Winter is Guatemala’s dry season, and these months bring dazzling blue skies and bright sunshine to Lake Atitlan. Though it’s magnificent in any weather, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place than Lake Atitlan under a blue sky. The deep waters turn cobalt; visitors go paddling in kayaks, and the cloudless views from the volcanoes are unsurpassed.
For the first two weeks in January, the small island town of Flores plays host to a truly unique festival. The Dance of the Chotona (doll) is the epitome of the typical Guatemala celebration – lots of firecrackers, explosions, parades and dressing up – and is brilliantly bonkers. For one of the most exciting, bizarre and authentic experiences to take place in this country, make sure you’re in Flores for the first Sunday in January.
Guatemala isn’t known for its beaches, and its black sand and strong currents mean that visitors usually head to neighbouring Belize if they want some ocean air. But during the winter months, visiting Guatemala’s Pacific Coast will allow you to experience a side to this country that few travellers see. Head to the town of Monterrico to kick back on the beach and observe the sea turtles; then go a little further west to the twin villages of Tilapa and Tilapita to see a more authentic side to Guatemala.
Nearly every visitor to Guatemala will be heading to the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. During the winter months it stays pretty dry here, so you can explore it with far more freedom than you can during summer. Take advantage of the climate and camp in the park overnight. Waking up to a clear sunrise over these limestone pyramids is something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
The eastern part of Guatemala is Izabal, a sultry area that’s usually thick with humidity. The rainy season can turn sections of Izabal off limits, but during the dry winter months, this wildly beautiful region opens up. Head to the Río Dulce and the Lago de Izabal areas, where you can explore rich wetlands, hot springs, Mayan villages, dense rainforest and the Caribbean coastline.
November 2nd is All Souls Day in Guatemala. This holiday is essentially the Guatemalan version of the Day of the Dead, and while the festivities aren’t quite as elaborate as in Mexico, it’s still a wonderful festival to experience. Families visit cemeteries to decorate graves with flowers, plants and wreaths and often hire marimba bands to play for their lost loved ones. Afterwards, there are colourful kite-flying fairs, horse races and street processions.
Pushing past other shoppers buying last-minute Christmas gifts is exhausting, frustrating and stressful, but browsing Mayan artisan markets is something even the most reluctant shopper will love. Escape the consumerism of the holidays by visiting Guatemala in December; you’ll have a blast losing yourself in the labyrinth-like markets, will find unique treasures and trinkets to take back home, and will be contributing economically to the Mayan people. It’s a win-win.
Just like Lake Atitlan, Antigua is at its peak during the winter months. Without the risk of rain, you can wander its cobbled streets until your heart’s content, browse the fascinating Mayan markets, or visit the nearby coffee plantations while the sun is shining. Antigua’s three volcanoes make it one of the most photogenic cities in the world, but when it’s raining, clouds can mask this spectacular setting. Go when it’s dry, and your holiday pictures will be out of this world.
Tired of turkey? In Guatemala, tamales are the most eaten dish during December, and these delicious parcels are a welcome change from the snacks most of us gorge down on during winter. Depending on the region you’re in, the tamales are made of corn, rice or potatoes and can be both savoury or sweet. Customary ingredients for Christmas tamales include olives, prunes, peppers, chicken and pork.
Christmas Eve is a big deal in Guatemala. The festivities begin with the Posada Procession, where locals move from house to house carrying a box decorated with lights, tinsel and a figure of the baby Jesus, echoing the journey of Mary and Joseph as they searched for a place to stay. Afterwards, it’s the more chaotic torito dance, where young boys dress as bullfighters and dance to marimba music in the plaza. In true Guatemalan style, they ramp things up by letting off hundreds of fireworks.
Forget about cringing to Mariah Carey all December. In Guatemala, it’s reggaeton and Latin beats that will be blaring out; this doesn’t mean you won’t feel festive, however. It’s almost impossible not to feel jolly when you hear the Guatemalan version of ‘Jingle Bell Rock’.