Where to go

Guatemala City
is a modern, polluted capital. It is the main entry point for travellers by air and long-distance bus. While there are some sites of interest, a couple of excellent museums in the city centre and some great nightlife, few stay long, preferring to head west to the clean air and relaxed atmosphere of
Antigua
. Once the capital, Antigua was built by the Spanish
conquistadores
. Later destroyed by several huge earthquakes, the grand ruins of colonial architecture remain, the dramatic location at the foot of three volcanoes and its prominence as a centre for Spanish studies, make Antigua a justifiably popular destination.

Heading northeast from Guatemala City, lie the highlands of the Verapaz region. Cobán is the main focus, with access to nearby traditional villages, the caves at Lanquín, the natural bridge of Semuc Champey and, at Purulhá, the Mario Dary Rivera Reserve which protects the habitat of the quetzal, Guatemala's national bird. Skirting the northern shores of Lago de Izabal is the Bocas del Polochic Wildlife Reserve, which is full of monkeys, avifauna and other wildlife.

South of the lake, the highway runs close to Quiriguá, which once competed with Tikal and nearby Copán, in Honduras, for dominance of the Maya heartlands. On Guatemala's short Caribbean shore is Lívingston, popular with young travellers and, near El Golfete Biotopo Chocón-Machacas, a manatee and wildlife reserve and the fabulous Río Dulce gorge. From Lívingston boats go inland to Rio Dulce, north to Punta Gorda in Belize, or head for Puerto Barrios for Placencia in Belize, or south overland to Honduras.

The forested northern lowlands of El Petén hide most of Guatemala's archaeological sites. The majestic Tikal is the most developed for tourism, but many others can be reached including Uaxactún, Yaxhá and El Ceibal. Flores, sitting on an island in Lago Petén Itzá, is the centre for exploring El Petén with routes from here to Belize and Mexico.

West of Guatemala City, beyond La Antigua, the mountainous highlands overflow with Maya communities. Market days filled with colour, fiestas crammed with celebrations, and each community characterized by unique clothes and crafts. Several villages are dotted around the shores of Lago de Atitlán, a spectacular and sacred lake protected on all sides by silent volcanic peaks. From Panajachel, ferries and trails link the small communities. San Pedro La Laguna is the chief chill-out and hang-loose spot on the lake's shores, with San Marcos the favourite for true relaxation; but there are other less touristy and more interesting options to explore.

An hour north of Lake Atitlán is the famous market of Chichicastenango, a town where Maya and visitors converge in a twice-weekly frenzy of buying general goods and produce, alongside textiles and tapestry. The market is alive with colour and is a must for any visitor.

Towards the Mexican border, the towns of Quetzaltenango, Retalhuleu and Huehuetenango provide good opportunities for discovering the charms of western Guatemala, including volcanoes and Maya towns. To the north, in the heart of the Cuchumatanes mountains, Todos Santos Cuchumatán stands firm as a town that has restricted western influences and is increasingly popular as a place to learn about the Mam way of life, including language and weaving classes. Along the Pacific coastline, the turtle-nesting sites of Monterrico are attracting visitors to this little-explored district of Guatemala.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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