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The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Guatemala on a Budget

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

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)

Cerro de la cruz in Antigua Guatemala

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?

Food

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!

Doblados: Street food in Antigua Guatemala

Accommodation

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.

Transportation

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
Insider Tip: You can now book your transportation in Guatemala online in advance with GuateGo. They have painstakingly brought together all of the transport and tour options in Guatemala in one easy to use website. It’s the only website to offer this service and to have this many routes and options. You can book your transport in Guatemala with them here.

Chickenbuses - The cheapest way to get around Guatemala

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.

Market day in Antigua Guatemala

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.

Antigua

Lake Atitlan

  • Mikaso Hotel: Located right on the lake. On-site restaurant, bar and terrace with hot tubs.

Quetzaltenango (Xela)

  • The Black Cat: One block from Parque Central, and within walking distance to restaurants and shops. Free breakfast.

Flores

  • Hostel Yaxha: On-site restaurant, free WiFi, and a beautiful garden. Best value in Flores.

Semuc Champey

  • 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

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.

Temple I of the Maya archaeological site of Tikal in Peten, Guatemala. Central America
Svetlana Bykova / shutterstock.com

El Mirador

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.

Pacaya

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.

Volcano Pacaya in Guatemala, Central America.
Byron Ortiz / shutterstock.com

Lake Atitlán

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

Pier at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Simon Dannhauer / shutterstock.com

Chichicastenango

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%.

Antigua

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.

Agua volcano behind Santa Catalina Arch in the colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala
loca4motion / shutterstock.com

Flores

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

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.

Semuc Champey in Guatemala

Rio Dulce

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.

If you enjoyed our backpacking Guatemala on a budget guide, please share it on social media and consider coming back to plan your next trip with our other detailed backpacking guides.

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The Author

Ben

Ben is a professional web designer and the man behind the scenes of Road Affair. He has been traveling around the world with his partner in crime, Jazzy, since 2012.

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Comments

  1. Hi Guys,

    Nice breakdown! We hope to do Guatemala soon; maybe after our Mexico trip in a few months. The cost seems pretty reasonable and the beauty is something we need to see first hand.

    Thanks guys :)

    Ryan

    1. If you are not too far Ryan, you have to stop by and visit Guatemala. You won’t regret it. Guatemala is so diverse in culture, landscapes, and climate. Not to mention all the active volcanoes and it’s crazy cheap.

      We loved this place and I am almost certain you will too Ryan!

    1. Yes it certainly is but it takes some time. There are plenty of public buses in Mexico (google: ADO Buses) and with those you can easily make it all the way to the Guatemalan border. At the border you can catch one of the infamous Chicken Buses to wherever you wanna go.

  2. Great quick guide! Xela (Quetzaltenango) is a popular destination, too. Plenty of city-life things to do as well as a wide selection of Spanish schools, an active volcano to hike, gorgeous hot springs and tons more.

  3. Hi There, Great article, we want to travel through CA in 2017 and everyone I met said their favourite was Guatemala. What is your view on safety there? do you have any tips on this?

    1. See we are not lying. Guatemala is amazing. As far as safety is concerned you shouldn’t worry too much. As long as you don’t walk around flashing your expensive electronics or jewellery you shouldn’t have any problems. Most crime here is gang related and most of it happens in Guatemala City, which is not really of much interest for tourists anyways. Overall I don’t think it’s any more dangerous or safer than any place in the US.

  4. Hey guys! My boyfriend and I are planning to go to Guatemala in December and I was just wondering more about the tikal. Do we need to sign up before time or can we when we get into Guatemala. We would like to do a 1 day tour or something like that? Any ideas on what we do?

    1. Hey Kim, you can sign up with a tour company the day before in Flores. No need to book it before you get to Guatemala. You only really need the tour company for transportation otherwise the park is do-able with out a guided tour. To give you an idea of prices, we paid 50Q (~$6.50 US) p/p for transport to and from the park and 150Q (~$20 US) p/p for entrance fee last year. If you want to do the sunrise in Tikal the fee is a little more since the park is letting you in before hours of operation.

      Let us know if you have any more questions :), Safe travels in Dec.!

  5. After many years traveling on the other side (southeast Asia), I decided to travel in central america (was there 2 months ago) and wasn’t disappointed at all !! Guatemala surprised me a lot and love it ! I can’t compared with Honduras and Belize which i stayed just for a couple of days but would definitely go back for a longer trip :-) Ah… I like Mexico too !

    1. I have to agree with you Stephanie, Guatemala took us by surprise too and we fell for it hard. We even came back a second time less than a year later. Belize is also another favorite of ours as well as Mexico.

      We are actually heading to Southeast Asia in March, I guess we are traveling each others path in reverse. ;)

  6. Hey Jazzy and Ben. It’s me again. So now it will be my boyfriend his mom and sister heading to Guatemala from the 30th of December to the 7th. We plan to go to reu to visit my family until the 3rd then head to Antigua until the 6th. I was looking to see if there was any horseback riding, kayaking, a safari through a jungle, or zoo or something like that as well? Just some ideas to do with my family and also things for us to do in Antigua. Thanks!

  7. Also is there a hotel you guys know of that is safe and not too expensive in Guatemala City because we plan to stay there the night before our flight which leaves at 730 am :)

  8. Hi guys

    Great source of info.

    Planning a 3 week trip for February (last minute:)) and am looking at Guatemala to Cancun. My idea was Lake Atitlan, Semuk Champey and Flores/Tikal and then into Belize to hit Caye Caulker/San Pedro and then up into Mexico stopping at Bacalar, Tulum and Playa/Cancun. Is Mexico cheap for backpacking. Will be looking for dorms/camping. Any other suggestions are welcome :) thanks so much

    1. Super late with the reply, my apologize. How is the trip going so far and where did you end up going ? The places you mentioned above are popular and nice places to visit.

      And for future reference (our awesome audience) Mexico is a cheap country for backpacking (ex: of our spendings in Cancun) but not as cheap as countries like Guatemala. Bacalar has a beautiful lake but is a bit more expensive for backpackers at least for accommodation. However, there are a few budget accommodations available including camping.

  9. Great post, thanks for the tips! I’m volunteering in Guatemala City for 5 months so hopefully I have some time to check these places out. Another surprisingly awesome place – Xela. It is a great base for learning Spanish, volunteering, homestays and hiking!

  10. Hello,
    I’m sure this question has been asked and answered plenty of times.
    I just booked my trip to Guatemala, and am now flooded with fear. I am a native Spanish speaker and have traveled to Latin America before. Not sure why I am feeling insecure.
    Did you feel safe while traveling in Guatemala? I did not feel uncertain until I began reading different blogs, news reports, etc.
    Thanks for the help!

    Marj

    1. No worries Marjoris. It’s normal to feel anxious before a trip. We have spend between 2-3 months in Guatemala and never had any trouble. It’s by far our favorite country in Central America. All I can suggest is that you stop reading news reports. They make money by over hyping their stories and by writing horrifying headlines. Shit can happen everywhere even in your own home town, so just go with the flow and enjoy.

      “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” :D

  11. Hey! Thanks for te post, it is very motivating. Im heading to Guatemala from 23 august to 6 september. Do you know if the rainy season is as bad as it says?

    Thanks!

    1. It really depends on where you going. If you are going to the highlands (ie. Antigua, Xela, Lake Atitlan) the chances are high that you have a few rainy days. In the north of Guatemala (ie. Flores, Semuc Champey, Rio Dulce) it definitely rains way less and it doesn’t get as cold. Either way definitely pack a good rain jacket and you should be set to go :D. Enjoy your time.

  12. Hi Jazz and Ben,

    My boyfriend and I are doing a trip in late July for a week. We want to visit Tikal and Semuc Champey for sure. If you can provide an other places we should visit that would be great! Also we are planning on staying in a hostel out in Semuc for a night or 2. How would we be able to get to Semuc and also where would be the best place to fly into? Guatemala City or Flores?

    Any information would help out a lot because we want to start planning soon :)

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