Best things to do in Guatemala

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 17.01.2023

Spanning a mountainous slice of Central America, Guatemala is loaded with incredible natural, historical and cultural appeal. As the birthplace and heartland of the ancient Maya, the country is in many ways defined by the legacy of this early civilization. Here's our list of the best things to do in Guatemala.

1. Soak up breathtaking views from Acatenango

Climbing Acatenango in Guatemala is an unforgettable experience for any outdoor enthusiast. The volcano, which stands at an impressive 3,976 meters above sea level, is known for its stunning views of Fuego, another nearby active volcano.

The hike up Acatenango can be challenging, with steep terrain and a high altitude, but the reward of reaching the summit is well worth the effort. From the top, you can witness breathtaking views of the surrounding landscapes, including lush forests, picturesque villages, and stunning sunsets over Fuego's smoking peak.

Camping overnight on the mountain is also a popular option, allowing you to witness the awe-inspiring sight of Fuego's lava flows in the dark.

Want some help? Our local experts can help you plan the perfect trip.

2. Walk the streets of colonial Antigua

The graceful former capital, with an incredible legacy of colonial architecture, is one of the most elegant cities in the Americas. Antigua has become Guatemala’s foremost tourist destination and favoured hangout for travellers. The beauty of the city itself is the main attraction, particularly its remarkable wealth of colonial buildings.

You’ll find the ambience unhurried and enjoyable, with a sociable bar scene and a superb choice of restaurants adding to the appeal. Antigua's language schools are another big draw. Students from around the globe come here for language learning — among the many things to do in Guatemala.

Most visitors race through Guatemala City, keen to get to Antigua’s colourful colonial streets but we strongly recommend that you stay in the Guatemalan capital a little longer. Our list of reasons to stay a while in Guatemala City will tell you why.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Antigua


El Arco in Antigua © Shutterstock

3. Immerse into the remote Ixil region

The Ixil region is the Guatemalan highlands at their most bewitching. The costume and scenery of this deeply traditional Mayan region are astonishing. High up in the Cuchumatanes, in a landscape of steep hills, bowl-shaped valleys and gushing rivers. Here three remote and extremely traditional towns — Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal — share a language spoken nowhere else in the country.

These lush, rain-drenched highlands are hard to reach and have proved notoriously difficult to control. Today’s relaxed atmosphere of highland Maya colour and customs conceals a bitter history of protracted conflict.


Nebaj © Milonk/Shutterstock

4. Try traditional sauna in Todos Santos Cuchumatán

A fascinating highland Mayan town, home to one of the finest textile traditions in Latin America, which hosts a legendary fiesta — with a rip-roaring horse race. Men fill the streets with colour in their red-and-white-striped trousers, black woollen breeches, brilliantly embroidered shirt collars and natty straw hats. Women wear dark blue cortes and superbly intricate purple huipiles.

Todos Santos is a great place to simply hang out but it would be a shame not to try a traditional sauna (chuc; a small stone sauna, shaped like a beehive) while you’re here – most guesthouses will prepare one for you.


Todos Santos Cuchumatan village, Guatemala © streetflash/Shutterstock

5. Visit Maximón pagan shrine

Visit the pagan temple of this liquor-swilling, cigar-smoking evil saint. The precise origin of Maximón, the evil saint, is unknown, but he’s also referred to as San Simón, Judas Iscariot and Pedro de Alvarado in Santiago Atitlán, and always seen as an enemy of the Church.

Throughout the year he’s looked after by a cofradía. Such is Maximón’s fame these days, and the number of tour groups visiting Santiago, that locals actually use one tourist-geared Maximón house (which outsiders are directed to) and a second location where they can pay their respects to the powerful folk sinner-saint in peace.

You’ll only likely be invited to the latter – a crepuscular pagan shrine where stuffed animals hang from the ceiling and incense and tobacco fill the air – if you have good local connections. Make a contribution to fiesta funds if you do get an invite.


Evil saint - Maximón © Carlos Tischler/Shutterstock

6. Explore the magnificent Tikal

This unmatched Maya site has it all. Monumental temples and palaces set in a tropical forest — alive with spider monkeys and chattering parakeets. This is a truly must-see destination among the many things to do in Guatemala.

Towering above the rainforest, Tikal, 64km from Flores down a smooth paved road, is possibly the most magnificent of all Mayan sites. The ruins are dominated by five enormous temples, steep-sided limestone pyramids that rise to more than 60m above the forest floor.

Around them are thousands of other structures, many semi-strangled by giant roots and still hidden beneath mounds of earth. The site itself is surrounded by the Parque Nacional Tikal, a protected area of some 576 square kilometres that is on the edge of the much larger Reserva de la Biósfera Maya.

If you want to explore Mayan ruins that are little known to the general public, read our guide about discovering Mayan ruins at Lago de Petexbatún.

Find more accommodation options to stay near Tikal

Tikal National Park, Guatemala © WitR/Shutterstock

Tikal, Guatemala © WitR/Shutterstock

7. Take Spanish classes

Guatemala has dozens of excellent language schools that offer one-on-one tuition and home-stay packages at rock-bottom rates. There are many places in Guatemala where you can take Spanish classes. Some options include language schools, universities, and private tutors. It's a good idea to do some research and compare different options to find a program that meets your needs and budget.

Some factors to consider when choosing a Spanish language program in Guatemala may include the length of the program, the location, the teaching method, and the cost. It may also be helpful to read reviews from past students to get an idea of the quality of the program.


Learning Spanish is one of the things to do in Guatemala for self-development © Shutterstock

8. Explore charming Copán ruins

There’s a plethora of exquisitely carved stelae and altars, a towering hieroglyphic stairway and an outstanding museum at the magnificent ruins of Copán. Just 10km east of the Guatemalan border, the small town of Copán ruins is a charming place of steep, cobbled streets and red-tiled roofs set among the lush scenery of Honduras’s western highlands.

Despite a fast-increasing number of visitors from all over the world, it has managed to remain a largely unspoiled and genuinely friendly place. Many travellers are seduced by Copán’s delightfully relaxed atmosphere, clean air and rural setting.

This tailor-made Mayan expedition takes you all over Guatemala, from Antigua over Chichicastenango to Lake Atitlán. Take a day trip across the border to Honduras to visit the Mayan ruins of Copán before continuing to Guatemala's Caribbean coast: Rio Dulce awaits before you head to the ruins of Tikal.


Copan, Guatemala © Vladislav T. Jirousek/Shutterstock

9. Take a boat cruise through the Río Dulce

Cruise up the jungle-cloaked gorges and estuaries of Guatemala’s “sweet river” by boat, and marvel at the scenery and birdlife. Reason enough to come to Lívingston is the spectacular trip through the Río Dulce gorge, a roughly 30km journey that eventually brings you to Río Dulce Town. From Lívingston, the river passes through a system of gorges with sheer, 100m-high rock faces draped in tropical vegetation and cascading vines.

The birdlife in this area is exceptional, with white herons, sea eagles, and squawking parakeets among the stunning tropical scenery. If you're very lucky, you may even spot a manatee – dawn is the best time to try.

Find more accommodation options to stay near Río Dulce

Lone Kayak From Behind with Female Paddling through Dense Remote Jungle River. Rio Dulce, Izabal, Guatemala © Daniel Andis/Shutterstock

Kayaking in Rio Dulce © Daniel Andis/Shutterstock

10. Visit Chichicastenango market

For souvenir hunters, this twice-weekly highland market is unsurpassed. There’s been a market at Chichicastenango for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Despite the touristy side of the event, local people continue to come twice a week to trade their wares. On Sundays and Thursdays, Chichicastenango’s streets are lined with stalls and packed with buyers, and the choice is overwhelming.

Guatemala's culture and archaeology is one of the most fascinating ones in the world. On this tailor-made trip to Unparalleled Guatemala, you will get to know the locals of several places: Mayan food in Antigua, the Quiché people in Chichicastenango, the Mayan ruins of Tikal and much more.

Find some accommodation options to stay in Chichicastenango

Colourful Cemetery in Chichicastenango, Guatemala © Martin Froyda/Shutterstock

11. See Mayan artistry in National Archeological Museum

A wonderful collection of Maya artistry and breathtakingly carved monuments from many remote Petén sites. The Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (Archeological and Ethnological Museum) has a world-class selection of Maya artefacts.

The collection includes prehistoric sections, some wonderful stelae from Machaquilá and Dos Pilas, a re-creation of a royal tomb from Río Azul, spectacular jade masks from Takalik Abaj and a terrific replica of a beautifully carved wooden lintel from Tikal’s Temple IV.

Gold artifacts on display in the Museo del Oro, Bogota

Golden mask in National Archeological Museum © Shutterstock

12. Watch eruptions of Volcán de Pacaya

Trek up this volcano for an unforgettable encounter with the lava-oozing cone of Pacaya, one of Central America’s most active. Rising to a height of 2250m, Volcán de Pacaya regularly spits out clouds of rock and ash in the country’s most dramatic sound-and-light extravaganza.

The current period of eruption began in 1965, and colonial records show that it was also active between 1565 and 1775. Today it certainly ranks as one of the most accessible and exciting volcanoes in Central America, and a trip to the cone is an unforgettable experience. The best time to watch the eruptions is at night when the volcano can spout plumes of brilliant orange lava.


Volcán de Pacaya © Shutterstock

13. Feel the Guatemalan spirit in Lívingston

Shake your booty to the hypnotic drum-driven punta beat in the Garífuna town of Lívingston. Enjoying a superb setting overlooking the Bahía de Amatique, Lívingston offers a unique fusion of Guatemalan and Caribbean culture where marimba mixes with Marley. The town acts as a hub for both the displaced Garífuna, or Black Caribs and also for the Q’eqchi’ Maya of the Río Dulce region.

Lívingston is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating places in Guatemala, with a distinct atmosphere and charm that draws in many visitors. While opinions about it tend to be sharply divided, with some enjoying its languid rhythm of life and slightly ramshackle appeal and others finding it shabby, it is still a must-visit destination among the many things to do in Guatemala.

Whichever your take, Lívingston certainly offers a welcome break from mainstream ladino culture: Carib food is generally excellent and varied, and Garífuna punta rock and reggae make a pleasant change from merengue and salsa.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Lívingston

Guatemala Livingston Garifuna village © Francky38/Shutterstock

Guatemala Livingston Garifuna village © Francky38/Shutterstock

14. Explore local nature in Yaxhá

This massive Mayan site, superbly positioned on the banks of Lago de Yaxhá, has dozens of large temples and impressive monuments. East of the Ixlú junction on the road to Belize, a paved road runs 65km to the Belize border. The main attraction in these parts is Yaxhá, a huge Maya city on the fringes of two beautiful lakes: lagunas Yaxhá and Sacnab.

The lakes are encircled by the dense jungle, swamps, savannah and wetlands of the Monumento Natural Yaxhá–Nakúm–Naranjo. The 370 square kilometres harbour big cats, two species of crocodile and dozens of other reptiles. The monument also houses prolific birdlife: spoonbills, the giant jabiru stork, eagles and vultures.


Pyramid Maler in Yaxha, Guatemala © Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock

15. Be amazed by the beauty of Lago de Atitlán

Encircled by three volcanoes, the awesome crater lake of Lago de Atitlán was famously described by Aldous Huxley as “the most beautiful lake in the world”. Lago de Atitlán is astonishingly beautiful. Most people find themselves captivated by its scenic excesses, making it a top attraction among the many things to do in Guatemala.

Hemmed in on all sides by volcanoes and steep hills, the lake is at least 320m deep and measures 18km by 12km at its widest point. Depending on the time of day its waters shift through an astonishing range of blues, steely greys and greens as the sun moves across the sky. Mornings are usually calm, but by early afternoon the xocomil wind makes boat travel quite a rock’n’roll experience.

This perfect tailor-made Guatemala Family Adventure Tour takes you throughout Guatemala. Visit the active Pacaya volcano on an easy trek and watch the lava; enjoy a canopy ride through the middle of the rain forest and observe the nature just as the birds see it and enjoy Lake Atitlan by kayak.


Lago de Atitlán © Shutterstock

16. Take a ride on the chicken buses

Garishly painted and outrageously uncomfortable, there’s never a dull journey aboard Guatemala’s iconic fume-belching camionetas. Second-class or “chicken buses”, known as camionetas, are the most common. These are easily distinguished by their trademark clouds of thick, black, noxious fumes and rasping exhausts.

Camionetas are old North American school buses, with limited legroom, and the seats and aisles are usually crammed with passengers. While travel by second-class bus may be uncomfortable, it is never dull, with chickens clucking, music assaulting your eardrums and snack vendors touting for business.

Chicken bus, Guatemala

Taking a ride in chicken buses - one of the most unusual things to do in Guatemala © Eric Kukulowicz/Shutterstock

17. Watch Semana Santa celebration

During Easter Week, head to either Antigua for its epic Catholic processions, or Santiago Atitlán to witness the symbolic confrontation between the pagan saint Maximón and Christ. Antigua’s Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations are perhaps the most extravagant and impressive in all Latin America – a week of vigils, processions and pageants commemorating the most solemn week of the Christian year.

The celebrations start with a procession on Palm Sunday, representing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, and continue through the week, climaxing on Good Friday. It is a great honour to be involved in the procession but no easy task – the great cedar block carried from La Merced weighs some 3.5 tonnes and needs eighty men to lift it.

Jesus Christ with the cross in procession © Shutterstock

Jesus Christ with the cross in procession © Shutterstock

18. Go hiking in Highland region

Explore the beguiling, lofty trails of Guatemala’s western highlands: the town of Quetzaltenango and Nebaj are good bases. Nebaj has undoubtedly managed to retain its highland charm and is becoming a popular base for adventure-minded travellers drawn by the opportunity to get off Guatemala’s main gringo trail.

With a temperate climate and gorgeous scenery all around, Nebaj makes a good base for hiking – Acul and Cocop are both within striking distance – though some places can also be reached by microbus if you’re not feeling so energetic.

You will visit the most popular destinations including the Western Highlands, Tikal and Antigua on this tailor-made trip to the Best Of Guatemala. Enjoy the different types of activities like exploring the Mayan pyramids in the middle of the virgin jungle or having one of the best cups of coffee surrounded by a unique landscape.


Quetzaltenango © Francisco Sandoval Guate/Shutterstock

19. Drinking flavorful local coffee - one of the essential things to do in Guatemala

Sample some of the world’s finest single estate roasts in Cobán, the easy-going capital of Alta Verapaz. Guatemala is known for producing high quality coffee. It is the largest coffee producer in Central America and one of the top 25 coffee producing countries in the world.

Guatemalan coffee is known for its rich, full-bodied flavour with a chocolate or nutty taste and hints of fruit or citrus. It is often described as having a complex flavour profile with balanced acidity. The coffee is grown at high altitudes on the slopes of the volcanoes that dominate the landscape of Guatemala, which helps to give it its unique flavour.

Coffee mugs with bread basket from Guatemala, traditional bread © Shutterstock

Coffee mugs with traditional bread from Guatemala © Shutterstock

20. Spend a day swimming in Semuc Champey area

Exploring the exquisite turquoise pools and river system around Semuc Champey, a natural limestone bridge, is a must-do among the many exciting things to do in Guatemala. This idyllic spot sits at the base of a towering jungle-clad valley and makes a wonderful destination for a blissful day’s wallowing and swimming.

Just a few years ago very few visitors made it to this remote part of Guatemala, but the secret is now definitely out, and the pools are very much a key stop on the Central America backpacking trail. That said, you can usually find a peaceful corner without too much difficulty.


Semuc Champey, Guatemala © Shutterstock

21. Hike through the untouched forests to El Mirador ruins

El Mirador is perhaps the most exotic and mysterious Maya site of all. Encircled by the Petén and Campeche jungles, this massive city surpasses Tikal’s scale although we are only now beginning to piece together its history. Mayanists are not even certain of its name – el mirador means “the lookout” in Spanish – but it could have been Ox Te Tun (Birthplace of the Gods).

Until the 1980s, it was assumed Mirador was a city from the Classic era, but this theory has been totally overthrown. We now know that Mirador was a Preclassic capital of unprecedented scale, and its fall around 150 AD was just the first of two catastrophic collapses suffered by the Maya civilization.

Mayan Pyramid in the forests of Peten, Guatemala © Shutterstock

Mayan Pyramid in the forests of Peten, Guatemala © Shutterstock

22. Enjoy the panoramic views of the lake from Castillo de San Felipe

Looking like a miniature medieval castle and marking the entrance to Lago de Izabal, the Castillo de San Felipe is a tribute to the audacity of British pirates, who used to sail up the Río Dulce to raid supplies and harass mule trains. The Spanish were so infuriated by this that they built the pocket-sized fortress here in 1652 to seal off the entrance to the lake, and a chain was strung across the river.

Inside there is a maze of tiny rooms and staircases, plus plenty of cannons and panoramic views of the lake, making it a must-see attraction among the many things to do in Guatemala. Beyond the Castillo de San Felipe the broad sweep of Lago de Izabal opens before you, with great views of the fertile highlands beyond the distant shores.

Fortress Castillo de San Felipe de Lara looking over Izabal lake in Guatemala © Shutterstock

Fortress Castillo de San Felipe de Lara looking over Izabal lake in Guatemala © Shutterstock

23. Taste local Guatemalan food

Guatemalan food is filling, a good value, and can be very flavoursome. It is a great option to try while exploring the many things to do in Guatemala. The cuisine has evolved from Maya, Latin American and Western traditions. Though they usually overlap now to form what Guatemalans call comida típica.

Popular tourist centres tend to have more varied menus and plenty of choice for vegetarians, and in Antigua and Lago de Atitlán you can feast on a wide selection of global dishes. Most meals in Guatemala traditionally revolve around the basic staples of beans and maize, though diets are changing due to increased exposure to international cuisine.

Explore the fascinating city of Antigua and learn about local culture on this Gastronomic and Cultural Half-Day Tour. Your expert guide will expose you to the wonderful local foods found within the city. See the city's markets, visit traditional restaurants and admire the colonial architecture.

Guatemalan style enchiladas displayed to show their ingredients on a white plate © Shutterstock

Guatemalan style enchiladas © Shutterstock

Find more inspiring ideas for your exotic journey in our guide to the most exotic places to travel in the world. When considering a Caribbean destination, take a look at Belize, where you will also find plenty of exciting things to do. Or make your choice using our guide to Central America: an adventure travel paradise.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Guatemala without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

We may earn a commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 17.01.2023

  • Activity
  • Nature & Wildlife
  • Authentic Experiences
  • History Culture Heritage
  • Central America & the Caribbean
  • Guatemala
  • Antigua
  • Guatemala City
  • Todos Santos Cuchumatán
  • Chichicastenango
  • Lívingston
  • Inspiration
  • See & Do
  • Where to stay

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