Guatemala

Essentials

Capital: Guatemala City

Size: 108,889 km²

Population: 12.6m

Currency: Quetzal

Language: Spanish

Visas: Not required by UK nationals.

Food: Local dishes include pepián - thick meat stew with vegetables and patín - tomato-based sauce served with pescaditos, small fish from Lake Atitlán wrapped in leaves.

Drink: Cold, freshly made refrescos and ice creams are delicious.

Festivals: Holy Week in Antigua is the most important. Bright carpets, made of sawdust and flowers are laid along the processional route. Other festivals include the Day of the Dead (1 November) celebrations in Todos Santos Cuchumatan (spectacular horse race) and giant kites in Santiago Sacatepequez; Orchid Festival in Cobán in November; Fiesta de Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango in December.

When to go: Climate varies with altitude, but generally the driest time is between November to April. The Pacific and Caribbean coasts are by and large hot all year round. The highlands have pleasantly warm days and cool nights. In December and January there may be frost in the early morning at the highest elevations.

Guatemala is a land of kaleidoscopic colour. The red lava tongues of its volcanoes contrast with the shadows of the caves in the southern Petén, believed to lead into a mysterious underworld, jagged with stalactites and stalagmites.

Further south, blankets of white sand coat the Caribbean Coast near Lívingston, while on the black-sand Pacific Coast, turtles and fabulous orange sunsets can be found at Monterrico.Or let the roar of the howler monkeys and the flash of the rare scarlet macaw grab your attention in the jungles of the northern Petén region.

Completing this work of art are incredible fiestas: cultural celebrations with vibrant traditional costumes, elaborate masks and carpets of brightly-coloured flowers. At Easter, cities are shrouded in incense and centuries-old rituals take place in the streets.

Antigua, a cultural side-show to the capital, lies in the shadow of three volcanoes, a colonial treasure whose graceful, sometimes ruined colonial architecture tells of an 18th-century earthquake. Its cobbled streets are lined with pastel-coloured homes, toppled church arches, columned courtyards, and flowers and fountains galore.

The majestic cities of the Maya, such as Tikal, lie buried deep in Guatemala's northern jungles. Huge stelae - stone monuments carved with inscriptions - reveal clues about their ancient Mayan inhabitants, along with evidence of traditions of human sacrifice and astronomical genius.

Venture further into the Western Highlands to explore the markets and traditional villages. The Tz'utujil Maya live on the lakeshore of Lake Atitlán, which they believed to be the birthplace of creation - in fact, it was formed by an explosion which blew the lid off an ancient volcano. Numerous other Maya villages, all named after Catholic saints, nestle around Atitlán's shore - a rewarding three-day trek from the mountain city of Quetzaltenango.


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Getting there