Backpacking in Guatemala is an experience which should be on every traveler’s wish list! This is a country with steaming forests, crumbling temples, golden beaches and friendly, fun loving, locals. In short, Guatemala is a backpackers paradise. Many adventurers start their central american travels in Guatemala and for good reason; the country is safe, cheap and pretty comfortable. The thing that really sold Guatemala to me is the history; the Mayan ruins of Tikal and the nearby mega-city of El Mirador (still hidden in the jungle) have fascinated me ever since I first learnt about them. There’s nothing quite like trekking through jungle corridors to find yourself standing in a clearing, a towering Mayan pyramid looming before you. This is Indiana Jones style exploring at it’s best!
Backpacking in Guatemala is relatively easy, if you have a bit of cash it’s possible to arrange everything through tour agencies but in all honesty, there are much cheaper ways to see the country. If you can, try to avoid the rainy season and visit the country from November to April. The really popular guest-houses fill up fast so this is a country where it can definitely be worth making reservations. The local Guatemalan people are a really friendly bunch and keen to help so if you have any problems don’t be afraid to ask for directions from the locals. A little bit of Spanish goes a long way in Central America so it is worth trying to learn a few phrases if you can.
- Accommodation: Room costs vary wildly across the country with Antigua being one of the most expensive places to stay. In general, the good places fill up fast so you want to try and book in advance. It’s possible to get a dorm bed for as little as 35Q (around $5) but a double room will often cost the price of two beds in a dorm so if there’s two of you, you can have a private room most of the time for no additional cost.
- Food: The food is cheap, tasty and plentiful. There’s not as much street food as I would like but you can normally pick up a meal in a local Comedor for around $3. If your eating out in Antigua, expect to pay more like $12 for a decent meal.
- Transport: When it comes to getting around in Guatemala, the options are pretty much endless. I hitched a fair bit and found it relatively easy and safe but some locals seemed to think I was crazy for risking it! The cheapest way to get around is by chicken bus. This is how most of the locals get around. Chicken buses started off as US school buses before being sold on and glammed up – they tend to be covered in glitzy chrome and sport kick ass paint jobs. If you can get a seat then they tend to be relatively comfortable but the conducters fill these buses to bursting points so travelling with backpacks can be a pain. Tourist shuttles are available to most major destinations on the backpacker circuit but they cost significantly more.
- Activities: From kayaking and trekking to horse-riding and paragliding, Guetamala is an adventure playground. You can do some activities really cheap, certainly cheaper than back home, but others, like paragliding, tend to be quite expensive.
Top Things to See and Do
- Antigua: Most first time travelers backpacking in Guatemala arrive in Antigua first. This is a classic colonial town, a cool place to kick back and chill out with a beer or two or go for a wander through the cobblestone streets. The brand spanking new Hostel Tropicana is definitely one of the best places to stay in town; dorm beds are just $7 and it has a pool but you really must book in advance. If you want something a little quieter, check out the super homely Captain Toms, near the market. During the day, wander around the main square or just chill out in one of the hundreds of cafes. For cheap, local, food try and find El Faro. The local McDonalds is also worth a visit (no, really!) as the building itself is stunning. For something really special check out the amazing Casa Santo Tomas: this is without a doubt one of the nicest restaurants I have ever been to. If your looking to party, check out the Terrace hostel’s rooftop bar or swing by the Snug. The legendary after-party is where people tend to finish up; you’ll have to ask around to find out where it is. You can get pretty much anything you want in Antigua with cocaine being the most readily available party drug. Just bear in mind that a lot of it is still cut and relatively pricey.
- Lake Atitlan: Just a few hours from Antigua, Atitlan is an easy bus journey or hitch away. There are a whole number of different villages here, all of which have totally different vibes. The most popular is undoubtedly San Pedro, a backpacker enclave with some cool bars, chilled out restaurants (especially the amazingly cheap Taco Mex) and easygoing hostels – Mr Mullet’s is one of the best value and Hostel Fe is also worth a look. I definitely recommend checking out the lake, going for a swim and hiking up the nearby San Pedro Volcano, just bear in mind it will take around six hours! The nearby San Marcos is a paradise for those who are, well, just a little bit unique. San Marcos is a mecca for yoga students, massage therapists and spiritual centers. The Yoga Village, perched high above the main town, is a truly amazing place to stay and I highly recommend chilling here for a couple of days. It’s a bit pricey – $25 a night for a hammock – but the price includes 2 yoga sessions and all your food.
- Chichitenango: Chichi is home to the biggest market in North America and this is where you want to hunt for awesome souvenirs. I got a custom made leather holder for my zippo for around $3 and there was plenty of other bargains to be had. It’s an easy journey from Atitlan but bear in mind the market is only open on Thursdays and Sundays.
- Xela: If you fancy getting off the beaten track, Xela is the place to start. This bustling mountain town is a great place to organise 1 to 7 day treks in the stunning mountains. You will stay with local families and see a side of Guatemala which most backpackers miss out on, if you have the time this is definitely worth doing. I recommend attempting Nebaj to Todos Santos – four days of trekking through stunning and really varied scenery.
- Semuc Champey: Semuc is probably my favourite place in all of Guatemala. It’s a bitch to get there, so much so that most backpackers opt to stay in nearby Lanquin and simply visit Semuc for a day. If you do stay in Lanquin, Zephyr is a cool hostel to party. In Semuc itself, you can stay in the super cheap el-portal eco lodge. It costs 50q to get into Semuc for the day but it’s well worth it. Swim, dive and splash in the stunning emerald pools till your heart’s content. You can also trek to a look-out point for panaromic views over the forest. If your feeling brave, head to the nearby caves and swim into them with a candle to explore. You can climb up waterfalls, scramble along the walls and jump into some super deep, and pitch black, pools. It sounds crazy but I myself didn’t think it was too dangerous – then again, I can swim properly. Watching some people try to swim with one hand whilst keeping their candles above the water was pretty hilarious… Yes, I am a bad person.
- Flores: From Semuc, you have a hell of a journey, 11 hours or so, to Flores. Most backpackers make a beeline for the admittedly awesome Los Amigos Hostel (a great place to spend an evening) but I opted for the much quieter Dona Goya. Flores itself is tiny, you can walk around it in about 20 minutes. It’s a chilled out little island and a good place to base yourself before you head to Tikal or El Mirador. It’s only worth doing the five day trek to El Mirador if you are well into the dry season, during the wet season the trekking paths become a total quagmire.
- Tikal: Tikal is the whole reason I came to Guatemala. It’s a truly amazing place. I spent an afternoon here wandering around the temples, climbing all over everything and just soaking in the atmosphere. I didn’t see another person the whole time I was there so it was pretty special. In the evening, I camped just outside the temple grounds and had dinner in the Maya Imperio Comedor (the cheapest of the three local restaurants on site). You can hire all the camping gear you need at the site for about twelve dollars. Because I had bought my ticket in the afternoon, it was valid for the whole of the next day so I spent the morning exploring more temples before leaving and catching a bus back to Flores for four dollars. I wouldn’t recommend taking a guide or organising anything other than transport in advance, it will get real expensive, real fast. To get into Tikal itself costs twenty bucks. Check out this video I made whilst in Tikal.
- Finca Ixobel: From Flores its an easy journey towards Poptan which is just 1km from the awesome Finca Ixobel. This working farm is a great place to chill out and explore the countryside on foot or by horse. It has super cheap digs – both shared dorms and cool treehouses.
- Rio Dulche: Lots of backpackers head to Rio Dulche to grab a kayak and explore the river. A few push on to the Caribbean-esque town of Livingstone which is a love it or hate it affair. I sadly ran out of time and continued on to Honduras.
- From Rio Dulce: There are plenty of options as to where to go next on your Guatemalan backpacker adventure. I decided to cross the border (which was a nightmare but that’s another story) and head to the striking ruins of Copan in Honduras but you could just as easily start island hopping, explore more of the coast or head back towards Guatemala city.
Backpacking in Guatemala for free!
Perhaps one of the best options for backpackers wanting to explore Guatemala long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country is to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL course, please read my in-depth report on teaching english abroad.
Even if you are only going on a short trip, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun on your backpacking adventure but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on your Guatemala backpacking adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
Peace and love guys!
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