Guatemala City -- Set on a high, broad plateau and surrounded by volcanic peaks, Guatemala City is the largest city in the country, and the only one with a contemporary, modern feel to it. That said, with a population of more than three million, the city is overwhelmingly a sprawling, congested, confusing, and polluted urban mess. Guatemala City has a small but vibrant arts-and-nightlife scene, as well as some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the country. The city sits at an elevation of 1,469m (4,897 ft.) above sea level, and enjoys moderate temperatures year-round. Home to the country's principal international airport and bus connections to every corner of the country, Guatemala City serves as a de facto transportation hub for most, if not all, visitors.
Antigua -- This small colonial city lies just 40km (25 miles) southwest of Guatemala City. For a couple hundred years, it was the nation's capital, until a series of devastating earthquakes and mudslides forced its evacuation. Like its neighbor and the current capital, Antigua is also set in a valley surrounded by towering volcanic mountain peaks. However, the Antigua valley is much, much smaller. The entire colonial city is little more than 10 blocks by 10 blocks, with a bit more modern urban sprawl around the edges. The city is one of the most well-preserved examples of a colonial city in the Americas. The colonial core of Antigua is a living museum, with rough cobblestone streets and restored colonial-era buildings, mixed in with a few newer constructions that maintain the colonial style and feel. Combined with this living museum are a host of actual museums, and ruined and restored examples of grand churches, convents, and monasteries. From Antigua, the Agua and Fuego volcanoes are clearly visible.
Lake Atitlán -- Lake Atitlán is technically part of the Western Highlands, but for the purposes of this book, and in the minds of most travelers, it is a world unto itself. Lake Atitlán is a beautiful mountain lake that is actually the filled-in crater of a massive volcano. It's hard to imagine this, since today, several more volcanoes rise from around the shores and tower over the lake. More than 16km (10 miles) across at its widest point, Lake Atitlán has a series of small villages and a few major towns lining its shores. While roads connect all of these towns (in many cases they are rough dirt and gravel), the main means of transportation between the various towns and villages is by boat and boat taxi. The main town and gateway to Lake Atitlán is Panajachel, which sits on the northern shore of the lake. Other major towns include Santa Catarina Palopó and San Antonio Palopó to the east of Panajachel, and Santiago de Atitlán and San Pedro La Laguna across the lake to the south.
The Western Highlands -- The area to the west and northwest of Guatemala City is widely referred to as the Western Highlands, or Altiplano (the "Highlands" in Spanish). This is the heart of Guatemala's rural Maya population. Following the collapse of the major Maya empires of the Petén and lowland coastal regions, many fled in small groups and family units to Altiplano. Today, the Western Highlands are populated with a dense patchwork of small, rural farming communities spread around the rough, steep, mountainous region. The towns and cities of Chichicastenango, Quetzaltenango, and Huehuetenango serve as central market and commercial centers for the smaller surrounding communities. The Western Highlands are home to Guatemala's greatest artisans, and are the best place in the country to purchase a wide array of arts, crafts, carvings, and textile products. Perhaps the most famous place to buy these goods is the twice-weekly market held in Chichicastenango. Those looking for a taste of the real rural Maya Altiplano should visit the village of Nebaj and the surrounding area, known as the Ixil Triangle.
The Petén -- The Petén, or El Petén, is Guatemala's largest and least populated province. It occupies the entire northeastern section of the country, and borders Mexico to the north and Belize to the east. It's an area of lush primary tropical rainforest, within which lies an immense natural wealth of flora and fauna, as well as many of Mesoamerica's most amazing archaeological treasures. In 1990, the government of Guatemala officially established the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a tract of 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) that includes most of the Petén province. Moreover, the Maya Biosphere Reserve adjoins the neighboring Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico and the Río Bravo Conservation Area in Belize, comprising a joint protected area of more than 2 million hectares (5 million acres).
The only major population centers of note in El Petén are the sister cities of Santa Elena and Flores. In addition to the world-renowned ruins of Tikal, visitors to the Petén can visit the archaeological sites of Yaxhá, El Ceibal, El Mirador, and Uaxactún, to name just a few.
Central Guatemala -- The central section of Guatemala comprises the general area east of Guatemala City, before the Atlantic Lowlands. This is the country's most up-and-coming tourist destination, and includes the Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz regions, as well as El Oriente, or the "East." Just over the border in Honduras lie the fabulous Maya ruins of Copán, which are often included as a stop on a more complex itinerary through Guatemala. Las Verapaces (the plural for the combined Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz) is a rich highland region with numerous opportunities to go white-water rafting or cave exploring. It's also home to several of Guatemala's most stunning natural areas, including the pools and waterfalls of Semuc Champey and the turquoise splendor of Lake Lachuá.
To the south and east of Las Verapaces lies El Oriente. Most visitors come here to visit the town of Esquipulas. Housed in the impressive Basílica of Esquipulas is the famous statue, the Black Christ. Believed to have magical, curative, and wish-giving powers, the church and its Christ attract more than one million pilgrims a year.
Atlantic Lowlands -- The common name for this region is a gross misnomer -- Guatemala actually borders the Caribbean Sea. However, most Guatemalan maps, books, and tourist information sources refer to this region as the Atlantic coast or Atlantic lowlands, and the highway is officially known as La Carretera al Atlántico (the Atlantic Hwy.). That quibble aside, this is a beautiful and often neglected part of Guatemala. The region really begins around Lago Izabal, the largest freshwater lake in the country. From Lago Izabal, the Río Dulce (Sweet River) runs gently down to the sea. Along the way it passes through rich primary forests, several nature reserves, and beautiful steep-walled canyons.
Another primary attraction on the Caribbean coast is the small Garífuna village of Livingston. The Garífuna are a unique race born of the intermarriage between escaped slaves and Carib Indians. Livingston, which is known as La Buga in the local Garífuna language, is only accessible by boat. The rainforests around Livingston are great for bird-watching and wildlife-viewing.
Located just off the Atlantic Highway are the Maya ruins of Quiriguá, which contain some wonderful examples of carved monumental stelae and stone rocks.
Pacific Slope -- Below the mountain chains that run the length of Guatemala, from Mexico down to El Salvador, the land gently slopes off and flattens out before meeting the Pacific Ocean. This is a hot and steamy agricultural region with large sugar-cane, pineapple, and banana plantations. Spread throughout this agricultural land are several lesser-known Maya and pre-Maya ruins. Of these, Takalik Abaj and Finca El Baúl are worth a visit by anyone truly interested in ancient Mesoamerican archaeology. In general, the beaches of Guatemala's Pacific coast have dark sand, rough surf, and little development. Given the length of this coastline, there are few developed beach destinations and resorts. If you expect the same kind of beach experience offered throughout the Caribbean, or even the rest of Central America and Mexico, you will be disappointed. The most popular beach town on the Pacific coast is Monterrico, which has a handful of small hotels and resorts. The nearby port towns of Puerto Quetzal, Iztapa, and Puerto San José have garnered well-deserved reputations as top-notch sportfishing centers, with excellent opportunities to land marlin, sailfish, and other deep-sea game fish just offshore.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.