Guatemala humbly has it all: from colonial towns to Mayan ruins, great mountain lakes to vibrant religious festivals, sandy beaches to exotic jungles. Often visitors to the country find they leave enlightened; civilisations they believed long gone are found thriving, Tomb Raider landscapes they thought fantasy are shown to be real.
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.
Although Guatemala boasts some truly stunning cities – most notably Antigua, an upmarket colonial town surrounded by smouldering volcanoes – Guatemala’s real joy is its nature. The great Lake Atitlan in the highlands is a place of rare beauty and offers various adventure activities ranging from scuba diving to fishing.
On the other side of the country, the vast and remote region of Peten houses the country’s thickest jungle, home to long-abandoned Mayan ruins that few get to see. Elsewhere, gargantuan lakes, lava-oozing volcanoes, black sandy beaches, natural hot springs and roaring rivers combine to form the most geographically diverse destination in Central America.
Though consistently beautiful, Guatemala is a nation of contrasts; a place where Catholic churches exist alongside Mayan temples, where rugged highlands give way to tropical jungles, and where the legacy of its ancient civilisations is as evident as its modern, Latin American culture.
Despite stories of high crime rates and volatile politics, most visitors encounter nothing but warmth and hospitality from its people, as well as epic landscapes that make them wonder why they didn’t visit sooner.