Of all the countries of Central America, Guatemala is easily my favorite. This jungly gem is a stunning, culturally-rich country with an abundance of natural wonders that will take your breath away. From its awe-inspiring volcanoes to the Mayan ruins hidden away in dense rainforests Guatemala’s landscape has something for everyone. Whether adventure or relaxation is your goal, there is no shortage of activities and sights to explore in this wonderful country.
Whether you’re relaxing on the shores of the gorgeous Lake Atitlan or visiting the indigenous villages where Mayan culture still thrives today, Guatemala truly had beauty everywhere you went. For my fellow backpackers, it’s hard to imagine a budget-friendly paradise as perfect as Guatemala. My only regret was not giving myself enough time to explore every corner of this diverse country.
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Table of Contents
- How To Get Around Guatemala
- Destinations of Guatemala
How To Get Around Guatemala
Public transportation in Guatemala is primarily composed of buses and minibuses, known as “microbuses.” These vehicles are often overcrowded and may not be well-maintained. In major cities like Guatemala City, there are also “chicken buses,” which are old school buses that have been repurposed for transportation. These buses are often brightly painted and can be a unique and affordable way to get around.
However, they can also be dangerous due to the high level of traffic, poor road conditions, and lack of safety regulations. They can be scary, but in general, just trust the driver since they know the local ways of the road no matter how chaotic it may seem to a foreigner. Taxis are also available but are not as common as buses and microbuses, and it’s advisable to use them only in the cities, and always with a reputable company, as there have been reports of crime and fraud.
There are no subway or train systems in Guatemala.
And of course, before you go, it’s always a good idea to have travel insurance handy. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels for as low as $40 a month, and their coverage includes Guatemala among the 190+ countries that they cover. It’s handy to have travel insurance in Guatemala, especially if you plan on hiking in remote areas, high altitudes, or taking to those crazy winding roads with even crazier drivers.
Antigua: The Cultural Heart of Guatemala
The small city of Antigua is known as the “heart” of Guatemala. With its cobblestone streets lined with colorful colonial-style buildings, it’s easy to see why this city has become a popular tourist destination. Its location in the central highlands of Guatemala means there are beautiful views everywhere you look, highlighted by the monstrous Volcan Agua.
It is known for its vibrant cultural scene, with a strong indigenous presence and a number of festivals and events taking place throughout the year. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and perhaps my favorite in all of Central America. It is an excellent place to use as a home base for your adventures in the area.
There are a ton of hostels to choose from, with the most popular one among backpackers being Tropicana Hostel. It has a great social vibe, although definitely is more of a party hostel. Never fear, though, there are countless hostels in Antigua so you’ll be sure to find something that matches your vibe. Selina is always a safe bet for digital nomads and remote workers, and Maya Papaya is a charming boutique hostel for those okay with splurging for a little luxury.
Antigua is only an hour away from Guatemala City, and I’d recommend skipping Guatemala City entirely if you can. There’s not much to do there, and shuttles and buses run frequently between the two cities. If I had to choose anywhere to live in the world, Antigua would be on the shortlist. I’m a sucker for historic, culturally-rich cities with great food, a cafe culture, and an abundance of natural beauty. Antigua delivers on all of that and more.
Volcan Acatenango: A Fiery Trek To Mount Doom
Trekking to the summit of Acatenango volcano in Guatemala is a challenging but rewarding experience. The volcano, which is located near the city of Antigua, stands at a height of 13,045 feet (3,976 meters) and is the third highest volcano in Central America. The trek to the summit typically takes two days, with the first day spent hiking to the base camp and the second day spent climbing to the summit.
The trek to the summit of Acatenango is considered to be strenuous and requires a good level of physical fitness. The trail is steep and rocky, with some sections requiring the use of hands and feet to climb. Along the way, hikers will pass through lush cloud forests and enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. The trail is not well marked and can be challenging to navigate, so it’s advisable to do it with a guided tour. It’s also advisable to not go to Antigua’s abandoned swimming pool rave and do the Acatenango trek on a comedown without having slept. I lived to tell the tale, but whew, was it far from pleasant.
At the summit, hikers will be rewarded with breathtaking views of the nearby Volcan Fuego, which is often highly active with eruptions visible to the naked eye. The summit also offers a great spot to watch the sunrise or sunset. Due to the altitude, it’s important to be prepared with warm clothes and a good quality sleeping bag.
It’s important to note that the weather conditions in the volcano can change quickly and can be unpredictable, hikers should be aware that they might be exposed to cold, rain, wind and even snow. Seriously, the only thing that made my hike more miserable was carrying my drenched 60-liter trekking pack as it was pouring down rain. The terrain can be tricky enough in good weather.
Lake Atitlan: A Tranquil, Natural Paradise
Lake Atitlan is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in Central America. This lake in the highlands of Guatemala is surrounded by three towering volcanoes, creating an incredible sight that will take your breath away. The lake itself is home to numerous villages where you can experience traditional Mayan culture firsthand or simply relax on one of its many pristine beaches. You can also explore nearby caves or take part in some exciting water activities like kayaking or paddle boarding!
Visitors can also find many opportunities for adventure sports such as kayaking and paddle boarding. It’s a fun way to get out on the water, and we paddled from San Pedro to the other side of the lake. It was quite an exhausting journey, but we ended up on a pier all by ourselves. It was the perfect way to relax in between the fun, but tiring paddle there and back.
Oh, and be sure to take on the Nariz del Indio hike at sunrise. It requires an early start and a steep but short hike to the top, but it’s well worth the incredible views over the lake. The rising sun just adds an extra layer of beauty.
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro is the backpacker hub of Lake Atitlan. It is smaller than Panajachel, but it is buzzing with activity and I’d say much more interesting for a young traveler. It’s easy to meet travelers here, and it’s a good home base for setting off on the adventures that Atitlan has to offer. Stay at Mr. Mullet’s Hostel, one of the main hubs for travelers looking to explore the area. It’s a great place to meet people or just chill right on the shores of the lake.
Aside from a quick stop in Panajachel and some chill time at the laid-back and absolutely stunning Free Cerveza Hostel, I spent all of my time in San Pedro. Other towns around Lake Atitlan include San Marcos and San Carlos. San Carlos is very small and quiet, although perfect if you’re looking to truly immerse yourself in nature. San Marcos is known as the hippie haven of the lake. There are a number of travelers that visit and end up staying indefinitely in San Marcos.
Panajachel, also known as “Pana,” is the largest town located on the shores of Lake Atitlán. It is a picturesque and vibrant town surrounded by breathtaking views of three volcanoes, Toliman, San Pedro, and Atitlan. Visitors to Panajachel can easily explore the lake’s various attractions while taking in the stunning scenery. It is a popular tourist destination known for its natural beauty and vibrant indigenous culture, where visitors can purchase traditional textiles, hand-crafted pottery, and other local products. As its largest town, Pana often serves as the main tourist hub for travelers looking to visit Lake Atitlan.
Is is a great starting point for exploring the surrounding towns and villages, many of which are home to different indigenous groups and have unique cultures and traditions. The towns around the lake are famous for their textiles, and for the traditional Mayan clothing, also for the local markets where you can buy souvenirs and handcrafts. Visitors can take boat tours to visit these towns and learn about the local way of life.
In addition, Lake Atitlán is also known for its spiritual and wellness activities, such as yoga and meditation retreats. It’s become a hippie haven in the last few years, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. While I also consider myself to be a hippie in some ways, the luxury wellness retreats and “eco-resorts” have caused some controversy regarding gentrification and neo-colonization, especially because they do little to serve the community and a lot to serve themselves in the name of spreading love and peace.
I won’t open that can of worms, but I’d recommend doing your research beforehand if that’s what you hope to do. There are plenty of ways to connect with the nature of Lake Atitlan while supporting the local community and immersing yourself in the culture, especially with the abundance of locally-run medicinal ceremonies and rituals that are readily available.
Chichicastenango: Rich Mayan Heritage
This is a traditional Mayan market town and a great place to buy local textiles, pottery, and other hand-crafted items. It also has a colorful market, where you can see the traditional Mayan clothing, it’s held on Thursdays and Sundays.
Chichicastenango, also known as “Chichi,” is a traditional Mayan market town located in the highlands of Guatemala. The town is situated on a hillside, and is known for its colorful market, held on Thursdays and Sundays. The market is one of the largest and most colorful in the country and it is a great place to buy traditional textiles, pottery, and other hand-crafted items made by the local Mayan community.
The market is a cultural experience itself, as it’s a meeting point for the local indigenous communities of the area, and you can see the traditional Mayan clothing and customs. You can also find medicinal plants, fresh produce, and traditional food.
Chichicastenango is also known for its beautiful colonial-style church, the Church of Santo Tomás, which is a unique blend of Christian and Mayan beliefs, and it’s an interesting spot to visit. The town has a rich cultural heritage and visitors can learn about the history and traditions of the Mayan people by visiting the local museums and interacting with the locals.
It is also a great location for those who are interested in indigenous culture and traditional way of life. The town is located approximately two and a half hours by bus from the city of Guatemala, and it’s easily reachable from other towns such as Antigua Guatemala and Lake Atitlán.
Flores: The Island City
Flores, Guatemala is a beautiful town located on an island in Lake Petén Itzá. It only takes about 20 minutes to walk around the entire island, so admittedly, there isn’t too, too much to do here. Many travelers use it as a quick stopover to get closer to Tikal. However, Flores has enough to keep you busy for a day or two. While many travelers just use it as a stopping point to get closer to Tikal, Flores has enough to keep you busy for a day or two. Stay at Los Amigos Hostel to meet some people and get your bearings for taking on this rugged region of Guatemala.
Roam through the cobblestone streets and marvel at its historic architecture. One can also take to the water and go kayaking through mangroves or visiting some of the nearby Mayan villages.
Semuc Champey: Cascading Pools of Turquoise
Lanquin is a small town located in the eastern part of the country. It is best known for the beautiful Semuc Champey, a stunning natural wonder located in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala. Here, you can find natural limestone pools of cascading turquoise waterfalls surrounded by lush vegetation. The town is also a great spot for adventure sports such as hiking, caving and rappelling. More relaxing activities, like swimming and rafting are also options.
It’s also home to one of the most iconic hostels in Guatemala. Zephyr Lodge has a pool with a view that is straight out of backpacker legends. If you’re looking for a stunning eco-paradise in the depths of Guatemala’s jungle, then Zephyr Lodge can’t be missed.
Tikal: A Journey Back in Time
Tikal National Park is perhaps the most iconic destination in all of Guatemala. Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably already seen these iconic pyramids. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll recognize these ancient Mayan pyramids as the rebel base of Yavin IV. Star Wars fan or not, the archaeological site of Tikal is absolutely worth the visit.
Here you’ll find some of the best preserved Mayan ruins in all of Central America, allowing you to journey back in time and learn more about this ancient civilization. Keep an eye out for wildlife, with hundreds of species ranging from toucans to monkeys all calling Tikal National Park their home. While Tikal might be quite far from the more central travel destinations of Guatemala, those who go out of their way will be rewarded with an unforgettable adventure to the past.
More Destinations In Guatemala
Guatemala is a country with a rich cultural and historical heritage, as well as beautiful natural landscapes, and there are many hidden gems to be discovered. It always feels like the more I explore a country, the less of it I’ve actually seen. Some of the lesser-visited places that might be worth your time include:
This is one of the largest ancient Mayan cities in the world, located in the northern part of the Petén region. It’s a remote and challenging site to reach, but it offers an incredible adventure for those who are willing to hike through the jungle to see the impressive Maya ruins and the impressive La Danta temple, considered one of the largest in the world.
This is a beautiful river that flows into the Caribbean Sea, and it’s located in the eastern part of the country. The river is surrounded by lush vegetation and it’s a great spot for kayaking, swimming and visiting local communities. It’s a great place to explore the local culture, and it’s also a great spot to watch the sunset.
Also known as “Xela”, this is the second-largest city in Guatemala, located in the western highlands of the country. The farmlands and fields surrounding Quetzaltenango are beautiful, and the colonial city center is one of the most charming in the country. The city is known for its traditional textiles and its vibrant cultural scene, there are many festivals and events taking place throughout the year.
Be sure to hike to Cerro El Baul, a popular hiking spot that offers panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains. Take a dip in the Fuentes Georginas, hot springs located about an hour outside of Quetzaltenango and surrounded by lush forests. The ancient Chicomostoc Mayan ruins are located about 15 km outside of Quetzaltenango and offer a fascinating glimpse into Guatemala’s rich history.
These are just a few examples of the hidden gems that Guatemala has to offer. There are many more places to explore, depending on your interests, that are waiting to be discovered.
Whether you’re looking for an adventurous getaway or a relaxing vacation, there’s something for everyone in Guatemala! These are just a few examples of the incredible activities that Guatemala has to offer. There are countless more places to explore and experience in this beautiful Central American country.
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