South of Mexico, west of Belize and north of Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala is one of the most striking countries in Latin America. It’s only about the size of Ireland, but you’ll find a colourful blend of Indian cultures, ancient Mayan sites, volcanoes, lush green jungles, colonial cities and spectacular scenery.
Here are the best places to visit, things to do and places to stay…
Any holiday to Guatemala should include the former capital Antigua. This cosmopolitan city, with a rich colonial past, was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979. After a long history of earthquakes, the capital was moved to Guatemala City in 1773 but the locals rebuilt their city once more and, today, it’s a fascinating combination of romantic ruins and historic architecture from every age dating back nearly 500 years. In the shadow of rugged mountains and volcanoes, its long cobblestone streets are lined with pretty pastel-hued houses, stylish boutique hotels, smart shops, galleries, and buzzing cafés and restaurants. You can head out on day trips to the surrounding valleys and hills to discover coffee farms and charming indigenous villages.
Where To Stay: Many of the restored Spanish colonial buildings have been converted into stylish hotels. One of the most luxe places to stay is El Convento on one of the city’s cobblestone streets in front of the 18th-century Capuchin convent. Colonial ambience is combined with state-of-the-art facilities in all of the individually decorated 25 rooms and suites. Head to the rooftop terrace as the sun sets for remarkable views of the surrounding volcanoes before heading to the excellent on-site restaurant.
For a more affordable yet still luxe option, Mesón Panza Verde is one of the first boutique hotels to open in Guatemala. At the quiet end of famous Fifth Avenue, it’s just a few minutes’ walk from the main square and cathedral. The 12 rooms are individually decorated and some have terraces; there are daily yoga classes, an art gallery and a small pool. It’s also home to what is widely recognised as one of Guatemala’s best restaurants.
Overlooked by three volcanoes, this is one of the most beautiful and captivating lakes in the world. The shoreline is dotted with traditional villages – the main ones to visit being San Antonio Palopó, Santiago Atitlán and Sololá – where you will find Mayan culture and dress which has survived for centuries. Things to do include a trip with local fishermen, kayaking, cycling around the lake, a visit to a coffee farm and zip-lining through the trees in the Reserva Natural Atitlán. A short journey up the road will take you to Chichicastenango, famous for its bustling, colourful Thursday and Sunday markets, offering produce and textiles brought by local farmers and artisans from miles around.
Where To Stay: A former private estate, perched majestically above the lake, Casa Palopó is Guatemala’s first Relais & Châteaux property. The 15 rooms have stucco walls painted in rich colours and decorated in Mayan furnishings and local artefacts; each has a private sundeck and floor-to-ceiling windows. There is also a two-bedroom villa within the grounds. The lap pool on the terrace is the perfect place to soak up the rays while enjoying the views of all three volcanoes on the horizon. The award-winning restaurant serves Guatemalan-inspired food made from local-sourced ingredients. For the ultimate luxe experience, as well as amazing views, skip the three-hour drive from Guatemala City and arrive by helicopter, landing on the hotel’s onsite helipad.
Shrouded in dense tropical jungle, Tikal in the north of Guatemala is one of the most impressive of all the Mayan sites. Tikal was first occupied as a small village sometime before 300BC, but by around 700AD it had become an important city with great palaces, plazas and pyramids. The buildings date back some 2,500 years and the site is so vast many are still hidden by the rainforest. As you walk through the thick vegetation, you’ll hear howler monkeys before arriving at the main plaza which has been cleared from the jungle. You’ll be amazed by the size of these buildings and, if you’re brave and have a head for heights, you can climb some of the pyramids – from the top you’ll get the most incredible views.
Where To Stay: A secluded jungle hideaway on a hillside above the shores of Lake Peten Itza, La Lancha is one of film director Francis Ford Coppola’s properties. From the main lodge, pathways lead to lake-view or jungle-view ‘casitas’, which are brightly decorated with Mayan art and Guatemalan and Balinese furniture collected from Coppola’s travels. In addition to visiting the ruins of Tikal, there are a range of excursions on offer, including fishing, lake trips, canopy tours, birdwatching, kayaking and mountain biking. The open-air restaurant serves local food with an Italian twist.
If you want to combine pampering and adventure, book into boutique lodge Las Lagunas which is set within its own enclosed nature reserve overlooking Quexil lagoon. There are 19 freestanding suites, a spa and an excellent restaurant.
A little larger than Wales, English-speaking Belize is bordered by Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean, and is a mix of Creole, British colonial, indigenous Mayan, Mennonite and Spanish cultures. Here, you’ll get adventure and relaxation in equal measure, and in close proximity, making it easy to sample the country’s lush tropical rainforests, waterfalls, wildlife, Mayan ruins and beautiful beaches in a short space of time.
The coast is unmistakably Caribbean, with white sandy beaches, coral atolls, palm trees and turquoise seas, and the world’s second largest barrier reef for unforgettable snorkelling and diving. In the back country, there are forested highlands and jungle where you can zip wire, explore caves and rivers, and spot the abundant wildlife – including hundreds of species of birds, jaguars, monkeys and crocodiles.
Here are the best places to visit, things to do and places to stay…
Known as the Highlands of Belize, this is the country’s largest district, home to the capital Belmopan and an area of winding rivers, waterfalls, caves and mountains, as well as Mayan ruins. The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest is Belize’s oldest park, where you can cycle, walk, kayak, ride or canoe through the subterranean Barton Creek cave. There are also archaeological sites, including Xunantunich, Cahal Pech and the Mayan city of Caracol, once home to over 100,000 people and where today you can still see its ornate architecture.
Where To Stay: Blancaneaux Lodge is Coppola’s romantic Mountain Pine Ridge retreat. Its 20 villas and cabanas are scattered along the Privasson river and surrounded by Mayan ruins, shimmering waterfalls, turquoise pools, lush jungle and wildlife. You can explore the area on horseback or stay put, relaxing in a hammock or cool off in the river.
Chaa Creek is another delightful jungle hideaway close to the picturesque Macal river. Owned by an Anglo-American couple, the cottages and villas are spread throughout the grounds, so there’s a feeling of space and privacy. Relax by the infinity pool or in the spa or, if you want to explore, there are several guided activities, including canoe trips, horse riding, mountain biking, nature trails, canopy ziplining and cave canoeing.
Orange Walk District
One of Belize’s most multicultural regions, Orange Walk in the north-west is home to Creoles, Mennonites and indigenous Mayans. It also has some of the best sandy beaches. The Rio Bravo conservation area is home to puma, jaguar, ocelot and over 400 species of birds, as well as 150 types of orchid. You can also visit the Mayan settlements of Cuello and Lamanai where the ruins emerge from the thick jungle.
Where To Stay: Lamanai Outpost Lodge is an eco-lodge deep in the rainforest on the banks of a 28-mile lagoon amid the remnants of a Mayan city. Accommodation is simple but comfortable. The real draw is an incredible variety of habitats that offer a range of adventure activities from canoeing and boat tours to guided walks in the forests or excavated ruins and crocodile-spotting trips at night.
Off the northern coast, within a couple of hours’ boat ride of the mainland, lie more than 400 ‘cayes’ or atolls. Surrounded by the unspoilt Belize Barrier Reef, with crystal-clear waters teeming with marine life, this is a very popular area to unwind and enjoy some of the best diving and snorkelling, as well as other watersports like sailing and windsurfing. The largest and most northerly of the ‘cayes’ is Ambergris Caye. The town of San Pedro is a bustling tourist centre and famous for lobster. Having started life as a sleepy Belize fishing village, San Pedro is now a bustling tourist centre and famous for its lobster.
Where To Stay: Victoria House is where you’ll find a blend of old world charm and character with modern facilities. Set in lush tropical gardens at the quiet end of a long stretch of beach, this property feels quite secluded, yet it’s within easy reach of San Pedro’s restaurants, bars and shops. The choice of accommodation ranges from thatched ‘casitas’ to colonial suites or seafront villas for larger groups, and there’s a lovely infinity pool and a spa.
Stylish and laid-back Matachica Resort is set on a secluded white-sand beach and can only be reached by boat from San Pedro. Accommodation consists of 27 thatched cottages painted in bright primary colours; the interiors are more subtle and decorated with locally sourced furniture and murals by local artists. There’s a large infinity pool and jacuzzi as well as diving, snorkelling and fishing on your doorstep.
For total peace and quiet – and the ultimate hyper-luxe experience with a price to match – splash out for a night or two at Cayo Espanto. Three miles out to sea from San Pedro, this exclusive island hideaway has hosted A-listers like Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford and Leonardo DiCaprio. The six wooden villas are dotted among the palm trees – each has its own butler, a plunge pool and hammocks, and opens out on to its own terrace and jetty.
This coastal village is at the southern tip of the Placencia Peninsula and has a real laid-back Caribbean feel. It is surrounded by miles of sandy beaches, mangrove-fringed lagoons and caves. Relax on the beach, snorkel, dive or book a fishing tour. If you’re very adventurous, cave tubing will take you on a ride through underground caves. A trip on the lagoon between the peninsula and the mainland is a must – the chance to spot the shy and elusive manatee monkey, saltwater crocodiles or bottle-nosed and Atlantic-spotted dolphins.
Where To Stay: Another Coppola property, Turtle Inn is an Indonesian-style ocean hideaway just outside Placencia. An immaculate blend of rustic and luxe, there are 25 individual thatched cottages and villas, three restaurants, two pools and a spa, and of course a white-sand beach just a few steps away.
Or book into Naia Resort and Spa, a barefoot paradise which extends along a palm-fringed, powdery white beach. There are 35 secluded beach houses and treetop villas, each with views of the Caribbean. The main focus is the spa where you can unwind in one of five over-the-water treatment rooms set on the lagoon.
The trips listed below combine Belize and Guatemala – ideal if you are planning a two-week trip or longer and you could even add on Mexico if time allows. However, for a relaxing break with fewer transfers, you could also stick to one country. These tour operators can organise your trip based on your interests and preferences.
On Journey Latin America’s 12-day ‘Kinkajou: Best of Guatemala and Belize’ trip, you’ll start off in Antigua, Guatemala’s masterpiece, and continue to the serene setting of Lake Atitlán, followed by Tikal, the vast Mayan city. Crossing the border into Belize, you’ll stay at remote countryside lodge Chaa Creek (see above) – surrounded by tropical foliage rich in wildlife you can enjoy a range of outdoor activities or just relax. From £3,422pp, including international flights, domestic flights, superior accommodation on a B&B basis, lunch on day 8 and half board on days 9 to 11, private transfers and excursions.
Click here for full details.
On Rainbow Tours’ 13-day ‘Classic Guatemala and Belize’ trip, you’ll visit Antigua, Lake Atitlán and Tikal in Guatemala, before crossing into Belize to discover the Cayo District and finally spending time on the beach at Ambergris Caye. From £3,795pp, including international flights, all domestic flights and transfers, accommodation throughout with breakfast, some additional meals and several guided excursions.
Click here for full details – an upgrade to more luxe accommodation can be arranged.
On Abercrombie & Kent’s 13-night ‘Classic Guatemala and Belize’ trip, you’ll visit Antigua, Lake Atitlán and Chichicastenango, Guatemala City, Flores and Tikal in Guatemala, then cross into Belize and head to the Cayo District, followed by Ambergris Caye. From £4,390pp, including international flights, transfers and accommodation.
Click here for full details.
On Black Tomato’s 13-night ‘Ultimate Guatemala & Belize: Ancient Mayan Discoveries & Island Hideaways’ trip, you’ll visit Antigua, Lake Atitlán and several Mayan ruins in Guatemala, followed by a stay in the Cayo District and Placencia in Belize. From £5,200pp excluding flights from the UK.
Click here for further details – every Black Tomato trip can be tailored to exactly what you want to do.
Blow The Budget Luxe
On Scott Dunn’s 14-night private ‘Ultimate Guatemala & Belize’ trip, you’ll visit Antigua, Lake Atitlán and Tikal in Guatemala, followed by the Mountain Pine Ridge and Ambergris Caye in Belize. You’ll stay in many of the hotels listed above including the exclusive Cayo Espanto. From £13,000pp, including accommodation, return flights from the UK, and transfers.
Click here for full details.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
The best time to visit both Belize and Guatemala is between late November and mid-April, as this is the dry season. From mid-February onwards, though still peak season, top attractions are likely to be a little quieter.
If you are planning on visiting just Guatemala, the rainy season (May to November) mostly entails sunny mornings with rain in the late afternoon. June and July can be dry and clear, making them a good time to visit. September and October are the wettest months.
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