Raft through the Mayan Civilization

For such a small country, Guatemala has more to see than you could imagine. The landscape features a wide range of environments, from the cool highlands to the tropical jungles. Scattered in the jungle and along the coast, you’ll find exciting whitewater rivers, deep and mysterious caves and the surreal ruins of the ancient Mayans who once inhabited this region.

Guatemala is best known for its Mayan ruins and its tropical environments. However, few people realize that approximately a third of Guatemala has been declared a protected area as a result of either the cultural significance or its biodiversity. Complementing the numerous species of flora and fauna, there is an incredible and diverse culture which has developed from both indigenous and Spanish influences. Whether you’re interested in the unique environments or the rich and varied culture, Guatemala is worth the trip.

Guatemala Shack


Guatemala Whitewater Rafting

Our Guatemala adventure begins in Guatemala City, located a little south of the center of this beautiful country. The whitewater in Guatemala is sought after by adventure-seekers worldwide, with exhilarating rivers such as the Coyolate, Nahualate and the Cahabón. The Class III-IV whitewater is surrounded by dense jungles, remote hot springs and picturesque waterfalls. We’ll go spelunking through the mysterious Kamba Caves, using only a candle for navigation and visit Lanquin Caves, a natural habitat for thousands of bats. At Semuc Champey, we’ll swim through the stepped turquoise pools which sit on top of a natural land bridge over the Cahabón River.

In-between these other-worldly eco-adventures, we’ll visit the Mayan ruins for which Guatemala is famous. In Yaxhá, we’ll take advantage of the less crowded ruins to intimately explore the buildings, statues, and monuments which yield an insider’s view to the Mayan culture. Guatemala’s best-preserved Mayan ruins are located a short distance from Yaxhá at Tikal, where we’ll discover the massive temples and beautiful causeways of this ancient city.


Climate and Geography

Guatemala is located just south of Mexico and to the northwest of El Salvador and Honduras; the Pacific Ocean sits to the southwest, and it is mostly bordered by Belize on the east. The country is located entirely within the tropics, but the two mountain chains which run through much of the country create a variety of climate regions and ecosystems as a result of elevation differences.

The three main regions in Guatemala are the highlands in the mountains, the southern coastal area along the Pacific Ocean and the Petén lowlands north of the mountains. In the highlands, the upper elevations create a cool, sometimes damp climate; in the coastal and the Petén lowlands, the climate tends to be warm, humid and often rainy.

The wide range of elevations and resulting climates have created 14 distinct ecoregions in Guatemala, including mangrove forests, wetlands and rainforests. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Guatemala is the fifth biodiversity hotspot in the world, with over 1200 recorded species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

Guatemala Isla De Flores


History of Guatemala: Mayans, Conquest and Independence

The earliest human settlements date back to approximately 6,500 B.C., with groups of people living throughout both the lowlands and the highlands. The best-known early settlers are the Mayans, who inhabited the region from approximately 2,000 B.C. Many current archeologists believe the Mayans formed the first politically organized state in the Americas, with 26 cities connected by a network of paved stucco pathways. In addition, the Mayans were well-connected through trade routes with other civilizations throughout Central America. The Mayan civilization fell around 900 A.D.; the current popular theory is a massive drought in the region decimated the civilization’s food supplies.

Guatemala Locals


Guatemala Rafting Waterfall

After the fall of the Mayan civilization, many different groups of native people established kingdoms throughout Central America, including the Kaqchikel and K’iche’ nations. When the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in 1525, he subdued these indigenous groups in a progressive war. His fight was made easier by the diseases his men introduced to the native people, his technical advantage, and excellent war strategies. Central America was ruled by the Spanish until 1821, when the First Mexican Empire gained independence. Subsequently, Guatemala gained full independence in the 1840s.

Over the next century, the country experienced a series of democratic and military governments; numerous violent conflicts ensued. In particular, the country was ravaged by a lengthy civil war from 1960-1996. Today, Guatemala has made significant strides in creating a stable government and economy.


Guatemala’s Culture

The rich history of Guatemala’s people has left its mark on the nation’s culture, with seven common languages; only 60% of the people speak Spanish in the home, while 40% still speak in their indigenous language. Mestizo citizens (descendants of both indigenous and Spanish ancestors) and White European descendants make up the majority of the population. There are also a number of recognized indigenous ethnic groups, with the largest groups being the K’iche’ and the Kaqchikel.

The numerous indigenous groups have greatly influenced the food, music, and craftsmanship of the country. There are 22 “departments” in Guatemala, and each is well known for a distinct food variety: Antigua, for example, is well-known for their excellent candy using local ingredients. The Mayan people are well-known for their bright and colorful yarn-based textiles; the tradition of weaving is beautifully unique, as each village has its own distinctive pattern.

Guatemala Castillo San Felipe


Why choose O.A.R.S. for a Guatemala adventure?

O.A.R.S. has been in business for more than 45 years and that is no accident. We thrive on creating adventures that take travelers of all ages and skill levels off the beaten path and away from the crowds to magical landscapes, rivers and coastlines. National Geographic Adventure, Outside and Sunset magazines have proclaimed O.A.R.S. adventures as some of the “Best Trips on the Planet.”

Guatemala Yaxha


Guatemala River

Since 1969, O.A.R.S. has provided exceptional adventures to travelers of all ages and abilities; our foremost goal is to create trips full of adventure and life-long memories. With our extensive travel experience, we take the guesswork and headaches out of international travel, thus allowing you to enjoy your vacation to its fullest extent. For our World Rivers series of international rafting trips, we’ve partnered with long-time O.A.R.S. partner and co-founder of Sobek Expeditions, John Yost. John organized the first descents of many of the most renowned whitewater rivers of the world and he will personally escort all of our World Rivers adventures. Additionally, we believe it is a fundamental part of adventure-tourism to work with local guides while at the same time bringing our wealth of experience to the table. These local tour guides share their personal experiences as well as general information about the area and our like-minded partners in Guatemala realize they are accountable to O.A.R.S. high standards, so you can rest assured you will be in be in good hands. We hope you can join us for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Guatemala.

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