People ask me all the time what are the best things to see and do in Guatemala. I made a list and limited myself to the top 10 things to see and do, and ranked them by distance from Guatemala City. To maximize your travel time, pick a must-see destination and start expanding to destinations around your chosen area. There’s a lot to keep one busy for a long time, here are my top 10 things to do in Guatemala (for families) and plan your vacation around:
1. Visit the La Aurora National Zoo. A surprisingly good zoo in Guatemala City, ideal if you are traveling with children. Driving time: 5-20 minutes from within the city depending on your location.
2. Visit Antigua Guatemala. See the colonial architecture and walk the cobbled streets. Even better if you can attend the Holy Week processions (book the hotel in advance). Driving time: 45 minutes from the capital.
3. Go up to the Pacaya Volcano. As close as possible to a live volcano that spews lava. Driving time: 45 minutes from the city.
4. Explore Lake Atitlán. Surrounded by volcanoes, it is believed to be the most beautiful lake in the world. I agree. Driving time: 2 – 2:30 hours from Guatemala City.
5. Visit the beaches. You get a 2 for 1 here. Monterrico and its black sand beaches are to the west. Great place to relax. Playa Blanca in Izabal, and its traditional white sand
the beaches are to the east. If you are in Izabal, visit the Castillo de San Felipe (Castillo de San Felipe), an old Spanish fort. Very scenic, on the water and well cared for. Driving time to Monterrico: 2 – 2:30 hours from Guatemala City. Driving time to Izabal: 4 hours from Guatemala City.
6. Shop at the Chichicastenango market. Open on Thursdays and Sundays, the Chichi market is the largest handicraft market in the world. Haggling is accepted and encouraged. Buy your souvenirs here. Driving time: 3 – 3:30 hours from Guatemala City.
7. Visit the IRTRA parks in Retalhuleu. Disney / Water Park destination in Central America. The children will have a great time. Stay at IRTRA’s affordable hostels and enjoy their spas, restaurants, tennis courts, swimming pools, bowling and other adult amenities. The grounds are incredibly well cared for and you will enjoy peacocks strutting all over the hostel complex. Driving time: 3 – 3:30 hours from Guatemala City.
8. Take a walk around Xela. A piece of Europe in Central America. It competes with Antigua for its sheer beauty and as a destination to learn Spanish in its many schools. Safe to walk at night, its beautiful architecture (and international cuisine) can be enjoyed at any time. Driving time: 4 – 4:30 hours from Guatemala City.
9. Explore Semuc Champey. Enjoy tranquil rock pools filled with turquoise blue waters and explore incredible caves by candlelight. You won’t find a single image online that does it justice. It’s that impressive in person. Driving time: Approximately 5 hours from Guatemala City.
10. Visit the Tikal National Park. Last but not least. See the impressive Mayan temples, right in the middle of the jungle. Ponder if the end of the world starts here in 2012. Driving time: 8 hours from Guatemala City (flying to Flores airport from Guatemala City is the frequently chosen route to save time).
There is much more to mention. Ecotourism is huge here, for example, it’s hard to limit it to ten things, but these will get you started.