From my travels so far, one of the countries that stands out the most is Guatemala. Before visiting, I had heard many people rave about it, but it really exceeded my expectations. Here are five reasons why Guatemala should be at the top of your list for your next travelling adventure…
Incredible natural sites
Guatemala boasts some amazing natural sites, making it a great place for outdoors enthusiasts. The country’s 29 volcanoes – some active, some dormant and some extinct – make for great hikes and fabulous scenery. Volcan Pacaya is a particularly nice hike, a short drive from the colonial town of Antigua and a fairly leisurely walk, with the lava from previous eruptions clearly visible in a solid flow from the crater when you reach the top. Roasting marshmallows in the hot coals is quite a novelty!
For a tougher ascent, head for Volcan Atitlan, which looms over San Pedro la Laguna on the edge of Lake Atitlan. I hear views are tremendous, although unfortunately my walking boots didn’t take me up there this time! Instead, we opted for a 5am hike up the Indian Nose, a hill that overlooks the lake from the opposite side, for unbelievable sunrise views over the lake and mountains towards Volcan Fuego, smoking away in the distance.
A rather different natural phenomenon, in the centre of the country is Semuc Champey, an impressive set of turquoise pools flowing through the forest, with the Rio Cahabón raging beneath. A day trip including a visit to the pools, a scramble through some caves and tubing down the river was a highlight of our visit. In general, Guatemala’s scenery is fabulous; mountains, rivers, lakes and forests galore. It’s a picture-perfect natural paradise.
For those who want to visit a place with a diverse and fascinating past, Guatemala has a lot to offer for history buffs. From ancient ruins to colonial towns, Guatemala’s history is visible throughout the country. The ancient Maya ruins of Tikal, in the north, are particularly dramatic. In the middle of the forest, huge stone temples poke out of the top of a sea of trees when viewed from a temple you’re invited to climb at the end of the tour. And I would certainly recommend paying that little extra for the guided tour – the forest paths are not easily navigated, and with a guide you are sure to see some of the forest’s abundant wildlife, including cheeky howler monkeys and crawling tarantulas.
Guatemala’s colonial history also remains evident in its towns. Antigua, in the south of the country, is especially nice to explore, with several interesting churches and an abundance of colourful, crumbling shops and cafes. Antigua’s cathedral, greatly damaged but mostly still standing, is an interesting reminder of the magnitude of the 1773 earthquake of which Antigua itself was the epicentre.
Unlike some other Central American countries where the traditional culture is unfortunately not as prominent as it once was, Guatemala’s Mayan culture is still visible in everyday life. Most Maya women in Guatemala still wear their traditional dress – colourful, embroidered skirts and tops – and some (although fewer) men also wear the traditional male dress, with similar embroidered textiles. The culture is a wonderful part of this vibrant country, and the people are some of the kindest and most welcoming I have met.
Guatemala is ideal for the budget traveller. A hostel is around $5 average per night, and a meal around $2.50-$3. Activities are also not over-priced – expect to pay around $15 to $20 for a day-long tour or activity. Chicken buses are very cheap at around $2 for a journey of an hour or so, as well as being a fairly exciting way to get around until holding onto the rails for dear life, squished up on a two-man seat with a family of five, all becomes too much!
Undiscovered by the hoards
If your idea of travelling is discovering a country as it really is, rather than as it has been created for tourists, then Guatemala is for you. Although tourism is on the rise, and you will certainly come across many other visitors on your travels in Guatemala, compared to Central America’s more southern regions tourists are far fewer. This is one thing that helps the friendliness of prices.
Guatemala is a dramatically beautiful and diverse country, and is definitely one you should consider for the near future.