Bienvenidos al corazón del mundo Maya (welcome to the heart of the Mayan world) exclaims a big billboard greeting arriving passengers in Guatemala City. My expectations were set to simply look at some interesting artifacts and visit ruins from an ancient civilization. Instead, I discovered much more.

Yes, the Mayan ruins of Tikal are super impressive, I’m sure. But after two visits to this country, I still haven’t seen them. Instead, the Colonial courtyards of Antigua, the laid back waterfront villages of Lake Atitlan, and the volcano-dotted countryside ripe for hiking and lava watching stole my heart. Add in how affordable this country is to visit, and it even inspired me to take a week of Spanish classes during my return trip. Spend a long weekend, a week, or longer taking in all Guatemala has to offer, and maybe you’ll feel the same way.

Getting There

Great news for non-revs: This Central American country is a lot closer, and easier to get to, than you might have thought. While American, Delta, Spirit, and United serve Guatemala City (GUA), the country seems to be forgotten among American vacationers. Most of the tourists I’ve run into here are backpackers from Europe, Canada, and Australia on long multi-country Central American treks. Unlike neighboring countries like Mexico, Belize, and Costa Rica, which are nearly off-limits to standbys during the winter and spring break seasons, Guatemala is easily accessible year-round.

 When To Go

Parque Central, Antigua

Guatemala’s dry season runs roughly from November-April. Throughout this season of favorable weather, tourism slowly increases to its peak during the Holy Week in April. The wet season is still enjoyable with only scattered showers here and there, and with the benefit of cheaper prices. Although even in the high season, the dollar goes a long way in Central America. Warm days and cool nights prevail year-round throughout most of the country.

Getting Around

Private vans are the primary method of transporting foreigners along the beaten tourist path. There’s a pretty cheap and well established network of companies operating between Guatemala City, Antigua, and Panajachel (Lago de Atitlan), with a ride between either costing around $12. Alternatively, a ZED on Avianca between GUA and FRS saves considerable time getting to isolated Tikal National Park, Guatemala’s most famous destination.

Guatemala City

Like many tourists, I’ve used Guatemala City only to enter and exit the country via La Aurora International Airport. Upon arrival, bypass the expensive money exchange desks in favor of the super-secret ATM. Exit the arrivals area and go up one level to the departures area. (You need to show your passport to enter). Look for the ATM hidden behind the staircase going to the mezzanine. If you find yourself sitting around playing the standby game, there is a row of highly rated museums only a short taxi ride from the airport.

Antigua

After arriving in Guatemala City, take the 45 minute ride from the airport up to Antigua. Nestled between three volcanoes, Antigua is a small yet remarkably well-preserved colonial city. With lodging options for all budgets from an $8 hostel bed at Three Monkeys Guesthouse to the gorgeous Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo ($120), it’s the perfect base city. Personally, I was pleased with the mid-range Hotel Casa Rustica ($50).

Cerro de la Cruz overlooking Antigua

Spend your day sipping Guatemalan coffee in one of many stunning rooftop cafes while planning excursions into the surrounding area. You can hike the nearby volcanoes of Pacaya (easy, family-oriented) and Acatenango (extreme hiking with amazing views of erupting Volcan de Fuego), or take in Mayan culture on a leisurely tour of the surrounding pueblos. At night, live music can be found at mainstays like Cafe No Se, Rainbow Cafe, and Fridas.

Not a bad setting for a coffee or a Spanish lesson

On my first visit to Antigua, I kept myself busy for two full days simply wandering the cobblestone streets and admiring everything from the hidden courtyards and fountains to the strange doors and knockers. I returned later and spent a week homestaying with a Guatemalan family and taking lessons at Tecun Uman Spanish School. One week of school, including four hours of private study in the mornings and afternoon activities, costs a mere $150. Add in a homestay with a Spanish speaking family ($12/night) and you have quite a bargain for learning a new language.

 

Even the McDonalds has a beautiful courtyard

Toasting marshmallows in the vents of Volcan de Pacaya

Lago de Atitlan

A crater lake abutted by postcard-worthy volcanoes, Lago de Atitlan is perhaps the most visually stunning landscape in all of Central America. Panajachel is the main transit point and biggest town on the lake. From there, a system of ferry boats traverse the lake serving the other small lakeside villages. In this case, it really is about the journey, not the destination. Taking in the view from the boat between Panajachel and San Pedro La Laguna was the highlight of my time at the lake. Top picks for lodging: Posada de Los Volcanes ($50) and Hospedaje El Viajero ($30). Some of the cheaper hostels in this area have pretty questionable cleanliness.

Looking down on the lake from Indian Nose

$2 meal in Panajachel

Tikal

Most guidebooks list the Mayan ruins of Tikal as the number one site in Guatemala, if not all of Central America. But somehow after two trips to Guatemala, it’s still on my to-do list. Dating back as far as the first century, Tikal is a series of citadels and temples nestled deep in the jungle. You can reach Flores (FRS), the nearest town to Tikal, on a 45 minute flight from GUA. It’s possible to see Tikal in one day at the beginning or end of your trip by flying up from GUA in the morning and returning at night. A more immersive two-day option is to fly to FRS at night and stay at one of the three guesthouses next to the park, experience sunrise over the jungle and tour the ruins the next morning, then return to GUA in the afternoon. Round-trip airfare on Avianca costs $79 (ZED medium + taxes).

Speaking a bit of Spanish can go a long way in Guatemala. You can certainly get by in the airport and the tourist zones like Antigua and Tikal without knowing any Spanish, but the majority of people I’ve encountered speak little to no English.