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Things to Do in Central Highlands

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Pacaya Volcano
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This 8,373-foot (2,552-meter) smoking peak is one of Guatemala’s most accessible active volcanoes. Its upper reaches feature lava formations formed by recent flows, as well as vents that puff up steaming hot air, while its summit affords spectacular views of nearby volcanoes including Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego.

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Lake Atitlan (Lago de Atitlán)
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With its glistening blue waters framed by a trio of volcanic peaks and a fringe of lush greenery, Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán) is surely one of Guatemala’s most stunning natural wonders. The deepest lake in Central America lies in an ancient caldera amid the mountainous landscapes of the Guatemalan Highlands.

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Plaza de la Constitución (Parque Central)
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Located in the Centro Historico (Zona 1) district of Guatemala City, the Plaza de la Constitución (Parque Central), is considered the best place to kick off a tour of Guatemala City. (You can translate the names as Constitution Square, Constitution Plaza, or Central Park.)

A number of important sites are located around and the Parque Central, as locals refer to it, which follows the standard colonial urban-planning scheme found in the New World. The plaza's concrete “park” is always bustling with activity, especially on public holidays and Sundays. Plaza de la Constitución is also surrounded by important structures like the National Plaza of Culture, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the underground Central Market, the Portal of Commerce and Centenarian Park. The National Library and Periodicals Library and General Archive of Central America are found here too.

Near the Parque Central is the pedestrian-only area of Paseo Sexta Avenida (Sixth Avenue Passage), a beloved shopping and entertainment area that is a great introduction to Guatemalan culture and habits.

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La Aurora Zoo (Zoólogico la Aurora)
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Considered to be one of the best zoos in Central America, La Aurora Zoo (Zoólogico la Aurora) opened in 1924. This small zoo offers four permanent exhibits: Africa, Asia, Granita and American.

Not only does this zoo give visitors the chance to learn more about Guatemala’s animals, it also has a large collection of Central American creatures. Experience animals including giraffes, elephants, farm animals, lions, tigers, pythons, hippos and more.

The zoo does a good job living up to its mission – to educate, conserve and rehabilitate animals. It even offers lectures and other programs daily.

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Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana)
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The Metropolitan Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Guatemala City, is the main church of Guatemala City. Located in the heart of town, the main portion of it was built between 1782 and 1815. About 50 years later, the towers were finished. The impressive baroque/neo-classical building with a blue dome is earthquake proof – it’s withstood numerous quakes (it was damaged by two earthquakes and repaired).

Inside there is a collection of work which was originally from the Cathedral of Antigua Guatemalan. In addition, the altars are preserved and feature images of saints and other work from the Cathedral of Antigua Guatemala as well.

Be sure to take a moment and pay respect to the tragic recent history of the country at the 12 pillars, located in front of the cathedral. These pillars were resurrected to pay tribute to the murders and disappearance of thousands of people during the civil war from 1960s through 1996.

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National Palace
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This stoic structure in the heart of Guatemala’s capital city was built in 1939 entirely by local hands and using only local materials. As a result, the National Palace offers up an homage to Guatemalan heritage and is ranks tops among the buildings prized by locals. Its green-tinged exterior is a nod to the favorite color of the former dictator’s wife, and the result of concrete and copper used to cover the exterior to avoid painting. As a result, it’s affectionately known by some locals as 'The Big Guacamole.'

An impressive bronze plate at the entrance to the Palace marks a spot known as 'Kilometer 0.' According to residents, this is the official starting point of all roads in Guatemala. Travelers will find a beautiful courtyard at the center of the five-story building, which is surrounded by five archways on every side. A touching Monument to Peace is located in the center of the palace to commemorate the end to the nation’s most recent civil war. Because the National Palace is also home to a national museum, travelers will find unique and historically significant artifacts like the first switchboard and hand painted murals depicting scenes from the nation’s past. Be sure to check out the stained-glass windows along the presidential balcony and the palace salon, used only for ceremonial events.

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Santo Tomas Church (Iglesia de Santo Tomás)
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Built during the 1540s upon the ancient foundation of a Maya temple site, Santo Tomas Church (Iglesia de Santo Tomás) is a Roman Catholic church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. It remains a venerated holy site for people of both Catholic and Maya faiths and blends of the two. The stone stairs leading to the gleaming white Dominican church are reminiscent of those at ancient temple sites, and the steps have turned black from prayer sessions in which shamans waft copal incense and set purification fires. Inside, the church is adorned with offerings, everything from maize to liquor, and numerous candles, which have colors and patterns that correspond with those they've been lit for.

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Semuc Champey
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Tranquil, tiered turquoise pools suspended over limestone are what you can expect to find when visiting Semuc Champey. A natural limestone bridge supports the pools, which change shades of turquoise due to climatic variations throughout the year.

Semuc Champey is one of Guatemala’s best-kept secrets—one that is quickly getting out. Its remote location was often bypassed for more popular and certainly more accessible destinations and sights in the country, but the turquoise pools and surrounding scenery have helped Semuc Champey garner attention from backpackers traveling between the Western Highlands and Tikal.

Despite the increase in visitors, you can still easily find a quiet spot to enjoy the tranquil pools. You can stick close and lounge (or swim) in the shallow waters, or venture off for some further exploration. A slippery path leading upstream a few hundred meters brings travelers to Río Cahabón, the river that feeds the pools. Be careful in this area as the fast-flowing river “gets lost”in the underground caves, an area called “El Sumidero.”

If you’re up for a bigger adventure, head up a pretty steep, slippery trail to the mirador, high above the pools, where you can snag postcard-type photos of the entire area.

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Tikal National Park (Parque Nacional Tikal)
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Once a powerful seat of the Mayan empire, the Tikal ruins are now the most famous archeological site in Guatemala and one of the most-visited sets of Mayan ruins in all of Latin America. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of temples, plazas, and pyramids, was first settled around 700 BC, and modern visitors still get swept away by their beauty and powerful aura.

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Acatenango
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Guatemala’s Pacaya is one of the most popular volcanoes to visit, but travelers shouldn't skip its neighbor, Acatenango. Towering nearly 13,123 feet (4,000 meters), it is Guatemala’s third-tallest volcano and one of the tallest stratovolcanoes in Central America.

Acatenango’s first eruption was in 1924 —relatively recent in comparison to many other volcanoes—though some evidence of its volcanic activity dates back to prehistoric times. Other eruptions occurred shortly after, but it then remained quiet until an eruption in 1972. Since then, Acatenango has been declared dormant.

Acatenango is part of the Fuego-Acatenango massif, or string of volcanic vents, which includes Yepocapa, Pico Mayor de Acatenango, Meseta and Fuego. Acatenango has two main summits: Yepocapa, the northern summit at 12,565 feet (3,830 meters) and Pico Mayor, the southern and highest cone at 13,054 feet (3,976 meters). These are known as Tres Hermanas, and when joined with Fuego, the complex is collectively known as La Horqueta.

Both Acatenango and its twin, Fuego, offer stunning views overlooking the city of Antigua. Ascending Acatenango takes visitors through four different temperate zones — high farmland, cloud forest, high-alpine forest and volcanic. Acatenango is the perfect spot to watch Fuego’s regular activity, which includes audible moans and groans, plumes of smoke and large lava rocks hurling into the air.

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More Things to Do in Central Highlands

Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross)

Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross)

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The Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) is a 30-minute walk that, upon arrival, treats its guests to expansive views of Antigua and the Volcan de Agua. While this walk is not easy, it is worth it. For those who prefer to skip the hike, cabs can whisk people to the top as well.

Located on the north side of the city, it offers the best views of Antigua. And an enormous stone cross.

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Relief Map (Mapa en Relieve)

Relief Map (Mapa en Relieve)

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Get a different kind of look at Guatemala with the Relief Map (Mapa en Relieve). This larger open-air map of the entire country (and Belize) was inaugurated more than a century ago, on Oct. 29, 1905 and created by Lieutenant Colonel and Engineer Francisco Vela and Engineer Claudio Urrutia.

Not only does the map feature cities, but there are also rivers – some complete with running water – and other natural landmarks which makes Guatemala’s landscape unique.

Located in the Parque Minerva, of interest is a railing with six medallions – the National Shield, Central American Shield, The Quetzal, Ceiba, The Prosperity, and (in every column), the monogram of the Republic of Guatemala and Spain.

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Jade Factory and Museum (Jade Maya)

Jade Factory and Museum (Jade Maya)

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Jade is a rare and precious stone dating back to the pre-Columbian era in Mesoamerica. Some of the world’s best jade was found in Guatemala. Historically, it was used in culturally significant ways, including in hieroglyph inscriptions and carvings of symbolic figures.

There are two types of jade — Jadeite and Nephrite. Jadeite is more dense and renowned for its rich colors. Nephrite is more of a carving stone, found in many places around the world. Jadeite contains the bright green and apple colors you find in quality jade jewelry. Those colors were prized by both Chinese emperors and Maya kings.

To learn more about jade, visitors to Antigua can visit the Jade Factory and Museum, also called Jade Maya, founded in 1974 by archaeologist Mary Lou Ridinger and her husband, Jay. Fine jadeite is mined here in the same manner of the Olmec, Maya and Aztec people. Guatemalan workers at Jade Maya cut and polish the mined jade following the same traditions of their ancestors.

The jade is transformed into pre-Columbian-style, museum-quality replicas and beautiful handmade fashion jewelry and accessories. There is an online catalog that shows some of the designs Jade Maya has created to date. The small museum has a nice chronological timeline on the history of jade and various displays depicting jade artifacts discovered on excavations. Visitors to Jade Maya will appreciate the knowledge Ridinger shares with visitors as an expert in mining jade. She and her husband discovered the jade mining zone, an area lost for more than 500 years after the start of the Spanish conquest.

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La Merced Church (Iglesia de la Merced)

La Merced Church (Iglesia de la Merced)

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Canary yellow with white trim, the baroque La Merced Church (Iglesia de la Merced) is one of Antigua’s few colonial churches to survive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Inside its thick walls are notable artworks such as a sculpture of Jesus carrying a golden cross, which is paraded through the streets on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.

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Antigua Central Park (Parque Central)

Antigua Central Park (Parque Central)

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Antigua Central Park (Parque Central) is considered one of the most beautiful parks in Guatemala. It’s the main outdoor area in town and where people go to sit, stroll, or meet up for an afternoon of relaxation and nice weather. From Central Park you have a superb view of the Agua Volcano, which towers over Antigua.

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Santa Catalina Arch (Arco de Santa Catalina)

Santa Catalina Arch (Arco de Santa Catalina)

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The Santa Catalina Arch (Arco de Santa Catalina) is one of the most iconic structures in Antigua. Located on Fifth Avenue North, it was built in the 17th century to connect the Santa Catalina convent to a school. This allowed the cloistered nuns to pass between buildings without ever having to enter the street and come into contact with the general public, thereby violating the strict laws regarding seclusion. On either side of the arch you will find the Convents of Virgin and Mártir Santa Catalina.

The Santa Catalina Arch is one of the most photographed spots in Antigua, and its prime location creates a beautiful frame for the Agua Volcano in the background. Although technically owned by the Guatemalan government, the Santa Catalina Arch is looked after by the Santos family, which also owns the Reino del Jade store and Hotel El Convento.

If you’ve been to Guatemala City, this arch may seem familiar, and for good reason; the Guatemala Post Office Building was patterned after this iconic arch.

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Lanquín Caves (Grutas de Lanquín)

Lanquín Caves (Grutas de Lanquín)

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The Lanquín Caves (Grutas de Lanquín) are limestone caves near the city of Cobán that were once considered sacred to the Mayan people, believed to be the "heart of heaven." The Mayans believed the "secret of the ages" was hidden deep inside the caves. Today, they are a popular tourist destination, although some locals still utilize the caves in the manner of their ancestors. Travelers, on the other hand, come to explore the caves’ beauty, learn about their historyand come face to face with some of their most notable residents: the thousands of bats that leave the caves nightly.

Take the time to wander the various chambers and limestone formations. Rooms of importance include the Altar of the Pillory, where Mayans performed rites and burned incense, and the Bridge of the Fall of the King, a name given after King Leopold of Belgium visited the caves and a wooden bridge collapsed under his weight. When the bridge was rebuilt, it was named after the incident.

Visitors to Lanquin Caves can also float down the Lanquin River during the day, giving them a chance to explore the interesting rock formations and minerals lining the cave walls.

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Iglesia de Santo Domingo

Iglesia de Santo Domingo

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A beautiful neoclassical church, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo (St. Dominic's Church) rose to fame because the Virgen del Rosario was dedicated here and crowned as the queen of Guatemala in 1933.

The church took nearly two decades to construct, finishing in 1808. However, a little more than a century later, the building was damaged by the 1917 quake, and again in 1942. Fortunately, restoration allowed it to be brought back to its original form.

It is located at 12 Avenida 10-09 Zone 1 and for some the Church of Santo Domingo is famous for its beautiful neoclassical architecture.

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Church of San Francisco (Iglesia de San Francisco)

Church of San Francisco (Iglesia de San Francisco)

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Originally constructed in the 1500s, Iglesia de San Francisco, today, has mostly been reconstructed, thanks to age and earthquake damage. However, that's not the draw to this attraction. Both locals and visitors come to this old, baroque church to visit the shrine of Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur (Santo Hermano Pedro de San Jose de Betancurt). A Franciscan monk, he founded a hospital for the poor in town and is the country's most honored Christian leader.

Beatified in 1980 and made a saint in 2002 when Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala, Peter of Saint Joseph's tomb is visited by thousands each year asking for favors and miracles.

However, make no mistake, this church - which is one of the oldest in town - is still a work of beauty. It features 16 vaulted niches, a bell and clock tower from the 17th and 19th centuries and work from famed artists. Throughout history, the church has also been home to places such as a hospital and printing press.

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Biotopo del Quetzal

Biotopo del Quetzal

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The Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera Nature Reserve, commonly referred to as Biotopo del Quetzal, is one of Guatemala’s best nature sites. It gets its name from the country’s national bird, the endangered Quetzal, which has found a home within the sanctuary.

Quetzals are rather elusive within Biotopo del Quetzal, but they are sometimes spotted near local restaurants, as they prefer to feast on avocado-like fruits from neighboring aguacatillo trees. Some say December and January are the prime months to spot them; keep your eyes open for birds with bright-red chests; green, fuzzy feathers on their heads; and exotic, long tail feathers.

If you don’t manage to spot one, there is still plenty to see at Biotopo del Quetzal. Despite the fact that only a small portion of the vast reserve is open to visitors, there are a number of different mosses, ferns, orchids and epiphytes to see, as well as other birds, including the emerald toucanet and highland guan. Howler monkeys and other wildlife also make their homes in the reserve.

Two trails begin at Biotopo del Quetzal’s visitor center, branching off into the vegetation. The first trail, Los Helechos, is shorter at 1.24 miles (2 km), while Los Musgos (The Mosses) is twice that length. Whether you opt for the shorter or the longer trail, you will pass by scenic waterfalls where you can stop and enjoy a quick swim.

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Catedral de Santiago (Antigua Cathedral)

Catedral de Santiago (Antigua Cathedral)

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The stark and silent beauty of the ruins of Catedral de Santiago (Antigua Cathedral) offers visitors one of only a few quiet and contemplative escapes in the 500-year-old city of Antigua. Once a towering homage to religion and faith, this European-inspired white stone wonder was devastated during a massive earthquake in 1717 and never repaired. Today, travelers can explore what remains of this unique structure, whose exterior tells a story of triumph and perseverance. It’s only when visitors pass by the reconstructed façade that they find what can only be described as broken beauty.

Covered hallways and altars now exist under open skies, since ceilings and rooftops that crumbled during natural disasters were never replaced. Delicate white engravings and vast ivory archways are tinged and darkened with dirt after so many years of being exposed to the elements. Visitors can explore the grounds, climb crumbling staircases and bear witness to exquisite views of the church and the charming streets of surrounding Antigua.

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ChocoMuseo Antigua

ChocoMuseo Antigua

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Ancient Mayans were the first to begin using cocoa beans in culinary preparations, and today, Guatemala is one of the countries most associated with chocolate production. At the ChocoMuseo Antigua, visitors learn about the history of chocolate and the chocolate production process in a hands-on, kid-friendly setting.

During the ChocoMuseo’s three-times-daily Beans-to-Bar Workshop, a guide walks attendees through the entire chocolate-making process, from harvest and roasting to tempering and molding. Along the way, guests get to prepare cocoa tea, Mayan hot chocolate and European hot chocolate, as well as a box of their own handmade chocolates to bring home. The museum also offers a truffle workshop and a full day tour with a visit to a working cocoa plantation.

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Mixco Viejo

Mixco Viejo

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Mixco Viejo is an archaeological site that dates back to the postclassic Mayan civilization. There are two areas with the name Mixco Viejo, as the former Chajoma Kaqchikel kingdom was mistakenly linked to the postclassic Poqomam capital as a result of confusion interpreting the colonial records. To properly distinguish between the two today, the former Poqomam capital is called Mixco Viejo (Chinaulta Viejo), while the Kaqchikel capital is known as Mixco Viejo (Jilotepeque Viejo).

Mixco Viejo (Jilotepeque Viejo) borders the departments of Quiche, Chimaltenango and Guatemala near the junction of the Motagua and Pixcaya rivers. It consists of 15 groups with over 120 major structures, including palaces, ball courts and temples.

Mixco Viejo’s population was believed to have been about 1,500 at one point. Evidence shows it was one of the few Maya cities inhabited and still functioning when the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Guatemala. Researchers believe the area got its start in the 12th or 13th century, and it’s possible that Mixco Viejo was an economic center for the surrounding valley. The nearby Motagua River was a commercial route for products during the pre-Hispanic area.

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Palace of the Captains General (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales)

Palace of the Captains General (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales)

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The Palace of the Captains General (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales) used to be home to the Spanish viceroy and the power of the entire Central American region for more than 200 years. It housed everything from the court to post office, treasury, royal office and even horse stables.

Today, the building, which was first constructed in the late 1500s, is home to many governmental offices including the tourist office and police department. A couple of years ago, it underwent large-scale repairs and restoration. The exterior facade is not the original, it was added in the late 1700s.

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