Belize and Guatemala, two small Central American nations are often overlooked by their big northern neighbour. Both have a surprising amount to offer from lush jungles, smoking volcanoes and lovely colonial towns to beautiful beaches, idyllic islands and a friendly laid-back atmosphere. Below we've list the best places to visit in Belize and Guatamala, some familiar, some new. We hope you'll love them too!
A four mile long island, Caye Caulker is part of a chain of islands that lies along the world’s second longest barrier reef. With its white sandy beaches and the clear azure waters of the Caribbean, Caye Caulker is the perfect place to relax and unwind. For those who enjoy a bit of activity, the island does not disappoint. The pristine waters offer world class snorkelling and diving, and other activities include sailing, wind surfing, sea kayaking and the chance to catch a glimpse of the docile manatee, known affectionately as the sea cow. And if you prefer terra firma, the island offers stunning nature walks and bird tours. The people on the island are an interesting mix of Spanish, indigenous Maya, Creole and Garifuna, descendents from Caribbean and Arawak Indians, whose presence can be seen and heard in the unique mix of music, drumming and dancing found all over the island.
Between the Macal and Mopan rivers sits the Cayo district capital of San Ignacio. Cradled in a picturesque valley, this city is a unique blend of America’s Old West and a tropical backwater town. Frontier-like wooden shops on narrow streets provide a charming atmosphere with an eclectic mix of people, including Chinese and Lebanese cultures, complementing the local Mestizo population. San Ignacio and its surrounding area offer visitors an array of sites and activities. High on the list is Cahal Pech, a Mayan archaeological site abandoned in 800AD consisting of 34 structures spread over two acres. Caracol, the most extensive Maya site known in Belize, contains over 35,000 buildings including a massive pyramid, plazas and an astronomic observatory. For the thrill seekers out there, canoeing on the Macal River and exploring the vast caves and limestone terrain are worthy highlights whilst the spectacular range of rolling hills, peaks and gorges offers fantastic hiking opportunities.
Tikal was once the capital of a conquest state and one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Today, it is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilisation. The architecture of the site dates back to the 4t century though it was between 200-900 AD that the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically and military. The temples, residences and religious monuments decorated in hieroglyphic inscriptions provide a long list of ruling dynasties with many tombs of the once-ruling kings. The cultural evolution of Mayan society from hunter-gathering to farming with a sophisticated religious, artistic and scientific culture is reflected in the ruined city. Recognised as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tikal is part of a national park, the reserve in which it stands containing the largest area of tropical rainforest in Guatemala. Excavated in 1956 and 1969, much of the site is yet to be unearthed. The wildlife of the reserve provides visitors with a natural soundtrack of screeching howler monkeys and squawking parrots.
Once Guatemala’s main port on the Caribbean Sea, Livingston is a traditional fishing town, noted for its unusual mix of peoples. Afro-Caribbean, Maya, Ladino people and Garifuna now make up the town’s population. The Garifuna, sometimes referred to as Black Caribs, continue to maintain their traditions and speak their own Arawak language. Many bars in town play live Garifuna music most nights. Garifuna music makes use of large drums, turtle shells, conch shells and maracas. Although situated Guatemala’s mainland, Livingston is only accessible by water, giving it the feel of an island with an excellent selection of seafood. North of Livingston visitors will find the beautiful waterfalls of Los Siete Altares, and a set of seven freshwater pools and waterfalls leading into the Caribbean. The laid-back Caribbean attitude of the locals and the wonderful surroundings make this spot an interesting anomaly in Guatemala.
Rio Dulce is a large nature reserve and one of the richest destinations in Central America for bird-watching and wildlife observation. Meaning ‘Sweet River’ in Spanish, the waters of the river are indeed sweet – fresh, clean and clear with an abundance of fish. The river connects the biggest lake of Guatemala with the Atlantic Ocean and by the entrance to the river is a small Spanish colonial fort built to stop pirates entering from the Caribbean. The river is also spanned by one of the largest bridges in Central America. Home to over 350 species of bird, the intricate ecosystem of the region recalls the lushness of the Amazon forests. Along the river stands the elevated El Canyon – where the river becomes narrow, canyon walls rise high on both sides. Sheer cliffs with jungle foliage clinging on its walls provide stunning views and a playground for white herons. Now a popular cruising sailboat destination, the serenity and natural beauty of Rio Dulce is a photographer’s dream and paradise for anyone who appreciates beautiful sunsets, diverse wildlife and spectacular scenery.
Not to be confused with the Caribbean island, Antigua city is located in the central highlands of Guatemala. Listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site, the city is famous for its well-preserved Spanish influenced Baroque architecture. Antigua also contains a number of spectacular ruins of colonial churches that date back to the 17th century. Founded in the 16th century, the city was once the capital and served as the cultural, economic, religious, political and educational centre for the entire region until, what is now Guatemala City, became the country’s capital. The cobblestone streets and historic monuments give the city an enchanting and romantic colonial charm. The horizon around Antigua is dominated by three large volcanoes, providing a dramatic backdrop and picture perfect setting. The city is also known for hosting the largest celebrations for Lent and Easter in the western hemisphere. During this time, the streets of the city are adorned with carpets made from coloured sawdust, flowers, fruit and vegetables. The magnificent designs are created from intricate patterns and decorate the processional route during the festivities.
Panajachel, known as ‘Pana’ by the people of Guatemala, is a town in the south-western Guatemalan highlands, located on the shore of Lake Atitlan. The town contains a colonial church and monastery, set up during the period of the Spanish conquest when the town was used as a centre to convert the indigenous people of the region to the Roman Catholic faith. Today, Panajachel is a gateway for visitors to explore the local indigenous villages where the traditional Maya culture is prevalent. Several Mayan archaeological sites have even been discovered around the lake. Lake Atitlan itself is a volcanic crater filled with water, the deepest lake in Central America. Early in the day, the lake is placid and gentle, and a great place for swimming. It is also perfect for kayaking and even offers the unique opportunity of diving in fresh water at a high altitude. Rich in animal life, the lake’s basin supports a variety of farm crops. With incredible views of the surrounding volcanoes reflected in the cobalt surface of the water, Panajachel and Lake Atitlan make a winning combination.