For most travelers, Guatemala means Antigua. No place in the Western Hemisphere contains such a collection of colonial architecture, and strict standards mean that the city's priceless structures will never fall to the wrecking ball. A few did fall victim to long-ago earthquakes, and today sit majestically in ruins.
One of the world's most famous markets takes place twice weekly in this highland town. At first glance, the "Chichi" affair seems undeniably touristy, but walk a block or two away from the souvenir section, and let the sights, sounds, and smells of a highland bazaar take over.
Don't tell Hondurans, but this just-over-the-border complex of Mayan ruins might as well be part of Guatemala … or at least part of any Guatemalan trip. Romantically billed as "the Paris of the Mayan world," Copán's intricately, artistically carved monuments and architecture really do live up to the hype.
Beyond the tourism infrastructure of Chichicastenango lies this isolated region centering on the highland town of Nebaj and surrounded by an orbit of small villages. The region was hit hard by Guatemala's civil war, but indigenous tradition and language reign supreme here.
A shimmering lake, ringed by three volcanoes and a dozen or so indigenous villages most easily reached by boat, and a polished tourism infrastructure translate into that archetypal place to hang out. Atitlán has changed many a vacationer's plans: "Maybe I could stay a few more days … or weeks … or months."
This ruins complex in the Atlantic lowlands gets overshadowed by Tikal and Copán, but Quiriguá takes top place as the best-preserved, least-weathered Mayan site in Guatemala.
One of Guatemala's most popular nature excursions takes you from the narrow mouth of Lago Izabal in the Atlantic lowlands to the Caribbean Sea at Livingston. The scant distance of 25 mi takes you past rain forests, jagged canyons, and hot springs. (All the tours stop for a soak.)
The tourist industry touts these limestone pools and waterfalls in the Verapaces as "the most beautiful spot in Guatemala." One visit and you just might agree. You are actually standing on a limestone bridge that spans the rushing Cahabón River that passes underneath and reemerges downstream.
The Petén's top tourist draw (and one of Guatemala's, too) gets our vote for the country's most remarkable Mayan ruins. The structures themselves would be impressive enough on their own, but the lush rain-forest setting and abundant animal life create an otherworldly backdrop for a complex that once housed 100,000 people and wielded power over Mesoamerica.
This is your chance to get up close and personal with an active volcano. Pacaya has smoked, sizzled, and smoldered for nearly a half-century, and tours from either the capital or Antigua—you should go only with an escort—get you there to see the fiery evening spectacle.
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