If you ask any of the backpackers who got the chance to explore Central America about their favorite destination, I’m sure many will say Guatemala!
Backpacking in Guatemala is highly rewarding because it’s less crowded than, for example, tourist-filled Costa Rica. It also has a bit of everything: from dense jungles and shimmering lakes to vibrant colonial cities and ancient Mayan ruins.
I didn’t know what to expect of Guatemala but it ended up becoming my favorite destination on the Central America Gringo Trail.
Why visit Guatemala
Landscapes. Guatemala’s landscapes are out of this world. You’ll find a string of impressive volcanoes (including ones you can climb) near Guatemala City and Antigua. The rainforests and central highlands are incredible.
Mayan sites. Hundreds of Mayan ruins are found across Guatemala. The biggest of all is Tikal, which looks like something you would see in an Indiana Jones film. Another impressive pyramid can be seen at Yaxhá, which sits on a beautiful lake.
Lake Atitlan. This lake is surrounded by seven picturesque Mayan villages, each offering something different. It’s a peaceful place where you can get away from it all, or hike up surrounding volcanoes, go paddleboarding, and explore nearby indigenous villages. This town-hopping guide to Lake Atitlan will tell you everything.
Plan your Guatemala trip
Backpacking Guatemala in 3 weeks
If you’re a backpacker wanting to explore every nook and cranny of Guatemala, you should set aside at least 3 weeks. This will give you enough time to experience all the best sites without being in a hurry.
If you’re coming from the north, consider starting your travel route 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 or visiting some swimming holes. However, I liked the town’s friendly vibe and it’s easy to get guides to take you to Tikal.
Tikal is definitely one of those places that are not to be missed. Be sure to take your time wandering through the jungle and exploring the site’s five main temples. To experience Tikal in peace, I recommend visiting as early as possible. Sunrise tours depart from 4 a.m.
The next stop is the small fishing village of Livingston. It’s 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 culture. If your idea of having a good time includes chilling on a picturesque beach, consider 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 a series of flooded caves just waiting to be explored. 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 dotted with colorful buildings, hike one of the nearby volcanoes, or see the iconic Santa Catalina Arch with the Volcan De Agua in the background, 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 tranquil 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 several weeks.
The city of Xela is another backpacker hangout that should be in everyone’s travel itinerary. It feels more typically Guatemalan than Antigua, more reasonably priced, and serves as a base for many spectacular hikes. Quetzaltenango (as Xela is officially known) is also a great destination for studying Spanish, thanks to its many language schools. Adventurous backpackers can conquer Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America.
Backpacking Guatemala 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.
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)
Both dorms and private rooms in San Pedro’s most popular hostel.
$ Lake Atitlan (Panajachel)
Lovely guesthouse on the main road in Panajachel, just a short walk from the lake.
Top places to visit
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 a hotel 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 also like to 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
The beautiful colonial town of Antigua is a popular destination in Guatemala, equally so with backpackers as with more upscale tourists. Here, you will see magnificent volcanoes in the background, incredible architecture, and colorful streets dotted with lowrise buildings.
You might initially find Antigua a bit more artificial than other places (you’ll see more tourist shops and Western brands), but there’s a lot of good stuff hiding under its facade. Many backpackers also visit Antigua to hike the famous Acatenango Volcano or use it as a base for trips around the area.
Stunning Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan, ringed by volcanoes, is one of those places that makes it so worth coming all the way to Guatemala. There are different villages around the lake, each with a different character, and using the local ferry boats it’s easy to hip between them. From the sleepy villages of Santa Cruz and San Marcos to the vibrant Panajachel and San Pedro which is popular with backpackers, you can easily find a town that has the vibe you’re looking for.
It’s a great place to chill, do yoga, or learn Spanish. If you’re looking to explore the lake surroundings, there are many great hikes you can do, as well as watersports on the lake.
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 sometimes 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. Don’t flash your valuables, travel during daytime if you can, and when you hike it’s better to do it in a group.
Get insurance for your trip
Travel insurance will cover you for theft, medical expenses, cancellation, and more. Heymondo offers great coverage, COVID-19 included, zero deductibles, and an app with 24/7 assistance & doctor chat.
A reasonable daily backpacker budget per person is about $25 to $30. This assumes you travel as a backpacker, meaning you take local tours, transportation, and eat mostly the local food.
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 on this type of local bus should not cost you over $1. Coaches cost more, though. 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 or in eateries is really cheap and you can have a decent meal for $3. When it comes to tourist restaurants, such as those you’ll find a lot more of in Antigua, 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 travel tips
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, visit 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.