Guatemala is the perfect place for travelers because of the beautiful landscapes, magical ruins, and real cultural involvement you would experience. Most travelers often visit Guatemala again because it’s so easy to get attached to their culture and of course, their beautiful places. The Mayan culture is great to learn because they are part of Guatemala’s past, present and future. Know the important details before backpacking Guatemala in this Travel Guide! Also, this backpacking Guatemala travel guide will show you the best things to do in Guatemala, best places to visit in Guatemala and foods to try in Guatemala.
I recommend you to a spend at least 4-5 weeks in Guatemala since the country is big and transportation takes time when moving around. After backpacking Guatemala, it would be great to visit Nicaragua and Honduras.
Before Backpacking Guatemala
Currency in Guatemala
Guatemala has its own currency, the Guatemalan Quetzal. They named it after their national bird, Quetzal. 1 USD is converted to 7.49 GTQ (quetzal). There are lots of ATM’s and currency exchange offices in most of the touristic places so you don’t have to worry about that. Also, USD is very common and well-accepted in Guatemala and very easy to exchange in touristic places. Click here for the latest exchange rate.
Health in Guatemala
The main health concern in Guatemala is the problem with food poisoning. It can be common on Guatemala especially to those areas with obviously unhygienic practices. There are some travellers that get food poisoning on lodges that aren’t clean. I didn´t have any other problem in Guatemala apart from food poisoning and being sick a couple of days.
Water in Guatemala is also a bit of problem, so you need to filter it first. If you’d like to be extra safe you could get a Hepatitis A vaccine and Typhoid vaccine, more info on that here
Safety in Guatemala
There’s a lot to be said about safety in Guatemala that wouldn’t fit in our backpacking Guatemala travel guide, more info about crimes in Guatemala here. Violence erupts frequently because of gang wars and Narco trafficking. Armed robberies that are orchestrated by gangs are common. Do not resist because armed robbers are violent.
To avoid these crimes, we recommend to stay out of dark, quiet places. If possible, have a local guide so you can feel confident about the places you go to in Guatemala. I didn´t have any problem myself but I met people who had experience with armed robberies in Guatemala sadly! Just be careful all the time especially when leaving vbus station in big cities.
How to get to Guatemala
If you’re coming from New York, your best deal would cost about $400 for a direct flight of five hours. If you’re coming from London or other places in Europe, your best deal would cost about $800 for a 1 stop flight with a total of 14 hours of flight time.
It is also possible to take a bus if you’re from Belize. From Belize City, ride a bus going to Benque Viejo del Carmen. And from Benque Viejo del Carmen, you could ride a taxi going to Guatemala border. I did this one coming from Belize.
Also, if you’re coming from Honduras, you can take a direct bus from La Ceiba, Teguciglapa and different places to Guatemala City. The bus available is best for tourists.
Most nationalities do not need Visa to travel to Guatemala like US, Canada, Norway, Australia, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea (More info about Visa exemption here). For Filipinos like Rachel, Visa is also not required. So hopefully we can travel soon to Central America and South America together since visas for Filipinos aren´t an issue in those countries.
Weather/Best time to visit Guatemala
The best time to visit Guatemala is from November to April because of the dry season. So, the rainy season starts in May. However, lots of tourists prefer to travel from January to March. The weather would change from places to places so it’s better to check the weather of the place you will be visiting beforehand. Use this site as your weather reference for today
How to get Wi-Fi in Guatemala?
Guatemala’s Wi-Fi has been improving lately. You could get free Wi-Fi at hostels and hotels without additional rate. Also, there are lots of restaurants offering free Wi-Fi, just ask the staff for the password. It’s worth buying a local Sim with 1 GB of data, could last you for 1-2 day for about 3 USD. Some areas the connection will be weak when you are in the middle of nature.
Where to stay in Nicaragua: Accommodation
There are lots of hostels and hotels offering cheap accommodation in Guatemala. Guatemala City has the highest prices for hostels compared to Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Flores, and Lanquin. For Guatemala City, prices range from 10-20 USD. But the price drops to 6-10 USD on other places in Guatemala. The good thing is most hostels offer free Wi-Fi, pretty handy for tourists especially if you work online like us.
For more comfort, you can check Airbnb, click here and we will give you $30 credit with your first booking. If you want to go down in your budget, you can always use Couchsurfing and staying with locals on your trip in Guatemala.
The main transportation of Guatemalans is their Chicken buses. Chicken buses got its name because some passengers carry their chicken inside the bus. Chicken buses are the colorful and noisy buses you’ll see everywhere. These buses have the reputation of being careless and dangerous but they do transport their passengers fast and I recommend them to use while backpacking Guatemala. Chicken buses are so affordable and if you want to travel faster you can hire a place in a van and you will pay a little bit more for faster transportation.
Most importantly, they are very cheap and it will get you to lots of places. However, there are also Taxis, Tuk Tuks and shuttles scattered around.
Guatemala Travel Itinerary
I started my trip coming from Belize overland and my first stop was Flores beautiful place to spend a couple of days and to visit the ruins of Tikal. From Tikal in Flores you can get a place in a minivan and visit my favorite place in Guatemala Chemuc Sampey. In the middle of the jungle you will find amazing natural pools and great place to hike around. I recommend you to spend a few days and take it easy since the distances are very long to reach there. From Semuc Champey you can go to Rio Dulce and Livingston.
A great palce to visit an hour from Guatemala City by bus in Antigua. Small and colonial city very quiet to spend a few days going around. Places to visit from Antigua to Xela where you can get your adventure climbing volcanoes and Chichiscatenango famous because of the market, the biggest in Central America.
Other place to visit in Guatemala is Lake Atitlan, I suggest you to stay a few days and sleeping in different areas. San Pedro is famous because of night party and cheap accommodation. During the day you can rent a kayak around the lake. Another plan that you can do is hiking a volcano since is quite close to Lake Atitlan.
Daily budget for backpacking Guatemala
Your food and water including the snacks will cost you about $10 USD for a day in backpacking Guatemala. Also, the accommodation will vary depending on the place but will be most likely $10 USD for a dorm or even sharing a room with another traveler which is cheaper. Your transportation for the day would cost you for about $5 USD costing less in public buses and a little bit more if you go by van. In total, you would spend $25-30 USD daily since you will have to add aditional costs for guides. Tikal entrance costs $20 plus transportation to get there, renting a kayak and different activities that you can do in Guatemala. Of course, you can decrease your budget if you use Couchsurfing and hitchhiking and volunteering while traveling in Guatemala.
Places to Visit in Guatemala
Just by strolling on the streets of Guatemala City, you’d be impressed with their beautiful and colorful architecture. There also museums that will tell you a lot about Guatemala like the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. There are also well-built churches like La Merced with a rousing interior, don’t let the exterior fool you. Another place to visit is Museo Popol Vuh, home to one of the largest Mayan art collections. Perfect place to kick start your Mayan culture appreciation.
Maybe tourists aren´t so interested in Guatemala City but there are a few plans to do, walking around the neighborhoods and visiting the local market was my favorite. Guatemala City is very busy during peak hours to move around.
Even after being destroyed by series of Earthquakes, Antigua is still a must visit place. The architecture surrounding the city is superb. It was also declared as a Unesco world heritage site back in 1979. Besides visiting colonial churches, Dickenson Bay is also one of the popular places to visit in Antigua. It’s surrounded by resorts, restaurants and bars. Looking to have fun in weekend? Hike to Shirley heights for a party filled night.
It was a great nightlife in Guatemala, closing very early at around 2 am. It’s lovely to walk around during the day and it´s a perfect place to stay a few days or even weeks if you have time. Explore this colonial city, parks, churches and meet locals- it was my favorite. For local food, I loved the local market. You can get a meal for $2-3 USD.
Lake Atitlan was formed because of a massive volcanic crater. It is surrounded by hills and triangular volcanoes. You could also visit the Mayan Highlands to understand the Mayan culture more than any way. The lake itself is magical when seen on top of the hills and volcanoes.
My favorite place to stay at was San Pedro. It has a really great nightlife. You can rent a kayak during the day, walk around and even lie down in your hammock reading a book. This place is so beautiful and magical!
In the middle of the jungle, surrounded by strong and bright greenery, sits the Mayan civilization remains. You definitely could feel like you’ve time traveled back from 6th century. Anyone could appreciate the art of the structures in Tikal national park. Consider heading on to Flores before going to Tikal. You could visit Ak’tun Kan, a cave with a unique interior home to Mayan rituals and carvings.
It takes a long time to reach Tikal if you are sleeping in Flores. The place is huge and you have to go there first thing in the morning to have enough time to visit around. The entrance fee is $20 USD.
Have you ever tried swimming in natural pools? Semuc Champey has lots of natural pools that you could dive or swim into. The water temperature and movement are very relaxing to miss. Also, the view from the top is splendid. Surely, one of Guatemala’s natural wonders.
Amazing place to spend a couple of days in the middle of the jungle. The views are amazing and it is so relaxing staying around the natural pools in Semuch Champey. The entrance is around $7 USD and you can get cheap accommodation around the area. It takes long to reach there if you are coming from Flores you will spend the whole day in a minivan. And next day you will be able to explore on your own, no need to do a private tour!
Sometimes we just want to relax and this place is perfect for that. Sure you could do kayak, jungle tour and swimming in rivers but the best things in Rio Dulce is that it’s a great place to just relax. There lots of lodges located in the middle of the jungle that you could stay in for the perfect natural ambiance. You can rent a kayak and enjoy your day in Río Dulce!
Lots of things to do in Quetzaltenango include hiking because as their name means, they’re sitting under 10 mountains. Of course, it means the view from the top of these volcanoes is worth the hike. But the city has also been progressing so the city can cater the needs of the tourists.
One of the volcanoes you could hike is Santa Maria, a large active volcano. If you want to skip hiking you could just visit Parque Centro America, surrounded by bars, restaurants, cafes, and beautiful architecture.
Chichiscatenango is known for its large open market offering textiles, handicrafts, jewelries and more. Also, you could observe how the town had preserved its cultural identity even when times had passed. It’s hard not to splurge money here because of the beautiful souvenirs you could get at a deal. It´s for sure one of the best things to do in Guatemala, it´s the biggest market in Central America. You can find everythign for affordable prices!
An hour and a half away from Guatemala City, an active Volcano Pacaya stands. Volcano Pacaya is very popular among tourists because it is easily accessible. Also, even if it’s active you’ll feel safe hiking on it. It is not that easy but it’s definitely not that hard either. You will have an amazing day in nature. It can take around 6 hours round trip and hiking Volcano Pacaya! You can even rent a horse to hike the volcano. There is an entrance fee of $27 USD which allows you to enter and have the local guide.
Things to Do in Guatemala
The Guatemalan Coffee is famous because of its mild but balanced flavor. Also, the coffee’s flavor varies from region to region because of the growing conditions. Most coffees will taste bittersweet but others could taste like fruits. The most popular coffee to try for tourists is the Guatemalan Antiguan Coffee. It tastes heavily sweet but fully flavored.
Sunsets are intensely beautiful and powerful in Guatemala. Maybe it’s because you’ll be at the top of landscapes most of the time. Enjoy the sunsets but don’t stay up too late outside. Great sunsets at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
There are lots of Spanish schools in Guatemala but the most popular place for learning Spanish is in Antigua. It’s a popular place for learning Spanish because the town is tourist friendly. However, it’s better to learn Spanish in a place where you’ll be staying longer. Other tourists prefer studying on Xela. It´s a good opportunity to look for a volunteer in Guatemala. You can learn a new language or just the basics, not many people speak English in Central America and South America. So if you learn Spanish you will enjoy more your trip in Guatemala and you can practice anytime.
Kayak in Atitlan Lake
Only a few tourists do this and some days you won’t see anybody kayaking around. You’ll feel like you own the place because you can freely row anywhere. Also, you’ll notice how wide and picturesque the sky really is.
Party in San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro La Laguna is considered as a party center of the lake. There are lots of hostels and bars around. The party’s intensity varies place by place but you’ll most likely bump into wild parties as you visit each place every night.
As you roam around Guatemala, you’ll see colorful buses driving recklessly around. And I’m serious when I said they’re colorful because Chicken Buses are indeed very artistic and colorful. Also, it is true that most drivers drive recklessly because they want to transport their passengers as quick as possible so that they could refill the bus again.
The beaches are known for its black sand. But the laid back atmosphere of the place really stands out. You could do lots of things like swimming, helping baby turtles swim or just sleeping in a hammock for a good day rest. The people around this area are very friendly too.
Festivals in Guatemala
The Semana Santa (Holy week) is the most anticipated festival in Guatemala. Antigua has grand vibrant processions, fancy floats and carefully planned alfombras (“carpets”) adored by hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The whole celebration is joyful, solemn and heart touching. The holy week celebration starts on April 14 – 19.
Dia de los Muertos
On Dia de los Muertos also known as Day of the Dead, Guatemalans remember their deceased loved ones. They clean and decorate the tombs of their loved ones and sometimes, offer foods and drinks to them. In Santiago and Sumpango (both in Sacatepequez region), locals honor their dead by flying colorful giant kites. Locals design these giant kites intricately to win the crowd. Sometimes, the kite makers also voice their social concerns on the kites.
What to eat in Guatemala
Chicken Pepian is considered by some as a Spanish Mayan curry. It is very famous in Guatemala. Households serve this dish a few times in a month and the food is also prepared along the street and restaurants. The dish is very rich in flavor with a slightly thick texture. The spices, nuts and seeds give the dish the thick texture that coats the meat pretty well.
Especially popular in Semana Santa, Guatemalan empanadas pack a sweet flavored creamy pastry. Guatemalan Empanadas are stuffed with Manjar de Leche, a vanilla cinnamon flavored cream. The cream tastes really good along with the dough of the Empanada and the sweet scented flavor of Cinnamon is really delicious.
Black Beans, Rice, and Corn Tortillas
Lots of Guatemalan dishes are served with black beans, rice and Corn tortillas. It’s always given that they have at least one of these three sides. Rice serves as a partner for many dishes like Chicken Pepian, Pollo Guisado, Estofado and many more. While black beans and Corn tortillas break the taste patterns so you won’t feel easily sated and you can eat more.
A very popular breakfast for Guatemalans is the Huevos Rancheros. It is relatively super spicy but light for a meal. It is served with fried eggs, tomatoes and spices, and tortillas. The mixture of the tomatoes and lots of spices are the signature part of this food.
Tamales has almost the same salsa as Huevos Rancheros but they differ on the way how the salsa is eaten. The salsa is enclosed with the dough and covered by banana leaves. These packed banana leaves are then steamed until it changes color. It is better if the salsa has meat on it.
Guacamoles are probably the easiest dish on this list to prepare. It is served with tortillas because the Guacamoles serve as a dip. It is a mixture of avocadoes, tomatoes, peppers and lime juice. Good for a snack.
Guatemalan Enchiladas are different from the normal Enchiladas because they serve this dish with vegetable mixture. Guatemalan Enchiladas are very rich in flavor because of the mixture of vegetables, tomato sauce, eggs, and spices. It is also served with corn tortillas.
Again with corn tortillas stuffing but this one has cheese in it. Pupusas is very tasty because of the meat, cheese, and tomato sauce filling in it. It is commonly served on the street in Guatemala.
Chocolate is everywhere in Guatemala mostly in Antigua. Many chocolate shops in Antigua create their own blend of chocolates. It is believed that Mayans were the discoverers of Chocolate. They call chocolates as “food of the gods”.
The most famous drink in Guatemala is the Gallo beer. It has become a part of Guatemalan everyday lives. It is actually my favorite among all because I really love the balanced taste. The beer has sweet aroma with malty taste on it that I can’t get enough.
Which of these things to do in Guatemala would you try when you go to Guatemala? Share to us in the comments!