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Did You Know … ?

  • Guatemala is home to an estimated 720 bird species including migratory birds.
  • Spanish is the official language, but 23 Mayan tongues are the first language of 40% of the population.
  • The Tajumulco volcano, at 13,816 feet, is the highest mountain in Central America.
  • Remittances from expat Guatemalans are equivalent to 10% of the country’s GDP.
  • The country has no natural harbor on its Pacific coast.

The living Mayan culture

Guatemala is largely a destination for the venturesome and the active traveler. To a great extent, it’s about the geography: This relatively small Central American country offers rain forests, mountains, volcanic lakes, rushing rivers and two kinds of shorelines: one on the Caribbean and the other on the Pacific. Some of those mountains are active volcanoes besides.

Such variety is like a siren call for lovers of biking, diving, sailing, surfing and whitewater rafting and for those with the itch to walk up the sides of mountains.

Guatemala, nevertheless, has the history and fascinating cultural characteristics that can appeal to more than just the venturesome traveler. It is home to major archaeological sites associated with the Mayas, most notably Tikal.

Descendants of the Mayas live in the Guatemalan highlands, holding onto traditional dress styles and languages — as well as religious beliefs in tandem with their Christianity. Indigenous Guatemalans account for about 40% of the population. Visitors typically seek out today’s Mayas in the communities around Lake Atitlan and in Chichicastenango. The latter holds Guatemala’s largest indigenous market.

For about three centuries, until 1821, Guatemala was a Spanish colony with Antigua as its capital for much of the time. Today, the colonial city of Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an attractive draw for history buffs and anyone who just likes a nice place to stroll and shop handicraft markets.

Other touristic experiences are as varied as watching an Indian woman demonstrate back-strap weaving, spotting the quetzal (the national bird) or hearing a marimba band.

In 1996, Guatemala ended a 36-year guerrilla war that killed more than 200,000, but it must solve another problem: a high rate of violent crime. The U.S. State Department, at the Web, chronicles the situation and advises that tourist groups can request security escorts from the Guatemalan Tourism Institute [INGUAT]. It also reports, more reassuringly, that there have been no cases of armed robbery of groups that use this tourist protection program.

Finally, for caution of another type, Guatemala has numerous volcanoes, some of which erupt occasionally. The country also is susceptible to strong earthquakes.

Things to do for Venturers

  • The season for surfing on the Pacific Coast stretches from March through October. Take advantage of that. You also have the option to camp on some beachside locations, either on your own or in a surf camp.
  • Go scuba diving in either the Caribbean or the Pacific. Diving in Lake Atitlan is an option, too.
  • Take Spanish language classes.
  • Make yours a mountain biking trip, and use those wheels to cover the country from the Caribbean to the Pacific if you are so ambitious.
  • With its mountains, the country is blessed with an abundance of rushing rivers that seem made for whitewater rafters. Also, you could combine rafting and cycling for an alternative route between the Caribbean and the Pacific.
  • Visit the world-famous Tikal archaeological site. Overnight nearby so you can climb one of the pyramid-shaped temples and see the sunrise from a dramatic perch.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Enjoy the landscape in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes mountains on horseback.
  • Take your binoculars for bird-watching. If you get lucky, you may see the quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird.
  • At Lake Izabal in northeastern Guatemala, see the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, a Spanish fortress built to protect the area against pirates and restored in 1955-1956.  The lake is home to the endangered manatee. Take a boat trip down the Dulce River, which connects the lake to the Caribbean, to visit the town of Livingston. It is home to the unique Garifuna culture, which resulted from the mix of a native tribe and slaves from Nigeria in the 17th century.
  • Tour a coffee plantation in Alta Verapaz, Solola or Sacatepequez. You may take part of such a tour on horseback.
  • Sail on Lake Atitlan or Lake Amatitlan.
  • Time your trip to coincide with Holy Week in order to see colorful processions in just about any town or city you might visit.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Play golf on courses set against the backdrop of volcanoes, some active. Guatemala boasts you can play the game 365 days a year.
  • Buy local handicrafts at Mayan markets, such as those in Solola and Chichicastenango. Such goods also are sold in the capital, Guatemala City, in the Central Market.
  • Antigua is the quintessential colonial city in Guatemala, and it is a short trip from Guatemala City. Take a day trip to Antigua to shop and drink in the Spanish colonial look and feel of the former capital.
  • Visit Guatemala City’s Popol Vuh Museum to view its valuable pre-Hispanic art collection. Exhibits also include one focused on Guatemala’s colonial art and another on folklore.
  • Carve out a little beach time on the Pacific coast at Monterrico which is noted for its volcanic black sands. The area also is a breeding ground for sea turtles and, hence, a focal point for turtle conservation organizations.
  • Snatch an opportunity to hear a marimba band in a country that is closely identified with this type of music.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Guatemalan Tourism Institute at