Backpacking Guatemala: Get your thrill on!
Not your usual type of guide to backpacking Guatemala
This backpacking Guatemala overview will give you a sense of what It’s like to travel through this underrated central American country. We’re going to dive into some practical information, useful tips, and a few things to be wary of. This post also gives you a heads up on some basic information to know about backpacking Guatemala, visa, transport, an interactive map, and accommodation options and my overall experience of backpacking Guatemala.
However, this post doesn’t go into how you should plan your itinerary, it doesn’t preach ‘top 10 things you must see and do’, what to pack, nor tell you how you should spend your budget. There are far too many posts that cover all that already available for you.
Backpacking Guatemala can be explosive (I mean the active volcanoes)
Guatemala is a true backpacker experience from the rainforests and Mayan temples in the north to the active Volcanoes in the south.
Not only is Guatemala seeped in Mayan history but its color and vibrancy can just captivate you. 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 thrills and just want to relax through your trip, don’t worry Guatemala is quite slow-paced and there are some amazing lakes you can relax on.
Basic things to know before backpacking Guatemala
- – 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 for backpacking Guatemala
No visa needed for British tourists for a stay of up to 90 days.Check GOV.UK for more information
However do make sure you get an entry and leaving stamp – Corruption is rife on borders
Check if your nationality needs a visa for Guatemala here
Practical tips for backpacking Guatemala
- – 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 and there are a lot of schools that backpackers can attend to learn.
- – Shop around for tours, be confident to haggle between tour companies. However, you will find different tour companies are run by 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 but look a horrible dirty brown when the weather isn’t so great.
- – 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 is 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.
Things to be wary of when backpacking Guatemala
- – 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 to convince you that there is no public transport or overnight buses towards Antigua. They will try to 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 headscarf 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 5 am in Guatemala city.
- – Tour operators in Panajachel trying to sell you tours around Lake Atitlan (you should shop around for best options)
Budget information when Backpacking Guatemala
Generally backpacking Guatemala good 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.
Do be wary though, if you love coffee, you can easily start spending freely without noticing, you will have to use your willpower to walk away – In my opinion, it’s that good!
If you eat locally and not in western style restaurants food will be quite inexpensive. Eating street food, daily set menu’s in local cafes or buying food from markets to cook for yourself are good ways to save money. Be warned though eating street food can become addictive.
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.
With such a variety of options 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.
With prices changing all the time, it would be unfair to try and give you specific prices or tell you how much you should budget for. However if you want to check out some live prices these two sites will give you a better idea: numbeo and expatisan.
This link will give you a more comprehensive breakdown of prices for backpacking Guatemala: Budget your trip
Transport options for backpacking Guatemala
Transport is not a problem when backpacking Guatemala, however, the journeys are long and because of the mountainous terrain and can be quite arduous. Your best bet for long journeys is to jump on an overnight bus to save on a nights rent, however, that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get some sleep.
Due to it’s terrain Guatemala is a country I recommend you choose comfort over price. With Guatemala being quite cheap even more luxurious buses will not be that much of a stretch to the budget.
Getting around 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.
Getting around 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.
Accommodation options when backpacking Guatemala
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.)
AirBnb is growing to be quite popular if you’re looking for something different to hostels and there are other options too.
- – 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 beforehand and Guatemala just kept that thrill ride going and it was filled with some pleasant and unpleasant surprises from the day I stepped into the country until the day I left.
A lifelong 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 any 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 fell 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 me out the country without paying the bribe. (Lesson learned always thoroughly check entry stamps even if you see them physically stamp in your passport.
An interactive map of my route backpacking Guatemala
If you’re looking to go backpacking Guatemala but not sure of the route to take, this map below shows my route, places I stopped, and will hopefully give you an idea of the best route for yourself.
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