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8 Must-Have Experiences in Guatemala

Central America's Under-the-Radar Destination Boasts Numerous Unique Experiences for the Curious Traveler

GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA--(Marketwired - July 22, 2014) - From charming, colonial towns and spectacular, ancient Mayan cities to pristine natural wonders filled with thrill and wildlife, Central America's best kept secret -- Guatemala -- has much to offer travelers. Home of the most Mayan ruins in the world, over 30 volcanoes, more than 720 species of birds, and even dubbed "Billfish Capital of the World," Guatemala showcases a long list of unique travel experiences. Here are the 8 must-have experiences when visiting:

1. Antigua: Rich in history and architectural charm, the colonial city of Antigua is a vibrant area that takes visitors back in time. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, the city dates back to the early 16th century and today still boasts fantastic characteristics of the time with its cobblestone streets, decorative fountains, colorful massive buildings and fantastic baroque-style churches. The Church of La Merced, for example, is distinguished for its white stucco designs set against a yellow façade. Antigua, also known as the "old Guatemala," enjoys fantastic natural views of three surrounding volcanoes.

Tip: For a family outing, visit the Choco Museo to roast cacao beans and make Mayan chocolate while learning about the history of the super food. Later, sit by the Parque Central (Guatemala's version of Central Park) and mingle with locals while enjoying a tamalito (tamale).

How to experience it: Stay at Casa Santo Domingo, a five-star hotel and museum located on the grounds of the Santo Domingo Monastery, and don't leave without trying their cilantro risotto. For an adventurous journey, hike to the Acatenango Volcano (6 hours walk). The view above the clouds will make the challenging trek worth it.

2. Tikal National Park is one of those places that merits at least two visits during a lifetime. The adventure begins in the jungle, trekking through lush vegetation while becoming acquainted with the sounds of nature. Once the giant ruins of this National Park and first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site peak through, visitors are transported to ancient times. Tikal, once a major city of the Mayan civilization, houses temples, palaces and remains of dwellings that can leave even the most avid traveler speechless. The area protects 22,100 hectares of rainforest and 54 species of mammals, amongst them spider monkeys, jaguars, anteaters and deer.

Tip: To get the best seat at the house, get to the park in time to experience the sunrise atop temple IV, the largest structure (approximately 230 feet) in Tikal, which provides a magnificent view of the jungle.

How to experience it: The town of Flores is located approximately 45-minutes from the park's entrance. Guided tours are available and shuttle services begin at 4:30 a.m.

3. Lake Atitlán, Central America's deepest lake, was created by a massive volcanic explosion. In his book, Beyond the Mexique Bay, English writer Aldous Huxley called Atitlán, "…too much of a good thing." Indeed, the expansive lake is surrounded by breathtaking views of volcanos and 15 distinct indigenous towns (all with biblical names).

Tip: For great views without too much physical strain, visitors are encouraged a hike from the San Marcos village. The village is known for its "hippie" community, where yoga and meditation are practiced often.

How to experience it: Step into a hand-carved canoe to explore the lake. For local crafts, make a pit stop in the shops of Panajachel. To acquire local paintings the best spot in Atitlán is San Juan La Laguna and to experience the mysticism of the Mayan culture, Santiago Atitlan is a must go destination.

4. Quetzaltenango, also known as "Xela" by the locals, is the second largest city in Guatemala and well-known for its Spanish schools for those looking to immerse and perfect their language skills. Surrounded by natural resources such as hot springs, mountains and rivers, Xela is one of the country's main commercial hubs for the production of coffee and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Here, it's not uncommon to find women in traditional Mayan clothing mingling with men in suits.

Tip: Ancient civilizations used spring waters as a place for therapy or to socialize. When in Xela, pass by the natural hot springs at Fuentes Georginas, which boasts four natural pools filled with water from the mountains where the Zunil volcano once stood.

How to experience it: The best part of visiting Xela is the diversity which surrounds it. A trip to the market in San Francisco El Alto and the town of Salcaja (home of many glass artisans) will enrich the experience. Cycling is a great way to explore the neighboring towns.

5. Quirigua is an ancient Mayan archaeological site that holds the tallest stelae (stone sculptures) erected in the New World. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is easy to navigate and its visit can be completed in only two hours. The enigmatic relics found at Quiriguá tell tales of ancient rulers, deities and rivalries.

Tip: The Jade Museum and shop is a hit for those visiting by cruise.

How to experience it: The ruins are within walking distance from the village of Quirigua or Los Amates. The scenic walk takes visitors through banana fields and the entrance to the site will cost approximately $10 dollars.

6. Rio Dulce is a popular boating destination located in the department of Izabal. At the mouth of the river stands a small Spanish fort, The Castillo of San Felipe de Lara, which served as protection from pirates entering from the Caribbean when the city was an important trade destination in 1644.

Tip: There is small family-owned hideaway approximately halfway between Rio Dulce town and Livingston called Finca Tatin. The hotel blends in with the natural foliage and treats guests to hammocks, bungalow-style rooms and home-cooked meals.

How to experience it: Rio Dulce is popular amongst couples who want a serene retreat. While navigating its waters, visitors' encounter a myriad of tropical birds and turtles basking on the sun. Kayak around the vast networks of lagoons surrounding the river, a sanctuary for manatees and wildlife.

7. Yaxha, made famous during the hit TV show, "Survivor," is a lakeside archaeological site is home to more than 500 structures that live in perfect harmony with its natural surroundings. One of Yaxha's main attractions is its blue-green lagoon, which reflects the color of the sky and lush vegetation. 

Tip: The historic information available at the park for each complex is thorough and helpful and the park keepers are so knowledgeable that visitors won't need an additional guide.

How to experience it: Yaxha's lake can be seen from atop temple 216, the highest of the site. Yaxha is the perfect ending for the Guatemalan vacation. The entire trip can take up to a day and the ruins are not as busy as Tikal. Sometimes travelers have the place all to themselves. 

8. Pacaya volcano: Walk across a cooling lava bed and cook marshmallows over the hot rocks as the sun sets. This half-day excursion from Antigua is one of Guatemala's most talked about experiences. Pacaya is Guatemala's most active volcano rising 8,373 feet above sea level.

Tip: Afternoon climbs will guarantee the best views since the mornings are usually filled with fog.

How to experience it: Set out from Antigua (approximately a one-hour ride) to the village under the volcano. Kids usually sell walking sticks at the bottom, which can be helpful for the climb. The climb is not rigorous and can be completed in approximately 2.5 hours. Stunning views of the Agua, Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes can be seen throughout the hike.

About Guatemala

Nested in Central America is Guatemala, the heart of the Mayan world. A place where a modern capital city melds seamlessly with the country's colonial and indigenous past, Guatemala is the path less traveled offering enlightening experiences beyond what meets the eye. From ancient Mayan ruins that emerge from the lush rainforests and architecturally impressive colonial cities with colorful outdoor markets to countless adventures and natural wonders such as untouched forest reserves, volcanoes and pristine lakes, Guatemala presents Life Lessons worth living. It also is home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites: the colonial city of Antigua, the Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua and Tikal National Park. For more information, visit www.visitguatemala.com.

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