Guatemala’s western highlands, stretching from the outskirts of Antigua to the Mexican border, are perhaps the most beautiful and captivating part of the entire country. Two main features dominate the area: a chain of awesome volcanoes on the southern side, and the high Cuchumatanes mountain range that looms over the north of the region. Strung between these two natural barriers is a series of spectacular forested ridges, lakes, gushing streams and plunging, verdant valleys. The highland landscape is defined by many factors, but above all altitude. At lower levels the vegetation is almost tropical, supporting dense forests and crops of coffee, bananas and vegetables. Higher up in the hills, pine, cedar and oak forests are interspersed with patchwork fields of maize and potatoes. In the highest terrain, known as the altiplano, the land is largely treeless and often wrapped in cloud, suited only to hardy herds of sheep and goats.
This region is predominantly peopled by the Maya, who have lived here continuously for the past two thousand years. Maya society, languages and traditions are markedly different from mainstream Latin American culture, and exploring their bewitchingly beautiful highland home is a highlight to any trip in Guatemala.
With stunning mountain scenery yielding colourful market towns and whitewashed colonial churches at every turn, you’re spoilt for places to visit. Lago de Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes and with its idyllic shores harbouring some fascinating villages, is absolutely unmissable. To the north is the fabled market town of Chichicastenango and the wildly beautiful peaks and remote, intensely traditional communities of the Ixil, a region that is excellent for hiking.
Heading west, you’ll reach Guatemala’s second city, Quetzaltenango (Xela), an ideal base for visiting Maya villages, the hot springs of Fuentes Georginas and climbing the perfectly proportioned volcanic cone of Santa María. Beyond this, you start encountering the massive granite peaks of the Cuchumatanes; you’ll find excellent hiking trails around the spectacular Mam Maya village of Todos Santos Cuchumatán.
A peripheral area during the Classic Maya civilization (250–900 AD), the western highlands were colonized towards the end of the twelfth century by Toltecs from central Mexico. With the Toltecs established as overlords, local tribes bitterly contested regional hegemony. The most powerful tribes were the K’iche’, based at their capital K’umarkaaj, the Mam at Zaculeu and Kaqchikel at Iximché. Smaller tribal groups such as the Ixil also occupied clearly defined areas.
Make an effort to catch as many market days as possible – they’re second only to local fiestas in offering a rich perspective of Maya life. These are some of the best:
San Juan Atitán; Zunil.
Chajul; Comalapa; Olintepeque; Sololá; Totonicapán.
Almolonga; Colotenango; Cotzal; Momostenango; Sacapulas.
Aguacatán; Chichicastenango; Jacaltenango; Nebaj; Panajachel; Sacapulas; San Juan Atitán; San Mateo Ixtatán; San Rafael La Independencia; Soloma; Tajumulco; Uspantán; Zacualpa.
Chajul; San Francisco el Alto; San Martín; Santiago Atitlán; Sololá.
Almolonga; Cotzal; Todos Santos Cuchumatán; Totonicapán.
Aguacatán; Chichicastenango; Jacaltenango; Joyabaj; Momostenango; Nahualá; Nebaj; Ostuncalco; Panajachel; Sacapulas; San Juan Comalapa; San Martín Jilotepeque; San Mateo Ixtatán; Santa Eulalia; Soloma; Uspantán; Zacualpa.
Fiestas in the western highlands
Fiestas in the western highlands
The western highlands are the home of the traditional Guatemalan fiesta. These are some highlights.
San Sebastián Coatan
San Pablo La Laguna, main day 25th
San Pablo, department of San Marcos
Jan 28–Feb 2
Chiantla, main day 2nd
Jan 28–Feb 2
Santa Eulalia, main day 8th
Chajul, the second Friday in Lent marked by huge pilgrimages
Santiago Atitlán, Maximón paraded through the streets, usually on the Wednesday; San Cristóbal Tonicapán, the biggest processions in the Xela area
San Marcos, main day 25th
San Jorge La Laguna
San Marcos La Laguna
Zacualpa and Aguacatán, fiestas to mark forty days from Holy Week
Uspantán, main day 8th
Santa Cruz La Laguna
San Antonio Palopó, Lago de Atitlán, main day 13th
San Juan Ixcoy, north of Huehuetenango
Olintepeque, just north of Quetzaltenango
Cotzal, main day 24th
San Juan Atitán, main day 24th
San Juan La Laguna, main day 24th
San Pedro Sacatepéquez
Soloma, main day 29th
San Pedro La Laguna, main day 29th
Almolonga, main day 29th
Momostenango, the 25th is a very important day in the Maya religious calendar, and the 1st is the main fiesta day
Chimaltenango, main day 26th
Santiago Atitlán, main day 25th
Sacapulas, main day 4th
Joyabaj, main day 15th. Superb fiesta; traditional dances here include the Palo Volador
Santa Clara La Laguna, main day 12th
Sololá, main day 15th
Nebaj, main day 15th
Santa Cruz del Quiché, main day 18th
Quetzaltenango, main day 15th
San Mateo Ixtatán, main day 21st
Totonicapán, main day 29th
San Miguel Acatán, main day 29th
San Francisco el Alto, main day 4th
Panajachel, main day 4th
San Lucas Tolimán, Lago de Atitlán, main day 18th
Todos Santos Cuchumatán, a wild, alcohol-infused horse race on the 1st, with everyone heading to the cemetery on the 2nd for All Souls’ Day
San Martín Jilotepeque, main day 11th
Zunil, main day 25th
Nahualá, main day 25th
Santa Catarina Palopó, Lago de Atitlán
San Andrés Xecul, main day 30th
Huehuetenango, main day 8th
The Burning of the Devil is celebrated in most highland towns with bonfires and men running around dressed as devils
Chichicastenango, very impressive fiesta, main day 21st