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Most visitors to Guatemala will only visit the country’s capital for one reason: the airport. That’s a shame, because aside for a wide range of interesting architecture, great places to stay and some of the best dining experiences in Central America, Guatemala City is an excellent place to base yourself while exploring the south of the country.
Pacaya is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America, as well as being one of the most accessible. Unlike nearby Acatenango, it can easily be climbed in a day from either Antigua or Guatemala City. The best way to see the volcano is with one of the many tours that operate out of either city. Make sure to find one that includes a chance to toast marshmallows on lava-heated rocks.
A popular getaway from the city with locals is Lago de Amatitlán in the Parque Nacional Naciones Unidos. As well as rowing and admiring some excellent views of the nearby volcanoes, the biggest attraction here is the teleferico (cable car) that runs by the lake and up the hillside.
No trip to Guatemala would be complete without a visit to its earthquake-stricken former capital, and, while many choose to stay in Antigua itself, the city is also an easy day trip from the capital. There are regular buses between the two destinations, and the journey only takes one hour.
For Mayan ruins in a spectacular setting, with a tiny fraction of the tourists who flock to Central America’s more famous sites, take a trip to Mixco Viejo, uniquely located between two deep ravines. The ruins hold the dubious honour of being given completely the wrong name by archaeologists: the actual Mixco Viejo is yet to be discovered.
Despite being located on the complete opposite side of the country to Guatemala City, there are a few operators in the capital that offer day trips to Tikal. Flying out in the morning and flying back in the afternoon, it isn’t the cheapest – or the most relaxed – way to see Guatemala’s most famous ruins, but for anyone who’s pressed for time it can be a compelling option.
The Autosafari Chapin is a great day out for anyone visiting Guatemala City with children. It’s a drive-through safari park – though there’s also a minibus for anyone who doesn’t have a car – with tapirs, leopards, macaws and more. There are regular buses from the capital, and the journey takes around one hour and a half.
Another Mayan ruin that you might just get entirely to yourself, Iximche was once the capital of the Kaqchiquel and later on functioned as an early headquarters for the invading conquistadors. The site is still considered sacred to the local Maya. To get there, get any bus that’s heading through Tecpal, and ask to be dropped off.
For something a little different, make the trip south to Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa, home to some mysterious stone heads carved by the local Pipil people. Completely separate from the Maya who dominated most of Guatemala, the heads show a markedly different art style to anything else you’ll find in the country.