Backpacking in Guatemala is an unforgettable experience combining beautiful nature, colorful culture, and a dash of adrenaline and adventure. I had two weeks to backpack to some of the best places to visit in Guatemala. I made a short Guatemala backpacking itinerary that wasn’t too rushed and allowed me to see quite a few of the popular towns although inevitably, in two weeks I didn’t quite get everywhere. I’ll explain in detail what I did at each step along my Guatemala backpacking route so you can use it as an inspiration for your own travels throughout the country.
MY GUATEMALA BACKPACKING ITINERARY FOR 2 WEEKS
- Guatemala City: 1 day
- Antigua: 4 days
- San Marcos: 3 days
- Coban/Semuc Champey: 2 days
- Flores: 2 days
- Exit Guatemala to Belize
You might be wondering why the total is only 12 days. Several of the transit days between the towns are full days riding in a minivan. It is inevitable and just something you have to deal with while backpacking in Guatemala. I met tons of cool people on the minivans and you get to see lots of interesting parts of the country while driving. This is the main ‘cheap’ way to get around.
My Guatemala Backpacking Route
Below I’ve created a small diagram showing my Guatemala backpacking route. As you can see, I landed in Guatemala City and then took a bus to Antigua. After that, I headed to San Marcos (Lake Atitlan). Then I continued to Coban and finally to Flores. I then caught a bus out of Guatemala to Belize.
IS BACKPACKING IN GUATEMALA SAFE
I asked myself this question quite a lot during my travels. I’m no expert on the issue let me put that out there nice and early. I can just tell you about my experience and the conversations I had with plenty of other travelers, both male and female, throughout my trip. I landed in Guatemala City and it was tense. Guards with machine guns stood outside of Domino’s Pizza joints. I couldn’t walk more than a couple of minutes without seeing a machine gun. I didn’t personally see any crime, but it does happen often and there’s a reason so many guards watch over regular shops and establishments.
I had multiple people tell me to watch my back while I walk. Having said that I walked through the suburbs for two days with my backpack. It’s no ordinary backpack it has my MacBook, hard drives, a camera, two lenses, passport, and pretty much everything that is worth anything. My streak of good luck continued and I only met friendly Guatemalans.
Once out of Guatemala City and on the tourist trail in Antigua, Semuc Champey, and Flores there was still a slight nervousness about crime as locals often brought it up. However, the tense feeling had left and I felt as if I was back in Asia. It seemed as though I needed to be vigilant but not scared.
There are ways to minimize your risks (I didn’t follow all of these suggestions and survived):
- Travel in a group or at least not solo.
- Ride in shuttles or minivans and not on the local ‘chicken bus’
- Don’t walk around the neighborhood after dark
- Don’t use your phone or camera in public if possible
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Guatemala Backpacking Budget
Guatemala prices were a bit of a shock at first after coming straight from India but it is very backpacker-friendly on the wallet compared to most places in the western world. I did lots of tours, took many buses, and went on tons of adventures and my two-week total was still just under $500 USD. I stayed in dormitory rooms at hostels, ate cheap local food, and didn’t drink much alcohol. You could definitely do it cheaper but you could also spend an entire $500 in one night on a hotel.
An example below is regular prices throughout Guatemala although this can vary from town to town and also depends on where you choose to eat and sleep.
- Hostels: $8-15
- Street food: $2-4
- Restaurant meal: $4-20
- Transport: 8hr minivan shuttle was $18
- Laundry: $1 per pound
TWO-WEEK GUATEMALA BACKPACKING ITINERARY
Okay, now that I have written about the safety and logistics it’s time to discover the raw beauty of Guatemala. In addition to the places, I visited and will detail if you have more time I suggest visiting Xela, Quetzaltenango.
If you are making the journey through Guatemala from south to north, it’s likely that Antigua will be one of your first places to visit while backpacking through Guatemala. I took a $1 chicken bus from Guatemala City, which I was later told was pretty dangerous but it worked out fine for me and was cheaper than the $8 shuttle bus.
Cobblestone streets and vintage facades send travelers back in time as they wander the streets of Antigua. There were a number of ruins throughout the streets of Antigua, which was the most picturesque, historic town of my Guatemala backpacking route.
Many people use Antigua as a base for their volcanic hiking expeditions. I didn’t do any overnight treks but the owner of my hostel took me and a few other guys up Pacaya Volcano for sunrise. Flaming hot lava spat from the volcano as we hiked up the opposing ridge. Walking over hardened lava from previous explosions, we arrived at the top of a ridge looking across the valleys at several other active volcanoes as the sun crept over the horizon. This was an amazing morning and you can read more about it by clicking below.
BEST TOURS IN ANTIGUA:
Best cheap volcano hiking tour: Pacaya Volcano Tour
Best Overall Adventure: Overnight Volcano Acatenango 2-Day Hiking Adventure
San Marcos/Lake Atitlan
From Antigua, I again went with the chicken bus option. However, this time it saved me only $2 compared to the shuttle and I had to transfer five times and take a boat before arriving in San Marcos. I would suggest the shuttle to San Marcos unless you are up for the adventure out of pure enjoyment. I didn’t book anything online because there were few options but I just walked up to the first decent-looking spot and found a room for $8 pretty easily. There were plenty of open rooms throughout the town.
I had heard of a little cliff jumping spot in San Marcos and managed to find it. A really nice deck with an easy way to climb up made for an awesome chill spot with two girls I had met at the hostel. The view across the lake was phenomenal and incredibly peaceful. That was how Guatemala felt the whole trip, not too touristy. Quiet enough to really enjoy the places you went without battling too many crowds. Along with Semuc Champey, this was one of my favorite places along my Guatemala backpacking route.
The other adventure I highly suggest in San Marcos is waking early to catch the sunrise from the Indian Nose Hike.
At something crazy like 3:30 am, I woke up and was joined by another girl from the hostel for the hike. It was far shorter than we anticipated only taking half an hour to the summit. However, most of the ascent had been done in the tuk-tuk so we had amazing views from way above the clouds.
There are several other towns around the lake you can stay at, each known for something a little different. San Marcos was a hippy town. Cacao ceremonies, dreadlocks, and yoga classes were the norm. San Pedro was touted as the louder, crazier option for those looking to party. Can’t really go wrong when you are staying next to Lake Atitlan.
Finally, I gave up on the chicken buses. I caught a shuttle back to Antigua for the night and then the next morning headed on another shuttle to Coban/Semuc Champey. It was a pretty long two days. 7 hours to Antigua and 11 hours to Semuc Champey. That is par for the course for backpacking in Guatemala and it is just how you make a tight itinerary work if you want to see a lot of places. Make the most of it and hopefully, you meet a few cool people on your bus.
I stayed at a pretty sweet hostel in Semuc Champey called Greengos. There were others in the area known for partying and had a different crowd but Greengos had nature and the vibes I was looking for. A river ran through the hostel, which was so far into the jungle there was no wifi.
I only stayed for one full day in Semuc Champey but I packed it full from dawn til dusk. I booked a full day tour for $20 and it was a really great value considering entry to several of the locations added up to almost $20 anyway.
In my opinion, the best and cheapest way to do the Semuc Champey Tour is to just arrive in town, stay a couple of nights and book the tour at a local office or from your hostel. However, if you like to book things in advance so your plans are secure, the top-rated tour, which you can book online before you arrive, includes Semuc Champey, Tubing in the river and Kanba Cave. It is the tour I did and an awesome way to tick off lots of the things to do in the Coban region in just one day. The tour is also pretty cheap so it is affordable for backpackers and families.
Book the tour: Semuc Champey and Kanba Cave
Our first stop was Semuc Champey National Park. Semuc Champey means underground river and you wouldn’t know why without closer inspection.
After arriving at Semuc Champey, we trekked for thirty minutes up the stairs and steep path through the jungle. Along the way spotting huge butterflies and iguanas. I walked out to the viewing platform and was blown away by what I saw.
For the next two hours, I explored the cascading pools of Semuc Champey, which had underwater caves, places to jump from, and warm crystal clear water. It is the kind of spot you bring lunch to and spend the whole day!
After Semuc Champey our tour continued with a caving adventure and even some cliff jumping action at the river.
Our fifth and last adventure for the day was an optional bridge jump. The bridge was about 13 meters high and I told myself I was going to backflip from it and I hate backing out. My legs were shaking profusely as I stood on the rails and then I just went for it. Landing perfect, no dramas. It was a great end to a long day of awesome adventures. I wrote a full blog post about this awesome day and my favorite place to visit in Guatemala. You can check it out by clicking below.
Another long bus ride and 9 hours later I arrived at the small island town of Flores. I was pretty tired from all of the buses and exploring but had two more adventures left in me. I stayed at a popular hostel called Los Amigos, which had good vibes, decent wifi, and friendly staff. The first adventure I hit was exploring the ancient
The first adventure I hit was exploring the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal. I was lucky enough to get a great guide who taught us a lot about the ruins but also plenty of weird facts and stories we would have never learned had we explored without a guide. This was the most expensive ticket of the trip. However, it was one of those places you just have to visit so you pull out the wallet and enjoy it. I highly recommend going for the sunrise or morning tour, the afternoon tour was boiling hot and full of tourists.
Book your tour: Ancient Mayan Ruins Tikal Guided Tour (with lunch)
My last day in Guatemala was spent at Jorge’s rope swing. This is a legendary spot. I originally tried to find it on google maps and asked a few people. They told me just ask for the rope swing. That’s how small Flores is. A boat will take you across to the swing and back for $5 give or take and once you are there a $1.50 entrance fee is all you will pay. Endless rope swings, backflips, and diving board mishaps await.
Other popular places to visit in Guatemala:
- Rio Dulche
- Finca Ixobel
I heard cool stories about all four of these spots from other backpackers while traveling about, but with just two weeks there were always going to be some Guatemala backpacking hotspots that I missed. If you have been to any of these four spots leave a comment below if they are regions you think travelers simply can’t miss!
And just like that my two-week backpacking itinerary in Guatemala was over. I boarded a bus to Belize, crossed the border, and said my farewells to Guatemala. I hope this recount of my experience while backpacking through Guatemala was helpful for the planning of your trip.