AdventureSmith Explorations Adventure Specialist Andrew Browning reviews his Guatemala trip.

Guatemalan ruin on a grassy knoll with stone staircase and rocky points.
Mayan stone carved  head of a crocodile and stone carving

The Highlands of Guatemala – A unique and amazing landscape home to ancient and modern Maya culture. Active and dormant volcanoes are a surreal backdrop to Maya pueblos and historic colonial sites. For thousands of years the Maya people flourished to become one of the most fascinating and intelligent societies in the world. The Maya achieved much as a society. Through astronomical observation they crafted an annual calendar, their agricultural knowledge led to the first genetic engineering of Maiz, and their remaining architecture paints a portrait of their unique way of life. This ancient culture lives on in the modern Maya.

Colorful Mayan mask reproductions of animals, skeleton and male heads.

Just an hour from Guatemala City, the drive passed quickly and I arrived to the narrow cobblestone streets of Antigua. My first impression was that I had arrived in another century, far from skyscrapers, supermarkets, and modern ways of life in general. Once the Capitol of all of Central America, Antigua is also rich in religious history and I could not wait to visit the places and people here. I quickly checked into my hotel and then set off to explore my new surroundings. I made my way down through the narrow streets and avenues to the central square where the locals were enjoying the afternoon from the tranquil park surrounded by views of 3 volcanoes and one of Antigua’s landmarks; the Central Cathedral. I spent the afternoon enjoying the historical sites, museums, and delicious local cuisine. The following day began early with breakfast and a guided trip through the Maya highlands. My local guide Alfonso is an expert on all things Guatemalan with an especially vast knowledge of the ancient and modern Maya culture. Through my guides interpretation I absorbed my surroundings and learned all about the ancient and modern Maya. Together we visited the famous Chichicastenango local craft market, some important modern Maya religious sites, the post-classic Maya ruins of Ixemche, and at days end we arrived in Panajachel on the scenic shores of Lake Atitlan.

Local fruit and vegetable market bustling with people in a courtyard of building.
Birds eye view of Panajachel off of Lake Atitlan.

Several small Maya pueblos are located on the shores of this beautiful lake. After breakfast we visited a few pueblos and I got a chance to see how the Maya women produce their elaborate weavings. We drove north and west through the Maya highlands visiting many sites along the way. I experienced the high paced bustle of a local Maya fruit and produce market in San Francisco de Alto, I saw the process of dyeing and stretching the important weaving threads in Quetzaltenango, and we drove high into the cloudforest passing along the way picturesque terraced farms arriving at the end of the road at Georginas Hot Springs. After enjoying the hot springs surrounded by high canyon walls and cloud forest vegetation, we proceeded south to the Pre Classic ruins of Abaj Takalik. This site is unique because there are ruins from the ancient Maya as well as the Olmec civilization. Fascinating discoveries are still being unearthed at this site and the modern Maya make offerings and perform rituals here. The next morning we headed east through sugar cane, coffee, and rubber plantations arriving at the Pacaya Volcano before noon. After a moderate 1.5 hour hike my local guide and I arrived at the base of the volcano. Two rivers of lava flow in the basin of solidified lava that lies beneath the cone of the Pacaya volcano creating a desolate yet lively scene of geologic power. I hiked on the solid lava to within about 15 feet of one of the slowly moving lava rivers where I could feel the intense heat and then back up to the rim to take some photos of the volcano and surrounding valleys.

2 local women weaving textiles.
Happy young traveler walking down volcanic rock with hot lava running underneath volcanic rock next to him.

The Maya culture, colonial history, and natural landscape make The Highlands of Guatemala a truly unique exploration experience. As a developing nation Guatemala has overcome political instability to become a historical, cultural, and ecological destination for both European and American travelers. I now look back on this amazing trip with fond memories and thoughts of returning for further exploration. If you have interest in visiting Guatemala, please give me a call and I will be happy to discuss the many exciting travel options that exist there.

This Guatemala adventure travel review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Read all AdventureSmith Expert Reviews for more trip reports, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about these small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.