11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Guatemala

Guatemala is one of those rare finds, with a good mix of travel options to satisfy adventurers, culture seekers, beach worshippers, and travelers looking for a little relaxation. The country is a cultural highlight in Central America, from the colonial architecture and cobbled streets of Antigua Guatemala to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Small towns in the highlands and on the shores of beautiful Lake Atitlan offer a chance for unique cultural experiences. Tropical jungles, active volcanoes, mountain lakes, cloud forests, coral reefs, and beaches will entice nature lovers of all kinds. Those who venture down to the coasts will encounter lovely beaches for relaxing, and fishing villages where travelers can escape busy city streets and find solitude in a hammock. Throughout the country are markets with local goods for sale, particularly textiles, but these usually only operate on certain days of the week.

1 Mayan Ruins of Tikal

Mayan Ruins of Tikal
Mayan Ruins of Tikal

In the humid jungle of northern Guatemala, near the border of Belize, stands one of the greatest archeological sites in Central America. The well preserved ruined city of Tikal, occupied between approximately 600 BC and AD 900, showcases more than 3,000 structures, from pyramids and temples to plazas and an acropolis. It was one of the most important urban Mayan centers for more than a thousand years and is today one of the largest Mayan archeological sites of its time period still in existence.

The experience of visiting Tikal is certainly enhanced by the surroundings. Steep pyramids rise above the jungle's lush green canopy and birds, monkeys, and other wildlife that frequent the area. Tikal National Park, which encompasses the ruins, is a biosphere reserve, protecting rainforest and wildlife habitat.

2 Antigua Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala
Antigua Guatemala Lana Law

Antigua Guatemala, most often referred to simply as Antigua, is one of the highlights of Guatemala and certainly one of the most beautiful cities in Central America. Set amid surrounding volcanoes, this former capital of Guatemala offers a unique glimpse of a city unblemished by modern day concrete buildings and high rises. Here, the cobbled streets are lined with lovely old colonial buildings, some of which show evidence of the earthquakes that have contributed to the city's history. Everywhere in the old city center are grand churches and convents.

While many of the buildings have been completely restored, some reveal cracks caused by past earthquakes, and some have been reduced to ruins. In many cases the ruins have been creatively incorporated into more recently constructed buildings, some of which are now hotels. The city has many interesting museums to explore, along with beautiful old convents that are open to visitors.

3 Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán)

Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán)
Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán) Lana Law

Lake Atitlán has been described by many as the most beautiful lake in the world, and visitors who make the journey here will not be disappointed. In the high country, less than a two-hour drive from Guatemala City and less than an hour and a half from Antigua, Lake Atitlán sits at 1,538 meters above sea level and is surrounded by hills and volcanoes. The lake was formed in a volcanic crater, and three spectacular volcanoes are the backdrop for the clear waters and the quaint villages found along its shores.

The prime entry point is the city of Panajachel. After exploring the main street, lined with all kinds of vendors selling their blankets and goods in stalls and alleyways, visitors can make their way to the waterfront to catch a water taxi. Boats line up here to take passengers to the villages of San Pedro, Santiago Atitlán, San Andrés Semetabaj, Santa Catarina Palopó, San Lucas Toliman, and even smaller secondary villages or private hotels. Each village is known for something different, but visitors will find a variety of markets with local crafts.

Over the years Atitlán has attracted many expats with an interest in alternative lifestyles. There are all kinds of spiritual or new age centers offering everything from yoga to metaphysical pursuits. There are also several places offering Spanish lessons, many of which are in unique and often rustic facilities where learning takes place in outdoor settings.

4 Chichicastenango Market

Chichicastenango Market
Chichicastenango Market

Isolated Chichicastenango, known locally as "Chichi," is a large town surrounded by valleys and mountains. The sleepy cobblestone streets come alive on Thursdays and Sundays as it hosts one of the largest and most hectic markets in Guatemala. This is a locals' market, selling regular everyday goods, vegetables, and the distinctive textiles for which it is so famous, as well as tourist oriented trinkets. Vendors come from miles around for this market, making it a great opportunity for people watching.

Chichicastenango is a 1.5-hour bus ride from Panajachel making it an easy day trip from Lake Atitlán. It takes about 2.5 hours from Guatemala City and 3.5 hours from Antigua.

5 Quetzaltenango

Quetzaltenango Christopher William Adach

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second-largest city, is the commercial center of southwestern Guatemala. More commonly called Xela, the town's major sights are the Parque Centro América and the Neoclassical buildings surrounding it. Most of these buildings, apart from the cathedral, stem from the era in the 19th century when Xela was a major trading and artistic community. Many visitors come to Quetzaltenango to study Spanish or enjoy hiking in the nearby mountains. Walking up Volcan Tajumulco, Central America's highest peak, is one of the more adventurous options. In addition to being a relatively clean and safe city, Quetzaltenango's altitude of 2,333 meters ensures warm days, cool nights, and no mosquitoes. The city also serves as a base for excursions to the many nearby villages noted for their hot springs and handicrafts.

6 Monterrico and the Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii (Nature Reserve)

Monterrico and the Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii (Nature Reserve)
Monterrico and the Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii (Nature Reserve) Bruno Girin

The small coastal village of Monterrico, with its laid-back feel and lovely stretch of oceanfront, will appeal to anyone looking for some time at the beach and a little nature. Unlike the high inland regions, the area around Monterrico is hot and tropical. The beach here is dominated by big surf and not always ideal for swimming, but beautiful nonetheless.

The Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii, or Monterrico Nature Reserve as it is commonly referred to by visitors, is a nature reserve created to protect mangrove forests and sea turtles. For tourists, this is usually the highlight of a visit to Monterrico. Covering an area of both land and water, it's a habitat for a large variety of bird and aquatic life including leatherback and Kemp's ridley turtles. Boat tours take visitors through the swamps and offer good opportunities for bird and wildlife viewing, particularly in the morning hours.

7 Pacaya Volcano, Antigua

Pacaya Volcano, Antigua
Pacaya Volcano, Antigua

The Pacaya Volcano, rising to more than 2,550 meters, offers the chance to witness volcanic activity first hand. Located near Antigua, this volcano been continuously active since 1975, and lava explosions constantly change its appearance. Organized tours offer guided hikes on the volcano and an opportunity to roast marshmallows over the heat created by hot spots. It should be noted that, as an active volcano, hiking it does involve some risks.

8 Livingston on the Caribbean Coast

Livingston on the Caribbean Coast
Livingston on the Caribbean Coast

This small town of brightly painted wooden houses, found in the jungle among coconut groves, lies along Guatemala's Caribbean Coast. Livingston feels more like the Caribbean than the rest of Guatemalan because of its population of Garífuna, descendants of escaped would-be slaves and the indigenous Maya. They have created a distinctive culture and language. Caribbean rhythms abound and they increase during the month of May as a Garífuna pilgrimage arrives in town. Celebrations during Easter week and on December 12 (the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe) are also colorful events.

Livingston is the departure point for boat rides on the Río Quehueche and Río Cocolí or to the Cayos Sapodillas for snorkeling and fishing. The best beaches are just outside of town, easily reached by taxi.

9 Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena (Museum of Mayan Costumes), Guatemala City

For an overview of traditional Guatemalan costumes, from ceremonial pieces to regular garments, the Ixchel Museum of Mayan Costumes is the place to visit. The museum, on the Universidad Francisco Marroquin campus, has a vast collection of textiles dating to the end of the 19th century, originating from 120 Guatemalan communities. A collection of paintings illustrating the regional costumes complements the exhibits. The museum is named for the Mayan goddess of fertility and weaving.

Address: 6A Calle 6, Guatemala City

10 Grutas de Lanquín (Lanquín Caves) and Semuc Champey

Grutas de Lanquín (Lanquín Caves) and Semuc Champey
Grutas de Lanquín (Lanquín Caves) and Semuc Champey Antti T. Nissinen

The Lanquín Caves, northeast of Coban, are deep limestone caverns containing an underground river with various lagoons and unique rock formations. Visitors can tour a portion of the cave, which has some rugged walkways and low lighting. Thousands of bats make their home here and provide an interesting spectacle as they leave in a nightly mass exodus from the cave to feed in the nearby forest. Visitors who are interested in seeing this unique site should plan to tour the cave in the late afternoon and then hang around until sunset. A religious shrine is also contained within the caves, which are considered sacred by the local indigenous people.

Nearby is Semuc Champey, where a limestone shelf running 300 meters creates natural pools in the river. The water here is a unique color of green or turquoise. Tours to this site can be arranged from Lanquín.

11 Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City

Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City
Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City Andrea_GR

For anyone spending time in Guatemala City one of the most interesting places to enjoy a few hours at is the Museo Popol Vuh. This is one of the leading museums in the world of Mayan art, housing a valuable and comprehensive collection of both Mayan and colonial art. On display are a large collection of masks, pottery, gems, tools, and sculptures.

Address: 6 Calle Final zona 10, Universidad Francisco Marroquín

More on Guatemala