Guatemala Feature

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Mayan Ruins

If you've come this far to see Mayan ruins, you're likely headed to Tikal. Good choice. But don't overlook the country's other important indigenous sites, some well known, others not. We also include a nod to a famous Mayan site just across the border in Honduras, an easy day trip for travelers to Guatemala.

Tikal, El Petén. Nothing surpasses the sight of Tikal's towering temples rising out of virgin rain forest. Adding to the mystique of the place is the fact that the site was virtually unknown to the outside world until the mid-1800s. Most visitors fly in and out on a day trip, but if you can overnight here, so much the better.

Yaxhá, El Petén. You've seen the ruins of Guatemala's third-largest Mayan city if you caught the 11th installment of megahit reality-TV series Survivor, which was set here in 2005. An in-person visit to this complex, still under excavation, and its shimmering green lake of the same name will be even more exciting.

Copán, Honduras, Atlantic Lowlands. The intricate art and detailed carvings on the structures here have earned Copán the moniker " Paris of the Mayan world." The ruins sit just across the border in Honduras, and have a tourist-friendly town right next door to boot.

Quiriguá, Atlantic Lowlands. The lowlands' most important Mayan city dwarfed the nearby site of Copán in size and importance, even if few people remember that today. Ease of access from many points around the country makes Quiriguá, arguably the best-preserved site in Guatemala, worth a visit.

Churches

Guatemalan churches cover the spectrum from strictly interpreted Catholic dogma to ancient Mayan rituals. The more isolated the area and the stronger the indigenous tradition, the more difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. However, no matter what goes on inside them, many of Guatemala's churches are among the most beautiful in Central America.

La Merced, Antigua. The old colonial capital's brightly painted church with the wedding-cake exterior is a favorite. La Merced is so important to the history of Antigua that it's the usual starting point for the city's famous Holy Week processions.

Santo Tomás, Chichicastenango, Highlands. Everyone heads to the famous Sunday market in Chichicastenango, but make time for a far less touristed detour to the town's principal church. Inside, you'll get a primer on the blending of devout Catholicism with equally devout, and even older, Mayan tradition.

San Andrés Xecul, Highlands. Everyone refers to the structure in the small town of the same name near Quetzaltenango as the "iglesia amarilla" (yellow church), but that nickname doesn't do it justice. Yes, it is canary yellow, but a dazzling painted array of Catholic and Mayan iconography punctuates the facade.

Basilica of Esquipulas, Atlantic Lowlands. Numerous miracles have been attributed to the Cristo Negro (Black Christ) inside this 18th-century church, making it Guatemala's—some would argue Central America's—most important pilgrimage site. The precious object it houses is its most important object of veneration.

The Great Outdoors

It's not quite Chile or Costa Rica—not yet, at least—but Guatemala's outdoor offerings are gaining it a place on the Latin American–ecotourism circuit. You can go bird-watching, turtle-watching, biking, hiking, caving, climbing, rafting, fishing, and boating with a growing number of outfitters. The newest addition to the activities mix is the canopy tour, a zip line that lets you glide through the treetops courtesy of a helmet and a very secure harness.

Scaling Volcanoes, Antigua and Guatemala City. The proximity of the Pacaya, Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango volcanoes to two of the country's most-visited cities means you can hike (or sometimes bike) to their summits and be back in time to regale your dinner companions with tales of oozing lava.

Spelunking, Las Verapaces. Limestone caverns are said to perforate the entire underground of the Verapaces region. Lanquín and Candelaria are two of the most accessible caves, and remain sites of pilgrimage and observance of Mayan rituals.

Sportfishing, Pacific Lowlands. Guatemala's Pacific coast is the new kid on the block in sportfishing circles, and can satisfy dreams of reeling in a marlin or sailfish. Get in there before the rest of the world finds out.

Boating the Río Dulce, Atlantic Lowlands. Navigate the river passing through a narrow, forested canyon between the port town of Livingston and inland Lake Izabal. Pass by Afro-Caribbean Garífuna villages, hot springs, and a colonial-era fortress in the process.

Markets

No shortage of upscale tourist shops proffer their wares, but there's nothing like the sights, smells, and sounds of a real Guatemalan market. Every town holds one, usually one or two days a week. Some began life as local markets, but have morphed into largely tourist affairs. Others maintain their locals-only feel, although all are welcome. Sharpen your bargaining skills, but not too ruthlessly. Prices are already reasonable, and that difference of few quetzals means more to the vendor than to you.

Chichicastenango, Highlands. Thursday and Sunday market days in this highland town are Guatemala's most famous. We know travelers who dismiss the whole affair as "too touristy," but legions of visitors can't be that wrong. The Chichi outing is a fun way to spend a day.

Sololá, Highlands. This town near Lake Atitlán holds a large market each Tuesday and Friday, and provides you with an opportunity to see local-to-local sales in action. Browsing will turn up a few good buys in textiles, too.

Mercado Municipal, Antigua. Beyond the snazzy, gentrified face of Antigua, its municipal market, a few blocks west of the city center, buzzes with all the activity of a highland indigenous bazaar. This is the place where residents come to shop for daily supplies.

Mercado Central, Guatemala City. Smack-dab in the center of the city, behind the cathedral, sits the multistoried central market. It's primarily a local affair, but it's brimming with handicrafts for those with the patience to look. Just beware of pickpockets.

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