TRAVEL GUIDE TO GUATEMALA by Andrea P.
Andrea P. is a Global Explorer, Music Lover and Wellness Guru. She loves to mix adventure, wellness and culture in her travels, and her tips include both luxurious and rugged experiences to suit all tastes.
A trip to Guatemala will take you on a journey through lush jungle, spectacular scenery, remnants of an ancient civilisation, beautiful colonial towns, and a vibrant and colorful local community.
A few facts about Guatemala
Guatemala, along with the Yucatan peninsula in neighboring Southern Mexico, formed the lands of the Mayan civilisation. Flourishing between 250 BC to 1700 AD, the Mayan culture is still threaded through modern society via the local indigenous population, who are their direct descendants (those of you who spend time in Tulum will be familiar with the Mayan culture).
The socio-economic and political situation of the country does not reflect its beauty. After decades of political repression and insurgencies, in 1954 the US orchestrated a military coup in order to protect the interests of an American corporation, the United Fruit Company. This led to decades of civil conflict, which unfortunately has left much of the population in poverty.
Thankfully the country is currently experiencing a degree of peace and increasing prosperity, allowing us to come and experience the gifts Guatemala has to offer. It is important to be considerate of having a positive impact on this beautiful country when we make our visit.
A word of caution - the volcanos here are not just for show - in 2018, Volcán de Fuego erupted just 18km from Antigua. Even today this volcano has mini eruptions every few minutes, spewing ash and lava into the air, visible even from the runway of the airport. Despite our modern technologies, volcanic eruptions are unpredictable. The good news is, it is possible to experience this spectacle of nature in all its glory. Keep reading to learn all about it!
For most people in our community, the key places we want to visit are:
Lake Atitlan / San Marcos la Laguna
Looking out the window as I fly in from Mexico, the peaks of dozens of volcanoes poke through rolling blankets of cloud, hinting at adventures to come in this land of fire. I start my journey in one of Guatemala’s three UNESCO World Heritage listed sites, the picturesque colonial town of Antigua, nestled in a valley ringed by volcanoes. Here I wander the cobbled streets past multi-colored facades and colonial churches, enjoying coffee and meals in the numerous cafes and restaurants. It is the Mayans we have to thank for discovering and cultivating cacao and chocolate, and here in Antigua I taste delicious cacao in many forms (I also have the Mayans to thank for my daily breakfast - chia seeds!).
Despite a certain leaning towards becoming touristic, Antigua retains its charms. Only an hour from the main international airport in the capital Guatemala City, it is the gateway town for the rest of the country, so you will definitely be coming here. There is no need to sleep in Guatemala City and it is best to avoid given safety concerns.
There are numerous fantastic hotel options here at great prices. I recommend staying in one of the luxury ‘hacienda’ (colonial estate) hotels, such as the Porta Hotel Antigua, the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo and Camino Real Antigua. These all have beautiful pools, spas and restaurants. A good budget option is the Casa Girasol, a bed and breakfast / boutique run by an Australian man and his Guatemalan wife.
You are spoiled for choice here!
Casual cafe dining: Union Cafe
Food + social conscience: Rainbow Cafe
Go to Mercado de Artesanias El Carmen for beautiful embroidered textiles and jewelry.
Hiking the Acatenego volcano in Guatemala was one of the most powerful and awe-inspiring experiences of my life.
As evening fell high up on the side of the dormant volcano, rays of white gold burst through gaps in the puffy clouds, shining down in benevolence to the valley below. The soft, warm, peach-coloured evening light bathed the landscape in tranquility.
But the gathering darkness revealed raw, powerful forces of nature. To the left, frequent and violent eruptions from the active Volcán de Fuego, connected to the volcano we were on, spewed forth fountains of red-hot magma and rocks, creating molten rivers of glowing orange and gold flowing down from the peak. To the right, in the tumultuous mountains of clouds rising up from the influx of warm summer air, bolts of lightning flashed bright white, illuminating the landscape in an eerie momentary brilliance. Tiny, rock-hard balls of ice were thrown at us in passing curtains of hail.
In the morning, we hiked up to another planet. From the lifeless summit covered with black volcanic rock and ash, I watched the yellow crystal orb rise above the sea of clouds, fully obscuring the world below. Up there in the realm of the gods, I felt free and strong; able to achieve anything.
It is a physically challenging climb, but manageable for those with the mental power to conquer. I did my trip through Tropicana hostel, and would highly recommend them. (Note that this is not a luxury experience and accommodation overnight is very basic, in a shared tent; but what a location, and the guides and food are fantastic.)
Lake Atitlan & San Marcos La Laguna
After a couple of hours drive and a short ferry ride, I arrive in San Marcos la Laguna, the hippie town on the shores of Lake Atitlan. This is where you can fully immerse yourself in spiritual healing, yoga, or simply enjoy the laid-back ambiance, car-free environment and stunning lakeside vistas. The tiny town comprises narrow cobbled pedestrian-only alleys lined by artisan stalls, fruit stands and cafes. Just make sure you come with room in your stomach as well as your heart! San Marcos is often home to festivals and music events, so have a look what’s on for dates you might be considering.
Nourish your soul
The Yoga Forest: Perched high up on the mountains behind the town, you will need to walk for around half an hour from the town to reach what has to be one of the most spectacular yoga retreats in the world. No, there is no Uber, no taxis, not even roads here! And that is what makes it so special. Join for yoga teacher training, sound meditation training, or numerous other courses. You can also come here for their drop-in morning yoga and stay for lunch with views over the lake, volcano and beyond (just let them know before the class if you want to have lunch so they prepare enough food). You can also stay here; it often books out in advance so try to be organised and book ahead! (A note of caution - there are reports of crime on the walk from the town up to Yoga Forest so try to walk with someone and avoid walking this way at night.)
Las Pirámides del Ka: Offering both long-term courses and drop-in meditations, check their schedule
Walk around the nature reserve of Cerro Tzankujil, keeping an eye out for notices pinned around the place for various musical and other community events!
Nourish your body
Samsara’s Garden: vegan, has frequent community events
Anzan Atitlan: for dinner, a bit out of town - access via tuk-tuk, book in advance
NECTAR ArtCafe: also sells health products and other items
Anzan Atitlan, just out of town, and the best place to stay. Book in advance!!
Airbnb has many beautiful options
Tikal ruins & Flores
I did not get to visit the Mayan Tikal ruins on my journey, but I have heard it is a truly incredible adventure. The site is UNESCO World Heritage listed, and is one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites. I hope to go back to Guatemala sometime soon for this, as well as to do some trekking through the jungle - once I’m feeling ready again for a bit of rugged adventuring!
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