Visitors to Guatemala resorts quickly learn that this country, the most populous in Central America, is a study in contrasts. The capital, Guatemala City, or Guate as it is known, sits in a central high valley nearly 5,000 feet above sea level. It combines a brisk mountain climate with flat terrain for easy walking along streets leading to fascinating historic landmarks. Looking up at the skyline, travellers will see a ring of jagged peaks that includes four volcanoes. They occasionally belch a little red-hot lava, to the delight of local guides who love impressing guests at Guatemala hotels with the fiery show.
Guatemala has known horrific war and now celebrates its hard-won peace. The country suffered through 36 years of brutal civil conflict in which a series of dictators ruthlessly suppressed opposition fighters and dissenting citizens. Many of them "disappeared" and their fate continues to be unknown. The war finished with a peace agreement in 1996, an achievement that is commemorated every morning with a ceremony at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, in Guatemala City's central square; a guard removes a white rose from a sculpture with uplifted arms and gives it to one of the visitors, and in its place he leaves a fresh rose to celebrate another day of peace.
Guests at Guatemala's resorts are spoilt for choice when it comes to seeing a volcano. One of the best and the most accessible is El Pacaya. Three more volcanic peaks can be seen after a 2-mile hike: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. It is also possible to marvel at the interior of the crater of Pacaya, belching columns of boiling steam and, sometimes, lava. A dazzling day trip with less climbing is an excursion to Atitlán Lake, a crater filled with bright blue water that reflects the surrounding mountains and the meadows of wild flowers. Tiny Mayan villages abound along its shoreline, each one with its very own character and style. The village of Panajachel is highly-rated by the tourists from Guatemala's resorts,as it has large shops selling locally produced textiles, ceramics, jewellery and leather goods. And to contemplate the sun setting in the bright blue water of the vast lake is a truly unforgettable experience. Nearby must-see attractions are the El Tzala Waterfall, the views from the La Piedra del Sapo and the Nature Reserve at San Buenaventura, which is very popular with birdwatchers.
Anybody wanting to know just what life was like all those centuries ago will have their wish granted by a visit to the city of Antigua Guatemala. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city boasts excellent examples of 17th and 18th century architecture, in a unique style that uses stucco to embellish both the inside and outside of the buildings. The buildings are sturdy and low-set as the area is prone to earthquakes. There are high arches and deep niches, which look particularly beautiful when they are illuminated at night. Coffee plantations extend all around the old town's environs. Guatemala is the main producer of coffee beans in Central America.