the Central American country of Guatemala certainly flies under the radar
the Central American country of Guatemala certainly flies under the radar As far as vacation destinations for families with children go.
And perhaps for good reason—if your idea of a family vacation is an all-inclusive beach resort or time spent at a Disney theme park, then Guatemala probably isn’t for you. Despite this, there may be no better Latin American destination for the culturally-minded traveler. Approximately 60% of Guatemala’s population is made up of indigenous peoples who trace their roots all the way back to the Mayan empire, and despite centuries of hardship their culture is still very much alive—and thriving—today. Here are our top ten ways to experience the cultural and natural beauty that Guatemala has to offer:
Perhaps it goes without saying—the country’s most famous tourist landmark is sure to wind up on your list after just a five minute Google search for “Guatemala.” However, there are a number of ways to make your visit to Tikal, one of the largest urban centers of the Mayan civilization and a world-famous archeological site, more kid-friendly. First of all, make sure to take a guided tour. If you don’t speak Spanish, don’t worry! There are many English-speaking guides available who are great with kids, balancing important historical and cultural information with fun stories to keep them interested. If the kids are ready for something a bit more exciting, there are also canopy (zip-lining) tours in the vicinity of the park and nature walks through the nearby jungle. We especially recommend the latter as kids tend to love the spider and howler monkeys that inhabit the forests surrounding the park.
The Marketplace at Chichicastenago
On most days, the town of Chichicastenango isn’t all that much different from the others that surround it in the highlands of western Guatemala. On Thursdays and Sundays, however, the town’s center comes alive with the largest and most well-known indigenous marketplace to be found anywhere in the country. Though you will most likely run into other tourists here, you are sure to be in the minority. The town is 95% K’iche’ Mayan and the vast majority of the market caters to their tastes—food, clothing, and other necessities. However, you are sure to find some one-of-a-kind surprises that your children will love. For the boys, try searching out some of the colorful, handmade masks the Mayans sell, often adorned with real animal hair or semi-precious stones. For the girls, check out the handmade jewelry or the huipiles, beautiful, loose-fitting garments worn by indigenous women and girls throughout Guatemala and southern Mexico.
Xocomil Water Park
Yes, we know what you’re thinking. “Why would I bring my family all the way to Guatemala to visit a water park?” Generally speaking, we’d agree with you. It sounds kind of silly, right? But Xocomil is not your typically water park. Named the best water park in the world by the World Water Park Association, it is the largest not just in Guatemala but in all of Central America. People literally cross international borders just to come here. The park is designed around the centerpiece of a Mayan pyramid and features Guatemalan flourishes throughout, down to the rafts which are shaped like typical Mayan masks. Located right alongside the Xetulul theme park, this day trip could serve as a short “vacation” from your vacation. It’s also a great opportunity for your kids to interact with and play alongside their peers from Guatemala and the surrounding countries.
Hike to La Laguna Chicabal (Chicabal Lake)
Just a short drive from the city of Quetzaltenango (or Xelajú, as it goes by in the local Maya language) sits Chicabal Lake. This relatively small water body sits in the crater of an extinct volcano surrounded by some of the world’s most pristine cloud forest. And if that wasn’t cool enough, the lake is sacred to certain Mayan peoples who believe that the universe originated from this point! As such, the lake is still an important religious site for some and the many altars around its banks are still in use. As long as you’re respectful, the Mayans are happy to let you observe their prayers and rituals. This one-day hike is moderately strenuous but can certainly be completed by older children and parents in decent shape. We recommend that you pack a picnic lunch to enjoy while resting on the lakeshore!
Take a Boat Ride across Lake Atitlán
You may never have heard of Lake Atitlán before, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen photos of it! Described famously by Aldous Huxley as “too much of a good thing,” this deep-blue lake surrounded by volcanoes is truly one of the most beautiful in the world. Dotting its shores are tiny indigenous villages, each with its own unique style and character. During a visit to the lake, we recommend checking out at least a few of them. Panajachel is the largest, but if you want a truly unique experience with the kids we recommend San Marcos, an almost mystical town where jungle paths replace roads in all but a few cases. The town is a bit more cosmopolitan than this image might suggest however, boasting pizzerias, cafés, and even a Japanese restaurant! Getting around from town to town is an experience in and of itself, and the kids are sure to love cruising across the lake in one of the many lanchas (small boats) that ferry visitors around.
Coffee Plantation Tour
Chances are your kids haven’t started drinking coffee yet, and maybe they won’t jump at the idea of walking around a farm all day. That being said, we still recommend that you drag them along on this outing—if only to prove that parents always know best! Coffee tours are incredibly interesting and most guides are great at catering their tours to kids. The Guatemalan highlands produce some of the best coffee in the world, and many farms dot the hillsides around towns such as Antigua, where you are bound to spend some time during your trip. The process of coffee production on a commercial scale is more complicated than you might imagine and even if your kids are turned off by the idea of coffee, seeing the day-to-day processes associated with a Guatemalan farm will most likely be an eye-opening experience for them. They will head back home with a new appreciation for the farm-grown food that they used to think magically appeared on the table.
Volcano Lava Tour
If your kids are as adventurous as we imagine they must be, taking one of the many lava tours offered by companies in Antigua is an absolute must while you spend time in Guatemala. The town, which is surrounded by both dormant and active volcanoes, is the perfect base for such a trip. Highly-trained and professional guides will take your family to the lava flows, where you will be able to walk on hardened lava and observe the still red-hot flows from (relatively) close up. Perhaps this all sounds a bit dangerous, but it is a popular tourist activity in the area and thousands of people have participated without experiencing any problems. What kid doesn’t love volcanoes? We remember making miniature models back in school and wish that our parents would have taken us on a trip like this.
The Tiered Pools of Semuc Champey
Before we begin, let’s make it clear—this trip is not for the faint of heart. Also, if your kids are very young, you might want to rethink this trip, which will require almost an hour of bumpy driving in the back of a jeep or even a pickup truck. However, if that sounds like the perfect level of adventure for your family, you can’t pass this one up! Semuc Champey, which means “where the river hides beneath the earth,” is truly a one-of-a-kind global destination. The natural monument is comprised of a 300 meter-long limestone bridge under which passes the Cahabón River. Natural pools form on top of this bridge, colored incredible turquoises and limes, and the water flows between smooth rocks that in several places have formed natural slides for the more adventurous swimmer. Frankly, neither words nor pictures can do this beautiful natural phenomenon justice. If you’re up to it, this site is a must-see for the adventurous family in Guatemala.
Experience Mayan Culture Firsthand
In tourist hotspots like Antigua and increasingly in Quetzaltenango, many reputable tour companies offer the opportunity to spend the day passing time with and learning from members of the indigenous communities of Guatemala. This is an experience like no other. Are your kids interested in Mayan music? Cooking? Artwork? Dance? These topics and many more are offered for firsthand learning experiences in many locations throughout Guatemala. Though these activities may seem less than exciting to your kids at first glance, these are the experiences that will define their Guatemalan experiences and stick in their minds until adulthood. It’s also worth noting that engaging in such activities directly with the Mayan community provides them with a valuable source of income which they can use to help their own families and communities. We wholeheartedly recommend spending at the very least one day participating in such activities during your stay in the Guatemala. Plenty of information can be found regarding different opportunities on the web, but as a useful jumping-off point feel free to check out this site, which focuses on cultural organizations in Antigua, or this site, which features everything you could want to know about Quetzaltenango.
Volunteer with your Kids
Despite all of Guatemala’s natural and cultural beauty, there’s no denying that it’s still a country defined by challenges. At the root of these challenges is the endemic poverty that has existed in Guatemala since its colonization by Europeans hundreds of years ago. Before you end your trip, we sincerely recommend taking an opportunity to give back to the country that has given you so much over the course of your time here. It can be difficult to volunteer with kids, so here are two suggestions: the first is to head to a school for a day, where many children close in age to your own are studying English and could use some practice and perhaps some guidance. If nature is more your kids’ speed, there are many fun (and helpful!) volunteer projects in Guatemala including assisting in the protection of spawning sea turtles on either of the country’s coasts. For volunteer work available in the vicinity of Antigua this Spanish school has a decent site, and for a general volunteer database for the rest of the country you can start by checking out this site or this one.