One of the highlights of the south-western peninsula, and certainly an excellent base for exploring this area, is the colonial city of Granada. Granada is actually the oldest colonial city in all of the Americas, and has a very vibrant and turbulent history.

Like Antigua Guatemala, Granada's greatest asset is it's colonial charm. Granada, however, has not suffered from the decades of tourism that has reshaped Antigua as the tourist mecca of central America. For many people this is the charm of the city, a city that has not lost it's soul even after a grueling civil war, and a recent influx of tourism. This tourism, no doubt, will affect the city. Nicaragua has more visitors each year, which is seen by some as the solution to Nicaragua's problems, and others as a possible threat to it's culture.

In addition to its cultural charm, Granada boasts an array of natural areas at its doorstep. Along the shores of Lake Nicaragua, Granada contains 365 isletas, which can be viewed by boat. Many of these islands are being bought up by foreign investors, so if you want one, get them while you can!

Granada is also the gateway to numerous day trips, including two volcanoes, Mombacho and Masaya. Both are easily reached by bus. Mombacho provides a decent day hike, with excellent views of Granada and the isletas. Masaya is a unique volcano, which does not involve much climbing, and can be included in a day trip to the artistic town of Masaya. Granada is also the gateway to other popular destinations, such as Ometepe and San Juan del Sur. With plenty of accommodations in every price range, many restaurants, Spanish schools, and cultural activities, it is an excellent place to stay for a few days, weeks, or longer.


Still reeling from a devastating civil war in the 1980's, Nicaragua has been slower to be embraced by large scale tourism. One of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, the economy of this central American country was completely destroyed by the war. Nicaragua is beginning to discover and develop one of its most important and abundant resources, tourism. This country has everything it takes to become the next hot spot, from amazing Pacific beaches with great surf to 22 volcanoes, all of them climbable; from clear lakes, to a long and mysterious river leading to the Caribbean; from a steamy, undeveloped jungle on the Caribbean, to expanses of pristine tropical beach and secluded Caribbean island paradises.

Nicaragua's most developed tourism infrastructure is largely located in the southwestern corner of the country, a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Nicaragua, an enormous lake which feeds the Rio San Juan, and is the world's only freshwater lake containing sharks. Located on the shores of Lake Nicaragua is Granada, the oldest colonial city in America, and an excellent base for exploring the area.

More adventurous travelers, especially nature lovers, will want to venture into the steamy, undeveloped jungles of eastern Nicaragua. Like stepping into another country, you will notice a distinct separation from the Latin culture the rest of central America shares. Populating this remote part of the country are several indigenous groups, including the Miskitos, Ramas, and Sumos along the Caribbean coast. Also populating the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala are the Garifunas, a fishing culture from Amerindian and African descent. Off the coast in the town of Bluefields are the Corn Islands, a popular destination for diving and snorkeling.


Bordering Guatemala's northern region is Belize, a small English speaking country on the Caribbean coast. With miles of beautiful Caribbean beaches, lush jungles, Mayan ruins, and abundant natural resources, Belize has much to offer tourists. Although strong English and Spanish influences dominate the country, it has a very laid back Caribbean feel to it, and you may forget you are even in central America.

One of the most popular tourist activities in Belize is diving. The Caribbean coast of Belize contains a barrier reef that is the longest and largest mass of continuous living coral in this hemisphere, second in the world. The reef is almost 200 miles long, and is largely unexplored. There are many dive shops to choose from, offering packages for beginners up to advanced divers.

Unfortunately I did not get to spend too much time in Belize, I just used it as a border crossing to renew my stamp in Guatemala. One thing I did notice, coming from Guatemala, which is one of the cheapest countries to travel in, is the much higher prices in Belize. If you are looking for quality diving in a tropical paradise, and are on a tight budget, check out the Bay Islands in Honduras.

Volunteer Work

Many people find volunteer work to be a rewarding way to visit a foreign country. It is also a fantastic way to really immerse yourself in the local culture, and improve your language skills. Guatemala offers many volunteer opportunities in social work, health care, environmental projects, education , and construction.

I was very fortunate to be able to take part in part in the construction of a bridge in the highlands of Guatemala. Every year Marquette University in Wisconsin works with Engineers without Borders to construct a bridge in Guatemala. In January of 2006, a 70 foot bridge was constructed over the Rio Motagua, the largest river in Guatemala. This bridge connected two departments, El Quiche and Chimaltenango. These two communities have been separated for more than 60 years by the Motagua River. The construction of a bridge connecting the two communities will provide access to schools, markets, and additional jobs for all of the residents.

The project was a joint effort between over 50 volunteers from Wisconsin, including professional engineers, carpenters, professional tradesmen, engineering students, and many people with no background in construction. The other side of the labor was provided by the local people of the two communities. Being from two different communities, two different Mayan languages were spoken, K'iche' and Kaqchikel, both speaking Spanish as their second language. With the help of a few bilingual Guatemalan volunteers, and some US volunteers with Spanish skills, communication was sufficient. At times it was difficult, but volunteers always found a way to communicate, and the local volunteers were an invaluable source of labor. With the lack of heavy equipment and accessibility, the bridge was built with an incredible force of manpower. It was constructed in two phases in just over two weeks. It is designed to withstand strong winds, floods, and landslides, and support vehicular traffic.

Working alongside local volunteers was an amazing experience. These volunteers came to work with a tireless work ethic, often working from sunup to sundown, then walking miles back to their rural communities. It was a great way for me to practice my Spanish, as well as learn about the culture of Guatemala, and I left with the satisfaction of knowing we completed a valuable project, and gave something to the community that will improve the lives of its residents for generations.


The largest and best preserved of Mayan ruins is the ancient metropolis of Tikal. Located in the northern department of El Petén, Tikal is probably the most notable tourist destination in Guatemala.

Built around 300 BC, Tikal was the center of the vast Mayan empire, which extended into the Yucatan Peninsula, and at its peak (300-900 AD) had a population greater then 100,000. The most prominent features of Tikal are the towering temples. Six pyramid shaped temples, the largest of which rise over 200 ft, were constructed by the Mayans as a tribute to past leaders, and as an honor to their gods. The ruins also include palaces, houses, public buildings, and many stone monuments and inscriptions.

A day trip to Tikal can be arranged, but for some may not be enough time to see everything. There are a few hotels and campgrounds in the park. An overnight stay can provide one of the most awe inspiring views of the ruins, watching the sun rise atop temple IV. As the mist clears and the sun rises, the jungle comes alive. Howler monkeys can be heard in the distance, as well as the occasional tree crashing down through the jungle. As the sun rises higher, the other temples can be seen through the fog.

It is not necessary to hire a guide, but I strongly recommend it, at least for a few hours. English speaking guides are available, and provide a wealth of information that cannot be seen just by walking through the ruins. They provide a wealth of information on the history and culture of the ancient city, as well as names and descriptions of many of the plants and animals in the surrounding jungle.

El Petén

Located in northern Guatemala is the country´s largest, and least populated department, El Petén. Although remote, El Petén provides Guatemala with most of its resources. These include products from the large expanses of forests, oil, and more recently, the country´s greatest resource, tourism.

At the height of the Mayan empire, just over two thousand years ago, El Petén was possible the most densely populated place in the world. Due largely to deforestation and disease, after the collapse of the Mayans, El Petén has become one of the least populated areas. El Petén is becoming of the most visited areas in Guatemala, due to the many well preserved Mayan ruins found at the ancient empire´s former center.
The most accessible and excavated of these ruins is Tikal. There are many smaller ruins, including Yaxha, site of Survivor Guatemala. Countless ruins are buried deep in the jungle, waiting to be excavated.

One of the most charming cities, and the capital of El Petén, is Flores. Located on an island in Lago Petén Itza, this town of just over 10,000 provides an excellent base for exploration in the Petén region. Many budget accommodations and restaurants of high quality are available, as well as tour guides and trips. These range from day trips to Tikal to week-long treks into the jungle. This town is also a launching point to other villages across the lake, which can be reached either by bus, or by the more scenic lanchas, which board at the lakeshore.

Semuc Champey

Located in central Guatemala in the department Alta Verapaz is the city of Cobán. While an interesting enough city in itself, it makes an even better base for some amazing day trips into the beautifully lush cloud forests of Alta Verapaz. These densely vegetated mountains provide some of the best wildlife, vegetation, and birdwatching Guatemala has to offer. They also provide the habitat for Guatemala´s elusive national bird, the quetzal. Alta Verapaz contains several national parks, including the Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera.

Referred to by many locals as the eighth wonder of the world, one of the most notable day trips is to Semuc Champey. Deep into the lush cloud forests, the Cahabon River roars through what some consider the most beautiful place in Guatemala. Semuc Champey is a natural limestone bridge over the river. Beautiful waterfalls are seen above the bridge as the river flows under the rock, and emerges 300 meters beyond, cascading down the mountain. The real beauty of this amazing site is above these falls: multiple terraces of lagoons, pools, and falls, with turquoise water, tranquil and serene. Make sure to bring your swimming suit, because this is one of the most amazing places you can swim! Following the example of my fearless (and somewhat crazy) guide, I jumped over waterfalls, off of cliffs, swam through pristine lagoons, and even climbed down the side of a waterfall into a beautiful cave.

It is hard to get to Semuc Champey without an organized tour, but many leave from Cobán, and offer day trips which include these lagoons, and also the caves of Lanquín, located at the source of the Lanquín River. Once a sacred sacrifice area to ancient Mayans, the alters are still used today in religious Mayan ceremonies. Tours venture deep into the lighted caves, which at times can be slippery. Our guide wanted to continue beyond the lighted area, which would involve some crawling, and the use of flashlights. Unfortunately, the majority of our group voted against this, but with the right group, flashlights, and an intrepid guide, this is certainly possible.

Lake Atitlán

Located two and a half hours from Antigua and Guatemala City is Lake Atitlán. Once referred to as "the most beautiful lake in the world" by author Aldous Huxley, with three towering volcanoes providing the backdrop, this lake truly is an amazing sight. In addition to Volcanoes Atitlán, San Pedro, and Toliman, Lake Atitlán is also surrounded by 12 villages, all of them populated by indigenous Mayans, many of whom continue to wear traditional Mayan clothing, consisting of beautiful colors representing their villages.

The first village you will arrive in is Panajachel. You can use this as your base to explore the other villages, or take a boat ride across the lake to another village. Panajachel has long been popular with tourists, and contains a large number of aging expatriates and retired foreigners. Many find Panajachel to be too touristy, and choose to stay in smaller villages, such as San Pedro, San Marcos, or Santiago Atitlán. Each village has its own characteristics, and depending on what you are looking for, one may be more suited to your tastes than another. If you visit a more touristy village, for a more cultural experience, try to explore beyond the lakefront area, where many of the hotels and restaurants are located. This is a very poor region in Guatemala, and it was devistated by hurricane Stan in 2005.


One thing that most people think of when they think of Latin America is miles and miles of pristine, tropical beaches. If this is your main purpose for traveling, Guatemala might not be the best place. Guatemala does have extensive beaches on the Pacific side, although depending on why you go to the beach, they may or may not be what you are looking for. I lived in the beach town of Monterrico for a week, and had a great time.

Monterrico is the most accessible and touristy beach town in Guatemala. It is easily reached from Antigua in a few hours, and has many affordable beachfront hotels, restaurants, and bars. If you are looking to relax in a hammock, meet interesting people, and drink ice cold beer while watching breathtaking sunsets, Monterrico is paradise.

The entire Pacific Coast of Guatemala consists of black volcanic sand. The surf is the main problem in Guatemala. It is extremely violent, and very difficult to swim in. Unless you are a very strong swimmer, it's difficult to go in more than waist deep without waves completely engulfing you and pulling you out. It is not good for surfing either, due to the way the waves break. That said, it is an incredibly refreshing escape from the blazing sun.

This beach expanse is actually a large island surrounded by a canal, which can be accessed at the edge of Monterrico. One of the highlights of my stay there was an early morning canoe ride through the canal. The canal is a large mangrove swamp abundant with wildlife, including waterfowl, aquatic plants, dense forest, and a fish that can jump out of the water. Most tours leave before dawn, and as the sun rises, a spectacular view of Volcan Pacaya and the volcanoes Fuego and Acatenango in Antigua presents itself.

Spanish Schools

When I first started researching Latin American countries, I did not know anything about Guatemala, and had not considered it as a possible travel destination. The criteria for my trip was simple; I wanted to immerse myself in a Spanish speaking country for 5 months, and do it for cheap. My research quickly pointed to Guatemala. As I have said in my initial posting, due to the slow, clear accent of Spanish spoken in Guatemala, combined with the incredibly low prices, I cannot think of a better country to learn Spanish.

Spanish schools have been big business in Guatemala for over 30 years. The format is simple, 4 hours (or more if you are really dedicated) of one on one lessons a day; one student, one teacher. Most schools offer a home stay with a Guatemalan family, with 3 meals a day. For both a home stay and lessons, prices range from around $100-$200 a week. Lessons typically cost about $4 and hour.

I attended schools all over Guatemala. This is a very viable way to travel, especially if you like to stay in one place for a week or more, and really immerse yourself in the culture. Due to the abundance of schools, it often does not take more than a days notice to enroll. There are many factors to consider when choosing a school. Schools range from large, well established organizations with well organized activities, to small schools where you may often be the only student. I have done both, there are advantages to both. Organized activities are a great way to meet people, and experience the local culture as well. The one drawback to these large schools is you are guaranteed to be hanging out with groups of students. For some, this is a great way to meet interesting people from all over the world, to others, this may be a distraction. In the end, it all comes down to discipline, but in smaller schools, I have been the only student, and was forced to speak only Spanish.

Another factor to consider is what type of curriculum, or lack of, you would like to follow. Some like a very structured program, with homework and grammar lessons. Most teachers will try to do two hours of grammar a day. As my Spanish progressed, I tried to steer away from grammar and deal more with conversation. A more organized school may try to resist that approach, but the student is the boss, so you can provide feedback to your teacher.

Many people ask about quality of the schools. There are certainly some very high quality schools, and some pretty bad ones too. In the end, I have found that it all comes down to individual instructors, and the chemistry between the student and the teacher. While it certainly is good to switch teachers or schools to get used to different voices, I feel there is one thing I would do differently if I was studying for more than a few weeks. This is just my opinion, but if you get a good teacher that you work well with, stick with them the entire time. There are many inexperienced and just plain mediocre teachers out there, and it is no fun to spend 20 hours with a poor instructor.

I think one of the main things to look for is experience. Two of my best teachers had been teaching for over 20 years. Most of the most experienced teachers are in Antigua, since it was where Spanish schools first opened in Guatemala. There are some extremely well qualified instructors, and most of them can be contracted privately without the service of a school.

Volcan Pacaya

One of the closest, and most scenic day trips from Antigua is Volcan Pacaya. Volcan Pacaya is an active volcano, which is under almost constant eruption. It provides accessible views of volcanic activity up close. At just over 8,000 ft, it is a medium difficulty climb. Anybody in decent shape should have no problems, just make sure to bring sturdy hiking boots, water, snacks, sunglasses, sunscreen, and warm clothes. The wind gets very cold at the top of the volcano!

Less than twenty miles from Antigua, there are numerous buses and guide services leaving from Antigua every day. A decent guide is highly recommended, as robberies are known to occur, although since it became a national park in 2001, these have drastically decreased. There is no reason not to go with a guide, since it will cost you less than $15.

The climb takes about 3 hours. The first half is lushly vegetated and green. As you climb higher, the views become simply amazing. Once the vegetation ends, hiking becomes much more difficult. The rest of the hike is over slippery black ash. Difficult footing, combined with low visibility, cold wind, and sulfurous gases makes this the most challenging part of the climb, but the reward is spectacular. At the peak of the summit, standing next to a cauldron of molten lava is a spectacular feeling that you wont forget. With the cold wind on your back, and the heat from the lava not more than 10 feet away, it is like being in a hot tub on top of a mountain.

Climbing down the volcano is the fun part, and much easier than climbing up. The preferred method of descent is a sort of run-jump-ski combination, sliding down the ash. This is easier and safer than it sounds, and pretty fun too.

Antigua Guatemala

No trip to Guatemala would be complete without a trip to Antigua, and if you are like many travelers, you will find yourself spending more time here than you thought. It is hard to resist the colonial charm: cobblestone streets, well preserved churches, ruins, and vibrant culture. You can spend a week in Antigua, and not see all of the amazing museums, monasteries, ruins, and surrounding natural areas.

One of the biggest draws to Antigua is its high density of Spanish schools. Some find Antigua a great place to stay, learn Spanish during the day, and enjoy the vibrant culture and nightlife. Others find the high concentration of tourists a distraction, and end up working more on their English than anything else. It depends on what you are looking for, if you enjoy meeting people from all over the world, Antigua is great. If you are looking for a more authentic immersion, go to a smaller village and live with a local family.

Many travelers choose to use Antigua as a home base, a launching point for seeing the rest of the country. This is a great option for many of the sites of southwestern Guatemala. Tour guides are abundant, and will take you anywhere you want to go. Do a little research, and find a reputable guide, and you can do some amazing day trips from Antigua.


My journey through Latin America began in Guatemala. I cannot think of a better country to be introduced to Latin culture than Guatemala. This country has it all: towering volcanoes, historic colonial cities, a prevalent indigenous Mayan population, ancient Mayan ruins, incredible natural resources, and more. The list goes on and on. Guatemala's greatest resource, however, is its people. Guatemalans are some of the most friendly people in the world, and will go out of their way to make your experience more enjoyable.

To really experience Latin America, I knew it would be essential to learn Spanish. After a lot of research, this is why I chose Guatemala. Guatemala is quite possibly the best place in the world to learn Spanish, for three reasons. Foremost is the abundance of Spanish schools in Guatemala. Every major city and many smaller villages contain any number of excellent schools. The second reason Guatemala is the best is the form of Spanish spoken. Guatemalans speak very clearly, and tend to speak slower and more precise than many other Latin countries. This makes it a good choice to begin studying the language. The final reason is the price. Spanish schools in Guatemala are among the most inexpensive in the world, due to the economy of Guatemala.