The love for Guatemala seems nearly unanimous amongst backpackers in Central America. Ask anyone who’s followed the Central American ‘gringo trail’ which country was their favorite and, I’m not kidding, their answer will usually be Guatemala. While I had no expectations going in, it ended up being quite possibly my favorite country too.
While Mexico and Costa Rica are the more popular destinations in the region (both attracting more mainstream tourism), Guatemala can feel a bit more like an authentic adventure. It’s a vibrant, colourful land, with beautiful colonial architecture, ancient Mayan cities, spectacular rainforest scenery and stunning lakes. It can make for a great single-country trip, though also combines particularly well with Belize and southeast Mexico into one itinerary.
Why you should go
- Astounding natural beauty. Guatemala has it all: giant lakes, lava-oozing volcanos, dense jungles, fertile green valleys, and huge mountains all begging to be explored. As soon as I made it into Guatemala from neighboring Honduras the change was immediate and dramatic: this is a country where you will often want to stop to admire the view.
- Traditional ways of life. It’s common to see locals wear traditional clothes, and the colorful ‘Chicken Buses’ (converted and repainted US school buses) are like a national symbol. Some places can be pretty chaotic (markets especially) which adds to the charm.
- A place for outdoor adventurers. Whether it’s going on jungle treks in the north, hiking volcanoes in the south, or caving, swimming or tubing around the azure waterfalls of Semuc Champey, Guatemala is the perfect destination for the active traveller.
- Home to the most impressive Mayan archeological site. The epic ruins of Tikal are almost worth coming to Guatemala for alone. It’s a huge Mayan site in the middle of the jungle that, unlike more heavily exploited archeological sites elsewhere, manages to retain its mystique.
- Inexpensive. Guatemala is a very affordable and backpacker-friendly destination. Along with Nicaragua, it’s the cheapest you will find in the region.
Traditional clothing at a fiesta in San Miguel Chicaj
The map below shows some of the main destinations in Guatemala (though there are quite a few others, of course).
Many of Guetamala’s main destinations are crammed together just west of the capital. It’s actually impossible to easily fit them all on an overview map! The colonial town of Antigua is a huge tourist draw. Further west is Lake Atitlan, which has several towns around its edges that are visited by many backpackers (including the towns of Panajachel and San Pedro). Further west still is the city of Quetzaltenango, which is also known by the name of Xela. It is primarily a great base from which to go hiking or volcano climbing. The whole Guatemalan highlands area is filled with impressive volcanoes.
The Carribean side of Guatemala is much less visited and you’ll find fewer people heading into Livingston or El Estor, so consider these locations to be somewhat off the tourist trail. The town of Copan, just over the border into Honduras, it a popular waypoint heading east into the rest of Central America, and sees some day trippers from Guatemala as well. Note that the tiny Mayan ruins of Copan are not comparable to the sheer grandure of Tikal.
In the north you’ll mainly find the lake town of Flores and the nearby Mayan ruins of Tikal. Those on a regional trip usually come to Flores by bus from Mexico or Belize. (There are also speedboat connections from Belize into a port near Livingston.)
Don’t miss Semuc Champey in the middle of Guatemala. You can read more about this wonderful place further below!
Tips for visiting Tikal
Tikal is easily the most breathtaking Mayan archeological site in Central America. While Chichen Itza in Mexico is more famous internationally (and more heavily marketed due to its close proximity to Mexico’s beach tourism capital of Cancun), the more remote Tikal seems much more deserving of ‘world wonder’ platitudes.
The site comprises of five main temples with many more ruins around it still enveloped by jungle. Having a good guide can make all the difference as you will be able to fully appreciate the history and significance of the place. If you do choose to explore independently make sure you don’t miss Temple IV. The view from the top of this tallest temple is fantastic. Film buffs will want to know this very view was also featured in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Go in the early morning. This really pays off as the site is best experienced without the masses. Daytrippers arrive by plane from Antigua starting around noon, so you have until then to explore the park in relative quiet. Some people try to get to the park for sunrise; tickets for this cost extra and have limited availability, though you should know that the jungles are usually very misty this early which means sunrise can be disappointing.
Decide if you want to sleep in the national park. Accommodation in the park is much more expensive, but you get a chance to wake up in the jungle to the sound of howler monkeys and tropical birds (I did this at the Palenque ruins in Mexico and loved it). If you are on a budget, the nearby town of Flores is wonderfully situated on an island in the middle of a lake about a 45-60 minute ride from the park. It’s home to cheap hostels, so many backpackers stay here and get an early shuttle bus to the park.
Suggested hostels in Guatemala
There is a well-established backpacker circuit and so all major locations have plenty of affordable accommodation to choose from. Here are some hostels and guesthouses that I recommend..
|El Hostal||Antigua||Super cozy, in a colonial house with leafy courtyard. Both dorms and B&B-style options.|
|Base Camp||Antigua||Hostel doubling as an agency for volcano hiking or mountainbiking tours. Good place to make friends.|
|Chaltunha Hostel||Flores||Hostal Los Amigos is actually my first recommendation in Flores, but it fills up fast and can’t be booked online. Chaltunha is the next best thing.|
|El Retiro||Lanquin (Semuc Champey)||Cute riverside hostel with private bungalows. Loved staying here. Try the wood-fired sauna hut, then cool off in the river.|
|El Muro||Lanquin (Semuc Champey)||Got a tip about this nice social hostel, one of the few in Lanquin to also offer dorms.|
|The Black Cat||Quetzaltenango (Xela)||Xela is at a colder higher altitude, but The Black Cat makes you feel at home with mulled wine in winter and a sunny patio in summer.|
|La Iguana Perdida||Lake Atitlan (Santa Cruz)||Highest-rated hostel along Lake Atitlan in the small hamlet of Santa Cruz. No road access, so take a boat from San Pedro or Panajachel.|
|Mr Mullet’s Hostel||Lake Atitlan (San Pedro)||Both dorms and private rooms in San Pedro’s most popular hostel.|
|Hospedaje El Viajero||Lake Atitlan (Panajachel)||Nice guesthouse on the main road in Panajachel, just a short walk from the lake.|
Places to visit in Guatemala
These are just some of the best places to visit and top things to do in Guatemala:
Stay on the island village of Flores
Flores is a tiny village on an island in a lake in the very north of Guatemala. Besides being a perfect base from which to visit the ruins of Tikal or for onwards travel to Mexico or Belize, it’s also a great place to stay in its own right. You can relax, canoe around the island, or visit the colourful markets in adjoining Santa Elena. I highly recommend staying in hostel Los Amigos, which is still one of my top favorite ever hostels for good atmosphere.
Ride a chicken bus
So-called chicken buses are former US school buses used in Guatemala for local transportation. They are often painted in bright colours, and on occasion you may even find that the driver has installed an elaborate sound system blasting non-stop raggaeton (one time my bus even had disco lights!). While slow and at times uncomfortable, you can get a real taste of Guatamalan culture by taking a chicken bus instead of a tourist shuttle van.
(Note: inner city chicken buses in Guatemala City are not known to be very safe and should probably be avoided. I’ve heard the same goes for chicken buses in remote mountain areas. Main routes outside of Guatemala City are reportedly fine, but always keep an eye on your belongings as chicken buses can get very crowded.)
See the gorgeous volcano lake of Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is a beautiful lake in the Western Highlands of Guatemala that is ringed by several volcanoes. You can hop by shuttle boat between the villages surrounding the lake, many of which are backpacker favourites.
The lakeside town of Panajachel is the most easily reached from Antigua and elsewhere, but it’s very touristy in high season (and offputtingly so for me personally). You will almost trip over all the souvenir stands here, but it does have the most direct view of the volcanoes.
San Pedro is the main backpacker hangout, and it’s a wonderful laidback place where you can relax, go hiking, party or (like so many) cheaply learn Spanish in one of the many schools. I loved this place, and many travellers end up staying here longer than anticipated. Nearby San Marcos is a small and charming alternative/hippie hamlet, also directly on the lake.
Stroll the markets of Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango is famed for having the largest market in Central America. I unfortunately had to miss this during my stay in Guatemala, but many people told me it was one of their highlights. I want to point you to this amazing photo report posted on travel blog Lunaguava, which will surely inspire you to go.
Chichicastenango market — Photo credit: Lunaguava
Hike to the highest point of Central America
Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango) is a popular base for hiking. Many make the multi-day hike from Xela to San Pedro at Lake Atitlan, which takes you through glowing hills and green forests. Other popular hikes from Xela go up to the many nearby volcanos. If you have the stamina, be sure to hike up Tajamulco volcano (the highest point in Central America) and get there for a stunning view. I hiked up Tajamulco at night and then saw the sun rise over the clouds. It was one of the best things I did in Central America and still gives me goosebumps thinking about it.
Tajamulco is far from the only volcano in Guatemala though. Closer to the capital you’ll find Volcan de Fuego (the fire volcano) which you can see erupting at night from the nearby Volcán Acatenango or when you’ve climbed up Pacaya Volcano.
Clouds rolling down the lower ridges of Tajamulco at sunrise
See the colonial town of Antigua
Antigua is like the pretty ballerina of colonial towns, with charming and colourful lowrise buildings and direct views of two nearby volcanos. The view from beneath one of its archways is postcard-famous.
If I’m honest, I do have to say that Antigua gave me the biggest spike of initial excitement but also the biggest subsequent drop. At first I was gobsmacked by its prettiness—I mean, there’s volcanoes in the background from multiple vantage points throughout the city, and the houses are so colourful—but then you quickly start to wonder what else there is to do. Lonely Planet describes Antigua as ‘a Guatemalan town as if designed by IKEA’, referring to the way many restaurants and hotels have been trendily renovated for tourists. I was content spending just a day or two here and enjoy its postcard look, but prefered spending more time around lake Atitlan.
Get a slice of paradise at Semuc Champey
Giving a factual description of Semuc Champey—that it’s a cascading series of beautiful azure pools in the jungle—might sound cool but it doesn’t quite convey how wonderful it is. This is particularly true if you go on a full-day guided adventure around this area, which I thought was one of the most delightful things I did in Guatemala. They will show you some cool secret areas, the look-out point above, and will take you into nearby caves (which you’ll enter with nothing but a wax candle for light). If you are an adventurous sort of person you are going to have a fun-filled day. The nearby mountain town is pleasant as well, with a number of riverside hostels and bungalows that are worth staying at least a day or two.
But look elsewhere for beaches…
Unlike some of its neighbors Guatemala does not have any noteworthy beaches. That’s not hugely to its detriment, but just something to know. The pacific coast of Guatemala is hard to reach, has dark volcanic sand, and swimming here is perilous due to strong tides and undertow. The Carribean coastline in turn is fairly short and unremarkable. If you’re looking for quality beach time you should take a closer look at Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua or Costa Rica.
Guatemala safety issues
As you research a trip to Guatemala you will inevitably start to wonder if it’s safe for travel, as there are occasional bad reports coming from this country. The honest answer is that not all is 100% peachy in Guatemala and crime is a problem. On the other hand, it’s also mostly just fine for a traveller so long as you are sensible and exercise normal caution.
I experienced no problems whatsoever myself and neither did almost every other traveller I spoke with. I did hear two first-hand stories of theft and one of robbery (albeit a drunken and avoidable situation), so make of that what you will.
For a less subjective indicator: according to UN statistics, Guatemala sits somewhere between the extreme crime levels of Honduras and El Salvador and the relative high safety of Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Make sure you know the best practices for staying safe and keeping your belongings secure. It’s wise to take taxis at night, and if you intend to go walking or hiking it’s best to go with a guide who knows which areas to avoid. Antigua sees the most tourists and it’s actually here that opportunistic crime seems rife, so even though it’s a pretty-looking town you shouldn’t completely drop your guard here especially at night. Take care in Guatemala City; as with most Central American countries, the capital is big and has some sketchy neighborhoods.
Having said this, I also know from my own experience that it’s easy to get needlessly worked up about it. Some suggested reading: Travel Safety: How To Keep Things In Perspective as well as 6 Safety Tips For Central America. Be informed, don’t be naive, but don’t be paranoid either.
Are you insured?
Get travel insurance and you’ll be covered you for medical expenses, theft, personal liability, cancellation, and more. I recommend World Nomads, which offer flexible insurance for independent travellers with 24-hour worldwide assistance. (Here’s why you should get travel insurance.)
Cost of travel in Guatemala
Guatemala can be very inexpensive, and for backpacking in Guatemala you should budget around $25-$30 a day.
Hostel dorm beds cost $6 to $12 depending on where you are. You can find cheap rooms with shared bathroom from $8 to $16.
Street stalls or meal-of-the-day type places sell you a full plate of food for $2-$4. For a more proper restaurant with a la carte ordering expect $4-$10 minimum (and upwards of course).
Shared shuttles between the major points in the south are never more than $10-$15. Chicken buses often cost as little as a dollar.