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Whilst each region has its own particular attractions, it is to the Maya-dominated western highlands that most travellers head first, and rightly so. The colour, the markets, the fiestas, the culture, and above all the people make it a wholly unique experience. And it seems almost an unfair bonus that all this is set in countryside of such mesmerizing beauty: for photographers, it's heaven. Among the highlights are Antigua, the delightful colonial capital whose laid-back atmosphere and caf society contrasts with the hectic, fume-filled bustle of the current capital Guatemala City, and Lake Atitln, ringed by sentinel-like volcanoes in a setting of exceptional beauty. The shores of the lake are dotted with traditional indigenous villages, as well as a few tranquil low-key settlements, such as Santa Cruz and San Marcos, where there are just a handful of hotels and some good walking possibilities. More lively is the booming lakeside resort of Panajachel, with excellent restaurants, cafs and textile stores, and the bohemian San Pedro whose alternative scene and rock-bottom prices attract travellers from all over the world. High up above the lake, the traditional Maya town of Solol has one of the country's best markets (and least-touristy), a complete contrast to the vast twice-weekly affair at Chichicastenango, with its incredible selection of weavings and handicrafts. Further west, the sleepy provincial city of Quetzaltenango (Xela) makes a good base for exploring the market towns of Momostenango, famed for its wool production, and San Francisco el Alto, before heading north to Huehuetanango, gateway to Guatemala's greatest mountain range, the Cuchumatanes. Here, you'll find excellent walking, superb scenery and some of the most isolated and traditional villages in the Maya world, with Nebaj, in the Ixil triangle, and Todos Santos both making good bases from which to explore.
The Pacific coast (usually taken to mean the entire coastal plain) is generally hot and dull, with scrubby, desolate beaches backed by a smattering of mangrove swamps. The sole exception is the relaxed seaside village of Monterrico, part of a wildlife reserve where you can watch sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. Inland, the region includes some of the country's most productive farmland, devoted purely to commercial agriculture, and dotted with bustling urban centres such as Esquintla and Retalhuleu. Points of interest are thin on the ground, confined mainly to the pre-Columbian ruins of Abaj Takalik and the three minor sites around the town of Santa Luc'a.
None of these, however, can compete with the archeological wonders of Petn. This unique lowland area, which makes up about a third of the country, is covered with dense rainforest - only now threatened by development - that is alive with wildlife and dotted with superb Maya ruins. The only town of any size is Flores, superbly situated on Lake Petn Ixta, from where you can easily reach Tikal, the most impressive of all the Maya sites, rivalling any ruin in Latin America. The region's rainforest also hides numerous smaller sites, including Ceibal, Yaxchiln (just across the border in Mexico) and Uaxactn, while adventurous travellers may seek out Petn's more remote ruins, such as the dramatic, pre-Classic El Mirador (possibly even larger than Tikal), which requires days of tough travel to reach.
Finally, the east of the country includes another highland area, this time with little to offer the visitor, though in the Motagua valley you'll find the superb Maya site of Quirigu, while just over the border in Honduras are the first-class ruins of Copn. Further into Honduras are the idyllic Bay Islands, whose pristine coral reefs offer some of the finest scuba-diving and snorkelling in the Caribbean. You can also travel up into the rain-soaked highlands of the Verapaces, similar in many ways to the central highlands, though fresher and greener. Here, Lake Izabal drains, via the R'o Dulce through a dramatic gorge, to the Caribbean. At the mouth of the river is the funky town of L'vingston, an outpost of Caribbean culture and home to Guatemala's only black community.
When to go
Guatemala enjoys one of the most pleasant climates on earth, with the bulk of the country enjoying warm or hot days with mild or cool evenings year-round. The immediate climate is largely determined by altitude. In those areas between 1300 and 1600 metres, which includes Guatemala City, Antigua, Lake Atitln, Chichicastenago and Cobn, the air is almost always fresh and the nights cool and, despite the heat of the mid-day sun, humidity is never a problem. However, parts of the provinces of Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango and the Ixil triangle are above this height, so have a cool, damp climate with distinctly cold nights. Low-lying Petn suffers from sticky, steamy conditions most of the year, as do the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, though here at least you can usually rely on the welcome relief of a sea breeze.
The rainy season runs roughly from May to October, with the worst of the rain falling in September and October. In Petn, however, the season can extend into December, whilst around Cobn and on the Caribbean coast it can rain at any time of the year. Even at the height of the wet season, though, the rain is usually confined to late afternoon downpours with most of the rest of the day being warm and pleasant. In many parts of the country you can travel without disruption throughout the rainy season, although in the more out-of-the-way places, like the Cuchumatanes, flooding may slow you down by converting the roads into a sea of mud. Also, if you intend visiting Petn's more remote ruins, you'd be well advised to wait until February, as the mud can be thigh deep at the height of the rains. The busiest time for tourists is between December and March, though plenty of people take their summer vacations here in July and August. This is also the period when the language schools and hotels are at their fullest, and many of them hike their prices correspondingly. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.