Guatemala: Main Sights
Land of Eternal Spring
You won’t be short of things to see and do in Guatemala and your main problem will be finding enough time to fit everything in. If activities are what you want, then try white-water rafting, mountaineering or caving (spelunking). Journey into the rainforests watch wildlife and explore mysterious Mayan ruins, or sample the architectural delights of Spanish colonial towns. If that gets to be too much, relax, swim and fish on Guatemala’s sub-tropical Pacific coast.
Guatemala City and Antigua (Guatemala)
Palacio Nacional: Guatemala City
The National Palace of Guatemala was commissioned by President Ubico and was completed in 1943. Situated on the Plaza de Armas and at kilometre centro, the exact centre of Guatemala, the National Palace was built in a variety of different architectural styles, including baroque, renaissance and neo-classical. Many Guatemalan artists contributed to its construction. Today the Palacio serves as an art gallery and features Alberto Suarez’s work depicting the conquest of Guatemala. The building alone is worth visiting for its lavish and eclectic mixture of styles and tours are free!
Volcan Pacaya (Pacaya Volcano): Guatemala City
If you feel like a little adventure close to Guatemala City and Antigua (Guatemala), then climb the slopes of Volcan Pacaya, which is a one-day trip from Guatemala City. Pacaya is an active volcano and you will may be able to see red lava flows on its slopes. However, you should take precautions, such as avoiding breathing the sulphurous gasses that come from the vents on the mountainside. It takes about 2 to 3 hours to hike up the mountainside, but horses are often available if you need a rest. It is advisable to use a guide from a recognised tour company, because Pacaya has been the scene of robberies in the past, although these are less frequent nowadays.
Casa K’ojom (House of Music): Antigua (Guatemala)
At this fascinating museum in the ancient Guatemalan capital of Antigua (Guatemala), you will discover the music and vibrant colours of Mayan ceremonies and culture. The museum includes a collection of photographs of Mayan ceremonies. Also on display are examples of the musical instruments used by the Mayans both before and after the Spanish conquest. You can hear the music too, because it plays in the background while you walk around and view the exhibits. This is a small, but well-presented museum.
Iglesia de la Merced: Antigua (Guatemala)
The convent Church of La Merced is one of the most striking buildings in colonial Antigua (Guatemala). It was originally built in 1548, but after several earthquakes, the current building dates from 1767 and includes features to enable it to withstand tremors. La Merced’s intricately styled baroque architecture is the setting for sculptures such as Our Lady of Las Mercedes and San Pedro Nolasco. Attached to the Church are the ruins of a monastery, which contains a massive fountain called El Fuente de Pescados (The Fountain of Fish). Entrance to the convent costs only 20p.
Antigua (Guatemala) Market
No trip to Antigua (Guatemala) would be complete without a visit to its bustling market, which spreads along Calle Ote and the Alameda de Santa Lucia. Here you will find all manner Mayan craft goods from colourful embroidered textiles to ceramics and jade. Local villagers visit the market in the mornings to buy and sell their wares. The official market days are Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but the market is busy most days of the week.
Panajachel and Lake Atitlan
This part of the Guatemalan highlands offers many things for tourists on all budgets. The town of Panajachel has breathtaking views of Lake Atitlan and three volcanoes. You may want to stroll through the town, visiting its extensive craft market, or you may decide to visit the Reserva Natural Atitlan (Nature Reserve), just a short walk away from the town. Surrounding Panajachel are numerous indigenous villages where you can savour the colours, sights and sounds of traditional Quiche Maya life. You may just want to take a cruise on the lake and enjoy the scenery, or perhaps fish for bass. If you would like something more active, perhaps you would like to try parascending, horse riding, hiking or cycling in this most beautiful of settings.
Monterrico: Pacific Coast
If you would like to spend some time lazing on a beach, then Monterrico is the place for you, because it is said to have some of the best beaches in Guatemala. It has black sand beaches that stretch for miles, but the sea currents in this area are strong. If grow tired of lazing on the beach, then visit the Monterrico Nature Reserve (Biotopo Mointerrico-Hawaii), where you may see the endangered leatherback turtle, A boat trip through the reserve lasts two hours and costs about £5.50.
Tikal: El Peten
Set in a National Park, Tikal is a vast ruined Mayan city that once was home to 100,000 people. Construction of the city began around 600 BC and, over 1,500 years, it grew in importance to become the not only the seat of power of the Mayan Jaguar Clan, but also a great religious scientific and political centre. Today Tikal’s vast complex of 3,000 buildings, including palaces, temples, ceremonial platforms, ball-courts, terraces, plazas and avenues is surrounded by a nature reserve. The Park is teeming with wildlife including, howler monkeys, parrots, ocelots and even jaguars. The Park is open every day of the year from 6am to 6pm. An entrance fee of £13.50 is valid for one day and allows entrance to the ruins, as well as to the Sylvannus Morlay Museum.
Grutas Actun-Can: El Peten
This limestone cave is also known as La Cava de la Sarpiente (The Cave of the Serpent), but contrary to its name, does not contain any snakes. Situated just over a mile (2 km) from Flores, the cave is permanently lit enabling you to see the more than 50 curious stalagmites and stalactites in the limestone. These have been given names such as “the elephant’s leg”, “the virgin of the cave” and “the god of rain”. A taxi from Santa Elena or Flores will cost between £2 and £2.50.
Finca El Paraiso: Lago Izabal, Rio Dulce
This working ranch, or finca, is a day-trip from Rio Dulce. It is set in beautiful jungle surroundings where you can wander to a waterfall that is fed by a thermal spring. The pool at the bottom of the waterfall is good for bathing. Close by is a cave that is home to numerous bats. You might also want to enjoy the many good walks and hikes in this area. It takes about an hour to reach Finca El Paraiso by bus from Rio Dulce, which costs about 70p.
Kumarkaaj: Santa Cruz del Quiche
The archaeological site of Kumarkaaj was the capital of the Quiche Mayan kingdom, which flourished in the late Postclassic period of Mayan history (from around 1400 AD). The Quiche culture arose from a mixture of indigenous Mayan culture and that of Mexican invaders and came to dominate the neighbouring cities and tribes by its heyday. The Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado destroyed the city in 1524, after having been invited to stay there by the Quiche Maya king Tecun Uman. Today, Kumarkaaj is a series of grassy hills, which is visited by tourists because of its beauty, rather than for its archaeological ruins. It is still much used today however by the modern Quiche Maya for their ceremonies, sacrifices, prayers and rituals. It is situated near the town of Santa Cruz del Quiche, which is on the main route between Chichicastenango 12 miles away (19 km) and Guatemala City 100 miles away (160 km). Bus rides cost about 50p to and from Santa Cruz and £1.50 to Guatemala City.