The ultimate guide to backpacking Guatemala
This Central American country is a little less travelled than some of its neighbours, but the República de Guatemala is turning heads as backpackers come to explore.
Mountains and volcanoes dominate the landscape from Quetzaltenango to Lake Atitlan and Antigua. Head further north into the middle of the country and the mountains disappear and are replaced by eerie, explorable caves and Amazon-style jungle. Of course, there is no way you can go to Guatemala without experiencing the history of the Mayan people through excavated ruins and their literal carbon footprint which takes you back millennia. Or, chilled out travellers can catch a wave in the morning and brush up on their Spanish in the afternoon, if exploration sounds too ‘tough’.
Guatemala’s natural and historical beauty might be impressive, but there is a lot more to the region than meets the eye. Travellers rejoice because only a handful of close neighbours can boast cheaper living budgets, the locals are inquisitively welcoming, and the food ranges from basic eats on the street to Middle Eastern, Indian and Italian cuisine.
Countries might be easier to explore and more developed, yet the fact Guatemala is opening up to the travelling community means change is inevitable. Don’t worry if the thought of traversing mountains, jungles and volcanoes seems difficult though because we have your back with our ultimate guide for backpacking Guatemala that will help you make the most of your trip.
Livingston, : @dadanesto
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The best time to visit Guatemala
Most guides start by saying, ‘the best time to visit (insert destination) depends on what you want to see and do’. In Guatemala, this isn’t the case. Before you get your hopes up, it isn’t because the balmy temperatures hit a comfortable 35°C all year. Instead, it’s because the rainy season runs from the beginning of May all the way to October. During this season, you can expect showers to be a constant feature of your trip so it’s a good idea to pack waterproofs and brace yourself for the Guatemala weather to change at any minute. Even if the temperatures don’t plummet – during the Guatemala rainy season the average is 20+°C – the main activity is hiking, and it can be a terrible experience taking cover when the heavens open at altitude.
By far the best time to visit is from October to April, and it isn’t only down to the weather. The Guatemalans know how to party and they love an excuse for a fiesta. The good news is there are plenty of them, including Christmas and Easter, the latter being their spring break which lasts for seven days to two weeks in some places. Factor in Revolution Day and All Saints’ Day, and the celebrations add up. During the fiestas some of the less popular destinations come to life, for instance it’s the best time to visit Escuintla Guatemala as it transforms into more than a transport hub.
The dry season is also the best time to visit Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, it’s a beautiful place to chill and wind down. If you’re feeling more active than gazing at the lakes with volcano backdrops, then there’s plenty of trekking on offer. When the clouds gather, and the rain hits you’re best getting out a deck of cards and settling in for the night with your fellow hostellers. Around Lago de Atitlan the temperature tends to lower by one or two degrees in the rainy season and that can make the nights chilly.
Animal lovers can spot whales and dolphins, from December to April, off the Pacific Coast as they make their way down from the US, Canada and Mexico. Lucky travellers might see whale sharks off the Atlantic Coast, but it’s by no means guaranteed. And if fishing is your thing, there are plenty of tours during the dry season which try to land marlin, swordfish, sailfish and tuna.
Temperatures in Guatemala
The mercury can reach as high as 38°C in certain parts of the country, although mainly in the more tropical spots and not regularly. Visitors to Flores and Tikal should expect higher temperatures than anywhere else, even in the rainy season, so sunscreen is a must. Lots of tourists have been caught out by the sun while visiting the ruins and bright pink isn’t a good look on anyone. The humidity is high too and this makes it feel warmer than it is. Usually, the temperatures won’t soar as the mountains keep the heat in check, yet the north is sticky and sweaty.
Rainfall is a different matter. A total of 9 to 10 inches falls most years, with June and September being the months with the heaviest downpours. To put it into context, fewer than 2 inches falls from January to March.
What’s the answer then? The dry season is definitely the best time to visit the majority of places in Guatemala. Specifically, December to February as the weather is hot but not uncomfortable and it doesn’t rain all day, every day.
The first thing you need to know is the Guatemala visa requirements, before you even book flights. Turning up to immigration with proof of onward travel and a smile isn’t going to help if you can’t get into the country. The good news is that the majority of European citizens are able to travel to Guatemala without a visa, and the few that do need a visa can apply for one. So, entry is attainable even if you aren’t on the Guatemala visa free countries’ list. The same applies to citizens from the US & Canada as well as Australians, too.
A visa on arrival is valid for 90 days from the date of issue, although it is possible to extend. To do so, you need to apply for an extension at the *Migration Directorate in Guatemala City. It’s not possible to secure one without going to the capital so people who overstay should be prepared to pay a fine on their way out of the country. Typically, it’s Q10 per day but the fee can change unexpectedly. To avoid getting scammed, ask for an official receipt for any payments and keep a record. It is important to note that an exit fee does exist for anybody leaving the country via an airport, but it’s normally included in the ticket price. At the time of writing, the amount is $30(US) or Q230 but the exact amount will fluctuate depending on the most up to date exchange rates. Land border fees are illegal, and you should protest if officials try to charge you. Asking for a receipt should encourage them to drop the fee if they are insistent.
Your passport should be valid for a minimum of six months and you might need a yellow fever certificate in some circumstances. This only applies if you have recently visited a country with an outbreak of the virus or one with a risk of transmission. Lots of people find that a photocopy of their vital documents is a wise move in case of loss or theft. The latter isn’t overly common yet it’s better to be prepared in case the worst happens.
Acatenango Vulcano, :@michielton
If the above makes you feel as if there’s a lot of red tape in Guatemala, you’ll be glad to hear about the CA-4 agreement. Thanks to the terms of the Central America Border Control Agreement, tourists can travel throughout the four applicable countries without filling out entry or exit cards. No pen? No problem. Once you cross the border in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador or Honduras, you can hop in and out of any of the countries for up to 90-days starting at the first point of entry. A tip: don’t overstay. Anyone expelled from one of the CA-4 countries is expelled from them all and this can cause major disruptions to travel plans.
Remember that transiting through the United States will require an ESTA or a visa. Even if you don’t plan on leaving the airport, you will still have to go through immigration and the system will red flag you. If you are unsure, an ESTA only costs $14, lasts for a period of two years, and the decision is made within three days.
*The address for the migration office in Guatemala City is:
6ta. Avenida 3-11 Zona 4,
Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala.
PBX (502) 2411-2411
Codigo postal: 01004
Getting around Guatemala
Public transport in Guatemala is a bit of a contradiction: there are plenty of options, but they aren’t always the most desirable. Chicken buses run from Xela to Guatemala City and back, and they are cheap (around Q20 for a three hour journey) but they are cramped, hot and noisy. By the way, the name ‘chicken bus’ isn’t sarcastic – expect to see locals bring them onboard in baskets or put them on the roof along with the rest of the luggage. How else would you transport your poultry?!
The easiest way to get around if you need to travel long distances is a shuttle. Built like collectivos, they are private minibuses that fit 10 to 12 people and run throughout all the major routes. Want to know how to get from Guatemala City to Antigua? It’s a Q75 shuttle. What about Atitlan to El Paredon? It’s another shuttle. Although they aren’t as good as traditional buses, they’re the best you’re going to find if you’re travelling within the country. Unfortunately, rail transport in Guatemala is non-existent and flights can be expensive if you don’t book them in advance.
Roadtrippers can hire a car with reputable companies, with prices as low as $27 a day but there is a fee for dropping the car off in a different location which usually increases the price. A normal license is fine for trips under 3 months but anything more might require an International Driving Permit – so check the requirements if you’re unsure.
Hitchhiking isn’t officially a thing in Guatemala but people in 4x4s and pickup trucks will stop. If you do hitchhike, please take precautions and never do it alone.
Lanquin, : @dadanesto
Transport for short trips
There are three options in almost every town and city in Guatemala: bus, collectivo or taxi. They all have their pros and cons and it’s down to you to decide what you want. Budget travellers will find a collectivo the cheapest and most convenient way to get around town. At Q5 to Q10 per trip, it’s almost worth sitting three to a seat while the driver tries his best to play chicken with oncoming traffic.
Taxis are more expensive, but some cities do have Uber. You’ll be able to use app in both Guatemala City and Xela and the prices are very economical. From Zone 1 to 10 in Guatemala City, you can expect to pay Q25 (£2.50/$3) for a twenty-five-minute drive, which is hard to argue with when you can split the cost between four people. Normal taxis tend not to use the meter so you can negotiate the price in advance, but you should ask around for a good price to avoid getting overcharged by opportunist drivers.
It’s not travelling without a tuk-tuk and Guatemala understands this better than anybody. In Lake Atitlan, tuk-tuks are a popular form of transport from one town to the next. There’s nothing like driving up a steep hill at a snail’s pace while walkers pass you by! The experience might be something you only want to try once or twice though as they aren’t cheap; San Pedro La Laguna to San Marcos is Q100 to Q150. You’ll also find tuk-tuks in Flores, Lanquin and Rio Dulce. Drivers often charge more for multiple people even if you’re going to the same place with a single drop.
From San Pedro to Santa Cruz you can take a boat across the Lake Atitlan, the ride is 20 minutes long and only costs Q30. Santa Cruz to Panajachel takes 15 minutes and costs approx Q10. There are plenty of water taxis on Lake Atitlan, called Lancha, and they are one of the best ways to travel to neighbouring villages.
The roads in Guatemala are dangerous because high-speeds mixed with potholes, means there are journeys that you won’t forget. When buses and trucks overtake on single track carriageways high in the mountains and take detours down the wrong side of the road, it’s almost as if you’re a rally driver in a Subaru Impreza. For those who want to mix risk and reward, the general rule is to choose a seat towards the back in case of an accident and to keep bags underneath your seat to stop them from falling. And, don’t forget to hold on tight!
Accommodation in Guatemala
There are dozens of hostels in Guatemala to choose from and the majority are clean, cheap and have English-speaking staff for the monolinguistic among you. Guatemala hostels have different strokes for different folks: from rooftop terraces and bars to comfy camas with privacy curtains. So, to make your life of drinking, socialising and chilling in hammocks that much simpler, I’ve picked a few of my favourites.
Hostels in Guatemala City
As it’s the biggest, bustling city, the capital of Guatemala has some of the best hostels around. Apart from cheap stays with comfy rooms, you’re never too far away from the nightlife whether it’s a booming bar or a busker on the street.
The clue is in the name. Central 10 Hostel is located in Zone 10 which is seen as the safest place for a traveller to lay their head. Inside are standard beds that come with a privacy curtain, a shelf, light, and an individual power unit. It really is the little things that make your hostel night really comfortable. There’s also a pool and chill-out area with cable TV as well as a fully-equipped kitchen which isn’t common in Guatemala. Of course, if gastronomy isn’t your thing, you can leave it to the pros as Zone 10 is the business district and it’s cluttered with medium to high-end restaurants as well as local eats for those on a budget.
Again, the name gives the game away. Capsule Hostel offers its guests great beds with some of the best showers around. Not only are they hot, but the pressure is almost too much! As well as a fantastic breakfast (make sure you try the pancakes), the staff are very helpful and can book buses for onward travel at affordable prices while the airport is twenty-minutes away. Don’t let the hype around Zone 1 fool you because Capsule is in a bubble.
You don’t get the same level of privacy here, but you do get a backpacker experience from the owners. As travellers, this Aussie couple know how to make your stay as easy as possible: from free towels on arrival, complimentary breakfast, private car for tours and transport to the local museums, restaurants and the airport. If you have to leave early, they’ll prepare a breakfast for you so that you don’t miss the most important meal of the day. Being in Zone 10, it has an incredible location in the ‘Zona Viva’ too.Find more hostels in Guatemala City
Hostels in Antigua
A small colonial town, Antigua is the base for the Acatenango volcano hike and plenty of Spanish language schools. Although this has attracted travellers in hordes, Antigua is still a beautiful city to explore during the day and party at night.
Tropicana is probably one of the most well-known hostels in Guatemala. It’s the hostel to party, and you’ll find the terrace and both bars are packed with people drinking, talking and generally having a good time. Watch out for the wheel! However, there is a softer side with good dorms, a TV room with Netflix and a chilled pool. And, as the party leaves between 10pm and 11pm, it’s not as if guests can’t have their cake and eat it. Plus, it’s one of the two places to book a tour to the volcano 4,000m in the skyline. Book it with them and you’ll get good discounts on gear for climbing as well as dorm beds on your return. Travel bloggers can negotiate perks if they mention them on their social media platforms.
Three Monkeys has a mixed vibe, sometimes as hectic as Tropicana and other times chilled out which makes it perfect for people who don’t want to party all the time. But, don’t think there aren’t opportunities to meet people. BBQ night happens weekly and the open mic is a lot of fun. Don’t worry, you don’t need a great voice to participate!
Sometimes you need a bit of affordable luxury while travelling and Maya Papaya has you covered. Run by true professionals, everything about the hostel is luxury apart from the price and they have the awards to prove it. From the food to the beds to the drinks (try a mojito for Q20), you won’t be disappointed. In fact, you might not want to leave! The location is a little out of the way, but the walk is worth the trade-off.Find more hostels in Antigua
Hostels in Lake Atitlan
Lago de Atitlan is a place to chill and enjoy the natural beauty that is the lake. With five or six different towns, there is a big selection of hostels.
If Tropicana is famous among the travelling community, then so is Free Cerveza. The name brings in people from all around the region because it isn’t a gimmick. Pay Q75 for the three- course dinner and you’ll get to refill your cup as many times as you like from 5pm to 7pm. Other than the free beer, there’s a range of activities and amenities such as early morning yoga, a sauna and hikes. Just be careful of the tab situation because it can be very dangerous!
Unfortunately, there aren’t any mullets to be found because this is the 21st century and not 1975. Still, even without the retro hairdo it’s about as central as you’d want to be in San Pedro and it has a party vibe. With a pool table, naughty Jenga (look it up) and a generous happy hour, the atmosphere lasts long into the night. Plus, the massive pancake breakfast in the morning is a great hangover cure. Mr Mullet’s is a great place to spend some time if you need a job because they are always looking for volunteers.
Hostel Fe is just down the road and the chances are you’ll sample what it has to offer whether you stay there or not. Why? It’s because Hostel Fe has become a hub for backpackers in Lake Atitlan thanks to its spot overlooking the lago, where daredevils can jump off the edge of the bar onto an inflatable. If that’s not your thing, you can enter the Friday night quiz and take home the spoils. With 50 dorm beds this hostel is an excellent backup if you haven’t booked in advance.Find more hostels in Lake Atitlan
Hostels in Lanquin/Semuc Champey
This is a public service announcement: don’t leave Guatemala without visiting Lanquin. At times the long shuttle buses from the north or the south are trying, especially with the bumpy, cliff-hugging tracks they call roads, but the national park is well worth the effort when you finally arrive.
If you want to stay the night in the Semuc Chamney Valley, there’s a good chance you’ll plump for Greengo’s (props for the name, by the way) because it’s the perfect hostel if you want affordable dorms, a pool and jacuzzi. Just a ten-minute walk from the national park, the waterfalls, treks and underground caves are on your doorstep. Then, when you arrive back, you can chill out in the artsy surroundings and relax with an ice cold cerveza and do it all again in the morning.Find more hostels in Lanquin
Hostels in Flores
Flores will either be the first or last stop in Guatemala depending on your route, as it’s a charming island that acts as the base for Tikal. With soaring temperatures and muggy humidity, a comfy hostel is a must or else you run the risk of evaporating into thin air!
All you need to know about this hostel is that all the rooms come with A/C. That should be enough to book it now. Seriously though, the renovated house has almost everything a traveller needs including exercise machines in case you want to prepare for Tikal. Although it’s not in Flores – it’s in San Miguel – the location is perfect because the rope swing, small ruins and lake beach are a few minutes’ walk away. At less than Q100 per night, it’s one of the cheapest options.Find more hostels in Flores
Hostels in Quetzaltenango
There’s one place that stands out from the rest in Xela: Kasa Kiwi. Sadly, there are no Kiwis around which is a bit of a bummer, but the rooftop bar and single beds make up for that. Yes, you heard right – no top bunks! Kasa Kiwi is the perfect pitstop if you’re coming from San Cristobal in Mexico and want to rest before heading to the lake. Look out for fliers in other hostels and bars which happily provide KK with free marketing.Find more hostels in Quetzaltenango
Guatemala isn’t a huge country, but it’s packed with places to see and things to do and that makes it perfect for travellers. Whether you’re looking to spend five, ten or fourteen days sampling the culture, we’ve got you covered. Here are the itineraries that can help you get the most out of your trip.
A 5-day tour: Gringo Classico
Antigua, : @dadanesto
Best for: Seeing as many of the hotspots as possible.
Best time to travel: Anytime.
Fly into Guatemala City on an early flight and jump onto the number #82 bus into zones 1, 4, 9 and 10. Once your bags are safely stowed in your hostel, it’s time to explore the city and the best place to begin is Zone 1.
Aesthetically, the capital isn’t one of the best-looking places in the country, but it makes up for it with its abundance of character. Start your day by exploring the National Palace, once the headquarters of the president and now a grandiose, baroque museum that details the turbulent and fascinating history of the Republic of Guatemala. Four blocks over, El Museo del Holocausto is another amazing insight into the country’s battle with antisemitism during the Second World War. Move onto 7a Avenida and the Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago to gaze at the neoclassical architecture and enjoy street food in the Parque Central. Shopaholics need to check out Paseo de la Sexta and Plaza Vivar if there is time.
Zone 10 is the next stop to take in the sprawling business district. Zona Viva is also home to foreign embassies, urban greenery and great food and drink spots. As five days isn’t very long, the two main places for culture buffs are Popol Vuh and Ixchel del Traje Indigena. Both are museums dedicated to Mayan history and culture.
As the sun sets, it’s time to jump on a bright green TransUrbano or TransMetro bus and move onto Zone 4, the hipster, Bohemian part of Guatemala City. Here you can wind down and enjoy a drink of your choice while marveling at how this zone once used to be the capital of violence. For coffee, head to Paradigma Café; for beer, be sure to try El Principe Gris, and for those who can’t make up their minds, La Esquina should be your jam.
Leave Guatemala City behind and take a shuttle bus to Antigua. Only an hour away, you could also leave in the evening of Day 1, if you’d like more time in this popular hotspot.
There’s a reason Antigua is the most visited place in Guatemala: it’s seductive! As soon as you see the colonial buildings and laid-back-yet-on-the-go-vibe, you’ll never want to leave. Time is of the essence though, so start the day by taking in as many sights as possible, from the pastel yellows of the Iglesia de la Merced and Arco de Santa Catalina to the white tents of the outside Central Market.
For lunch, make sure you head into one of the cavernous coffee shops which expand into open, airy courtyards serving legitimate mugs of Java and lumps of devil’s chocolate cake. In Antigua, don’t take shops and stores on face value as often there is a restaurant or bar lurking in the back of a mercado. Spend the rest of the day checking out the churches and museums – Choco Museum, anyone? – or book a tour to a nearby coffee plantation. Alternatively, there is a three-hour walking tour led by an Antiguan historian on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday mornings.
At night, check out the main square and explore the side streets for atmospheric bars and restaurants with great eats and live music.
Antigua, : @dadanesto
Wake up early and take a tour of Pacaya, one of the many volcanoes which dominates the landscape of the region. There are others that are more famous, Acatenango for example, but this is a perfect half-day trip which lets you experience the power of a continuously active volcano from a safe distance.
After your whistle-stop tour of Antigua, the next stop is Lake Atitlan. The best base is Panajachel as it’s the main pick-up and drop-off spot for buses and shuttles and the boats run quite late into the night.
The urge to spend time on the water is strong but you can do that from any of the towns so it’s wise to begin with a stroll along the main, packed out street of Calle Santander. Even if nothing takes you eye, absorb the hustle and bustle and store it in your memory banks to compare with the tranquility of the lakeside.
Next, take the boat to San Pedro and explore the heavily Israeli-influenced culture around the lake. Don’t be surprised if you see Israeli hostels and restaurants and don’t miss the opportunity to taste bona fide Middle Eastern cuisine in Central America. Once your food has settled, there are several places to hire paddleboards, kayaks and jet-skis. Or, you can stay on land and rent quad bikes for an off-road adventure.
On the fourth day, God created the sun, moon and the stars, so it’s only right that you spend a little time by the beach. El Paredon is a really cool place to relax and soak up the rays, and it’s only two to three hours from Atitlan depending on traffic.
To get the most time beach side, get up early and get the travelling out of the way. Then, crash on a sun lounger and spend the morning and early afternoon snoozing with the crashing of the waves acting as a lullaby. If you get hungry, the waiters will bring food and drinks to your lounger.
After a lazy morning, it’s time to explore a little as there’s a host of things to do. Cooking classes are readily available and lots of them don’t require a booking. Just turn up and learn how to make delicious seafood dishes with a local guide. Surfing is another rite of passage on the coast if you have the energy, and while most people don’t regret the attempt, a mangrove tour is a much more chilled option if you’re feeling lazy and cultural at the same time.
End your day at the beach watching turtles hatch and run the gauntlet to the open ocean.
There are two options: go back to Guatemala City via Escuintla or stay put until it’s time to hop on a shuttle to the airport which takes around two-and-a-half-hours.
For those who choose the former, El Barretal Coffee Farm is a good option if you’re tired of looking at colonial buildings and wandering around cathedrals and churches.
10-day tour: stunning scenery
Best for: Exploring the beauty of Guatemala’s 37 volcanoes.
Best time to travel: October until April (the dry season).
Make your way to Xela either through San Cristobal/Palenque in Mexico or via a transfer through Guatemala City. Spend the day checking out Guatemala’s fifth most populous city by visiting the Museo de Arte and former-disused-railway-turned-school-of-art-and-dance Centro Intercultural de Quetzaltenango. The Parque Centro is a hub for street performers, cheap eats and friendly gatherings. Be sure to book your Lake Atitlan trek and introduction – Quetzaltrekkers is the most popular tour operator (Tuesdays and Saturdays).
Spend three days, two nights hiking through corn fields and coffee plantations, stopping in small, indigenous towns to relax in a traditional sauna and stay with the locals.
Arrive in San Pedro on the lake in the afternoon, and after swimming and lunch, explore the town. Sababa is an excellent place to drink coffee and eat Middle Eastern food with a view of the lake, while Hamburg is perfect for comfort food and one of the best burgers in Guatemala. If you have the energy, Fe Bar is a cool place to have a chilled afternoon drink as well as a splash dip. Alternatively, Duracell bunnies can hop on a boat to Pana, Santa Cruz, San Marcos and Santiago Atitlan.
Get a shuttle bus to Antigua and take in the colonial buildings and cobbled streets that are a mix of regenerated and crumbling to the ground. Lunch time means one thing: chicken at Rincón Típico. While the meat and the price are the selling points, the salad and roast potatoes are welcome reminders of home after days of rice. After booking the Acatenango tour for the following day, follow the 1a Avenida Nte to the Cerro de la Cruz for spectacular views of the city.
Trek to the top of the third biggest volcano in Guatemala and settle in for the night of roasting marshmallows, drinking wine and cuddling up next to your tour mates to watch the eruptions. Wrap up warm because the lava will not stop you from freezing come the 4am wake-up call to reach the summit.
Arrive back in Antigua in the early afternoon and jump on a shuttle to Lanquin. Find your free transportation to your hostel at the bus station in the centre of town and chill out with comfort food and a range of beers.
Lanquin, : @dadanesto
Lanquin has a lot of tours, but Semuc Champey is the jewel in the crown. In the morning, you’ll wade through a water-filled cave system using a candle as a torch and a small waterfall as stairs. Next is the rope swing, before moving onto 3m and 7m dives off the main waterfall into the crystal blue pools. After a buffet lunch it’s a medium hike to the mirador and stunning views of the national park and beyond. Finish off by walking down to the pools and using the rocks as mini slides to get from one stretch of water to another.
Finally, relax with a rubber ring and a day’s worth of cervezas. The tubing tour is the opposite to Semuc as you spend the entire day lazing down the river soaking up the rays and drinking. Afterwards, the party moves to Zephyr where the stragglers go to bed early and the hardcore don’t stop until the music ends.
Leave Lanquin for Flores and Tikal. Instead of booking a tour, turn up at the information kiosk and let the tour guides display their credentials and their prices. As long as you are at the park by 3pm, you should be able to catch the burning orange sunset as you sit atop a ruin above the jungle canopy. Sunset guided tours include an extra Q100 entrance fee for being in the park after hours.
Go across to San Miguel for a morning on the rope swing as well the chance to see the small ruins. Then, it’s back to Flores for a bus to Belize, Mexico or Guatemala City.
14-day tour: on and off the beaten track
Best for: Exploring the quaint and cultural towns
Best time to travel: September through January
Flores is the best place to start if you’re going to spend two weeks backpacking Guatemala (you lucky thing!). This will mean you can spend time exploring Tikal and although tickets are a little pricey, it’s not often you get the chance to explore an ancient Mayan site which was once the hub of civilisation. Do day 1 with a guide and use the second day to tick off the ruins and areas you didn’t get to see, which is everything other than the Gran Plaza and Temple IV. Enter the park on the first day at 3pm for the sunset and your ticket will be good for the day after.
Rio Dulce is just a short bus ride away but don’t linger too long. Instead, buy a boat ticket to Livingston and enjoy the ride through the jungle with its sheer cliffs, vegetation and abundance of wildlife. There isn’t much to do here apart from walking around and hiking to waterfalls, yet that’s part of the appeal. There is nowhere else in Guatemala with the Caribbean feel so spend two days lounging around eating as many soups and stews as possible. Casa Rosada has airy dorms amid the humidity and the tapado is a must.
Get to Lanquin early and pick the tour which suits you best. Adrenaline junkies will love Semuc Champey, whereas laidback travellers will prefer to go tubing. Leave after one day to experience more of the central valley. Coban is a perfect starting point as its 30-minutes away from Salama, where a thriving market and an ex-sugar mill that is now a museum are the main attractions. From Salama, head back north to the Biotopo del Quetzal where you can spend day 7 trying to spot Guatemala’s, and much of Central America’s, national emblem.
Heading south along the backroads isn’t always fun, as they often aren’t well-maintained. But it’s worth it when you land at Cubulco as it’s an amazing place to stop and take in a dying tradition. ‘Danza de los Voladores’, or ‘Palo Volador’, is the Mayan art of pole dancing unlike you’ve ever seen it before. Four acrobats spin around a pole 90ft in the air striking poses while the ropes gradually lower to the ground and the adoring crowds cheer and holler. All the while, a fifth stands on the narrow pole playing various instruments and defying death. If any patron saints’ days are on the horizon, there’s a good chance you’ll get to see a ceremony protected by UNESCO.
A day in the capital is usually enough if you’re happy to wander around the main zones, but we recommend picking one and getting the most out of it. While 1 and 4 have lots to do and see, Zone 13 is home to the National History, Archaeology and Ethnology and Modern Art museums. And, it’s only a short bus ride from Zone 10 if you manage to see all them in half a day.
The beach beckons. You might not think to bring your bathing suit but Guatemala’s south coast is very tropical and a fantastic place to get away from the busy, colonial cities and towns. El Paredon is usually the first stop but don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is only one place to relax. There’s Iztapa down towards El Salvador and Tulate closer to the Mexican border, but Monterrico is the diamond in the rough. In between, Paredon and El Salvador, the water is crystal clear and the town charmingly quiet.
Antigua shouldn’t be missed but there’s no need to linger if you aren’t going to take part in a volcano hike. Get there early enough and book ahead and Pacaya is doable in half a day, allowing you to absorb the capital of colonial culture during the afternoon and early evening. If not, still wake up early just to soak up the cobbled streets and back alleys as well as the line of colourful bears providing a guard of honour through the centre.
Bypass Atitlan and opt for Chichicastenango instead. Trying new places is always a risk when you know there is perfectly good option along the way, but Chichi won’t disappoint. Colonial as most cities are in Guatemala, this one stands out with its red roofs and mountain mists which flow down from the hills covering the city in the morning and evening. It’s also a great place to see the mixed religious ceremonies where sacrifices are made and alcohol and cigarettes are offered as tokens.
For a flight out of the capital, the early risers can still fit in Lago de Atitlan by catching a microbus to Panajachel and spending half a day by the lake. Then, a three-hour bus journey should get you to the airport in time to board your late flight home.
31-day tour: a bilingual study session
Xela, : @dadanesto
Best for: Budding students ready to grapple with intensive courses in Spanish.
Best to travel: Whenever an agency can find you a home.
Enroll on a course in either Xela or Antigua and immerse yourself in the culture by living with a local family. Spend your days in class and your nights in your room studying as if you were a student again, setting aside the odd night to sample Reilly’s with gringos and Guatemalans alike. Sol Latino and Ixchel Spanish School are in high regard.
Spend the next ten days ticking off whichever activities and sights you want to by mixing the three guides above with flights instead of buses. Some call it flashpacking but let’s face it: you’ve earned it after three-weeks back at school!
Backpacking Guatemala budget
You’re not going to need a tonne of money, right? It’s Guatemala for God sake! While Guatemala doesn’t rank highly on the United Nations Development Programme, the costs sometimes belie travellers’ first impressions of the country. Ironically, the fact it has a burgeoning tourist population doesn’t help the daily budget backpacking costs in Guatemala. The Gringo Trail is always more expensive than anywhere else in the country which is worth bearing in mind when calculating your budget.
Then, there is the currency. The Guatemala currency, the Quetzal, is around Q10 to £1 or Q7.7 to $1 at the time of writing which sounds like a good exchange rate; however, the prices around the region are flat, and because the Quetzal is much stronger compared to other Central American currencies, the costs can be higher in relation to the likes of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
So, how much are you going to need per day? Obviously, the amount will depend on the type of travelling you like to do. People who want the best party hostels with a good social vibe will pay more than those who opt for the cheapest accommodation they can find. On average though, you can expect to pay the following over the course of your trip.
Accommodation – Q70-Q90 per night for a dorm bed. Privates, for the boujee travellers, are Q250-Q300.
Food – In a restaurant, a typical meal will cost Q30-Q40. If you like to dine out, a good tip is to avoid buying a drink and ask for a refresco – a soft drink – which is normally included. In a hostel, be prepared to spend extra with most main meals around Q50-Q60 for western food such as pasta, pizza and burgers. On the street, empanadas and pupusas are the best for shoestring budgets at Q5-Q10; you can get a plate of pastries for Q15 including a drink.
Drink – Water and soft drinks are under Q10, but you can find ways to limit the costs of the former by reading our ‘Budget Hacks’ section. Alcohol is a massive budget buster because, well, you’re not going to give it up anytime soon! One way to stop beer and wine from becoming a pain in the backside is to buy it from a shop and drink it in the hostel. If that’s not allowed, make sure you’re back at the accommodation for 5pm as that’s when happy hour usually starts. During happy hour, beer is Q10-Q15 and cocktails are two for one.
Transport – Costs vary due to the type of bus and length of trip. For a shuttle that lasts anywhere from one to eight-hours, you shouldn’t pay over Q150 within Guatemala. Going over the border incurs extra costs so the price can rise by an extra Q50-Q75. A shuttle from Flores to Caye Caulker in Belize, for example, is Q215. Tuk-tuks, where available, are economical for pottering around town but they aren’t dirt cheap. Boats, which you’ll use in Lake Atitlan and Flores, tend to be one of the most affordable options. Expect to pay Q15-Q30 to get around the lake in Atitlan and Q50 in Flores to go to San Miguel. The Rio Dulce to Livingston boat is Q125 one-way but it’s an anomaly. Chicken buses, if they run on your route, are the cheapest form of transport at Q20-Q30 long and short journeys.
Tours – Like transport, tours don’t have a flat rate as you have to factor in everything from the cost of a guide to the price of admission. Tikal is the main tour in Guatemala and it’s Q150 to get into the park and walk around the ruins. With a guide, expect to pay an extra Q85 on top but that should include air-conditioned transport and an English-speaking guide. Acatenango is another major attraction, and a two-day, one-night tour is Q450 with Tropicana hostel including the Q50 entrance fee. Another great trek is the three day tour from Xela to Lake Atitlan. If you decide to walk instead of drive, the price is Q750 and you get food. water, transportation, lodgings and guides. In Lanquin, the tours are cheaper with the most expensive ones – the zip line and Semuc Champey – costing Q150 each. The rest are under Q80.
Spanish classes – While they are affordable for language classes, Spanish lessons are still $150 for 20 hours a week in Xela and Antigua. To stay at a home and live with locals, expect to pay an additional $100 per week. Anyone planning on studying Spanish in Guatemala should include it on top of their savings or else the trip might not last as long.
Travel costs in Guatemala included, a good budget is £35/ $45 per day barring language courses. There will be times when you spend more but it should even out over the space of your trip as not every stop is full of sights, people or parties.
As backpacking trips are long, it’s best to have a few tricks up your sleeve when the inevitable happens and the funds in your bank account become dangerously low. Here are the hacks that will help you eek out your last pay cheque for as long as possible.
Hop on chicken buses: Shuttles are comfier but chicken buses are cheaper. For a five-hour journey, you can pay between Q80 and Q100 for a private tourist bus whereas the same trip on a local bus will come in at around Q30. At almost half the price, you can save a lot on transport over the course of a couple of weeks or months.
Haggle for accommodation: The great thing about Central America is the lack of standard prices. Sure, you will be quoted a certain amount but the price you pay in the end can be a lot lower as long as you negotiate hard, and hostels aren’t exempt. A great option is to sign up for volunteering work as plenty of them need help. Whether you work behind the bar, run the front desk or clean the rooms, the majority of places are happy to offer free accommodation in return. If they provide drinks and food, you can ask for free alcohol and two to three square meals a day too. If they say no, ask another hostel until you find the best deal.
Cook: Cooking is a standard way to cut the costs of travelling yet it’s harder in Guatemala as lots of hostels don’t come equipped with a kitchen. The best thing to do is to use Hostelworld to check the amenities before finalising your booking. That way, you will know that the likes of Kasa Kiwi and Central 10 are happy to let you experiment in the kitchen. Finding cheap ingredients shouldn’t be a problem as Guatemala is full of markets selling fresh produce at decent prices. And, if you can’t find a hostel with the right amenities, don’t be lazy. Instead of ordering overpriced meals at the bar, go into town and eat the same dishes at a fraction of the costs as Guatemalan restaurants usually have a Menu del Dia. The last tip is helpful in Lanquin where almost all the hostels are catered.
Find free tours: Some tours you can’t miss, but others you can do by yourself. National parks, for example, are easy to get to and provide information if you don’t want to pay for a guide on top of the entry fee. Alternatively, you can haggle for one when you get there. Another option is to go on the free walking tours that are available in the tourist spots.
Close your tab: Yes, you’ll have the opportunity to open a tab in a couple of hostels. Although it’s simpler, it’s also dangerous because it’s so easy to forget how much you have spent. Not opening a tab means you can keep track of your money and make a conscious effort to cut costs if you think you’re withdrawing money on a regular basis.
Refill a water bottle: H2O isn’t safe to drink out of the tap. Thankfully, hostels make a concerted effort to provide clean drinking water in the form of water dispensers. Refilling your bottle at these stations stops you from forking out for a new litre of H2O everyday. Considering the climate is hot and the humidity is high, you can get through two or three litres a day which will cost around Q7 or Q8 per bottle. Using the free water points should save you up to £2.40 a day, £9.60 a week or £38 a month. Buying a water bottle with a filter will prevent you from paying anything as you can use the tap water.
Wake up for breakfast: Getting up early can be tough when you want to sleep in and have a hangover. Still, it’s worth the effort if breakfast is included as you can fill your stomach on pancakes and coffee and not eat again until the evening.
Don’t tip: It seems bad, especially if you start your trip in Mexico and Belize, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Guatemala doesn’t have a tipping culture unlike it’s neighbours so you can save your pennies by keeping your money in your pocket.
Where to go in Guatemala
The Gringo Trail gets mentioned a lot and it’s easy to slip into the mindset of ‘oh, we’ll stick to the beaten track then’. This is a mistake because Guatemala is expanding and opening its arms to tourists which means there are tonnes of places that aren’t on the main route that need sampling. Obviously, that’s not to say the highlights need throwing out along with the baby and the bathwater. Guatemala is a cultural hub that has lots to offer everyone and it’s worth keeping that in mind.
To help, here is a mixture of the best places to visit in Guatemala. Some you’ll recognise, others you won’t, and some you won’t be able to pronounce but that’s the beauty of travelling.
Despite the stigma attached to the capital, travellers usually end up travelling through Guatemala City at the very least. But, as the biggest city with the most varied attractions and activities, it makes sense to explore it and find out more about this hidden treasure. Zone 1 is the most central part as well as the most historic; the buildings here date back more than 240 years. At the heart is the Plaza Mayor which leads you to the National Theatre and Metropolitan Cathedral, and throughout the city there is a reminder of the Spanish rule which didn’t end until the early part of the 19th century. Of course, it wouldn’t be Guatemala without the opportunity to eat, drink and shop on a budget. Follow the beautifully hectic 6th Avenue down to Plaza Barrios and you’ll find market stalls, bars and restaurants that are all strikingly similar in design and what they offer.
For culture without the local vibe, Zone 10 is the answer. As soon as you step out of a ridiculously cheap Uber, it’s not hard to see why it’s dubbed as the ‘safest zone’ in Guatemala City. Ritsy bars and restaurants – some chains, others independent – line the green, wide boulevards accompanied by the wealthy flats and homes. In many ways, it feels as if it isn’t part of the city at all. Still, it doesn’t matter much when the sun sets and the night crowd comes out to show visitors why Zone 10 has another nickname: Zona Viva. It’s not as if there isn’t any culture, though. Two of the most fascinating museums, Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena and Popol Vuh Museo, are located here and pay homage to their Mayan roots.
It’s not 21st-century travel without a hipster neighbourhood full of coffee shops, IPAs and vintage clothes stores. New York has Williamsburg, London has Camden, and Guatemala City has Zone 4. Street art, graffiti to you and I, adorns the walls and adds a dash of brightness to what can be an otherwise bland city in terms of colour. There’s even a mini Eiffel Tower called the ‘Torre del Reformador’ which cements the French feel of Zone 4. If you think it’s weird Zona 4 has a slightly French vibe, don’t because the 1889 Paris World Fair left its mark, so much so that it’s believed it was the blueprint for the neighbourhood.
Its remiss to talk about the best zones without listing the worst ones too. So, avoid the outskirts and the likes of 18 and 21 as well as the more central zones of 3 and 6. To this day they are dangerous for tourists and locals alike even though the capital has come a long way recently.
Not many UNESCO World Heritage sites can boast the turbulent history of Antigua. Formerly the capital of Guatemala under Spanish rule, a huge earthquake brought the city to its knees in 1773. Thankfully, there was no hush to restore it back to its former glory and Antigua was rebuilt slowly. As a result, the centre and the surrounding suburbs are packed with colonial gems and relics from the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales on 5a Calle Poniente to Antiguo Colegio de la Compania de Jesus on 6a Avenida Norte. What makes Antigua a must-see isn’t only the restorations but the things which were left to crumble. Today, a crumbling 18th century monastery, Iglesia y Convento de la Recolección, is as popular as any of the well-maintained artifacts from the 17th and 18th centuries. With volcanoes galore, the mixture of hiking and sightseeing is just right in this deeply resilient, versatile and vibrant city.
El Peten is 14,000 square miles and has a population of over 650,000 people; however, you’ll know it by another name: Flores. Flores is the capital of the department and the small island is unlike the rest of the area. Go over the bridge and the dust and noise will hit you like a right hook from Mike Tyson as street vendors hassle you to the point of annoyance and tuk-tuks and cars beep incessantly. Flores, on the other hand, is its own entity. Small, maze-like streets are home to colonial hostels and restaurants and the volume is a lot lower. In fact, you might find yourself thinking ‘where is everybody’? Don’t worry because the answer is three-fold: Los Amigos, Tikal or San Miguel.
Walk to the harbour at the top of Flores island and you’ll come across captains trying to sail you across Lake Peten Itza to San Miguel. Do it. Although there isn’t a great deal to do, and they’ll try and overcharge you, there’s more than on Flores. You already know about the rope swing and small ruins but another cool recommendation is the Zoologico Petencito. For Q75 for the entry fee, there’s the chance to see alligators, turtles and big cats, plus you’ll get to take a break from the suffocating heat and sweltering temperatures under the shelter of the trees. The boat should be no more than Q100-125 for a return trip.
Obviously, the whole region lies in the shadow of the most famous Guatemala ruins in the country, Tikal, but don’t simply view it as a stop off. The retro architecture and street design is charming enough to make you want to stay more than night, as is the fact that lodgings are comfy and cool.
At 20km3, Atitlan is the biggest lake in Central America so it isn’t surprising that it has so much to offer. Located in the Sierra Madre mountains, the valley of small towns situated at the base of the range is packed with travellers taking part in a variety of activities. Panajachel, affectionately called ‘Pana’ in Guatemala, is the beating heart of the lake but don’t expect much more than the lazy lifestyle you will inevitably become accustomed to. Mostly, it’s the main street and the lonesome ATM that combine to make Pana a tourist hotspot. You might hear that the paradise is lost in Panajachel but don’t listen to the rumours. Sure, the streets are lined with vendors and the noise is a little deafening but head down to the lakeshore and you’ll get an instant reminder of why this is a fantastic place to get lost. As women wash clothes in the lake and the mixture of indigenous people such as Ladinos, Tz’utujil and Kaqchiquel sell their wares, it’s almost possible to imagine Pana 85,000 years ago shortly after the ‘Los Chocoyos’ explosion in all its former glory.
A short tuk-tuk or boat ride away is Santa Cruz, famed for its Free Cerveza hostel. However, it’s also a stunning natural habitat home to some of the best Guatemala mountains and hills. The Indian Nose is well worth getting up early for (it’s a 4am start) due to the panoramic views of the entire lake and its surroundings. Or, Santa Cruz holds another honour: it’s one of the only places in the world where you can scuba dive at altitude without a dry suit.
Another town only a boat ride away is San Marcos. While it’s not terribly exciting, it is the undisputed beauty hotspot of the lake. Split between the Mayan people in the hills and tourists on the ground floor, it’s not hard to spend your days roaming through the banana and avocado trees or the Yoga Forest. Then, you can recover by meditating at the Las Piramides Centre during the full moon month for three sessions a day. For those who can’t afford $800, there are dozens of meditation centres in San Marcos.
Other places are more popular as bases for Alta Veracruz, Lanquin, for example, but Coban isn’t a one-trick pony. If diving from waterfalls into lakes and trekking to viewing spots is your thing, Coban is the perfect location to visit Semuc Champey, Orquigonia and the national park of Las Victorias. But, it’s also a good place to explore too. Ridiculously colonial even for Guatemala, the Catedral de Santo Domingo dominates the landscape of the centre of town while El Calvario Temple sits astride a hill overlooking the town. And, the place is a constant reminder of its very real and complicated history. Once called ‘Land of War’, Coban was unfortunately a hub for German immigrants after World War 2 and, as a result, Coban and Guatemala played a big part in rounding up powerful plantation owners who were suspected of being Nazis. A tour of Chicoj will reveal all and more and you’ll get a fantastically fresh cup of Jo at the end.
Sometimes, there’s nothing better than chilling out on a beach and soaking up the rays. Sadly, Guatemala isn’t famous for sand or sea. In fact, plan your trip around Guatemala beaches and you might decide to pick another location! Thankfully, all isn’t lost as the southwest coast has a lot of options. El Paredon is the best right now because it’s only 2.5 hours from Antigua and is relatively unknown. Head down any of the ‘streets’ and you’ll see why – they’re mainly all dirt roads. There isn’t much to do, which is fine if you’re looking to relax, but those who do get itchy feet can learn how to surf or fight back against climate change. 10% of all mangroves in Guatemala are in El Paredon yet deforestation is a major threat so you might want to choose an organisation like La Choza Chula to do your bit for the planet.
Okay, so don’t get your hopes up when you cross over the border. After visiting Mexico and Belize, you expect a certain level of master chefery that includes tacos, panuchos mixtos, jerk chicken and curried goat. Typical food in Guatemala isn’t on the same level but it’s not as bad as travellers like to make out. Sure, it’s not as good as the cuisines mentioned above but do your research and you’ll find a few tasty delights.
For the street food lovers, expect to see a lot of fried chicken stalls. Yep, for some reason Guatemalans can’t get enough of crispy chicken served with either rice or fries, as well as chinese buffets and pizza places. However, don’t let this get you down because there is more to Guatemala street food than meets the eye. For example, the classic churrasco is meat barbequed on a grill served with frijoles, salad and rice. If you can find one with an appetiser included, you’ll also get a sopa and the whole meal will cost no more than Q30. Empanadas – crispy pastries packed with meat and veggies – are another dish you’ll find throughout the country and they are an excellent choice for an on-the-go lunch. You can include pupusas on that list too, crispy tortillas offered with a variety of servings and plenty of salsa and lettuce. Some even come with chow mein noodles which is an acquired taste but goes to show how much Guatemala loves Chinese comida!
You don’t have to look far to see the indigenous influence whether it’s Guatemala City food or dishes further north where the Mayan strongholds still stand. Although the country doesn’t have a national dish per se, there are plenty of dishes that are very Guatemalan. As soon as you try a Pepián or a Kak’ik, you’ll immediately understand. Filled with vegetables and spices and a little bit of meat, stews and soups are a massive part of the culture as they are cheap, filling and easy to make. Indigenous people still make the Kak’ik the same way today as they did hundreds of years ago. Breakfast is the meal which has the deepest connection with Spain as scrambled eggs are paired with beans and chorizo to make for a delicious desayuno tradicional. The Pepián is a perfect mix of both.
Of course, Guatemala doesn’t only have Spanish and Mayan roots. While they are the two biggest influences, there is a touch of Caribbean spice in places like Livingston and Rio Dulce. Here, you’ll find Tapado, and if you’re a fish-lover then you won’t be disappointed. A deep bowl of soup is packed with as many potatoes and vegetables as physics will allow and topped off with a full crab and a whole fish for good measure. When it comes to seafood, the Garifuna people very rarely mess around. Though the sight of a fish with the head on and a crab accompanied with a nutcracker can be intimidating, just dive in and sample as much of the spicy, coconut-based liquid and fresh fish as possible.
Being a lesser developed country, the locals don’t eat meat when it’s not totally and utterly necessary and that makes Guatemala a haven for vegetarians with chiles rellenos being a fantastic and simple dish that hits the spot every time. Also, noodle tostadas are a tasty treat as long as you’re not hoping to cut down on carbs. Unfortunately, vegan food is tougher to find due to Guatemala’s love for dairy but it’s not impossible if you use Google to search for the best restaurants in the area. You might want to bring a dictionary if you’re Spanish isn’t great to make sure you’re not eating something you shouldn’t.
To top it all off, a large piece of cake is in order and they are everywhere. From the streets to the cafes, you’ll find chocolate and carrot cakes as well as flans.
Guatemala might have a complicated and bloody history, but it’s by no means ashamed of its past. From the languages to the food, music, ruins and natural splendour of the country, the locals are excited to explain the culture to travellers as well as point out the best spots, tunes and eats on and off the beaten track. A friendly welcome is as much a part of Guatemala as the 37 volcanoes that dominate the landscape.
Early estimates put the first people in Guatemala at 11,000 BC, but the Mayan empire wasn’t around until 800 BC with the likes of Tikal, El Mirador and Kaminaljuyu dominating the region. Today, the Mayan culture in Guatemala is still alive thanks in part to these sites where thousands of visitors learn about Guatemala history and how it impacts life in the 21st-century. In fact, Tikal is one of the few sites the Mayan people use to practise their religion on special occasions. While there are only a handful of communities with 100% Mayan blood, the impact on the culture is undeniable. 20 indigenous languages are still spoken; 41% of the 15 million population are thought to be Mayan, and the rest, apart from a small group of Chinka, are ladinos.
Because there is a strong link between indigenous and settler, Guatemala traditions can be interesting with the most curious of them being religious. In Chichicastenango, people sacrifice chickens and other animals to a variety of gods, Christian and Mayan. Guatemalan clothing is different, too. Colourful garments like the huipil and tocoyal are weaved by women to distinguish one group from another as well as to sell to make extra money. Families are close, which isn’t rare anywhere in the world, but Guatemalans tend to live with upto three generations under one roof which may be enough to scare some readers into finding a place of their own!
Mayan culture has the biggest influence but it doesn’t have a monopoly. Garifunas are people of Caribbean descent that mainly live in Livingston and have a distinctly West Indian vibe. The few thousand that exist in Guatemala tend to speak English with a Caribbean accent and eat mainly fish dishes with jerk spices, rice and plantains.
On the whole, modern culture and customs sway towards Spain as reggaeton pop music is incredibly popular, football is the sport of choice, and partying is mandatory. The new generation is trying its hardest to modernise Guatemala, but old traditions are by no means a thing of past.
Is Guatemala safe?
Flores, : @dadanesto
The answer isn’t simple. The good news is that major crimes such as armed robbery and assault towards tourists are on the decline. In 2018, only 195 tourists of the 2.4 million who visited the country were subject to a crime. Nowadays, it’s common to see police officers walking the beat or driving around the common tourist spots keeping law and order. Private security guards are also prevalent with armed guards watching over everything from banks to pharmacies. Unofficial stats put the number of private security guards at three times the amount of the police force.
Still, whether we’re talking about Guatemala City or Antigua Guatemala safety, crime is still an issue. Pickpocketing and theft are the main dangers for tourists who are easy to spot and targeted because of their wealth. Card cloning is also a big deal as ATMs are easy to hack. All of these tend to be a problem in the cities, especially Ciudad de Guatemala, and it’s often the reason travellers wonder: ‘is it safe to travel to Guatemala City’? To help, here are a few safety tips to avoid any nasty situations:
- Split up your cards and money. Hostels usually come equipped with lockers where you can put your money, credit cards and passport. Then, if you are robbed, you won’t lose everything.
- Drop the jewellery. Flashy watches, rings or earrings stand out to opportunistic thieves. Leave them at home because travelling isn’t a fashion contest. In Guatemala, there are plenty of stalls with cheap, local jewellery if you can’t live without.
- Use ATMs in the open. Cash machines in locked rooms might seem more secure but they are targeted by fraudsters as they are the most accessible. ATMs in supermarkets or in shopping malls are usually less easy to tamper with.
- Don’t hike alone. Criminals in Guatemala have evolved. Instead of holding up a car or bus in plain sight, they’ve moved on to robbing people on popular yet uncrowded hiking trails. Banditos are real which is why you should trek with a partner and tell someone where you are going to be and when you will be back.
- Avoid unlit back streets and alleys. Some streets aren’t well lit at night. To avoid a dangerous situation, go the long way around or take a quick taxi to your destination.
Although the bad days of hold-ups on the main highways seem to be over, you can’t be too careful. A good tip is to travel during the day, especially on ‘Carretera Salvador’, the main road from Guatemala to the border with El Salvador. Most of the main spots on the Gringo Trail are no more than 5 to 7 hours away from one another so you can book a shuttle in the morning and arrive before dark. For drivers, blacked out windows are essential as they prevent robbers from seeing who is inside . If it gets too hot, don’t roll down the windows and blow your cover. Blast the AC and pay the extra fuel money.
Is it safe to travel solo in Guatemala? Yes, if you know where to go. Zones 4, 10, 14, 15, and 16 are renowned for being the safest, and most of the rest aren’t no-go areas. For example, Zone 1 doesn’t have the best reputation yet the main areas around the Historical Centre are fine and the hostels are well guarded. That being said, there is crime everywhere so be vigilant and try to travel in groups and use taxis.
At the time of writing, political tensions are high due to the media attention around migrant caravans. If you see a gathering, don’t get caught up in the melee as things can turn violent and the involvement of a foreigner in a demonstration is illegal. The punishments range from fines, jail time, or deportation. Find a safe place to watch and never take photos or videos. Always gauge the reaction of the locals to help decide whether it’s a friendly meeting or a rowdy demonstration.
Anybody who is unsure and wants extra, on-the-spot advice in Guatemala can use INGUAT. It’s an English speaking phone service that tells you the latest travel advice, such as which roads to use, and also includes an escort service. Call them on (502) 2290 2810.
Guatemala travel advice
Acatenango, : @dadanesto
The best travel advice is to book a flight ASAP and experience everything Guatemala has to offer. But, because you want to come back in one piece, it’s important to understand the vaccinations for Guatemala. The only jab you might need to enter the country is yellow fever. There isn’t a risk of the disease but the immigration officers still want proof of vaccination in some cases so expect to be asked for your certificate if you plan on travelling from a country with cases of yellow fever. And don’t lose your certificate because as of July 11th 2016 the WHO has said that the immunisation lasts for life. Hospitals and clinics can have long waiting lists so if you need a jab in a jiffy, head to a pharmacy with a bona fide chemist.
The usual suspects vaccination-wise are important before travelling so speak to your doctor about boosters for hepatitis A and B, typhoid and tetanus. Stray dogs are everywhere in Guatemala and rabies is a thing which is why some travellers opt for a full course of jabs. It’s worth noting the treatment is expensive and doesn’t immunise you completely – you still need a booster if you get bitten. A good plan of action is not to touch animals no matter how cute they look. The ones that aren’t pets might be infected and a bite or scratch will pass on the disease. Even if you think it’s not a problem, you should talk to a medical professional straight away and get their expert opinion.
As always, mosquitoes are the bane of every traveller’s life. In Guatemala, they carry an extra risk but not from malaria. For the most part, the chances of contracting malaria are low throughout the country and in Guatemala City, Atitlan and Antigua there is no risk whatsoever. However, Zika and Dengue fever do exist and are more common, and Chikungunya fever is another mosquito borne illness which is very painful.To avoid bites, you should:
- Use repellent. DEET isn’t normally used in Guatemala as it harms the the natural environment so you should buy spray or cream before travelling.
- Stick to the beaten track. Mosquitoes like long grass and standing water so there is less chance of getting bitten if you use footpaths.
- Sleep under a net. If nets aren’t available, and they’re not common in Guatemala, turn on the air conditioning. It lowers the temperature and makes mosquitoes less likely to bite.
- Wear long, loose fitting clothes. The fabric should be thin to make sure you don’t overheat.
The latter might not be on your ‘what to pack for Guatemala’ list, but they’re essential. Not only do they stop the mosquitoes from biting, but they’ll come in handy for the treks and hiking opportunities. Everything from long-sleeved shirts, jumpers and tracksuit bottoms will double up as a homemade mosquito net/altitude warmer. If you can fit proper walking boots, gloves and a hat in your bag and you’re willing to carry them, pack them. But, they’re not necessary if you plan on hiking. Most trails are doable in running trainers and accessories are available to rent from hostels. However, you will need a rain jacket as showers are sudden and powerful.
Electronics are a big thing for travellers in Guatemala. Lots of the buses are shuttles or chicken buses and don’t come with a USB port like in some of the neighbouring countries. So, a portable battery pack is a good friend for when your phone runs out and leaves you with four hours on a bus without entertainment. The horror! Always pack warm clothing in your small bag too. The air conditioning can be intense and lots of travellers end up shivering because they are unprepared.
It’s always a good idea to keep $50 to $100 in your bag in case of emergencies. ATMs are pretty much everywhere but there are places (Atitlan/Lanquin) where they don’t exist or the demand is high and the supply is low. Euros can get you out of a jam too but dollars are the universal currency.
Guatemala is an incredible country which shouldn’t be missed, so we hope this guide gives you the tools you need to uncover all of the country’s gems.
Lanquin, : @dadanesto
For help finding your perfect hostel in Guatemala, download the Hostelworld app and get ready to meet the world!
About the author
Matthew Goodwin is a traveller with the “knack” for landing on his feet and new airport Tarmac on a semi-regular basis. Follow my adventures and my musings on Instagram and LinkedIn (@gooders248/Matthew Goodwin)
Photographer: My name is Davide and I’m from Switzerland. I quit my job to pursue my passion for filmmaking and photography because the Swiss aren’t making bankers anymore, apparently. For the next year I’ll be backpacking the world and if you want to follow the journey you can check out my Instagram @dadanesto