Jungles of history
Mayan pyramids lost in jungles, witch towns, moonshine-drinking saints – nothing else is like stunningly beautiful and surreal Guatemala, the first country south of Mexico. It’s certainly Central America’s go-to spot for adventure and peeks into pre-Colombian civilizations (still going strong). In its northeast plains, Tikal is the Mayan world’s greatest attraction – climb a pyramid at sunrise to watch the mist rising over the jungle as howler monkeys scream at the sun. The bulk of visitors split their time between Tikal and the highlands northwest of Guatemala City. There, cone-shaped volcanoes and cartoon-like mountains look over Antigua, one of Central America’s most beloved destinations – with hacienda B&Bs and dozens of cheap Spanish-language schools. Nearby are Chichicastenango’s famed twice-weekly traditional market in an area where pagan rites are still observed and village-lined Lake Atitlán, made from a collapsed volcano cone. Farther north, colonial Quetzaltenango is a quieter Spanish-school hub, located near hot springs and local markets. Brace yourself for some bumps along the way. Other than the $125 flight from Guatemala City to Flores (near Tikal), you can rent drivers or take the legendary "chicken buses," retired U.S. school buses painted in bright colors and stuffed with (yes, chicken-bearing) locals speaking Tzotzil and K'iche' – and, hey, a little Spanish too.