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So many people pop over the border into Guatemala to see Tikal, but never venture any further. This is a travelling travesty!
This beautiful country is full of fantastic landscapes - volcanoes, forests, lakes, mountains, tarzan-type scenery with rivers and lianas in the jungle... Beautiful colonial towns with cobbled streets and colouful houses. Wonderful warm people, descended from the Maya, still living traditional lives and wearing their very colourful traditional clothes. From trekking to shopping, Spanish lessons to rafting, history and culture to liana swinging, weaving to volcano climbing... it's all here. Best of all, it's quite small and easy to get around.
Oh and there is that amazing Mayan ruin they call Tikal!
So, I'll start as if you're starting at Tikal and exploring from there. Just reverse if you start from Guatemala city instead!
Well I couldn't not include it could I?!
With one of the most spectacular skylines in ancient (and recent!) history, Tikal is a must see. The Mayan city sprawls though a huge area of jungle, and consists of thousands of structures. The restored pyramids on the main plaza are spectacular, but a wander through the overgrown and unrestored smaller structures away from the main sights is also rewarding. What really sets Tikal apart from some other ancient ruins sights is the jungle setting. As you wander through the ruins you will hear the cacaphony of bird calls, insects and howler monkeys. In the trees above you, parrots, toucans and monkeys are easy to spot.
To see Tikal properly you need at least one full day and night. Head into the park for sunset or sunrise (or both) atop one of the pyramids - el Mundo Perdido was my favourite spot. For ease of access, stay one night at one of the hotels at the park entrance (Jaguar inn, Tikal Inn, Jungle Lodge). All are overpriced for the hotel itself - but you pay for the location. Some will let you string up a hammock for less if you ask.
Alternative: well, not really an "alternative" because you shouldn't miss Tikal! But the adventurous can also try El Mirador. These remote ruins are on a similar scale to Tikal but because they are harder to reach they have not been excavated much, and are certainly not geared up for tourism! The jungle-covered ruins are reached on a spectacular 4 or 5 day hike with the local "Carmelita Co-operative". This is proper jungle trekking - not for the faint hearted! But you will have the place to yourself - this is the real Indiana Jones Experience.
Flores is the town you're likely to stop off at if you're visiting Tikal. It's a picturesque place of higgledy piggledy cobbled streets all crowded onto an island in a lake. Perfect place for a cool drink as you watch the sunset and recover from a hard day pounding those ruins at Tikal.
Flores has an airport for domestic and international connections.
Alternative: although it is a good base for Tikal, Flores can also get crowded and is quite pricey because of the high volume of tourist traffic. If this isn't your cup of tea, you can stay in the much lower key (but pleasant) El Remate, near Tikal.
From Flores, many people fly across the country to Guatemala city. But you would fly over one of the most beautiful places in the world!
Coban is a pleasant town half way across Guate between Peten (Tikal) and the highlands (Antigua, Atitlan etc). Try Casa d'acuna for a nice hostel built around a lovely courtyard. They also do a good grill in the evenings and have a travel agency inhouse.
Coban is a good place to break the journey, but it also holds a wonderful secret - Semuc Champey. Semuc is one of the most beautiful places you will ever see. Deep in a gorge in the jungle, the turquoise river trickles through cascades of terraced pools. The best natural swimming pool in the world! Real Tarzan and Jane stuff. This formation is the result of a geological formation called a limestone bridge where the main river flows underneath though a cave, whilst some of the water stays above ground and has eroded the lovely pools. Have a look for yourself:
Google: Semuc Champey tripod
You can do it on a day trip from Coban, or stay over nearby (try Las Marias or El Retiro hostels). Other fun activities in the area include caving and tubing.
Don't miss it!
From Coban you could take the easy route back towards the highlands - or you could go right through them!
The most commonly visited areas of the highlands are Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango (see below). But if you want to get a bit off the beaten track, try one of the more remote areas like Nebaj or Todos Santos.
Nebaj is set in fantastic highland scenery. Few tourists, but a lot of friendly locals and dogs will greet you. Just take in the view - from Nebaj and from the journey, which is one of the most spectacular in Guate. There is a locally run co-operative who organise trekking and Spanish lessons.
From Nebaj if you are travelling the spectacular highland route, you will eventually end up tired and dusty - but happy! - in Chichi.
Chichi is famous for its market and it's two churches. The two churches face off against eachother across the square - one is used by the Definitely-Catholic, and the other is used by the "Catholic - but-when-no-one's -looking-I-worship -old-Maya-Gods" school. Nowhere else will you see witch doctors sacrifice chickens on the church steps!
On market days (Sunday / Tuesday but some stalls all week) a sea of blue tarpaulin tents separate the churches. Shoppers paradise. Ceramics, carvings, textiles... it's all here. Don't miss the produce market which is held in the sports hall just along from the main square.
Alternative: Chichi is well worth a visit for the reasons stated above, but being the most famous market in Central America it can get touristy and prices can get inflated. For a more traditional market try Solola near Panajachel. Locals wear very particular traditional clothes, and the market is more geared up for locals than tourists.
Staggeringly beautiful, Lake Atitlan is a wonderful deep blue lake in an old volcanic Caldera. The lake is surrounded by green hillsides and some of the volcano's younger (but none the less impressive) descendants. The views are beautiful, there are nice beaches and you can swim in the cool water.
Each village around the lake has its own character. Panajachel is the main stopping off point and is quite touristy but fun. Good place for shopping. The others such as Santiago, Santa Cruz, San Pedro and so on are less busy and more traditionally Mayan. Meditate at San Pedro, or visit the weird and wonderful effigy of Maximon in Santiago. Or simply boat-hop around the lake all day in the regular water taxis. There are many beautiful hotels around the lake for all budgets - try Casa del Mundo, Mikaso Lodge or Vulcano Lodge.
Lovely walks link the villages around the lake and volcano climbs can be arranged. But be sure to get up to date safety advice before heading out because robberies have occurred on remote paths.
Antigua is the colonial highlight of Guatemala. The old capital is a lovely criss-cross of cobbled streets and pastel coloured single story buildings with wrought iron detailing on the windows. It's all towered over by two spectacular volcanoes that can be seen from any street corner - useful for navigating the street grid!
Antigua is a starting point for many travellers, and also a mecca for Spanish-learners. One on one Spanish lessons and honestays are easy to arrange and good value. There are loads of bars and restaurants, and lots of travel agencies to take you to every corner of Guatemala. Antigua is pleasant but it can be a back-to-reality shock if you have come from the other, less touristy areas of Guate. However, it makes a great starting point if you're just arriving and want a gentle introduction to the country!
If you're in Antigua, don't miss a volcano climb. Pacaya is the easier option and is only a half day trip. Acatenango and Fuego are more difficult, and access depends on the current level of volcanic activity! You can always see belching sulphorous craters, and usually lava. Not to mention wonderful views!
Not many people stay in Guatemala city - it has a reputation similar to that of most of the Central American capitals!
However, the main square and buildings are interesting, and the Museo Anthropologico gives a good overview of the history of Guatemala. If you do decide to stay, take common sense precautions (use taxis, don't walk at night, look flashily wealthy etc), and stay in the Zona Viva.
If you are skipping the city and just using the aiport, you have a choice. You can get a shuttle straight to Antigua from the airport (about an hour), or if it's late, try a hotel near the airport. Try Dos Lunas.
No, not a typo or a silly geograhpy mistake! Belize is clearly not in Guatemala, but if you have a few days to spare and fancy a slightly different take on Mayan Central America, consider popping over the border.
The border is only a couple of hours from Tikal. The change from mayan traditional culture to laid back Caribbean culture is instant. Stop in San Ignacio (aka Cayo) for some more Mayan ruins, tubing, kayaking, horse riding, caving or other adventures. Or head to the Cayes for some beach time and diving. The two countries compliment eachother very nicely!