Guatemala: Top 9 cultural hotspots

Make tracks to Guatemala and you’re in for a real adventure: this tropical Central American country, wedged between Mexico and Honduras, is home to an array of Mayan historical sites and a delicious natural larder. Here we reveal nine cultural must-sees

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:02 BST, Updated 30 Dec 2021, 16:50 GMT
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Photograph by Getty

1 Antigua
UNESCO didn’t class this impressive city as a World Heritage Site for no reason. Antigua is an intoxicating blend of pastel-painted streetscapes, thrumming markets, well-preserved ruins and imposing architecture. It’s a place to pick up vibrant textiles, wander along a warren of cobbled streets lined with baroque architecture, fill up on zesty tacos, and rub shoulders with locals in lively bars.

2 Chichicastenango
For culture kicks, Chichi will never disappoint. Travellers gravitate to this highlands town every Thursday and Sunday for its handsome markets — where locals ply their wares (colourful textiles, wooden crafts and pretty ceramics). Also on offer is a trip to Santo Tomás Apóstol Church, where local worshippers perform rituals.

3 Cerro Quemado
As well as having cinematic good looks, Guatemala’s volcanoes are thrilling playgrounds for adventurous souls. The active ‘Burned Peak’ mountain is a hotspot for rock climbing, but also the place to watch Mayan ceremonies. It’s incredibly atmospheric — at times it’s smothered in fog; at other times you can hear the faint sound of chanting from Maya worshippers.

4 Livingston
Strung along the Caribbean coast, laid-back Livingston strums to its own beat, thanks to the local Garifuna people. It’s fun and friendly, with that irresistible Caribbean vibe crossed with a Latino spirit. Dawdle here for deserted swathes of sand, spot-on seafood and, as the sun sets, no shortage of rum-fuelled antics.

5 Quetzaltenango
Guatemala’s second city (Xela, for short) has a thriving cultural scene, stunning views and a down-to-earth, welcoming spirit. As well as a stellar collection of Spanish schools, visitors can marvel at mist-swirled volcanoes, glassy lagoons, tangles of forest, hot springs and plantations of coffee, nuts and bananas.

6 Chicabal Volcano and Lagoon
Skim through cloud forests to the peak of 8,900ft Chicabal, listening for the distant rumble of the Pacific, before descending to the sacred lake at its foot. Time your visit with Pedida Por La Lluvia — a religious festival that takes place 40 days after Easter — and you’ll be in the company of worshiping shamans chanting rituals on its shores.

7 Valle de Almolonga
Off the tourist trail, this village has a heavyweight reputation for its superb market, offering an array of fruit and vegetables, from hordes of chillis and limes to piles of radishes the size of plums. Known as the ‘garden of the Americas’, it’s a photographer’s dream and a real insight into Maya living; the village’s thermal baths, meanwhile, are a tempting prospect on a cool day.

8 El Palmar
Lying in the shadow of Santa Maria, El Palmar is a blissfully quiet region of farms, winding natural trails, and coffee and macadamia plantations — but one that lives under the constant threat of an eruption from the Santiaguito Volcano. That said, tours run throughout farms, where visitors can meet locals who maintain many of the traditions and beliefs from the Mayan culture.

9 Sacred sites
Tikal is a breathtaking Mayan ruin — buried in jungle in the Peten region — was once the heart of the Mayan empire. Dating to 900 BC, it features more than two dozen pyramids and causeways. Elsewhere nearTecpan, there's the ruins of Iximche which have a distinct Mexican influence and include plazas, pyramids and ball courts. Mayan ceremonies are still held here. Hidden in the jungle of Peten is El Mirador, south of the Mexican border, this ruined city is home to the biggest pyramid ever built in the Mayan world. Yaxha are mighty pyramids set against a stunning natural backdrop. Climb one to view the lagoons of Lago Yaxhá and Lago Sacnab. Finally, stop by Quirigua — the Stelae of Quiriguá contain intricate tall stone carvings. Rich with mythical significance, they represent key dates, eclipses and Mayan myths.

To find out more, visit our Guatemala hub


Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)

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Map of Guatemala
Photograph by Nik Neves
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