Some of the best places to visit in Guatemala are relatively unknown to the wider world. Though the country is firmly on the backpacker route of Central America, many never make it past Lake Atitlan, Tikal, and Antigua. But that doesn’t begin to cover the best places to visit in Guatemala! There’s so much more to do in this diverse country.
Guatemala is a nature lover’s paradise, with lush rainforests, epic waterfalls, active volcanoes, and clear blue cenotes. Though neighboring Belize and Mexico take much of the limelight, Guatemala has its own treasure trove of Mayan history, Spanish colonial cities, and pristine jungle-backed beaches. Plus Guatemala is often a lot more affordable than its Central American neighbors.
So if you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, make sure not to miss these absolute best places to visit in Guatemala.
The Best Places to Visit in Guatemala
The Mayan Ruins of Tikal
Visit one of the most important cities of Mesoamerica, the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Lost within the dense jungles of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala, Tikal is one of the most visited sights in the country. It’s easy to see why it is one of the best places to visit in Guatemala.
Tikal was once home to the largest ancient civilization in Mesoamerica, the Maya, famous for their dark rituals involving human sacrifice. Now it’s a more peaceful place, alive with wildlife like monkeys, toucans, coatis, and jaguars.
Lake of Peten Itza and Flores
Lake of Peten Itza (located in the amazing city of Flores) is another of the best places to visit in Guatemala. You can stay in Tikal National Park overnight but many choose to base themselves in nearby Flores. This small touristy island is thought to have been the last Mayan city to be conquered when the Spanish came to Guatemala in the 1500s.
It’s full of interesting alleyways and multicultural restaurants with amazing views of the stunning Lake Peten Itza. Visit Arcas, a non-profit animal rescue and rehabilitation center, to see the jungle’s wildlife up close and to support their vital work.
Semuc Champey and Lanquín
East of the highland city of Cobán lies the popular tourist town of San Agustín Lanquín, one of the best places to visit in Guatemala for outdoor activities. Go rafting, explore the many beautiful bat-filled caves, and go hiking in Parque Nacional Grutas de Lanquin. But the main reason so many people visit Lanquin is Semuc Champey.
Well known as one of the best things to do in Guatemala, Semuc Champey is a series of gently cascading waterfalls set in a remote part of the Guatemalan jungle. Go river tubing, explore the nearby cave by candlelight, or hike to the mirador (viewpoint) to get a better perspective of the scale of this natural wonder. Stay at Greengo’s Hotel to explore the falls, or take a bone-shattering 4×4 drive from a hotel in town.
El Retiro Lodge is also a great place to stay in Lanquin, located right on the river’s edge.
Parque Nacional Sierra del Lacandón
Swim in cenotes and visit Maya ruins in Parque Nacional Sierra del Lacandón. Located in the Peten Department west of Flores, it’s about as out of the way as you can get. The 202,865-hectare national park is the second largest in Guatemala and one of the most biodiverse, home to endangered animals, such as pumas, jaguars, and scarlet macaws. The main activities here revolve around the rainforest and the Usumacinta river basin.
Parque Nacional Laguna Lachua
For one of the best “off-the-beaten track” places to visit in Guatemala, head to the coffee-growing region of Alta Verapaz. The vast national park is home to howler monkeys and tarantulas, as well as a crystal clear swimming spot surrounded by the jungle.
Lake Lachuá is just a two-hour drive from Coban, then it’s a moderate trek through the jungle to the camping lodge where you can stay overnight. Facilities are basic (you will need to bring in your own food and equipment), but you are rewarded with a picture-perfect turquoise lagoon and complete tranquility.
Everyone visiting Guatemala will end up in Antigua at some point or other. As the transit hub for the country, it’s a short 45-minute drive from Guatemala’s main international airport in Guatemala City. The entire city oozes colonial charm and there are so many things to do including the iconic Arco de Santa Catarina, Convento Santa Clara, and the Cerro de La Cruz lookout over the terracotta rooftops of the city.
Streets are filled with traditional Mayan crafts like jewelry made from jade, wooden masks, and hand-woven purses. For some of the best, head to Mercado de Artesanías where you can expect to haggle for your purchases, it’s common practice and the prices reflect this. Check out a full list of things to do in Antigua Guatemala here.
The food is also something not to be missed in Antigua with arguably some of the best places to eat in Guatemala. Head to Angie Angie Cafearte for some of the best pizzas in town, Pappys BBQ for perfectly grilled meat, or Los Tres Tiempos for delicious Guatemalan food.
Guatemala is home to 37 volcanoes in total, but the most popular one to climb is Pacaya Volcano. Its proximity to Antigua combined with its easily reachable summit, make it unmissable on the list of places to visit in Guatemala. It’s also one of the most active volcanoes in Central America. Ash clouds regularly erupt from the summit and lava flows can be seen from the hike to the top of the crater.
Another option for those interested in geothermal activity is hiking up the more strenuous Acatenango Volcano. It involves an overnight hike to the summit to watch the frequent eruptions of the neighboring Volcano Fuego, the erupting lava glowing orange against the dark night sky.
For exploring the western highlands Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela, is another one of the best places to visit in Guatemala. This high-altitude city feels like a small town with cozy cafes, friendly locals, and lively restaurants that spill out onto the street. Many visit to learn Spanish in one of the local schools or to join a volunteer program.
But that’s not all there is to do here, the city is a gateway to some of the best hiking in Guatemala. Take a guided 5-hour hike to visit Laguna Chicaba. This sacred lake is high on the side of a volcano so can be challenging to reach. But the views make every step worthwhile!
You can also take a day trip from Quetzaltenango to the mountain hot springs at Fuentes Georginas, or hike the twin volcanoes of Santa Maria and Volcán Santiaguito.
Visit Chichicastenango, a two-hour drive east of Quetzaltenango, on a Thursday or a Sunday and you will be treated to one of the largest open-air markets in Guatemala. The craft market is a fantastic showcase of indigenous Maya culture. Everyone from shop owners to local farmers seem to get in on the action, with busy stalls filling up every corner of the city center.
Other sights in town include the 16th-century Maya/Catholic Santo Tomás Apóstol Church, the Rossbach Archaeological Museum, and the Maya shrine of Pascual Abaj.
Lago de Atitlan and Panajachel
Some of the best things to do around Lake Atitlan include paragliding, paddle boarding, and hiking, but many come just to marvel at the views. You could easily spend a week just staring at the cobalt blue lake and the surrounding volcanic mountains.
If you’re looking to brush up on some Spanish, San Pedro has many language schools and a matching student nightlife scene. Or for a more relaxing stay, San Juan is the perfect spot for yoga, vegetarian cafes, and local culture.
Base yourself in the beautiful Spanish colonial town of Pana (Panajachel) for unbelievable views of Lake Atitlan. It’s the perfect place to stay for tours of the lake as well as day trips to all of the lake villages. Purchase artisan wares from local merchants during the day then spend the night enjoying the city’s varied nightlife.
Ixil Region and Nebaj
The remote and rural state of Quiché is one of the best places to visit in Guatemala but is off the beaten path. Visit the Ixil Triangle for unique hikes and jaw-dropping landscapes you won’t find elsewhere. You can explore the remote highlands of the Cuchumatanes Mountains here. They form the tallest mountain chain in Central America.
The Mayan mountain city of Nebaj is over 2,000 years old and is the main base for exploring the area, and is home to many archaeological remains of the pre-Columbian civilization. One of the most popular hikes in the region is Nebaj to Todos Santos. The journey can take five to six days but is filled with history, jaw-dropping cliffs, and local communities that have thrived in these remote areas.
Todos Santos Cuchumatan
Todos Santos Cuchumatan is another one of the best places to visit in Guatemala. It’s located near Nebaj and is a charming village that has managed to maintain its culture. If you ever wanted to have a genuine local experience in Guatemala, this is the place to do it. Todos Santos Cuchumatan is known for its Day of the Dead celebrations that are held annually on All Saints Day. The main attraction is a heavily intoxicated horse that runs through the town streets. It’s definitely an experience not to be missed!
Did you know that Guatemala is home to some beautiful beaches? The small town of Monterrico is located on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala and its black sand beaches make it one of the best places to visit in Guatemala. If you visit between September and January, you’ll get the chance to release baby sea turtles back into the ocean. Relax on the volcanic beach or even take a boat trip into the Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii Nature Reserve. There you can also go ziplining, spotting the many tropical birds in the high canopy as you glide through the trees.
Two hours west of Monterrico is the small surf town of El Paredon in Guatemala. The city isn’t known for its abundance of activities but that’s where the charm of the town lies. Spanish classes, surfing lessons, and lively evenings are the most popular way to pass the time in this laid-back destination.
Looking for a place to stay in El Paredon? You’ll definitely want to consider Pacifico El Paredon!
El Boqueron Canyon
El Boqueron Canyon is one of the most underrated attractions in the country but is definitely one of the best places to visit in Guatemala. The narrow canyon is tucked away in the lush green jungles of Guatemala and is filled with hidden corners that are perfect for exploring. While you’re there, take a local boat tour and paddle upstream to see the steep limestone walls of the canyon. After a long day of exploring, visit the Aguas Termales y Spa for beautiful waterfalls and a refreshing dip in the hot springs.
The Rio Dulce, or “sweet river” in English, is as wonderful as its name suggests. The river starts from Lago Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake, and passes through Fronteras (also known as Rio Dulce confusingly) and Livingston into the Caribbean Sea. There are plenty of things to do in and around Rio Dulce.
Don’t miss the Castle of San Felipe of Lara, a colonial fort on the banks of Lago de Izabal, you can also see manatees and go boating on the lake. Another site nearby is Quirigua, a Mayan city dating back to 400 BC. Lesser known than Tikal, it’s famous for its intricately carved stelae and statues.
Right on the beautiful Caribbean coast of Guatemala at the mouth of Rio Dulce, is the relaxed town of Livingston. Best known for its population of Garifuna people descended from Africans and indigenous Caribs, the town is alive with music and dance; both essential parts of the lively culture.
Originally from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Garifuna people now live in a few settlements along the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala. Hotel Casa Nostra is a great place to call home for a few days, with a scenic dock over the river and terrific food like the ‘house shrimp’ on offer.
You can’t go wrong with any of these locations when seeking the best places to visit in Guatemala. Which is on your list?