If you ask any ten backpackers which country in Central America is their favorite, nine out of ten will say Guatemala. So before you ask, yes, Guatemala is our favorite country too! There’s just something about this place that makes it memorable and lovable. Guatemala’s rich culture is what we enjoyed the most. No matter where you go you’ll find locals dressed in their traditional clothing, doing traditional work, and living a traditional life. Not for the entertainment of tourists, but because that’s their way of life. While many other countries gave in to globalization, Guatemala did not.
Guatemala is also inexpensive and has a ton to offer backpackers. From colonial cities to ancient ruins, from cheap Spanish schools to dense jungles, Guatemala has it all. But go now, before hordes of tourists find out about it and turn Guatemala into another Costa Rica.
What You’ll Find in This Guide
- Best Time to Go Backpacking in Guatemala
- Visa & Entry Requirements
- Is Backpacking Guatemala Safe
- How Much Do Things Cost
- Money Saving Tips
- Best Places to Stay in Guatemala
- Top Things to Do in Guatemala
- Spanish Phrases You Should Know
- How Much Did We Spend
- Insurance for Backpacking Guatemala
- More Information on Backpacking Guatemala
Best Time to Go Backpacking in Guatemala
The dry season in Guatemala runs from November to April, and the rainy season is from mid-May to November. Most people visit Guatemala in December or January, which means prices are higher and popular attractions are more crowded. If you’re not a fan of big crowds and high prices, then April or May is the best time to visit Guatemala, as the weather is still pretty nice.
Check flights to Guatemala from the USA (starting at $195 RT)
Guatemala Visa & Entry Requirements
Most visitors to Guatemala do not need a tourist visa for a stay up to 90 days. All you need is a passport valid for at least 6 months and a blank visa page. There is no entrance or exit fee for Guatemala.
Is Backpacking Guatemala Safe?
Don’t believe everything you read or hear, there is a lot of fear-mongering going on. We have traveled all over Guatemala in chicken buses, and not once did we feel unsafe. Just use common sense, avoid flashing around your jewelry or expensive camera gear, don’t wander around the streets drunk after midnight, and you should be fine.
How Much Do Things Cost?
When hunting for authentic Guatemalan food, look for local eateries called “comedores”. There, they usually serve two or even three course meals for around $3. People in Guatemala also like to grill. Many times, especially during lunchtime, you’ll find people grilling on the streets. Stay away from touristy restaurants, as they will charge you about three times the money you could be paying elsewhere.
For example, in Flores we recommend you walk (or take a Tuk Tuk) to the neighboring town, Santa Elena, where the prices for food are significantly cheaper!
Many hostels offer dorm beds for around $10 and private rooms for around $30. You can sometimes find cheaper options if you stick to local Guatemalan guest houses, also called “hospedajes”, instead of staying in a hostel. The cost of a private double rooms in hospedajes range from $15 – 20. Don’t just go to one hostel or guesthouse and be content with whatever price they give you, shop around before you decide. You almost always find a cheaper deal just a few doors down.
If you are traveling during high season or prefer to book your accommodation in advance, we have listed our favorite spots for you below. Keep reading or click here to go directly to our favorite places to stay in Guatemala.
Chicken buses are old North American school buses, and they are the cheapest way to get around. A one to two-hour ride shouldn’t cost more than $1. For transportation between Flores and Antigua, take one of the many coach buses that leave from the bus terminal in either city. Depending on the company and your negotiation skills, the ticket will cost somewhere around $30.
Popular Routes and Their Prices:
- Border Belize – Flores = $4
- Flores – Antigua = $30
- Antigua – Panajachel = $3.50
- Panajachel – Chichicastenango = $1.50
- Antigua – Copan, Honduras = $15
Money Saving Tips
1.) Take the Chicken Buses
Although they’re not always very comfortable, chicken buses are the most cost-effective way to get around. Just be careful that you don’t get ripped off. Watch what locals are paying and give the same amount to the helper collecting the money. You don’t want to have to pay the “gringo price”.
2.) Order the Meal of the Day
The menu del dia is usually cheaper than the rest of the menu.
3.) Buy Fresh Veggies and Fruits At the Market
Fruits and veggies are very cheap at the markets in town. To avoid getting overcharged, ask multiple vendors for prices before you decide to buy anything.
4.) Travel During Off-Season
As always, traveling during off-season leaves more room for bargaining. Also, most hostels and hotels will offer you a discount if you stay with them longer than one/two night(s).
Best Places to Stay in Guatemala
Guatemala is home to many hostels and budget hotels but below are some of our favorite places to stay.
- Three Monkeys Hostel: Laid back hostel near Parque Central. Shared kitchen and friendly staff.
- Mikaso Hotel: Located right on the lake. On-site restaurant, bar and terrace with hot tubs.
- The Black Cat: One block from Parque Central, and within walking distance to restaurants and shops. Free breakfast.
- Hostel Yaxha: On-site restaurant, free WiFi, and a beautiful garden. Best value in Flores.
- Greengos Hostel: Within walking distance to the park entrance. Friendly and helpful staff.
Top Things to Do in Guatemala
There are many things to do and places to visit in Guatemala, but below are some of our favorites.
Tikal is an ancient Mayan city located in the middle of the rainforest in northern Guatemala, and it’s nothing short of breathtaking. It was the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the ancient Mayan civilization until it was abandoned at the end of the 10th century. The archaeological site is huge and will take at least one day, if not two, to explore. We recommend you come early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Admission is Q150 (~$20 USD).
Interesting Fact: It was used as a filming location for Yavin 4 in Star Wars: A New Hope.
El Mirador is a large Mayan settlement located in the middle of the jungle. Its remote location prevents it from becoming a popular tourist site. The only way to get there is by a five-day hike through the jungle. If you like adventure, and want to get away from mass tourism, this is for you.
This active volcano was our first volcano and though it doesn’t spew lava anymore, it is still worth the hike. Pacaya is located between Antigua and Guatemala City, and many tour companies will offer a trip there for around $10 USD. The hike up to the mountaintop can be strenuous for people who don’t have much hiking experience because it’s very steep at times, but it can be done. If you need assistance hiking up the mountain, you can rent a horse for Q100 (~$13 USD) along the way. Oh, and did we mention that once you reach the top, your guide will provide you with marshmallows that you can roast over the steaming rocks? Volcano roasted marshmallows? Count us in.
This crater lake is surrounded by three volcanoes and many traditional Mayan villages. The biggest and most famous town is Panajachel, and although most tourists stay here, it felt less touristy than the neighboring town, San Pedro. San Pedro is more of a party town, and the locals and tourists live very segregated from each other. If you are into partying, you will probably enjoy it here. For details on how to get to San Pedro from Antigua, click here. For people who are into meditation and other spiritual activities, San Marcos is the place to be. Other villages along the lake, such as Santa Cruz and San Juan, are still very much untouched, but as tourism is growing in this region, it won’t be long until they too lose their authenticity. To get from village to village simple catch one of the many lanchas (small boats) crossing the lake everyday.
Below are some example prices we have found on WikiTravel.org
Pana to/from Santa Cruz – Q10
Pana to/from San Marcos – Q15
San Marcos to/from Santa Cruz – Q10
Pana to/from San Pedro – Q25
Pana to/from Santiago Atitlan – Q25
San Pedro to/from Santiago – Q10
San Pedro to/from Santa Cruz – Q20
San Pedro to/from San Marcos – Q10
This indigenous town near Lake Atitlán is best known for its famous market days on Thursdays and Sundays, when vendors from different towns come and sell everything from handicrafts to pigs and chickens. Most travelers come here as a day trip to buy souvenirs and experience the chaos of one of the largest markets in the Americas. If you decide to visit Chichi, I hope you are prepared for some haggling, as most products are marked up by at least 50%.
This gorgeous colonial city is located in the highlands of Guatemala, and is the highlight for most travelers coming to Guatemala. Not only does Antigua offer some of the best street scape in the world and a million things to do, it is also known to be the best place to study Spanish. Some might even call it the mecca of cheap Spanish schools. That is why Jazzy and I decided to stay for a few weeks and brush up on our non-existent Spanish :D If you are traveling throughout Latin America and know little to no Spanish, we recommend you stay here for a little bit and attend one of the many Spanish schools. The people of Antigua are very patient with travelers trying to learn Spanish and are always happy to help.
Flores is located on an island on Lake Peten Itza. Is’s mostly used as a base for exploring the ancient ruins in Tikal, which are only a short bus ride away. Although, Flores doesn’t have much to offer besides visiting the neighboring town of Santa Elena and kayaking the lake, we actually liked staying here and even stayed longer than we originally planned. I think it might have had something to do with the relaxing atmosphere.
Semuc Champey is a series of limestone pools connected by the Cahabón River and surrounded by jungle. Although it can be difficult to get there, its breathtaking beauty made it a must-see for most backpackers.
Rio Dulce is located in eastern Guatemala and is a popular cruise ship destination. The river separates the towns, Frontereas and El Rellen, which are only connected by a bridge. Most people come here for a scenic river trip between here and Livingston.
Spanish Phrases You Should Know
Hello! – Hola!
Good morning. – Buenos días.
Good afternoon. – Buenas tardes.
Good evening. – Buenas noches.
Goodbye. – Adiós.
How are you? – ¿Cómo está?
How much does it cost? – ¿Cuánto cuesta?
Where is the restroom? – ¿Dónde está el baño?
How do I get to ….? – ¿Como llego a …?
I don’t understand. – No comprendo.
Please. – Por favor.
Thank you! – Gracías!
Yes. / No. – Sí. / No.
How Much Did We Spend?
In our one month stay in Guatemala, Jazzy and I spent about $1,150 USD. I would say that is pretty cheap for two. So yeah, backpacking Guatemala on a budget is very possible as long as you live like a local, eat like a local and take public transportation like a local.
Get Insured Before Backpacking Guatemala
No matter how long or short your trip, don’t forget to purchase travel insurance. You never know what will happen and trust us, you don’t wanna get stuck with thousands of dollars in medical bills. As a wise man once said, “If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.” So don’t leave home without it. We recommend World Nomads.
Even if you don’t get travel insurance with World Nomads, please make sure to get travel insurance from somewhere.
More Information on Backpacking Guatemala
If you are more of a book person and would rather carry a physical guide with you while backpacking Guatemala, we recommend Lonely Planet Guatemala. Remember though, don’t follow it step by step, use it as a guide instead.
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