Things to Do in Central Highlands
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.
The 13,045-foot (3,976-meter Acatenango volcano towers over the colonial city of Antigua. While many travelers opt for the more-gentle ascent of the Pacaya Volcano, this twin-peaked volcano offers incredible views of its nearest volcanic neighbor, Fuego, which regularly spits out plumes of gas, ash, and hot lava.
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.
Cerro de la Cruz is a lush hill on the northern edge of Antigua marked by a massive stone cross. From a scenic overlook, enjoy expansive views of the city’s grid of pretty terracotta rooftops laid out at the base of the magnificent Volcán de Agua.
Overlooking Plaza de la Constitución in the center of Guatemala City is the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral. Though several devastating earthquakes have rambled through the city, the blue-domed Neoclassical-Baroque structure stands strong as the city’s main house of worship. Pass through the 12-pillar entrance to admire the massive interior, austere though wonderfully embellished with religious paintings, carvings, and sparkling gold altars.
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.
Guatemala City’s huge central plaza is a hive of activity, with people and pigeons milling about. Surrounded by important historical buildings, such as the Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana and the National Palace, the square is the focal point of the city, and is frequently the setting for demonstrations and celebrations.
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.
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.
One of Antigua’s most photographed structures, the saffron-coloredxa0 Santa Catalina Arch was built in 1694 to connect two convents to a school outside their confines, to protect them from entering the outside world on their way to teach there. Safe from breaking their vow of seclusion, they passed through a hidden passageway inside the arch.
More Things to Do in Central Highlands
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.
This small museum is devoted to jade, the precious green gemstone that has been mined and revered in Mesoamerica since ancient times. Exhibits provide information on ancient mining of the mineral and include pre-Hispanic jade pieces. It also encompasses a workshop where jade jewelry and decorative objects are created and sold.
Constructed in 1904, long before Google Earth, this huge 3-dimensional outdoor map of Guatemala offers a grand-scale viewpoint of the mountainous country from above. A family-friendly attraction, Mapa en Relieve contains all the country’s volcanoes, rivers and lakes (some with running water), as well as its cities, roads, bridges, and railroad tracks.
The Maya were among the earliest civilizations to cultivate cacao for culinary use. At this chocolate-focused museum and shop in Antigua, exhibits detail Guatemala’s long-standing legacy of cacao cultivation as well as documenting chocolate-making processes, such as harvesting, roasting, tempering, and molding.
One of the best-maintained zoos of Central Asia, the La Aurora Zoo is located next to Guatemala City’s International Airport. Established in 1924, the zoo also houses the relics of an ancient viaduct. This zoo has three distinct areas- African, Asian and American where animals from the respective continents can be found.
Set on an elevated ravine-surrounded site, this Maya city was built with defense in mind, with its inhabitants—the Chajoma people—having battled against neighboring Maya groups before finally succumbing to Spanish forces. As well as being of historical interest, Mixco Viejo also offers spectacular views of the surrounding valleys.
Each year, thousands of pilgrims journey to the multi-domed Church of San Francisco to offer their prayers to Saint Brother Peter (Santo Hermano Pedro), a Franciscan monk who opened a hospital for the poor of Antigua. Pope John Paul II made Brother Peter a saint in 2002, and today the monk’s tomb is one of the most visited and venerated holy sites in Antigua.
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.
This 18-century neoclassical church in Guatemala City’s historic center rose to fame after the Virgen del Rosario was dedicated here in 1933. Join the pilgrims who come to visit the venerated image along with celebrated sculptures such as El Senor Sepultado and Jesus de la Buena Muerte. The splendid gold stuccoed altar is one of the best preserved in the country.
Constructed in the mid-16th century, this Dominican monastery was one of the largest and grandest in all of the Americas until it fell victim to a series of ruinous 18th-century earthquakes. It was later converted into a luxury hotel, though large parts of the complex—including a series of fascinating museums—are open to the public.
After being ravaged by an earthquake in 1773, Antigua’s Catedral de Santiago was never fully rebuilt. Behind the imposing white facade and modest-sized present-day church—which occupies what was the cathedral’s entrance hall—you’ll find roofless remains including pillars, archways, and altars with plants sprouting among the ruins.
For more than 200 years, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales was the colonial headquarters for the Spanish viceroy that governed the entire Central American region, housing the royal court, post office, treasury, and horse stables until the capital was relocated from Antigua to Guatemala City. After an extensive restoration, the palace now hosts cultural exhibits and performances.
The 15th-century capital of the Kaqchikel kingdom, this Maya city is of a smaller scale than the more heavily-visited Tikal. A sacred site for modern-day Maya, Iximché remains uncrowded and tranquil, and its pretty setting—with temples, plazas, and palaces situated on an elevated plateau amid steep valleys—makes exploring a pleasure.
The Popol Vuh Museum located within the Francisco Marroquin University campus exhibits one of the largest collections of Mayan art in the world. Extraordinary artifacts are here, including masks, ceramics, pre-Hispanic statuettes, traditional fabrics, and more. One of Guatemala City’s must-visit destinations, some pieces date back to 9000 BC.