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Things to Do in Central Highlands

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Pacaya Volcano
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28 Tours and Activities

Pacaya Volcano is considered Guatemala’s most active volcano and is believed to have first erupted approximately 23,000 years ago. Pacaya has erupted a number of times since and has had an active status since 1965. It stands at more than 8,300 feet (2.5 km) at its tallest point and is part of the Central American Volcanic Arc.

One of the most notable eruptions was in 2010, when Pacaya erupted multiple times in one day, raining ash on a number of towns, including part of Guatemala City. Schools and the airport were affected by the raincloud of ash, causing the president to declare a state of calamity. This was further complicated by torrential rain from Tropical Storm Agatha, which had caused flooding and landslides in the region. In March 2014, Pacaya erupted again, and officials discussed whether to evacuate several thousand people who lived near the volcano’s base. This eruption sent another huge ash cloud into the air and caused a number of flights to be diverted.

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Acatenango
20 Tours and Activities

Guatemala’s Pacaya is one of the most popular volcanoes to visit, but travelers shouldn't skip its neighbor, Acatenango. Towering nearly 13,123 feet (4,000 meters), it is Guatemala’s third-tallest volcano and one of the tallest stratovolcanoes in Central America.

Acatenango’s first eruption was in 1924 —relatively recent in comparison to many other volcanoes—though some evidence of its volcanic activity dates back to prehistoric times. Other eruptions occurred shortly after, but it then remained quiet until an eruption in 1972. Since then, Acatenango has been declared dormant.

Acatenango is part of the Fuego-Acatenango massif, or string of volcanic vents, which includes Yepocapa, Pico Mayor de Acatenango, Meseta and Fuego. Acatenango has two main summits: Yepocapa, the northern summit at 12,565 feet (3,830 meters) and Pico Mayor, the southern and highest cone at 13,054 feet (3,976 meters).

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La Aurora Zoo (Zoólogico la Aurora)
3 Tours and Activities

Considered to be one of the best zoos in Central America, La Aurora opened in 1924. This small zoo offers four permanent exhibits: Africa, Asia, Granita and American.

Not only does this zoo give visitors the chance to learn more about Guatemala’s animals, it also has a large collection of Central American creatures. Experience animals including giraffes, elephants, farm animals, lions, tigers, pythons, hippos and more.

The zoo does a good job living up to its mission – to educate, conserve and rehabilitate animals. It even offers lectures and other programs daily.

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Plaza de la Constitución (Parque Central)
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Located in the Centro Historico (Zona 1) district of Guatemala City, the Plaza de la Constitución, or Constitution Plaza, is considered the best place to kick off a tour of Guatemala City.

A number of important sites are located around and the Parque Central, as locals refer to it, which follows the standard colonial urban-planning scheme found in the New World. The plaza's concrete “park” is always bustling with activity, especially on public holidays and Sundays. Constitution Plaza is also surrounded by important structures like the National Plaza of Culture, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the underground Central Market, the Portal of Commerce and Centenarian Park. The National Library and Periodicals Library and General Archive of Central America are found here too. Near the Parque Central is the pedestrian-only area of Paseo Sexta Avenida (Sixth Avenue Passage), a beloved shopping and entertainment area that is a great introduction to Guatemalan culture and habits.

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National Palace
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11 Tours and Activities

This stoic structure in the heart of Guatemala’s capital city was built in 1939 entirely by local hands and using only local materials. As a result, the National Palace offers up an homage to Guatemalan heritage and is ranks tops among the buildings prized by locals. Its green-tinged exterior is a nod to the favorite color of the former dictator’s wife, and the result of concrete and copper used to cover the exterior to avoid painting. As a result, it’s affectionately known by some locals as 'The Big Guacamole.' An impressive bronze plate at the entrance to the Palace marks a spot known as 'Kilometer 0.' According to residents, this is the official starting point of all roads in Guatemala. Travelers will find a beautiful courtyard at the center of the five-story building, which is surrounded by five archways on every side.

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Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana)
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The Metropolitan Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Guatemala City, is the main church of Guatemala City. Located in the heart of town, the main portion of it was built between 1782 and 1815. About 50 years later, the towers were finished. The impressive baroque/neo-classical building with a blue dome is earthquake proof – it’s withstood numerous quakes (it was damaged by two earthquakes and repaired).

Inside there is a collection of work which was originally from the Cathedral of Antigua Guatemalan. In addition, the altars are preserved and feature images of saints and other work from the Cathedral of Antigua Guatemala as well.

Be sure to take a moment and pay respect to the tragic recent history of the country at the 12 pillars, located in front of the cathedral. These pillars were resurrected to pay tribute to the murders and disappearance of thousands of people during the civil war from 1960s through 1996.

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Lanquín Caves (Grutas de Lanquín)
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The Grutas de Lanquin, or Lanquin Caves, are limestone caves near the city of Cobán that were once considered sacred to the Mayan people, believed to be the "heart of heaven." The Mayans believed the "secret of the ages" was hidden deep inside the caves. Today, they are a popular tourist destination, although some locals still utilize the caves in the manner of their ancestors. Travelers, on the other hand, come to explore the caves’ beauty, learn about their historyand come face to face with some of their most notable residents: the thousands of bats that leave the caves nightly.

Take the time to wander the various chambers and limestone formations. Rooms of importance include the Altar of the Pillory, where Mayans performed rites and burned incense, and the Bridge of the Fall of the King, a name given after King Leopold of Belgium visited the caves and a wooden bridge collapsed under his weight. When the bridge was rebuilt, it was named after the incident.

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Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross)
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20 Tours and Activities

The Hill of the Cross, or Cerro de la Cruz, is a 30-minute walk that, upon arrival, treats its guests to expansive views of Antigua and the Volcan de Agua. While this walk is not easy, it is worth it. For those who prefer to skip the hike, cabs can whisk people to the top as well.

Located on the north side of the city, it offers the best views of Antigua. And an enormous stone cross.

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More Things to Do in Central Highlands

Jade Factory and Museum (Jade Maya)

Jade Factory and Museum (Jade Maya)

34 Tours and Activities

Jade is a rare and precious stone dating back to the pre-Columbian era in Mesoamerica. Some of the world’s best jade was found in Guatemala. Historically, it was used in culturally significant ways, including in hieroglyph inscriptions and carvings of symbolic figures. There are two types of jade — Jadeite and Nephrite. Jadeite is more dense and renowned for its rich colors. Nephrite is more of a carving stone, found in many places around the world. Jadeite contains the bright green and apple colors you find in quality jade jewelry. Those colors were prized by both Chinese emperors and Maya kings.

To learn more about jade, visitors to Antigua can visit the Jade Factory and Museum, also called Jade Maya, founded in 1974 by archaeologist Mary Lou Ridinger and her husband, Jay. Fine jadeite is mined here in the same manner of the Olmec, Maya and Aztec people. Guatemalan workers at Jade Maya cut and polish the mined jade following the same traditions of their ancestors.

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La Merced Church (Iglesia de la Merced)

La Merced Church (Iglesia de la Merced)

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51 Tours and Activities

This gorgeous Baroque-style church features a soft, buttery yellow exterior complimented by white trim. Originally a male monastery, La Merced was originally built in 1548. Later, in 1749, Juan de Dios began work on building today's church, finishing the project in 1767.

The exterior of the intricately designed church features sculptures and paintings, such as the well-known Jesus Nazareno. Inside, ruins of the monastery can be found, including the Fuente de Pescados, or Fountain of the Fish. During Holy Week, the church is the start of the procession.

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Antigua Central Park (Parque Central)

Antigua Central Park (Parque Central)

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Located in the center of Antigua, Parque Central is the major outdoor area in the town. Considered one of the most beautiful in the country, the park is the place where people meet up for an afternoon of relaxation and nice weather.

By day, vendors line the tree-covered walks, selling their wares. By night, mariachi or marimba bands set up shop, entertaining passersby with their live music.

Be sure to check out the fountain, which was originally created in 1738. Although a replica, the 1936 reconstruction maintains the original's posterity.

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Biotopo del Quetzal

Biotopo del Quetzal

5 Tours and Activities

The Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera Nature Reserve, commonly referred to as Biotopo del Quetzal, is one of Guatemala’s best nature sites. It gets its name from the country’s national bird, the endangered Quetzal, which has found a home within the sanctuary.

Quetzals are rather elusive within Biotopo del Quetzal, but they are sometimes spotted near local restaurants, as they prefer to feast on avocado-like fruits from neighboring aguacatillo trees. Some say December and January are the prime months to spot them; keep your eyes open for birds with bright-red chests; green, fuzzy feathers on their heads; and exotic, long tail feathers. If you don’t manage to spot one, there is still plenty to see at Biotopo del Quetzal. Despite the fact that only a small portion of the vast reserve is open to visitors, there are a number of different mosses, ferns, orchids and epiphytes to see, as well as other birds, including the emerald toucanet and highland guan.

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ChocoMuseo Antigua

ChocoMuseo Antigua

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Ancient Mayans were the first to begin using cocoa beans in culinary preparations, and today, Guatemala is one of the countries most associated with chocolate production. At the chocolate museum in Antigua, visitors learn about the history of chocolate and the chocolate production process in a hands-on, kid-friendly setting.

During the ChocoMuseo’s three-times-daily Beans-to-Bar Workshop, a guide walks attendees through the entire chocolate-making process, from harvest and roasting to tempering and molding. Along the way, guests get to prepare cocoa tea, Mayan hot chocolate and European hot chocolate, as well as a box of their own handmade chocolates to bring home. The museum also offers a truffle workshop and a full day tour with a visit to a working cocoa plantation.

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Iglesia de Santo Domingo

Iglesia de Santo Domingo

3 Tours and Activities

A beautiful neoclassical church, Santo Domingo rose to fame because the Virgen del Rosario was dedicated here and crowned as the queen of Guatemala in 1933.

The church took nearly two decades to construct, finishing in 1808. However, a little more than a century later, the building was damaged by the 1917 quake, and again in 1942. Fortunately, restoration allowed it to be brought back to its original form.

It is located at 12 Avenida 10-09 Zone 1 and for some the Church of Santo Domingo is famous for its beautiful neoclassical architecture.

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Mixco Viejo

Mixco Viejo

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Mixco Viejo is an archaeological site that dates back to the postclassic Mayan civilization. There are two areas with the name Mixco Viejo, as the former Chajoma Kaqchikel kingdom was mistakenly linked to the postclassic Poqomam capital as a result of confusion interpreting the colonial records. To properly distinguish between the two today, the former Poqomam capital is called Mixco Viejo (Chinaulta Viejo), while the Kaqchikel capital is known as Mixco Viejo (Jilotepeque Viejo).

Mixco Viejo (Jilotepeque Viejo) borders the departments of Quiche, Chimaltenango and Guatemala near the junction of the Motagua and Pixcaya rivers. It consists of 15 groups with over 120 major structures, including palaces, ball courts and temples.

Mixco Viejo’s population was believed to have been about 1,500 at one point. Evidence shows it was one of the few Maya cities inhabited and still functioning when the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Guatemala.

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Catedral de Santiago (Antigua Cathedral)

Catedral de Santiago (Antigua Cathedral)

18 Tours and Activities

The stark and silent beauty of the ruins of Catedral de Santiago offers visitors one of only a few quiet and contemplative escapes in the 500-year-old city of Antigua. Once a towering homage to religion and faith, this European-inspired white stone wonder was devastated during a massive earthquake in 1717 and never repaired. Today, travelers can explore what remains of this unique structure, whose exterior tells a story of triumph and perseverance. It’s only when visitors pass by the reconstructed façade that they find what can only be described as broken beauty.

Covered hallways and altars now exist under open skies, since ceilings and rooftops that crumbled during natural disasters were never replaced. Delicate white engravings and vast ivory archways are tinged and darkened with dirt after so many years of being exposed to the elements.

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Palace of the Captains General (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales)

Palace of the Captains General (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales)

9 Tours and Activities

The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales used to be home to the Spanish viceroy and the power of the entire Central American region for more than 200 years. It housed everything from the court to post office, treasury, royal office and even horse stables.

Today, the building, which was first constructed in the late 1500s, is home to many governmental offices including the tourist office and police department. A couple of years ago, it underwent large-scale repairs and restoration. The exterior facade is not the original, it was added in the late 1700s.

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Church of San Francisco (Iglesia de San Francisco)

Church of San Francisco (Iglesia de San Francisco)

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Originally constructed in the 1500s, Iglesia de San Francisco, today, has mostly been reconstructed, thanks to age and earthquake damage. However, that's not the draw to this attraction. Both locals and visitors come to this old, baroque church to visit the shrine of Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur (Santo Hermano Pedro de San Jose de Betancurt). A Franciscan monk, he founded a hospital for the poor in town and is the country's most honored Christian leader.

Beatified in 1980 and made a saint in 2002 when Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala, Peter of Saint Joseph's tomb is visited by thousands each year asking for favors and miracles.

However, make no mistake, this church - which is one of the oldest in town - is still a work of beauty. It features 16 vaulted niches, a bell and clock tower from the 17th and 19th centuries and work from famed artists. Throughout history, the church has also been home to places such as a hospital and printing press.

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Quiriguá

Quiriguá

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Quiriguá is an ancient Mayan site in southeastern Guatemala. Although it’s considered a small Mayan city, it is without a doubt one of the most important. It was here that the tallest stela from the Maya world was discovered. The monolithic stone stands 35 feet high (10.6 meters), 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide and 5 feet (1.5 meters) thick, weighing over 60 tons (53.6 long tons).

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Quiriguá once controlled the jade and obsidian trade route. During the same time, the city had a fierce rivalry with its neighbor Copán in Honduras. Researchers believe Quiriguá was inhabited starting in the second century, and the bulk of the most important monuments were carved between A.D 426 and AD 810. It is unknown why Quiriguá entered a period of decline, but evidence suggests that when the Europeans arrived, the jade route was under the control of Nito, a city closer to the Caribbean coast.

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Popol Vuh Museum (Museo Popol Vuh)

Popol Vuh Museum (Museo Popol Vuh)

2 Tours and Activities

Housed on campus at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Popol Vuh Museum contains some of the most famous collections of pre-Columbian artifacts in the country. A private research institution, visitors to the museum have an opportunity here to learn about the history of Guatemala. The goal of the museum is to conserve, research and educate people about both the cultural and archaeological heritage of the country. It accomplishes this with its many exhibits within the property.

For starters, the museum contains one of the largest collections of Maya art in the world. Visitors to the museum can expect to see a varied collection within its small rooms, including stone sculptures, pottery and the Lord Bat sculpture. The museum is known for its ceramic collection, which is considered to be the best in Guatemala City, if not the country. Of special note are the collections of funeral urns, censers and ceramic whistles.

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