Discover Guatemala’s Western Highlands

Most visitors to Guatemala daydream about the Western Highlands. The region is home to quaint and colorful mountain villages, highland lakes, pine forests, and the majority of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples.

Although other parts of Central America offer attractions similar to those found elsewhere in Guatemala, nowhere else in the region are age-old traditions, exquisite Mayan culture, and a history both proud and painful so remarkably evident and incredibly alive. From the Indian markets in Chichicastenango and the Mayan practices of the costumbristas (shamans carrying out traditional Mayan rituals) in the hills just outside of town to the all-day November 1 horse races of Todos Santos, the region is steeped in rich culture.

Sunrise at Lake Atitlán. Photo © Al Argueta.
Sunrise at Lake Atitlán. Photo © Al Argueta.

In the Western Highlands, you’ll find the ruined cities of the highland Mayan tribes encountered by Pedro de Alvarado and the Spanish when they arrived in 1524. The sites are still places of pilgrimage for the modern-day descendants of the various linguistic groups populating this part of the country. Traversing the pine tree-peppered mountain scenery, you’ll also come across the region’s spectacular volcanic chain, which runs like a spine heading west from Antigua all the way to the Mexican border. The water-filled caldera of an extinct volcano forms the basis for one of the country’s most outrageously beautiful natural attractions, the singular Lake Atitlán. In addition to water-based recreational activities, unlike any other lake in Central America, it offers the opportunity to observe and interact with the fascinating highland Mayan people inhabiting the dozen or so villages along its lakeshores. Farther west is Guatemala’s second-largest city, Quetzaltenango, which has become a popular place for Spanish-language study as well as a hub of NGO activity in the aftermath of the civil war. It boasts some outstanding nearby natural attractions of its own and the cosmopolitan feel of a European city.

Throughout the highlands, you’ll encounter the after-effects of Guatemala’s bloody civil war, which affected this region more than any other. But, like a brilliant springtime flower emerging through fertile soil from winter’s icy chill, the highlands and its people are fast changing and rising from the ashes of the armed conflict. There’s a new feeling in the air. Where once there was fear and apprehension (and rightfully so) on the part of its Mayan inhabitants, there is now curiosity and a desire to build a new future while holding on to the culture that is their inheritance. You are a big part of this, as your presence in these parts is a catalyst to substantial progress along the lines of sustainable development with tourism at the forefront. There are many community-based tourism projects in this area, and your visit helps provide needed income but also positive interaction with the outside world.

The Quiché highlands. Photo © Al Argueta.
The Quiché highlands. Photo © Al Argueta.

It is so refreshing, years later, to be able to travel to areas that were once bombed out and cleared of vegetation but are now green and vibrant again. This painful legacy intertwined with optimism is most evident in the Ixil Triangle, which stands poised to become a mecca for cultural and ecotourism, overseen by and to the benefit of, its Ixil inhabitants. Despite having suffered some of the most horrendous atrocities during the civil war, still they smile, a testament to their fortitude. Farther west toward the Mexican border, the department of Huehuetenango boasts fascinating Mayan villages of its own in addition to some seldom-visited natural attractions along the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes mountain chain. It’s only a matter of time before visitors to Guatemala put this vast wilderness on the map.

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