After visiting Guatemala for the first time ever in 2021, I can enthusiastically proclaim: Guatemala should be at the top of your places to visit.
First off, it’s super accessible – especially from the US, but also from Mexico and Europe.
Second off, Guatemala is incredible. Between absolutely breathtaking Mayan history and fabulous ruins, to massive volcanos, genuinely friendly people, and adorable towns all over, tourism in Guatemala truly is a game-changer.
If you’re wondering, “what are the 10 best places to visit in Guatemala?”, you’ve come to the right place.
1) Tikal: the Ultimate Mayan City of Guatemala
Tikal: the behemoth of Mayan cities. It’s absolutely massive, and being there is levitating. It feels like witnessing human ingenuity at its core.
Tikal is absolutely the top place to visit in Guatemala, and I wouldn’t call a visit to Guatemala complete without seeing it. Once a fully-functioning megapolis of over 200,000 people, Tikal is amongst the most impressive work from the Maya era.
You can climb stories and stories up mega-temples for views extended dozens of miles into Belize and Mexico, enjoy a picnic on large grassy fields that used to host merchants and mercenaries, or wander into enchanting tropical forests filled with howling monkeys hanging off massive ceiba trees.
But most importantly, you can enrich your understanding and appreciation of the people who used to call this place home.
How to get to Tikal:
- Fly to Flores (FRS) and then take a taxi up to Tikal
- Arrange a guided tour departing from Flores
- Take a private or shared shuttle from Antigua Guatemala or Guatemala City
- Currently, land borders from Belize are still closed
2) Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is a ridiculously beautiful hidden gem that seems frequented almost exclusively by locals. Foreign tourists don’t seem to know it’s there – yet.
Semuc Champey was undoubtedly one of the coolest things I saw in Guatemala, literally and figuratively. It reminded me of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, where you can swim in crystal-clear ponds surrounded by waterfalls.
Just like in Croatia, you can hike up the mountains for absolutely epic views on this unforgettably beautiful part of the country. It’s almost unfathomable how nature comes up with such incredible beauty, but there it is.
The only thing to note for 2021 is that your time in the park is limited. You can only stay a couple hours, and when we were there, guards did check our time stamp.
The main difficult with Semuc Champey is actually getting there. We recommend flying one-way to Flores from Guatemala City and taking shuttles down to Semuc Champey and thereon to Guatemala City.
How to get to Semuc Champey:
- Rent a car from Flores and/or Guatemala City and drive 6 hours. These can be arranged one-way (and you can fly to/from Guatemala City and Flores the other way)
- Take a private or shared shuttle from Antigua Guatemala or Flores
- Take a chicken bus to Lanquin and a taxi from there to Semuc Champey
3) Acatenango Volcano
A freaking active volcano you can watch erupt from your sleeping bag? Well, that’s not something you can do anywhere.
Acatenango, with its views directly on constantly erupting Fuego, might take the top spot in the world for coolest campsites. I mean, where else can you get such amazing views and fall asleep to the sound of earth’s power?
You can read more about how we found the best camping experience here.
How to get to Acatenango Volcano:
- It’s highly recommended to visit and camp at Acatenango as part of an organized tour departing from Antigua
- Otherwise, there are local ‘chicken’ buses arriving here, as well as a taxi/Uber
4) Antigua Guatemala
Though I’m not generally keen on cities, Antigua Guatemala (or old/“antique” Guatemala) is exceptional.
Known very well for its array of luxurious yet affordable hotels and fantastic markets, Antigua often serves as a basecamp for travelers traversing across Central America, like we did on our 2-month expedition.
- Make sure to visit the Santa Catalina Arch – the most picturesque sight in the city, the ultimate postcard
- Artista de cafe makes one of the best cups of coffee you’ll ever taste
- Head up to Cerro de la Cruz for epic views on the town with the massive Volcan de Agua decorating the background
You’ll find exquisite cuisine to fit every palette, tour companies to discover ever hidden gem in the region, gorgeous antique buildings, and of course: a giant volcano painting the sky behind the city.
There’s also a large, local market with artisanal crafts, flowers, and souvenirs. And the best part? It’s not touristy. You can find it at “La Bodegona”.
All in all, I’d definitely center my trip around Antigua Guatemala.
How to get to Antigua Guatemala:
- Fly into Guatemala City (GUA) then take a local ‘chicken’ bus, private or shared shuttle, Uber, or taxi
- Rent a car and drive about 2 hours
5) Lake Atitlan
When you just can’t get enough of amazing volcanos, there’s Lake Atitlan to keep you cool.
Lake Atitlan is actually an inverted volcano!, which means it’s just as awesome, and slightly less fiery.
Dotted by cute towns with excellent local food and wonderful little markets, the lake makes a great spot to relax or go out and fully embrace the Guatemalan lifestyle.
Our favorite retreat was at La Fortuna, a wonderful array of bungalows surrounded by wonderful lake and mountain views, great food, and a dog that LOVES avocados. Yes, you can throw the dog avocados all day. It’s great.
How to get to Lake Atitlan:
- Drive, ride, or Uber to Panajachel – see next section
Right on the shores of Lake Atitlan is my favorite town in the region.
Panajachel is known for its extensive markets, filled with elaborate textiles and amazing coffee shops.
It’s a great getaway to Lake Atitlan, and also harbors a pier where you can hop on a boat and explore, plus tons of cute hotels and great restaurants.
If you’re in Panajachel on a Sunday, make sure to check out nearby Chichicastenango on market day. You will need to catch a chicken bus to Sololá from the main bus stop on Calle Principal, across from Hotel Primavera. The far from Panajachel to Sololá will set you back Q3 ($0.39 USD) per person, and the journey takes 10-15 minutes.
How to get to Lake Atitlan:
- Take one of many shuttles from Antigua Guatemala to Panajachel everyday.
- Taxi, Uber, or rental car
- Local chicken bus (longer, slower, cheaper)
7) Pacaya Volcano
Adrenaline junkies will be happy to find out that Guatemala has a SUPER eruption volcano… so much that they’ve have to shut the airport down multiple times. And evacuate the surrounding towns.
Pacaya has many hiking trails, and you can get pretty close to the crater… but I advise otherwise. It’s a great place to see live-flowing lava, but please don’t plan to go for a swim.
In actually, if you hike up Pacaya, you’re totally on your own and assuming your own risk. It’s likely that you will be stopped on your way up but if not, just be careful.
How to get to Pacaya:
- Guided tours from Antigua Guatemala
- Rent a car from Antigua or Guatemala City
- Take a taxi or local ‘chicken’ bus
Second only to Antigua Guatemala, Quetzaltenango (nicknamed “Xela” for those of us with difficult pronouncing it) is a much easier place to visit than to pronounce.
There are public buses and private shuttles from Antigua, Guatemala City, and even Lake Atitlan.
It’s set against a backdrop of massive volcanos, include towering Santa Maria with its active Santiaguito lava dome.
The city is known for its wonderful neoclassical buildings, lovely hotels, exuberant markets, and incredible sights.
How to get to Quetzaltenango:
- Private/shared shuttle from Antigua Guatemala or Lake Atitlan
- Take the Alamo bus from Guatemala City
- Rent a car from Antigua or Guatemala City and drive 5 hours
9) Guatemala’s Rio Dulce
Rio Dulce, literally translating to “Sweet River”m is an awesome place to enjoy truly authentic culture and experience the Guatemalan essence of life.
You’ll find manatees, crocodiles, and unique flora and fauna as you ride on traditional boats down the river. Along the banks of the river are indigenous villages and rural communities typically subsiding on a quit life of fishing and agriculture.
Rio Dulce is a great place to start, and Livingston is a lively town with great culture and an entirely different cuisine than the rest of Guatemala.
Fronteras and Lake Izabal are the most interesting parts of the national park, with lovely excursions like the El Paraiso Hot Springs, the Castillo de San Felipe, or visiting the indigenous Garifunas near Livingston.
How to get to the Rio Dulce from Guatemala City
- Shared or private transportation with GuateGo from Guatemala City or Antigua Guatemala
- Fly to Flores, take a bus to Lanquin, then another bus to Izabel
- Rent a car from Guatemala City or Antigua Guatemala, drive 6 hours each way
10) Isla de Flores
Most people skip right over the island of Flores on their way to Tikal, but that would be a mistake.
The isla, or island, of Flores is such a cool place to stay. There are only a few hotels and restaurants, but they are all excellent. It takes about 20 minutes to explore the entire island, but you won’t be disappointed. Every corner you turn is interesting and beautiful.
But if you get bored, there is an Embarcadero (port) where you can take a boat to explore the turquoise waters and fabulous raw nature of Lake Peten.
How to get to Flores from Guatemala City
- Take a flight on TAG Airlines from Guatemala City International Airport (GUA)
- Ride on a private shuttle/bus via Antigua Guatemala or direct
- Rent a car and drive 9 hours each way
Must read articles:
- The Ultimate Guide to One-Way Car Rentals Across Central America
- The Ultimate 2-Month Central America 2021 Itinerary
- Belize Travel In 2021: How It’s Changed, What You Need To Know