Guatemala is a vibrant, colourful land characterised by its proud ethnic cultures, towering volcanic peaks, lush jungles, colonial architecture and staggering Mayan monuments. Guatemala humbly has it all: from the highlands to the coasts, the colonial towns to the devout festivals, the great mountain lakes to the exotic jungles. Visitors to the country find they leave changed, civilisations they once believed long gone in fact thriving, fantasy landscapes in fact a reality.
Antiquity is at the heart of Guatemala, and the country is home to many spectacular Mayan archaeological sites, most significantly the vast UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal, where great towers peep through the rainforest canopy and monkeys swing past the sprawling ancient plazas. The pine-forested hills of the highlands are home to many Mayan communities, whose indigenous beliefs, traditional dress, religious practices and craftsmanship, flourish. Indeed, Guatemala has around 21 different ethnic groups, speaking some 23 languages giving it a distinctive culture like nowhere else in the region.
Mayan mountain-top towns such as Quetzaltenango (or Xela) and Chichicastenango, with their colourful markets, spirited festivals and indigenous way of life are one of the country’s true highlights. Ringed by smouldering volcanoes, Antigua was once the country’s capital, the upmarket colonial town as beautiful as its surrounding landscape. It comes alive during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations when elaborate parades through the streets attract thousands from across the country and beyond.
Guatemala is a nature-lovers paradise. Indeed, even the local currency is adorned with exotic birds and animals. With a mild, inviting climate, Guatemala provides the perfect canvas for outdoor exploration. In the highlands, the great Lake Atitlan is one of the country’s jewels. Small villages and towns dot the shoreline, from the Mayan Panajachel to the bohemian San Pedro de la Laguna, and scuba diving, fishing and kayaking are perfect activities to enjoy on the serene waters of the lake. On the other side of the country, the vast and remote region of Peten is home to the country’s most dense jungle, in the midst of which were discovered the long-abandoned Mayan ruins including the formidable Tikal.
Gargantuan lakes, lava-oozing volcanoes, black sand Pacific beaches teeming with nesting sea turtles, natural hot springs and roaring rivers combine to form the most varied natural landscape in all of Central America. At Semuc Champey, turquoise pools cascade through the jungle, forming a bridge over a raging underground river and a maze of caves simply beg to be explored.
Guatemala’s tourist appeal is undeniable. Yet soaring crime rates and a volatile social and political make-up have plagued the country, most notably the capital Guatemala City for decades (although the lion’s share of violent crime tends to be gang-related, posing less of a danger to visitors). Despite Guatemala's often savage history, where Mayan, Spanish and civil wars have raged, visitors are greeted by sincere friendliness and hospitality. For Guatemala is essentially a country of contrasts; one where Catholic churches exits alongside Mayan traditions, where the rugged highlands give way to the undulating tropical jungles and where the legacy of its ancient civilisations is as evident as its modern, Latin culture.