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Guatemala's small size—about the same as England or Louisiana—leads to the temptation to try to see it all during a short visit. This ignores the fact that it still takes time to get from one place to another. The country has a good primary highway system, but secondary and tertiary roads can be slower going. A rushed trip also overlooks the huge number of wonderful cultural and natural attractions in Guatemala.
In that vein, we present a first-timer's itinerary that takes in Guatemala's best-known highlights and can be fit into a week. Most of it is confined to a small geographical area; the one far-flung sight can be squeezed in only via a round-trip flight. We follow that with add-ons of one to three days each, which take in some lesser-known areas, useful to mix and match if you have a few more days, or to squeeze into a weeklong visit if you want a faster-paced trip.
If you're a typical visitor, you'll fly into Guatemala City. Make a beeline out the airport door for one of the numerous minivan shuttles that meet each flight to take you to the old colonial capital of Antigua, less than an hour west. The city is compact and doable on your own, but if you like your sightseeing done efficiently, you can sign on to a walking tour. (Antigua is chock-full of churches, convents, monasteries, and palaces.) Any non-sightseeing time can be filled with shopping for handicrafts and jade, Antigua's signature souvenir, and dining at the best selection of restaurants outside the capital.
A couple of hours west of Antigua takes you to Lake Atitlán, one of Guatemala's and the hemisphere's natural wonders. Look up "tourist friendly" in the dictionary, and you just might see a picture of the gleaming lake and its trademark trifecta of volcanoes. The area presents you with a choice of towns to see and in which to stay. Traditionally, visitors have opted for sociable Panajachel, Guatemala's consummate expat hangout, but nothing says you can't base yourself in any of the dozen towns ringing Atitlán. A system of ferries and water taxis makes it a breeze to get around.
Guatemala's most famous market takes place each Thursday and Sunday in the highland town whose name everyone shortens to "Chichi." Things get underway by mid-morning, and by 3 pm the market starts to wind down and the vendors pack up, anxious to get back home before dark. Though the Thursday market will not disappoint, come on Sunday if your schedule permits. This allows you to also take in mass in Chichi's Santo Tomás church and observe the ultimate blending of Maya and Catholic rituals.
It's back to Guatemala City for an early-morning flight to the country's most famous Mayan ruins. (The journey overland to the remote Petén region takes about 10 hours, so flying is vastly more efficient.) The hour-long flight deposits you outside the small town of Santa Elena, where you'll find lodging as well as in Flores, Santa Elena's pleasant twin "city." The ruins themselves lie about 64 km (40 mi) north, and if you go on an organized tour, that transportation is taken care of. There are one-day tours to Tikal for those short on time, but an overnight trip gives you extra time to explore.
This itinerary may require some juggling to schedule your market trip to Chichicastenango on a Thursday or Sunday. Flights to Tikal leave early in the morning, so getting to La Aurora International Airport from Antigua is a far easier task. You may wish to insert your two days there between Antigua and Lake Atitlán. Unless you insist on absolute flexibility, your own vehicle is not necessary and is actually a bother for this itinerary. As two of the country's most popular travel destinations, Antigua and Panajachel have no shortage of shuttle services to take you anywhere in greater comfort than on a public bus, and at Lake Atitlán itself, water travel is the norm.
Guatemala City suffers from bad public relations, and bad location: Antigua is so close, why not just go there? But the capital has at least a day's worth of sights in the Old City, its historic center, and several museums near the airport. Cap off your day with a scrumptious restaurant meal and a stay in one of the upscale hotels in the city's Zona Viva.
The capital's La Aurora International Airport lies within the city limits, some suggest too close for comfort, but you're just a few minutes' drive from the New City once you land. After you've checked in at your hotel, taxis are the easiest and safest way to get around.
The hub of the Verapaces region lies a five-hour drive north of Guatemala City. An early-morning start still gives you an afternoon to explore the town. In particular, hike up to the Calvario shrine for the best views around, or grab a taxi for a short ride just out of town to the gardens at the Vivero Verapaz.
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, early to bed and early to rise gives a man (and woman) the best chance of seeing the resplendent quetzal. Get an early-morning start to head about an hour south of Cobán to the nature reserve specifically dedicated to preserving Guatemala's national bird. Stop for lunch on the way back at any of the family-owned restaurants that line the highway.
The pools and water caverns of Semuc Champey, about a two-hour drive from Cobán, make a splendid place to cool off with a swim in the midday heat. (The site sits at a lower elevation than cool Cobán, so you will notice the warmth here.) Cap off the afternoon (and cool off some more) with a hike through the nearby caves of Lanquín.
Having your own car is ideal for this region, but public bus service from Guatemala City is comfortable and convenient. Numerous minivan shuttles also connect Antigua with Cobán. Any of the Cobán–Guatemala City buses can drop you at the entrance to the Biotopo Quetzal. You'll need to wait for a return bus at the end of your visit. It's nearly impossible to do Semuc Champey and Lanquín via public transportation, but numerous Cobán outfitters include both as part of a daylong tour. Lanquín, in particular, is best done with a guide who knows the way through the caves; portions of the hike can be very tricky.
Livingston, on the Caribbean coast, is the quintessential port city, more reminiscent of faraway Jamaica than of the rest of Guatemala. Here's the catch: no roads lead here. You'll need to take land transportation to nearby Puerto Barrios and connect with a ferry or water taxi across Amatique Bay. Near Livingston lie the beautiful waterfalls of Siete Altares.
The canyoned, forested river connecting Livingston with inland Lake Izabal is one of Guatemala's spectacular nature excursions, including a stop at the San Felipe fortress, constructed by the Spanish to thwart upriver attacks by pirates.
You can reach Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic coast easily by public transportation from Guatemala City or from Cobán, making the Caribbean a reasonable add-on following a visit to Las Verapaces. Only two public ferries per day connect Puerto Barrios with Livingston, but frequent water-taxi service fills in the gaps. You can also rearrange these days by starting your Río Dulce trip inland at the town of Fronteras, where the river meets Lake Izabal, then heading out to Livingston. The logistics of navigating Río Dulce make a tour worthwhile. Enough robberies have targeted people going to Siete Altares on their own that we recommend the security of a group tour.
Guatemala really doesn't do the beach thing, but a quick two-hour jaunt to the enjoyable coastal town of Monterrico makes a pleasant break from the highlands. The undertow is rough, but you can spend your time on the beach rather than in the water.
Shuttle transport is the easiest way to get to the coast, vans departing from Antigua. Make reservations if you're visiting on the weekend. During the week you can probably just show up and find ample places to stay.