The top 9 reasons to drop everything and visit Guatemala right now

If you thought you could live a regret-free life without visiting Guatemala, think again. This diminutive Central American country, smaller than the state of Louisiana, packs in enough diversity to entertain you for months. And its low, low prices mean you don’t need to visit your neighborhood payday lender to afford to stay a while.

From active volcanoes to immaculate colonial cities to quite possibly the world’s most beautiful lake, Guatemala boasts plenty of reasons for you to bid farewell to your loved ones, return those outstanding library books, and spend a couple months in Central America. Here are the top nine:

9. The people. When a tourism slogan proclaims that “The best part are our people!” I roll my eyes and figure it must be a colorless place with nothing to offer. Not so with Guatemala. Within a period of three days, I had two different people sit down next to me in Xela’s Parque Centroamerica and strike up a lengthy conversation. One of them invited me to hang out with him and his friends that night at a local watering hole. The other only started talking to me because he thought I was gay. But still, that counts!

8. Volcan Pacaya. Bright red lava flows are the big attraction on Volcan Pacaya, located about an hour from Antigua. I’ve already sung the praises of Pacaya on Gadling before, but it bears repeating: You can put your hand literally inches away from a river of glowing molten lava. Great for family-and-friend-impressing.

7. Antigua. Is Antigua overrun with tourists and language students? Yes. Is it one of the more expensive places in Guatemala? It is indeed, although that’s not saying much. Will you earn any Traveler’s Cred Points for visiting this well-trodden locale? You will not. But is it still worth visiting? Damn right it is.

Situated between three volcanos, Antigua’s surroundings are as picturesque as its well-preserved colonial architecture. With cobblestone streets, arches, and a tree-filled central plaza, Antigua is the embodiment of the word “charming.” Don’t miss the Catedral de Santiago on the east side of the town square; its white facade is illuminated beautifully in the evening.

6. Volcan Santiaguito. The guidebooks give Santiaguito only a brief mention, if they discuss it at all, but this might have been my favorite place in all of Guatemala. Also my least favorite. The hike to this highly-active volcano, which erupts about every 45 minutes, is easily the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.

It’s ten hours, uphill, both ways, and when I finally arrived back at my hostel after this nightmarish hike, my leg and arm muscles were spasming uncontrollably and I couldn’t stop shivering. It took me about a week to recover fully.

On the other hand, wow:

Be sure to watch the entire video. Easily one of the top five experiences of my life (which I wrote about elsewhere here).

5. Tikal. Devoting any less than a couple days to the massive Mayan ruins at Tikal would be an injustice of O.J. proportions. Set among lush tropical rainforest, the views surrounding Tikal are just as impressive as the ruins themselves. Don’t miss climbing the ridiculously steep steps of Temple I and Temple V (pictured right).

Spend the night at the nearby Jaguar Inn to explore the ruins just after dawn, a time when the howler monkeys outnumber the tourists many times over.

4. Quetzaltenango (“Xela”). Sure, its Beauty-And-Charm Quotient (BACQ) can’t match Antigua’s, but Xela (pronounced “Shay-la”) more than makes up for this with its lower prices, its less tourist-jaded inhabitants, and its (as much as I hate this word) authenticity. Where Antigua is absolutely overcome with tourists, Xela is home to fewer language students and visitors overall, though it still offers all the services and high quality restaurants tourists expect. Its Parque Centroamerica is one of the country’s largest town squares, and the plaza is surrounded by the worthwhile, if quirky, Museum of Natural History.

About ten blocks north of the park is the Mercado La Democracia, a buzzing labyrinthine agglomeration of vendors selling fruit, vegetables, and fake Adidas. Don’t miss it!

3. Chichicastenango Market. A trip to Guatemala would not be complete without spending a Thursday or Sunday in the town of Chichicastenango (“Chichi”) and checking out its magnificent market. Whether it’s fruit and vegetables, tapestries, carvings, or an imitation Sony Walkman circa 1985, you’ll find just about everything you’re looking for here.

Don’t miss the Church of St. Thomas located at the southeast corner of the central plaza, where worshippers combine ancient Mayan rituals with a hint of Catholicism for some truly unique religious displays.

2. Lago de Atitlan. If there’s a more gorgeous setting for a lake in this world, I haven’t seen it. Surrounded by three volcanoes– San Pedro, Toliman, and Atitlan– as well as emerald green hills, cornfields, and traditional Mayan towns, Lago de Atitlan might be the best spot in Guatemala to spend a week or two.

And there’s plenty to do as well. Hikes up nearby Volcan San Pedro are a challenging day’s walk but provide absolutely breathtaking views of the lake and surrounding towns below. Kayaks and canoes are cheap to rent in just about every town on the lake, and the water is clean enough for a swim. The town of Panajachel, nicknamed “Gringotenango” for obvious reasons, has been one of Guatemala’s biggest tourist hangouts for decades. Take in the wonderful backpacker culture at the town of San Pedro or check out the hippie hang-out of San Marcos, where you’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk about your “energy” and get cheap massages.

1. Semuc Champey. Probably the most beautiful place on Earth you’ve never heard of, Semuc Champey is home to dozens of cascading turquoise and emerald lagoons. And there’s as much to do as there is to look at, like cave swimming, bridge jumps, and cliff diving. “A trip to Semuc will give you that sense of childlike wonder which Disneyland always promised,” says Guatemala veteran Violet Marcel. “Turns out, nature can do it better.”

For more on Guatemala, check out Gadling’s entire archive here. Any questions, comments, places I’ve overlooked? Leave them in the comments.