Guatemala might not be what comes to mind when you think of ‘travel with kids’, but this small Central American country actually has a lot to offer when it comes to family friendly travel.
Guatemala’s rich history and culture, not to mention their varied terrain and climate, make this a destination for children that’s not only fun, but educational as well. Inexpensive, ample public transportation, and lots to see, makes visiting Guatemala an ideal stopping place for families who want a little more out of their next family vacation.
Here’s a few of the best places to take kids in Guatemala:
What I like to call ‘The Real Magic Kingdom’, Tikal is a mystical place, filled with towering, ancient ruins, buried in deep jungle and alive with exotic wildlife like coatimundis and howler monkeys.
One of the largest ruins of the ancient Mayan civilizations and a UNESCO world heritage site, (not to mention famous for being scenery in a Star Wars movie), Tikal is one of those ‘must sees’. A vast complex consisting of temples, pyramids, and the ruins of palaces and other dwellings, this site has an ‘otherworldly’ feel which seems to transport you back into time.
It might be a challenge to get the kids out of bed early, but it’s well worth the effort. (I recommend staying right in the park, either camping, or at the hotel.) With fewer people and cooler temperatures in the earlier morning hours, they’ll be able to run and climb to their hearts content, and have a better chance at spotting some monkeys and coatis eating their breakfast, wild turkeys hiding in the brush, and maybe even a jaguar.
By the time you’ve explored the lofty temple pyramids and myriad jungle paths, you’ll be ready to leave just as the tourist buses are arriving (and the heat is increasing).
Tikal is located in Northern Guatemala, bordering Belize. You can get there via plane or bus from Guatemala City or Belize City. It’s definitely one of the best day trips in Guatemala.
2. Lake Atitlan
The deepest lake in Central America, Lake Atitlan has also been called one of the most beautiful in the world. Located in the highlands of Guatemala, it’s majestically flanked on the south by three volcanoes — Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro.
Lake Atitlan offers lots of amusements for kids in the towns surrounding the lake — from ziplining in Panajachel at the Atitlan Nature Reserve, to jumping off the ‘trampoline’ and swimming in the Lake at San Marcos (make sure to stop by the bookstore to read some books and buy some fresh baked bread. You can’t miss it, it’s on the ‘corner’ in the small alleyway that leads from the boat dock to the main part of town.)
If you want more of the local experience, take a little trip to Santa Catarina and visit the local artisans, or take a boat ride to Santiago, the largest but most authentic city on the lake.
Lake Atitlan is located in the southwest of Guatemala, about 3 hours from Guatemala City. You can get there via public bus, or private transportation.
3. Quetzaltenango (Xela – Shay-law)
The second largest city in Guatemala, Xela is said to have been already 300 years old by the time the Spanish arrived. Considered the ‘soul of the culture’, Xela boasts lively music such as jazz and blues, as well as by local artists playing in the traditional style.
Xela is also a popular destination for travelers who want to learn Spanish, since it’s home to many Spanish schools. If you plan to take a trip here, then you should definitely take the kids to El Baul. It’s located on the mountain east of the city, and has the biggest slides you’ve ever seen! (Don’t worry if you have little ones, there are small slides too.)
Prepare to have a ton of fun as you race to the bottom. Bring lunch for a picnic (there are tables), and get a great view of the entire city — especially on a clear day.
4. Fuentes Georginas – Reu
If you visit Xela, it’s definitely worth taking a trip to Fuentes Georginas, only an hour south of the city.
Nestled in the mountains, the temperatures can get chilly, but it makes the hot springs that much more enjoyable.
There’s multiple options for your relaxing pleasure, including al natural which is reached via a 10 minute hike to the valley below the resort. Or if you prefer, you can hang out poolside (actually 3 pools of varying temperature) which is where you’ll also find the restaurant, dressing rooms and bathrooms. There’s something for everyone, ensuring that all in the family will have a great time.
Simple accommodations and camping are available, otherwise plan to return to Xela (or press on to Xocomil) for the night.
Only 30 minutes further south from Fuentes Georginas (about 1 ½ hours from Xela), in Retalhue (Reu for short) is Guatemala’s largest waterpark.
You may be thinking, “If I wanted to go to a waterpark, I could do that back home.” But Xocomil (pronounced Sho-ko-meel) is one of the largest and nicest waterparks I’ve ever seen — and if you go at the right time, you might have the place almost to yourself.
Located in the lower elevations, the temperature is much warmer than the highlands, and urges you to play in the refreshing water coursing through one of the multiple kiddie pools, wave pools, lazy river, or dozens of slides/rides.
Xocomil is open Wednesday through Sunday (10am during the week, and 9am on the weekend). The school year is January to October in Guatemala, and if you visit on a weekday during those months, your family might be the only ones there — you’re own private waterpark. The cost is about $13 for adults (anyone taller than 3 feet), and $6.50 for kids. Under age 3 is free.
You can stay in the waterpark for the night (camping or hotel available), or across the street at one of the many nice hotels.
6. The beach
What kid doesn’t love to chase waves and build sandcastles? What parent doesn’t love the wide open spaces and ‘white noise’ of the ocean?
Although Guatemala doesn’t have the most beautiful beaches in the world, it does have over 155 miles just on the Pacific Coast. Much of this coastline is black or dark brown sand. Be cautious of the undercurrents, they can be strong. The further south you travel (closer to El Salvador’s border) the more the beaches flatten out and the waves calm down a bit.
Sipicate is a small, laid back surfing town. Monterricco is more of a tourist destination and offers more accommodations and restaurants (and from November to January you can see baby turtles released from the nature preserve there in town.) If you’re looking for a ‘real’ local experience, try visiting a tiny place like Chapeton where you’ll only be sharing the beach with the local fisherman.
The beaches can be reached by taking any southern roads running perpendicular to highway CA2. Tourist vans make regular trips to Monterricco from cities such as Panajachel, Antigua or Guatemala City.