Guatemala deserves all the hype when it comes to adventure, from scrambling up smoking volcanos, to trundling through thick jungle and floating in idyllic wild lakes. Here we reveal 10 adventurous escapes for an unforgettable trip to Guatemala
Santiaguito Volcano: This fiery peak continues to hog the limelight as one of the country’s most famous volcanoes: every half an hour, thundering ash clouds are spat out of its boiling depths and its violent 1902 explosion was one of the biggest in the 20th century. Head up to the peak of neighbouring Santa Maria to gaze down at its searing hot vents and plumes of smoke: the show of light and terrific force of nature will blow you away.
Semuc Champey: Deep in the Guatemalan jungle, this series of tiered pools – a dazzling shade of aquamarine – tempts punters with idyllic dips, waterfall showers and hours basking in the baking sun. Hedonistic heavyweights can leap from a bridge at the park’s entrance for a real blast of adrenalin, or head into the caves for a subterranean swim by candlelight. Those yearning to find them should book a shuttle transfer from Lanquin – it’s a bumpy drive over dirt roads, but the payoff is an exceptional waterbound experience.
Lake Atitlan: Even the most jaded travellers will be left slack-jawed at this spectacular lake – one of Guatemala’s most popular and picturesque destinations – formed in a colossal volcanic crater. Misty volcanoes and lush hills dot its perimeter, smothered in blooming wildflowers, and adventurous souls flock to its tiny indigenous towns, keen to kayak, scramble up volcanoes, dive, mountain bike, and revel in the gringo good times. Don’t miss a climb up the Indian’s Nose in San Juan for far-reaching views of the lake and beyond.
Acatenango: For a high-octane adventure, look to this mammoth volcano, close to the pastel-painted city of Antigua: overnight hikes up this dramatic mound are the stuff of travel legend. That said, don’t even think about heading solo up Acatenango, or indeed any of Guatemala’s volcanoes: always book a guide, who will lead you up its ridges for a night spent sleeping on the slopes above the clouds. On a clear night, you can gaze at flickers of lava from the neighbouring Fuego volcano, before arising early the following day for a sunrise summit to the volcano’s peak at 3,976m.
Rio Dulce and Lake El Golfete: Those itching to get their feet wet will relish a trip to the Rio Dulce and Lake Golfete – a destination that’s increasingly popping up on the tourist trail. Make tracks to this jungle-fringed waterway and mosey on downriver aboard a boat, ticking off monkeys, toucans and lizards; step beneath the Finca Paraiso Hot Springs Waterfall for a refreshing blast; trek through a tangle of rainforest; and lie beneath the tilt of a palm on the area’s Caribbean beaches.
Monterrico Nature Reserve: A winning combination of roughly beautiful black beaches and a startling cast of animal residents – the sprawling reserve is tough to beat for wildlife sightings (from iguanas and caiman to turtles and armadillos). Go between July and October for a nocturnal jaunt on the dramatic black-sand beach and gaze as tiny turtle hatchlings scurry seawards away from their nests.
Guatemala City: For an urban adventure that’s enthralling, intimidating and leftfield all at the same time, Guatemala City really delivers. Its reputation as a crime-ridden, dirty mega-metropolis with an unpredictable political situation has meant many travellers have shied away, but this is a capital city that’s intent on scrubbing itself up and reeling you in. Creatives are starting to take notice of its burgeoning art scene; its first-rate collection of museums give an informed insight into the country’s complex history; markets flog textiles and tantalising street food; and a growing crop of cafes serve up superb local coffee.
Road-trip from Antigua to Lake Atitlan: The idea of driving in central America may fill you with unease. Yet with an increasingly improved road network and dramatic drive-by scenery, a Guatemala road trip might be just the ticket for adventurous nomads. Pick up a hire car in Antigua and head north to drive a small section of the legendary Pan-American Highway – that snakes through 19,000 km of Latin America – for the ultimate road-tripping kudos.
Pacaya Volcano: Book your hike up this active volcano with the right guide, and you’ll have the chance to toast marshmallows on its hot-to-touch rock walls. Thanks to its close proximity to Guatemala City, it’s a popular hike so don’t expect to walk the trail alone. And expect to get breathless – you’ll be ascending more than 1,500ft in a matter of hours. But it’s an epic hike: from spotting occasionally bursts of smoke, to the views of verdant valleys in the distance.
El Paredon: When you’ve had your fill of hardcore hikes, decamp to this slip of a town that’s fast becoming a mecca for surf buffs. Locals whizz over waves at first light, dangle in hammocks, nurse cold beers and seafood at toes-in-the-sand cafes, and strive to squeeze chilled-out fun out of every day.
Flores: It may take just 20 minutes to stroll the perimeter of this tiny town, but what Flores lacks in square metres, it more than makes up for with outdoorsy escapades. Most travellers bed down here with a trip to Guatemala’s most famous Mayan ruins in mind – the extraordinary site of Tikal is a day-trip away. Yet this pinprick island, suspended in Lake Peten Itza, isn’t a one trick pony – in fact, it’s just the place for lakeside dips, backcountry horse-riding, and zip-lining through Ixpanpajul natural park. As well as the wonders of Tikal on your doorstep, the Mayan ruins of Yaxha are just as captivating but far quieter; and the ceremonial centre of Uaxactun – thought to lay claim to housing the oldest Maya astronomical observatory – is the setting for extraordinary sunsets.