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Guatemala represents an intriguing mix for visitors. It is a diverse country with landscape that ranges from lush tropical rainforest in the northern lowlands, where some of the most spectacular Mayan archaeological sites (including Tikal) are found, to the pineforested hills of the Highlands, which are home to Mayan communities that still wear their traditional weavings. Guatemala has around 21 different ethnic groups, such as the Cakchiquels, Mams, Quichés and Tzutujils speaking some 23 languages (21 of Mayan origin; the other two are Garifuna and Xinca).

While the country’s political heart is found in the capital, Guatemala City, more attractive still is the former colonial capital, Antigua Guatemala, which is saturated with the ruins of old convents and churches and surrounded by majestic volcanoes – some still active – that are good for hiking and climbing. The Caribbean (with its fishing communities of Afro-Caribbean heritage) and Pacific coastlines offer good fishing, swimming and boating opportunities, as do the beautiful lakes of Atitlán and Izabal. Guatemala also has unspoiled tracts of virgin rainforest (protected in a network of national parks), spectacular waterfalls and underground caves (such as those in the Verapaz region).

For the purposes of this section, the country has been divided into seven regions: Central Guatemala, Petén, Verapaz Region, Caribbean Coast, Eastern Guatemala, Pacific Coast and the Highlands.

Central Guatemala

Visitors from overseas not landing at the international airport at Flores (for connections to Tikal), land at la Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. Other than being the primary urban centre in the country, Guatemala City is ideally positioned for visitors wishing to make the short journey by road to la Antigua Guatemala, situated 45km (28 miles away).

Guatemala City

There were three attempts to establish a capital before Guatemala City was founded in 1775. The first colonial settlement, called Santiago de los Caballeros Guatemala, was built in 1524 by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado close to the Cakchiquel settlement of Iximché (near the present day town of Tecpán). After continuing battles with the Cakchiquel warriors, the capital was relocated in 1527 to the Almolonga Valley, near present-day San Miguel Escobar, between the volcanoes Agua and Fuego until an earthquake destroyed it in 1541. A third capital was then established just a few kilometres away on the present site of la Antigua Guatemala in the Panchoy Valley. Established as the new city in 1543, it was decided to retain the name of Santiago while the former (second) capital was referred to as Ciudad Vieja, or Old City. The new capital grew in wealth, size and prestige, surviving a number of earthquakes until 1773, when it was hit by a huge earthquake and eventually abandoned. The capital moved to its present location while the former capital was thereafter known as la Antigua Guatemala or Old Guatemala.

The capital, Guatemala City lies at the edge of a plateau cut by deep ravines in the Valley of the Hermitage. Few colonial buildings remain but the old quarter, with its low colonial houses, is situated in the northern part of the city. The main plaza, Parque Central lies at its heart and is bordered by the National Palace, the Cathedral, the National Library and an arcade of shops. In the south of the city, close to the airport and the national racecourse, are Parque la Aurora, which contains the zoo, the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Ixchel Museum, housing a good collection of handwoven textiles. Other museums with fine collections include the Popol Vuh Museum (a private collection of Mayan and Spanish colonial art) and the National Museum of Modern Art. Some of the most interesting religious buildings (mainly either neo-classical or Baroque) include the 17th-century Hermitage of El Carmen and the churches of La Merced, Santo Domingo, Santuario Expiatorio, Las Capuchinas, Santa Rosa and Capilla de Yurrita (built in the first half of the 20th century).

La Antigua Guatemala

The former capital (originally called Santiago de los Caballeros Guatemala), Antigua is situated southwest of Guatemala City, and was considered to be one of the most splendid cities in Central America before its partial destruction in the earthquake of 1773. Further devastation to many buildings was wreaked in the massive earthquake in 1976 and the town is now a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site. Despite the damage of countless earthquakes, floods and fires, Antigua is a beautiful place of multi-coloured, single-story buildings, tropical gardens, plazas, fountains and cobbled streets. A popular tourist centre, it has several good hotels, restaurants and bookshops with a fairly lively nightlife. Monuments, former palaces, convents and churches that have survived in varying degrees of intactness include the Main Square, Cathedral, Palace of the General Captains, University of San Carlos (containing the Museum of Colonial Art), and the churches of La Merced, Santa Clara, Las Capuchinas, La Recolección and San Francisco. The Casa Santa Domingo is a former convent that is now a smart hotel with two small but fine collections housed in the Colonial and Archaeological museums. The town is particularly busy at Easter time where locals and visitors flock to see the spectacular Easter processions when huge litters bearing religious icons are carried over carpets of flowers and coloured sawdust. Antigua is also one of the main centres for Spanish-language schools in Guatemala.

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