With a civilization that dates back to 18,000 BC, and which is still apparent in everything from archeological sites to local women clad in customary regalia, the Maya are alive and well in Guatemala.
Whether you’re exploring ruins tucked away in the most remote corners of the thick jungle or purchasing fruits at the local market, that connection to the past will infuse every interaction and vista. And for all the ancient history it boasts, equally as influential on its modern-day condition is the colonial past of what is now the most populous country in Central America.
Combined, these histories contribute to the architectural and cultural charm that draws visitors from around the world, but it’s the natural beauty and landscapes that keeps their hearts there long after leaving.
The dozens of ruins dotting the countryside are some of the more reputable artifacts of that pre-Columbian history, but it’s the Mayan people that make a trip to Guatemala the cultural gem that it is.
Mostly Mayan indigenous people compose 40% of the country’s population, and within the Maya population alone there are 21 identified ethnic groups, many of which still speak their own individual languages and continue to follow local customs in clothing, crafts, and gastronomy.
In Panajachel, you can enjoy views of Lake Atitlan, the most beautiful lake in the world, while you learn to cook jocón and tamalitos. Just like most of the Mayan women you see in their traditional traje, you’ll be making the corn flour tortillas by hand and from scratch – you’ll even prepare the horchata that comes along with it.
For more cultural treasures, head to the largest native market in North America: Chichicastenango. The vibrant colors of the handicrafts, flowers, trinkets, and textiles will please your eyes as much as your other senses are intrigued by the smells, sounds, and tastes of a busy Central American market. No need to fret if you can’t make it out to Chichi, as it’s known by locals, because the former capital of Guatemala, Antigua, has an equally bustling market amidst hundreds of renowned Spanish colonial buildings.
Should you find yourself there during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, the parades, floats, and rituals make for some of the most lavish Easter festivities in Latin America. For more cultural celebrations that can’t be missed, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, falls on November 1st every year and the most spirited celebrations can be found in Sumpango or Santiago. Or, to welcome the Spring Equinox in traditional Mayan fashion, head to Uaxactún: an extraordinary sacred site that fills with ritual performances, color, and music dating back hundreds of years.
The name Guatemala is derived from Quauhtlemallan, a Náhuatl word that translates to ‘land of many trees’. True to that name, Guatemala is ranked fifth among the world’s most biodiverse countries, with 14 different eco-regions ranging from mangrove forest to scrubland, one-fifth of the country covered by the second largest contiguous forest in the Americas (second only to the Amazon), and 70% of sub-tropical forest protected by conservation efforts. These lush habitats contain the highest rate of species endemism in Central America, with over 8,500 species of vascular plants and 1246 species of bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian. For wildlife, birding, and flora enthusiasts alike, the land of many trees is a once and a lifetime opportunity to immerse yourself in the natural world.
With at least 37 volcanoes, over 3 million hectares of forested area, a thriving Mayan culture and colorful colonial cities, this relatively small country is much bigger than its geographic boundaries suggest. You might not fit it all in but make time for at least one of these popular destinations in your itinerary.
Close to the borders of Mexico and Belize you’ll find 14,000 square miles of untouched wilderness, also known as El Peten. Comprising one-third of the country’s territory, this almost inaccessible forested region is part of the reason Guatemala is called the land of trees, but it’s also where you’ll find the remains of Tikal and El Mirador: two of the most important Mayan cities of their time. While visitors can easily access Tikal National Park to catch a sunrise over the jungle canopy, El Mirador is hidden in the heart of wild jungle, but the views are worth every day of the multi-day trek it takes to reach it.
When Aldous Huxley referred to Lake Atitlan as “the most beautiful lake in the world”, the description stuck – and for good reason. The picturesque lake is surrounded by three towering, inactive volcanoes that perfectly frame sunrise for any traveler willing to wake up and hike to the Indian Head lookout. In the many Mayan villages along the banks of the lago, you can explore Mayan culture, learn to cook traditional Guatemalan foods, or brush up on your Spanish at one of the many schools in Panajachel and San Pedro.
Although it’s a long collectivo ride from any major hub in the country, Semuc Chempey is sure to impress those who make the trip. The 1,000 foot natural limestone bridge sits atop the Cahabón River and its several stepped pools of cool, turquoise waters are an excellent way to swim the day away in the jungle – or the perfect Instagram backdrop. After spending some time in Lanquin, the small jungle village from which you travel to this natural wonder, head north to Cahal, where you can spend a day exploring Las Conchas waterfalls and Se’tzol community caves.
Located only 45 minutes from Guatemala City, Antigua and its cobblestone streets will be your takeoff point for most treks further into the countryside. But don’t head out of town without spending some time admiring the Spanish architecture, the bustling Plaza Mayor (central square) and its gardens, or the Antigua market. From almost everywhere in the city, you’ll have excellent views of the three volcanoes that border it: Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego. Try your hand at climbing Acatenango for an incredible night spent beside the flaming Fuego, or take a short drive over to Volcan Pacaya, where you can roast marshmallows on the volcanic rock.
Guatemala has more protected areas than any other country in Central America. Nearly 30% of the national territory is protected, including important sites like the Maya Biosphere Reserve in El Petén and the Sierra de Las Minas Biosphere Reserve, found in the east of the country.
But Guatemala faces unique challenges in terms of development. Deforestation, over-exploitation of natural resources, environmental contamination, and a large Indigenous population that depend on biodiversity for their livelihoods are all factors affecting sustainability here.
From that context, a strong sustainable tourism industry flourishes. In the absence of strict and controlled environmental laws, community-based groups like the Senderos del Alto Cooperative design sustainable tourist experiences that benefit the local communities and people as much as their customs and culture.
Lokal connects travelers who crave awe-inspiring experiences with local tour operators who have a lifetime of knowledge about Guatemala and embody the spirit of conservation. In partnership with local individuals, groups, and communities, we are committed to providing an amazing culturally immersive and sustainable trip. We choose partners that:
Whether you’re choosing from our reputable network of a la carte experiences or designing a more personalized travel experience with our custom trip planner, you can do it all with Lokal. But Lokal takes cultural connection one step further with our immersive community experiences.
In stark contrast to mass tourism, the emphasis of community tourism is social, economic, and environmental sustainability. This is a type of local-led tourism wherein individual entrepreneurs and small communities facilitate experiences that are part of their livelihoods, ultimately helping them develop alternative sources of income and a more sustainable future for themselves.
Take, for example, a community that has produced coffee as their primary source of income for generations. With coffee production stagnant in recent years, the community might facilitate coffee tours and set up a separate community lodge and restaurant, giving travelers the chance to actively participate in their daily lives. Engaging with these tourism projects provides the community an opportunity to continue to sustain themselves and even develop.
Community tourism is transforming an industry in which primarily big business and large development projects previously benefited, wherein environmental stewardship is more highly valued, and where travelers can have a positive impact.
On Lokal’s unique day and overnight trips, you’ll gain an understanding of rural and indigenous Costa Rica in a way that few travelers do – and you’ll do it all while empowering local entrepreneurs and communities to maintain control over their land, livelihoods, and traditions.
From exploring caves hidden in rural countryside to learning about plant medicine and cosmology, our goal is to make amazing sustainable adventures more accessible to travelers.
Looking to get off the beaten path for a two-week immersive experience? Need just a few days to connect with the peace and tranquility of the natural world? Discover more highlights with Lokal’s top 4 excursions in Guatemala.
#1 Guatemala Artisan Stories and Uncharted Beach Adventure During this 12-day expansive experience you’ll not only get to dip your feet into the waters of some of Guatemala’s untouched and pristine beaches, you’ll do it after working in collaboration with local families, fisherman, farmers, and artisans. Moving between Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and El Paredón, you’ll cover a lot of ground while learning about medicinal plants, Mayan spirituality, archaeological ruins, and everything that makes this country as special as it is.
Your host, Etnica, is locally-owned, employs a staff that’s 100% local, and prides themselves on paying fair wages, creating sustainable income for local families, and preserving traditions through many of their workshops.
#2 Essentials of Guatemala: Mayan Culture and Nature Adventure For a trip that gives you the right to say you’ve really seen Guatemala, this 15-day adventure covers all of the most essential points of interest. Catch the sun rise over historical treasures like Tikal, uncover the secret to the perfect roast on a coffee trek, and jump into the refreshing pools of Semuc Chempey on this half adventure/half culture trip that’s tailored to travelers of all ages and interests.
Your host, Etnica , is locally-owned, employs a staff that’s 100% local, and prides themselves on paying fair wages, creating sustainable income for local families, and preserving traditions through many of their workshops.
#3 Mayan Expedition to El Mirador What better way to discover the more than 850 ancient ruins of the El Mirador archeological site than on this 5-day, 4-night trek through the dense and lively Guatemalan jungle? Led through 25 miles of trail by local guides from the Carmelita community, you’ll spend your days hiking and your nights falling asleep under the canopy of bright stars and surrounded by nothing but wild nature.
Your host, Cooperative Carmelita, is a locally-owned community cooperative that employs a 100% local staff and protects, manages, and conserves the 530 square-kilometers of natural forest on their traditional land.
#4 Las Conchas Waterfalls and Cuevas de Se'tzol Cave Expedition For a seamless balance between activity and absolute relaxation, this 3-night stay at Hotel Villa Santa Elena in Cahal is exactly what you’re looking for. Spend the day caving and tubing in the nearby river system before basking in the cool waters of Las Conchas waterfalls. Follow all of that adventure up with freshly prepared meals at your comfortable hotel restaurant.
Your host, Hotel Villa Santa Elena, is a family-owned hotel, operated by Marvin Pop and the tours operating from here benefit three local communities Finca Sacuitz, Las Conchas, and Cuevas de Se'tzol.
Guatemala’s climate is characterized by two distinct seasons: the dry season and the rainy season.
Starting in mid-October and finishing in late April, the dry season sees very little rainfall and the majority of tourists. In Guatemala City, Lake Atitlan, Antigua, Coban, and other places in the central region of the country, average temperatures sit at a comfortable 64°F. This season is ideal for camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities.
The remainder of the year, between May and September, light afternoon showers may limit outdoor pursuits to the morning hours. Travelling to remote areas can also become more difficult as roads aren’t as well maintained. However, you’ll encounter fewer tourists and the opportunities for birding are highest in these months.
Altitude also has a significant role to play in the temperatures you’ll experience while moving around this small but diverse country. The average temperature in Guatemala is 72°F, but at higher altitudes that temperature can drop significantly.
Similarly, the coastal regions of the country have their own climates to consider. Though the Pacific coast has the potential for rain all year, it’s also hot and humid, with an average temperature of 68°F that can rise as high as 99°F.
Outside of Guatemala City, which can be dangerous in some areas and should generally be avoided by tourists unless travelling with a local person or a knowledgeable guide, the rest of Guatemala is safe for tourism and travel.
Although it’s one of the safer countries in Central America, extra safety precautions should be taken when travelling at night and when taking public transportation. Petty crime such as pickpocketing is the biggest threat to tourists, so be sure to watch your valuables with vigilance. Traveling anywhere requires a certain degree of precaution. Start with these general safety tips regardless of where in the world you’re travelling next:
Do your research. Know where you’re going, areas to avoid, and the safest ways to travel. Check up-to-date travel information and notices with the State Department's website, read reviews, and ask questions when you’re on the ground and unsure about something.
Make copies of your travel documentation. Nobody wants to find themselves without a passport when it comes time to head home at the end of their holiday. Make copies of your passport, driver’s license, and other important documentation before you leave.
Protect your valuables. Petty theft is a problem in most popular tourist destinations. Ensure your valuables are always in sight and use lockers and safes to lock up things like laptops, phones, jewelry, and travel documentation.
Be aware of your surroundings. Use good judgement when talking to new people and don’t wander into areas you aren’t familiar with.
Get your phone working. Consider purchasing a local SIM card to stay in touch with family or friends back home, find your way around, and talk to locals using translation services.
Should you encounter any problems in Guatemala City or Antigua, you can find dedicated tourist police throughout the cities. Outside of those areas, Proatur provides 24-hour assistance to tourists.
Drinking water from taps is generally not safe in Guatemala. Drink from bottled and sealed water sources, boil your water, or consider purchasing a water filter or LifeStraw to reduce your use of plastic bottles. Around Antigua and other popular destinations, you’ll often find ecofiltros: environmentally-friendly water filtration systems that make drinking water safe.
When it comes to food, stick to cooked foods and fruits with peels to avoid any potential gastrointestinal problems. Eating street food and food from the markets should be considered with caution.
Before hopping on the plane, talk to your doctor about any recommended vaccinations for Guatemala. Common vaccinations yellow fever, typhoid, tetanus, rabies, and measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) shots. You may also consider a hepatitis vaccination as well as malaria medication, but your doctor will make recommendations based on where you’re traveling and your own personal medical history.
Traveling to Guatemala from most destinations in the world, you’ll be flying into La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City.
Departing from the US, flights are routed through major hub cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Fort Lauderdale. Other daily flights from the US include: United through Houston and New York, Delta from Dallas Fort Worth and Miami, and American Airlines from Atlanta.
Avianca is one of the larger airlines flying to and from Guatemala. They offer direct flights to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Colombia, and Honduras, with connections to the US. Other non-direct options are available from Taca, from San Salvador, as well as Aeromexico and Interjet, from Mexico City. Flying to Flores, just outside of Tikal, is also a possibility, with direct flights from Belize City and Cancun.
Flying from Canada, there are no direct connections. The best option for getting to Guatemala from Canada is to fly from Toronto or Vancouver to one of the hub cities in the US.
To get there from the UK or Europe, you can choose to fly through one of the US hub cities or from Madrid using Iberia. Alternatively, you can connect to Guatemala from a KLM flight to Panama or any airline that flies to Mexico City.
We are committed to a unique travel concept that provides unforgettable experiences and also helps preserve cultural tradtions and conserve nature. We look forward to being a part of your next Guatemala trip!
From the entire Lokal Team.