Guatemala

Quick facts

  • Capital: Guatemala City
  • Population: approx. 15 million
  • Language: Spanish 60%, Amerindian languages 40% (23 officially recognized Amerindian languages, including Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, Mam, Garifuna, and Xinca)
  • Area: 108,890 sq km (approx. the size of Tennessee)
  • Currency: Quetzal (approx. exchange rate: 7.5 GTQ = 1 USD)

Travel budget / daily costs: Cheap! One night in a hostel will cost you about 20 Quetzal on average. With a daily budget of 15 USD backpackers should be able to get by easily.

When to go: Guatemala’s climate is agreeable all year through. If at all possible, you might want to avoid rainy season (July – October).

Introduction

Guatemala is one of the highlights of the Central America region. Besides being the cheapest country of the area, it contains so many beautiful places and must-sees that you’ll need at least four weeks to get a decent impression. From hiking through jungles to climbing active volcanoes, from sight-seeing impressive Maya temples to shopping in colourful markets, from utter relaxation to inner tubing down wild rivers, and from hippie villages to colonial cities: Guatemala has it all, and will leave you an impression to remember for a long time.

Flores, Tikal & Lake Petén

Because of its close proximity to the Tikal ruins, Flores is quite a popular travellers hub. Touristy, but a pleasant little village as well. It’s beautifully set on Lago Petén Itzú: Flores is a little island, connected to the mainland only by a bridge. At the other end of the bridge lies Santa Elena, a busy industrial town where you can find the bus stations, markets, banks, the hospital, etcetera. For a great place to sleep in Flores, go to Hostel Los Amigos. Still pretty new, but very beautiful and chilled out. Cheap dinner can be found at the top of the hill at the taco stand Taquería Doña Carmelita which serves a great portion of tacos for 5Q.

One of the temples in Tikal, Guatemala.

Climbing one of the excavated temples in Tikal offers amazing views over the ancient Maya site.

Most travellers only stay to visit Tikal, the most famous and largest Maya site in entire Central America. It’s most common to visit the ruins on a daytrip, but it’s also possible to sleep in a hotel or in a hammock on the grounds of Tikal or in a village close by. Tikal itself is absolutely amazing and 100% worth visiting. If you only have the time for visiting one ruin in Central America, Tikal should probably be it. Now proclaimed as a UNESCO world heritage site, it once housed 90,000 Mayans, living in a society of human sacrifice, wars, gods, astronomy, etc. To date only has 20% of the city has been excavated; many ruins still remain completely or partly covered. As it’s located in right smack in the middle of the jungle, you’re going to want to bring enough mosquito cream. Try to arrive early in the morning when there are only few visitors: it’s beautiful to hear and see the Guatemala wildlife wake up while standing on top of an ancient pyramid.

If you’d like to avoid the tourist scene that Flores hosts, there are some other nice villages around Lago Petén as well. El Remate, halfway between Tikal and Flores, comes recommended for its beautiful views over the lake and its relaxed places to sleep.

A great thing to do in the neighbourhood of Lago Petén is to explore the nearby jungle. There are several guided tours available, ranging from a day to a week. One of the possible destinations is El Mirador, the largest Mayan city ever found: it’s still being excavated and it’s only reachable by either helicopter or walking through the jungle. A jungle tour can get a tad tough as it involves a lot of walking and mosquitoes. On the other hand, living, walking and sleeping in the jungle for a few days and eating meals that are prepared on a campfire, is an experience to never forget.

The waterfall in Finca El Paraíso.

Guatemala has many places for having fun in the water.

Río Dulce & Lívingston

Río Dulce, located on lake Izabal, is home to the longest bridge in Central America (about 1 kilometre long). In the neighbourhood there is some fun, relaxation and Kodak moments to be found at Finca El Paraíso where a hot waterfall plunges into a cool-water pool below. It makes a good daytrip: it’s nice to swim there and get away from the heat, or to just laze about in the nicely temperatured thermal river above the waterfall.

One of the nicest things to do in this area of Guatemala is to take a trip from Río Dulce to Lívingston through an absolutely stunning canyon by speedboat or – even better – sailboat. Lívingston itself is quite an interesting place as well. As the village is completely isolated from the rest of the country – you can reach it only by boat – and because it was founded only in 1800, it has a completely different cultural heritage than the rest of the country, and more closely resembles the Caribbean lifestyle of the neighbouring country Belize.

Lanquín & Semuc Champey

Another beautiful place to visit is Lanquín, situated in a valley and surrounded by green hills. It’s hard to reach the village; the only road that goes there is barely wide enough for one car, goes up and down mountains, and is unpaved. It’s worth the effort though, and Lanquín offers enough opportunities for utter relaxation. You can go inner tubing on the river that passes through the town, good fun. The best place for backpackers to stay at is El Retiro: highly recommended.

Naturally formed pools at Semuch Champey, Guatemala.

The view over Semuc Champey’s crystal blue water pools from the mirador is breathtaking.

About a half hour drive from Lanquín is Semuc Champey, one of the most beautiful nature reserves you’ll find in Guatemala, where nature’s powers created an impressive powerful roaring river that disappears into an underground cave. On top of the cave all sorts of stone plateaus have formed over time, thus creating a large number of crystal blue cool water pools in which you can swim. At the end of the plateaus is another cave in which the underground river surfaces again. The viewpoint (mirador) gives you an absolutely stunning view of the whole reserve. The locals refer to Semuc Champey as the 8th world wonder, and they have a point. It’s one of the most impressive places in Guatemala, and really shouldn’t be missed.

The dressed up doll and religious idol Maximón.

When you first see Maximón you don’t know whether to be respectful or to laugh…

Quetzaltenango (Xela)

Quetzaltenango is one of the bigger cities in Guatemala, and is a good base camp to make nice day trips from: night treks on an active volcano, thermal baths in the mountains, religious idols (Maximón) and market towns. The city itself doesn’t have that much to offer, but the 3 day hike to Lake Atitlán is supposed to be quite spectacular. This trek is offered by Quetzaltrekkers.

San Pedro La Laguna & Lake Atitlán

Set on Lago Atitlán with its amazing scenery, San Pedro is a little town and what one might call a backpacker hotspot. It’s cheap, loaded with travellers, grass is easily available, and it’s very easy to get stuck here for weeks or even longer. The tranquilo atmosphere is probably what makes a lot of people hang around. The town is full of lovely places to eat, sleep and relax. In the weekends there’s live music in a few pubs and the Cuba Libres (Rum ‘n Coke) are cheap.

The view over Lake Atitlán from San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala.

Lago Atitlán is a great region to spend a week or more.

San Pedro makes a great base camp to regain some strength for further travel through Guatemala or to explore the surroundings of the lake. Around the lake you can find loads of nice villages: Santiago La Laguna, the hippie village San Marcos with its massages, Panajachel… All of these places are easily visited through the regular boat services that connect the villages. Activity wise there’s kayaking on the lake, horse back riding through the green hilly surroundings, trekking, swimming, cliff diving, you name it.

Chichicastenango (Chichi)

Only 2 hours away from San Pedro by chicken bus lies Chichicastenango (usually referred to as Chichi), where on Sundays and Thursdays there’s an enormous colourful – very colourful! – market filled to the top with artisan crafts (plus the usual amount of tourist crap of course) which is quite nice to see. The locals are dressed in their beautiful traditional Maya clothing. Chichi is great to visit on a daytrip and to buy some souvenirs. Be sure to bargain!

The most photographed building of Antigua: its arch.

The yellow arch of Antigua gives an impression of the city’s architectural features.

Antigua

You’ll see many gringo’s in Antigua as it’s a popular destination. They’re mostly there for salsa lessons, are on an exchange program and/or studying Spanish in one of the many language schools. La Antigua is lovely with is colonial style architecture: low colourful buildings and cobblestone streets. Its city centre consists of a green city park. You’ll find two big markets where you can buy anything you want, and the famous yellow arch is worth a picture. It’s a very modern place compared to the rest of Guatemala and has a very peaceful and civilized atmosphere about itself.

La Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes. There is a number of daily tours available to climb one of the volcanoes, which is an activity that comes recommended. Volcano Pacaya is most popular and most accessible. The climb is a bit steep (but hey what do you expect, it’s a volcano!). Reaching the top takes about two hours, of which the last part – climbing the actual crater – is the hardest. Once at the top you have a view on Guatemala City, the other volcanoes, sulphur minerals and fumes, amazing volcanic rock formations, and not to forget the crater of the volcano itself. Volcano Pacaya is quite active, and out of the crater the volcano constantly spews hot pieces of red/orange lava high into the air. It’s very exciting to see it in action.

A colourful Guatemalan chicken bus.

You never know the ticket price, the trip’s duration, or the bus timetables, but chicken buses are sometimes your only means of transportation.

Bits ‘n pieces

  • Don’t forget to visit Maximón, the local religious idol. He’s represented by a dressed up doll and is worshipped by giving him cigars and booze. Very interesting to see. You can find his places of worship nearby Xela, in Santiago (on Lago Atitlán), and many other localities.
  • Locals usually transport themselves via the cheap local buses, or ‘chicken buses’ as they’re often referred to due to the fact that they sometimes transport more livestock than humans. They’re very colourful from the outside, fall apart from the inside, usually your luggage is placed on the roof of the bus, and they cram as many people in there as possible. It’s quite an experience: get ready for a shaky and jammed together adventure!
  • Try the banana bread, it’s yummie! For your information, it’s called pan de banana in Spanish. You’ll find women everywhere who carry their freshly baked goods to sell to the tourist crowd – the highest concentration of them seems to be in the Lago Atitlán region.
  • Try to avoid spending time in Guatemala City. The city has virtually nothing to offer the backpacker, and is the most dangerous place in Guatemala with regard to theft. If you fly into Guatemala City, simply take the first bus out and head to Antigua, only an hour away. It’s a lot more pleasant.
  • It’s useful to have some basic knowledge of Spanish before arriving into Guatemala.