From surfing to retreats where you'll have tidal pools all to yourself, Guatemala's beaches are ready to be explored © Stefan Messing / Getty Images
Guatemala is famous for Mayan culture, mysterious ruins, beautiful cities with cobbled streets, colorful buses, coffee and dramatic volcanoes. What Guatemala is not usually known for, is its beaches.
That doesn’t mean that you have to hop across the border to Mexico, El Salvador, the cayos of Belize or the Bay Islands of Honduras if you want some beach therapy, though. Guatemala has plenty of good spots for you to kick back or explore. With such a great climate, you’ll have more than enough days that are perfect for soaking up the sun.
When you visit Guatemala’s beaches, remember to wear flip flops or sandals. Sandflies are common, and chiggers may be present. Many beaches on the Pacific coast have black sand, and walking across that in the midday heat is not something you want to do barefoot: it’s like walking on lava. While it’s perfectly fine to wear a bikini to the beach, going topless is taboo. Keep an eye on your belongings and don’t bring any valuables to the beach. Keep these practical tips in mind to enjoy the best shorelines that the country has to offer.
Here’s our pick of the 10 best beaches in Guatemala.
It's easy to spend a day on the idyllic white-sand beaches of Guatemala's Playa Blanca © Fredy Estuardo Maldonado / Shutterstock
Best beach for Caribbean vibes
Playa Blanca, Guatemala’s best beach on the Caribbean coast, is about an hour’s boat ride northwest of Lívingston. In fact, the only way to get here is by boat, and the easiest way to do this is to book a tour through a travel agency in Lívingston or Puerto Barrios. The beach is privately owned, so check that your tour includes the price of admission. Many tours also include a stopover at Siete Altares, a series of small waterfalls and natural rock pools set in the jungle just off the coast.
What’s so special about Playa Blanca? The name means “white beach,” and this is exactly what you get: a postcard-picture beach with white sand and lots of coconut palms. The quality of the water depends on the weather. When it’s been raining, the water tends to be murkier. Guatemala’s Caribbean beaches are subject to erosion, so Playa Blanca isn’t very wide. That means that you can get a beer at the on-site restaurant and sit in the shade of a palm tree while the water practically laps at your feet.
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The beaches of Guatemala range from surfing hotspots to coastlines with small fishing communities © Jorge Ortiz / 500px
Playa Punta de Manabique
Best beach for ecotourism
Punta de Manabique is a peninsula some 20km (12.5 miles) north of Puerto Barrios, and it’s a wildlife reserve where the rainforests and mangrove forests are home to mammals like spider monkeys, howler monkeys, jaguars, tapirs and peccaries, as well as green iguanas and more than 300 bird species. In the mangrove swamps, you’ll find manatees and crocodiles while sea turtles come from the ocean to lay their eggs on the beaches. The beaches are long and narrow, with rough seas on the eastern side and calmer waters on the western side.
Playa Punta de Manabique itself is located near the tip of the peninsula, where you’ll also find the small community of Punta de Manabique. The beach is narrow, and the light beige sand is often littered with driftwood and pieces of coral. This coral comes from the nearby coral outcrops, which are the only ones in Guatemala. A long dock provides a starting point from where you can snorkel in the calm waters. Rustic accommodations can be found here as well.
The easiest way to get to Playa Punta de Manabique is to book a trip through a travel agency in Puerto Barrios or Lívingston. If you want to go your own way, you can rent a boat at the public dock in Puerto Barrios.
Playa Amatique Bay
Best beach for the all-inclusive resort experience
With its friendly staff, thoughtful layout so that the pool with water slides doesn’t create noise in the luxurious rooms and plenty of things to do, from horse-riding to beachside massages, Amatique Bay Resort and Marina just outside Puerto Barrios is one of the best all-inclusive beach resorts in Guatemala.
An old stone lighthouse complete with cannons overlooks a private beach where the light-colored sand becomes a soccer field or beach volleyball court when enough people want to play. Run-off from a small creek and the marina means that the water here is quite murky. It’s great for fishing, kayaking and even bobbing around on a giant inflatable banana but not so much for swimming. Still, the sea is calm, and the views are fantastic.
The resort offers a variety of accommodation options and two on-site restaurants. You can get here from Puerto Barrios by taxi.
Best beach for watersports
The name means “golden beach,” and this is indeed the color of the soft sand and tiny pebbles you’ll find at Playa Dorada. Looking at the palm trees, clear water and shade-giving palapas, it’s hard to believe that this beach isn’t on the coast but rather on the southern shore of Lake Izabal, between the villages of Izabal and Mariscos.
The calm water makes this a good swimming beach, but bear in mind that this is one of Guatemala’s most popular weekend spots for enthusiasts of just about anything that can move on water, whether it’s kayaks, jet skis, banana boats or water bikes, which are available for rent. Several restaurants and accommodation options can be found in the village backing the beach.
Playa Las Cristalinas
Best beach for volcano views
Does Guatemala have clear water? In most places, not really: pollution is a problem, and run-off can muddy the waters even more, especially during the rainy season. But in spots, the water is crystal clear most of the time, such as at Playa Las Cristalinas, which means “the crystalline beach.”
Playa Las Cristalinas is one of the best swimming beaches on the shores of Lake Atitlán and by far one of the cleanest. The sand, however, is like fine gravel. The beach’s location in the Guatemalan highlands means that it doesn’t suffer from the uncomfortable heat and humidity of coastal beaches, and it boasts clear views of not one, but three volcanoes.
The beach is about halfway between San Pablo La Laguna and San Juan La Laguna, and you can walk here from either town, take a tuk-tuk or chicken bus, or come by private boat or kayak. A restaurant sells basic fare, such as grilled sandwiches.
Head to Moterrico to see some of the best black sand beaches and sunsets in Guatemala © SL-Photography / Shutterstock
Best beach for watching the sunset
With the lack of beaches in Guatemala City, Monterrico is a favorite with capitalenos (people from the capital) on weekends and during Holy Week, so much so that the more affluent have vacation homes here, even though the town is home to some of the best beach resorts in Guatemala. It’s about a three-hour drive here from the city if you take the route via Iztapa. If you’re up for a true adventure, travel to La Avellana instead and take the ferry along the canals through the natural reserve until you reach Monterrico town: the ferry even transports chicken buses.
The beach at Monterrico is one of the best black-sand beaches in Guatemala. It’s quiet during the week but becomes very busy over weekends and during Holy Week. A particularly good time to be on the beach is around sunset to watch that fiery red ball slowly sink below the horizon without the black sand searing the soles of your feet. Instead of looking out straight across the ocean, turn slightly to your right and you’ll get the setting sun’s reflection in the water as it washes over the beach. You may even get the silhouette of a surfer amidst all those shades of pink, orange and yellow.
During turtle season from June to December, Tortugario Monterrico releases hatchlings into the ocean. You can “adopt” a newly hatched turtle and release it for a fee. However, be aware that visitors handling hatchlings – especially without gloves – is not a good thing because it stresses out the animals and increases the risk of transferring diseases between turtles and humans. Instead, make your donation and let the staff handle the hatchlings instead.
Best beach for sailfishing
Once Guatemala’s principal port until the port at Puerto San José was built some 15km (9.3 miles) up the coast, Iztapa is home to a scenic black-sand beach – really a sandbar – backed by a river flowing parallel to it. There’s some decent surfing to be had, and Iztapa is a great place from where to go whale-watching. But fishing is the main attraction. Iztapa is one of the best Pacific beaches in Guatemala – and one of the best spots in the world – for sailfishing. World records for sailfishing have been set here and those in the know say that on average, you can catch between 15 and 25 sailfish in a day.
The town has good tourist infrastructure with good hotels and resorts to choose from. Several of these cater to anglers and can arrange fishing trips for you.
Best beach for surfing
With its dirt streets and thatch-roofed houses, the tiny town of El Paredón looks like your typical laid-back beach town. Like so many of Guatemala’s Pacific beaches, this beach has dark sand and quite a slope down to the water. In recent years, however, the secret got out. If you’re looking for the best beach resorts in Guatemala that cater specifically to surfers, El Paredón is the place to find them.
Despite the fact that you can get to El Paredón by tourist shuttle direct from Antigua, the vibe in town remains decidedly laid-back. Wi-fi is spotty on good days, but on bad days, you can forget about cybersurfing.
The surf’s up in the real world anyway, and El Paredón offers something for every level of surfer. The waves are consistent throughout the year and they tend not to be crowded. Surfing is such an integral part of the lifestyle here that just about every hotel offers boards for rent and, if they don’t offer surfing classes themselves, they can arrange these for you with one of the surf schools in town. If you want to do something different, Sipacate-Naranjo National Park is just to the west of town too. Here you can laze on the sandy beach or explore the mangroves and lagoons. More than 90 bird species can be found in the park, and you may also see both freshwater and sea turtles.
The beaches of Sipacate and El Paredón offer some of the best surfing in Guatemala © Chrispictures / Shutterstock
Best beach for variety
A quick boat ride from El Paredón but more than an hour away by road, Sipacate is a great alternative to El Paredón if you want something a little less sleepy. While still a small town, it offers more accommodations and dining options. With consistent waves throughout the year, Sipacate is one of the best surfing beaches in Guatemala, no matter what your skill level. If you need a break from the surf breaks, Sipacate is just the place for you. The canals behind the beach are great for kayaking, standup paddle boarding and birdwatching.
Best beach off the beaten track
Want to avoid the tourist crowds? Playa Tilapa in the fishing village of Tilapa, only a few miles south of the Mexican border, is far enough off the beaten track that you might have the wide beach and tidal pools all to yourself. Accommodation options are limited, but you’ll come across plenty of decent places to eat. Local fishermen may also be willing to sell you some of the day’s catch.
A series of canals and the Río Naranjo make it impossible to walk from the village itself to the beach, so you need to take a boat from the municipal boat dock, where boat owners are waiting for passengers. The trip along the mangroves takes about 10 minutes. There’s a beach cabin for rent and a handful of restaurants just beyond the beach.