Deciding which country is your favorite is a little like answering which child is your favorite.
Like children, travel challenges us in unique, difficult and beautiful ways, forcing us to question our own beliefs and behaviors and world view.
How can you adequately measure and explain qualities, experiences, revelations, rewarding struggles, emotions, and memories from travels...
Having visited 30 countries, and plan travel for a living, I get asked this all the time, "what is your favorite country?"
As I don’t believe in generic, blanketed statements – after all, if you ask ten people their favorite anything you will probably get nine or ten different answers. We built Sapphire & Elm on completely personal and unique travel recommendations for this very reason. No two people are alike, their vacations shouldn't be either.
I’m happy to abide in giving an answer and then follow my list up with a necessary explanation of why these countries make the top of my favorite travel experiences, trying to bring in some perspective and undo the one-size-fits-all statement.
Guatemala has a special alchemy of authenticity that comes from being a rarely visited country, incredible rolling lush forests framing lakes and rivers, romantic colonial towns, and thrilling adventures.
I'm sure you agree that it's painful to see the country suffering in the wake of the eruption of Volcán de Fuego, so I would like to discuss two important issues;
One is that it would be most kind of you to donate to any number of credible organizations. For your convenience, I've linked a few at the end of this article.
Second, is that I want to hit reset on the images of Guatemala being shown in the media.
For travel and tourism, image is everything, and right now, I worry that most people's only interaction and awareness of Guatemala is intertwined with images of smoke-filled streets caked in debris, emergency workers helping fearful and panicked people, bleak and dirty town. This is not Guatemala.
While it's easy to know this on a rational and logical level, visuals and emotions are what drive behavior, and once Guatemala is ready, it will need tourism dollars in order to rebuild stronger than it was the day before Volcán de Fuego erupted.
For this reason, I felt called to share a different side of Guatemala than the one of destruction created by the volcano's eruptions. I am called to share the side of Guatemala I know and fell in love with; it's vibrancy, charm, tranquility and adventures.
Here are 14 reasons why I fell in love with Guatemala, and hopefully why you will too.
The ancient Mayan citadel of Tikal in the rainforest of northern Guatemala, is a massive complex of which only 15% has been uncovered. It's truly other worldly, so much so it was featured in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope.
Find fresh fruits, clothing, accessories, home goods and more in the organized chaos of markets around Guatemala, especially Chichicastenango market, or "ChiChi" for short.
Antigua, Guatemala is a charming UNESCO-Protected Spanish colonial town nestled between three volcanoes, known for it’s walkable cobbled streets.
4. Vibrant Colors
From clothing to fruits to buildings, Guatemala is full of vibrant color, a sure way to bring joy to your day!
5. Relaxing Lakes
Guatemala is not known for their beaches, which is probably a major reason why this special country often gets overlooked for vacations. Yet, Guatemala does features some pretty remarkable, relaxing lakes including Lake Atitlan (a home away from home for me), and Lake Petén Itzá (pictured).
6. Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is stunning! Hike up to the viewpoint, then back down to the terraced pools. Spend the day swimming, cave exploring, cliff and bridge jumping, and floating down the river in tubes.
Guatemala is home to several active volcanoes including the now notorious Volcán de Fuego, Spanish for Volcano of Fire. Appropriate. I had the pleasure of watching several eruptions during my time here.
Please note: Due to the recent eruption of Volcán de Fuego, it is not recommended to go to the remote towns around Antigua and Guatemala City right now. At this time, your money donations and other efforts (see below) are worth more than your presence as first responders and non-profits work to clean up the area and care for people. But starting within the next few months, your valuable tourist dollars will a bring much needed influx to the Guatemalan economy.
*UPDATED (August): Less than three months after the eruption, the few areas that were impacted by the volcanic eruption are ready and awaiting tourism. It is safe, and encouraged to travel around.
Guatemala is a top producer of coffee world wide. You can enjoy incredible cups of coffee at the many cafes in Antigua and Guatemala City.
Often overlooked for it’s neighbors - Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica, Guatemala offers incredible destinations with very, very few tourists. Leaving nothing but the feeling of serenity and authenticity.
Where Mayan and Spanish cultures collide, leaving awe inspiring ruins in the wake.
11. Wonderful Value
Guatemala is by no means cheap - we'll never recommend or promote cheap things, because.... you get what you pay for. Instead, we believe in focusing on the value and not cost. Meals, accommodations, transportation and other goods are a great value here especially when compared to Costa Rica, Belize, or Hawaii.
12. Close, especially for Americans
Although close in distance, it seems like a world away. Guatemala feels almost hidden in plain sight, sandwiched between famous next door neighbors Mexico and Belize, and Costa Rica a bit further south. A non-stop flight to Guatemala City is roughly only 2.5 hours from Atlanta and 4 hours from Los Angeles. And since Guatemala is on CST Time Zone, you won't feel any jet lag.
13. Learn or Practice Your Spanish
Yes, while all Spanish speaking countries are a wonderful place to learn or practice Spanish, there not all created equal. Spanish spoken in Guatemala is slightly slower than other Spanish-speaking countries, to it's easier to pick up. Additionally, the slang is more in line with other countries. Countries with the most difficult Spanish are Argentina and Chile.
14. Street Food
You've got to try all the fresh fruits, tacos, liquidos (fruit smoothies), tamales, kak ik (traditional turkey soup) pollo pepian (a chicken and pumpkin dish), pupusas (stuffed tortillas), and more.
Three ways you can help the Guatemala volcano victims:
Even once the news of the volcano's destruction has stopped appearing in headlines, it's still crucial to help Guatemala any way we can. Just because it's out of sight, hopefully it won't be out of mind nor heart.
How to help:
1. Donate to any number of credited organizations, including but not limited to:
- Red Cross or to the Guatemala branch directly, Cruz Roja Guatemalteca.
- One of the verified GoFundMe Campaigns. Personally, I donated to Eruption Guatemala Longterm Aid as I was attracted to the idea of "long-term aid", and I met the owner of Ecofiltro in Antigua last year.
- World Vision
- World Central Kitchen
- Catholic Relief Services
Please remember that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Even $10 or $20 can do a lot of good.
2. Visit Guatemala
Your tourism dollars while in Guatemala will help revitalize the economy so that the country is stronger than ever before.
3. Spread the word
Share campaigns you've donated to, tell your friends about how to help, or share a pretty picture or article like this one portraying Guatemala in a different light.