Backpacking in Guatemala: Costs, Tips and Places to See
Firmly on the Central America backpacker trail (AKA the Gringo Trail); Guatemala is home to all sorts of natural and historic wonders. From the jungle pyramids of the north to one of the most atmospheric colonial cities in the Americas there is so much to see while backpacking in Guatemala. I spent three weeks there, starting in Flores and finishing with a laborious border crossing to El Salvador via Honduras. Keep reading for some Guatemala travel tips as well as a quick look at some of the best places to see.
The tiny island of Flores, on the shores of Lake Petén, is the ideal place to start a trip to Guatemala. We crossed over from Mexico and were exhausted by the time we arrived — luckily Flores is a really laid-back little town full of lakeside bars and guesthouses. It’s easy to spend a few days lazing around Flores, but there are plenty of ways to keep busy too. You can walk through the colourful streets and alleyways or take a boat trip on the lake, but by far the biggest draw in these parts is Tikal, a set of ancient pyramids and ruins spread throughout the jungle (more on that later).
FURTHER READING: Flores: A Relaxing Welcome to Guatemala
Another (slightly closer) base for exploring Tikal is El Remate, a tiny rural town next to Lake Petén. There’s not a lot to do there, but the lake makes for a fun place to swim and walk around, and it’s far sleepier than nearby Flores. Staying in El Remate doesn’t actually save you much money (tours to Tikal are similar prices from both towns), but it’s a nice place to spend a day or two.
Tikal is one of the most impressive groups of ruins in Central America. It was slowly claimed by the jungle until being rediscovered (by westerners anyway) in the mid 1800s. Today it entertains a steady stream of tourists, and for good reason. There are several pyramids (one which you can climb) palaces and other ruins, and if you’re lucky you might see some wildlife, including monkeys and (very rarely) jaguars. One of the best Tikal experiences is climbing Pyramid 4, where you get a panoramic view of the jungle, with a few pyramids poking their heads out.
There are other groups of ruins in the Petén region, including El Mirador and Yaxha. They aren’t as popular as Tikal but it’d be worth checking them out if you can.
FURTHER READING: A Journey to the Exotic Jungle Pyramids of Tikal
From Flores we had a full day on a bus, slowly making our way down to Semuc Champey, one of the most beautiful natural wonders in Central America. You can stay in rustic guesthouses a few minutes’ walk from Semuc Champey (recommended) or in nearby Lanquin. It’s a short, sweaty walk through the jungle to the viewpoint above Semuc Champey. It’s kind of like a big flat waterfall with heaps of crystal clear pools which are perfect for swimming.
There is also a cool (if slightly dangerous) cave to explore and at the end of it all you can lazily drift down the river on a tube with a beer — it’s definitely one of the most fun days you’ll have in Guatemala. We took a tour (mainly because it was only slightly more expensive and the friends we made on the bus were also doing it), but you can easily do it independently.
FURTHER READING: Semuc Champey: A Must-See Natural Wonder in Guatemala
Loomed over by a massive volcano, Antigua is a picturesque colonial city with a good mix of crumbling churches and immaculately restored houses. It was founded in 1524 and was once the capital city, but after a long history of earthquakes the seat of power was eventually moved to Guatemala City. There aren’t too many must-see sights in Antigua but you could spend days wandering the old streets.
FURTHER READING: Antigua, Guatemala: The Nicest Colonial Town in Central America?
Lake Atitlan is renowned the world over as a place of great spirituality. As one of the least spiritual person on Earth, it was the landscapes and the promise of some much needed relaxation that called me there. We spent close to a week in San Pedro, mostly relaxing but occasionally heading out to explore. The Indian’s Nose, a viewpoint high above the lake, is a great place to go for sunrise, although it was cloudy when we were there. There was a really cool dog up there — hopefully you get to meet him too.
There are also lots of other villages to explore (or stay at) — you could easily spend your entire trip to Guatemala there, especially if you’re into yoga and gluten-free food.
Guatemala City / The Places we didn’t visit
We only visited Guatemala City in passing, and according to popular opinion there isn’t much point in lingering in the capital. We had planned to visit Quetzaltenango and the Chichicastenango market but we lingered too long in other towns — I’m sure we’ll be back to Guatemala though. You’re probably wondering why we didn’t go to any beaches in Guatemala. Apparently the beaches aren’t anything special and you’re better off going to the beaches in neighbouring countries. I’m always happy to be proved wrong though, so if you’ve been to a nice beach in Guatemala let me know!
Backpacking in Guatemala: Costs and Tips
- How much do things cost in Guatemala? Guatemala is an affordable destination, with comfortable double room in a guesthouse generally costing between Q75 and Q150 ($10 – $20). The local food was a massive comedown from Mexico, so we ended up eating a lot of western food. We were spending Q50 – Q75 for a meal for two people, so it still wasn’t bad. Local chicken buses are a few dollars a ride and generally get you where you need to go, but sometimes it’s worth spending a little extra for a tourist bus. In general you should easily get by on $30 – $40 per person, but it depends on your travel style.
- Discover Sarita: Sarita is a chain of ice-cream / milkshake shops in Guatemala and El Salvador. We had (at least) one milkshake a day whenever we were in a town with a Sarita — we did get a bit fat from it, but it was worth it.
- Learn some Spanish: It’s tough to get around Guatemala, and Latin America in general, without speaking some Spanish. Lake Atitlan is a popular place to learn — if you’re on big voyage down to South America it’d be worth spending a week or so learning the basics.
- Be careful: We always felt safe in Guatemala, but as with anywhere in Latin America it pays to consider your safety. Try and avoid walking around at night and don’t flash your cash / possessions too much.
- When to visit Guatemala: We were there in May, which is the end of the dry season. It’s not the best time to visit as it’s quite hazy and not quite as green as it could be. I’d say the best time to visit Guatemala is between November and February.
Are you planning on backpacking in Guatemala? Where are you most excited to go? Let me know in the comments below!