Inspired to make the long journey to this Central American charmer of a country? Well then, here’s a little crib list to help you plan the trip
Mention a trip to Guatemala and, inevitably, Tikal’s name would be mentioned. And why not? As far as Mayan ruins go, Tikal, in the country’s north and near the Belize border, is one of the most spectacular and awe-inducing. Imagine the pinnacles of steep, ancient pyramids peeking above the dense jungle as a chorus of whoops by spider monkeys greet you upon arrival. Tikal is also a national park and biosphere reserve, so be sure to bring along your books, notes and binoculars if you are a David Attenborough wannabe.
Once the hub of classic Maya civilisation, Petén suddenly collapsed around the year 900, with the Maya moving north of the Yucatan Peninsula. One of the country’s most sparsely populated regions, Petén remains vast and wild, peppered with Mayan sites and surrounded by tropical rainforest teeming with wildlife. Nature enthusiasts come to marvel at ancient ceiba and mahogany trees or perhaps to bird-watch, one of the region’s highlights. If you are lucky, you could perhaps spot tapir, ocelot and jaguar.
One of Central America’s most beguiling cities, Antigua Guatemala (often abbreviated to just “Antigua”) is a delightful mishmash of jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery, complete with volcanoes looming in the distance, colonial charm and baroque architecture. Come for the food, the museums and the coffee and be sure to spend at least a few days here to wander the cobblestone streets in search of touristy treasure. If you are after treasure of the real sort, be sure to visit all the local jewellery stores in search of local jade — considered sacred and precious to the Mayans for centuries, symbolically associated with life and death.
LAGO DE ATITLÁN
It has been described as the most beautiful lake in the world. But don’t take our word for it — take Aldous Huxley’s. After all, it was none other than the great English writer of Brave New World fame who penned the following lines: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlan is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Deep blue water framed by volcanoes and ringed by villages, many of which are only accessible by boat, Atitlán is a destination in itself.
A town famed for its markets, be sure to pick the right day(s) to visit if you are not staying for a while. Those with magpie tendencies would delight in the colour and variety of all the wonderful things on sale, including bright and beautiful local textiles and weavings, herbs freshly foraged from the jungle, traditional bric-a-brac and all manner of street food and local treats. Be sure to pop into the Iglesia de Santo Tomas before you leave, though. Although its name sounds Catholic, Santo Tomas, built in the mid-1500s, actually sits atop a pre-Columbian temple platform, with the 18 steps leading up to the church symbolising the 18 months of the Maya calendar. Mayan priests still use the church for rituals today.
Hidden deep within Guatemala’s lush jungle is Semuc Champey, which offers a series of stunning natural limestone pools. Its remote location means that it’s quite a trek (or a bumpy 4x4 drive) to get to but those who have been assure us it is well worth it. Photography buffs would love capturing the pool’s myriad hues of green while the sweet, fresh water is revitalising to plunge into after a steamy hike. Spelunkers may be tempted to explore the caves — submerged and above ground — or enjoy a fun spot of tubing down the Cahabon River.
Photos: Zung Heng