Backpacking Guatemala Travel Guide

Backpacking Guatemala Travel Guide

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Guatemala is a special place.  Torn apart by civil war from 1960 to 1996, Guatemala is slowly recovering, and is now becoming a must-visit destination in Central America.  Backpacking in Guatemala will reward you with incredible scenery and natural wonders, from volcanoes to limestone pools and huge lakes, strong indigenous cultures and colourful clothes, delicious food and a warm welcome.  I have brought together all my Guatemala travel tips for you in this epic backpacking Guatemala guide, including a handy Guatemala itinerary so you don’t miss out on any of the best places to visit in Guatemala.

Skip ahead to read articles about specific destinations in Guatemala

Vital Information for Guatemala

Currency: Quetzal (check the exchange rate here)

Capital City: Guatemala City

Population: around 17 million people

Language: Spanish is the only official language, although there are also 21 different Mayan languages and two non-Mayan Amerindian languages, Xinca and Garifuna, which are spoken in Guatemala.

In an emergency call: 911 or 1500

Where is Guatemala?

Where is Guatemala - Backpacking Guatemala Guide
Map of Guatemala By Gringer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Guatemala is the largest country in Central America, and although Nicaragua is larger in size, Guatemala has the highest population of any country in Central America.  Guatemala is south of Mexico and borders Belize to the east, and El Salvador and Honduras to the south.

Guatemala has a fairly long Pacific Coastline (with some great spots for surfing), but the eastern coastline is much shorter.  From here you can travel by boat to Belize or Honduras.

Entry Requirements

Americans, Australians, Canadians, and British nationals don’t need a visa to enter Guatemala as a tourist.  Be sure to check with the Ecuadorian consulate in your area for the exact requirements and processes to apply for a visa if your country requires one.  See also the vaccination section below.

The length of stay permitted on entering Guatemala is up to 90 days, and you may be asked for proof of onward travel, which is more likely if you fly in, although is becoming more common at land border crossings too.  If you arrive in Guatemala by bus or shuttle from Mexico, Belize, El Salvador or Honduras, make sure you ask the driver to stop while you get an entry stamp, as sometimes buses don’t stop at immigration which causes problems for travellers later on.

Your passport also needs to be valid for a minimum of 6 months from the date of entry into Guatemala.

If you want to spend longer backpacking Guatemala, you must submit an application to extend your visa at the Migration Directorate in Guatemala City. For more information, contact the General Directorate of Migration in Guatemala City.

If you overstay your visa then you should expect to pay a fine before leaving the country. This fine can only be paid at the Migration Directorate in Guatemala City. Fines can’t be paid at the airport or land borders, so plan ahead and don’t get caught out – you might not be able to leave!

READ MORE: Your Guide to Crossing Borders in South America

Departure tax

There is a US$30 (or Quetzal equivalent) airport departure tax, which is normally included in the price of your plane ticket.

According to the UK government website, when crossing into Guatemala by a land border, there have been numerous reports of customs/immigration officials charging an illegal “entry fee”. By asking for an official receipt for your money you may find that the “fee” is dropped.

Lake Atitlan - Backpacking Guatemala Guide
Lake Atitlan – Backpacking Guatemala Guide

Central America Border Control Agreement

Guatemala is part of the Central America Border Control Agreement (CA-4), which means that British tourists can travel within any of the CA-4 countries (Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala) for a period of up to 90 days without completing entry and exit formalities at border checkpoints. This period begins at the first point of entry of any of the CA-4 countries.  If you go over this 90-day limit you will be fined, and if you are close to the limit you may be denied entry to the next CA-4 country if they don’t think you will leave before the 90 days is up.  It is possible to request for an extension (with a fee) before the 90 days expires. Bear in mind that if you are expelled from any of the four countries you will also be banned from the entire CA-4 region.

If you plan to travel onwards to Nicaragua, check their entry requirements as they may not be the same as Guatemala.

British travellers should use this website for up to date travel advice and entry restrictions when planning to go backpacking in Ecuador.

Americans can use the Department of State website, Canadians click here, and Australians can use has Smart Traveller to help.

Apologies if your country isn’t listed here – a quick google search for “(country name) gov travel advice” should bring up the relevant information for your country.

If you need to arrange any visas, Embassy Pages has a list of all the embassies and consulates for countries around the world.

Vaccinations for Guatemala

Although there is no risk of Yellow Fever in Guatemala, if you are arriving from a country with Yellow Fever risk, or have spent more than 12 hours in an airport in a country with Yellow Fever risk on your way to Guatemala, you will need to present a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate.  All travellers should ensure their routine vaccinations and boosters are up to date, including measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and the diphtheria-tetanus-polio vaccine.  Hepatitis A and tetanus are also recommended for most travellers, and other vaccinations such as rabies, TB, and typhoid are also recommended in some cases.  There is also a risk of Zika in some parts of Guatemala, so speak to your doctor before travelling if you are pregnant or trying for a baby.  Check this website for more information.

Tikal - Backpacking Guatemala Travel Guide
Tikal – Backpacking Guatemala Travel Guide

Malaria in Guatemala

There is no risk from Malaria in Guatemala City, Antigua, Lake Atitlan.  There is a low risk of Malaria areas below 1500m above sea level.  Consult your doctor before travelling to Guatemala to discuss malaria prevention in risk areas.

Is Guatemala Safe to Travel?

Guatemala City has a reputation for being dangerous, and apparently has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America.  However, most of those figures are due to gang-related crime in Guatemala City.  Personally, I found Antigua to be one of the safest places I visited during my two years backpacking in Latin America and had no problems in Guatemala at all.

Although they are colourful and look great fun, it is not recommended to take the chicken buses due to gang related attacks on the buses and bus drivers.  This applies all over the country, not just around Guatemala City.  There are several companies operating tourist shuttle buses between key towns and destinations in Guatemala, although these are more expensive, they are convenient, quick and still pretty cheap.

As with most places in South and Central America, don’t walk around by yourself at night, and keep expensive items locked away, not on display.  Scam artists are operating in tourist areas, and a common one around Flores is to sell fake tickets for an onward shuttle to Lanquín or Antigua – only buy your shuttle tickets from your hostel or a travel agent they recommend.

Why go Backpacking in Guatemala?

Guatemala was one of my favourite countries in Central America.  It is a beautiful country, and the scenery is quite spectacular.  For me though, it was the culture here which really stands out, and I was fascinated to learn more about the Mayan and other indigenous cultures here.

Prepare for your Guatemala backpacking adventure with these travel guides from Amazon:

Typical Food in Guatemala

Guatemalan food is incredibly cheap, but it is a little basic.  Breakfast is usually refried black beans with scrambled eggs and tortillas, and dinner is essentially the same, perhaps with some white cheese, half an avocado and some fried plantains on the side.  Lunch is usually the main meal of the day with chicken or meat served with rice and tortillas.  My favourite Guatemalan dish is pepían, a rich chicken stew flavoured with pumpkin seeds.  While I was in Antigua I took a Guatemalan cooking class to learn to cook my favourite Guatemalan dishes.

Typical food in Guatemala - Pepian Stew. Backpacking Guatemala Guide
Typical food in Guatemala – Pepian Stew

Transport in Guatemala

Flights in Guatemala

There are two international airports in Guatemala, the largest is La Aurora International Airport (GUA) in Guatemala City which is the main airport for arriving in Guatemala.  The other international airport is Mundo Maya International Airport (FRS), just outside the towns of Santa Elena and Flores, and is usually used if you are flying to Tikal.  There are national flights between these two airports as well for around $200 USD return.  There is also a national airport at Puerto Barrios.

Check Skyscanner for up to date prices and availability for flights to or within Guatemala, or download the Skyscanner app here.

Buses in Guatemala

The colourful chicken buses are look like they’re great fun to ride, and each bus is painted with it’s own design.  However, travelling on local buses can be dangerous as gang attacks on the bus drivers and passengers are unfortunately very common.  Tourists are not recommended to take the chicken buses, instead there are regular shuttle buses for tourists which run between key destinations in the country.  WARNING: there is a common scam on shuttles to and from Lanquín (for Semuc Champey) where drivers or assistants will try to sell you an onward ticket.  DON’T DO IT!  These are fake tickets, and the bus you are waiting for in Lanquín will not show up, or have no record of you travelling.  So wait until you are in Lanquín to buy your onward shuttle ticket, or ask your hostel to arrange it for you.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Everything you need to know about Buses in South America

Taxis & Tuk-tuks in Guatemala

I only used one taxi in the whole of my three months in Guatemala, and that was to get from the main square in Antigua to my hostel, and it was a rip off, but if you have no other choice, then try to use official taxi ranks.  Tuk-tuks are also common in Antigua and around Lake Atitlan, just make sure you hold on as rattling over the cobblestones is quite an experience!

A Chicken Bus in Antigua Guatemala - Backpacking Guatemala
A Chicken Bus in Antigua Guatemala – Backpacking Guatemala

Where to Stay in Guatemala

If you are backpacking in Guatemala on budget, you could try Couchsurfing, although hostels are plentiful and generally of good quality, especially in the more popular destinations.  Check reviews for recommendations from other travellers and choose your host or hostel carefully as you would in any destination.  Hostelworld is a good choice to book hostels and to see what options are available.

FIND A HOSTEL NOW

You can also find plenty of hotels in Guatemala too, including luxury ones around Lake Atitlan.  A unique hotel in Guatemala is Hobbitenango close to Antigua, where you can stay in a hobbit hole, and wake up to incredible views of volcanoes, just like Middle Earth.  Homestays are a great way to meet local people and to learn more about the culture in Guatemala, this is more popular around Lake Atitlan and Antigua.  In busy times and public holidays, it is advisable to book ahead, especially in popular destinations.

READ MORE: The Best Hostels in Semuc Champey

Or check the options on Airbnb   If you have never used Airbnb before, use this link to sign up & get $30 credit to use on your first trip!

GET $30 AIRBNB CREDIT

Hobbitenango - a unique hotel close to Antigua Guatemala
Hobbitenango – a unique hotel close to Antigua Guatemala

What to do in Guatemala

Guatemala is a beautiful and varied country, and some of the best things to do in Guatemala range from hiking volcanoes to diving in a high altitude lake, surfing waves in the Pacific Ocean, and learning about the local culture.  There are strong indigenous cultures in Guatemala, especially in rural areas.  The tiny villages around Lake Atitlan each have their own traditional clothes and beautiful weaved blouses and skirts, where you can find some wonderful souvenirs.  There are several cooperatives in Guatemala where women who lost their husbands during the civil war have come together to make and sell their handmade crafts, so make sure you save some cash to buy something.  Coffee is also big in Guatemala, there are coffee fincas around Lake Atitlan to visit, and buy some beans to take home.

Guatemala has at least 37 volcanoes, and Fuego, Pacaya, and Santiaguito are active ones.  It is possible to hike many of them, but following the recent eruption of Fuego Volcano which devastated villages in its path, take local advice before hiking up Acatenango.  Tours to hike Actatenando are running again, but please do this responsibly, and consider volunteering to help the local communities affected by the eruption.

The Mayans also colonised northern Guatemala, as well as parts of Mexico, Honduras and Belize.  The Mayan ruins at Tikal are magnificent, and there are several more in the region to explore too.

If you are into surfing, the Pacific Coast of Guatemala has some cool surf spots for all levels from beginners to advanced surfers, or for calmer waters, a boat ride down the river from Rio Dulce in the Manantiales Cerro San Gil reserve is wonderfully relaxing.

Fuego Volcano Spewing Smoke & Ash - The view from Volcano Acatenango. Backpacking Guatemala guide
Fuego Volcano Spewing Smoke & Ash – The view from Volcano Acatenango. Credit: Roman Daudrich

Spanish Schools in Guatemala

Guatemala is a great place to learn Spanish, it is quite cheap to live and study here, and there are plenty of Spanish language schools in Antigua and around Lake Atitlan.  Many of the schools will arrange accommodation for you with a local family, which is a good way to practise and to learn more about the local people.  Check this post for more information on Spanish schools in Antigua.

Volunteering in Guatemala

If you are backpacking Guatemala slowly, you might want to take advantage of the volunteering opportunities available to allow you to work and travel in Guatemala without spending much money.  You can find volunteering placements in Ecuador on sites like Workaway, HelpX and WorldPackers, where you pay a small fee to register on the site which then allows you to browse available opportunities and contact the hosts.

Volunteering work varies from working on reception at a hostel to teaching in schools, helping to build eco-projects or helping a family to care for their kids.  Volunteering in Guatemala like this is a great way to meet local people and become part of the community, and to save money.  In exchange for part-time work, volunteers usually get lodging and some food included.  Spanish is useful but not always essential to for volunteering in Guatemala so check each opportunity before you apply.

Communities affected by the recent eruption of Acatenango volcano near Antigua are still in need of help.  Your hostel in Antigua will be able to put you in touch with aid organisations to help on the ground in Antigua while you are there.

Other volunteering companies offer ‘Voluntourism’ placements, usually based in or around Antigua where you pay a fee to join an organised volunteer program, usually costing anywhere from $300 to $600 and above per month.

The Arch in Antigua - Backpacking Guatemala Guide
The Arch in Antigua – Backpacking Guatemala Guide

Where to go in Guatemala

Guatemala is a beautiful country, with a variety of landscapes and nature to enjoy.  Huge Mayan ruins, beautiful lakes and waterfalls, live volcanoes and a strong indigenous culture makes Guatemala a fascinating country to spend time in.  These are some of the best places to visit in Guatemala:

Flores

This pretty town is on a little island next to Santa Elena.  The buildings here are well kept, and beautifully painted, and many have views of the lake surrounding the island.  Flores is an excellent base for visiting Tikal, and although many people just spend a night or two here, you could easily spend more and explore the area.

Tikal Mayan Ruins in Guatemala - Backpacking Guatemala
Tikal Mayan Ruins in Guatemala – Backpacking Guatemala

Tikal

A highlight of any Guatemala itinerary, Tikal is not to be missed.  It is close to the border with Belize, so could easily be combined with a visit to Belize.  I highly recommend spending the night in a hammock at Tikal if you have the time, or arrange a day tour from Flores.  Wander through the jungle like Indiana Jones and climb up the pyramids to watch the sunrise or sunset for an extra special experience.

Semuc Champey

For some, Semuc Champey is unmissable, but if you are short on time, the 12-hour journey to Semuc from Flores or Antigua is a long detour.  Shuttles leave from Antigua or Flores first thing in the morning to reach Lanquín in the evening, and you can then take an onward shuttle to Antigua or Flores which leave at 6am in the morning.  You will need to spend at least two nights in Lanquín in order to visit Semuc Champey, check out this post with details of the best hostels in Semuc Champey.  The limestone lakes at Semuc are stunning, and a hike up to the viewpoint is worth the effort!

Semuc Champey Guatemala - Backpacking Guatemala Guide
Semuc Champey Viewpoint – Backpacking Guatemala Guide

Guatemala City

Most tourists tend to avoid spending any time in Guatemala City, simply passing through on the way to prettier, safe destinations.  However, if you do have a couple of days to spare then Guatemala City has some wonderful museums and great restaurants to try.  A free hop-on, hop-off bus will take you around the main sights.

Antigua

I fell in love with Antigua.  It is touristy, and plenty of gringos hang out here to study Spanish, do volunteer work, or just to live for a while.  Explore the cobbled streets, pretty painted houses and ruined churches, felled by a huge earthquake.  While you are in town you should try to hike at least one of the volcanoes which surround the town; Acatenango is a two-day hike, with a night spent camping at the top of the volcano, and Pacaya is an easier hike that can be done in half a day.  Check local recommendations before climbing any volcanoes.  Be sure to head up into the hills for a unique stay in Hobbitenango, an eco-hotel based on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings!

Smoking Live Pacaya Volcano near Antigua Guatemala - Backpacking Guatemala
Smoking Live Pacaya Volcano near Antigua Guatemala – Backpacking Guatemala

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is truly stunning, and if you don’t include it in your Guatemala itinerary you will seriously miss out!  Tiny indigenous villages surround the lake, and you should spend at least a couple of days here to explore several of the villages which all have their own personality.  If you have more time, you could take a PADI diving course on the lake, a unique experience to dive at high altitude, and among volcanic rock formations.  There is plenty of culture to soak up here too, from a traditional back-strap weaving class to visiting the coffee fincas on the side of the volcanoes.

Suggested Guatemala Backpacking Route

This Guatemala backpacking itinerary gives a good idea which backpacking route to take so you can go to all of the best places to visit in Guatemala.  Of course, this will change depending on your onward travel plans, how much time you have, what kind of things you like to do, and how much money you have to spend.  I spent nearly three months in Guatemala, and travelled by bus from Belize to Guatemala, then continued south to Honduras, so I will start the itinerary like this, although it can be easily adjusted to suit your plans.

Sunset over Lake Atitlan Guatemala - Backpacking Guatemala Guide
Sunset over Lake Atitlan Guatemala – Backpacking Guatemala Guide

Backpacking Guatemala Itinerary

From Belize, cross the border close to San Ignacio, and head to Flores.  You can spend a couple of nights in Flores, or go straight to Tikal if you prefer.  Spending the night in a hammock at Tikal was a highlight of my time in Guatemala, so if you’re feeling adventurous then give it a try!  After a day at Tikal, return to Flores.  From Flores, you could get a shuttle to Lanquín to spend at least two nights here and visit Semuc Champey, or if you are tight on time then take a shuttle to Antigua or Guatemala City.

Antigua is a beautiful colonial town, and is popular with travellers and expats so has quite an international feel.  Spend as much time here as you like, before taking another shuttle to Lake Atitlan.  Spend at least a couple of nights in different villages around Lake Atitlan – there is plenty to do here including hiking, diving, yoga and taking Spanish classes, or a traditional back-strap weaving class.  Chichicastenango is a market town and worth exploring if you have a couple of days or can be done in a day trip with an early start.

Backstrap Weaving class in Santa Cruz Lake Atitlan Guatemala - Backpacking Guatemala guide
Backstrap Weaving class in Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan Guatemala

Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela for short) is a great base for hiking in the surrounding area and is a less touristy town where you can study Spanish if Antigua is a bit too much for you.  If you are continuing your journey in Mexico you can continue from here, most people cross at La Mesilla.  If you continue your journey south to Honduras or El Salvador, then return to Antigua for the onward shuttles.

Once back in Antigua, consider visiting Rio Dulce and Lago de Izabal, where a trip along the river is worth the detour.  I took a shuttle from Antigua to Copan Ruinas in Honduras and continued my journey there.

Read more about backpacking in Guatemala

You may also like these backpacking guides for other countries in Latin America:

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Last updated: September 13, 2018
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