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I had always wanted to visit Guatemala. The coffee, the picturesque landscapes, the beautiful handwoven textiles, the ongoing Mayan culture… the list of fun things to do in Guatemala just goes on and on. And in 2017, I finally did.
I spent three weeks exploring this beautiful country, which is not nearly enough — you need at least 4 to 6 weeks to really see all the top places to visit in Guatemala. Partly, this is because the not-great transportation situation means that you’ll be spending lots of long days on cramped shuttle buses in transit. However, if you have a short amount of time, check out this 2-week itinerary for Guatemala to best help you maximize your time.
But it’s worth every moment in transit to see natural wonders like the emerald pools of Semuc Champey, the manmade wonders of Tikal, the ring of tiny towns circling the magical Lake Atitlan, and the beautiful colonial cities that dot the map of Guatemala. Come see for yourself and you’ll understand just how much there is to do in Guatemala, and why it left such a profound mark on my memory.
Safety Tip: If you’re flying into Guatemala City, I recommend booking a $12 shuttle to Antigua in advance, as the capital city is a bit dangerous and taxis are sure to overcharge you.
Visit the natural pools of Semuc Champey
If you’ve ever spent any time on Instagram or Pinterest, visiting Semuc Champey is undoubtedly one of your top things to do in Guatemala. It’s popular for a reason: the bloggers aren’t lying wrong. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in my lifetime, and for me, the #1 must do in Guatemala.
That said, getting there is quite a hassle and had me questioning if it was worth it many times over. Even taking a direct tourist shuttle will take you upwards of 8 hours from Flores or Antigua, the two closest popular tourist destinations. Cobán is closer, but doesn’t offer much to tourists.
You essentially have to spend two full days on a cramped bus in order to get to Lanquín. Once you’re there, all that transit-induced rage will float away as you behold the most beautiful turquoise pools you can imagine. No filter needed, y’all: this is truly the best of Guatemala.
Where NOT to Stay: DO NOT stay at Zephyr Lodge, even if it comes highly recommended by others on the road. I got horrible food poisoning there, and I wasn’t alone. At least 10 other travelers I spoke to had food poisoning there, and at separate times than I did — meaning it’s likely an ongoing hygiene issue. I rarely ever get sick, so something was seriously amiss here.
Where to Stay Instead: I’ve heard great things about Hostal Vista Verde and it’s actually owned by locals instead of expats who just want to force you to eat and drink at their overpriced, unhygienic restaurant (no I’m not bitter). Check availability, ratings, and prices here.
Visit the Mayan market in Chichicastenango
Mayan culture is alive and well in Guatemala, and nowhere is this more obvious than in Chichicastenango’s twice weekly markets. Chichicastenango (mercifully abbreviated to Chichi) is one of the most popular market towns, as it is only a 2 hour bus ride from Antigua. It’s a frequent choice for day trips and for tourists interested in culture it’s one of the best things to do in Guatemala.
You can typically arrange for a roundtrip shuttle on Thursdays or Sundays, or you can take local transportation – a chicken bus – if you
don’t value your life are brave and don’t mind being squished three to a seat while the driver swerves wildly around curves.
If you’re short on time, you can go with a guided tour from Antigua, which also includes time at Lake Atitlan.
Seeing a Mayan market is one of the best ways to fully appreciate the craftsmanship and tradition that have been passed down from generation to generation. It’s also a great way to peek into the life of locals who eke out a living by farming, weaving, collecting honey, and more.
Try learning a little Spanish before you go — English is not widely spoken here — and be sure to bargain (respectfully, that is). If you want an authentic cultural experience, this is one of the top places to go in Guatemala.
I spent one night in Chichicastenango and was glad I did versus just doing a day trip – it was great to get off the tourist trail a bit, as most people don’t stay overnight here. We visited a small museum, Museo de Mascaras Ceremoniales, where we received a guided tour from the owner and taught about so many facets of Mayan life. Later, we had a meal with our next door neighbors at our Airbnb who were opening up a hotel/restaurant — a great experience with locals who rarely get to interact with visitors outside the market.
Where to Stay: There aren’t many hotels in town, but the best-rated is by far Hotel Chalet, and the price is reasonable as well. You can also visit as a day trip from San Pedro, Panajachel, or Antigua (more recommendations to follow). Check out ratings, reviews, and availability of Hotel Chalet here.
Climb Acatanenango and witness a live volcano erupting
NOTE: Yes, Fuego is the volcano that erupted in June 2018, killing many people who live in the villages on its slopes. No one climbing Acatanenago was hurt, as far as I’m aware. Check with local tour companies to see if this tour is still running. Antigua and the area excluding the immediate area around Fuego volcano are safe and prepared for tourists, so don’t let the volcano scare you away.
Climbing Acatenango is not for the faint of heart. To be honest, I didn’t attempt it because I’m extremely prone to altitude sickness and have failed to climb mountains of similar height.
Everyone I spoke to who did the Acatanenago hike said it was one of the most amazing sights they’ve ever seen — and also that it was supremely difficult and very cold sleeping overnight there at the top. Research your guide wisely, as they can make or break your trip.
This tour has good reviews, though note that they don’t quite give you enough food for a hike of such difficulty (this is a common complaint with Acatanenango tours), so bring your own as well!
Safety Note: It should go without saying, but you should always travel with travel insurance, especially if you’re going to do be doing potentially dangerous things like volcano hiking! I use and recommend World Nomads for their affordable prices, thorough coverage, and ease of use.
That said, if you’re better at handling altitude than I am, Acatanenango is one of the can’t-miss things to do in Guatemala. My friends over at Our Escape Clause did it and have a great guide about hiking Acatanenango if you’re curious for more information.
Where to Stay: For those on a budget, I recommend staying at Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel – fantastic design, chilled out vibe (I’m far beyond the age of party hostels), delicious breakfasts, friendly local staff… You truly can’t beat it in Antigua. The rooms are small but so well-designed I didn’t care at all. Check prices and availability here.
If you have a mid-range budget, I’d recommend Casa Elena (check prices, reviews, and availability here), which is a guest favorite for excellent breakfast and rooftop patio with a view of the volcanoes surrounding Antigua. For 5 star luxury at a surprisingly affordable price, Porta Hotel Antigua is one of the city’s highest rated hotels. In addition to the beautiful rooms, it has a gorgeous patio and pool area with an excellent, affordable in-house spa. Check prices, reviews, and availability of Porta Hotel Antigua here.
Take classes at a Spanish school
Guatemala is one of the cheapest places to learn Spanish. Prices vary wildly, so don’t be afraid to ask around and get a good idea of what’s on offer. Wondering where to go in Guatemala to learn Spanish? Antigua is definitely one of the prettiest cities in Central America, making it a popular spot to settle down for a few weeks and take Spanish lessons. It has the most Western restaurants and amenities as well due to the large expat community, making it pricier but perhaps a little more comfortable.
If you want a more local experience while you learn Spanish, Xela is well-known for being a Spanish language hub, and supposedly it’s one of the cheapest and most interesting places in the country to learn the language. I didn’t have a chance to visit Xela during my 3 weeks in Guatemala. San Pedro La Laguna is another popular destination for Spanish learners, and has a fun party scene and lake views to boot, truly giving you the best of Guatemala.
Where to Stay: If you really want the best language learning experience, I recommend doing a homestay — it’s usually quite affordable, provides total immersion, and connects you with locals.
Kayak in a volcanic crater in Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is simply stunning, and there’s no better way to enjoy the serenity of the lake than by going for a kayak ride surrounded by water and volcanoes all around you.
The water tends to get really rough and choppy in the afternoons, and clouds and rain have a tendency of settling in after 3 PM. Make the most of your morning and go for a morning kayak, then stop by for a 5 quetzal (less than $1) fresh juice afterward!
Where to Stay: I stayed at Casa Felipe for a week and enjoyed it just fine, although the beds are ridiculously hard. Better yet might be a cheap room at Playa Linda (check prices and availability here) or Cabaña del Arco (check prices and availability here) which are both quite affordable and have gorgeous lake views.
Climb the pyramids of Tikal
The ruins of Tikal are easily the most well-known of the Guatemala tourist attractions, and with good reason. Star Wars nerds will immediately recognize the lush jungle setting of Tikal. Tikal is a UNESCO world heritage site and is one of the largest sets of ruins in the former Mayan empire, and it’s in remarkably good shape. Some of the pyramids you can climb; others, you can only gaze upon from afar due to the need to preserve them.
The best option is to take a tour at sunrise or just after sunrise (sunrise shuttles leave at 3 AM; “early bird” leave at 4:30 AM). If you do the sunrise or sunset tour, you’ll have to pay an extra 100 quetzales ($14) fee, but you will pay the normal price if you do the early bird or any other daytime tour. It gets incredibly hot during the daytime though, so I recommend forcing yourself out of bed early and giving it a go at 4:30 — it’s up there on my list of favorite things to see in Guatemala!
Where to Stay: I recommend staying in Flores (or possibly El Retiro). For those looking for a hostel, Casa de Gretel is the best-reviewed option (I personally stayed at Amigos and was not a big fan — too loud and the rooms were super stuffy). Check prices and availability at Casa de Gretel here.
For mid-range options, check out the affordable but adorable Hotel Isla de Flores, which has a rooftop pool with views of Lake Peten. Check prices and availability here.
Stroll the colorful streets of Flores
Flores is a teeny tiny island in Lake Peten, and it’s been painted so colorfully that it’s hard to walk anywhere without stopping to take a ton of photos.
Of all the tourist places in Guatemala, Flores is probably the least authentic in terms of culture. But it’s a great base for Guatemala points of interest like Tikal, and the lake is perfect for sunsets and quick dips in the water.
Get spiritual in San Marcos La Laguna
San Marcos is the hippie hub of Atitlan, and one of the more backpacker-filled places in Guatemala. People say that Lake Atitlan holds mystical powers, swearing that they have more intense dreams while they’re there. While that may well be the altitude, the hippies are undeterred and have colonized the little town of San Marcos. There are tons of yoga classes on offer with lake views, or you can sign up for a longer-term yoga or meditation retreat. There are also plenty of vegan and vegetarian food options here.
It’s not a place I’d stay for that long, personally, as I’m allergic to hippie nonsense. That said, it’s definitely a nice place to relax when in Lake Atitlan, which in my opinion is one of the best places to visit in Guatemala. It’s also a great place to start for hikes between the villages of Atitlan (going with a guide is recommended because of the risk of robbery on the paths between the villages – check this tour here)
Where to Stay: I didn’t stay overnight in San Marcos (went as a visit from San Pedro), but there are lots of retreat options if that’s something you’re interested in!
Party (or just relax) in San Pedro
If you’re a party person, San Pedro La Laguna is your spot on Atitlan. There’s one main “backpacker street” with plenty of restaurants, bars, and party hostels if that’s the vibe you’re after. Hostal Fe is the big party hostel, with a lakeside lounge area just a stone’s throw from Bar Sublime, the late night spot in Atitlan.
I’m not a big party hostel person (read: party hostels are the bane of my socially anxious existence) so I stayed at a hostel called Casa Felipe, which is pretty low key.
Despite the party scene in San Pedro, there are also lots of opportunities to interact with locals. I went to the market on the top of the hill nearly every day, and stopped to buy tortillas from different vendors who worked out of their houses. San Pedro really has a mix of both experiences, so it’s a nice place to base yourself when in Atitlan. Personally, I think San Pedro is one of the best places to go in Guatemala if you want to relax and unwind.
You can also do an overnight hike on the famous San Pedro volcano for epic sunrise and sunset views over Lake Atitlan – check tour prices here.
Where to Stay: Like I said before, Casa Felipe is a good option if you want a hostel (just keep in mind the beds are like rocks). There are also some good mid-range options like Playa Linda or Cabaña del Arco with stunning Lake Atitlan views.
Check out the smaller towns of Atitlan
The most popular touristic towns ringing Lake Atitlan are Panajachel, San Pedro, and San Marcos. But make sure to take a day trip or even stay a few nights at one of the other less visited towns in Atitlan, like Santiago Atitlan, Santa Clara, or San Jose. You’ll get a more complete picture of Mayan life in this special part of the world that truly offers the best of Guatemala.
Where to Stay: Check out Airbnb for options in the smaller towns of Atitlan, or organize a homestay with a language school.
Wake up before sunrise to hike Indian Nose
Want to do a quick, rewarding hike in one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala? Indian Nose is the non-politically correct name for a nearby mountain flanking Lake Atitlan, a short distance from San Pedro. Tour companies will offer a transfer and guided tour for a reasonable 100 quetzales ($14). I recommend going with a guide as I have heard stories of people being robbed walking independently to Indian Nose; this should not happen if you have a guide.
If you have a few days in San Pedro, this is one of the best things to do in Guatemala.
Where to Stay: Check out my suggestions above for San Pedro La Laguna.
Give back to the local community
There’s no denying that Guatemala is a developing country. The poverty rate hovers around 50%, with indigenous peoples typically far more impoverished than non-indigenous. If you’re planning on spending a significant amount of time in Guatemala, volunteering in Guatemala is a great way to give back to a community that you’ve enjoyed traveling in.
Where to Stay: Varies, depending on what project you want to work on!
Roast marshmallows on an active volcano
Because s’mores always taste better when roasted over lava, am I right? It’s one of the more blatantly touristy things to do in Guatemala, but how can you resist? Pacaya Volcano is known for its easily accessible lava fields where you can easily roast s’mores from a safe distance.
There’s no better story than roasting marshmallows on an active volcano, as far as I can tell! Marshmallows come included on most tours leaving Antigua to visit Pacaya, so join the fun!
Where to Stay: Most trips for Pacaya depart from Antigua, so I’d recommend either Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel for budget travelers, Casa Elena for mid-range travelers, and Porta Hotel Antigua for those looking for a super luxurious stay.
Go caving by candlelight in Lanquín
Lanquín is one of the best places in Guatemala if you fancy a bit of adventure. If you go on one of the popular tours of Semuc Champey, you’ll get a chance to visit Las Grutas de Lanquín, a series of caves which you navigate in the dark — while holding a lit candle in one hand! There’s a rope you can use to keep yourself afloat – and your candle lit – as your guides bring you into the center of the cave where the brave can do a small cliff jump into a deep pool of water.
This is definitely not for the claustrophobic or the faint of heart. Being a bit of both, I managed, though climbing up a slippery ladder with candle wax dripping down my arm is not an experience I think I’ll repeat!
Where to Stay: Remember my caution against Zephyr Lodge – I’d choose Hostal Vista Verde instead. Money in local hands + no food poisoning = win.
Visit the colorful cemetery of Chichicastenango
If you think you’ve seen all the Guatemala tourist attractions, here’s one that’s a bit off the beaten path. A short walk away from the hustle and bustle of the Chichi market, you can find one of the most colorful cemeteries on Earth. When I stumbled across it, at first I was puzzled at what I was seeing. Closer inspection revealed that it was indeed a cemetery, painted in a swath of rainbow colors. According to Atlas Obscura,
Steeped in Mayan tradition, the vibrant rainbow of pigments celebrates the afterlife, and can symbolize different family roles, like a color-coded clue to the puzzle of the dead.
Where to Stay: Again, I’d recommend staying at the affordable Hotel Chalet – or come as a day trip from Antigua or Lake Atitlan
Experience Semana Santa in Antigua
Wondering where to go in Guatemala to celebrate Easter? Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is the weeklong festivities in many Catholic countries in which they celebrate the life and death of Christ. Nowhere do they take this more seriously than Antigua, Guatemala. Many roads are shut down for a week for alfombras (rugs), which are made of colored sawdust and placed on the ground in extravagant designs each night — only to be trampled upon by the parades the following day.
Self-flagellation (that’s the fancy term for whipping yourself until you bleed) is also on display, as are fits of open weeping, women carrying enormous floats while tottering down the streets in high heels, loud music, fireworks, the works. Truly an experience like no other and a thing you must see in Guatemala around Eastertime.
Where to Stay: Easter in Antigua is a BIG DEAL and I can promise you that unless you book in advance you will have basically no options during Semana Santa. I got shut out of Antigua for not booking in advance so be smart and book ahead and be prepared to pay a premium on prices during this week. As before, I recommended Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel for a hostel, Casa Elena for mid-range, and La Porta Antigua for luxury. Prices will fluctuate greatly during this time and increase as Semana Santa grows closer.
Explore the ruins of Old Antigua
Well, old Antigua is a bit redundant — as the word Antigua means old. But Antigua is short for Antigua Guatemala (whereas signs that just say Guatemala, in fact refer to Guatemala City), as Antigua Guatemala used to be the capital of Guatemala.
A major earthquake in 1773 reduced nearly the whole city to rubble, and aftershocks continued for nearly six months. Rather than rebuild in Antigua, they relocated the capital to what is now Guatemala City. It’s a bit eerie to explore what remains of the former capital, but in my opinion, it’s a Guatemala must see.
Where to Stay: See my recommendations above
Explore the cathedrals of Antigua
Wondering what to see in Guatemala’s former capital of Antigua? You’ve got to check out the ornate churches and cathedrals dotting this beautiful colonial city. Catholicism is deeply important to Guatemalans, and even many Mayans have incorporated aspects of Catholicism into their religious practices.
The churches in Guatemala are beautiful, just as ornate on the exterior as they are in the interior. Some of the country’s most stunning churches are located in Antigua, but you’ll find lovely ones in Xela as well.
Explore the Rio Dulce and Livingston region
I have to admit – I didn’t make it to Rio Dulce, not for lack of wanting but for lack of time. As my flight back home quickly approached, I kicked myself for spending so much time relaxing in San Pedro and not making it all the way north to Rio Dulce which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala. However, I know I’ll be back in the region to visit Honduras and El Salvador, and Rio Dulce is right on the way to Honduras.
Rio Dulce is supposed to be incredibly lush and scenic and rather off the typical tourist trail. So if you’re tired of Antigua and want the real off the beaten path Guatemala — head to Rio Dulce or the beaches of Livingston for something truly different.
Admire Antigua’s colonial grandeur
Once you arrive in Antigua, you’ll quickly see why this is one of the best places in Guatemala for photography. Antigua reminded me a lot of one of my other favorite cities in Central America, Granada. Only Antigua is a bit more understated in its colorfulness – but only by comparison to Granada.
The shopfronts are painted in all sorts of beautiful vibrant hues, making it the perfect spot for an impromptu photoshoot when you find a wall that matches your outfit perfectly. The cobblestoned streets do nothing but add to the charm!
There are no free walking tours of Antigua that I’m aware of, but there are cheap walking tours if you’d like to join one.
Important Safety Notes for Guatemala
- I heard about more scams in Guatemala than elsewhere in my 4 months traveling Central America, so be extra wary. Most seem to happen in Flores, where most people enter from Belize. A common one is being told that there is no ATM in Flores (there is) and being directed by a man to take out money at an ATM they bring you to. This ATM is rigged and will scan your card. A couple I knew got their bank account drained. It’s also common to be sold fake bus tickets as you’re being told that they’re selling out, these are the only ones, etc. This is patently false. Buy your bus tickets from your hostel or from an agency, not from anyone on the street. Be aware, and don’t do anything that anyone is pushing you to do if it seems odd.
- While Guatemala has a higher crime rate than most countries in Latin America, tourists are largely not the targets of violent crime. Still, be aware and alert, especially if you’re traveling solo. I traveled solo in the country as a woman for three weeks and had no issues.That said, this isn’t meant to dissuade you from visiting, especially solo women. In my experience, I had far fewer problems with catcalling and inappropriate male attention in Guatemala than I did in Belize, Cuba, or Nicaragua.
- Roads are bad in Guatemala, worse than anywhere else in Central America, in my opinion. While I took chicken buses in Nicaragua and Belize constantly, I recommend private shuttles for Guatemala for your safety and comfort. Distances in Guatemala are extremely long between the major tourist destinations, anyway, so you’ll be grateful for the extra comfort even if it adds some dollars to your budget.
6 Things You Must Pack for Guatemala
I’ve written a Belize packing list that easily works for Guatemala as well (as well as this Nicaragua packing list) but if you just want the essentials, here’s what I think are the absolute best things to bring.
- Mosquito repellent & after-care: Guatemala has a tropical climate with mosquitos year-round, particularly in the rainy season. Protect yourself from tropical diseases like dengue fever with mosquito repellent (as a back-up, I carry around a few mosquito repellent wipes with me in my purse in case I forget to apply spray before leaving or that I can apply after swimming). It’s also inevitable that you won’t leave without a few bites, so bring some after-bite relief too (this is hard to find in Guatemala).
- Full-size travel towel: This travel towel is full-size so it’s big enough to use as a beach towel, thin enough to pack up super small for your luggage, and it dries super quickly in Guatemala’s humid climate.
- A guidebook: I use travel blogs a lot when I’m on the road but I also love having a guidebook to give me more specific, thoroughly researched information. Lonely Planet is my go-to guidebook and Lonely Planet Guatemala is no exception. I usually buy the Kindle version, but paper versions are also great fun to peruse.
- Filter water bottle or Steripen: Guatemala’s tap water is not drinkable anywhere in the country. I recommend traveling with a water bottle with a built-in filter that filters out nasty bacteria and viruses like this awesome LifeStraw bottle so you can reduce your plastic waste. Alternately, you can use a Steripen which sterilizes water using UV light. A great investment if you travel frequently and want to reduce your plastic bottle consumption!
- GoPro: From stand up paddle boarding to caving to hiking volcanoes, you’re going to want a way to capture all of that action! A GoPro Hero 6 is currently the highest-quality option, but if you’re on a budget, the GoPro Session is also an excellent choice. Be aware that you need to buy protective casing if you want to take either of these cameras diving. They are only waterproof to 10 meters, and you’ll exceed that if you dive (most dives are at least 15 meters or so).
- Finally, don’t forget travel insurance! Whether you’re caving, hiking volcanoes, or just relaxing in Antigua, don’t forget to purchase travel insurance! It’ll protect you in case of accident, injury, lost luggage, theft, or any other disaster that could befall your trip. I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for two years and recommend them highly. I’ve included a way to get a free quote below.