With a volatile past that includes a millennia of Mayan civilization, three centuries of Spanish rule and almost four decades of guerrilla war, Central America's most populous country promises a thrilling trip. Guatemala's history is so vivid, in fact, that you can almost picture pre-Columbian warriors striding across Tikal's jungle-fringed stone ball court or sense the ghosts of Catholic priests watching over Antigua's colonial churches. Even today, Guatemala has an unsettled feel: The kind and modest guatemaltecos watch as their country teeters between prosperity and democracy and crime and chaos.
White-and-blue water taxis whizz between Santiago Atitlán and the other towns that trace the shoreline of azure Lake Atitlán, serenely occupying an ancient volcanic crater encircled by towering volcanoes. In Chichicastenango's biweekly market, highlanders sell bunches of bright, blooming flowers, vivid hand-woven rugs and bags, ghoulish multi-patterned wooden masks and piles of sweet-smelling bananas and tomatoes. Look up at the elaborate white-trim exterior of Antigua's canary-yellow Iglesia La Merced church as worshippers file in to pray.
Eating and Drinking
Guatemala's culinary delights differ from region to region. The indigenous people in the west feast on boiled meat dishes in chili-tinged recado sauces (red or green from ground tomato or tomatillo, respectively) and baked in earthenware pots. Breakfast on a creamy atol drink, whipped up with milk, cream of corn, sugar and cinnamon. On the northern Atlantic coast, the African-rooted Garifuna people flavor their seafood and plantain soups with coconut milk. Black beans, rice and corn tortillas are wholesome countrywide staples.
Splendid Mayan ceremonial city ruins litter the northern Guatemalan countryside. The guttural call of howler monkeys bounces off Tikal's stone steps, and mighty temples are pillowed in lush rainforest, where warring Mayans lorded over large swathes of Mesoamerica. Lesser-known, the ruins of Takalik Abaj hold Olmec sculptures and early Mayan hieroglyphics. Among the impressive architectural relics of 300 years of Spanish colonialism is Antigua's 18th-century Convento de Las Capuchinas, with a graceful inner courtyard and ruins of the nuns' baths.
Guatemala is catnip to nature lovers. Take a leisurely dip in Semuc Champey's stepped waterfalls and pools in Alta Verapaz, which crown a raging underground river in a narrow forested canyon. The surrounding caves also invite exploring. Learn about the life cycle of giant sea turtles and witness the seasonal hatching of turtle eggs at the Tortuguerio Monterrico protection project. Birders trail exotic species swooping amid precious flora and fauna in El Petén's nature parks and reserves, carpeted in virgin tropical rainforest.