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Five incredible experiences you'll have in Guatemala

Five incredible experiences you'll have in Guatemala

Add Guatemala to your bucket list, because a trip to this small Central American country is bound to result in unforgettable experiences.

Guatemala is small enough to accomplish a lot in the space of 8 to 10 days but is vibrant enough that you could spend weeks on end exploring. There are plenty of hiking options for the adventurer, and beautiful lakes and beaches for if you’d like to lounge and relax. Getting from point A to B is easy enough with the well-connected tourist busses. If you’re more adventurous, do as the locals do and take a chicken bus!

Here are 5 unique experiences you can add to your Guatemala itinerary:

1. Witness a volcano erupt

Guatemala is one of the few places on the planet that you can watch a volcano actively erupt from a safe distance. Volcan Fuego has been actively erupting since 2002, and in recent years has become a popular destination for tourists. The volcano erupts every 15 minutes, spewing lava and smoke into the sky. The severity of these eruptions ranges from subtle to more violent, but they are always fascinating to watch.

To view Volcan Fuego erupt involves a difficult, but manageable hike to the summit of a neighboring inactive volcano, Volcan Acatenango. Most hostels in Antigua will arrange the hike for you, providing a local guide, equipment, and food. It is a two-day excursion which means that you’ll spend a night at the base camp of Volcan Acatenango, sleeping in a provided tent. The hike is difficult, but the guides offer help and encouragement the entire way up. When you reach the summit, you’ll have climbed to 3763 meters. And it will be worth it because you’ll be up in the clouds with the view of a lifetime.

Read Guatemala: Hiking Volcano Acatenango to learn more about this epic hike.

Volcan Fuego erupting. I took this after sleeping overnight at Volcan Acatenango’s base camp.

Volcan Fuego erupting. I took this after sleeping overnight at Volcan Acatenango’s base camp.

2. Explore a volcanic crater lake: Lake Atitlán

Lake Atitlán is a must-see in Guatemala, and for good reason. This massive crater lake is lined with many towns, beautiful mountains, and lush jungle. Here, you will be introduced to Guatemala’s diverse indigenous culture. San Pedro La Laguna is a popular spot for backpackers, and famous for its not-so-secret cliff-jumping spot. San Marcos La Laguna is a larger town, with a stronger Mayan presence. But no matter where you stay on La Laguna, you will have plenty to do and beautiful views, guaranteed. The lake is well connected by small boats. For a reasonable fee, you can fill your day with trips to other towns. Horseback riding, hiking, and swimming are other popular activities to take up with at Lake Atitlán.

San Pedro La Laguna.

San Pedro La Laguna.

3. Visit the Mayan folk saint Maximón

The Indigenous Mayans of Guatemala have many important saints who are actively worshipped. Maximón, also known as San Simón, is one such saint. He is represented by a wooden statue who is dressed and decorated, seated on a chair. Unlike other saints, he smokes cigars and drinks alcohol. Visitors travel to Santiago, Guatemala from near and far to visit and pray to Maximón. Visitors might ask him for protection, wealth, or specifics, like to be cured of a disease. Each year, Maximón is moved to a new house in which he will reside, always in Santiago. A family is given the responsibility of caring for him and welcoming visitors.

A visit to Maximón is a unique experience which gives insight into Mayan culture and beliefs. When staying in Lake Atitlan, it is easy to find him. Go by boat to Santiago, and once arrived, ask a tuk-tuk driver to bring you to Maximón. As a show of respect dress modestly and bring an offering of cigarettes or liquor to leave at his feet. Maximón’s caretakers will ask that you pay a small fee to take photos.

I snapped this pic of Maximón after paying the small fee, which goes towards his care.

I snapped this pic of Maximón after paying the small fee, which goes towards his care.

4. Watch the most serene sunrise

For the most epic sunrise of your life, do they Indian Nose morning hike. The profile of the mountain looks like a sleeping Indian, and hence how the got its name. The peak from which you watch the sunrise is considered sacred by the Mayans, and historically, they conducted religious services at the top. Most hostels and hotels will arrange a group and guide for you. The hike involves a bus ride, departing at 4:00 am, followed by a short hike to 2,863 meters. Although the hike is steep, it is over quickly. When you reach the summit, it will still be dark. Your guides will hand out bread and coffee as you wait for the show to begin. Watching this sunrise is surreal. You will see the sky slowly brighten, and the clouds will slowly roll away revealing a panoramic view of Lake Atitlán. On a clear day, you can see Antigua and Volcan Fuego in the distance.

The sunrise view from Indian Nose.

The sunrise view from Indian Nose.

5. Enjoy the markets of Antigua

Antigua was once the colonial Spanish capital of Central America, and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site named for its colonial Spanish architecture. The city is easily accessible and can be explored mostly on foot. There is plenty to do from exploring the plentiful markets to experimenting with street food and enjoying live music in a local bar. The Parque Central, found in the center of the city, is always bustling with locals and vendors, making it a great spot to people watch. And, if you’re up for an easy hike, you can make your way up to Cerro de la Cruz. This famous viewpoint hosts a large cross which is devoted to the city’s patron saint. On a clear day, you’ll have views of all of Antigua, and some of the volcanoes in the distance!

Antigua, Guatemala.

Antigua, Guatemala.

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