Guatemala City, a modern capital, is the main entry point for travellers by air, but while there are some sites of interest, few stay long, preferring to head west to the clean air and relaxed atmosphere of Antigua, the colonial centre of the New World. Gracefully ruined after an 18th-century earthquake, its cobbled streets are lined with columned courtyards, toppled church arches, preserved pastel-coloured houses, flowers and fountains galore. These grand ruins of colonial architecture, coupled with the dramatic location at the foot of three volcanoes and its prominence as a centre for Spanish studies, make Antigua a justifiably popular destination.
Formed by an explosion that blew the lid off the top of a volcanic mountain, Lake Atitlan and its three volcanoes are truly breathtaking. Further west, the bustling city of Quetzaltenango makes an excellent base from which to explore the volcanoes, markets and villages of the Western Highlands, such as the mountain community of Todos Santos, where the colourful clothes of the Maya and the All Saints’ Day horse race are major attractions. In the Verapaces, rivers run through caves stuffed with stalagmites and stalactites. On the humid lower slopes of the Pacific, Olmec-influenced ruins are buried among coffee bushes and turtles nest on the shore, while on the Caribbean coast, the Garífuna rock to the sound of the punta and dolphins frolic in the sea.
The forested northern lowlands of El Peten hide most of Guatemala’s archaeological sites. The majestic Tikal is the most developed for tourism, but many others can be reached including Uaxactun, Yaxha and El Ceibal. Flores, sitting on an island in Lago Peten Itza, is the centre for exploring El Peten with routes from here to Belize and Mexico.