BACKPACKING GUIDE: THE BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN GUATEMALA
Backpacking in Guatemala is an unforgettable experience combining beautiful nature, colorful culture and a dash of adrenaline and risk. I had two weeks to backpack to some of the best places to visit in Guatemala. I made a short 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.
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My Guatemala backpacking itinerary
- Guatemala City: 2 days
- Antigua: 3 days
- San Marcos: 2 days
- Coban/Semuc Champey: 2 days
- Flores: 2 days
- Exit Guatemala to Belize
You might be wondering why the total is only 11 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. I met tons of cool people on the minivans and you get to see lots of interesting parts of the country while driving.
Backpacking Guatemala travel map
Is 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, 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 any 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
Guatemala was a bit of a shock at first after coming straight from India but it is very backpacker friendly. I did lots of tours, buses, and adventures and my two-week total was just under $500 USD. I stayed in dormitory rooms at hostels, ate cheap and didn’t drink alcohol.
- Hostels: $8-15
- Street food: $1-4
- Restaurant meal: $4-20
- Transport: 8hr minivan shuttle was $18
- Laundry: $1 per pound
Best places to visit in Guatemala
Okay, now thatI have written enough about the safety and logistics it’s time to discover the raw beauty of Guatemala. I booked all of my accommodation on booking.com except for San Marcos as there wasn’t much available online. To search for the best accommodation I usually head to booking.com, add the town name and my dates and then sort the results by lowest price to highest. The next step is the important one. I pretty much take the cheapest hotel with the best rating. So if the cheapest five hotels all have a 7 and the sixth cheapest is an 8.5, I usually shell out the extra dollar because the review scores are usually pretty accurate I have found.
In addition to the places I visited, if you have more time I suggest visiting Xela, Quetzaltenango and to be honest there are so many spots I would like to go back and check out. So here we go!
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 in 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 usually create a feeling of traveling in a time warp. However, behind the colorful facades of Antigua are fast food chains such as McDonalds and Pizza Hut. There were a number of ruins throughout Antigua although many of them were being repaired and tourists are unable to explore them. I often ate at the markets by the bus station.
If you follow this blog you will know I’m not a big foodie so if you are this might not be the spot for you. However, you can pick up a burrito or fried chicken and chips for a couple of dollars. The food in the tourist hotspots of the town can get pricey quickly. I found it hard to spot a decent sized meal for under $5 although they are out there.
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, Wicho & Charlies, 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.
Among tourists, this is one the most popular places to visit in Guatemala. However, it wasn’t at the top of my list despite the awesome volcano hike.
Full blog post: PACAYA VOLCANO SUNRISE HIKE
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 to visit in Guatemala.
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 330 I woke up and dragged another girl from the hostel with me for the hike. It was far shorter than we anticipated only take half an hour to summit. However, most of the ascent had been done in the tuk-tuk so we had amazing views from way above the clouds. I wrote all about it if you want to know more just click below.
Full blog post: INDIAN NOSE HIKE FOR EPIC SUNRISE
There are several other towns around the lake you can stay at, each known for something a little different. San Marcos was the 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 bus. I caught a shuttle back to Antigua for the night and then the next morning headed on another shuttle to 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 backpacking in Guatemala. 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. It was rough.. not really it was a good break and I was busy exploring anyway.
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 really great value considering entry to several of the locations added up to almost $20 anyway.
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 a lunch to and spend the whole day!
We left the park and headed to the Semuc Champey Caves known as the Kanba Caves. I’ve been in a lot of caves, especially in Southeast Asia. Some of these tours are average some are great so I didn’t know what to expect. Before we entered the cave our guide handed me a candle. This was going to be interesting.
Before I knew it I was neck deep in the water, holding my candle above my head trying to swim in the darkness. We clambered up ladders, through holes and swam in the pitch dark until we reached the end fo the cave after twenty minutes. We didn’t just turn around and head back. In the deepest part of the cave is a little 5-meter jump.
Up next we headed down to the river to enjoy a pretty epic rope swing. It is actually a normal swing with a seat but you are able to launch yourself into a flip at the end. Once again, you could hang out at this spot all day.
Onto our next adventure, we grabbed a tube and started floating down the river. You can do a tubing experience that runs for several hours and you get beer holders in your tube. However, as part of, the full-day tour, we just did a 30-minute cruise down the river. Young boys jump into the river on tubes to sell you ice-cold beers if you are looking for a refreshment. Along the river we passed families washing, bathing and hanging out by the banks of the river. It must be a crazy place to grow up in such a natural setting.
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.
Full blog post: SEMUC CHAMPEY: MY FAVORITE DAY IN GUATEMALA
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 coming in at $35 including the taxi. 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.
Full blog post: TIKAL RUINS: 11 WEIRD THINGS I LEARNT ABOUT THE MAYANS
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 two weeks it was always going to be some places to visit in Guatemala that I missed. If you have been to any of these four spots leave a comment below if they are spots you can’t miss!
And just like that my two weeks in Guatemala were over. I boarded a bus to Belize, crossed the border and said my farewells to Guatemala.