Guatemala Unmasked: The Centrepiece of Central America Tours

Landmarks & Icons

Colourful yellow arch of Guatemala Antigua city at sunrise with the active Agua volcano in the background, Guatemala

Harbouring lush jungles, a turbulent history, and the remnants of one of the world’s most advanced civilizations, a visit to Guatemala on Central America tours is one you can’t afford not to take during your lifetime.

Antigua Guatemala

This UNESCO World Heritage-listed city is Guatemala’s most visited, conveniently located less than 45 minutes from Guatemala City Airport. It’s so convenient that most Guatemala tours bypass the sprawling capital entirely and take visitors directly to Antigua, but more on that in a bit. Antigua Guatemala is the country’s open air museum, embodying both its colonial architecture and its laid back lifestyle. Magnificent views of the surrounding volcanoes don’t hurt its appeal either.

Antigua Guatemala was the third capital established by the Spanish and was originally named Santiago in 1566. In 1773, a devastating earthquake left the city abandoned and forbidden for many years. After a few days wandering the streets, ducking in and out of local shops, churches, cafes, and museums, you’ll start to understand why people just couldn’t stay away.

Some modern Globetrotters find themselves so enamoured with Antigua they stay for several months, learning Spanish and practicing with the locals. But even just for a couple of days, this is the picture of Guatemala that will make you want to return again and again on Central America tours.

Cobblestone streets of Antigua Guatemala at twilight, Guatemala
Cobblestone streets of Antigua Guatemala at twilight

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, and Chichicastanango Market

If Antigua embodies the Guatemala of colonial times, then the Altiplano region around Lake Atitlan captures the country’s still thriving indigenous culture. Just under 40% of Guatemala’s population is descended from 23 original Maya groups and one non-Maya group. A further 41% of the population identify as mixed race, called Mestizos in Guatemala. The country has been independent since 1816, and over centuries, has fused the customs of its conquerors with those of the Mayans, whose civilization thrived throughout the region.

Lake Atitlan is one of Guatemala’s most famous natural features, and certainly one of its most photographed. Stretching out in the shadow of towering and equally photogenic volcanoes, this is Central America’s deepest lake, described by writer Aldous Huxley as “really too much of a good thing.” Three large volcanoes surround Atitlan, while the Mayan villages of Santiago and San Antonio can easily be visited nearby.

Viewpoint at Lake Atitlan with San Pedro, Atitlan and Toliman volcanos and San Pedro and San Juan villages, Guatemala
Viewpoint at Lake Atitlan with San Pedro, Atitlan and Toliman volcanos and villages of San Pedro and San Juan

You probably won’t find Guatemala on any typical list of destinations promoted to shopaholics. Still, if you’re looking for souvenirs, handicrafts, most particularly textiles, or even just a day of sightseeing over delicious local snacks, Chichicastenango Market is your Guatemalan slice of heaven on Central America tours. Bring plenty of camera memory, a healthy appetite, and your best (fair) bargaining skills. “Chichi” market is particularly known for its women’s blouses, as well as masks used in traditional dances of the region. Chichicastenango is also a remarkably pretty town to explore in its own right.

Old Mayan man in Chichicastenango Market, Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Old Mayan man in Chichicastenango Market

Tikal

Central America tours offer plenty of Mayan sites worth exploring, and Guatemala sits right at the centre of this once powerful civilization. You could spend months in the region and not see all the sites. But Tikal stands apart, not just because of its immense size, and not because it made a cameo in the original Star Wars movie either.

In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that an expedition set about excavating Tikal. What they found was an enormous ancient city believed to be home to some 100,000 people. Overlooking it all is the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, the towering pyramid that rises above the trees and remains a symbol of Guatemala to this day. Climbing it is sadly forbidden, though you can climb up the back side of Temple II for great views over the site. By far the most awe-inspiring place to stand is in the middle of the Grand Plaza, with the two great pyramids on either side. Of course, Star Wars fans will want to climb the wooden stairs to the top of Temple IV for a familiar view (though they should bring “a new hope” for a clear day). They’ll be able to say they’ve scaled the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas as well.

Tikal is the world’s second largest ruins site after Angkor in Cambodia, and there’s far more to it than the Grand Plaza and central temples. A lot of the residential area is still to be excavated. Be ready for hot, humid rainforest, rich with wildlife. Wear comfortable clothing and footwear since you’ll be walking a lot throughout the day. For the same reason, pack water and small snacks, as no food is sold within the park. It’s technically not allowed at all, though it is generally tolerated, provided you don’t litter. It’s also best to arrive early, close to the 6am opening time if you can, to avoid the peak crowds of 10am to 2pm.

Tikal Mayan Ruins and Temples, Guatemala
Tikal Mayan ruins and temples

Should You Stop in Guatemala City?

Most Guatemala tours, including Goway’s Best of Guatemala, skip the capital city, making a beeline for the colonial charms of Antigua. If you’re pressed for time, this might be the way to go. From Mayan heritage, to architecture, to chocolate, to the country’s living indigenous culture, you can find most of what probably brought you to Guatemala away from the big city in a far more relaxed environment.

Guatemala City has copped its share of criticism over the years for high levels of crime, ugly architecture, poor tourist infrastructure, and all around sprawl, and to an extent, that reputation is not unfounded. But things are improving. This is still a destination for urban explorers who like things on the gritty side, but it’s nowhere near as inaccessible or dangerous as stereotypes suggest, and crime rates are not significantly higher than in many big cities of the United States. The same precautions you’d take elsewhere in Latin America will serve you well in Guatemala City. Call cabs or Uber after dark. Dress neatly, but casually. Don’t wear flashy jewelry, keep bags of all kinds strapped across your body and never leave them or other valuables like wallets and cell phones on a table or anywhere else they might tempt thieves. Finally, don’t venture into zones 3, 6, 18, or 21, which are known for their drug activity and offer very little to interest visitors in any case.

If you want to see today’s Guatemala at work and play, visit some top notch museums like the Ixchel or the National Archaeology and Ethnography Museum, and architectural highlights like the Presidential Palace, taking a day or two in the capital.

Panoramic view of Guatemala City in the afternoon, Guatemala
Panoramic view of Guatemala City in the afternoon