Yes, Guatemala is full of memorable adventures, but AFAR photo director Tara Guertin was taken by much, much more.

1. It’s a living, breathing kaleidoscope: The year I spent backpacking through South America, every­where I went people raved about Guatemala. But I ran out of money before I could get there. When I finally visited this year, I was struck by how vibrant everything was: the greens of the highlands, the ochres and reds of the buildings in the city of Antigua (pictured above), and the hues of the textiles, which change from village to village.

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2. So much culture: In Santa María de Jesús, girls in full regalia passed by as everyone streamed toward a festival in the main square. And at the biggest market in the country, Chichicastenango, the labyrinth-like passageways were lined with stalls selling handicrafts and street food.

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3. There’s epic, under-the-radar surfing: I wanted to hit the surf spots that are popping up on the Pacific Coast’s black sand beaches. In El Paredón, a tiny town with pigs and chickens everywhere, I stayed in a bungalow on the sand at the Paredón Surf House.

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4. You’ll find insane deals: One great surprise on the trip was that, for $250 or so, you could get a room that would be $500 to $1,000 anywhere else. Casa Palopó (pictured), for instance, is a wonderfully romantic resort overlooking Lake Atitlán and a trio of volcanos. And in Antigua, my palatial room at Mesón Panza Verde had a view over the courtyard restaurant, where my boyfriend and I listened to a musician play the tres cubano, a type of guitar.

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5. You can’t see it all in one go: Before my flight home, over a cocktail at the InterContinental in Guatemala City, I made a mental to-do list for my next trip: the white sand beaches on the Caribbean coast and Río Dulce’s crystalline swimming holes.

Photos by Tara Guertin. How are you not following her on Instagram yet? 

This appeared in the June/July 2015 issue.