Guatemala Travel Guide
How much time should you spend in Guatemala?
This is really up to you. You can rush through and do the hot spots within only a few days but if you have time, plan at least two weeks there. If you opt for the quick version, it needs some good planning ahead: What days and times are the buses running, are there days when certain sites are closed, are guided tours run on a daily basis, etc.
I was in Guatemala twice in 2014 and my first trip was for a little more than two months.
Itinerary ideas: Guatemala City, Antigua & Lake Atitlan (4-8 weeks)
Guatemala City, 2 days:
- Can easily be skipped without missing out on anything.
- Zona 1, the historical area, is quite nice and also fairly safe to walk around. Visit the Palacio Nacional (free guided tours every 15 minutes, Q40 entry fee), Central Park and the Cathedral. Mercado Central is good to grab cheap, local breakfast or lunch.
- Paseo Cayalá is like a private city in the city, it’s guarded and safe. Very Western. Good dining options but of course high prices. Not a backpacker destination for sure.
- More on Guatemala City: Bienvenidos a la Ciudad de Guatemala
Antigua, 2 weeks:
- Taking a language course, e.g. at Escuela Ixchel (Review of Escuela Ixchel), in the mornings (Mon-Fri) leaves enough time for activities in the afternoons and on weekends. Hint: Knowing Spanish in Central America helps a lot and you probably won’t find much cheaper language courses than in Nicaragua & Guatemala!
- Ok, there’s not so much to do in Antigua in terms of action and touristy stuff to justify staying two weeks but it’s a very livable and pretty city with great restaurants, fun nightlife and the best artisan markets in all of Central America.
I recommend: If not taking language classes, 3-4 days:
- 1 day for shopping: Several shops in the streets but they’re a bit pricier and then there’s this great artisan market right opposite Antigua’s main market which I just absolutely love. If only I had had more space in my backpack…
- 1 night on the weekend dancing to Latin rhythms: Friday and Saturday night are great for having a few cheap drinks (e.g. Q10) at a hostel bar, e.g. The Terrace or Zoola and then going to one of night clubs like La Sala. They can get a bit packed so don’t come too late (also, they’re closing at 2 am and then there’s only unofficial after clubs).
- 1 evening: Take a free Salsa lesson, several places offer this. Just ask around.
- 1 day/2 days for a volcano tour: OX Adventures offers fun overnight volcano tours (well, you’ll probably hate it as the steep climb up feels like it’s going to kill you. Damn you, lungs!). BUT: Great sunrise views if the sky is clear so all worth the effort. Gets really (really!) cold at night.
- 1/2 a day for walking around and getting to know Antigua (great architecture)
Lake Atitlan, 2-6 weeks:
You could spend weeks there, circle the lake and visit every village surrounding it – they’re all unique in some way. Most people stay in Panajachel, which is the biggest town, and take day tours to the other villages by lancha (boat).
I lived in San Juan La Laguna as I was volunteering with Asociación Lema’, a women weaving cooperative. It’s a good place to escape big tourist crowds as the village only sees a few tourists a day who’re keen on buying artisan goods. There really isn’t a lot to do though and it’s kind of dead around 9pm. But you can book a guided tour to the Indian Nose, weaving classes as well as tortilla making classes – all bookable through Lema’: Lema’ Activities and here’s what a typical day of volunteering at Lema’ looks like.
San Pedro La Laguna is a great place for backpackers looking for a bit – or a bit more – of fun. It’s a hippie/party hot spot. I know lots of people who ended up spending months there, renting a cheap house with fellow backpackers. Yoga is also a popular activity here (Q40/class). Take a sunrise tour to the Indian nose (4am, Q100) or hike to Volcán San Pedro. Horseback riding is really popular, too. The Italian lady gives awesome massages (on the way to The Buddha).
If you’re keen on doing a Yoga retreat for a few weeks, you want to go to San Marcos La Laguna. Very spiritual place full of hippies. Also good for just a day trip. I often did a Yoga class Saturday morning, had vegan breakfast and left to spend the day in a garden café in San Pedro.
I recommend: Plan at least 4-6 days around Lake Atitlan. Either a full (party) weekend in San Pedro La Laguna or a village trip of 1 day Panajachel, 1 day San Juan La Laguna, 1 day San Marcos La Laguna, and 1 day San Pedro La Laguna but pick one as your base and do day trips the others by boat. You could do an additional day and book a half day trip to the famous market of Chichicastenango.
Note: There are many many other villages around Lake Atitlan but those are some of the more developed offering a few more touristy options. Here’s something about my trip to a few villages off the tourist map: Of chicken buses and avocados growing on trees.
Other places to incorporate into your Guatemala itinerary
- Semuc Champey – nature’s version of a water park
- Flores and Tikal – Maya ruins
- Rio Dulce and Livingston – Caribbean flair
How to get to Guatemala
- By plane: Fly into Guatemala City. From Frankfurt fares with Iberia were around 650€ round trip this summer.
- By bus: Tica buses run connect Guatemala City with major cities in Central America. Chicken buses should always be taken with care. They’re the cheapest (a few dollars) but not safest option and they’re definitely the most time consuming one.
- By shuttle: Easy and convenient but also pricier than buses. There are shuttles connecting Antigua/Guatemala City with e.g. El Tunco (El Salvador, $30), León (Nicaragua, $50-70), Belize City,… Not all shuttles run every day, take that into consideration if you’re pressed for time. Some shuttle services include Atitlan Tour, Guatemala Transportation, and Adrenalina Tours. My favorite shuttle company for international routes is Gekko Trails Explorer.
How to get around Lake Atitlan
Book a shuttle from Antigua to either Panajachel or San Pedro La Laguna. Tuk tuks will take you to the surrounding villages (Q5-40 depending on distance). Traveling around the lake is made very convenient and quick by the lanchas (boats) which run every 30-60 minutes from the early morning to usually around 2pm (Q10-25 depending on distance). Tourists always pay more than the locals. From San Pedro to San Juan, pick-ups cost only Q2, tuk tuks usually Q5-10 p.p. Lancha to San Marcos is.Q10-15. Depending on where you want to go, take a chicken bus.