This chunk of Central America, wedged beneath Mexico and washed by both the Atlantic and Pacific, is scenically beautiful, rich in history – and very cheap.
Guatemala is the only Central American country where indigenous Indian people are in the majority, and their culture is vividly conveyed in their bright, hand-woven textiles. Before the Spanish Conquest, the Mayan civilisation was arguably the most advanced in the Americas. It began to crumble before Columbus arrived, but bequeathed an array of exquisite cities, which are still being uncovered from within the thick jungle in the north.
The place to start your exploration – not least because this is where international flights arrive – is Guatemala City, a sprawling metropolis shouldered by three volcanoes: Fuego, Agua and Pacaya. A couple of the capital's museums are fascinating, particularly the Popol Vuh Archaeological Museum (00 502 23 38 78 96; popolvuh.ufm.edu.gt). The Popol Vuh is the Mayan sacred text describing many Mayan legends – such as the story of the ball-playing twins who fought the lords of the underworld and became the Sun and the Moon. The museum opens 9am-5pm except Sunday (and, on Saturdays, only until 1pm). Admission is 35 quetzales (Q35). The currency is named after the national bird and Q11 is worth about £1.
The Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing (00 502 23 31 36 22; museoixchel.org) shares the same hours, opening times and admission price. It explains the ancient Mayan art of weaving which you will see across the country.
Few travellers spend much time in Guatemala City, though some pause to scrabble up the Pacaya volcano, just outside the capital. It is Central America's most active volcano: lava flows right by you as you climb near to the 2,552m high peak and conscientious guides (Q50/ £4.50 per group) will bring marshmallows for toasting at the top.
The last time the volcano erupted for real, the whole of Guatemala City was covered with thick dirty grey ash, stopping work and shutting the airport for days.
This was all much to the amusement of the towns close to the volcano, which, on the opposite side to the molten lava flow, remained squeaky clean. Skiing down the black volcanic rubble on the way back is great fun, apart from the small stone collection you amass in your boots.
Antigua Guatemala. The brightly coloured former colonial capital this year won the title of "Best City in the World", as voted by the readers of Wanderlust magazine. Antigua Guatemala was the first place in the Americas to be laid out on a grid pattern, thus setting the style for cities from New York to Santiago de Chile. It was abandoned as Guatemala's capital in 1776 because it was too earthquake-prone. Since then, it may have acquired some fancy hotels, but the town has not lost its crumbling colonial charm.
The Casa Santo Domingo (00 502 78 20 12 20; casasantodomingo.com.gt) is a former monastery and the best hotel in town. The complex includes an archaeological museum and an haute cuisine restaurant Guatemalan style. A double room starts at $145 (£104), without breakfast.
The conquistadores built an abundance of churches in Antigua and they are now all in varying states of disrepair. The cathedral on the main square is just a façade and best seen lit-up at night, but La Merced to the north of town maintains its full three-dimensional glory. The next-door monastery has great views over the volcanoes from the roof (entrance is Q5/£0.45).
Antigua has a good reputation for its coffee. The Café Condesa (00 502 78 32 00 38) on the main square is one of the former royal mansions. Legend has it that an angry count buried his butler alive, standing up within the walls of the villa's pantry, after he discovered the man was his wife's lover. Just to be safe, an exorcism was performed in the 1990s. Today the pantry is filled exclusively with baked goodies and coffee.
I want to chill out
The black-sand beaches of the Pacific coast draw laid-back tourists for stays at the resorts of Sipacate and Monterrico, where nesting turtles burrow in the sand. But most travellers choose to kick back inland, at Lake Atitlán, the closest approximation to Shangri-La in Central America. Here, hedonistic Westerners take advantage of cheap and easy living.
San Marcos La Laguna is the spiritual centre. The local beaches are secluded and calm, except on the Mayan women's washing day, and outdoor enthusiasts can grab a picnic and escape into the hills on scenic walks. The many hotels in the gringo part of town offer an hour's Swedish massage for a mere Q150 (£13.50) as well as yoga and sweat sessions in traditional Mayan saunas. Courses in meditation, astral projection and lucid dreams are available, but not obligatory, which also goes for linen trousers and sandals (no socks please).
The self-styled "holistic hotel" La Paz (00 502 57 02 91 68; sanmarcoslapaz.com) is right on the edge of the water. A double costs just Q100 (£9), room only. You could try Las Piramides (00 502 52 05 71 51; laspiramidesdelka.com) meditation centre for massage and other treatments. These start at Q30 (£2.70) while rooms cost US$18 (£13) per person (no reservations).
There are plenty of little towns to wander around at Lake Atitlán. In Santiago de Atitlán, textiles overflow from market stalls in dazzling colours and patterns. They are often cheaper, touristy versions of what the Mayans wear but are nonetheless intricately hand-woven and embroidered, and haggling is quite acceptable. Transport at the lake is by private lancha or the local boat service, which takes tourist and natives alike to all towns on the water. The main tourist boat of the day leaves the Playa Publica at Panajachel, the lake's gringo epicentre, at 8.30am. It stops at San Antonio (for volcanic hot springs), then San Pedro (backpacker central) and finally u......... o Santiago de Atitlán, for the market and a glimpse of the Mayan saint Maximón, who sits in one of the houses of the Cofradías or spiritual brotherhood. This cigarette-toting, aguardiente-guzzling Mayan saint wears two cowboy hats, sunglasses and is accompanied by Jesus in a glass coffin adorned with disco balls and Christmas decorations.
Paragliders launch themselves from the sheer cliffs around Lake Atitlá*in order to ride the thermals. Rock-climbing, horse riding, scuba-diving and kayaking are also popular (00 502 55 95 77 32; paraglidingguatemala.com). A 40-minute tandem ride costs $80 (£57).
Alternatively, you could fish for the black bass, which was introduced into the lake to feed local populations in the 1950s by the people at Pan American Airways. The bass proceeded to eat almost every other fish in the eco-system and is now the only local fruit de mer on offer. Fishing excursions depart from Panajachel (00 502 7762 2428; panajachel.com).
The largest archaeological site in Guatemala is El Mirador, an ancient Mayan complex close to the Mexican border. But with no roads and most of the structures unexcavated, this one's not for your average tourist. On the other hand, at Tikal national park (00 502 23 67 28 37; tikalpark.com) in Petén, there are six uncovered temples (out of an estimated 3,000 structures).
Known as the cradle of the Mayan civilisation, Tikal was occupied between 600BC and 1000AD. Its greatest ruler, Ah Cacao (loosely translated as "Lord Chocolate") built the Temple of the Jaguar on the Great Plaza and the Temple of the Masks opposite for his wife about 700AD.
The towering giants, which are about 45m high, have elements of Mayan cosmology built into the design. The sacrificial altar on the Temple of the Masks is still intact: it was here that those sacrificed would have their hearts cut out and their bodies flung down the sheer steps. Things are a little less extreme these days and you can scrabble up the wooden staircases without fear of an express descent. You can visit Tikal 6am-6pm daily, admission US$20 (£14).
Ah Cacao's wife came from the settlement of Yaxhá, a smaller site whose name means "green water". It is known for its impressive observatories. Although overrun by monkeys, Yaxhá is calm and pleasant to visit. From the top of the highest temple there's a spectacular view out across the jungle to the river Pasión. Surprisingly, from up there you can also hear what is being said in the ceremonial plaza below. The acoustics of the Mayan settlements were meticulously calculated, not only to ensure that the rulers were heard by their people, but also so communities could hear the enemy coming from miles away.
Inter-tribal wars were frequent and some of the country's most impressive stelas (inscribed commemorative slabs of rock) mark the victory of the ruler at Quiriguá, close to Lake Izabal, who deposed the royal prince of the nearby hostile settlement of Copá*in Honduras. Stelas are normally similar in size to a European gravestone, but the biggest at Quiriguá, dating from 700AD, is more than 10m high and weighs more than 60 tons. Others at the same site are huge lumps of stone carved into frogs or snakeheads showing the new ruler emerging victorious from the mouth of the underworld. The temples at Tikal are awe-inspiring, especially seen at sunrise or sunset.
In the jungle?
You can stay in the jungle itself at the Jungle Lodge (00 502 24 77 05 70; junglelodgetikal.com), just 1km from the Great Plaza, where a double costs $165 (£117) with breakfast. It was also announced this week that Peté*has been shortlisted as one of two possible Guatemalan locations for a luxury resort, the first in the Luxuriant Masterpieces Collection (luxuriantworldresorts.com); the other contender is Antigua.
More convenient for Yaxha and an option for Tikal without the guttural soundtrack provided by local howler monkeys, is the town of Flores. The town occupies what was a small island in Lake Peté*Itzá until a huge concrete bridge was built to connect it with the mainland. At La Luna (00 502 79 26 33 46) they'll cook you up a mean deep-fried white fish (the Guatemalans call it Blanca), fresh from the lake. You can watch the fishermen at work from your room at La Casona de la Isla (00 520 78 67 51 63; hotelesdepeten.com); doubles from $52 (£37), room only.
TRAVEL ESSENTIALS FOR GUATEMALA
Plenty of people in the tourist areas speak Engish, but elsewhere in Guatemala little other than Spanish is understood. Since Central American Spanish is far removed from pure Castilian as spoken in the mother country, you may wish to study some; plenty of language schools in Antigua Guatemala offer courses. A typical course lasts a week and costs US$115-150 (£82-107) at a location such as Centro Lingüistico Maya (clmmaya.com).
When to go
The rainy season in Guatemala runs from May to October (slightly later on the western side of the country), coinciding with the hurricane season in the Caribbean. However even during the wet season it usually rains only in the afternoons and evenings. Temperatures in the dry season can reach as much as 40C.
The cheapest routes to Guatemala City – and the rest of Central America – are often on Continental Airlines (0845 607 6760; continental.com) via Houston. Other possible options include the combination of Virgin Atlantic to Miami and American Airlines onwards to Guatemala City. For travel in November, either route will cost around £600 return.
Any routing via the US involves applying online in advance for permission to transit America. To avoid doing this, you could pay a bit more and fly via Madrid with Iberia (0870 609 0500; Iberia.com). It is cheaper, though, if you have an extra couple of days available, to fly to Mexico City (as little as £430 return) and travel from there by bus or air.
Most travel around the country is by bus. Express coaches and smaller private vehicles ferry tourists and business travellers between the main towns; you do not usually have to book in advance, except at holiday times. The brightly coloured "chicken buses" run the longer local stopper service routes, but are not as safe, nor as comfortable. Heavy rains cause frequent flooding, landslides and collapsed roads and bridges throughout the country.
There are also flights between the capital and Flores for Tikal and Rio Dulce with Taca Airways (0870 241 034; taca.com), from £130 each way.
"Since 4 April 2009, there have been 11 earth tremors in Guatemala City and the Santa Rosa area measuring above 4 on the Richter scale", says the Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; fco.gov.uk). It also warns of "an increase in violence" last month, "with co-ordinated attacks on buses, which left several dead". Guatemala has a high crime rate, with around 40 murders per week in Guatemala City alone – compared with around three per week in London. While visitors are rarely involved in violence, last year there were several armed attacks on tourists travelling to, from and around tourist sites such as Antigua, Tikal, Peté*and Lake Atitlán
The government has done much to improve security on popular routes and has introduced a tourist police force solely for the purpose of accompanying groups around the country.
You can request an escort and get advice through INGUAT(visitguatemala.com).
LA RIO DULCE VITA
The Rio Dulce flows down from Lake Izabal to the country's small share of the Caribbean coast. One of the many highlights of the river is the Biotopo Chocó*Machacas nature reserve, home to groups of manatees. The abundance of the riverbed means you'll be lucky to catch a glimpse but there are 180 other species of wildlife to spot.
The river also has many aquatic gardens hidden away in lagoons at the side of the main thoroughfare, with giant lilies and families of turtles swimming close to the surface. About halfway down the river there is a hot waterfall where you can take a dip, if you're not put off by the smell of sulphur.
There are also treasures in the subsidiaries of the Rio Dulce. Rio Tatin flows straight down from the mountains and locals come from all over the area to collect their drinking water.
The Finca Tatin (00 502 59 02 08 31; fincatatin.centramerica.com) is located on the banks and organises hiking and kayaking tours, letting you explore deep into the jungle in search of toucans, parrots and many other tropical species native to the area. Dorms are available at Q45 (£4) while a private room is Q65 (£6), both excluding breakfast.
Livingston, the town at the river estuary, is known by the native Garífuna people (descended directly from African slaves) as La Buga: the mouth. It's a ramshackle, run-down place, but still has stunning scenery perfect for a budget Caribbean getaway. And good food: the local speciality is Tapado, a fish soup with a whole crab protruding from it and an entire deep-fried fish on the side: scary looking, but delicious.
The place to stay is the Villa Caribe (00 502 23 34 18 18; villasdeguatemala.com), costing $100 (£68) for a double room including breakfast. On Friday nights it has traditional rhythmic Garífuna music and dancing in the restaurant.
The town beach is dirty and so most flock to the Playa Blanca, about 45 minutes away by boat. It delivers white sand and crystal waters on a bargain budget: a deckchair for the day is Q15 (£1.35). Halfway between Playa Blanca and La Buga sits the Siete Altares waterfalls, a series of seven falls and pools with startlingly turquoise water. The site is sacred for the Garífunas and they conduct cleansing rituals in the pools, but for a Q15 (£1.35) entrance fee tourists are welcome to come and swim. At Ixapanpajul Natural Park (00 502 41 46 75 57; ixpanpajul.com) near Flores you can explore the jungle on zip-lines and hanging bridges, while looking out for snakes basking in the trees and harpy eagles overhead. The park also offers guided nocturnal nature tours to catch glimpses of wild pigs, grey foxes and ocelots among others.