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.
Historical sites, such as the pre-conquest cities of Iximché, K’umarkaaj and Zaculeu, are also worthy of your attention – although they don’t bear comparison to Tikal and the lowland ruins.
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.
Top image © Chrsitian Hartmann/Shutterstock