If you’ve always wanted to sleep in a treehouse, you’re not alone. Fulfill your childhood fantasy by spending a night nestled in the branches of an oak tree at Earth Lodge, which is perched in the highlands 20 minutes outside Antigua. Can’t get enough of the avocado toast trend, either? You’ll be happy to know that avocado, when it’s in season, is an ingredient in almost every vegetarian-friendly, home-cooked, family-style meal on this working farm. Enjoy the mountain solitude with an outdoor yoga class, a hike through the property, or a rest in the wood-burning Mayan sauna. Be forewarned: You’ll have to do a bit of hiking even before you check in — a somewhat-steep, 10-minute path is the only way to get to this eco-friendly, rustic escape. So leave the rolling suitcase at home and don’t arrive after dark, or you’ll be worried about every bump in the night on your way to this haven in the trees.
- El Hato, Guatemala
Get a Mayan Blessing Lakeside at Casa Palopo
After a night in a creaky treehouse, treat yourself to a little luxury at Lake Atitlan, which is 1,000 feet deep and considered by many to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Casa Palopo, a private home turned microboutique hotel in Santa Catarina village, sits above Lake Atitlan, with panoramic views of 3 majestic volcanoes across the shore. With 9 individually decorated rooms filled with Latin American textiles and art, a fully stocked library, an on-site spa and a solar-heated infinity pool, you’ll feel as though you’re in a VIP’s stylish home. But what makes a stay here truly unique is its tie to the local heritage. Guests can experience a traditional Mayan blessing performed by a local shaman, one of Guatemala’s revered spiritual leaders. Don’t be surprised when the shaman’s offerings include sugar cookies and chocolate — the Maya gods have a sweet tooth, too!
- Carretera a San Antonio Palopó km 6.8
- San Antonio Palopó, Guatemala
Climb a Volcano for Breathtaking Views
With 33 volcanoes in Guatemala, there’s bound to be a towering mammoth in the distance, no matter which direction you look; you might even catch one of the 4 active mountains spewing fire. Adventure junkies won’t want to miss climbing at least 1 of these looming giants. The fit and fearless should try the challenging trek up Acatenango, Guatemala’s third-tallest volcano at 13,041 feet. Old Town Outfitters offers 1- and 2-day Acatenango hikes that take you through steep terrain and 4 distinct microclimates. If you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded at the summit with a spectacular show from Mother Nature on neighboring Fuego, the world’s most consistently erupting volcano.
- 5a Avenida Sur 12
- Antigua, Guatemala
Stroll Through Charming Antigua
For a less heart-racing activity, admire 3 volcanoes — Agua, Fuego and Acatenango — from the charming cobblestone streets of Antigua. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this colonial city is a photographer’s dream, with its Spanish baroque architecture and the ruins of ancient churches and monasteries that were destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, including San Francisco Church. Recharge with Guatemala’s world-famous coffee in a tiny café such as Café Condesa or Café Boheme. While brightly dressed women and children push the country’s iconic textiles on every corner, the highest-quality local crafts can be found in the open-air markets. Bargaining is OK, but don’t expect to get Wal-Mart prices for the intricately woven textiles that take days to make.
- Antigua, Guatemala
The villages that line Lake Atitlan all have different cultures that haven’t changed much for centuries. The developed village of Panajachel, the main transport hub, brings in the most tourists; San Pedro attracts the young backpacker party types; and San Marcos la Laguna draws yoga and meditation devotees. Perhaps the most interesting is San Juan la Laguna, a thriving art-inspired village that’s run entirely by women. After the Guatemalan Civil War, which included government-sanctioned massacres of the Mayans, ended in 1996, communities were left with few men, and the women of this indigenous culture realized that they needed to band together to support their families. They started cooperatives that showcase their backstrap-loom weaving to keep the ancient practice from disappearing. The weavers use threads that are naturally dyed by boiling various plants, fruits, vegetables, bark and, yes, even insects. Not only will you be supporting a community of strong female role models, you’ll also be bringing home one-of-a-kind, handwoven souvenirs — everything from ponchos to hammocks to scarves — that will always remind you of your magical visit to Guatemala.
- San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala