Adventure and Learning Vacations
If you're looking for a heart-thumping adrenaline rush, Guatemala has a lot to offer. From hiking active volcanoes to rafting raging Class IV rapids, the country has an abundance of adventure tours. Wherever you go, you're not very far from a zip line through the cloud forest or sportfishing for a 900-pound black marlin.
Locations: Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Río Dulce, Livingston
Cost: From $395 for four days from Guatemala City
Tour Operators: Guatemala Ventures, Old Town Outfitters
If lava is what you seek, Old Town Outfitters will take you climbing to the best of Guatemala's 33 volcanoes on their seven-day tour. The highly active Pacaya and the dormant Agua volcanoes near Antigua are the first ascents, and the multiple-night climbs of Acatenango and Fuego volcanoes make up the latter part of the trip. The climb to the top of Central America's highest peak, Tajamulco Volcano (4218 meters/13,840 feet), is an optional three-day addition. For something a bit cooler, try their four-day kayak trip down the Río Dulce, which ends on the Caribbean, at Guatemala's preeminent Garífuna village. If you're interested in high-adrenaline sports, try Guatemala Ventures' Pacific coast to Atlantic coast tour, which combines hiking, biking, and rafting on an eight-day journey across Guatemala's most stunning landscapes. Exact destinations are tailored to meet your skill level.
Ecotourism, a style of touring natural habitats to see flora and fauna while minimizing one's ecological impact, really began in the jungles of Costa Rica. It quickly spread across Central America and around the world. Guatemala offers plenty of nature- and wildlife-related activities.
Locations: Flores, Petexbatún Lake, Aguateca, Yaxhá, Tikal, Ixpanpanajul Natural Park
Cost: From $1,280 for eight days from Guatemala City
Tour Operators: Adventure Life, Guatemala Ventures, Old Town Outfitters
The volcanic slopes, cloud forests, and lowland jungle regions of Guatemala are home to many rare bird species such as quetzals, the mountain trogon, blue-throated green motmot, hairy woodpecker, hummingbirds, toucans, and macaws. Nineteen ecosystems in total can be found here, and they are home to not just birds, but more than 250 species of mammals and 200 species of reptiles and amphibians. Many are found only in isolated pockets around the country. Adventure Life explores the Petén jungle region heavily, via trekking and kayaking excursions, bringing you to Flores, Petexbatún Lake, the Aguateca, Yaxhá, and Tikal ruins, as well as Ixpanpajul Natural Park. Guatemala Ventures has one-day tours to many of the parks and other locations throughout the country. Old Town Outfitters offers hiking, biking, and kayaking trips to a number of these regions.
From ancient civilizations and indigenous groups to small pueblos rebounding from decades of civil war, there's no shortage of interest in Guatemala's diverse people. Here are some of the many tour companies that can take you to encounter groups that rarely meet the outside world and have remained unchanged for centuries. Always do your research before taking tours like this—it's important that your operator conduct business with the local people in an ethical, respectful way.
Season: March, April, and July
Locations: Guatemala City, Quiché, San Lucas Tolimán, Lake Atitlán, Antigua
Cost: From $1,175 for 10 days from Guatemala City
Tour Operators: GATE Travel
The Maya are the living soul of Guatemala, but many difficulties surround their adaptation to the modern world. GATE's program helps you understand Mayan roots and spirituality, as well as the history and politics of Guatemala. Human-rights issues, poverty, community leadership, and migration are touched upon. GATE can also tailor programs for U.S.-based educational and religious groups.
You can study a day of Spanish with room and board in Guatemala for about the same price as a martini in a London club, which is why the activity has caught on. Prices are much lower than in universities, and many of the courses are accredited.
Locations: Antigua, Quetzaltenango
Cost: From $595 for one week from Guatemala City
Tour Operators: G.A.P. Adventures, Pop-Wuj, Tucan Travel
Guatemala is one of Latin America's language hot spots, where thousands of foreigners of all ages can be found practicing Spanish in the country at any given time. G.A.P.'s 14-day Guatemala Spanish Adventure teaches you Spanish as you visit locations such as Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Tikal, and Poptún, using hands-on learning as you bargain at the Chichicastenango market or chat up locals at a Salsa bar. Tucan Travel's eight-day Spanish program is more typical of Guatemalan schools. Like many others, it's based in Antigua, where you will have 20 hours of classes per week, area tours, and local homestays. Volunteer community work projects are a must for all Pop-Wuj Spanish studies in Quetzaltenango. The projects are divided between community/social and medical/health care and will differ based on the type of language skills you want to acquire.
Centered in northeastern Guatemala, the Mayan civilization once stretched from Mexico to as far south as Costa Rica. Ruins of their magnificent stelae, temples, and ball courts are scattered throughout the region, Tikal and Copán, just across the border in Honduras, being the most prominent; but many other smaller complexes leave visitors just as breathless.
Locations: Flores, Tikal, Río Dulce, Antigua, Panajachel, Lake Atitlán, Chichicastenango, Totonicapán
Cost: From $1,895 for 14 days from Guatemala City
Tour Operators: Abercrombie & Kent, Adventure Life, AdventureSmith Explorations, Elderhostel, G.A.P. Adventures, Geographic Expeditions, Journey Latin America, Maya Tour, Overseas Adventure Travel, Tucan Travel, Wildland Adventures
A wide range of tour companies operate in the region, and infinite combinations of ruins and other sightseeing tours are possible. Abercrombie & Kent offers a five-day Guatemala Extension as an add-on to tours of other countries in the region, focusing on Tikal, Antigua, and Lake Atitlán. Elderhostel's two-week The Maya and More tour takes in Tikal and Copán, as well as similar sites in neighboring Belize. G.A.P. Adventures' Mayan Explorer program, among many others, gives you 14 days visiting the Mayan ruins on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, such as Chichén Itzá and Palenque, moving all the way south to Guatemala and Tikal. Journeys Latin America's Hidden Maya brings you to the best ruins and sites in northeast Guatemala, plus Copán in Honduras, with a few days exploring the reef at Caye Caulker in Belize. AdventureSmith Explorations offers a five-day excursion between Tikal and Palenque stopping at lesser known ruins such as Yaxchilan and Bonampak along the way. Wildland Adventures extends the previous trip seven more days to add travels to Lake Atitlán and Copán, Honduras.
With Adventure Life's Mundo Maya you visit Tikal and Lake Atitlán like many other trips, but also the isolated and off-the-beaten-track highland town of Totonicapán. While there, you'll visit local artisans' workshops and indigenous markets. Geographic Expeditions combines Tikal, Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and Copán with luxury resorts, including film director Francis Ford Coppola's La Lancha lodge. Maya Tour's excursions of varying lengths take you on the standard Tikal–Quiriguá–Copán route, and combine these sites with Mayan complexes in neighboring countries. Overseas Adventure Travel combines visits to Guatemala's and Honduras's Mayan ruins with sights in neighboring Central American countries. Tucan Travel offers a variety of mix-and-match excursions taking in Mayan ruins in Guatemala and neighboring countries.
Cost: From $455 for three days from Guatemala City
Tour Operators: Garifuna Tours, Grayline Tours, Journey Latin America
Only one ruin complex in Honduras approaches the scale of Guatemalan sites: Copán. Discovered in 1839 and still hidden by dense vegetation, the site is still being researched. Journey Latin America can combine almost any of their tours with a three-day, standard trip to Copán from Guatemala City, which gives you approximately two full days at the ruins. (Many Guatemalan tour operators do a rushed one-day trip to Copán from Antigua or the capital. You'll spend most of your time traveling to and from.) Grayline Tours has an eight-day guided excursion with several days exploring the ruins at Copán followed by Roatán, the largest of Honduras's Bay Islands, for the remainder of your trip. Garífuna Tours includes Copán on their 11-day trip that also covers bird-watching in two Honduran national parks and relaxation at Roatán.
Whether you help protect endangered sea turtles or help a struggling community build houses and schools, volunteering can be one of the most rewarding travel experiences you could ever have—plus there are plenty of opportunities to practice your Spanish and see some sights along the way.
Locations: Antigua, Lake Atitilán, Tikal, Flores
Cost: From $1,450 for four weeks from Guatemala City
Tour Operators: Global Crossroad
Global Crossroad's various volunteer programs deal with women's empowerment, children's daycare, and English instruction. The programs start at one month in length, and the initial weeks include Spanish-language study.