Guatemala is a breathtakingly diverse country, where a new adventure awaits around every winding corner.
With lush jungles, pristine lakes, surf beaches, colonial towns, vibrant markets, and not one, not two, but 37 volcanoes, there truly is something for every kind of traveler in Guatemala.
Even the most experienced hiker will be tested by the altitude gain and temperature drop of Acatenango Volcano. Those in need of relaxation must be whisked off to the picturesque Lake Atitlán, and culture lovers will immerse themselves in the colonial charm of Antigua. From its Garifuna-infused Caribbean coast to the black sand surfers’ paradise of the Pacific, Guatemala satisfies any breed of the travel bug, offering up a harmonious mix of culture and nature.
With 42,043 square miles of adventure waiting to be uncovered, it’s hard to narrow down where to start, but here are our top 20 things to do in Guatemala to deliver the most enriching experience possible.
Sleep Next to an Active Volcano
The Acatenango Volcano trek is as challenging as it is rewarding, and it is a non-negotiable for adventurers visiting Guatemala. Hikers ascend Acatenango to camp at base camp as they watch and listen to the neighboring Volcán de Fuego erupt into the night.
Day two of the trek starts before sunrise when base campers head to the summit for sunrise. This is when all the cold, dampness, and exhaustion become worth it; the reward is an incredible sight of the sun and clouds highlighting the peaks and valleys of Antigua, as Fuego continues to put on its fireworks show in the background.
Adequate preparation is required to deal with the high altitude and cold temperatures of Acatenango, and tour companies like Tropicana will ensure hikers are equipped and prepared.
Stay at Zephyr Lodge
Tucked into the lush hillsides of Lanquín, there exists a jungle oasis by the name of Zephyr Lodge.
With a sunrise view over the river and sunset vistas past an infinity pool and into the tiered mountains, the views at Zephyr are second to none. The property features a swim-up bar, full-service kitchen, and tab system, and accommodation options range from dorm beds for as little as $15 per night to deluxe suites for those looking to spend a little extra.
Don’t Miss Lake Atitlán
This lake looks pretty in pictures, but it is mind-blowing in person. Soaring jungle-covered mountains and large volcanoes surround Lake Atitlán. Scattered throughout its shores are small towns filled with their own unique personalities, such as the bustling San Pedro or zen San Marcos.
Visitors can stay in a smaller lakeside village for pure serenity and immediate access to the water; recommended options are Free Cerveza (a glamping hostel with a fun-filled atmosphere) and La Iguana Perdida (a chilled out, hammock-adorned lodge), which are both located in the village of Santa Cruz. From here, guests can hop on one of the water taxis to visit the other towns for a cost of 15 quetzals (around $2).
Wine and Dine in Antigua
Antigua’s restaurant and bar scene are burgeoning, and visitors will come across some of the tastiest meals and quirkiest bars of their travels.
A quaint two-story hole-in-the-wall by the name of Por Qué No? features a funky and intricate design along with delectable meals. The shrimp and bacon tacos at Fridas, an artsy restaurant inspired by Ms. Khalo herself, are worth coming back for seconds. The eggs Florentine at Rainbow Cafe is the best way to start the day, and a healthy smoothie bowl at Acai comes with a highly Instagrammable setting.
A crafty cocktail tour must duck into the mezcal room at Café No Sé, and continue at ulew as accessed through the phone booth in Antigua Brewing Company—but not before catching the sunrise from said brewery’s rooftop.
Explore the Ruins of Tikal
Guatemala's top attraction for historic ruins, Tikal National Park is an impressive display of preserved Mayan handiwork. At 575 square miles, the jungle-covered park features six temples that have been excavated as well as many more left underground. Star Wars fans will recognize Temple IV from the episode "A New Hope."
Travelers who have visited the tourist-filled ruins of Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu will be delighted with the lack of crowds at Tikal, especially when arriving for sunrise. But this doesn't mean the park is empty; there are plenty of jungle creatures from coatimundi to the elusive puma, as well as howler monkeys heard screeching from the trees.
Go Surfing at El Paredon
Guatemala isn’t known as a surfing hub like its neighboring coasts of El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Costa Rica. Still, the Pacific Coast of El Paredon allures both beginner and expert surfers alike.
Surfers can rent a board for around $20 per day and ride the waves from sunrise to sunset as they ride along the vast, misty, black sand shores. Paredon Surf House is a beautiful beachside resort with an immaculate property, or backpackers can settle in at Driftwood Surfer next door. An ultra-chic option can be found in the boutique hotel Swell.
Visit the Falls of Semuc Champey
The photogenic falls of Semuc Champey are a refreshing and necessary stop on a tour of Guatemala. The cascading pools of turquoise water make for an incredible sight from the lookout point of El Mirador, and they provide an energizing dip to cool off while exploring the humid jungles of Semuc.
The hike up to the viewpoint takes about 30 minutes, and a less strenuous route to the pools comes by a ten-minute stroll around the hill.
Go Caving by Candlelight
K’an Ba Cave in Semuc Champey provides a caving experience unlike any other. Adventure lovers will repel along ropes through neck-deep waters, hoist themselves up slippery boulders, and free-fall down a pitch-black waterslide. If that didn’t sound difficult enough, cavers must hold an ignited candle in their hand to illuminate the space as they navigate it.
Shop the Local Markets
Shopaholics will want to leave some extra luggage room for Guatemala because its vibrantly colored souvenirs make it hard to resist a shopping spree. Handcrafted textiles, pottery, carvings, and jewelry of all colors of the rainbow are found in tiendas and markets throughout the country, and they are simply stunning.
The most renowned market in Guatemala is hosted on Thursdays and Sundays in Chichicastenango, where a dazzling maze of artisanal goods and bright colors draws in masses of tourists and locals from surrounding areas.
Do Yoga in San Marcos
This lakeside town is known for its organic food, boho vibes, and delicious chocolate and coffee. The striking viewpoints and laid-back atmosphere make for a perfect spot to connect mind, body, and soul, and many yogis visit San Marcos to say “ommmm” overlooking the lake.
Roast Marshmallows on an Active Volcano
Four volcanoes surround Antigua, and two of them—Fuego and Pacaya—are still active today. Pacaya is known for being a hotspot (pardon the pun) for s’mores lovers, as its volcanic activity provides the perfect amount of heat to use as an oven for marshmallow roasting.
At 8,300 feet, Pacaya is a very manageable hike that makes a perfect day trip from Antigua.
Middle-earth fans don’t have to fly to New Zealand to visit a hobbit-style village; Hobbitenango hosts a collection of small round huts in the hillside, and it offers volcano views to boot.
The magic of Hobbitenango can also be experienced as a day trip, where visitors can enjoy the eco-friendly restaurant and bar, as well as plenty of games including mini-golf, ax throwing, and bow and arrow shooting.
Experience Garifuna Culture in Livingston
Originating from Africa and the Caribbean and now heavily concentrated in Belize and Honduras, the rich and vibrant Garifuna culture is also present in northern Guatemala’s coastal town of Livingston.
Garifuna culture is best experienced through a cooking class at culture center Rasta Mesa where aspiring chefs will create mouthwatering coconut-infused dishes, as well as the lively dancing and drumming to be enjoyed at the local bars and restaurants.
Witness the Release of Baby Turtles
Every morning at 6 a.m. from September to December, hundreds of newly hatched turtles are released on the beach of El Paredon. The hatchlings are carried over from the sanctuary and set on the sand, where they then waddle and scramble towards the sound of the waves.
Spectators are required to keep a safe distance as they watch an epic and adorable survival of the fittest: only one in a thousand turtles return to the same beach to lay eggs due to losses from pollution, fishing, predators, currents, and other obstacles.
Jump Off the Rope Swing in Flores
A charming island located on Lake Petén Itzá, Flores draws tourists primarily due to its proximity to the wondrous Tikal ruins. But with the heat and humidity that comes with its tropical climate, a dip in the lake is the perfect way to cap off a day of sightseeing.
A quick taxi boat, paddleboard, or kayak ride away from the island, Jorge’s rope swing and its surrounding area provide a relaxing and refreshing experience.
Experience a Hot Spring Waterfall
It’s not uncommon to find waterfalls in the tropical mountains of Guatemala, but what about one made up of steaming hot water?
A trip to the lakeside town of Rio Dulce is not complete without experiencing the thermal falls known as Agua Calientes. Located on a private property called Finca el Paraiso, the waterfall is heated by volcanic activity, delivering a stark contrast to the cold river at its base. With caves at the bottom and warm pools at the top, visiting the falls is a perfect way to spend an afternoon.
The falls are accessible using a public microbus or private taxi, and park entrance is approximately 20 quetzals per person.
Take Spanish Lessons in Antigua
While English is spoken fluently throughout Guatemala’s tourist hubs, knowing even a base level of Spanish will make traveling through the country mucho easier.
Antigua is a great spot to hone Spanish skills of all levels due to its accessibility and flexibility of scheduling. One-on-one tutor sessions held on rooftops or in gardens provide a comfortable learning atmosphere. Schools such as Ixchel or La Union allow students to choose their hours, and a five-day course (four hours per day) costs approximately $175.
Indulge in Chocolate
Widely recognized as the birthplace of chocolate, Guatemala has no trouble satisfying the sweet teeth of its visitors.
Located in the heart of Antigua with alternate locations in Guatemala City and Puerto Quetzal, ChocoMuseo is a must for chocolate lovers looking to indulge in education and workshops of their favorite treat.
Local farm Dalileo Chocolate produces ceremonial grade cacao and single origin chocolate, which is sold throughout the country, including their hillside storefront in San Marcos on Lake Atitlán.
Party in an Abandoned Pool or Mansion
Party people in Antigua will be drawn to the buzzed-about weekly events hosted a 30-minute drive outside the city center for DJs, food carts, bar service, and mingling.
"La Piscina" takes place every Saturday in an empty pool, and is traded for a mansion party on the last Saturday of the month. Don't expect things to get going until after 1 a.m., and don't expect to get much sleep that night.
Transfers are available from accommodation companies throughout Antigua, and taxis are aplenty at Parque Central.
Hike Indian Nose
Lake Atitlan boasts incredibly striking views from every angle, and one of the best might be from the top. A pre-sunrise wakeup call in San Pedro will delight hikers who take the 30-minute trek up Indian Nose to witness the sun’s first rays illuminate the lake’s peaks, valleys, and towns.