Biodiversity hotspot Guatemala has fourteen distinct ecoregions: wetlands, cloud forests, tropical jungles and more. Its natural beauty, archeological wonders, and reasonable prices make this small Central American country an excellent site for adventure travel.
Climb past rivers of dry lava on Volcano Pacaya, enjoy the surf at remote black sand beaches on the Pacific coast, or trek through the jungle to explore an ancient Mayan settlement. Whatever your passion, there is an incredible range of activities in Guatemala for the thrill-seeking traveler.
1. Surfing on the Pacific Coast
While El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica have long been known as favored surf spots, Guatemala’s Pacific coast is now emerging as a hidden gem for budget-minded surfers seeking isolated beaches and strong waves. You can take a shuttle fromGuatemala City two hours downhill to the coast. Breathe in the warm, salty air as the freeway fades to narrow, winding roads lined with palm trees and sugar cane.
These secluded black-sand beaches offer spectacular yet uncrowded surf. The strongest waves come between March and October, sometimes reaching eighteen feet. Look for beaches like Marina del Sur, Los Pinos, Tulate, Empalizada, Champerico, Ocos, El Paredón, Iztapa and Sipacate.
Local surf camps offer accommodation ranging from private bungalows to dirt-cheap hammocks on the beach. El Paredón Surf Camp has been cited as one of the best for its fresh seafood, helpful hosts, quality lodging options and cool dipping pool. Surf lessons are widely available.
After a long day of surfing, venture into the small villages along the coast to try a fresh pineapple smoothie from a roadside stand. At night, head back to the surf camp to enjoy delicious local rum or a cold Gallo, Guatemala’s national beer.
2. White-water rafting on Río Cahabón
For an exhilarating white-water rafting experience, consider a trip to Río Cahabón in eastern Guatemala. This river stretches nearly 125 miles from its sources in the Sierra de las Minas mountain range through Alta Verapaz, a region known for its dense jungles, stunning lakes, caves and other natural wonders.
The thrilling rapids—one particularly wild stretch has been named “Rock and Roll”—mix with calmer waters, where travelers enjoy immense jungle canyons, rich vegetation, waterfalls and hot springs.
Río Cahabón features Class III and IV rapids, rated intermediate to challenging and not recommended for young children. Rafting tours typically last between three and five days, but one day tours can also be booked from Lanquín.
3. Climb Volcán Pacaya
Hike to the top of this volcano, peer over the edge of a crater, and revel in the incredible sight of smoldering spots of hot lava below. Centrally located just twenty miles from Guatemala City and close to colonial Antigua, Volcán Pacaya has been one of Central America’s most active volcanoes over the past five hundred years. Although Pacaya first erupted 23,000 years ago, it was dormant for about a century before a violent eruption in 1965. A recent eruption in May 2010 caused volcanic ash to rain down over Guatemala City, coating the capital in a dark, sandy blanket.
Visitors trek through fields of molten rock on their way to the volcano’s windy summit, which offers breathtaking views of nearby volcanoes Fuego and Agua. Guides are available in Antigua or at the park ranger’s station just before the climb. It takes about ninety minutes to climb to the top of Pacaya; for a more challenging trek, consider volcanoes Acatenango, Agua, and Fuego.
4. Tubing in the Cuevas Candelaria
Journey to the Mayan underworld with a trip through the Candelaria Caves. This complex system of caves and underground rivers in Alta Verapaz is the longest of its kind in Latin America, the combined length of all branches extending to about 50 miles.
The caves have long been a sacred spot for Mayans. According to spiritual text the Popol Vuh, these subterranean rivers led the souls of the dead to Xibalba, the underworld. For many years the caves were used as a place of worship, as evidenced by platforms, petroglifes, pictograms, and burial remains found inside. They were explored extensively in 1975 as a joint effort between the French and Guatemalan governments led by caver Daniel Dreux.
Tubers pass through pools of clear water before drifting into caves where their lanterns reveal long, pointed stalactites and giant puffy stalagmites. They float on to emerge in a lush forest surrounded by colorful plants and birds.
The caves can be accessed from several visitor centers: Candelaria Camposanto, Candelaria Muqbila, Complejo Cultural y Ecoturistico Cuevas de Candelaria and Los Nacimientos. Consider a visit as part of a tour from Cobán or Chisec; alternatively, spend the night in Raxruhá and take a microbus to Los Nacimientos.
5. Trek to El Mirador
Travel back in time to visit this pre-Columbian Mayan settlement, located in the northern department of Petén. Only rediscovered in 1926, exploration of El Mirador has revealed the site to date back to the Preclassic period, making it significantly older than the ruins at Tikal.
At its peak between the 3rd century B.C.E. and the 1st century C.E., El Mirador was home to more than 100,000 people. The site features complex architectural structures including 230-foot pyramid La Danta and causeways leading to other communities. Buildings were formed with stone and decorated with stucco masks depicting Mayan deities.
Treks through the jungle to reach El Mirador begin in tiny village Carmelita. Access during the rainy season, from July through November, proves an extreme challenge with mosquitoes, muggy heat, and mud so high that trekkers may need rope to pull themselves along. The site is more accessible during the dry season, from February through April. Most tours last about five days, two of them spent at El Mirador.
6. Kayaking on Lago Atitlán
Widely recognized as one of the world’s scenic wonders, the brilliant waters of Lake Atitlán are surrounded by three volcanoes, their green peaks crowned with smoke and clouds. Aldous Huxley famously praised the lake’s beauty as almost “too much of a good thing.”
The lake was formed when land collapsed after the Chocoyos eruption more than 84,000 years ago. Ash from this eruption, named for the chocoyo bird that nests in soft volcanic ash, reached as far as Florida and Ecuador. The massive eruption created a caldera where the lake now lies. The deepest lake in all of Central America, Atitlán reaches more than 1000 feet.
There are several archeological sites beneath the lake’s deep waters. Sambaj, which lies 55 feet below the water level, dates back to the Preclassic period and contains the remains of what was once a city center. Another site, Chiutinamit, was happened upon by local fishermen who discovered a “city underwater.” Subsequent research found that this spot too dated to the Preclassic period, between 600 B.C.E. and 250 C.E.
Kayak trips typically begin early in the day and last two to three hours. For a relaxing paddle, consider starting in Panajachel and heading for the Santa Catarina hot springs. For a longer, more scenic tour of Lake Atitlán, start in San Pedro La Laguna and paddle toward Playa Dorada. You’ll see lakeside villages hidden behind the trees, fisherman in their wooden canoes, and fields filled with coffee, onions, and corn. Many tours include lunch breaks and time to swim and sunbathe. If you’re seeking other adventures around the lake, try hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, ziplining or paragliding.
- Kate Newman