Guatemala Backpacking – Guatemala Itinerary Ideas
Backpacking Guatemala is a must do experience when backpacking in Central America. The country is very accessible and it’s a guarantee for a true backpacking experience. If you want to step out of your comfort zone and into the real world, backpacking Guatemala will help you do that. We enjoyed our Guatemala travel time a lot.
Are you wondering about what to do in Guatemala and what are the best places to visit in Guatemala? Keep reading our travel tips…
In this post, we tell you where to find the best Guatemala beaches, which Mayan ruins to visit aside from Tikal Guatemala, and a lot more.
Guatemala Backpacking – Best places to visit
Whether you want to visit just Guatemala or include the country into a great Central America itinerary, you’re probably interested to know which are the best places to visit in Guatemala and which places you should include into your Guatemala backpacking itinerary.
So we divided our ‘Best places to visit in Guatemala’ chapter into a few smaller parts, like best cities and towns, Mayan ruins in Guatemala, Guatemala beaches and a few natural highlights.
Either scroll through the entire guide or use the Table of Contents to find what you need to know!
Cities and towns for backpacking in Guatemala
Guatemala has a few interesting cities and towns to explore. Some of which are more touristy than others. Some even require a little more time to discover their true beauty.
We listed the top places to visit in Guatemala on this list.
Antigua is the top backpacker hub in Guatemala and it’s a very busy place, not only with backpackers.
Everyone traveling to Guatemala must visit Antigua. You meet tour groups, backpackers of all ages, digital nomads stay in Antigua for ages and foreigners who found a job in a hostel and live in the beautiful colonial town full time.
Antigua is not too far from Guatemala City. If you arrive at the airport in the capital, you can be in Antigua in one hour.
Many people stay in this town because it’s such a beautiful place with its cobblestone streets and views of the surrounding volcanoes. Antigua is also a great hub for traveling and from Antigua. You can take a bus or a shuttle to just about anywhere in Guatemala or the surrounding countries.
Antigua is often used as a place to study Spanish or as a starting point for volcano hiking. Check our guide to visiting Antigua here!
Quetzaltenango, the second backpacker hub in Guatemala, is one of these cities that take a little longer to appreciate. For that reason, a lot of backpackers skip this city in order to visit the more popular Antigua.
We gave Quetzaltenango or Xela a chance since we had heard so much great things about it.
The city has a lot of great Spanish Schools and it’s a great hub for mountaineering excursions, as well as, volcano hiking. We actually enjoyed the city a lot and spent over a week here.
The town square is a beautiful place and in the streets of Quetzaltenango, it’s easy to discover the true city life in Guatemala. We visited the Fuentes Georginas hot springs from Quetzaltenango, which actually was quite an adventure.
The city of Flores is situated on a small peninsula in the Peten Itza lake. Flores is close by most of the popular Mayan ruins, which makes it a perfect hub to do some Mayan Ruin exploration in Guatemala. The town is also called: the gateway to the Mayan World. Even though the city spreads much further than just the peninsula, we recommend staying in accommodation in the Flores peninsula since it’s just so cute and pretty.
Located where the Rio Dulce river meets the Caribbean Ocean, Livingston is a laid-back town where rasta is king and reggae music greets you through the door of every pub and restaurant. Most of the local population are Garifuna, descendants of the former slaves who escaped. You can only reach Livingston by boat from Rio Dulce, which is located further inland, from Puerto Barrios in the South or from Punta Gorda In Belize. It’s possible to spend the night in Livingston, but you can also visit the Caribbean town on a day trip from the river finca’s or from Rio Dulce.
Read more about the Rio Dulce river and the area below.
Mayan Ruins in Guatemala
Mayan ruins are scattered all over Guatemala and the country is perfect for visiting a few. The different Mayan ruins in Guatemala are diverse and they all have their specific characteristics. When we were backpacking in Guatemala, we researched a few options. These are the best and most interesting Mayan ruins to visit in Guatemala. When you go on a Guatemala backpacking trip, visiting Mayan ruins is definitely one of the top things to do in Guatemala.
Tikal Ruins are the most visited ruins in Central America. Even though I understand the madness, they’re a little too touristy. The only way to avoid the buses of visitors is to make sure you arrive before them. Around 9 AM tourism is at its peak and you could already be finishing up.
The Tikal ruins are famous for their appearance in one of the Star Wars movies and they truly fit in this extraterrestrial setting! Most guided tours in the area take you to Tikal ruins. So if you decide to join a tour, Tikal is probably one of the stops in your Guatemala itinerary.
The Mayan ruins of Uaxactun are located 20 kilometers from Tikal and they are the oldest ruins that have been found so far and they aren’t frequently visited by tourists. Most travelers in Guatemala only visit Tikal and don’t go any further.
Yaxha ruins are our favorite Mayan ruins in Guatemala because they are not touristy and for now, you can still visit these ruins in peace and quiet. The Yaxha ruins are surrounded by jungle and most visitors travel to the nearby ruins of Tikal. We recommend people who are backpacking Guatemala to try the Yaxha ruins on a sunset trip in order to get the most beautiful experience. Read our full guide to Yaxha ruins on our blog.
Nakum – Naranjo
When buying an entrance ticket to Yaxha, you also get access to Nakum and Naranjo ruins. We didn’t actually visit these Mayan ruins since it was very late by the time we finished our visit to Yaxha, but they look very promising and they have some of the most beautiful architecture in the area. Nakum and Naranjo ruins are not frequently visited by tourists and you have a good chance of being there all by yourself. Nakum and Naranjo ruins are a bit further down the road from Yaxha.
El Mirador is located very remotely in the north of Guatemala. Currently, the only way to reach the ruins is by hiking through the Guatemalan jungle. El Mirador used to be the capital of the Mayan civilization but is now overgrown with vegetation. This multiple day trek must be done with a guide and it’s very rewarding when you eventually reach the ruins. These are true jungle ruins and they’re not visited by the tourist masses since they’re so difficult to reach.
Rumors say that there are plans to build a railway to the ruins, which would probably ruin the remoteness of this jungle gem and mass tourism would take off. These are the most interesting Mayan ruins in Guatemala, but if you want to do more research on the subject, others have written more extensive guides about the subject.
Guatemala has beaches in the Caribbean, as well as the Pacific side. Even though not all Guatemala beaches have picture perfect white sandy shores, they’re still very worthy of the time and detour. These are the most popular Guatemala beaches.
Tilapa Beach is located all the way in the north of the country and it’s a great stopover when traveling from Mexico into Guatemala. The fishing town of Tilapa is located on the Pacific side and it has dark sandy beaches. The place is popular among backpackers, but there’s not really a party crown, which makes Tilapa beach perfect for people in search of some quiet beach time in Guatemala.
Champerico – El Paredon – Monterrico
The other Guatemala beaches on the Pacific coast are popular among backpackers who are looking for some relaxed surfing experience. All three of these beach towns have backpacker hostels with a party atmosphere. El Paredon is mostly known for surfing and partying. Monterrico has language schools, so this is the place to combine studying with partying. Champerico is the smallest and quietest of these three Guatemala beaches. So if you want to get away from it all for a few days, Champerico is the place for you.
Livingston is the only popular beach on the Caribbean side. Even though Guatemala has quite a few kilometers of shoreline on the Caribbean side, only the Livingston area and the Puerto Barrios area have actual beaches. Surprisingly these are the only beaches that you can easily reach and visit.
Nature in Guatemala
Large parts of Guatemala consist of a jungle. So it’s not too hard to find great natural scenery when you’re on a Guatemala backpacking trip. Jungle hikes and volcano climbing are possible in a lot of places. These are the top natural highlights of Guatemala.
The natural pools of Semuc Champey offer a stunning sight from above and they’re a lot of fun to visit. These stunning turquoise pools lie on top of the wild river Cahabon. At this location, the river itself dives underground for a few hundred meters.
Semuc Champey is a natural wonder that is skipped by most group tours.
It is sometimes difficult to reach even though it’s in the heart of Guatemala but completely surrounded by jungle. When planning a trip to Semuc Champey, don’t skip the Semuc Champey caves. These caves are a cool and interesting side trip to do.
If you plan on visiting this natural highlight in Guatemala, read our guide to Semuc Champey here.
Lago Atitlan is one of the most stunning places on earth. We loved the volcanic crater lake so much that we decided to stay a lot longer than initially planned. After our travel plans fell through due to heavy weather, we even rented an apartment on the shores of this magical lake.
We recommend everyone to visit Lake Atitlan and take your time to do so.
If you want to know which of the Atitlan towns is the best fit for your travel style, read about the different towns of Lake Atitlan here to find out if you would rather stay in San Pedro, San Marcos, Santa Cruz, or Panajachel.
The Rio Dulce or Sweet River is a river that connects the mainland of Guatemala to the Caribbean Sea. It’s definitely worthy of a few days of your Guatemala backpacking time. A boat trip on the Rio Dulce is the only way to reach the ocean from the mainland. This boat trip takes you through some awesome jungle scenery and a steep canyon before you reach the small Garifuna town of Livingston.
Want to visit Rio Dulce? Don’t forget to read our Rio Dulce guide here.
Volcanoes in Guatemala
Guatemala is a part of the Central America Volcano Arc which runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean. It crosses all Central American countries before heading over to South America.
The most important Guatemalan volcanoes are Fuego, Aqua, Pacaya, Acatenango and the volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan. The most popular volcano to hike is the Acatenango volcano. This is a dormant volcano that offers amazing views over the surrounding active volcanoes. This 2-day hike can be done from Antigua.
Backpacking Guatemala – Budget
Guatemala has become more expensive over the recent years due to growing tourism. A lot of backpackers are traveling through this beautiful country and accommodation prices have skyrocketed. Prices for local lunches in restaurants are still the same, but you can feel a difference in touristy places and it will be more difficult to travel through Guatemala on a budget.
In a local eatery, you can get lunch for around 3 to 5€. Mid-range and more expensive restaurants can set you back up to 25€ for a meal.
One beer in a bar or pub costs around 1,5€ for local beers and almost 3€ for imported beers. These are, of course much cheaper in a supermarket.
Transportation on local buses/chicken buses is still very cheap (2€ for a 3-hour ride), but tourist transportation in minibusses and shuttles became very expensive over the years, think European prices (over 15 € for a 3-hour ride).
Hostel prices have gone up too. You can still find cheap hostels, but be ready to lose the comfort and quality. A hostel dorm bed easily set you back 8 to 25€, depending on location, but we encountered beds that were even more expensive. A private room in a hostel costs you at least 35€ or more per day.
Transportation – Getting around in Guatemala
We briefly discussed pricing for transportation in Guatemala before. Now let’s talk about transportation options and more. Getting around when backpacking Guatemala is fairly easy and there are a few options.
Shuttles in Guatemala have only one purpose: driving around tourists. Minibusses are big business in Guatemala and they are an effective and safe method of transportation. A lot of tourists use these services because they’re good. You can usually set up transportation in your hostel and have a minibus picking you up any day of the week to travel to anywhere in Guatemala. Easy right? Right! So for convenient and hassle-free travel: choose a shuttle, but be prepared to pay a little extra. With these buses, you won’t meet any locals or get a feeling of local culture. You’ll be surrounded by English speaking tourists and you’ll probably get to your destination more or less at the predicted time.
Chicken Bus Guatemala
Chicken buses are the most interesting method of transportation in Guatemala and you should use a chicken bus at least once when backpacking Guatemala. The chicken buses are the old US school buses that Guatemalan drivers drive all the way south to Guatemala to paint them in beautiful and shiny colors before using them to transport people in their country. It is a lovely way to get around and you’re very likely to encounter strange scenarios and meet local people. Chicken buses are best for shorter distances because they’re not always very comfortable, but you can use them for long distances as well if you don’t mind being uncomfortable for a long time!
Pullman buses are the most commonly used long-distance buses in Guatemala. These buses transport travelers in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras. They’re pretty comfortable and convenient and luckily, they’re not too expensive. This option is, budget-wise, in between chicken buses and shuttles and they’re particularly good for traveling longer distances.
Collectivo’s look physically like shuttles, but they aren’t.
While shuttles purely exist for tourists, collectivo’s exist for locals.
They’re an awesome method for getting around within cities, but also between different destinations. These minibusses are incredibly cheap and they’re fun to use.
Usually, they’re operated by 2 people: a driver and a helper. The driver’s job is pretty straightforward. The helper has a more fun job in my opinion. He’s yelling destinations the entire time and collecting money in between.
These buses drive on a set route and they stop anywhere along the way. You can board anywhere and pay a fixed price for your trip, mostly very cheap. This way, you won’t encounter too many tourists.
Locals are happy to help you find your destination, but speaking a little Spanish is a great asset.
Tuc tucs are mostly used for transportation within a town or city. They’re basically scooters with a little more seating space and you might be surprised at how much luggage actually fits inside these vehicles. Our tuc tuc driver once fitted 4 people, with large backpacks and daypacks inside his tuc tuc. We weren’t very comfortable and it was an advantage that we were all good friends, but it worked! You must try a tuc tuc when backpacking in Guatemala!
Holidays and festivals in Guatemala
Guatemala is a religious country and they love their festivities every now and then. So there are quite a few festivals to attend and if you spend enough time in the country, you’re very likely to run into a few festivals in different locations. There are just too many to sum up so we collected the most important and memorable festivities and holidays in Guatemala.
Semana Santa or Holy Week
Semana Santa is one of the largest festivities in Guatemala and each city and village has their own version of it. The festival is held in Easter time, usually in March or April and the party goes on for an entire week. If you have to pick a place to celebrate Semana Santa, go for Antigua to experience the biggest Semana Santa event in Guatemala.
Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead
This holy event to honor the dead is not only held in Guatemala but also in Mexico and many other Latin American countries. The Day of the Dead is on the 1st and 2nd of November and it doesn’t resemble the 1st of November honor we know in Europe. The Day of the Dead is an optimistic day and it is more of a celebration with a party.
Mayan New Year
The Mayan year doesn’t start on the first of January and the Mayan year doesn’t have 365 days either. The Mayan calendar counts 260 days in each year, so Mayan New Year is on a different day every year. This ancient event has a lot of rituals and ancient rules that are followed by the indigenous people of Guatemala. The celebrations take place at some of the Mayan sites in Guatemala and in some rural villages. If you’re interested in the ancient ruins and the Mayan culture, you need to check dates and locations for this event.
Is Guatemala safe?
Guatemala is a safe country to visit, even in rural areas. Most Guatemalan people live with a lot less money than travelers do and you shouldn’t be flashing expensive belongings anywhere you go. Of course, you can always become the victim of a travel scam as this can happen anywhere in the world, so keep your eyes open for obvious traps. These are a few tips to stay safe in Guatemala:
- Don’t flash your belongings
- You’re more vulnerable when you’re drunk
- Be careful if you’re alone in the streets at night
Spanish Language for Backpacking Guatemala
Spanish is one of the most beautiful languages in the world and it’s easy to learn a few basic words and sentences. I totally recommend learning a little before taking off for your travels. Then you can still take extra lessons in Spanish in one of the Spanish Schools Guatemala is famous for. So get your Spanish language guide or one of these booklets where you can point at the stuff you want and then get some basic phrases in your head as soon as possible!
Learn Spanish in Guatemala
This country is the perfect place to spend some extra time to learn Spanish in Guatemala. We did two Spanish courses already and we haven’t been disappointed! Spanish courses in Guatemala are a lot cheaper than anywhere in the world and it allows you to spend some more time in the places you love best. Where you’re studying Spanish with a local school, you can either choose to stay in a hostel meanwhile, but most Spanish schools offer the possibility to stay with a local family, which is a great experience.
You can find some of the best Spanish Schools in Antigua Guatemala, but San Pedro la Laguna at Lake Atitlan is also a very scenic place to learn Spanish in Guatemala. And your third option is to learn Spanish in Quetzaltenango. We didn’t try the last option, but I heard about a lot of people studying there.
Guatemala for LGBT travelers
Guatemala is a very religious country and there isn’t a car, bus or tuc tuc in Guatemala that doesn’t have religious amulets inside of it to protect them against loads of stuff. I have no issues with religious people, but they usually aren’t very LGBT-friendly. We have always been low profile in Guatemala, but in more touristy places, you could easily be openly gay. To learn more about LGBT travel in Guatemala, read our dedicated post about being lesbian or gay in Guatemala.
LGBT tip in Antigua: Visit El Atico de Fridas during weekends. There are LGBT parties quite often.
Guatemala tourist visa
Guatemala is a part of the CA4 territory, which means that you get one tourist visa upon entry of the first of these four countries. You can stay for the entire length of your visa in all four countries. You won’t get extra days when you cross borders between these countries, even though you do get your passport stamped.
The four countries of CA4 are Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
Residents of many countries in the world are allowed visa-free entrance into Guatemala. This means you only need your passport to enter and you don’t have to get a visa before traveling to these countries. You will get your 90-day tourist visa upon arrival. A border control officer might ask you a few questions and then he or she will stamp your passport with the number of days you’re allowed to stay in the CA4 area. There are only 2 ways to extend your stay. Travel outside of the CA4 area for a few days or extend your visa in an embassy in one of the capitals of CA4.
Want to know more about crossing the border from Mexico to Guatemala? Read our complete guide about this border crossing here.
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