Guatemala is the perfect destination for those looking for plenty of variety within a compact country: colourful indigenous culture, grand colonial architecture, mysterious archaeological ruins, scenic majestic volcanoes, broad rivers, crater lakes, and tropical wildlife.
As a wildlife destination Guatemala is chiefly of interest for birdwatchers, containing as it does over 740 avian species. That there is exceptional birdlife is evidenced in Guatemala’s currency, the Quetzal, named after the Maya god-bird known as the resplendent quetzal, the world’s most beautiful trogon. The full gamut of Central America’s mammal and other species do inhabit the rainforested El Peten region but luck is needed to see many of them. However, in El Peten one can now stay at a lodge within a jungle reserve where the chances of seeing other species are much higher.
A narrow strip of lowland fringed by black sand beaches separates Guatemala’s Pacific shore from its southern highlands. These rise sharply to 2,500 to 3,000 metres – fringed by a series of volcanoes – and stretch for 240 kilometres before descending into the northern lowlands. Various basins dot the volcanic region at around 1,500 to 2,500 metres, giving rise to rivers which drain into the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and it’s in these basins where most of the population live. One basin has no apparent drainage: the magnificent Lake Atitlan, ringed by Maya settlements and a big draw for visitors. The southern highlands give way to the central highlands, lower, more rugged and less densely forested, which fall into the Caribbean coastal levels containing Lago Izabal and Rio Dulce, and the rainforested northern flatlands of El Peten where the mighty Maya ruins of Tikal, Yaxha and Uaxactun are found.
The Pacific coast of Guatemala has black sand beaches and is lacking in good hotels, as it is little visited by foreign tourists. However, it does have some good turtle nesting beaches and coastal biosphere reserves, and whale watching is possible in season.
Bordered by Mexico and Belize, Guatemala is the most Mayan country in Central America and the descendants of that ancient people still wear traditional dress and cleave to their customs despite hundreds of years of Spanish conquest and subsequent, often repressive, rule. The Spanish colonial era did leave one lasting gem: the impressive city of Antigua which retains hugely impressive architecture.
Guatemala combines very well with its neighbour, Belize, where you’ll find a Caribbean vibe, friendly, English-speaking people, world class lodges and the world’s second longest barrier reef, providing excellent diving and snorkelling. Taken together, Guatemala and Belize amount to a veritable “best of Central America” experience not possible if visiting just one of those countries.