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Things to Do in Guatemala

Lush, mountainous, and studded with lakes and volcanoes, Guatemala can be somewhat challenging to traverse by land, though well worth the effort. Most visitors land in busy Guatemala City and head for colonial Antigua, where beautifully restored churches, plazas, and archways line the cobblestone streets. Ringed by three smoldering volcanoes, Antigua is a popular place for guided treks to see the fiery craters of Pacaya or Acatenango up close. Don't worry—your guides will send a scout ahead to make sure the volcano is "feeling friendly" on the day of your trek. As an ancestral homeland of the Maya, Guatemala's greatest archaeological treasures are UNESCO-listed Tikal National Park and the Maya ceremonial site of Yaxha. Taking a guided tour is a must (literally; the government requires it), so it's ideal to book in advance. The Maya Biosphere Reserve surrounding Tikal is home to jaguars, toucans, macaws, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and quetzals—a bird sacred to the Maya people. If you can't make it to Tikal, the Copan Maya ruins are accessible from Guatemala City, located just over the Honduran border. Farther afield, scenic Lake Atitlan, surrounded by mountains, makes a perfect base from which to explore the highlands. From the friendly town of Panajachel, take a lake cruise to visit some of the smaller villages dotting the shores, such as Santiago de Atitlan, traditional home of the Tzutujil people. If time permits, catch the colorful market in nearby Chichicastenango, where indigenous peoples from around the region flock to buy and sell their wares.
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Pacaya Volcano
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33 Tours and Activities

Pacaya Volcano is considered Guatemala’s most active volcano and is believed to have first erupted approximately 23,000 years ago. Pacaya has erupted a number of times since and has had an active status since 1965. It stands at more than 8,300 feet (2.5 km) at its tallest point and is part of the Central American Volcanic Arc.

One of the most notable eruptions was in 2010, when Pacaya erupted multiple times in one day, raining ash on a number of towns, including part of Guatemala City. Schools and the airport were affected by the raincloud of ash, causing the president to declare a state of calamity. This was further complicated by torrential rain from Tropical Storm Agatha, which had caused flooding and landslides in the region. In March 2014, Pacaya erupted again, and officials discussed whether to evacuate several thousand people who lived near the volcano’s base. This eruption sent another huge ash cloud into the air and caused a number of flights to be diverted.

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Antigua Central Park (Parque Central)
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59 Tours and Activities

Located in the center of Antigua, Parque Central is the major outdoor area in the town. Considered one of the most beautiful in the country, the park is the place where people meet up for an afternoon of relaxation and nice weather.

By day, vendors line the tree-covered walks, selling their wares. By night, mariachi or marimba bands set up shop, entertaining passersby with their live music.

Be sure to check out the fountain, which was originally created in 1738. Although a replica, the 1936 reconstruction maintains the original's posterity.

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La Merced Church (Iglesia de la Merced)
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This gorgeous Baroque-style church features a soft, buttery yellow exterior complimented by white trim. Originally a male monastery, La Merced was originally built in 1548. Later, in 1749, Juan de Dios began work on building today's church, finishing the project in 1767.

The exterior of the intricately designed church features sculptures and paintings, such as the well-known Jesus Nazareno. Inside, ruins of the monastery can be found, including the Fuente de Pescados, or Fountain of the Fish. During Holy Week, the church is the start of the procession.

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Jade Factory and Museum (Jade Maya)
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Jade is a rare and precious stone dating back to the pre-Columbian era in Mesoamerica. Some of the world’s best jade was found in Guatemala. Historically, it was used in culturally significant ways, including in hieroglyph inscriptions and carvings of symbolic figures. There are two types of jade — Jadeite and Nephrite. Jadeite is more dense and renowned for its rich colors. Nephrite is more of a carving stone, found in many places around the world. Jadeite contains the bright green and apple colors you find in quality jade jewelry. Those colors were prized by both Chinese emperors and Maya kings.

To learn more about jade, visitors to Antigua can visit the Jade Factory and Museum, also called Jade Maya, founded in 1974 by archaeologist Mary Lou Ridinger and her husband, Jay. Fine jadeite is mined here in the same manner of the Olmec, Maya and Aztec people. Guatemalan workers at Jade Maya cut and polish the mined jade following the same traditions of their ancestors.

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Acatenango
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Guatemala’s Pacaya is one of the most popular volcanoes to visit, but travelers shouldn't skip its neighbor, Acatenango. Towering nearly 13,123 feet (4,000 meters), it is Guatemala’s third-tallest volcano and one of the tallest stratovolcanoes in Central America.

Acatenango’s first eruption was in 1924 —relatively recent in comparison to many other volcanoes—though some evidence of its volcanic activity dates back to prehistoric times. Other eruptions occurred shortly after, but it then remained quiet until an eruption in 1972. Since then, Acatenango has been declared dormant.

Acatenango is part of the Fuego-Acatenango massif, or string of volcanic vents, which includes Yepocapa, Pico Mayor de Acatenango, Meseta and Fuego. Acatenango has two main summits: Yepocapa, the northern summit at 12,565 feet (3,830 meters) and Pico Mayor, the southern and highest cone at 13,054 feet (3,976 meters).

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Catedral de Santiago (Antigua Cathedral)
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The stark and silent beauty of the ruins of Catedral de Santiago offers visitors one of only a few quiet and contemplative escapes in the 500-year-old city of Antigua. Once a towering homage to religion and faith, this European-inspired white stone wonder was devastated during a massive earthquake in 1717 and never repaired. Today, travelers can explore what remains of this unique structure, whose exterior tells a story of triumph and perseverance. It’s only when visitors pass by the reconstructed façade that they find what can only be described as broken beauty.

Covered hallways and altars now exist under open skies, since ceilings and rooftops that crumbled during natural disasters were never replaced. Delicate white engravings and vast ivory archways are tinged and darkened with dirt after so many years of being exposed to the elements.

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Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross)
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15 Tours and Activities

The Hill of the Cross, or Cerro de la Cruz, is a 30-minute walk that, upon arrival, treats its guests to expansive views of Antigua and the Volcan de Agua. While this walk is not easy, it is worth it. For those who prefer to skip the hike, cabs can whisk people to the top as well.

Located on the north side of the city, it offers the best views of Antigua. And an enormous stone cross.

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Church of San Francisco (Iglesia de San Francisco)
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15 Tours and Activities

Originally constructed in the 1500s, Iglesia de San Francisco, today, has mostly been reconstructed, thanks to age and earthquake damage. However, that's not the draw to this attraction. Both locals and visitors come to this old, baroque church to visit the shrine of Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur (Santo Hermano Pedro de San Jose de Betancurt). A Franciscan monk, he founded a hospital for the poor in town and is the country's most honored Christian leader.

Beatified in 1980 and made a saint in 2002 when Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala, Peter of Saint Joseph's tomb is visited by thousands each year asking for favors and miracles.

However, make no mistake, this church - which is one of the oldest in town - is still a work of beauty. It features 16 vaulted niches, a bell and clock tower from the 17th and 19th centuries and work from famed artists. Throughout history, the church has also been home to places such as a hospital and printing press.

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More Things to Do in Guatemala

Plaza de la Constitución (Parque Central)

Plaza de la Constitución (Parque Central)

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Located in the Centro Historico (Zona 1) district of Guatemala City, the Plaza de la Constitución, or Constitution Plaza, is considered the best place to kick off a tour of Guatemala City.

A number of important sites are located around and the Parque Central, as locals refer to it, which follows the standard colonial urban-planning scheme found in the New World. The plaza's concrete “park” is always bustling with activity, especially on public holidays and Sundays. Constitution Plaza is also surrounded by important structures like the National Plaza of Culture, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the underground Central Market, the Portal of Commerce and Centenarian Park. The National Library and Periodicals Library and General Archive of Central America are found here too. Near the Parque Central is the pedestrian-only area of Paseo Sexta Avenida (Sixth Avenue Passage), a beloved shopping and entertainment area that is a great introduction to Guatemalan culture and habits.

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ChocoMuseo Antigua

ChocoMuseo Antigua

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Ancient Mayans were the first to begin using cocoa beans in culinary preparations, and today, Guatemala is one of the countries most associated with chocolate production. At the chocolate museum in Antigua, visitors learn about the history of chocolate and the chocolate production process in a hands-on, kid-friendly setting.

During the ChocoMuseo’s three-times-daily Beans-to-Bar Workshop, a guide walks attendees through the entire chocolate-making process, from harvest and roasting to tempering and molding. Along the way, guests get to prepare cocoa tea, Mayan hot chocolate and European hot chocolate, as well as a box of their own handmade chocolates to bring home. The museum also offers a truffle workshop and a full day tour with a visit to a working cocoa plantation.

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National Palace

National Palace

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This stoic structure in the heart of Guatemala’s capital city was built in 1939 entirely by local hands and using only local materials. As a result, the National Palace offers up an homage to Guatemalan heritage and is ranks tops among the buildings prized by locals. Its green-tinged exterior is a nod to the favorite color of the former dictator’s wife, and the result of concrete and copper used to cover the exterior to avoid painting. As a result, it’s affectionately known by some locals as 'The Big Guacamole.' An impressive bronze plate at the entrance to the Palace marks a spot known as 'Kilometer 0.' According to residents, this is the official starting point of all roads in Guatemala. Travelers will find a beautiful courtyard at the center of the five-story building, which is surrounded by five archways on every side.

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Palace of the Captains General (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales)

Palace of the Captains General (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales)

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The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales used to be home to the Spanish viceroy and the power of the entire Central American region for more than 200 years. It housed everything from the court to post office, treasury, royal office and even horse stables.

Today, the building, which was first constructed in the late 1500s, is home to many governmental offices including the tourist office and police department. A couple of years ago, it underwent large-scale repairs and restoration. The exterior facade is not the original, it was added in the late 1700s.

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Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana)

Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana)

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The Metropolitan Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Guatemala City, is the main church of Guatemala City. Located in the heart of town, the main portion of it was built between 1782 and 1815. About 50 years later, the towers were finished. The impressive baroque/neo-classical building with a blue dome is earthquake proof – it’s withstood numerous quakes (it was damaged by two earthquakes and repaired).

Inside there is a collection of work which was originally from the Cathedral of Antigua Guatemalan. In addition, the altars are preserved and feature images of saints and other work from the Cathedral of Antigua Guatemala as well.

Be sure to take a moment and pay respect to the tragic recent history of the country at the 12 pillars, located in front of the cathedral. These pillars were resurrected to pay tribute to the murders and disappearance of thousands of people during the civil war from 1960s through 1996.

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La Aurora Zoo (Zoólogico la Aurora)

La Aurora Zoo (Zoólogico la Aurora)

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Considered to be one of the best zoos in Central America, La Aurora opened in 1924. This small zoo offers four permanent exhibits: Africa, Asia, Granita and American.

Not only does this zoo give visitors the chance to learn more about Guatemala’s animals, it also has a large collection of Central American creatures. Experience animals including giraffes, elephants, farm animals, lions, tigers, pythons, hippos and more.

The zoo does a good job living up to its mission – to educate, conserve and rehabilitate animals. It even offers lectures and other programs daily.

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Iglesia de Santo Domingo

Iglesia de Santo Domingo

3 Tours and Activities

A beautiful neoclassical church, Santo Domingo rose to fame because the Virgen del Rosario was dedicated here and crowned as the queen of Guatemala in 1933.

The church took nearly two decades to construct, finishing in 1808. However, a little more than a century later, the building was damaged by the 1917 quake, and again in 1942. Fortunately, restoration allowed it to be brought back to its original form.

It is located at 12 Avenida 10-09 Zone 1 and for some the Church of Santo Domingo is famous for its beautiful neoclassical architecture.

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Volcán San Pedro

Volcán San Pedro

3 Tours and Activities
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Atitlan Nature Reserve (Reserva Natural Atitlán)

Atitlan Nature Reserve (Reserva Natural Atitlán)

2 Tours and Activities

Located on the outskirts of Panajachel, the Atitlan Nature Reserve 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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Popol Vuh Museum (Museo Popol Vuh)

Popol Vuh Museum (Museo Popol Vuh)

2 Tours and Activities

Housed on campus at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Popol Vuh Museum contains some of the most famous collections of pre-Columbian artifacts in the country. A private research institution, visitors to the museum have an opportunity here to learn about the history of Guatemala. The goal of the museum is to conserve, research and educate people about both the cultural and archaeological heritage of the country. It accomplishes this with its many exhibits within the property.

For starters, the museum contains one of the largest collections of Maya art in the world. Visitors to the museum can expect to see a varied collection within its small rooms, including stone sculptures, pottery and the Lord Bat sculpture. The museum is known for its ceramic collection, which is considered to be the best in Guatemala City, if not the country. Of special note are the collections of funeral urns, censers and ceramic whistles.

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