Guatemala’s steaming jungles, diverse highlands, active volcanos, and crumbling Mayan temples will keep even the most adventurous travellers busy for weeks. It’s no wonder travellers (and hippies) have been backpacking Guatemala for decades.
My favourite part about Guatemala is the prominent, vibrant Mayan culture that is still alive and well (despite hundreds of years of persecution due to Spanish colonization and racism, but that’s another story). If you haven’t travelled to Central America yet, get ready for a culturally enriching and adventurous journey you’ll be recounting to your friends for years to come.
Table of Contents
- Where to go Backpacking in Guatemala
- Guatemala Travel Tips
Where to go Backpacking in Guatemala
Guatemala is a relatively small country, so you can cover a lot of ground with minimal time. That being said, many backpackers spend months in hotspots like Antigua, Xela, and Lake Atitlan.
Whether you love or hate the remains of Spanish colonization, Antigua is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in the world. It’s also an excellent base to explore closeby volcanos; a few are still active and it’s possible to watch Volcano Fuego erupt – a must-see on any Guatemala itinerary.
The highlands of Guatemala are home to many Mayan communities and some beautiful places. Lake Atitlan is the most famous destination in the highlands, thanks to the beautiful scenery and dozens of unique towns surrounding the lake. If you want to get off the beaten path, check out the Ixil Region, and consider participating in a homestay. Many expats and long-term backpackers base themselves in Xela for Spanish lessons and an immersive cultural experience.
Arguably, the most beautiful region of Guatemala is the Cobán region in the centre of the country, thanks to its green jungles, caves, and endless waterfalls. It’s hard to get here, but completely worth it. The clear-blue pools and waterfalls of Semuc Champey are the most famous part in Cobán, and for good reason, though it is possible to explore other lesser known areas like Las Conchas and Laguna Lachuá National Park.
The northern region of Guatemala is called Petén, bordering Mexico. This is where the most impressive Mayan ruins are located (though you can find them throughout the country). Tikal warrants a couple days of exploring and is possibly my favourite place in Central America.
Though often forgotten about, Guatemala is also home to some nice black-sand beaches. The Pacific Coast is physically separated from most of the country by a volcano range, hence the black sand. If you feel like getting away from the Gringos, catch some wild surf or chill out on the beach – although the best surf is south in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Monterrico is the most famous town, and also where many Guatemalans vacation.
Finally, Guatemala grows some of the best coffee in the world! Make sure to visit a local coffee farm or another type of finca (farm) in Guatemala, and help support the local economy. You can also visit cacao farms and factories, as well as macadamia and avocado farms!
I have included 3 Guatemala Itineraries below to inspire your next visit! It is possible to see a lot of the country in just a few short weeks of backpacking Guatemala.
Backpacking Guatemala 4 Week Itinerary #1: Guatemala’s Highlights
4 Weeks: Guatemala’s Highlights
If you truly want to explore Guatemala, I suggest setting aside at least 4 weeks. There are a few backpacker spots that can easily captivate your heart and steal you away for months.
If you are flying to Guatemala, you will definitely start your trip in Guatemala City, the capital. I’ve spent a lot of time in the city, but I don’t recommend that tourists spend much time here. Head to the beautiful (though touristy) colonial city of Antigua instead.
Only 45 minutes from the capital, Antigua feels a world away from the city. You can easily spend several days in Antigua, especially if you plan on visiting nearby fincas (farms) and hiking a lot of volcanoes.
While it technically makes sense to head to Lake Atitlan first, I’m going to suggest you get a bus to the city of Xela next. Xela is another backpacker hang out, a bit grimier than Antigua, though more authentic and cheaper to live. This is another great town to base yourself for nearby volcanos and hikes! Many backpackers choose to live here for a couple months for volunteer opportunities and Spanish lessons instead of Antigua (which is more expensive and touristy).
You can access the lesser visited highland area of Guatemala, like the Ixil Region (the most targetted area during the Civil War), here.
From Xela, hike to Lake Atitlan with the awesome crew at Quetzal Trekkers. This volunteer-based non-profit company guides various hikes out of Xela while raising money for the local schools. The Xela to Lake Atitlan 3 day excursion is one of the coolest experiences you can have in Guatemala because you have the opportunity to hike through and spend the night in remote Mayan villages only connected by narrow footpaths.
Once in Lake Atitlan, you can spend weeks here, as many backpackers do. I suggest devoting at least 1 week. The lake is rather large, and all of the surrounding towns are completely unique to one another.
From Lake Atitlan, you can visit Chichicastenango, home to the biggest market in Central America. The market is only open on Thursdays and Sundays, so plan accordingly.
Then we leave the Guatemalan highlands and head to Guatemala’s beautiful Cobán region, full of jungles, waterfalls, and Maya culture. The most famous backpacker hang out is Semuc Champey, near the town of Lanquin (where the hostels are located, thanks to the unreal waterfalls and pools. You’ll want at least 3 days here, especially since the journey to/from is tiring.
Next take an overnight bus to Flores, the gateway to the impressive Mayan ruins of Tikal. Flores is a laidback town and backpacker hang out on the middle of an island in a lake. You only need a couple days to visit Tikal, but you can access other Mayan ruins like Yaxha. You can also arrange a 5-6 day hiking excursion to the newly discovered El Mirador ruins, which are still being uncovered by archaeologists today!
After visiting Tikal you can travel onwards to Belize or Mexico by bus. Otherwise, you need to return to Guatemala City for an international flight.
If you are travelling south on the Central American gringo trail, you can bus to the Caribbean side of Guatemala. Most backpackers stop in Río Dulce and Livingston, where the river meets the ocean, for a few days, and then carry on to Honduras, specifically the Bay Islands for some diving.
Backpacking Guatemala 2 Week Itinerary #2: Guatemala Highlands
2 Weeks: Guatemala Highlands
This is a great itinerary if you only have 2 weeks to backpack Guatemala. You will start your trip in Guatemala City and quickly head to Antigua for 5 days. From here you can shop, explore the local fincas, and climb volcanoes like Volcano Acatenango and Volcano Santa Maria.
Next head to Lake Atitlan and base yourself for another 5 days. You can make a day trip to Chichicastenango for the biggest market in Central America.
Finish your adventures with 4 days in Xela, exploring the nearby volcanos, hot springs, and villages. Catch a ride back to Guatemala City just in time for your flight.
Backpacking Guatemala 1 Week Itinerary #3: Jungles and Ruins
1 Week: Cobán and Petén’s Jungles and Ruins
If someone only has one week to explore Guatemala I suggest two options. One, stay in Antigua and explore the nearby surroundings.
Or two, go on an adventure through Guatemala’s jungles and ruins. Catch a long bus to Lanquín and base yourself here for 3 days exploring the nearby caves and Semuc Champey. Next, take an overnight bus to Tikal and explore the ruins for two days before looping back to Guatemala City via an overnight bus, or moving on to Mexico for more Mayan ruins.
Now that we’ve covered a few Guatemala itineraries, I’m going to expand on what you should do in the best places to visit in Guatemala, including Antigua, Xela, the Tikal area, and more.
Most first-time travellers who are backpacking Guatemala will start their trip in Antigua. This is a classic colonial town and a great place to kick back or wander through the cobblestone streets.
During the day, wander around the main square, do some shopping, or just chill out in one of the hundreds of cafes. There are plenty of great places to eat here, like Cafe Condesa and the organic Cafe Boheme. Don’t neglect the local food either! For something really special check out the amazing Casa Santo Tomas or Rainbow Café.
If you’re looking to party, check out the Terrace hostel’s rooftop bar or swing by the Snug. Cafe No Se is the best bar is the best bar in Antigua, set up somewhat like a speakeasy. Try their homemade (illegal) mezcál, which is similar to tequila with a smoky flavour.. Tropicana Hostel is the party hostel in the area, but there are hundreds of guesthouses to choose from for something more relaxing.
I can also recommend Tropicana Hostel for the nearby volcano climbs like Volcano Acatenango. They offer fair prices, good gear, and a great view from their base camp.
For a real treat, head outside Antigua to Home Earth Lodge, an eco hotel and avocado farm.
There are plenty of great farms to visit nearby. Make sure to visit a coffee farm for an afternoon, or better yet, volunteer at one. For a unique experience, visit Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm for the best macadamia pancakes and to learn about their mission. This farm is working to save the planet (madadamis trees are more sustainable than almonds and avocados) and give local families plots of land to provide a sustainable income (macadamia nuts grow year-round providing consistent income).
Visiting Antigua’s Nearby Volcanoes
There are a few awesome volcanoes you can summit near Antigua!
Volcan Pacaya is the easiest volcano to climb, and just takes a few hours. You can even roast marshmallows on the volcano. It is active, so you can’t climb to the top, but you can watch smoke arise from the crater and a somewhat safe distance! The last eruption – in 2014 – was catostraphic for the nearby villages.
My favorite volcano is Volcan Acatenango, which offers stunning views of the nearby Volcano Fuego (an active volcano erupting constantly). This is usually a 2 day climb where you spend the night near the top. (Although this volcano is extinct – meaning it will never erupt again – don’t because of the intense wind and cold.)
You can also climb Volcan Agua for spectacular views of Antigua. Hiking time is about 5 hours from Santa Maria de Jesús.
Backpacking Lake Atitlan
Just a few hours from Antigua, Lake Atitlan is an easy bus journey or hitchhike away. There are a number of villages surrounding the lake with completely different atmospheres. Many of them require a boat to reach them.
Panajachel is the most convenient town to base yourself because it’s connected to the main road. Many expats live here for its convenient shops, restaurants, and bars.
The most popular backpacker town is undoubtedly San Pedro, thanks to its cheap bars, restaurants (check out Zoola!) and easygoing hostels. Mr Mullet’s offerst one of the best valued dorms. I definitely recommend hanging out by the lake or renting kayaks. Make sure to hike up the nearby San Pedro Volcano. Bear in mind it takes 6 hours!
You can also summit Volcano Atítlan – the tallest of the three volcanoes – in 8 hours.
On the other side of the lake, you’ll find San Marcos, a hippy enclave and mecca for yoga, massage, and spirituality. The Yoga Forest holds retreats high above the main town. It’s pricy, but includes 3 meals and 2 yoga sessions a day.
My favorite town is Santa Cruz, next to San Pedro. You can visit local co-ops, take a weaving class, or visit the beautiful shops and cafés. It’s a quiet, laidback atmosphere with plenty of authentic culture. You also have access to a coffee farm that serves their coffee on a nice patio!
Iguana Hotel (pictured below) is a great place to base yourself for a couple days. Located in Santa Cruz, there isn’t much to do here except chill and admire the view, but that’s kind of the point. Hike up the steep hill to visit the locals!
Chichi is home to the biggest market in North America! It’s an awesome place to explore and hunt for souvenirs and beautiful Maya textiles. Te market is only open on Thursdays and Sundays, so plan accordingly.
The local Santo Tomás Church blends both Maya rituals and Catholitism, and it’s well worth a visit. Most people just take a day trip to ChiChi.
Backpacking Xela (Quetzaltenango)
Quetzaltenango is commonly referred to as Xela (pronounced Shela). This bustling mountain town is a great city to organise 1 to 7 day treks in the stunning mountains, or base yourself for Spanish lessons, as many gringos do! Xela isn’t as clean or extravagent as Antigua, but it’s also not as expensive.
You can arrange a homestay with local families around here and see a side of Guatemala many travellers miss.
While visiting Xela, check out the local cemetary. Seriously! It’s colorful and fascinating. I also recommend indulging in the local street food, like pupusas, a delicious Salvadorian dish that is popular in Guatemala.
From Xela, you have access to hotsprings and several volcanoes. Tajamulco Volcano is the highest point in Central America. You can hike for three days to Lake Atitlan via narrow footpaths in between remote Mayan villages. Another great multi-day hike is Nebaj to Totod Santos – foud days of trekking through the stunning and varied scenery.
Backpacking Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is an absolutely stunning series of waterfalls and limestone pools. Most people stay in the nearby town of Lanquin. It’s a bitch to get here, so allot enough time to chill and recuperate.
You can also trek to a look-out point for panoramic views of the rainforest. If you’re feeling brave, head to the nearby caves and swim through the darkness with nothing but a candle. You can climb up waterfalls, scramble along walls, and just in deep, pitch-black pools. It’s actually not too dangerous, as long as you can swim properly!
Get some intel on how to get from Antigua to Semuc Champey in this post.
Backpacking Flores and Tikal
From Semuc, you have a hell of a journey, 11 hours or so, to Flores. Most backpackers stay at the awesome Los Amigos Hostel, though 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.
Make sure to visit the local night markets for amazing street food and deserts!
Tikal is a truly amazing place. Often times you wil have the national park to yourself to wander around the massive temples with spider and howler monkeys swinging above you.
If you hike to El Mirador, make sure to shop around for a proper guide!
Backpacking Rio Dulce & Livingston
A lot of backpackers head to Rio Dulce, though it’s honestly not my favorite spot anymore. I used to love going there as a kid, but now it’s sort of expensive, especially the food, and the mosquitos and cockroaches are heinous. Plus, everyone gets around via boat, so you kind of get “stuck” at your accomodation after hours (swatting away the mosquitos and cockroaches).
That being said, it is a cool experience to grab a kayak or rent a boat and explore the river. The lush vegetation and mangroves are beautiful, and the houses built on stilts on the river are a sight to see. Still, I say 2 full days is plenty here.
Some travellers continue on to the Caribbean town of Livingston. I haven’t been, but I’ve heard mixed reviews. Some say it’s pretty dirty. Others say the Garifuna culture of Linvingston is fasinating! It’s a completely different cultural experience than elsewhere in Guatemala.
Room costs vary wildly across the country. Antigua is easily the most expensive place 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 $8-10. 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 for no additional cost.
|Location||Hostel||Why We Like it?!|
|Antigua||El Hostal||This is such a fun party hostel with a great social vibe. Plus it even includes free breakfast!|
|Lake Atitlan||La Iguana Perdida||A bit out of the way in Santa Cruz, this hostel has amazing views, it's clean, fun games, but food is pricey|
|Xela (Quetzaltenango)||The Black Cat||Kind staff, good breakfast, and good location. Not the cleanest (but hostels in Xela aren't in general)|
|Flores||Hostel Casa de Grethel||I loved chilling in the hammocks by the dock on the water! They have a free boat that's available at any time to take you across the water.|
|Rio Dulce/Livingston||Casa de la Iguana||The staff here are what makes this place special. It's a chilled green oasis that moves with the pace of the river!|
Top Things to do in Guatemala
Whether you love the culture, the high lands, or the jungle, Guatemala has something incredible to discover in each of its distinctly different regions. Explore until your heart’s content and love every single minute of it.
I have listed the top 10 most popular and best things to do in Guatemala below to get your ideas flowing for your next trip backpacking Guatemala!
1 . Explore Tikal’s Mayan Ruins
Deep in the jungle, Tikal’s ruins were never discovered by Spanish invadors, so they remain remarkably brilliant and restored. This ancient city is impressive both in size and grandeur, and a testament to the cultural heights of the ancient Mayan civilization.
2. Visit the Beautifully Restored Colonial City of Antigua
Yes, Antigua is touristy (and expensive), but the vibrant, cobblestone city has everything you want in a backpacker hotspot: good restaurants and bars, epic volcanic scenery, an excellent base for multi-day hikes, coffee farms, and great shopping opportunities.
3. Shop for Traditional Mayan Textiles and Souvenirs
And speaking of shopping opportunities, Guatemala has endless opportunities to shop for amazing souvenirs. This is my favorite country in the world (along with Morocco) for shopping, thanks to the hand-woven, colorful Maya textiles.
If you want to go big (and not go home), visit Chichicastenango. On Thursdays and Sundays, this town is home to the largest marketplace in Central America. Lake Atitlan (the towns of San Juan and Panajachel, specifically) and Antigua have great shopping opportunities too.
4. Summit a Volcano
Guatemala is home to 37 volcanos! This means you plenty of options to summit one! Keep in mind a few of them are active… and dangerous to climb. Favorites include Volcano Acatenango, Tajumulco, and San Pedro.
5. Hang out around Lake Atitlán
This might be my favorite destination in Guatemala, due to its amazing scenery (three volcanos), and amazing villages and towns, each with something different to offer. There is a prominent Maya indigenous culture here too. Make sure to support the locals, visit some co-ops, and kick back with a cerveza on the lake!
6. Take Spanish Lessons in Quetzaltenango (commonly known as Xela)
This city blends mountain scenery, indigenous life, and wonderful architecture. It’s a great city (not as expensive or touristy as Antigua) to base yourself and learn another language! There are numerous language institutes to choose from. It’s also a great base to visit nearby volcanos, Laguna Chicabal, and natural hot springs.
7. Swim in the clear blue pools of Semuc Champey
This series of limestone pools and waterfalls in the middle of the jungle is known as one of the most beautiful places in Central America.
8. Visit the lesser known beaches of Guatemala
While Nicaragua tends to steal the spotlight for the best beaches and surf in Central America, Guatemala’s raw, black sand beaches are cool in their own right.
9. Hike to El Mirador
This six-day hike will lead you through steamy jungles, mud, and mosquitos to the newly discovered talle
10. Visit a finca and local co-ops trying to better the local economy
Books to Read While Traveling Guatemala
The Backpacker Bible: Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building an online income.
I, Rigaberta Menchú – Winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, Rigoberta Menchú is a rural indigenous Guatemalan woman, who recounted her story of her father, mother and brother’s murder during the Guatemalan military campaign to eradicate “communism” in the countr;yside. It was her story that truly put the human rights abuses and questio of genocide on the world’s radar in the 1990s.
Rigoberta Menchú and All Poor Guatemalans – David Stoll’s book contested Menchús story, claiming that her recount was not entirely truthful, and fabricated. It’s worth a read if you are serious about learning about Rigoberta’s story. I think he’s kind of a shit for writing this, but some of his claims are valid. Still, Menchú’s cause is supported.
Bitter Fruit: The Story of the America Coup in Guatemala – A powerful account on the CIA operation to overthrow the democraically elected Jacobo Arbenz, who was going to strip land from the elitist to provide peasants with the opoportunity for economic growth. This coup led to the 36-year civil war.
Homies and Hermanos – Basesd on Guatemala City’s street gangs, and why a number of gang members are leaving to become evangelists.
Silence on the Mountain – Written by young human rights worker Daniel Wilkinson, Silence on the Mountain begins in 1993 when the author investigates the arson of a coffee plantation worker’s home by guerrillas.
Spanish Travel Phrases for Backpacking Guatemala
The first official language of Guatemala is Spanish, but there are also 23 Mayan languages spoken here! Many Mayans in remote places do not speak Spanish, let alone English. This is quickly changing in the touristic areas. 10 years ago most Mayans couldn’t speak Spanish here. Now they speak Spanish and English.
Staying Safe in Guatemala
On one hand, Guatemala is totally safe for backpackers, but I have extensive family here so I hear about all of the dangers and dicey stories. Most touristic areas are safe, but you do need to be careful for both petty theft and armed robberies (mostly at night in isolated areas).
The most dangerous areas of Guatemala are generally congregated within certain zones of Guatemala City.
In my experience, most robberies or assaults happen at night – when one or both parties are intoxicated. Walk in large groups from the bars, especially if you are a girl. Generally, do not travel after dark. There are staged muggings that target rental cars and luxury vehicles.
The exception is the highway to Tikal, which is safe for overnight buses and vans. Chicken buses are also safe (and cheap) for getting around Guatemala, but there have been fatal accidents around the windy highlands. I do not recommend riding chicken buses in Guatemala City due to gang voilence and extortion. I wrote more about why here.
People are warm and inviting in Guatemala, and you should have no problem getting around, but I am not going to sugarcoat the economic situation in Guatemala. Half the population lives below poverty and gang violence is increasing in the city – mostly in specific zones.
Traveling here is safe, so don’t let the talks of gang voilence shy you away, as this doesn’t specifically target tourists, but it is best to be aware. Always ask your hostels and hotels for up-to-date safety information.
Check out this post for plenty of ideas on ingenious ways to hide your money when travelling.
Sex, Drugs & Rock n Roll
Weed is definitely common on the backpacker scene throughout Guatemala. Although it’s easily available, it’s also easy to wind up in trouble with the po po, especially in touristy area’s like Lake Atitlan.
Check out Blazed Backpackers 101 for tips on how to stay safe whilst backpacking Guatemala!
Get Insured Before Backpacking Guatemala
Trust me, it is well worth getting insurance before backpacking Guatemala and the rest of Central America. Not only will you want to be insured in case of an accident, but petty theft is something to prepare for. Best to get your money back for any stolen items!
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.
Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
What to Pack for Guatemala
On every adventure, there are five things I never go traveling without:
1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
2. Pocket Blanket: This lightweight, waterproof, super compact pocket blanket is a must for all adventures. Doubling up as an emergency poncho, this picnic blanket is worth its weight in gold when chilling, or camping, on the beach. It comes with a carabiner, a secret zipped pocket where you can hide stuff and pocket loops which you can weigh down using stones.
3. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
4. Headtorch: I would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, a decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).
5. Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colorful and tough.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
Best Time to Travel to Guatemala
Guatemala has two seasons: the dry season and wet season.
The dry season generally takes place from December to May. This is the best season to travel to Guatemala if you want to do a lot of hiking.
The wet season is from June to November and is generally the cheapest time to visit Guatemala. It only rains for a couple hours a day, so it doesn’t necessarily mean your vacation is ruined!
While most of Guatemala is tempurate, January and February can get chilly at elevation, especially if you are summitting volcanos. Sometimes it even snows up there! Make sure to bring a couple layers for the nights in the Highlands. Bring a down jacket, beanie, and warm layers for trekking the volcanoes.
Apps to Download before Travelling to Guatemala
Maps.Me – Prone to getting lost or taking that ‘shortcut’ that adds another few hours onto a simple walk? This app is definitely for you. My favourite offline maps app, download your map, and route before you venture out to keep you on track while backpacking Guatemala.
XE Currency – I used this a lot when backpacking Guatemala. It is a great help while calculating expenses.
HIDE.ME – I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.
Guatemala Travel Guide to Getting Around
If you are flying into Guatemala, the only international airport is in the capital, and it’s a rather small airport. There is also an airport in Tikal, but flights come in and out of Guatemala City, and they’re expensive.
If you are arriving overland by bus (as many travellers do) you can arrive by the Mexico, Belize, or Honduras border. I have covered the overland border crossings in the “onward travel from Guatemala” section below.
Entry Requirements for Guatemala
You will receive a 90 day tourist visa on arrival for free. The visa includes entrance and exit to El Salvador and Honduras.
How to Travel in Guatemala
Buses are the main way to travel in Guatemala. Most locals get around by chicken bus, which are essentially tricked-out and bedazzled old American school buses. They are quite an experience, though sometimes a bit dicey on the sharp turns in the highlands. I actually wrote an entire post about Chicken Buses and why the drivers have the most dangerous job in Guatemala.
Chicken buses are dirt cheap for Westerners, often costing less than a $1. They stop every few minutes though, so be prepared for long travel days. You can also take private deluxe buses for long journeys, like Antigua to Xela, or from Guatemala City to Tikal. Overnight buses can be dangerous in certain areas, but the route to Tikal is totally fine, and recommended to save time and accomodation costs.
Most tourist destinations are also connected by private shuttle vans that cater to tourists, often transporting backpackers from their hostel’s front doorstep. These are significanly more expensive than the chicken buses, so I rarely used them though sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself A/C and comfort.
I recommend using a private shuttle to get to your next destination in Honduras/Nicaragua for safety reasons.
The only time you would take a flight is to/from Tikal, and it’s expensive, so don’t count on flight travel in Guatemala. Río (River) Dulce’s river is the lifeline of the area, and the locals and tourists get around by boat. They even have gas stations to fill up.
Hitchhiking in Guatemala
The chicken buses are pretty cheap, but if you want to hitch a ride, check out some info on Hitchwiki. You’ll catch a ride easier if you appear clean cut. The dirty hippy look doesn’t really fly.
Onwards Travel from Guatemala
Belize: Frequent local and tourist buses and vans cross the border from Flores near Tikal to Belize. Most of these buses go to San Ignacio before reaching the coast.
Mexico: There are buses and tourists vans that pass through La Mesilla border, mostly to San Crístobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico (one of my favorite areas of Mexico). If you want to get to the Caribbean side of Mexico, you will need to pass through Belize. Buses will go to Chetumal. From here you can get a bus to Bácalar, Mahahual, or other areas in the Costa Maya region, and then continue up to other places like Tulum.
You have to pay the entrance and exit visa fees for Belize, even if you are not staying there. There is one company – Marlin Espadas – that will do this trip to Mexico in one day. If you take the local bus, you will end up spending at least one night in Belize, so you may as well make a trip out of it.
Honduras: You can easily get a bus or van from Guatemala City or Antigua to Honduras. Many private buses and vans will stop at the Cópan Ruins in Honduras too. If you want to get to the Bay Islands – Utila is a backpacker and diving hot spot – you will need to take a bus or van to La Ceiba. From here you can catch a 4 pm ferry. There are some companies that drive you between Río Dulce and La Ceiba.
El Salvador: El Salvador is easily reachable from Antigua or Guatemala City.
Nicaragua: Many travellers go to Nicaragua by crossing through Honduras or El Salvador. There are tourist vans and buses that will do this in one day, but I have to warn you it is a long day. You will pass through a lot of traffic in Honduras. Talk to your hostel in Antigua or Guatemala City for more information.
A lot of blogs will tell you that Guatemala is extremely cheap, but the truth is costs have gone up quite a bit in the last couple years, and Mexico and Nicaragua are cheaper.
If you want to backpack Guatemala for less than $20 a day you need to really dirtbag it. Only take chicken buses, stay outside tourist areas, eat beans, rice, and tortillas, and do not parcipate in many tourist activities.
It is possible to backpack Guatemala for $10 a day by participating in Workaways (which are generally easy to get in Guatemala), staying away from Antigua, and cooking all of your own food or eating street food.
Local food is rather cheap. The best street food is actually El Salvadorian rooted – Papusas – which are amazing! You can get a meal at a local comedor for around $3. Beans, rice, and corn tortillas are staple. Guatemala makes amazing blue corn tortillas.
Antigua is actually pretty expensive for a decent meal, and reflective of US restaurant costs.
Transportation is fairly cheap, especially on chicken buses. Tourist shuttles are available to most major destinations on the backpacker circuit but they cost significantly more.
If you are eating at restaurants and shopping at grocery markets (similar to US prices), using shuttle vans to get around, and participating in fun activities: yoga ($5 for drop-in), entrance ticket to Tikal ($35), kayak Río Dulce ($15), surf, hire a group guide for hikes and volcanos (prices vary), visit fincas, souvenir shop. etc., you should budget $35 a day to be safe.
Money in Guatemala
Cash is the only way to pay at outdoor markets, food stalls, small bakeries, and chicken buses.
ATMs are widely available everywhere, but you can expect a withdrawal fee for international bank cards, which is why I travel with a debit card that refunds me for transaction fees. (Americans, I recommend checking out Charles Schwab!)
|You should always have some emergency cash hidden on you and Will (Broke Backpacker founder) has written an entire post on the best places to hide your money. If you want to carry a fair bit of cash safely on your body, your best bet is to get hold of a backpacker belt with a hidden security pocket.|
Top Tips for Broke Backpackers
Camp: With plenty of gorgeous places to camp, Guatemala can be a great place to camp in the rural areas. Just be safe! Most hostels will also let you pitch a tent for a small fee. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking. Or if you’re feeling real adventurous and want to save some cash, consider picking up a backpacking hammock.
Cook your own food: If you are on a tight budget, you can save money by cooking your own food – I recommend bringing a portable backpacking stove. if you are camping.
Couchsurf: While there isn’t a huge couchsurfing community in Guatemala, it’s still an option.
Volunteer: If done properly, volunteering is an excellent way to cut down your costs on the road. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board. There are plenty of opportunities to work in hostels or live on a farm. Check it out!
To learn how to travel the world on $10 a day, check out the backpacker’s bible.
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 courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Alternatively, if you want to find a cheap way to stay in this incredible country for as long as possible, check out Workaway – for just $29 a year you get access to literally thousands of projects around the world where you can volunteer in exchange for food and accommodation.
Must Try Experiences in Guatemala
Meet the People of Guatemala
It’s hard to stereotype an entire population, but generally, Guatemalans from the city are live differently than Guatemalans in rural areas.
The majority of the Guatemalan population is considered Mestizo (a blurred mix of Spanish and Mayan descent). About 40% are Mayan. They often live completely separate from the rest of the population – physically, geographically, and economically.
One thing I love about Guatemala is the prominent and beautiful Mayan culture despite centuries of discriminination. Mayans are proud to be Mayan. I think tourists’ interest in the Mayan culture helps this in a way too.
There is a huge gap between the rich and poor in Guatemala. Through a complicated history (that I covered below) and a historically corrupt government, Guatemalans have endured their share of problems. The Civil War ended in the 1990s, though many Guatemalans do not even view the struggle as a “war.” The government, and frankly many citizens, continue to dismiss the war’s human rights’ abuses.
Fortunately, local co-ops and grassroot organizations are making serious progress when it comes to creating economic opportunities for lower classes.
Food in Guatemala
Guatemala food staples include black beans, rice, and (yellow and blue) corn tortillas. Meat is also a large part of Guatemalan culture, mostly chicken, as well as beef and pork.
While Guatemala and Mexico both have the same dishes, like guacamole, tamales, enchilladas, and huevos rancheros, they are made differently. Guatemalan food is rarely spicy.
Guatemala also makes their corn tortillas thicker. Personally, I think they make the best tortillas in all of Latin America. You will also find blue corn tortillas and chips more often than not!
Guacamole is mostly mashed up avocados, with chopped onions, cilantro, a few tomatoes, and salt and lime. Sometimes oregano is added too. Guatemalan guacamole is not spicy, and adding salsa or cream is an insult.
The most famous breakfast dish is huevos rancheros: sunny side up eggs served with salsa, black beans, fried plaintains, and queso fresco – a fresh, crumbly white cheese that is sprinkled on beans – or cream. Tortillas are served on the side.
Tropical fruit is also consumed at breakfast, mostly mangos, melons, and papayas when in season. Avocado is common too.
You can always expect world-class coffee and freshly made juice straight from the source.
Tamales – A bigger tamal made with either mashed potatoes or rice; whereas, Mexico makes them with corn and pork. They are then wrapped in banana leaves.
Chicken Pepian – A spicy stew made meat and vegetables (usually pear, squash, carrot, potato and corn) and served with rice and tortillas.
Pupusas – Though they originated in El Salvardor, Pupusas are found all over Guatemala. Thick corn tortillas are stuffed with a variety of fillings – usually refried beans, cheese and/or pork – and then fried until the surface with a still squashy inside. They are served with salsa and cabbage on top.
Ceviche – This fresh seafood dish is made by marinating the fish or seafood in lime for 24+ hours and then adding fresh tomatoes, lime juice, cilantro, onions, and avocado.
Guatemalan Enchiladas – They are different than Mexican enchiladas, often made in a deep fried shell filled with salsa, and meat. What makes them especially unique is shredded beets for a topping.
Flan – Caramel custard
Tres Leches – Three layer cake
Rellenitos de Plátano – Small balls of mashed plantains filled with sweetened black beans, fried and sprinkled with sugar
Chocolate – Considered the birthplace of chocolate, the quality of chocolate here is exceptional. It was traditionally a drink served by the Mayans. Spain took this drink back and added sugar, and then Nestle started making it a sugary snack instead of drink. Well, we’ve come full circle and you can drink and eat it here.
Coffee – Guatemala produces some of the best coffee in the world! Fortunately, great coffee is affordable and accessible.
Gallo – This is the national beer in Guatemala.
Ron Zacapa Centenario Unknownst to most, this rum has won multiple awards and is considered one of the best rums in the world. You can get the cheaper 12-year-old Zaya Gran Reserva.
Scuba Dive Guatemala on a Liveaboard Trip
Guatemala might not be super well-known for its scuba diving. That said, if you love to dive, joining a Liveaboard trip in Guatemala is a chance to explore the waters off of Guatemala’s coast.
You dive in the mornings, chill with fellow dive maniacs by evening; it’s that simple! Liveaboard trips take you to some pretty incredible remote dive locations. Who doesn’t want to wake up on a boat and dive in the sea everyday for a week?
Festivals in Guatemala
Coffee Harvest Celebration – The town of Frajianes celebrates coffee harvest with food and dancing on February 2nd and 4th.
Semana Santa –Semana Santa translates to “Saints Week,” and takes takes place in March or April depending on Easter Sunday. This is one of the biggest celebrations in Guatemala, especially in Guatemala City and Antiqua. Many towns and cities spend days creating mile-long carpets with intricate stencils and dyed sawdust in beautiful designs. Parades and processions march on the saw dust carpets.
Dia de los Muertos – Literally translating to “Day of the Dead,” this popular holiday is celebrated in Guatemala on November 2 with the flying of massive kites in the cemetaries of Santiago Sacatepéquez and wild horse racing in Todos Santos Cuchumatán.
Navidad – As a mostly Catholic country, Christmas is one of the most important holidays, celebrated with family and friends. Most families go to Church on Christmas Eve, and open gifts at midnight on Christmas Eve, instead of on Christmas Day.
Be a Responsible Backpacking while Visiting Guatemala
Backpacking Guatemala grants the incredible opportunity to explore indigenous culture. While doing so, dress respectfully as these cultures are more conservative. Be courteous while taking photos, and always ask before you take.
Support local communities and businesses versus foreign investors. Go to local co-ops, tour operators, farms, etc.
While bargaining is a part of the culture – and cheap travel – remember this isn’t India or Morocco. People are not trying to screw over tourists with giant inflated prices. Most textiles are priced pretty fairly, so don’t be a jerk when you’re haggling and know your money is helping rural communities that are largely ostrasized by Guatemalan politics and society.
A Brief History of Guatemala
This is an important subject to me. I even wrote my undergrad thesis on a forgotten (or rather an unknown) genocide against the Mayan people in the 1980s that ultimately stems back to Spanish Invasion and systematic racism instilled in Latin America since the 1400s.
Before Spanish conquest under Cortés, Maya people lived in Guatemala for centuries building extravagent cities you can still visit today (Tikal, for example).
The Colonial Period essentially enslaved Guatemala’s indigenous people, and took away their land. Truthfully, it’s never been returned. By the time Guatemala gained independence from Spain in 1821, there was already a class system in place. After independence, there was a constant struggle for power between the elite conservatives and liberals.
In 1945, Juan José Arévalo won the election and began to turn Guatemala around by improving the public health system and labor laws. He survived 25 military attempted coups! His successor was Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, who wanted to take Arévalo’s policies even further by implementing land reforms to break up the elitist land estates to give peasants individually owned farms. Naturally, his policies were unpopular with the extremely wealthy people of Guatemala…and the United Fruit Company.
US Insurgency and a Series of Right Winged Presidents
The United Fruit Company was owned by one of the American Dule Brothers. The other Dule Brother was none other than the head of the newly formed American CIA. Under the CIA’s first covert mission, the US orchestrated an invasion to remove Arbenz and implement a right-winged military president.
And so began the series of military presidents with counterinsurgency training and money from the US government. They may have been “anti-communist” during the Cold War, but they were no stranger to voilence. Land reforms were reversed, voting rights were restricted, a secret police force was created, and the military repression was common.
In response to these dictators, a few left-wing guerilla groups began to form, and so began the Civil War.
By 1979, 60,000 people had been killed in political voilence. My family tells me stories of professors, students in political groups, and anti-government sentemented people disappearing overnight.
There are rumours in Guatemala that many of the missing people’s bodies were dropped into active volcanoes because many bodies were never found.
1980s – A Genocide
Four guerrilla groups united to form URNG (The Guatemalan national Revolutionary Unity). The President the time, General Efraín Ríos Montt, was an Evangelical Christian nut, who acted out on the groups by orchestrating the systematic murders of men, women, and children in more than 400 Mayan villages in the name of anticommunism.
100,000 Maya refugees fled to Mexico. Hundreds of thousands more died.
Both sides during the war committed atrocities and horrible acts of war. The left-winged guerillas were not above these atrocities, but there’s no question that the governement continued to voilate human rights and lead civilian massacres.
Peace Accords and Recent History
After 36 years of Civil War, the Peace Accords finally took place in 1996 under a center-right president, but not much progress has been made on owning up to the attrocities. International organizations continue to critisize the government for dismissing the genocide.
The current Presidential Administration still refuses to admit there was a genocide in the Ixil triangle in the 1980s, even though Ríos Montt was charged with genocide. A later court ruling overturned the conviction, however, and called for a re-trail that will probably never happen.
Many Presidents since have been accused of laundering money and corruption.
Otto Pérez, a general for Ríos Montt during the genocide, took office in 2012. In 2015, the UN anti-corruption agency claimed Pérez’ administration was taking bribes from importers in exchange for reduced customs fees. Mass protests were organized and tens of thousands of Guatemalans turned to the streets. The Vice President resigned first, unable to explain how she paid for a US$13 million helicopter.
In the following months over 20 officials resigned and many were arrested. President Otto Pérez was forced to resign and arrested that year. This is the first time in Guatemala’s history that peaceful protests made some serious progress and an ex-president sits in a cell.
Jimmy Morales, whose popularity stems from the fact he is from outside the country’s political elite – hasn’t provent to be much better, thanks to his military ties. Gun violence and drug related crime is on the rise in Guatemala, and police are understaffed, underpaid, and under-resourced.
Final Thoughts on Backpacking Guatemala
As someone who is half Guatemalan, this country holds a special place in my heart. I spent my childhood traveling to Guatemala to visit family. Last year I finally got a chance to truly backpack Guatemala, and go places even my family hasn’t been. This experience led me to fall in love with this country in a different way, all over again.
I highly suggest backpacking Guatemala if you are in search of an adventure. You will meet some of the kindest and warmest people in Guatemala, and experience some of the most beautiful culture and natural scenery.
“Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.”
Need More Inspiration?
- Nicaragua first timer travel guide
- Backpacking Packing List
- 7 Things Nobody Told Me about Guatemala
- Living with a Host Family in Guatemala
- Travel Route Ideas for Central America
Like this post? PIN ME!!