Guatemala Backpacking – Swim in Crater Lakes and Explore Ancient Mayan Ruins

Backpacking in 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 around 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…

Some of our posts contain affiliate links. This means if you purchase something through one of these links, we get a small commission on the sale. You will never pay extra for an affiliate product. Thanks for your support!

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 townsMayan ruins in Guatemala, Guatemala beaches and a few natural highlights.

Keep scrolling through the guide to find what you need to know!

Cities and towns to visit

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 best cities to visit in Guatemala in this list.

Antigua Guatemala
Antigua Guatemala

Antigua

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 out the best things to do in Antigua here!

Maya Papaya Hostel Antigua
Image Courtesy Hostelworld

Maya Papaya Hostel Antigua

  • Delicious Breakfast
  • Relaxed Vibe
  • On Site Restaurant

Quetzaltenango

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.

Find more things to do in Xela here!

Casa Seibel Quetzaltenango Guatemala
Image courtesy Hostelworld
  • Backpacker Vibe
  • Quiet hostel
  • Communal Kitchen

Flores

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.

Flores is even 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.

Image courtesy Hostelworld

Hostel Peten Express Tikal

  • Awesome lake views
  • Free Breakfast
  • Swimming pool
Tuc Tucs in Flores Guatemala
Tuc Tucs in Flores Guatemala

Livingston

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, descendents of the former slaves who managed to escape.

You can only reach Livingston by boat from Rio Dulce, which is located more inland, from Puerto Barrios in the South or from Punta Gorda In Belize.

Spending the night in Livingston is possible, but you can also visit the Caribbean town in a day trip from the river finca’s or from Rio Dulce.

Read more about the Rio Dulce river and area below.

Casa Nostra Livingston Guatemala
Image courtesy Hostelworld

Casa Nostra

  • Amazing views
  • On-Site Restaurant

Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

Mayan ruins are scattered all over Guatemala and the country is perfect for visiting a few if you want to see a little diversity in different Mayan ruins.

When we were backpacking in the area, we researched a few options and these are the best and most interesting Mayan ruins to visit in Guatemala.

If you’re going on a backpacking trip in Central America, visiting Mayan ruins is definitely one of the top things to do in Guatemala.

These are the very best ruins:

Tikal Mayan Ruins

Tikal Ruins are the most visited ruins in Central America and while 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 9AM 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 will take you to Tikal ruins and if you decide to join a tour, Tikal is probably one of the stops in your itinerary.

Tikal Jungle Lodge

  • Swimming pool
  • Great location inside Tikal NP

Uaxactun Mayan Ruins

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

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 traveling through Guatemala to try the Yaxha ruins on a sunset trip in order to get the most beautiful experience.

Read our extensive guide to Yaxha ruins.

Ecolodge El Sombrero

  • At Lake Yaxha Beach
  • Awesome Views
  • Jungle Cabanas
Yaxha Ruins in Northern Guatemala
Yaxha Ruins in Northern Guatemala

Nakum - Naranjo Mayan Ruins

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.

We featured these ruins extensively in our guide to Yaxha Ruins.

El Mirador Mayan Ruins

El Mirador is located very remote 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 Mayan civilisation, 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.

Rumours 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 about the subject, other have written more extensive guides about the subject.

Guatemala Nightly Views

Guatemala Beaches

Guatemala has beaches on 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

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 and if you’re looking to get away from it all for a few days, Champerico might be the place for you.

Livingston

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 that you can easily reach and visit.

Nature in Guatemala

Large parts of Guatemala consist of jungle and it’s not too hard to find great natural scenery in Guatemala.

Jungle hikes and volcano climbing can be done in a lot of places.

These are the top natural highlights of Guatemala:

Semuc Champey

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, where the river itself dives underground for a few hundred meters.

Semuc Champey is a natural wonder that is skipped by most group tours.

It can be difficult to reach even though it’s in the heart of Guatemala, but completely surrounded by jungle.

If you plan on visiting this natural highlight in Guatemala, read our guide to Semuc Champey here.

Greengos Hostel Semuc Champey Guatemala
Image courtesy Hostelworld

Greengos Hostel Semuc Champey

  • Near Semuc Champey
  • On-Site Bar and Restaurant
Semuc Champey as seen from the Mirador
Semuc Champey as seen from the Mirador

Rio Dulce or 'The Sweet River'

The Rio Dulce or Sweet River is a river that connects the mainland of Guatemala to the Caribbean Sea.

It’s well worthy of a few days of your travel time.

A boat trip on the Rio Dulce is the only way to reach the ocean from the mainland and the 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.

Finca Tatin Rio Dulce

  • Backpacker vibe
  • Jungle Lodge

Lake Atitlan

Lago Atitlan is one of the most stunning places on earth and 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.

Iguana Perdida Lake Atitlan Guatemala

Iguana Perdida Atitlan

  • Amazing views
  • Restaurant and Bar

Volcanoes

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, PacayaAcatenango 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.

Volcanoes in Lake Atitlan Guatemala

Budget needed to travel Guatemala

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 will cost you 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 minibuses has become very expensive, 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 can easily set you back 8 to 25€, depending on location, but we have encountered beds that were even more expensive.

A private room in a hostel will cost you at least 35€ or more.

Transportation - Getting around in Guatemala

We briefly discussed pricing for transportation in Guatemala before. 

Getting around in Guatemala is fairly easy and there are a few options, like buses, tuc tucs, water taxi’s, …

We wrote an extensive guide on the different transportation options in Guatemala. The methods of getting around vary depending on where you are exactly.

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 be attended 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 honour 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 at 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 might 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!

A Spanish verse by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A Spanish verse by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Learn Spanish in Guatemala

Guatemala is the perfect place to spend some extra time to study Spanish.

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 you 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 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 during the entire length of your visum in all four countries. You won’t get extra days when you crosse 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?

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 and our essential LGBT+ guide for Guatemala.

Backpacking in Guatemala - Conclusion

As you can read, there’s a lot to see and do in Guatemala, so this beautiful country should not be missing on your Central American travel itinerary.

If you’re still having trouble to connect all the dots on the map, make sure to check out our perfect Guatemala itinerary. Or maybe you want to learn a little more about the background, history and other interesting facts about Guatemala

Guatemala is an accessible country and it’s definitely an interesting addition to any backpacking trip, round the world trip, or gap year!

Pin it!

Backpacking Guatemala Complete Guide Pin

24 Responses

  1. El Mirador sounds amazing. I love the idea of trekking through the jungle with a guide to check out an ancient city that can only be reached by foot. While it might not be as escaveted as Tikal, it sounds like a real immersive experience.

    1. Indeed! That’s exactly what I think is so magical about Mirador. You could be there all by yourself… because you have to work for it 🙂

  2. I have wanted to visit Antigua and do some trekking around the volcanoes for a long time, but you’ve provided insights into places I wouldn’t have thought to visit. Thanks for such an in-depth review of the different areas in Guatemala.

  3. I’m hoping to visit Guatemala this next year, so I just pinned your post to save for later. That first photo is stunning btw. I’m glad you said that the Tikal ruins aren’t over-run with tourists, pretty sure I will have to go there because I HATE tourist traps more than anything. May even have to come back and get your guide 🙂

    1. Tikal isn’t a tourist trap, but it can get very crowded during the day! Make sure to visit early if you want some alone time with the ruins 😉

  4. So much great information! I’ve heard good and back things about traveling in Guatemala and have it on our future travel list for sure. We’ve been playing around with the idea of going somewhere to learn Spanish, good to know their courses haven’t disappointed you guys.

    1. The Spanish courses were very good! We took classes in Antigua and in San Pedro la Laguna. Both were good, but we definitely recommend the Spanish School in San Pedro. It’s called Community Spanish School. They’re probably one of the best at Lake Atitlan! And yes! Guatemala is definitely worthy of your time. We loved every bit of bit and have been back multiple times!

  5. The landscapes, the lakes, the pyramids and the history… Guatamala really does have everything! This is a great roundup on the incredible diversity of a gorgeous country. Lake Atitlan really does sound like one of the most stunning places on earth!

  6. The first couple of photos had me captivated, and then I was reading avidly. This is somewhere I’ve never been, and there is so much to take in about the natural beauty, the historic sites, the people and the impact of fellow travelers. I loved your description of the various means of transport, and particularly the tuktuk driver who managed that advanced tetris to get all of you and your luggage in his vehicle. The Mayan sites sound spectacular, and a lake that merits a special stay must be a special place indeed. i’ll have to start brushing up on my Spanish!

    1. If you haven’t been yet, you might need to consider 🙂 The real travel experience begins when you need to play Tetris to get into a tuktuk 😀

  7. Your photos really drew me in. Guatemala is a country we have put on our list, but it has pretty far down on the priority … your post has certainly moved it up quite a bit. Love your tips and advice on various transports — and was chuckling that school busses are now the preferred form of long distance bus travel. Not sure school children would agree. 😉 Like many places that are popular, like the Tikal Ruins, there is a reason they are the most visited ruins in Central America. That said, love your advice to get there early and be leaving by 9 when the tourist hordes arrive. So true of so many very popular tourist destinations.

  8. I would love to go to Guatemala and this is a good point of reference even for people who are not backpacking but want to go on a budget. You have some great tips I like the one that Antigua is used as a starting point for volcano hiking that is high on the list and noted for my trip. I am also in love with the Semuc Champey just wow that are beautiful. Good guide you have put together there.

  9. What a great, comprehensive guide. I’d love to see natural pools of Samuc Champey. Is it difficult to reach because it takes a lot of time or because of the condition of roads or because you have to hike some of the jungle to get there?

    1. You don’t need to hike through the jungle to reach Semuc Champey. It’s mainly the condition of the roads. From most destinations in Guatemala, getting to Semuc Champey is a day trip. So travelers who are limited in time, often don’t want to lose 2 days of pure transportation. But I’d say it’s worth it 🙂

  10. Guatemala seems like a perfect country for backpacking, with such beautiful and diverse landscapes and wonderful people and culture too. We really can’t wait to backpack around this region in a year or so.

  11. I must admit that Guatemala was not really on my horizon, but you have certainly whetted my appetite! I guess your advice would also be to go sooner rather than later as tourism seems to have really taken off in the last few years. I love the idea of reaching out of the way ruins on a jungle trek. I really hope they do not build a railway. So much already seems accessible that it would be a shame to spoil this experience for future generations. Similarly the chicken bus and collectivos would be a must for me! When I visit countries I really want to meet the locals, not just mix with other tourists. As I read, the question of safety was on my mind, but you answered this at the end. Thank you. Great reading.

  12. Guatemala is on our radar. I would love to visit the Tikal Ruins and Semuc Champey. Those chicken buses are like the Philippine jeepneys, all brightly painted and decorated.

  13. Inge – what a fabulously detailed post on Guatemala. I travelled there a few years ago, studied Spanish in Antigua and visited Tikal BUT there was so much I never had the chance to visit such as the coasts and Semuc Champey. Thanks for the reminder that I want to go back to Guatemala and explore some more! And those chicken buses…my fav.!

  14. We have friends that invited us out to travel with them in Guatemala, and we’re still on the fence. But this post is tempting us to travel there! I love how colorful the towns look, and our kids would definitely love visiting the Mayan ruins. Did you have any issues being women travelers in Guatemala?

    1. We never had any issues being two women traveling in Guatemala. We went there in 2012 the first time and fell in love with this beautiful country. In 2017 we went back and yes, we still love it! It is getting more crowded as any place seems to get over the years and also the prices went up. We met a couple of families traveling there and their kids had a wonderful time. In terms of safety, we never had a time we felt unsafe. But like in any other place you have to be careful at night or in some neighborhoods. Use your common sense. If you have the opportunity to travel with friends, go for it! 🙂 In a group, you are even safer and it is always nice to discover the world with people who are close to you!

  15. We have those cheesy chicken buses in Panama, too. 😉 Guatamala looks so awesome. It is on my bucket list for sure. Thanks for a great overall guide to the country. I want to see the beaches and the ruins on my travels and take pretty pictures.

  16. I don’t know much about Guatemala and this guide includes a lot of useful information. I haven’t been and would love to go. The ruins would be the highlights for me, and I’d love to spend some time in Livingston.

    1. If you are going and are interested in visiting Ruins, check out the less popular Yahxa Ruins, They are equally amazing as other ruins like Tikal, but it is much quieter there. We had the chance to wander around there in the evening and we were the only ones there with the guides from the park. Watch the sunset on top of a ruin overlooking the lake! Hear the howler monkeys making noise while you are looking over the jungle canopy! Magical!

Share your thoughts!

We're Lobke and Inge

Hey there!
Welcome to Only Once Today! We're Lobke and Inge, the creators of this website and you can call us travel addicts!
Click this box to read more about us!

X