The hidden side of Guatemala

jurg widmer guatemala

Any review of the hidden side of Guatemala has to start with a quick mention of a recent discovery in the jungles in the north of the country. Archaeologists there found thousands of previously hidden Mayan structures tucked away in the depths of the jungle – everything from pyramids to farms, fortifications, palaces and temples. While it probably isn’t somewhere that the average visitor will get to visit any time soon, it is a timely reminder of what a remarkable, multi-layered country Guatemala is. It really is one of those places that rewards anyone who willing to dig beneath the surface. So, here is our pick of some of the best of hidden Guatemala.

Chichicastenango Cemetery

Understanding how a culture thinks about death can often give you an insight into their approach to life itself – and a visit to somewhere like the Chichicastenango Cemetery near to the town of the same name is a fascinating place to visit for that reason. It’s a place where the traditions of the ancient Mayan culture of Guatemala shine through – a multi-coloured celebration of life and death. There are no sombre greys and blacks here: instead, the tombs have been transformed into a carnival of different colours – many of which represent the family status of the people buried there. It’s an incredible place to wander around for a while and a real insight into how Guatemalans – and the Mayans in particular – think about life, death and family.

La Danta

If the words ‘lost city of the Maya’ make you want to grab your Indiana Jones hat and bullwhip and charter the next plane to the depths of the Guatemalan jungle, then a trip to El Mirador is a must. It’s not straightforward to get there – we’re talking a few days hike through the jungle from the village of Carmelita – but if you manage to make it then you will have one of the most incredible sites in the world to explore. The centrepiece of this spectacular complex, which was abandoned in the ninth century – is the 236ft tall La Danta pyramid. It is one of the world’s largest pyramids, and yet it is almost completely hidden in the jungle. An remarkable place to experience and well worth the effort of getting there.

Take the plunge at the Baños Balcárcel

You can forget the hot springs of Atitlan, or the Kawilal Hot Springs. For a truly Guatemalan bathing experience we recommend something a little bit more basic, but no less fun and relaxing. The Baños Balcárcel in Quetzeltenango have been providing local families with a place to chill out (and warm up) for the last 125 years, and we thoroughly recommend that you join the throngs for a hot soak there. The facilities are pretty basic but getting to hang out with the locals as they enjoy the relatively rare commodity of properly hot water is a truly authentic experience, and a great way to see how people relax and wash their cares away in this part of the world.

Stay with a local

Finally, it is worth saying that one of the best ways to see another side to Guatemala is to stay with a local family. For one, it is a great way to improve your Spanish – there really is no better place to test out your language skill than around the kitchen table. But it is also a wonderful way to get an insight into the way that people live here – the every day things that are ‘hidden’ to most travellers who stick to the tourist hotspots and the organised tours. More than likely, you’ll have your own key so you can come and go as you please, but you’ll also live and eat with the family so you can get a real taste of local life. It’s a wonderful way to see a side of life that is impossible to reach when you’re staying at a hotel.

As with any country, we always recommend that you are careful and that you avoid putting yourself in a vulnerable situation when you head off the beaten track in Guatemala. But we also suggest that there is a huge amount to be gained from stepping out of your comfort zone a little and doing something different. Talk to local people and find out about the places they go to eat, drink and relax. Be open, smile and be prepared to join in, and Guatemala will show you a hidden side that not everyone is lucky enough to see.

Jürg Widmer


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