Guatemala offers a startling range of landscapes, defined by extremes. Most travellers first head for Antigua, the delightful former colonial capital, its refined atmosphere and café society contrasting with the chaotic fume-filled streets of Guatemala City. Next on your list should be the Maya-dominated western highlands, a region of mesmerizing beauty, with volcanic cones soaring above pine-clad hills, traditional villages and shimmering lakes. The strength of Maya culture here is overwhelming with each village having its own textile weaving tradition and unique fiesta celebrations.
Lago de Atitlán, an astonishingly beautiful lake ringed by sentinel-like volcanoes, is unmissable. The shores of the lake are dotted with charming indigenous settlements such as Santa Cruz La Laguna, where you’ll find some fine places to stay and breathtaking shoreline hikes, and San Pedro La Laguna, with its bohemian scene and rock-bottom prices. High up above the lake, the traditional Maya town of Sololá has one of the country’s best (and least-touristy) markets, a complete contrast to the vast twice-weekly affair at Chichicastenango, with its incredible selection of souvenirs, weavings and handicrafts.
To the west, the proud provincial city of Quetzaltenango (Xela) is an important language school centre, and also makes an excellent base for exploring the forest-fringed crater lake of Volcán Chicabal, the sublime natural spa of Fuentes Georginas and some fascinating market towns. Guatemala’s greatest mountain range, the Cuchumatanes, is a little further distant. In these granite peaks you’ll find superb scenery and some of the most isolated and traditional villages in the Maya world, with Todos Santos Cuchumatán making a good base for some serious hiking and adventure.
The Pacific coast is generally hot, dull and disappointing to visit, with scrubby, desolate beaches backed by a smattering of mangrove swamps. One exception is the relaxed seaside village of Monterrico, which has some good accommodation and is part of a wildlife reserve where you can watch sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. There’s also a small but growing surf scene at Paredón, home to a fine new beach lodge.
Much of the east of the country is tropical, replete with banana and cardamom plantations and coconut palms. This region has some stunning lakes, including pristine, jungle-fringed Laguna Lachúa and Lago de Izabal, whose shores boast plenty of interesting spots, including an amazing hot spring waterfall and the Boquerón canyon. The lake drains into the Caribbean via the Río Dulce, which flows through a series of remarkable jungle-clad gorges. At the mouth of the river is the fascinating town of Lívingston, an outpost of Caribbean culture and home to Guatemala’s only black community, the Garífuna.
Cloudforests cloak the fecund Verapaz hills of central Guatemala, harbouring the elusive quetzal, Guatemala’s national symbol. Cultural sites in the east are quite limited, but do include the compact Maya site of Quiriguá and the first-class ruins of Copán, just over the border in Honduras.
The vast rainforests of Petén occupy most of the country’s north. This unique lowland area, which makes up about a third of the country, is covered with dense tropical forest and savannah. Though loggers and ranchers have laid waste to large chunks of the terrain, nature reserves alive with wildlife remain, many dotted with outstanding Maya ruins.
From the delightful town of Flores, superbly situated on an islet on Lago de Petén Itzá, or the low-key village of El Remate, it’s easy to reach Tikal, the most impressive of all Maya sites, rivalling any ruin in Latin America. The region’s forest also envelopes numerous smaller sites, including the striking Yaxhá, Aguateca and Uaxactún. For the ultimate adventure in Guatemala the ancient, remote preclassic sites of the extreme north require days of tough hiking to reach. Giant El Mirador, in its day a Mesoamerican metropolis, is the main draw but there are dozens of other unrestored sites to explore, situated in the densest rainforest in the country – if you have the time and energy.