Last updated on July 30, 2023

travel guide to guatemala

Guatemala ranks as one of my favorite places in the world. I planned to travel Guatemala for three weeks—instead I stayed for nearly three months. There is something uniquely 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.

Guatemala is one of the best spots in Central America for travelers of all types and stripes, and knew I needed to write a complete Guatemala travel guide so others could discover the nuances that make this country so memorable.

tikal ruins guatemala

If you’re planning a backpacking trip through Central America, you will surely hear about the dangers. As a region, the dangers are both founded and unfounded. There are legitimate safety issues around transportation, specifically, and Central America in general is a place where you don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But in Guatemala, the violence is not as pervasive in the places travelers visit.

Although I heard some stories, I never encountered violence in the two and half months I traveled the country. Instead, I found traveling in Guatemala featured 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 to spend several weeks in Guatemala if you’re backpacking the region, or know that you could easily fill a two-week vacation if you’re planning a short trip just to Guatemala. This Guatemala travel guide includes city recommendations for my favorite experiences in the country, as well as a socially responsible section with volunteer recommendations.

old church in antigua guatemala
The churches of Antigua are one of the nicest things to explore in all of Guatemala.
traditional guatemalan food
A plate of traditional vegetarian Guatemalan foods.

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala

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 sights in the northern and central highlands of Guatemala. Many of the most notable sights 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 have been 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 visibly present throughout Guatemala.

The country’s colonial history contributes a lot to its modern charm. Antigua is picturesque, with cobbled streets and a rainbow of colors staggering across the city’s 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 war crimes from the civil war are still being tried in court.

And as was the case throughout the war, and throughout 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.

things to do in antigua guatemala
Young children are captivated by a street mime in the historic, colonial center of Antigua.
 Rio Dulce in Guatemala
Paddle down the Rio Dulce in Guatemala in a sea of lotus flowers.

Fast Facts About Guatemala Travel


Quetzal (GTQ) (current exchange rate)


127V/60Hz (American plug)

Guatemala’s Primary Airports

La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City (GUA), Mundo Maya International Airport in Flores (FRS)

Can You Drink the Water in Guatemala?

No, you cannot drink the water in Guatemala, it’s not safe for travelers. Drink bottled, or consider the merits of carrying a water bottle and using a SteriPen or LifeStraw on your trip.

How’s the wifi in Guatemala?

Wondering if there is wifi in Guatemala? Oh yes. 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 free wifi.

How to Get a SIM Card in Guatemala?

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.

Getting a Guatemala Visa

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.

Where to Learn 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.

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.


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.

For backpackers, 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.

Festivals of Note

  • Semana Santa takes place most notably in Antigua and occurs in the week before Easter each year (April)
  • Dia de los Muertos is celebrated across Guatemala and takes places on and around October 31st (October)

How Much Does Traveling Guatemala Cost?

Guatemala is a budget-friendly country. Expect 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.

When to Visit Guatemala

Year-round is a pretty good time to visit. 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.

Possible Issues

Keep your belongings close, and probably best to ensure you have both travel and gear insurance—I use and recommend IMG Global. Be alert and cautious. 

How to Get Around Guatemala

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, nor under your seat. 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 your big bag under your feet and you can relax a bit more knowing that your pack is safe.

And don’t fall asleep on buses—basically, understand that 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.

Semana Santa carpet in Antigua Guatemala
A colorful Semana Santa carpet is meticulously created from sand on the streets of Antigua.
Semuc Champey waterfalls Lanquin, Guatemala.
Tap into beauty by visiting the Semuc Champey waterfalls near Lanquin, Guatemala.

Is it Safe to Travel to Guatemala?

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.

How do you maximize your safety in Guatemala? Well, like many places in the region, night travel has higher risk factors. And understand all that it entails to practice safety while traveling—there’s more to it than you think.

Above all, exercise caution and stay on the tourist route. Guatemala is not a place where you want to let your guard down, particularly on a travel day. 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 IMG Global; these are my top tips to pick a good travel insurance.

travel tip

World Travel Planning Resources

From the best travel gear to how to pick travel insurance—a detailed list of resources, tips, and advice to help you plan an amazing trip.

Pre-Trip Reading Inspiration: Books About Guatemala

Travel Guatemala — an essential backpacking guide with everything you should know before visiting #Guatemala. With specifics about travel logistics, planning volunteering, and the best sights on offer.   #TravelTips #TravelGuide #Wanderlust #BucketList #CentralAmerica

Fiction & Nonfiction Books About Guatemala:

Guatemala 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.

Find more regional fiction and nonfiction books and long-reads and you can read all my Guatemala travel stories.

travel tip

Recommended Guidebook

I love the Lonely Planet Guatemala for traveling this part of Central America—the transportation details in the guidebook are super useful.

Socially Responsible Travel in Guatemala

Chichicastenango guatemala
Head north from Lake Atitlan to the markets of Chichicastenango.
Xela guatemala
Discover the quiet charm of the highlands from Xela, its one of the more under rated destinations in Guatemala.

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. Use these travel tips throughout all regions of Guatemala to ensure you’re the most responsible traveler possible.

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.

Bargain Respectfully

Bargaining is a part of Guatemalan culture, and you will definitely receive a tourist price when you initially ask for the price of an item. 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—Guatemala 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.

lake atitlan things to do in guatemala
Pretty views of Lake Atitlan, one of the more popular places to visit in Guatemala.
chicken bus guatemala
A chicken bus waits for passengers. Chicken buses are one of the most common ways to get around Guatemala.

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 Panajachel, 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 QuetzaltrekkersAnd for women, use a menstrual cup for not only easy of travel, but it’s eco-friendly, too.

Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost or stolen gear, adventure sports riders, and more. I’ve used IMG Global for more than a decade highly recommend it!

Best Things to Do in Guatemala

One of the main colonial-era churches in Antigua, Guatemala.
Semana Santa parades stream through the streets of Antigua during Easter.

Guatemala is a larger country than you might assume at first glance, and the topography makes for incredibly long travel days between some popular locations. Getting from Flores to Antigua is a loooong travel day if you do it in one shot, for example—it’s through mountainous terrain and covers a lot of mileage. For that reason, many travelers break up the trip with time visiting the waterfalls of Semuc Champey—a real highlight and beauty during Guatemala travels.

Also, as you read through the city guides below, each one shares several of the great social projects and organizations that you can support on your Guatemala travels.

My Favorite Travel Experiences in Guatemala

  1. Spending several weeks around Easter learning the life cycle of a Semana Santa carpet.
  2. Endless days spent wandering the charming streets of Antigua.
  3. Taking a day trip to see the red hot lava at Pacaya Volcano.
  4. Riding a Guatemalan Chicken Bus.
  5. Learning how to relax and enjoy the sweet life on the Rio Dulce.

Things to Do in Antigua

The gorgeous streets of Antigua, Guatemala.

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).

Climb a volcano to see active lava.

Hiking a volcano 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.

If you are a more adventurous hiker, then a trip to the top of Acatenango Volcano might be a good option. Josh shared about his sunrise hike here.

Enjoy pancakes at Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm.

Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm
Fresh macadamia nuts at the Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm outside of Antigua, Guatemala.

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.

Visit the Finca Filadelfia coffee plantation.

Sun Drying Coffee Beans antigua
The sun dries coffee beans in at a plantation near Antigua, Guatemala.

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 espresso 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.

Find a great place to sleep.

  • Budget: Yellow House Hostel (Casa Amarilla) should be your first choice when visiting in Antigua. The place is impeccably clean, breakfast is a big buffet, and it’s cheaper than some of the other “top” picks you hear about. (It’s 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.
  • Midrange: Consider Hotel Casa Cristina for a midrange budget—a nice place to stay thats safe and nice but wont break the bank.
  • Stay in a nice spot: There’s a heap of accommodation in Antigua and Meson Panza Verde is a nice place from which to organize your search.

Enjoy a good meal.

  • 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.

Things to do in Xela (Quetzaltenango)

Discover vibrant local markets in the Guatemalan highlands in and around Xela.

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.

xela guatemala
Kids play ball on the streets of Xela, Guatemala.

Improve your Spanish classes.

There are dozens of Spanish Language schools to pick from and all of them offer a huge range of types of Spanish classes. And you could be a super newbie, or be looking to perfect and fine-tune.

I used and loved Pop Wuj. They offer one-on-one Spanish lessons, a home-stay if you want it, and several volunteer programs you can be a part of when not in classes. Medical students will particularly benefit from Pop Wuj’s 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.

Volunteer for a cause you care about.

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 its 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 Guatemala highlands.

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 local 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.

Enjoy movie night with new friends.

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.

Engage in organized 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.

Find a nice place to sleep.

Many Xela hostels have serious bed-bug problems so be aware and check your mattress!

Budget: Huellas Hostal 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 is also a solid choice. 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.

Homestays: 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. Consider Hotel Modelo for a nice place from which to organize your search.

Seek out great Guatemalan food.

The ubiquitous papoosas are an easy snack if you need street food to fuel up.
Fried plantains are one of the tastiest street foods in Guatemala!

These were my favorite places to eat in Xela.

  • 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 $3.

Flores Travel Guide

Unlock the secrets of Tikal by traveling deep into the forest in search of grass-covered Maya ruins.

Flores 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.

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey on a day trip from Lanquin, Guatemala.
Swinging into the turquoise waters on Semuc Champey on a day trip from Lanquin, Guatemala.
Seeing the stunning waters of Semuc Champey is one of the best things to do in Guatemala.

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.

Lake Atitlán

The shores of Lake Atitlan offer a stunning retreat from the bustle of life in other areas of Guatemala.

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.

Essential Travel Planning Resources

Yes, you need travel insurance.
IMG Global is the travel insurance I’ve used for well over a decade of traveling solo, and with kids. Here’s why.

🧳 Smart packing can save your trip.
Shop my favorite travel gear, including all of the packing essentials for world travel, gear to keep you safe on the road, my favorite travel books, and more.

🛏️ Find great accommodation. is essentially the only hotel booking site that I use. It has a wide and affordable selection of traditional hotels, but also hostels and vacation rentals, too. Use these pro tips to find the best travel accommodation.

📍Navigate more effectively.
Rome2Rio is super handy to assess the full range of transport options between two cities—shows everything from flights to trains, buses, minibuses, and more. If you’re booking a rental car, I’ve always found the best deals on

✈️ Book affordable flights.
Expedia is one of the first places I look for low-cost flights.

Peruse all of my tips for round the world travel, or learn how to move and live abroad.

Guatemala Travel Guide: Stories from the Blog

Read and research your trip using all of my travel stories from Guatemala—each story was written live on my travel blog as I traveled through the region. I share detailed guides and stories about cultural quirks, fun activities, and things I enjoyed doing in every area of Guatemala.