10 Incredible Things to Do in Guatemala

I just got back from an amazing trip to Guatemala, and let me just say that it exceeded my expectations and totally blew my mind! I am ready to book a trip back ASAP, or maybe move there for a few months and work on my Spanish, a common thing to do actually, with so many Spanish schools in the country!

I went on a tour with Travel On Purpose, and it was the perfect mix of visiting people doing good in their communities, experiencing local culture, and enjoying a bit of luxury and amazing food! I wanted to highlight some of my favorite things to do in Guatemala and what I would do again in a heartbeat.

1. Fall in love with Antigua

You’ve most likely seen beautiful pictures of Antigua with its charming cobblestone streets and colorful buildings, and having several volcanoes in the background doesn’t make for a bad picture either! Visiting Antigua might be one of the top places to go in Guatemala, and it’s for good reason! This adorable and lively town is full of fun local shops, gorgeous churches, incredible views of several volcanoes, international restaurants, classes and workshops, and some really wonderful boutique hotels. Since it’s one of the top things to do in Guatemala, exploring Antigua should not be skipped!

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During our time in Antigua we stayed at two different hotels, Posada del Angel and Casa Santo Domingo. They were both fantastic. Posada del Angel was a small boutique hotel with just seven bedrooms and the most personalized service and gorgeous interiors. We loved our stay here and actually got to stay in the room that President Clinton stayed in during his visit in the 1990s.

Casa Santo Domingo was the second hotel we stayed in during our time in Antigua. It is a lot bigger, but built into an old monastery. It contains a museum, old ruins, and the most beautiful spa I’ve ever seen! We got massages and spent time in the hot tubs built into the ruins. It was magical!

2. Boat Around Lake Atitlán

Visiting Lake Atitlán is one of the best things to do in Guatemala for anyone interested in seeing Mayan culture and nature. It’s one of the most popular places to go in Guatemala and worth the drive, which is about 3 hours from Antigua. The surrounding mountains and the blue water of Lake Atitlán make it one of the most picturesque places in the country. The lake is surrounded by charming town after charming town and you can take a taxi boat between them or take a boat tour around the lake.

During our time in Lake Atitlán we stayed in one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever seen, Casa Polopo. The decor, details, view, pool, and the food were all 10 stars for me! There is a dock at the bottom of the hill where you can book a water taxi to take you to different locations around the lake.

3. Explore the Petén Region

If you want another lake to explore in Guatemala, check out Lake Petén Itzá! The Petén area of Guatemala is very different than Antigua and Lake Atitlán. Located in northern Guatemala, closer to Belize, the feel and the weather in Petén is much warmer and more humid. Even the local customs, dress, and cuisine are different. It almost has a Caribbean or tropical feel there.

The lake itself is beautiful and calm, surrounded by small boutique hotels and home rentals with docks. The biggest tourist draw of this area is the Mayan ruins of Tikal, just 30 minutes north of the lake.

It’s a must-see in Guatemala if you want something off the beaten path.

We stayed at La Lancha, a Francid Ford Coppola property right on the lake with incredible service, rooms, and views!

4. Visit Mayan Ruins

Guatemala is famous for its Mayan ruins, and you should definitely visit some while you’re there. Here is a list of ruins:

  1. Aguateca
  2. Cancuén
  3. Ceibal (Seibal)
  4. El Baúl
  5. El Mirador
  6. Iximche
  7. Mixco Viejo (Jilotepeque Viejo)
  8. Nakbé
  9. Nakum
  10. Naranjo
  11. Piedras Negras
  12. Quiriguá
  13. Takalik Abaj
  14. Tikal
  15. Uaxactún
  16. Yaxhá

During our visit, we visited the Mayan ruins of Iximche and the Mayan city of Tikal National Park. Iximche was easier to get to and on the way between Antigua and Lake Atitlán. To visit Tikal, you need to travel far north, either by a long drive or short flight, so it’s a little more challenging to get to, but so worth it. They were both remarkable and one of the most incredible things to see in Guatemala.

5. Take a Mayan Cooking Class

One thing that surprised me about visiting Guatemala was the incredible Guatemalan cuisine! We ate at some amazing restaurants and little shops, but the cherry on top was getting to do a Mayan cooking class with Anita on Lake Atitlán where we were able to shop in the local market and learn to cook traditional food from the Mayan culture. The best part of our class was getting to know Anita and all the good she does in her community. She was a single mom who built this business and has also opened a weaving cooperative for single mothers, runs a coffee farm, and volunteers to teach English in her local schools. Getting to know her was a real highlight and this was one of my favorite activities to do in Guatemala.

You can book the cooking class with Anita here.

6. Visit a Guatemalan Coffee Farm

If you’re looking for activities in Guatemala involving its famous coffee, I recommend visiting a coffee farm. I’m not even a coffee drinker, and this is still one of my top recommendations!

Coffee in Guatemala is more than just a beverage; it’s a vital part of the country’s cultural and economic fabric. The importance of coffee in Guatemala extends beyond its economic contribution; it plays a significant role in the country’s social fabric.

Coffee plantations are spread across the country, supporting thousands of families and communities. The cultivation and processing of coffee involve traditional methods passed down through generations, reflecting the deep-rooted connection between the people and their land. Guatemalan coffee is celebrated for its quality and diversity, with each region offering beans with unique flavors.

I am not a coffee drinker, but even I enjoyed visiting a local coffee farm in Guatemala. Since it’s such an important part of the country’s heritage, I consider it a must-do in Guatemala. We visited La Familia del Cafe coffee farm, picked coffee cherries, hulled them, roasted them, and ground them. It was fascinating to see the process from start to finish.

7. Hike one of Guatemala’s Famous Volcanoes

Guatemala is a country marked by its dramatic volcanic landscape, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, where tectonic activity shapes the geography. Its volcanoes, ranging from dormant to highly active, are integral to Guatemala’s natural beauty and cultural identity.

These geological giants contribute to the country’s fertile soil, benefiting agriculture, especially coffee and other crops. However, their beauty comes with a risk, as eruptions and related seismic activities pose challenges to nearby communities.

There are several prominent volcanoes that you’ll likely see on your trip to Guatemala. From the city of Antigua, you are surrounded by Agua, Acatanango, and Fuego, which you can see erupting around every 20 minutes!

There are several volcano excursions that you can do as a tourist.

  1. Pacaya Volcano Hike: Easily accessible from Antigua and Guatemala City, Pacaya is one of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes. The hike is relatively easy and offers the unique opportunity to see lava flows and enjoy panoramic views. The landscape is lunar-like, and you can roast marshmallows over volcanic vents. There’s even a pizza shop and a lava shop at the top! We hired a local guide to take us up Pacaya and had a picnic at the top! You can hire guides to take you up on horses or hike up the volcano. We saw Fuego erupt in the distance while on Pacayo and it was such a magical experience!
  2. Acatenango Volcano Overnight Hike: For those seeking a more challenging adventure, the Acatenango hike is a must. This trek which requires camping overnight, rewards hikers with breathtaking views of the erupting Fuego Volcano, especially at night. The summit of Acatenango provides a spectacular vantage point to witness Fuego’s fireworks show.
  3. Volcán de Agua Day Hike: While less frequently visited than Pacaya or Acatenango, Volcán de Agua is a challenging hike with rewarding views of Antigua, the Pacific coast, and surrounding volcanoes from its summit. It’s a great option if you’re looking for something a little less touristy.
  4. Lake Atitlán Volcano Hikes: Surrounding Lake Atitlán, volcanoes San Pedro, Atitlán, and Tolimán have lots of hiking options with amazing views of the lake and the Guatemalan Highlands. San Pedro is a moderately challenging hike, while Atitlán and Tolimán are more difficult treks for experienced hikers.

8. Ride a Chicken Bus or Tuk Tuk

There are many ways to get around Guatemala. The locals mostly use something called a “chicken bus,” which are old school buses from the United States that have been painted and decorated. This is a cheap way to get around and an experience in itself. If you want to take a chicken bus, have cash in hand to pay your way.

There are also tuk tuks, especially all over Antigua and Lake Atitlán. This is an easy and affordable way to get around. And of course UBERs are available in most cities. You can also hire tour companies that provide a private driver, which is what we did during our trip.

9. Visit a Weavers Cooperative

One thing you’ll notice when you visit Guatemala is how many beautiful and colorful hand woven textiles you’ll see just about everywhere. It’s part of the tradition in the country. It’s not just a craft; it’s a storytelling form passed down through generations, especially among indigenous Maya communities and most textiles tell a story.

Each piece is a kaleidoscope of symbols, each telling stories of the weaver’s village, beliefs, and the natural world around them. It’s a genuine labor of love and patience, where every thread weaves together history, culture, and a deep sense of identity. If you’re ever in Guatemala, grabbing a handwoven textile isn’t just buying a souvenir; it’s taking home a piece of this rich tapestry of life. Plus, supporting local artisans? Always a win in my book!

If you want to know what to do in Guatemala to help support women and the tradition of weavers, visiting a weavers’ cooperative is a great idea. There are several to choose from. If you want to learn more about weaving and see it in action, I recommend visiting Casa Flor Ixcaco Weaving Cooperative in San Juan La Laguna on Lake Atitlán. You can see a demonstration, view natural fiber cotton and dyes, and of course, shop! I bought a shaw, shirt, and skirt that were all hand-woven there and I love them. Each piece takes weeks and weeks to create!

Anita from the Mayan Kitchen Cooking classes also runs a women-run weaving cooperative and you can purchase goods at the shop near her kitchen in San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atitlán.

10. Visit a Local Market

One of the best things to do in Guatemala is to visit a local market. And you won’t have a hard time finding one. There are local markets in almost every city in Guatemala and it’s a great way to interact with local people and observe the local culture. Here are some of the most popular markets:

  1. Chichicastenango Market: This is the biggest and most popular of markets, often just called “Chichi” by locals. Held on Thursdays and Sundays, it’s one of the largest and most vibrant indigenous markets in all of Central America. You’ll find vivid textiles, handcrafted masks, fresh produce, and spices. Plus, the town’s cobblestone streets and colonial churches add to the charm. It’s about an hour and a half north of Lake Atitlán.
  2. Sololá Market: Located near Lake Atitlán, the Sololá market is a good choice if you’re staying on the lake. It’s a great place to observe daily life and see the beautiful traditional clothing worn by the indigenous Maya people. The market operates daily but is most lively on Tuesday and Friday mornings.
  3. Antigua’s Artisans Market: Right next to the iconic yellow La Merced Church, Antigua’s market is a treasure trove of handicrafts, textiles, jewelry, and ceramics. It’s a bit more tourist-oriented but still a good place to find unique gifts and souvenirs.
  4. San Francisco El Alto Market: This market, open every Friday, is known for being one of the most authentic indigenous markets in Guatemala. Located near Quetzaltenango, you’ll find everything from live animals to textiles, fresh produce, and household goods. This is less for tourists and more for locals, giving a more genuine glimpse into Guatemalan market life. It’s about an hour and a half from Lake Atitlán.
  5. Panajachel Market: On the shores of Lake Atitlán, Panajachel’s Calle Santander becomes a bustling market street where you can find a wide array of textiles, beadwork, and traditional clothing. It’s a bit more accessible for those staying around the lake and offers views and a laid-back vibe, even if it is more touristy.
  6. San Pedro la Laguna Market: If you do the Mayan Kitchen cooking class, Anita will take you to her very local market, which I can’t find on the internet. This is definitely the most local-looking market that we saw. It was a unique experience!

I hope this was helpful and that you’ll get ideas on some amazing things to do in Guatemala during your visit! I can’t even describe how wonderful my time there was. It far surpassed my expectations and I’m hoping to make a trip back some day. The beauty of the country and the warmth of its people really made me fall in love and leave a little piece of my heart behind!

Answering a few Questions about Guatemala

Is Guatemala Safe?

Of course, the first question that I usually get about Guatemala is, “Is it safe?” While safety is all relative, I found Guatemala to feel very safe. I was never propositioned for money, or approached by shady men. The roads felt very safe. I have definitely felt less safe in a lot of other countries, including my own.

There was some civil unrest last year, but everything seemed calm and normal while we were there. The civil war ended in the 1990s, but Guatemala still seems to get a bad rap.

As always, when traveling, keep your wits about you and be aware of your surroundings. Keep your passport and money in a travel safe bag in front of you and not a backpack.

Can I Drink the Water in Guatemala?

As someone who has gotten sick in just about evntry erycouthat it’s possible to get sick in, I’m very careful about water when I travel. I did not drink the tap water in Guatemala. Almost everywhere we traveled had water purification systems or bottled water. I did brush my teeth with sink water and was fine. There are countries I would not do this in, but I didn’t get sick in Guatemala.

Do I need to Speak Spanish to Visit Guatemala?

I took 4 years of Spanish in high school and 1 year in college. That was more than 20 years ago, but my very basic Spanish skills did help! A lot of Guatemalans (especially in the tourism industry) spoke a little to a lot of English, so that helped! But I think everyone appreciates you even trying to speak Spanish.

How do I Get Around Guatemala?

Since we were on a tour, we had hired drivers that took us all over Guatemala. When drives would have been very long, we took a short hopper flight. UBER works great in Guatemala and you can also take a Chicken Bus or a tuk tuk if you have cash on you.

Do I need cash in Guatemala?

Yes! A lot of places in Guatemala only take cash, especially if you’re visiting a market, so get some Quetzales when you arrive.

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