If you ask any of the backpackers who got the chance to explore Central America about their favorite destination, I am sure many would say Guatemala!
There are many reasons why backpacking in Guatemala is a rewarding experience. First of all, it’s less crowded than other parts of Central America, for example, tourist-filled Costa Rica. Secondly, Guatemala has a bit of everything: from dense jungles and emerald-green lakes to vibrant colonial cities and ancient Mayan ruins.
I did not expect much from Guatemala before going, but it somehow ended up being my favorite destination on the Central America Gringo Trail.
Why go backpacking in Guatemala
Landscapes. Guatemala’s impressive landscapes are one of the main reasons why backpackers are crazy about this destination. The rainforests in Petén and the Central Highlands are incredible and definitely worth visiting. Guatemala also features a string of volcanoes and the ones you can climb are situated near Guatemala City and Antigua.
Mayan sites. Archeology buffs will be happy to hear that Guatemala is home to hundreds of Mayan ruins ranging from the impressive pyramids of Yaxhá which sit on a beautiful lake to the Quiriguá ruins where unique stone carvings also known as stelae can be found. There is also El Mirador site which is located close to the border with Mexico and offers spectacular views from one of the world’s largest pyramids.
Tikal. It is one of the largest Mayan sites in Central America and basically looks like something you would see in an Indiana Jones film. Expect to see magnificent palaces and pyramids, as well as many other Mayan ruins. I climbed to the top of Pyramid 4 and the views of the national park from there were breathtaking.
Lake Atitlan. If Lonely Planet describes Lake Atitlan as “‘the closest thing to Eden on Earth”, then it really must be something special. The lake is surrounded by seven picturesque Mayan villages, each offering something unique and special. It’s really a peaceful place to visit and get away from it all. However, you won’t be bored here, as there are countless things to do like hiking up surrounding volcanoes, taking back-strap weaving classes, paddleboarding, and exploring the indigenous villages around the lake.
Guatemala itinerary 3 weeks
Backpackers who wish to explore every nook and cranny of Guatemala should set aside at least 3 weeks for this exotic travel adventure. This will give you enough time to experience all the cool sites without being in a hurry.
The 3-week itinerary starts in Flores, a small town that is best-known as a base for exploring the ancient ruins in Tikal that are located just a short drive away. There is not much to do in Flores apart from kayaking the lake and exploring the nearby village of Santa Elena. However, I liked the town’s friendly vibe and the fact that it is quite easy to find experienced and professional guides who can take you to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal.
Tikal is definitely one of those places that are not to be missed when backpacking through Guatemala. Wander through the jungle and explore the site’s five main temples. To experience Tikal without hordes of tourists around you, I suggest visiting as early as possible.
The next stop is the small fishing village of Livingston. It is home to a large settlement of Garifuna people and offers a perfect opportunity to mingle with the locals and learn a bit more about the Mayan culture. If your idea of having a good time includes chilling on a picturesque beach, I suggest going on a day trip to the nearby Playa Blanca.
Make your way to Semuc Champey which is located in the densely forested mountains of Alta Verapaz. Here, you will find six spectacular turquoise pools, as well as an extensive network of watery caves just waiting to be explored. I think it’s best to visit Semuc Champey with a guide who will take you to a couple of interesting secret areas.
Located in the highlands of Guatemala and surrounded by a massive volcano, the next stop is the colonial city of Antigua. It’s a great place to spend a couple of days. Whether you wish to wander down the cobblestone streets which are dotted with colorful buildings, hike one of the nearby volcanoes, or explore attractions such as Santa Catalina Arch and Iglesia de La Merced, there is plenty to do and see here.
There are not many places in the world as beautiful as Lake Atitlan. Surrounded by small villages, this fascinating lake is a favorite hangout spot for many backpackers, hippies, and expats. I heard of many backpackers who weren’t planning to spend much time here, but once they’ve seen the beauty of this place, decided to stay for a couple of weeks.
The city of Xela is another backpacker hangout that should be in everyone’s travel itinerary. It’s authentic, reasonably priced, and serves as a base for many spectacular hikes. Quetzaltenango (Xela) is also one of the country’s best destinations for studying Spanish, as there are a lot of Spanish schools in the city. However, make sure to book the classes ahead of time. Adventurous backpackers can conquer Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America.
Guatemala itinerary in 10 days
This is an excellent travel itinerary for backpackers who have 1 to 2 weeks to explore Guatemala. It focuses on sights close to Lake Atitlan in the south of Guatemala, minimizing your time needed in transit.
It’s easy to see why Antigua is one of the most popular destinations for backpackers visiting Guatemala. Take a half-day walking tour to learn more about the history of the city and explore its beautifully restored colonial buildings and ruined churches. You will surely notice that the sociable bar scene adds to the appeal of Antigua, while nearby volcanoes such as Acatenango and Pacaya are ideal for hiking.
Renting a scooter is one of the best ways to visit the small villages and coffee plantations around the city and admire spectacular views of various volcano landscapes. However, for the best views of the city, I suggest paying a visit to my favorite city viewpoint, Cerro de La Cruz which is located on the outskirts of the city.
After you’ve experienced all of Antigua’s charms, it’s time to visit Lake Atitlan and the fabulous small villages that surround this picturesque lake. The main village here is Panajachel, which is a great base to discover the other villages thanks to its connection to the main road. Here, you will find many accommodation options.
The village of San Pedro is quite popular with backpackers who wish to party, while Santa Cruz and San Marcos are ideal for backpackers who wish to enjoy some peace. Adventurous backpackers can hike up the San Pedro Volcano, but keep in mind that the hike takes about 6 hours.
If you’re still itching to see Tikal and hoping to fit it into your route, consider flying there and back from Guatemala City to cap off your adventure.
Recommended hostels in Guatemala
Super cozy, in a colonial house with leafy courtyard. Both dorms and B&B-style options.
Hostel doubling as an agency for volcano hiking or mountainbiking tours. Good place to make friends.
Amazing hostel on the island with tropical garden
$ Semuc Champey
Cute riverside hostel with private bungalows. Loved staying here. Try the wood-fired sauna hut, then cool off in the river.
$ Lake Atitlan (San Pedro)
Mr Mullet’s Hostel
Both dorms and private rooms in San Pedro’s most popular hostel.
$ Lake Atitlan (Panajachel)
Hospedaje El Viajero
Lovely guesthouse on the main road in Panajachel, just a short walk from the lake.
Amazing places to go in Guatemala
Epic Mayan ruins of Tikal
A visit to the Mayan ruins of Tikal is one of the highlights when exploring Guatemala. This stunning Mayan archeological site is located in the middle of a protected jungle where it’s not that uncommon to cross paths with animals like macaws and monkeys.
As I mentioned before, the best time to visit the ruins is early at 6 am when the gates open. The sunrise views here can be amazing, but it all depends on the weather and if it’s cloudy or not.
As for the accommodation, you can either camp near the grounds of Tikal or search for accommodation in the park (which can be expensive). Travelers visiting Tikal on a budget can consider booking a room in the nearby town of Flores which is located a 45-60 minute drive in a shuttle bus from the site.
You can visit Tikal with or without a guide. Travelers can also download the free Tikal audio guide which is informative and convenient.
Tip: Tikal is the best-known archeological site, but if you’d rather visit Mayan ruins deeper in the jungle, consider the temples of Yaxha. Los Amigos Hostel in Flores (among others) organizes excursions to this less-known site.
The colonial town of Antigua
Antigua is a popular destination for many backpackers. Here, you will see magnificent volcanoes in the background, incredible architecture, and colorful streets dotted with lowrise buildings.
Visit the Museum Casa del Tejido Antiguo where you will find a whole range of embroidery, go for a walk through the local food markets, and check out the El Tiburoncin area to try local seafood delicacies. Many backpackers visit Antigua to hike the famous Acatenango Volcano.
Stunning Lake Atitlan
It feels like there are no words to describe the natural beauty of Lake Atitlan and its surrounding villages. From the sleepy villages of Santa Cruz and San Marcos to the vibrant Panajachel and San Pedro which is popular with backpackers, there are many excellent destinations to discover while exploring the lake.
If you wish to find solitude and get away from it all, I suggest spending a couple of nights in Santiago Atitlán and San Antonio Palopó where life is unhurried with not much going on.
Mountain city of Xela (Quetzaltenango)
Xela is one of those places that you just have to visit when traveling through Guatemala. It’s an ideal base for volcano hikes and houses many Spanish schools where backpackers go to learn the language.
What I love about this city is that it’s a lot cheaper than Antigua and you can find reasonably priced accommodation and delicious foods on every corner. Wander around the Parque Centro América, the central square or explore the Natural History Museum which houses many ancient Mayan objects.
Central America’s highest peak
Easily reachable from Xela, Tajamulco volcano is the highest peak in Central America and a place that offers the most amazing views ever. I have to say that hiking up to this volcano was my most memorable experience in Guatemala. Since I decided to hike up Tajamulco at night, I was greeted with magnificent sunrise views from the summit in the morning.
Azure limestone pools of Semuc Champey
If visiting dozens of breathtaking azure limestone pools in the jungle sounds like something you might want to experience, Semuc Champey should definitely find its place on your Guatemala travel bucket list.
There are also many caves in the area that you can explore with local guides who are knowledgeable about the area. Wish to spend the night here? No problem. The nearby town boasts many accommodation options ranging from bungalows to riverside hostels for backpackers.
Markets of Chichicastenango
In the small indigenous Mayan town of Chichicastenango lies one of the largest markets in Central America. The market is held every Thursday and Sunday, a time when many locals from other villages travel to Chichicastenango to sell their products.
Even if you’ve seen your share of markets in your travels, this may still be one of the biggest you’ll see. It’s chaotic, easy to get lost in, but somehow inviting at the same time. There are thousands of stalls at the market where locals are selling everything from fresh produce and cute handicrafts to colorful textiles and wood carvings.
Lake island of Flores
Connected to the mainland by a short causeway, Flores is a picturesque town where many backpackers who wish to visit the nearby Tikal National Park come to spend the night. Compared to other towns in the area, I can freely say that Flores feels more upscale and has a wider range of restaurants, bars, and hotels to choose from.
Backpackers who wish to try cool local foods can order thick corn tortillas which are called Pupusas here in Flores. In case you are feeling adventurous but have already paid a visit to Tikal, my suggestion is to visit the nearby Ixpanpajul Natural Park or Petencito Zoo.
Carribean town of Livingston
What makes Livingston a great town is that it’s much different from other places in Guatemala. It’s a melting pot of gringos, Garifuna, and Latinos where spectacular beaches are just a short drive away and where local food delicacies such as tapado (seafood stew in a coconut broth) and pan de coco (coco bread) can be found. I enjoyed Garifuna drumming and dancing performances, as well as the nearby waterfalls of Los Siete Altares.
Is Guatemala safe to visit?
Guatemala is safe to visit, but taking precautions is always recommended. Minor crime like bag-snatching and pickpocketing is possible.
The capital Guatemala City, in particular, requires some extra caution. I remember seeing two travelers using their smartphones on the steps just in front of a hotel and a guard immediately came up going “whoa, whoa, don’t show your smartphone like that”. In Antigua, locals told me to avoid the viewpoints after sunset when robberies are known to occur.
It’s always a good idea to ask locals (like your guesthouse or hostel staff) for some safety advice. Have a look at these 6 safety tips for Central America as well.
Even though Guatemala has problems with crime, it isn’t dangerous if you travel responsibly. If you are wondering what are the safest places to visit, popular tourist sites like Lake Atitlan and Antigua first come to mind.
Here a couple of safety tips:
- Don’t flash your valuables
- Travel during daytime
- Use a reliable bus/tour company
- Learn some Spanish
- Hike in larger groups
Got travel insurance?
With travel insurance, you’ll be covered for any medical expenses, theft, personal liability, cancellation, and more.
Travel costs in Guatemala
Guatemala used to be super cheap, but much has changed over the last 10 years. It’s not that it’s expensive, but it’s clearly not as cheap as it once was.
Expect to pay around $10 for a dorm bed in a hostel and around $25 for a private room. Guatemalan guest houses are also a good option for budget travelers.
As for transportation, the cheapest way to get around is in the colorful chicken buses. A one hour ride should not cost you over $1. If you are traveling between Antigua and Flores, it’s normal to pay around $30 for a seat on a coach bus.
Local food on the street is really cheap and you can have a decent meal for $3. Local eateries are called comedores and also serve reasonably priced foods. When it comes to tourist restaurants, they can be expensive and you might end up paying the same amount of cash as you would at a typical restaurant in the US.
Practical tips for Guatemala
Best time to visit
The most popular time to visit Guatemala is during the dry season in December and January. However, this is a time when prices are higher and popular sites and attractions are crowded with tourists. To beat the crowds and get fair deals on tours and accommodation, I suggest visiting in April or early May which is the end of the dry season and the weather is still nice.
How to get around
Buses are the most convenient option to travel in Guatemala. Locals use the chicken buses which are actually those old American school buses. However, they stop quite often, are not comfortable, and can get dicey on sharp turns.
Most tourist destinations can be reached with private shuttle buses that cater to many travelers. If you want to experience some comfort and air-conditioning but are willing to pay a lot more than a ticket on a chicken bus, these shuttle buses can come in handy.
Where to travel next
Wondering where to travel next and how to reach that destination? Here are a couple of options.
How to get to Roatan or Utila from Guatemala
There is a Trans-land shuttle service that offers a direct bus line from Antigua in Guatemala to La Ceiba in Honduras. Once you reach Ceiba, you can take a ferry on the same day to both Roatan and Utila.
How to get to Belize / Caye caulker from Guatemala
How to travel to San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico
The easiest way to reach San Cristobal in Mexico from Guatemala is by taking a bus to the border. Once you pass the border, get on the connecting shuttle which will take you to San Cristobal.