our guatemala top ten

Want to know a secret? Guatemala is our favourite country in Central America - and it could easily become yours. 

Much safer than the news stories represent, much prettier than pictures do justice and a much more enticing destination than we previously realised. Nature lovers, adventure-seekers, colonial city enthusiasts and history geeks will all find their own little niche here - and it's also the most affordable destination we visited in the region. 

So, what are you waiting for? 

#1 lake atitlán - every backpacker's dream

Aldous Huxley said of Lake Atitlán: "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."

He wasn't wrong. From the bus ride down the hairpin-laden highway, you and every other first time visitor will crane your neck through gaps in the trees to catch a glimpse of the incredible vista. As the bus continues to roll down at high speed, it will suddenly open up to a perfectly blue lake studded with volcanoes.

The seven villages circling Lake Atitlán offer every sort of experience to a backpacker - kayaking, treks, binge-drinking, yoga retreats, language schools, local arts and crafts - with the best backdrop one could ask for. 

#2 conquer, climb or crawl the country

Hiking and trekking opportunities abound in the lush green surroundings - from summiting the highest peak in Central America, scaling any number of active volcanoes or simply donning your day-pack and seeing where the dirt path takes you through the jungle. The landscapes are second-to-none in the great outdoors of Guatemala. 

#3 laguna lachua - guatemala's hidden gem

OK, we clearly like our lakes and lagoons, but Laguna Lachua offers the lucky backpacker who is willing to endure a several hour round-trip much more than just an expanse of blue water. Butterfly colonies, dense forest and crystal clear waters made this one of the unexpected highlights of our trip. A truly natural wonder that you may have all to yourself.

#4 mingle with the maya

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As one of the world's oldest civilisations, purged and enslaved by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s and victims of a sustained campaign of violence - considered by many as genocide -  during Guatemala's 36 year civil war, everyone should celebrate that Mayan culture remains so prominent across the country.

Custodians of 26 of the 27 official languages - and with distinctive dress, customs and beliefs - the various indigenous groups are responsible for so much of what makes Guatemala a great place to visit. 

#5 admire antiquated avenues and artisans in antigua 

The jewel in Guatemala's crown, compact Antigua ticks all the boxes of a Central American colonial town: sun-bleached and colour-washed walls, dozens of churches, a lively international bar and arts scene and numerous world-class language schools.

You might find yourself staying for a few days or weeks longer than planned

#6 pick up your camera and a bargain at the wonderful markets

Fresh produce, colourful textiles, handmade jewellery and the odd box of ducks; navigating your way through one of Guatemala's many vibrant and bustling markets is an activity all on its own. One of the most famous is Chichi, however on the right day in every small town the streets come alive with a cacophony of sound, smells and sights. 

#7 howler monkeys, horizons and heights at tikal

No visit to the home of the Maya is complete without a trip to one of their most outstanding achievements. Climb to the top of a towering temple at sunrise or sundown and marvel at the majesty and mysticism of this architectural wonder. 

#8 career across the country on a chicken-bus

Whilst road safety may not always be at the forefront of drivers' minds, local buses are cheap and offer a great opportunity to see a different side of this country's vibrant culture that can not alway be found if solely relying on expensive tourist shuttles - we travelled exclusively like this for two months, and had no negative experiences. There's no such thing as full and there are disappointingly few chickens, but public transport in Guatemala is certainly memorable.

#9 get down with the garifuna

Wander around a few of the streets in Livingston, an eastern pocket of Guatemala, and dreadlocks will be a more common sight than more traditional Latino garb of cowboy hats, blue denims and well-worn leather boots.

The distinct food, language, dance and music of the Garifuna brings a welcome Afro-Caribbean flavour to your travels

#10 si quieres aprender español... 

For anybody who loves to travel, and wants to get a little deeper into a Spanish-speaking country, then knowing some more of the language is a must. With internationally recognised schools around the country, Guatemala offers one of the cheapest and most professional language school experiences in Latin America. 

So there it is! Have we missed anything that you think is simply unmissable? Let us know below (and before you ask, yes we did visit Semuc Champey, it just didn't make the cut).

Here's our route if you need some ideas for your own Guatemalan adventure.

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