Things to Do in Western Highlands
Looming above the shores of Lake Atitlan and the village of San Pedro La Laguna, Volcán San Pedro is one of the region’s most accessible for volcano trekking. The views from the top make it well worth the effort of getting there.
Two routes lead to the volcano’s summit 9,908 feet (3,020 meters) above sea level. Both are strenuous, mostly uphill climbs through corn fields and coffee plantations, oak and pine forests. The volcanic soil coating the dormant peak is rich in nutrients, so many Guatemalans grow their crops along the volcanic foothills.
With its glistening blue waters framed by a trio of volcanic peaks and a fringe of lush greenery, Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán) is surely one of Guatemala’s most stunning natural wonders. The deepest lake in Central America lies in an ancient caldera amid the mountainous landscapes of the Guatemalan Highlands.
Travelers looking for a relaxing, natural escape will find all they desire in the hidden trails, hot springs and stunning landscapes of Funestes Georginas Hot Springs. Located just outside Xela, this popular destination has been attracting travelers for decades. Although a major hurricane damaged much of the grounds in 2010, a huge rebuilding effort has restored most of the property to its original splendor.
Visitors can slip into one of four pools fed by nearby sulfur hot springs, wander through the tropical forests on one of the well-marked trails, or head to Volcan Zunil or Volcan Santo Tomas using one of the longer, more technical paths. Fuentes Georginas has a restaurant and bar to insure visitors are well fed and travelers can even spend the night at one of the quiet mountain cottages to insure there’s plenty of time to enjoy all Fuentes Georginas has to offer.
Built during the 1540s upon the ancient foundation of a Maya temple site, Santo Tomas Church (Iglesia de Santo Tomás) is a Roman Catholic church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. It remains a venerated holy site for people of both Catholic and Maya faiths and blends of the two. The stone stairs leading to the gleaming white Dominican church are reminiscent of those at ancient temple sites, and the steps have turned black from prayer sessions in which shamans waft copal incense and set purification fires. Inside, the church is adorned with offerings, everything from maize to liquor, and numerous candles, which have colors and patterns that correspond with those they've been lit for.
With quaint valleys, red-roofed houses, and cobblestone lanes in the highlands of Guatemala, Chichicastenango is perhaps best known for its enormous Thursday and Sunday market. You’ll find handmade pottery, medicinal plants, machetes, traditional clothing, and other items that pay homage to the area’s rich culture.
Looking for the best spot to get wet in Guatemala? Check out Xocomil Water Park (Parque Acuático Xocomil), located in the Retalhuleu Department of the country. Together with nearby Xetulul Theme Park, both parks welcome over one million visitors each year.
Xocomil is the largest and most visited water park in Guatemala and covers an area of 77,300 m3 and is designed around the recreation of a Mayan pyramid. In 1998, the World Water Park Association awarded Xocomil the best water park in the world for “innovation” and in 2008, it was awarded the Park of the Year award by Amusement Today Magazine.
The park has four different pools and two wave pools, one for adults, and one designed for children. Aguajal II is the wave pool designed for adults, where you can experience six different varieties of waves.
Rio Tumala is a great spot to float and the current will let you go for over 540 meters. Pass by the “Cannon Maya” where you will find replicas of five Mayan masks with spring water jets to give you a massage as you pass “The Mound”, which represents a traditional Mayan tomb surrounded by its riches.
Xocomil Water Park is home to 14 different water slides that can easily keep you busy for an entire day. El Chaparron, or “The Shower”, is a new attraction featuring slides, keys, jets, and more in the tallest tower, which routinely fills with water, creating a feeling of heavy rain, known as a “cloudburst” in Guatemala.
Other popular slides include El Caracol, El Regreson, El Samala, and the Xocomil Rapids, the largest slide in Central America, with five lanes and a launch platform 21 meters high. Don’t miss Xibalba, featuring two slides with fast high-speed free falls for adventure seekers.
Located in the Retalhuleu Department of Guatemala, Xetulul Theme Park (Gran Parque de Diversiones Xetulul) is one of the largest amusement parks in Latin America. Together with the nearby Xocomil Waterpark, it is estimated that both parks welcome over one million visitors each year. Xetulul is capable of handling up to 12,000 visitors per day.
Xetulul Theme Park (sometimes called Parque Temático Xetulul) has been awarded both national and international prizes, helping it become one of the most-visited attractions for Guatemala and other Central America residents.
Opened in 2002, Xetulul is divided into various plazas and features architecture from countries that have influenced Guatemalan culture, including Guatemala, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland. Each plaza features themed attractions, shows, and related restaurants.
Wander through Spain’s Square and take in the park’s representation of notable cities like Seville, Barcelona, Granada, and more. Jump on rides like El Galeon (Galleon) or Sillas Voladoras (Flying Chairs). Afterward, sit and sip on authentic Spanish “churros y chocolate.” Or take a leisurely stroll through France to La Gare de France and hop on the train to take a tour around the park. Enjoy European crepes and waffles, with perhaps the best cup of coffee you will find.
Those looking for live entertainment will be impressed with the number of live shows at Xetulul Theme Park. From street characters wandering the plazas to Flamenco dancers, magicians, and musicians, Xetulul offers numerous live shows to keep you occupied for an entire day.
Notable replicated landmarks at Xetulul include Tikal, Moulin Rouge, and the Trevi Fountain. In addition to the themed plazas, the park features two roller coasters. Avalancha is Central America’s largest roller coaster. It’s a steel coaster with eight inversions, making it one of the only roller coasters in the world with eight or more inversions. Choconoy is the second coaster and is more a family style roller coaster. Xetulul is also home to the only double-decker carousel in Central America.
Located on the outskirts of Panajachel, the Atitlan Nature Reserve (Reserva Natural Atitlán) occupies a former coffee plantation that has slowly been reclaimed by Mother Nature. Nature trails take visitors into the canopy and wind past a waterfall and viewing platform, where it’s possible to spot tropical birds, spider monkeys playing in the trees or pisotes sniffing around for a bite to eat. The reserve also operates a butterfly garden, aviary, an herb garden and a small private beach.
Perhaps the most popular activity within the reserve are the zip-line canopy tours, where visitors fly through the trees along eight different cables. There are two zip-line options, depending on how brave you’re feeling.
For those who want to linger beyond a day trip, the reserve offers campsites and six guest rooms with private balconies.
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