Beautiful Guatemala, Mexico’s Friendly Neighbor to the South

Welcome to Guatemala, Mexico’s friendly neighbor to the south.

Mexico’s southern neighbor is far from being just a smaller version of Mexico. Yes, Spanish is the official language, but most people speak an ancient Mayan language and have noticably distinct cultures.

Yes, it´s Latin America, but it´s a land of distinct ecosystems: black sand beaches in the south, mountains and volcanoes in the center, and steaming jungles in the north.

Yes, it’s a small country, but besides all the nature you´ll find colonial cities, a thriving art and music scene, and world-class archeological sites.

Yes, they eat tortillas, but they are fluffy thick ones, like sopes in Mexico. And you’re more likely to find fried chicken than tacos.


What is perhaps most interesting for me is Guatemala’s unique population. Yes, Mayans inhabit southern Mexico, much of Belize, and small parts of Honduras and El Salvador, but in Guatemala they are the majority.

almolongo parade

There are two main ways to get into Guatemala – colectivos (passenger vans) from San Cristobal de las Casas to the border at Cuauhtémoc, or the long trip from Palenque in Mexico to Tikal, where the river is the border and you cross in a little boat.

The Guatemalan Highlands, in roughly the southwest part of the country, contains two of my favorite destinations: Quetzaltenango, Guatemala´s second largest city and a great place to study English; and Lake Atitlan:

To finally arrive at Lake Atitlan at sundown for the boat ride across to the little town of San Pedro is a wonderful thing.

The chicken bus, the staple of Guatemalan public transportation:

Between the Mexican border and Lake Atitlan is Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), Guatemala’s second largest city.

Xela is the center of the Guatemalan highlands and has volcanoes (active or not), hot springs, colonial architecture, good restaurants, good Spanish schools, interesting markets, and friendly people.

It’s nice to walk up into the hills above Xela. This hike leads you to a sauna called Los Vahos built over cracks in the mountain that release steam from the volcano.

Views of the city:

This is a milpa, a Mayan-style farm. They rotate corn, beans, and squash – among other crops.

Back into the city.

Looming over Xela is the extinct Santa Maria Volcano.

It’s a long, tough hike to the top and you have to leave really early in the morning before the clouds roll in. I went last year and saw only clouds.

Right below the peak, on the other side of the volcano from the city, is an active volcano called Santiaguito.

After hanging out on top for about a half hour I was surprised by the first eruption. The gas burst right out of the rock with a boom that reached me a few seconds late, like thunder. I saw five in total.

Beyond Santiaguito is the Pacific coast, and to the left and right continue the range of volcanoes. These are the ones that surround Lake Atitlan:

Other great destinations in the Guatemalan highlands include Antigua, Chichicastenango, and Lake Chicabal.

And of course there’s a lot more to Guatemala than the highlands, such as Rio Dulce in the north:

This guy is selling paterna (aka cushin, aka burbury), one of my favorite fruits:

And of course Tikal, absolutely one of the best Mayan sites, and in fact one of the best archeological sites in the world:

About Ted Campbell

U.S./Canadian writer, translator and professor in Mexico. Travel stories and practical tips on my blog No Hay Bronca: // Twitter: @NoHayBroncaBlog // Contact: nohaybroncablog (at)

Posted on May 15, 2014, in Guatemala, Travel in Guatemala and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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