Complex, diverse, unique: the central American country defies expectation in many ways, not least its ability to enamour travellers great and small. Festivals sizzling with street life, outdoorsy adventures, fascinating museums… Guatemala is a blast for families
Whale-watching: From December to April, humpbacks whales drift along the Pacific coast of the country, migrating to the balmy waters as winter hits further north. It’s pretty rare to catch them from land, so your best port of call is Puerto Quetzal – a thriving harbour town where gargantuan cruise ships dock before stalking the central American coastline and whale-watching yachts launch towards the whales’ breeding grounds for heart-thudding close encounters. Along the way you may be joined by pods of bottlenose dolphins, mammoth manta rays and turtles darting below the surface.
Canopy tours: It’s no secret Guatemala oozes adventurous appeal. And tweens and teens can catch an adrenaline-fuelled thrill at one of its zip-lining parks that dot the country. One not to miss is the canopy tour of the Atitlan Reserve, where the natural environs – surreal landscapes, frolicking monkeys, trickling waterfalls, soaring volcanoes – speak for themselves. The ascending hike passes coffee plantations and tangles of forest before reaching a zip-line launch point: one soars for a modest 100m, another for 300m – both of which are guaranteed to work their magic on the whole clan.
Choco Museo, Antigua: It may sound run-of-the-mill touristy, but this credible museum remains firmly on the must-visit list for families. And if you’re a chocoholic, well, you’re in the right place. This is the birthplace of cacao after all, thanks to the Mayans. You’ll learn about Guatemala’s rich chocolate heritage, muse about its intriguing exhibits, and get stuck into devilishly tempting ‘bean to bar’ chocolate-making workshops and plantation tours. Chocomuseo.com
Chichicastenango: Make a detour as you travel from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, and you’ll find yourself in this atmospheric town in the Guatemalan Highlands. Kids are a discerning bunch when it comes to shopping, and Chichi’s legendary markets – held on Thursdays and Sundays – will be a welcome sight: think pottery, masks, textiles and piles of weird and wonderful merchandise, plus endless instagrammable photo ops.
Turtles, Monterrico: This coastal town is not your classic beach beauty; dramatic waves thrash its black sands and riptides can be notoriously perilous. But out of the water, Monterrico is backed by a wildlife reserve and two fascinating sanctuaries for the hatching of sea turtles and caimans and their impending release into the wild. Head to CECON (Conservation Center of Studies) during hatching season, from September to February, and you and your brood can handle the baby sea turtles that have been incubated here away from the harm of poachers, nudging them into the sea with the guidance of the on-site biologists. Experts are also on hand to educate visitors about its conservation projects, turtle reproduction, and the repopulation of endangered species. And when you have the kids to consider, Monterrico has a lot out of the ordinary that’ll win everyone’s hearts: padding about the sands in the salty breeze, slurping on freshly cut coconuts, cruising through the mangroves in search of monkeys and giant butterflies, and horse riding on the beach as the sun goes down.
Finca El Paraiso: If you love being in the know, then you’ll love this hidden waterfall and swimming spot on the north side of Lago de Izabal. The setting’s jungly and off-the-beaten-track and the idea is all about old-fashioned waterside antics. Remarkably the waterfall gushes hot thermal waters from 12 metres above the cool watering hole, and you can shower in the balmy cascading water, wallow in the pool, or lie spread-eagled on the rocks.
Parque Natural Ixpanpajul: If you’re heading to Flores, this wildlife reserve in El Peten will do the trick for outdoorsy kids to muck around in after mooching around the legendary archaeological site of Tikal. There’s horse riding and mountain biking, hopping on to tractors or zip-lining through the jungle canopy in the company of tropical birds and a rotating cast of monkeys. Its ace card though is the Skyway, a trail skirting through the tangle of branches with a clutch of suspended bridges swaying in the upper reaches of the jungle – a real Indiana Jones-style adventure.
Parque central, Antigua: This central square is a reassuringly handsome spot to take respite from the thrum of Antigua. Locals wind down in the shade, catching up over coffee, gardeners spruce up immaculate flower beds, and little ones will always relish running around its nooks, in and around the Fountain of the Sirens. It’s worth waiting for one of the benches so you can drink in the atmosphere, snacking on ice creams picked up from one of the cafes lining the plaza as the kids stare at street performers. And for extra brownie points, cough up a few quetzals for a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
Festivals: Guatemalans love a knees up and kids will be met with great enthusiasm at one of the country’s energetic shindigs. The year is punctuated with fiestas and festivals of varying magnitude: many of which are all-consuming lavish affairs with fireworks, mountains of food, dancers out-gunning each other, and live bands strumming traditional Guatemalan music. One that’s sure to capture their imaginations is the Festival of Giant Kites, taking place in the neighbouring southern towns of Santiago, Sacatepequez and Sumpango. As dawn breaks on All Saint’s Day (1 November), the cobbled streets fizz with activity as punters pick up colourful kites for sale before heading up to the towns’ cemeteries. Here, giant kites – some of which took months to build and reach up to 40 foot – are thrust upwards by crowds of their creators and launched into the wind, flying over the graves of the deceased as a cultural symbol of peace and companionship.