Guatemala ranks as one of my favorite places in the world. I planned on traveling Guate for three weeks and instead I stayed for three months. There was just something so calm and charming about the country. The culture is rich and accessible and the landscape is just gorgeous—perhaps that’s why I fangirl over it so hard. This is one of the best spots in Central America; the only other I would consider a contender is Nicaragua.
If you’re planning a backpacking trip through Central America, you’ll surely hear about the dangers. As a region, they are both founded and unfounded. There are legitimate issues around transportation, and Central America in general is a place where you just don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But in Guatemala, the violence is not pervasive. Although I heard some stories, I never encountered violence in the two and half months I traveled the country.
What I found in Guatemala, was an incredibly warm people who are open and happy for the tourism coming to their country. The indigenous Mayan culture is alive and full, and Guatemala is home to the most beautiful natural and Mayan sites in the world. It’s worth planning several weeks in here if you’re backpacking the region, or know that you could easily fill a two-week vacation if you’re traveling just to Guate. This guide includes city recommendations for my favorite experiences in the country, as well as a socially responsible section with volunteer recommendations.
Before You Go, What You Should Know
Many of the most notable sites in the Guatemala mark the height of the Maya civilization. The two most populated Maya cities were located here, El Mirador and Tikal. These sites alone make Guatemala one of the more fascinating and unique Central American destinations.
Guatemala’s history dates back as far as 18,000 BC, and from that time onward the country carved a fascinating path through history. This pre-Columbian history is evident in the range of cites in the northern and central highlands of Guatemala. Many of the most notable sites in the country mark the height of the Maya civilization. In fact, the two most populated Maya cities were located here, El Mirador and Tikal. Though Tikal is the most famous of the two, this is merely because it’s better excavated and easier to visit. El Mirador is thought to be the central point of the Maya world. By 900 AD, however, the Maya civilization had collapsed and this gave rise later to the colonial history present throughout Guatemala.
The country’s colonial history contributed a lot to the modern charm. Antigua is picturesque with cobbled streets and a rainbow of colors staggered across the buildings. Like nearby Mexico, Guatemala was occupied by the Spanish until the early 1800s. It’s at this point that more complicated political history begins. A series of dictators controlled the country, and civil wars raged in efforts to both keep control, as well as to better unite the Central American nations. In 1996, the bloodiest time in the country’s history came to a close, the Guatemalan Civil War, as peace accords were signed with the help of the United Nations. Since then the country has more government stability than before, and many of the war crimes from the civil war are still being tried in court.
And as throughout the war and Guatemalan-specific politics rides the overarching issue of the Central American drug trade. This situation fluctuates as new policies and politics shift and change. In general, the drug route through Honduras has a small effect on Guatemala too, as this has brought increased crime, but the country has done a better job than neighboring countries in containing the drug violence to isolated areas outside of the main tourist routes. The additional readings below provide more information on both the regional drug issues, as well as the country’s complicated political history.
If you can’t read any of the recommended books before you leave, read up on the history of Guatemala online before you visit.
The Fast Facts About Guatemala Travel
Electricity: 127V/60Hz (American plug)
Primary Airports: La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City (GUA), Mundo Maya International Airport in Flores (FRS)
Internet Situation: You can find internet everywhere in Guatemala and it is decent to good. You can upload photos and information and could run a virtual business from nearly any Guatemalan city. Internet cafes abound and your accommodation will offer WiFi.
Local SIM: Super easy to procure and coverage is widespread. Go with Tigo over the other two. About $20 US will get you a SIM card and a month of data. Full SIM card guide here—this covers all the Guate specifics you might need.
Visas: American, EU. and British passport holders enter for free and can stay for up to 90 days. Guatemala is a part of the CA-4 agreement, however, so that entry gives you a total of 90s in the four countries of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Other nationalities can check the visa requirements here.
When to visit Guatemala: Year-round is pretty good. Dry season is high season and runs from October through April. Wet season usually just has a couple hours of rain each day and is still lovely, particularly because there are fewer people.
Safety: Guatemala is one of the least safe areas of Central America, mostly because of the drug routes northward. Importantly, however, this violence is not targeted at tourists—it’s for this reason that most western governments haven’t issued the highest alerts. That being said, it’s significantly safer than nearby Honduras and El Salvador. Like many places in the region, night travel has higher risk factors. Exercise caution and stay on the tourist route. You would have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to experience more than petty crime. Anything can happen on the road. I am a firm advocate of travel insurance like World Nomads; these are my top tips to pick a good travel insurance.
Learning Spanish: Guatemala may very well be the cheapest country in Central and South America to study Spanish. Even better, the country is well set up for this task. You have three main options: Xela, San Pedro, and Antigua. Xela is by far the best option, there is very little English spoken around the city and it’s conducive to total immersion. You’ll find slower progress if you take classes in either of the other touristy spots where you can cheat and easily chat with other Westerners for the bulk of every day.
Budget: Guatemala is a budget-friendly country. It’s rock bottom prices on the backpacker route, and you can find beautiful accommodation and meals if you spring for a bit higher budget. You can easily average US $25-$30 per day including meals, lodging, and activities on the budget end. A mid-range couple’s budget will run about $90 for nicer digs.
Food Considerations: Traveling as a vegetarian in Guatemala is, well, boring on occasion. Rice and beans will be a staple of your diet (if you’re a strict vegetarian be aware that some refried beans are off-limits). It can be tough at times to find quick veggie food so bring your granola bars. Meals are often complemented with plantains and avocado and they will nearly always substitute scrambled eggs for the meat in any dish if you ask! If you decide to stick to budget and street food options, follow these food safety principles.
Accommodation: Guatemala has an extensive tourism network of guesthouses, homestays, and hostels. The country has rock-bottom budget accommodation as low as $4 per night in some areas. While the links in city guides below go to a hotel booking site, many are also found on Airbnb if you are a member. (A Little Adrift readers get an Airbnb credit here to give it a go.) Friends found a beautiful AirBnB on Lake Atitlán, so you can really find some good options there. For backpackers, Booking.com is perfect for pre-booking hostels; in high season the bigger towns book up fast. Everything can be easily reserved online. If none of these will do, check out my detailed guide to finding good places to stay.
Transportation: For getting around Guatemala, you’ll likely use a combination of chicken buses (these are retired U.S. school buses transformed into public transport) and shuttle buses. It’s super easy to book shuttles to and from every city, you will just arrange that with your guesthouse/hostel. Keep in mind though: The transportation is the most dangerous aspect of traveling because the drivers hug corners and drive far faster than is safe. If riding on chicken buses, always keep your purse/daypack on your lap—never put it above you in the buses. Your bigger pack may have to go above or below the bus, but it’s worth asking if you can take it on with you. Sometimes they let you shove it under your feet and you can relax a bit more knowing that your pack is safe. And don’t fall asleep on buses—basically, you will get robbed if it’s easy to do so. This is the same for pickpocketing, walking in dark alleys late at night, etc.
Festivals of Note: Semana Santa takes place most notably in Antigua and occurs in the week before Easter each year. Dia de los Muertos is celebrated across Guatemala and takes places on and around October 31st.
Possible Issues: Keep your belongings close, and probably best to ensure you have both travel and gear insurance. Be alert and cautious.
Pre-Trip Reading Inspiration: Books About Guatemala
Fiction & Nonfiction Books About Guatemala:
- When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep: This is a beautiful novel that will give you a sense of time, place, and history—all woven together into a compelling narrative that makes it endlessly readable.
- Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of The Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings (Kindle Edition): If Maya history is your thing, then this is the definitive guide. It will give you all the backstory you need to fully enjoy the numerous Maya temples you’ll visit while traveling Central America.
- A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya: Descend into the Mayan culture throughout Mexico, Belize and Guatemala in this travel narrative that dives deep into the regional culture, ancient Mayan beliefs about time, as well as a look at modern Mayan culture.
- Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya: A fascinating tale chronicling the two men who traveled through the Yucatán and Central America in search of the Maya Kingdom, and brought this ancient civilization back to the world.
Podcasts and Online Reads:
- Guatemala Travel: The Amateur Traveler Podcast covers Guatemala recently and looks at the highs, the lows, and what it’s like to travel this country right now.
- The Reality in Guatemala: NPR pairs up with a Guatemalan documentary filmmaker to take a close look at the child refugee crisis. It’s a quick listen.
- What Happened At Dos Erres: Understand the complicated relationship between the military and the people in this fascinating episode of This American Life.
- Cracking the Maya Code — NOVA: This PBS program is the best way to watch the history of the Maya unfold, as the NOVA program deep dives into what it took to finally decipher Maya script.
Socially Responsible Travel
Guatemala has a large indigenous population, particularly in the northern and central highlands. There are a ton of opportunities to immerse in this culture through home-stays or treks. This indigenous culture also means there are unique considerations. Guatemala has a wide range of socioeconomic levels. You will find wealthier and middle class Guatemalans in Antigua, Guate City, and other parts, and the more rural areas are often marked by stark poverty and high rates of illiteracy. There is also a rising level of responsible travel awareness. You can find fair-trade businesses in most any sector, as well as ecolodges and socially responsible tour operators.
Explore Indigenous Cultures
You’ll want to dress respectfully when visiting rural markets and trekking in remote areas. These cultures are more conservative than the more predominant Hispanic culture in Guatemala and other areas of this region. Also be considerate when taking photos—always ask before taking photos of the locals or of children. One of the best ways to support these regions of Guatemala is through respectful and responsible tourism. Consider taking a hike and spreading money into the villages, or visiting the fascinating markets (like Chichicastenango) in more remote areas of the country.
Bargaining is a part of Guatemalan culture, and you will definitely receive a tourist price when you ask. But, remember that the small fluctuations in your price make a comparatively huge difference in the lives of those selling you goods and services. Keep your cool, use your Spanish if you have it, and stay friendly. There are places in the world where the goal is to bilk tourists, this is not one of them. The prices are often a bit higher than a local would pay, but not obscene. And if you prefer to shop without bargaining, head to a fair-trade cooperative. The textiles (rugs, scarves, jewelry, etc) are priced fairly for all involved and you know your money is funneled responsibly into more rural communities.
Support Local Businesses
Travel and tourism in Guatemala are pretty well developed. Local tour operators can help you do and find most any activity you can imagine. Using local businesses, as opposed to booking things through foreign operators, leaves money behind in the communities. This is an important part of responsible travel. Some businesses may exaggerate their level of support for some sort of social issue, but even those are still at the very least paying local wages and supporting the local economy. Even more, check through these Guatemala social enterprises to find vetted local businesses that support a social mission that makes your money’s impact travel even further.
Volunteer in Guatemala
There are no shortage of volunteering opportunities in Guatemala. This is a mecca of volunteering. Most language schools throughout the country—from Antigua, to Panajachal, to Xela—offer affiliated volunteer opportunities. There are also amble organizations running separate from the language schools. You can work with everything from agriculture to street children to education. And a lot in between. Start here for researching volunteer projects in Guatemala.
Maintain a Low Trash Impact
Trekking through the indigenous highlands between Lake Átitlan and Xela is popular—don’t liter, even if the locals do. Your guides should help you dispose of this responsibly, particularly if you are using a sustainable trekking company like Quetzaltrekkers. And for women, use a menstrual cup for not only easy of travel, but it’s eco-friendly, too.
Also, as you read through the city guides below, each one share several of the great projects and organizations that you can support on your Guate travels.
Things to do in Guatemala: City Guides
My Favorite Travel Experiences in Guatemala
- Spending several weeks around Easter learning the life cycle of a Semana Santa carpet
- Endless days spent wandering the charming streets of Antigua
- Taking a daytrip to see the red hot lava at Pacaya Volcano
- Riding a Guatemalan Chicken Bus
- Learning how to relax and enjoy the sweet life on the Rio Dulce
Antigua is the hub of traveling in Guatemala. It’s a mere 45 minutes from Guatemala City, it’s a lot safer. It also has connections everywhere else in Guatemala, as well as all nearby countries. You should never have to stay in Guate City, even for your flight. Antigua is so close and it’s a much safer option than Guate City.
The town is touristy, but I love it. It has gorgeous architecture and it’s a nice pit stop if you get burned out at any point. I spent many weeks here throughout my months in Guate. It has good food, lots of English, and it’s affordable (although a bit pricier than other Guatemalan cities).
Things to Do in Antigua
- Pacaya Volcano. This is the top-billed activity in Antigua, and for just reason—it’s neat. It can be dangerous, however, so be careful. When booking, ask around to find out if there is visible lava at the site that week. This post shares my Pacaya Volcano trip and tips on what to bring.
- Acatenango Volcano. If you are a more adventurous hiker then this might be a good option. Josh shared about his sunrise hike here.
- Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm. A mere 15 minute chicken bus ride out of town. This is a great way to spend a morning. They also have a commitment to sustainability and a fantastic mission to help lift locals out of poverty. The owners have lived in the community for decades. So worth a morning. They have delicious macadamia pancakes—go for breakfast and go hungry! I wrote about my visit to Valhalla’s Macadamia Farm and you can find directions on their site.
- Finca Filidelphia Coffee Plantation. This is well worth the price (around US $20) if you’ve never toured a coffee plantation. The tour takes you from coffee cheerier to darkly roasted coffee. They include a complimentary coffee or expresso at the end! It’s just outside of town. Recent reports from readers indicate that they also offer birding, paintballing, and ziplines. I shared a bit about the tour. You can book services directly through Finca, or through your accommodation.
Places to Sleep
- Yellow House Hostel (Casa Amarilla): 1a Caliente Poniente between Ave del Desengano y 7A.
By far this should be your first choice. The place is impeccably clean, breakfast is a big buffet, and it’s cheaper than some of the other “top” picks you hear about (Cheaper than both Black Cat and Jungle Party). It’s walkable to the bars but not a party hostel in the least. Also has a hostel kitchen and cable in the cheap private rooms.
- Jungle Party Hostel: Much more of a party vibe here. The music is on too loud all day long so it’s hard to sleep in past 7:30. Breakfasts are decent, moderately clean bathrooms. The place was in the middle of remodeling while I was there (April 2010). It’s a bit overpriced (they nickel and dime you on taxes and tips, and this and that added to your stay), you can’t use the hostel kitchen or bring in food, and no privates – this is decent though if you’re looking to party.
- Stay in a nice spot. There’s a heap of accommodation in Antigua. Consider Hotel Casa Cristina for midrange, and Meson Panza Verde for a nice place from which to organize your search.
Places to Eat and Drink
- Hops & Tales: 3 Calle Oriente #19. Good craft beer scene from recent travelers reporting in.
- Café Boheme: Calle Poniente #5a. Good spot with clean food and you can surely find some good vegetarian options.
- Rainbow Cafe: Ave Sur #6 at 6a Calle. Long term travelers in Antigua camp-out for breakfast and lunch at this tiny little restaurant. It’s just two tables but serves fantastic falafel, shawarma, and other Israeli favorites.
- La Luna Miel: 6 Avenida Norte N19A. I could wax poetic about the fresh spinach salads here. They “do” crepes, but I come for the fresh cold salads, an anomaly in Guatemala.
- Bagel Barn: 5a Calle Poniente #2. Free wifi and a variety of fun toppings on your bagels. A good choice for breakfast and the coffee is pretty good to boot!
- Reilly’s Irish Pub: 5a ave. nte. #31. An institution at this point it is good fun. They have a Sunday pub quiz, which is always a blast if you have a group with you, or a group going from your hostel.
- El Mono Loco: Parque Central on 5a ave. sur. Gringo-fied for sure but it’s also filled with locals enjoying the sports-bar atmosphere.
Xela (Quetzaltenango) is the center of volunteer activity and Spanish language learning in Guatemala. It’s less than five hours north of Antigua/Guatemala City and there is very little English spoken throughout the city. It’s the perfect spot for reasonably priced Spanish language lessons, home-stays, and most schools also have volunteer opportunities. There’s great trekking here too.
This town is far enough north that it’s not fully on the backpacker route, except for those busing in from the Mexico border. There is little partying to be had here, although if you’re a part of a school they will organize fun evenings out and dancing. Shuttles leave from the Lake Atitlan cities, as well as Antigua, but the chicken buses are much cheaper and will get you there too.
Most travelers come to Xela to either volunteer or learn Spanish—or both. Literally, that’s what you do here. It’s a big city so it’s best to have a purpose for visiting or you might not enjoy all of your time here as much as other cities.
Money Warning: Only use ATMs inside of banks with a guard and during daylight hours. There are have long been issues with some ATMS near the parque central.
Things to do in Xela
- Learn Spanish: There are dozens of Spanish Language schools to pick from, I used and loved Pop Wuj. They have one-on-one lessons, a home-stay if you want it, and several volunteer programs in place. Medical students will particularly benefit from their specialized program. Individual is the best way to go and you’ll progress quickly in Xela because so little Spanish is spoken. This piece covers my personal experience learning Spanish in Xela with Pop Wuj.
- Volunteering: I volunteered through my Spanish language school. This is the easiest way if you’re already there taking classes. Nearly every language school has an affiliated volunteer program. Additionally, if you’re just wanting to volunteer, sans the classes, ask the schools. I know that Pop Wuj allows non-students to participate in their bi-weekly stove building volunteer project outside of Xela. There are also plenty of medical volunteer opportunities, teaching English, and other options. Do some online research but it’s actually easiest to show up in Xela and ask once you’re there—most have programs starting weekly, and often the very next day! Find a list of vetted Guatemala volunteer programs here, or a huge list of them here too.
- Hike: The altitude in Xela and surrounding countryside make this spot amazing for day and weekend trips outside of the city. Again, many schools will organize these trips for you, but if not, then use Quetzaltrekkers—reliable and good food and they participate in social good.
- Attend a Football Game: Xela is in a huge rivalry with Guate City over their football teams and these weekly games (during the season) are a blast. Ask around for the next game and once you’re there enjoy the fiercely patriotic fanaticism on Xelaju football enthusiasts. I had a great experience at a Xela football game with the other language students.
- Movie Nights: Your Spanish language school will host these on a weekly basis. Otherwise (or in addition!) head to the Blue Angel Video Cafe (7a Calle Zona 1), this is a hot spot for meeting other language students and backpackers and they regularly show movies.
- Social Activities: Most of the activities in Xela are organized by the schools. If you’re a part of a language school, it will have a calendar of daily and weekly activities to meet others.
Places to Sleep
Many Xela hostels have serious bed-bug problems so be aware and check your mattress!
- Huellas Hostal: This is a great budget option with clean rooms and decent amenities. You can’t go wrong and it’s likely walkable to your language school.
- Hostel Don Diego: I stayed here rather than a home-stay because I needed wifi to work. It’s near the Parque Central, but a solid 15 minute from Pop Wuj, my Spanish language school. Cheap private rooms, decent internet access, but they do nickel and dime you on using the kitchen, wifi, and other generally free hostel amenities. There are likely better now, but it’s not a bad place.
- Home-Stays: Ask questions and outline your expectations to your language school before you do a home-stay! Some home-stays have you eating nightly with the family and they interact a lot with you, others organize separate meals and are more hands-off with the language students. Home-stays can be an amazing way to force you into learning Spanish faster—just know which kind you’re expecting and tell your school :)
- Stay in a nice spot. There’s a heap of accommodation in Xela. Consider Hotel Modelo for a nice place from which to organize your search.
Places to Eat
- Giardino: 6 Calle (btwn 14 & 15 av) Zona 3. The pizza and Italian food here is pretty legitimate and tasty. Pricey, comparatively, but worth a visit if you’re looking for some non-local food.
- Rosario’s Comedor: Corner of 13a Av & 5a Calle Town Center. A great spot for local food. They serve breakfast and lunch and the menu changes daily.
- Sabor de La India: 15 Avenida 3-64, Zona 1. A good spot for when you just need something different than Guatemalan fare.
- Local Eats: Ladies selling fruit by the bag wander the city around lunch time (and all day really) so this is a great way to snack. Also, check out the food stalls near the Casa de la Cultura. Small comedores abound, so ask a local for their favorite for a meal under $2.
This is the gateway to Tikal, so you’ll need to stay here likely two nights. The best Tikal excursions are the dawn trips that allow you to enter the park for a beautiful sunrise. Transport comes to Flores from Belize, and also most of the shuttles and buses will leave from Antigua and Guate City. There is also a small airport if the mega-killer bus rides are not your thing. This post has a good overview of getting to Flores.
- Stay at Amigos Hostel. This is the number one backpacker spot and it’s a cute and well-appointed place. They have the routine down pat and will get you to and from Tikal, and onto your shuttle, without issue.
- Stay at Hotel Casa Amelia. This spot is a bit nicer but still affordable and distinctly lacking that busy backpacker vibe.
- Visit Tikal. If you book through Amigos it will be a pretty huge group. Still fun though. You can also stay in the park at one of the lodges for a one-of-a-kind experience as you are the only ones in the park at dawn. This is a big business for Flores, so it’s easy to book either large or small group trips out to the ruins. It usually includes transport and a guide.
- Try Fonda Ixobel for lunch or dinner. On the corner of Avenida Santa Ana and Calle Central, this spot has delicious and clean food and you will leave full.
- Find street eats near Santa Elena Bus Station. There is a huge range of budget street eats near here each evening, so plan on a budget dinner in this area if you’re so inclined.
This is one of the most beautiful spots in the country. It was still off-the-path in January 2010 when I was there, but friends who were there in early 2016 report that there are a heap more adventure activities. It’s a fun spot and a great way to break up the drive between Flores and Antigua. You’ll likely want to stay in Lanquin and then take a daytrip to the waterfalls. It’s a short drive and there’s much more to do in Lanquin. More on getting to Lanquin here.
- Stay at El Retiro. This is a gorgeous spot and it’s socially responsible. They are committed to the community. There’s also just a heck of a lot to do here with a well built out grounds with fun activities.
- Consider Utopia Eco-Hotel. This spot is much more remote, and a bit like a retreat. Travelers report that it’s a great spot from which you can head to the waterfalls, while also experiencing the other nature in this area.
- Visit Semuc Champey. Book a trip through your guesthouse and plan on a full day out at the caves and waterfalls. Most of the trips all include the caves, some tubing, and then the waterfalls. Best to pack your water clothes, as well as water shoes if possible. You will be grateful for your Chacos or sports sandals on a daytrip like this one.
This is a hugely popular spot in Guatemala, and for good reason. It’s stunningly pretty, fantastically affordable, and has a range of fun activities. Many travelers are there to learn Spanish, other just to relax. Be warned that there is a bit of a drug culture in some of the towns, backpackers smoking pot. This is not recommended. When I was at San Pedro on Lake Atitlán, there was a huge drug raid that saw many foreigners in jail. Beyond that though, there are several towns on the lake, each with a different vibe, so read up on each before you decide which is a good fit for your travel plans.
- Hike the extinct volcano at sunrise.
- Go shopping or volunteer at Maya Traditions in Panajachel. This is a fair-trade shop with a bit of everything you might want to buy. They also need long-term volunteers if you’re keen to help out and live on the lake for a bit.
- Buy a good book and relax by the lake. The lake is gorgeous and the towns were built for quiet days of rest and relaxation.
- Study Spanish. There are heaps of schools in Panajachel and San Pedro if you’d like this sort of vibe alongside your Spanish learning.
- Stay in a nice spot. There are a few great accommodations in Atitlan. Consider Eco Hotel Uxlabil Atitlan a midrange hotel with a private jetty and free kayaks for guests to use. Posada de Santiago is also exceedingly lovely and it has several price points.
Check out all of my Guatemala travel experiences here for more inspiration.