Guatemala ’s rugged mountains and jungle plains make for some extraordinary hiking opportunities for those wanting to get off the well-trodden path. Adding a human element to these hikes is the fact that many are guided by local Mayan people.
You’ll have the chance to stay in basic accommodations with Mayan families along the way, thus contributing directly to their economic well-being and greatly enhancing the cross-cultural experience.
If you’re up for the challenge of scaling Central America’s highest volcano, then 4,220-meter Tajumulco Volcano  is right up your alley. It’s very close to the Mexican border and accessible from Quetzaltenango , where a few outfitters now make the challenging ascent with some regularity.
From here it’s also possible to hike east to Lake Atitlán  via old mountain paths through cloud forests, grasslands, and river valleys, passing Mayan villages along the way. This hike requires three days and ends in the pleasant lakeside village of San Pedro La Laguna .
There are also several excellent treks leaving from the town of Nebaj , in El Quiché department’s Ixil Triangle. Perhaps the most popular adventure hike from here is a three-day Nebaj–Todos Santos trek across the Cuchumatanes, where you’ll encounter Andean scenery the likes of grassy plains strewn with rocky boulders in addition to Mam-speaking indigenous peoples herding sheep and llamas.
Other overnight hikes from Nebaj lead west to picturesque lagoons near an area known as Las Majadas or to the villages of Xeo and San Juan Cotzal . Many hikers favor this route for the chance to get up-close with the local culture in seldom-visited Mayan villages.
While plenty of folks, including cruise-ship day-trippers, check out the waterfalls near Cerro San Gil and Río Las Escobas , the more adventurous among you can enjoy multiday treks in this area, which is part of the Montañas del Mico chain. You’ll trek deep into the heart of this forested mountain and make a steep descent to the banks of a jungle river on the other side.
The trek heads across rainforest trails to the highest part of the mountain and a radio tower known as Cumbre las Torres. It continues to the jungle settlement of Carboneras before finally ending up along the Río Dulce on the other side of the mountain.
The rainforest here is the real deal, receiving Guatemala’s greatest amounts of yearly precipitation. Contact local conservation group FUNDAECO (tel. 7948-4404, www.fundaeco.org.gt ) if you’re up for the challenge.
Some of the best hiking anywhere in Guatemala, and Central America for that matter, can be found in the Sierra de Las Minas Biosphere Reserve . Several trails wind through this remote wilderness, allowing the opportunity to spot Guatemala’s national bird, the quetzal, and explore its unique cloud forest habitat. Starting in the village of San Rafael Chilascó , hook up with the local community tourism cooperative for hikes to nearby El Salto de Chilascó , one of Central America’s highest waterfalls.
There are many adventure hiking opportunities in The Maya Biosphere Reserve , the most hard-core being the two-day hike  from the village of Carmelita to the ruins of El Mirador  through knee-deep mud along swampy terrain surrounded by tropical forest. The rewards for the intrepid are well worth it, with the opportunity to explore the largest and highest pre-Columbian structures in the New World, the temple complexes of El Tigre and La Danta, with bases the size of three football fields.
Other recommended treks include hiking from the ruins of El Zotz  to Tikal  and Tikal to Yaxhá . There are also good opportunities near the village of Poptún , in southern Petén, available through the excellent area jungle lodges . Poptún sits at a comfortably higher altitude than the rest of Petén and offers an interesting mix of ecosystems, including the mountain pine ridge (which extends into neighboring Belize). The presence of caves also characterizes this karst land area.