Antigua and Lake Atitlan are two of the biggest attractions in all of Guatemala, but there’s no need to rush between them. The drive up from Antigua to the lake is beautiful, and if you don’t mind making a bit of a detour then it offers a great chance for extra insight into Guatemalan history and culture.
From Antigua drive up to Chimaltenango, where you’ll join the Pan-American Highway. Measuring over 19,000 km, according to Guinness World Records this is the longest stretch of driveable road on the planet — but don’t worry, you’ll only be on it for a few kilometres.
For those who are short on time, the highway goes straight up to Panajachel, the biggest town on the lake. Chichicastenango provides a more than worthwhile overnight diversion, though, especially on Thursday and Sunday when the market is on.
Equally beautiful is the drive up from Lake Atitlan to the second-biggest city in Guatemala, Quetzaltenango. Quetzaltenango is located up in the Guatemalan highlands, and because it’s at 2,300m elevation the drive involves a lot of climbing. That’s certainly true of the first ascent out of Panajachel to Solola, which winds up the mountainside with breathtaking views over the lake.
From there, the drive takes in some of Guatemala’s most impressive scenery, with views over green mountains and volcanoes (some of which are still active). Like the drive from Antigua to the lake, the fastest way here is to follow the Pan-American Highway. But for a bit more adventure, take in some of the villages that lie further afield.
The drive from Coban to Rio Dulce takes in the wild, adventure-filled Alta Verapaz region, before descending down to Guatemala’s largest lake, the Lago de Izabal. It isn’t one for the fainthearted: you’ll need a vehicle that can handle a bit of off road, and in times of inclement weather you might need to take a lengthy diversion as the direct road from Lanquin to the lake can close.
From Coban, take the Highway 5 up as far as El Pajal. Make sure to enjoy the paved road while you can, as from here it’s off road most of the way. While this section can easily be done in a single morning, the countryside around Coban is full of caves, waterfalls and more, and worth a bit of extra time.
Lanquin is the best place to stop for a couple of nights, mostly to make the short journey over the Semuc Champey, one of the country’s best natural wonders. From there it’s another day’s drive to Rio Dulce, coming down through stunning jungle-covered hills to the shores of the Lago de Izabal.
For a really epic journey, make the drive from the country’s capital to its biggest tourist attraction, Tikal near Flores. Travelling the length and breadth of Guatemala, you’ll see some impressive scenery, and get a chance to visit some sights that are too far off the beaten track for many backpackers.
There are two main ways to make the trip. The fastest involves driving south through Rio Dulce, then below the Sierra de la Minas and into Guatemala City. Don’t pay attention to your sat nav, this drive takes a long time and shouldn’t really be done in a day. Consider popping over the border to the Copan Ruins in Honduras, some of the best Mayan ruins in all of Central America.
Alternatively, take the more direct route to Sayaxche, then Chisec and Coban. This drive takes in some of the less-visited ruins in Northern Guatemala, as well as the adventure-tourist haven of Alta Verapaz.