Things to Do in Guatemala
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.
Considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Lake Atitlán, located in the Guatemalan Highlands, is the deepest lake in Central America and surrounded by three volcanoes. Created from a volcano (the lake fills a caldera which erupted more than 84,000 years ago!), the fertile ground around the lake is home to numerous agriculture, including coffee and corn.
Aside from just taking in the breathtaking beauty of the lake, other options to enjoy this slice of nature include eco-adventures, including guided hikes of the San Pedro volcano, and kayaking. For those who want to explore on foot, the Reserva Natural Atitlán is home to hundreds of butterflies, coffee groves and even a waterfall. If water activities are wanted, take a boat across the lake to one of the traditional Maya villages like Santiago Atitlan.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Guatemala
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Travelers looking for a relaxing, natural escape will find all they desire in the hidden trails, hot springs and stunning landscapes of Funestes Georginas. Located just outside Xela, this popular destination has been attracting travelers for decades. Although a major hurricane damaged much of the grounds in 2010, a huge rebuilding effort has restored most of the property to its original splendor. Visitors can slip into one of four pools fed by nearby sulfur hot springs, wander through the tropical forests on one of the well-marked trails, or head to Volcan Zunil or Volcan Santo Tomas using one of the longer, more technical paths. Fuentes Georginas has a restaurant and bar to insure visitors are well fed and travelers can even spend the night at one of the quiet mountain cottages to insure there’s plenty of time to enjoy all Fuentes Georginas has to offer.
Pacific-side Puerto Quetzal is your starting point for one of Guatemala’s most popular destinations, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Antigua. Volcanic Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán) and the well-preserved Mayan ruins of Tikal, in northern Guatemala, can also be seen on a day tour from the port. There’s not much going on around the port area itself, but if you aren’t planning a shore excursion, check out the craft market or take a taxi to the small fishing town of Iztapa, 6 miles (10 km) to the east.
Antigua Guatemala, as it’s formally known, lies 50 miles (80 km) north of Puerto Quetzal. Your best bet for making the scenic 1.5-hour drive past coffee fields and volcanoes is to book a shore excursion with port pickup.
The Spanish Baroque architecture is the main attraction of this colonial city, set 4,500 feet (1,372 meters) above sea level. Orient yourself with a leisurely walk along the cobblestoned streets, checking out the star sights.
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.
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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