Guatemala is one of the most underrated countries I’ve ever been to. It is a beautiful country with extraordinary natural wonders and man-made structures that will blow your mind. To help inspire you to visit Guatemala or to help you plan your trip, I’ve picked out the best things to do in Guatemala so you can see how incredible the country is.
Hike a Volcano
Guatemala has at least 37 volcanoes, and Fuego, Pacaya, and Santiaguito are active ones. You can arrange tours to hike Pacaya and Acatenango from Antigua. Pacaya is a relatively easy half-day hike, while Acatenango is more challenging and usually involves an overnight stay on the volcano, waking up to views of smoking Fuego. Fuego is highly active and usually smoking or spewing small amounts of lava. However, a serious eruption in 2018 devastated whole communities and killed around 200 people, so take local advice before planning a tour to the volcano.
Channel Indiana Jones at Tikal Mayan Ruins
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.
A highlight of any Guatemala itinerary, Tikal is not to be missed. It is close to the Belizean border, 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 spend the night in nearby Flores and arrange a day tour from there. Wander through the jungle like Indiana Jones and climb up the pyramids to watch the sunrise or sunset for an extra special experience.
Flores is a pretty town and is an excellent base for visiting Tikal. The buildings here are well kept, and beautifully painted, and many have views of the lake surrounding the island. Although many people just spend a night or two here, while visiting Tikal you could easily spend more and explore the area.
Drink Guatemalan Coffee
Although much of Guatemala’s coffee is exported, visiting a coffee farm or finca gives you the chance to see how coffee is grown and harvested. The hills around Lake Atitlan are filled with fincas, some of which are open to visits. If you don’t make it to a finca, don’t miss Crossroads Café in Panajachel, which roasts beans in the back room and serves up some of the best coffee in the country. Café Loco is also a popular spot.
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Spend the Night in a Hobbit Hole
Fans of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings cannot fail to be impressed by Hobbitenango. Spending the night in your own Hobbit Hole, with incredible views of volcanoes in the distance, it isn’t hard to imagine you are in Middle Earth. You can also visit just for the day to get a taste of hobbit-life and enjoy a good brunch, lunch or second breakfast. You can also try your hand at archery, axe-throwing, mini-golf, and have a go on the largest tree swing in Central America!
Explore Colonial Splendour in Antigua Guatemala
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 earthquakes. An easy uphill walk from town, Cerro de la Cruz has awesome views of the city, with Agua volcano looming behind.
You can’t miss the most famous street in Antigua with its yellow clock tower archway “El Arco de Santa Catalina”. If you can, an early morning visit after a night of rain gives the perfect photo opportunity with reflections in the puddles and the Agua volcano behind the archway. The ruined churches in Antigua are quite beautiful, you can pay a small fee to go inside or just admire from the outside.
Locals and tourists gather in the main square to sit and enjoy the atmosphere. On the weekends you can catch a live marimba performance (a kind of xylophone), and the fountain in the centre deserves a second look to confirm that the female statues are indeed spraying water out of their breasts!
Surf Some Waves
If you are into surfing, the Pacific Coast of Guatemala has some cool surf spots for all levels from beginners to advanced surfers. Surfing in Guatemala is still not as well-known as it is in neighbouring Mexico and El Salvador, so you can catch some great waves without the crowds. El Paredon is known as one of the true first “Surf Towns” in the country and is slowly becoming more popular within the surfing community.
Learn About Guatemalan 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.
In the village of Santiago on Lake Atitlan, Maximon is a bizarre blend of Mayan God, Spanish conquistador & biblical figure. A statue of San Simon, as he is also called, resides in a different house each year, and you can pay a small fee to visit him. Locals leave offerings of cigarettes, liquor & candles so take a similar gift if you do visit him.
Visit a Women’s Cooperative
The disastrous civil war in Guatemala lasted 36 years, and the fighting left an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans dead, a million homeless, and countless thousands ‘disappeared’. The indigenous people in the highlands from Lake Atitlán to Xela suffered terribly in one bloody year in 1982, an estimated 15,000 indigenous people, mainly men from this area, were tortured and killed.
The women who were left behind had no way of earning a living without their husbands and fathers, so turned to traditional methods of weaving to earn money to be able to survive. Forming cooperatives, groups of women all over the area have come together to support each other, weaving intricate designs and beautiful clothes, bags and gifts. Purchasing something from their cooperatives instead of the markets ensures the money is going to the people who really need it.
Learn to Weave
There are several options for this around Lake Atitlan, with any one of the women’s cooperatives. I took a class arranged through my hostel, La Iguana Perdida, with Tomasa, whose sister works in the kitchen at their hostel. We went to their home in the town of Santa Cruz (about 15 mins walk up the hill from the hostel), so it was interesting (and humbling) to see where they lived, and she showed us the method of backstrap weaving, and how to make our own belt to take home. This was one of my favourite activities in Guatemala, I loved it!
Shop in the Market at Chichicastenango
One of the largest markets in Latin America, the Sunday and Thursday markets at Chichicastenango or Chichi as its also known, are a riot of colour, sounds and smells. If you do decide to take a day trip here, I’d advise going from Panajachel in Lake Atitlan, as it is a long journey from Antigua and Guatemala City.
The market is crowded and hectic, so keep a close eye on your belongings as you explore. Expect to haggle for items you want to buy, but remember that your money will make a huge difference to the sellers so find a price you’re happy with without being too tight-fisted!
Take a Boat Tour in Rio Dulce
I didn’t make it to Rio Dulce, but from what I’ve heard, if you can get past the craziness of the busy main street, once you’re out on the water you can appreciate the beauty and tranquillity of Lake Izabal and the “Sweet River”. Rio Dulce is a port for sailing boats, known as one of the best places to dock during hurricane season as it is further inland than most coastal ports. This means there is an eclectic mix of sailors, expats and locals and plenty of bars and restaurants to serve them.
There are plenty of activities here too, including wildlife tours, cliff diving, swimming under canyons, mud masks and mineral baths from natural waterfalls, zip lining, kayaking, sailing adventures and more! If you are coming to Rio Dulce from Tikal and Flores, a stop-off at Finca Ixobel is highly recommended!
Take a Guatemalan Cooking Class
I took a cooking class at La Tortilla cooking school in Antigua, and loved it! We made a traditional Guatemalan dish called pepian, kind of a chicken stew with a thick tasty sauce made with pumpkin seeds, rice and salad, and delicious fried plantain balls filled with chocolate sauce. The class was taught by a lovely Guatemalan lady and translated by volunteers. We also got to take home the leftovers which was fabulous!
Get Spiritual at Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlán is one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. Shimmering blue water, volcanoes, and indigenous Maya villages dotted around the lake make for a peaceful and fascinating stay! Just two and a half hours from Antigua, Lake Atitlán is a highlight of any trip to Guatemala. The lake was formed inside an enormous volcano, which erupted 84,000 years ago and is now overlooked by three smaller volcanoes – Volcán Atitlán lies on the southern rim of the caldera, while Volcán San Pedro and Volcán Tolimán watch over the village of Santiago. Despite tourism having some negative effects, there are still unspoiled areas of the lake to enjoy.
San Marcos is one of the villages around the lake, which some say has a special energy. It has become the hippy centre of the lake with massage, reiki, meditation & alternative therapies, as well as yoga retreats as plenty of vegetarian & organic restaurants.
Dive at High Altitude
When I came to Lake Atitlan, I had no idea that you could dive here! La Iguana Perdida hostel in Santa Cruz is home to the only dive shop on the lake, ATI Divers. This is one of the cheapest places in the world to take your PADI certificate, and a unique experience diving at high altitude amid volcanic rock formations. If you take your PADI, accommodation at La Iguana is provided free of charge.
READ MORE: The Ultimate Guide to Lake Atitlan
Take Spanish Classes 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.
Volunteer 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 Guatemala on work exchange 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.
READ MORE ABOUT WORK EXCHANGE PROGRAMS
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.
Get a $20 Discount on Your Worldpackers Membership
I’ve teamed up with Worldpackers to offer all Tales of a Backpacker readers a $20 Worldpackers discount on membership fees which means you only need to pay $29 USD for a full year’s verified membership. Once you are a verified member you can apply to and message all the hosts on Worldpackers and volunteer all over the world. What are you waiting for?!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
No matter where you travel, you should always get travel insurance to cover you in case something does happen. Travel insurance from WorldNomads is available to people from 140 countries, and you can buy and claim online, even after you’ve left home. It’s designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities.
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Where would you like to go in Guatemala? The good news is, there are so many amazing things to do in Guatemala there is no bad choice!
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