09/10/2021

Guatemala is Underrated

What do you know about Guatemala? I would guess not a lot, unless of course you have experience in this remarkable country. Prior to my visit, Guatemala always felt like a place I knew about, but didn't really know about. Like the rest of Central America, Guatemala is a hidden gem in this world with seemingly only negative press being portrayed in media.

Guatemalan Flag
Guatemalan Flag

Geography

Where is Guatemala located? I have sadly been asked this too many times while planning my trip there. Guatemala is one of the seven nations which make up Central America, a region of North America between Mexico and Colombia. This slice of land sits between the Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean and offers up a diverse selection of landscapes within three regions. The flat southern plains stretch from the Pacific Ocean before giving way to the highlands, home to 37 volcanoes, four of which are active and falling back to the lowlands of Peten. Lake Atitlan, an ancient volcanic crater located in the highlands, is the deepest lake in Central America.

The People

Present day Guatemala is the primary location of the former Mayan civilization which also stretched into what is now southern Mexico. Just over 50% of the population today identifies as Mestizo, while 40% are of Mayan descent. Like the rest of Latin America, The vast majority of the population practices Christianity, almost evenly split between Roman Catholic and Protestant.

Antigua

I was fortunate enough to spend three months in this beautiful country. Upon first arriving, I was collected from the airport by the shuttle I prearranged through GuateGo.com and brought to the Airbnb in Antigua. Later in the day, this was a painless ride through the mountainous terrain. Antigua is the former capital of the country and in present day is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tourism board has done a great job of maintaining the feel of this historic city with cobblestone streets found throughout as well as many preserved points of interest which highlight the past. Antigua is the most popular destination for tourism with plenty of infrastructure in place and endless restaurants and cafes to enjoy. From anywhere in the city, you can see three volcanos, Agua, Fuego and Acatenango and another, Pacaya, on the opposite side of Agua. Tours are available to hike up Pacaya and Acatenango. Acatenango is a more difficult hike and usually consists of camping overnight in order to witness the constant eruptions of Fuego nearby. I opted for a day hike up to just below the summit of Pacaya which is also active and has most recently erupted just a couple of months prior to my visit. Antigua Tours by Elizabeth Bell provided a great experience with pickup right at my front door, transportation to and from the volcano, the hike with an amazing guide and a delicious lunch for the day. I highly recommend an excursion to one of these amazing sites.

Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua, Guatemala
Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua, Guatemala

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is known to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world
Lake Atitlan is known to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world

Growing in popularity over the past few years, particularly with the expat community, is the region surrounding Lake Atitlan. Panajachel is the primary town bordering the lake and serves as the commercial and tourism hub. I stayed at two different Airbnb’s during my time in this town. The first was just outside of the town proper in a beautiful spot standing on the banks of the river. The second apartment was located in the heart of the town and provided easy access to the lakefront. Calle Santandar is home to most of the restaurants as well as seemingly unending markets for local wares. The street ultimately ends at the lake, in front of where you can easily catch a water taxi to any of the other numerous towns bordering the lake. San Pedro and San Marcos are the next most popular towns, located opposite of Panajachel and closer to the volcanos San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan. South of Panajachel and connected by road is also Santa Catarina Palopo, a quaint town full of culture and some of the kindest people.

Tikal & Peten

On the northern edge of the country along the borders with Mexico and Belize is this region of jungles. From the highlands, it is much easier to access this beautiful place via a short flight from Guatemala City to Flores. I opted to stay across Lake Peten Itza from Flores in a small town called El Remate, specially at Alice Guesthouse. As much as I enjoyed every other aspect of my time in Guatemala, my experience staying here was the highlight. The guesthouse overlooks a bio-reserve a which is home to Spider Monkeys, Howler Monkeys, countless beautiful bird species and much more. Located in the heart of the jungles is the Mayan archeological site Tikal. This city served as the center of the empire politically, economically and militarily. Tikal was once one of the largest of the Mayan cities, dwarfing those I had previously explored in Yucatan, Mexico. The architecture style contrasts with those sites as well. Due to its location, deep in the preserved rainforest, means there is also a lot of wildlife to be seen. During my visit I encountered Coati, Spider Monkeys, Toucans and more, all while hearing the Howler Monkeys too.

Spider Monkeys are only one of the animals which can be seen during a visit to Tikal
Spider Monkeys are only one of the animals which can be seen during a visit to Tikal

Conclusion

For such a small country, Guatemala offers so much. Despite a longer visit, there is a lot that I missed this time. I have heard great things about Quetzaltenango, Rio Dulce and Coban. I do plan to visit the country again to experience this and will be sure to write a follow-up guide. If you are looking for a beautiful place with great weather, friendly people, delicious local food, rich culture and a plethora of history, Guatemala should definitely be on your list. Guatemala also provided the world with chocolate!

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