Backpacking Guatemala.

This page is my overview of backpacking Guatemala, covering the country, some tips, general things to know, transport and accommodation options, general costs and my experience of the country. 

Not only is Guatemala seeped in Mayan history but it’s color and vibrancy will just captivate you. Guatemala is a true backpacker experience from the rain forests and Mayan temples in the north to the Volcanoes in the south. (Which many are very active still)

However that’s not all this vibrant country has to offer, Guatemala is basically a playground for the adventurous with two-thirds of the country covered in mountains there are so many hidden gems that will make you feel like Indiana Jones.

Travel through Guatemala and you will discover mountains, jungles, Mayan temples and ruins, caves, sinkholes, caverns, underground rivers, amazing waterfalls, active volcanoes and amazing people who still live in traditional ways. But, if you’re not looking for adventure and just want to relax through your time, don’t worry Guatemala is quite slow-paced and there are some amazing lakes you can relax on.

A few tips:

  • If visiting Tical go early morning to avoid hoards of tourists.
  • It’s good to learn some basic Spanish, it will help you a lot. 
  • Shop around for tours, be confident to haggle between tour companies. However you will find different tour companies are run through the same operator. 
  • The food at the night market in Flores is amazing.
  • A straight trip from Flores to Antigua is a mammoth journey, break it up and stop over in Semuc Champey.
  • Try to visit Semuc Champey when the weather is good, the waterfalls have amazing color when warm.
  • Antigua is picturesque you may find it hard to leave.
  • Antigua is the party capital of Guatemala. Bars do close early however the party doesn’t stop, that when you will discover secret parties and bars dotted all over the place.
  • A special meat sub made on street BBQ’s after a night out is amazing.
  • The coffee in Guatemala is the best coffee I’ve ever drunk.
  • Ride a chicken bus.
  • It’s well worth doing a volcano climb, there’s a chance you will get to see one erupt. 
  • If visiting Lake Atitlan try to get around to all the communities and villages around the lake, they are all different and have their own unique charm and identity. 
  • San Pedro da Laguna is the main backpacker hub on Lake Atitlan.

Some things to be wary of:

  • If traveling into Guatemala on land from Belize be very vigilant and check they have stamped you in properly. (I along with 25 other people got scammed and didn’t realize until I left the country.)
  • You will be hounded by tour operators when arriving into Flores, they will charge you more for trips to Tical and lake trips than on the actual Island.
  • Tour operators in Flores will try convince you that there is no public transport or overnight buses towards Antigua. They will try convince you to pay for a private shuttle from their own company, don’t fall for it as there are 1st, 2nd and economy buses that travel to the south.
  • Pickpocketer’s when visiting tourist attractions like Tical. Keep your belongings safe.
  • Keep personal belongings safe, especially on local transport Guatemala is generally safe but there is some crime.
  • Check the weather if visiting Semuc Champey, waterfalls turn a horrible color on days of rain, can ruin your experience.
  • If doing volcano climbs take a head scarf or something to cover your face, sometimes winds pick up and you can actually get wind burns on your face, even loose grit from the volcano grazing your face.
  • While Guatemala is generally a safe country be very careful in Guatemala city, it’s not the friendliest of places.
  • Be wary of anybody in Guatemala City who’s walking around with plastic bags covering their shoes hands and heads (was told by a local they do that so they don’t leave evidence if they try to mug people. *Note I only saw this once, in a bus station at 5am in Guatemala city.
  • Tour operators in Panajachel trying to sell you tours around lake Atitlan (you should shop around for best options)

Basic things to know:

Official language spoken: Spanish 

Is English Spoken: Very basic

Currency: Guatemalan quetzal

Backpacking Guatemala is: Cheap

To check live exchange rate click here XE.com

Visa options:

No visa needed for British tourists for stay of up to 90 days. GOV.UK for more information

However make sure you get an entry and exit stamp in your passport at the border.

Check if your nationality needs a visa for Guatemala here 

Things to know when budgeting for Guatemala:

Backpacking Guatemala

Generally backpacking Guatemala good country for a tight budget. However you may have to juggle your budget depending on what adventure sports you want to do, if you’re planning on seeing every Mayan temple or how many volcanoes you want to climb.

I was able to get by on $15-$20 dollars a day depending on what I was doing.

Activities and tours

With such a variety of activities to choose from activities and tours could eat at your budget depending just how much you want to do. Some can be quite expensive especially the major tourist attractions like Tical and some Volcano climbs. However when backpacking Guatemala, it’s full of hidden gems and so much can be found on the cheap and even for free. There are so many places you will hear just from word of mouth from locals and other travelers.

Transport and Accommodation.

Are quite fair in price, your biggest expense will be traveling from Flores down to Coban or all the way to Antigua; or vice-versa. Accommodation prices are quite fair in comparison to countries like Mexico.

Food and drinks.

Are inexpensive if you eat locally and not in western style restaurants. Eating street food, daily set menu’s in local cafes or buying food from markets to cool yourself are good ways to save money.

Buying alcohol in shops and pre-drinking will also be a big help as buying alcohol in bars is quite expensive in relative to Guatemalan prices.

As you can see I haven’t stated any specific pricing, I don’t like to state prices as they can change and information becomes irrelevant. However if you are looking to compare live prices here is a couple of good sites to help you: numbeo and expatisan.

This link will give you a more comprehensive breakdown of prices for backpacking Guatemala : Budget your trip

Getting Around:

Transport is not a problem when backpacking Guatemala, however the journeys are long and because of the mountainous terrain so be quite arduous. Your best bet for long journeys is to jump on an over night bus to save on a nights rent. Due to it’s terrain Guatemala is a country I recommend you chose comfort over price. With Guatemala being quite cheap even more luxurious buses will not be that much of a stretch to the budget.

Transport options:

Locally:

Chicken Buses – Old American School buses converted into local public buses. (Don’t be surprised to see livestock on these)

Collectivos –  Mini-vans that wait until the are filled up and run certain routes.

Tuk-Tuks – run locally in towns and cities.

Taxi boats – Will get you out to across lakes and Island inlets.

Nationally: 

Private bus companies – 2nd class, 1st class and VIP (not much difference in price but comfort difference can be felt) Litegua is a popular choice.

Private shuttles – Safe and fairly inexpensive (If you don’t want to travel on a bus)

Planes – Domestic flights are available but much more expensive.

Popular tour Companies:

Ox Expeditions.

Adrenalina tours.

Intrepid tours.

Built in tours can be expensive, I prefer to travel independently and pick local tour operators in when I need to. Saves you lots of money that way.

Accommodation:

There’s a wide range of budget accommodation in Guatemala from the bare basics to larger and sociable hostels. However it’s a good idea to look around at different choices because sometimes the pictures they show on booking sites are not what they look like in real. (I found that out at a bug infested hostel in Flores.)

  • Hostels – Range from grotty basic rooms to larger more sociable and clean ones.
  • Guesthouses or hospedajes  – smaller than hostels run by families.
  • Budget hotels – Great to have some privacy and some much-needed air-con.
  • Air BnB – Available in Guatemala.
  • Couchsurfing – Stay with locals.
  • Camping – There are safe spots dotted around Guatemala to camp.

My overview of backpacking Guatemala:

I have to say, backpacking Guatemala was the country I was most looking forward to when I planned my Central America trip and it didn’t disappoint. I had such an amazing time in Mexico before hand and Guatemala just kept that thrill ride going and it was filled with some pleasant surprises from the day I stepped into the country until the day I left.

A life long dream was realized when during my time here; I witnessed a volcano erupt in front of my own eyes; in all it’s glory (sadly I don’t have a good pics to show you). Over the years traveling from one country to another I have forgotten about so much but this will be a memory that will stay with me forever.

I spent a month backpacking Guatemala and along with all the highlights I managed to improve on the Spanish I started to learn in Mexico. (learning Spanish helps) I fell in love with Antigua and lake Atitlan.

The only downside I had, was leaving Guatemala, at the border where I along with 25 other travelers had fallen victim to corrupt border officials who faked an entry stamp into my passport, on leaving the country the border official wouldn’t let me out unless I paid him a bribe. It was a headache but only after I threatened to report this to the British embassy that he let out the country without paying the bribe. (Lesson learned always thoroughly check entry stamps even if you see them physically stamp in your passport.)

Some of my highlights:

Flores (Island on a lake)

Night market food in Flores.

Tical. (apart from the hoards of tourists)

The Guatemala landscape.

Semuc Champuy.

Discovering sinkholes and underground rivers.

Mountain biking through the jungle.

Tasting some of the best coffee I’ve ever drank.

The people.

Antigua.

Partying with locals.

Going to secret bars after the pubs and clubs shut.

3 monkeys hostel in Antigua.

The volcanoes (Every single one I saw or passed)

Seeing one erupt in front of my own eyes.

Letting days drift away by Lake Atitlan.

Panajachel Little town on the bank of Lake Atitlan.

San Pedro da Laguna other side of Lake Atitlan.

Discovering little communities and villages around Lake Atitlan.

 

Some of my dislikes:

Being scammed at the border crossing.

Some of the hospedajes I initially booked.

The arduous back-breaking journey from Flores to Semuc champey to Antigua.

Guatemala city.

Not being able to spend more time there.

My route backpacking Guatemala.

 

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29 Comments

  1. Always love a list of things to look out for. Generally places tend to be better than their reputations but it’s always wise to be cautious, especially as a traveler. Thanks for the great tips!

  2. Ahh I feel like you were telling me about the people in the bus station who wore plastic on themselves to make it easier to mug people! Terrifying! Sucks that they scammed you at the border crossing as well, but I guess it’s just one of those things that happens sometimes when you travel a lot. I was supposed to go to Guatemala in November 2014 actually but I got really sick and had to stay home and have surgery and cancel my flights! I really hope I actually get there one day.

  3. Wow, that’s quite worrying about the scam, but thanks for bringing it to our attention! I’ve never been yet to Guatemala, but would like to go. I will bookmark your post for future reference!

  4. We went to Guatemala two years ago, but only got to visit the Tikal/Flores area. We loved it and found the people very welcoming and curious about our little blonde toddler. We would love to go back and explore more of the country.

  5. They scam-stamped your passport ? That’s insane, I’ve never heard of anything like that! It’s so amazing that you saw a volcano erupt, I wish you had some pictures, would’ve loved to see. One month backpacking in Guatemala didn’t seem long? I love travelling but sometimes I get homesick if I’m at a place too long. It’s a detailed post Amit, will refer to it at some stage if I plan a trip. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yeah, it was very weird for me too, you know I’m very vigilant with stuff like that, and we all thought we had been stamped in, there’s a lot of corruption at central American borders. I have to say in 6 years of travel and all the amazing things I’ve done seeing the volcano erupt is and will be the highlight, just a shame about no decent pictures 🙁 And yeah a month wasn’t long enough for me but as you know I long-term travel, I spend months and even years in foreign countries, I will have to go back to explore some more.

  6. Great overview! I also love overview posts! I love how you breakdown the budget of this country. It’s insane how cheap it is – $15-20 per day?! Wow. I’ve gotta get there asap! We’ve been talking about Central America next year. Guatemala is at the top of my list now! Great tips for Tikal early and accommodation tips!

    • Yeah it’s one of the cheapest places I’ve been to, I loved it there. You will love your time over there, the thing is, Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua all are amazing, I’ve not done Costa Rica and Panama properly yet but from what I’ve heard from others they are just as amazing, It’s hard to split them all haha.

  7. The list is very informative, thank you! It is good to keep track of both the positive as the negative experiences/encounters! I definitely can’t wait to go!

  8. This is a great summary for Guatemala. It’s giving me inspiration to start doing country summaries on my blog. I spent 3.5 months living / working / travelling in Guatemala in 2004 and then came back again with my wife at the end of last year. Even after all this time and the big increase in tourism the country has seen it was still AMAZING! For such a small country it really packs such a punch. I would also add Todos Santos Cuchimatan to this list which is a gorgeous, sleepy little mountain town in the west of the country.

    • So glad you enjoyed it and taken inspiration from it. You’re right with how much of a punch it packs 😀 I didn’t get to get out towards the west to much but would love to return at some point so I will keep that in mind 😀

  9. damn!!! this is very detailed post! I could book a flight right now and use this guide!!! bookmarked for future use.. keep it up! like I’m dead serious!!!

  10. I love the way you write. Very descriptive and easy to follow. It’s good to know these tips as we can save money and more importantly, stay safe. Looking forward to see this beautiful country … and taste their coffee since I love coffee.

  11. great post, and very informative. I think the hike up to the volcano must be an amazing experience and the Mayan ruins is undoubtedly a must. Latin America looks amazing.

  12. Great overview for visiting Guatemala! Guatemala keeps coming up and your information is really making me want to look further into making a visit sooner than later! Thanks for the tips especially making sure you are stamped in properly!!

  13. Whoa, Guatemala has coach buses now? I was there almost ten years ago and it was pretty brutal to do those long overland journeys on the chicken buses. I ended up missing Semuc Champuy and Flores because I couldn’t handle one more long journey like that. Your post makes me think I should go back.

    • Oh god I couldn’t imagine doing the trip from Flores to Coban on a chicken bus…The overnight bus I took was actually one of the confiest in, you get served coffee and a meal …and I took the cheapest one!! Ahh you should definetly go back i bet it’s changed so much from when u last went.

  14. I love Guatemala! I went a few years back and it is an adventurer’s playground. My favorite place is Lake Atitlan, so many different villages to stay in and each have a distinct feel to them.

  15. These are great tips! I can’t believe how many people will try to scam you when you come in for tours on private shuttles. I mean, I know people have to make a living, but that sucks, especially when they target people who are probably tired and disoriented from traveling. The country itself looks gorgeous! My husband loves hiking, and this looks exactly like a place he needs to visit. Thanks for sharing!

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