Guatemala is the Mayan heart of Central America. There are dozens of historical sites to explore in this country, but there are other charms here as well, such as the colonial city of Antigua, the lively market of Chichicastenango, the incredible ancient ruins of Tikal, and awesome volcanoes and lakes. All that plus dense jungles, colonial cities, and relatively inexpensive food makes Guatemala a great place to visit. This travel guide can help plan your trip there and avoid the hordes of tourist who are slowly discovering this inexpensive country.
Accommodation – Most hostels have dorm beds starting around 40 GTQ. Splurge for a private single or double hostel room and pay about 190-230 GTQ, or between 230-575 GTQ for a double hotel room.
Food – Dining out is relatively inexpensive in Guatemala. In cheap eateries called “comedores”, you can get a two course meal for around 27 GTQ, with a meal in a “tourist” restaurant costing about 77 GTQ. Pre-made plates of food (usually chicken or beef, rice, and tortillas) are often sold on the buses during stops for about 15 GTQ. National brand beers cost about 8 GTQ a bottle and 23 GTQ a liter from the store. Overall, if you stay away from burgers, you can eat really cheap here.
Transportation – Las camionetas, or “chicken buses”, are old school buses from North America, which offer the most inexpensive way to get round Guatemala at 8 GTQ for a 1-2 hour journey. Shuttle buses between Antigua and Guatemala City start at 115 GTQ.
Activities – Most of the activities in Guatemala are centered around historical or natural attractions. The entrance to Semuc Champey is 46 GTQ and the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is 54 GTQ. These are typical prices for attractions in the country. The entrance fee to Tikal is 150 GTQ.
Money Saving Tips
Bring snacks – Although eating out is cheap in Guatemala, avoid spending money on snacks at tourist cafes when sightseeing, and instead buy food from local markets. For example, you can get a bunch of bananas for 8 GTQ.
Take the chicken buses – These are a very cheap way to get round Guatemala, but at times tourists can be overcharged, so check out what the locals are paying and offer the same money to the caller (person who collects fares).
Opt for the meal of the day – “El menu del dia” is often a few dollars cheaper than the other items on the menu and offers the chance to have a two course meal for little money.
Top Things to See and Do in Guatemala
Take in Lake Atitlán – This lake is framed by three volcanoes and offers arguably the best spot to watch the sunset in Guatemala. On the northern coast of the lake lies the tourist village of Panajachel which is a good base from which to arrange tours of the lake and volcanoes, as well as to enjoy the many restaurants, bars, and nightlife in a beautiful lakeside setting.
Head to Antigua – This picturesque colonial city sits in a highland valley between three volcanoes and is full of characteristic colonial Spanish architecture, from its cobbled streets, churches, and houses, to its ruins, and parks. Head to the Plaza Mayor (central square) to take in its amazing gardens, palaces, and cathedral.
Visit the Chichicastenango Market – Most people who come to Guatemala visit Chichicastenango — it is said to be the largest native market in North America. Every Thursday and Sunday is market day in “Chichi” when thousands of Quiche Mayans come to town to buy and sell handicrafts, flowers, poetry, trinkets, and textiles.
Stroll Tikal National Park – This park is Guatemala’s most famous cultural and natural attraction and is the largest excavated Mayan site. I loved these ruins — they made me feel like Indiana Jones. Come early and stay late as the park empties out in the afternoon when the tour groups leave, and you can have the place all to yourself. I also recommend sleeping over in the park to catch the sunrise.
Yaxha Mayan Ruins – If the Tikal ruins are too commercialized for you, then consider the more secluded Yaxha ruins. The trail takes you through the jungle before you come to the Mayan complexes. Although smaller than Tikal, these ruins are uncrowded and allow you to spend time looking at ancient drawings and intricately carved hieroglyphs.
National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology – Located in Guatemala City, this museum houses the many artifacts uncovered from the Mayan archaeological sites in the country. It’s actually a good place to start if you are planning to visit the Mayan sites as it will give you a good reference point from which to plan your trips and decide which sites you are most interested in.
Learn about the ruins at El Mirador – El Mirador is perhaps the most undiscovered of the Mayan sites in Guatemala. The majority of complexes lie in the depths of the jungle and so remain relatively inaccessible to many tourists.
Travel to Volcán de Pacaya – Lying close to Guatemala City and Antigua, Pacaya National Park is a popular tourist attraction. The volcano is still active and frequently erupts ash clouds over Antigua. The hike up is relatively easy, giving you lots of time to admire the view over the nearby city before you actually get the chance to peer in to the volcano’s cone.
Visit Semuc Champey – Semuc Champey is a natural monument in the Alta Verapaz region, consisting of a 1,000 foot long limestone bridge under which passes the Cahabòn River. Take a candlelit tour through the caves, go tubing down the Cahabòn, or swim in the turquoise pools along the bridge. The Kamba Caves (the one with the candlelit tour) are privately owned and can only be visited with a guide. Most tour guide outfitters have a day-trip which allows you you visit both Semuc Champey and the caves for about $20-30 USD.
Explore Quirigua – The archaeological site of Quirigua contains the largest stelae (standing stone slabs covered in drawings or carved in to shapes) ever discovered in the Mayan world. Nine stelae are arranged around a central plaza, accompanied by altars carved into zoomorphic shapes. Although the stelae are unrestored, they are a magnificent sight; the largest of these, Stela E, is 25 feet tall.
Travel to Flores – This tourist-friendly island is in the middle of Lake Peten Itza. From here you can find bus rides offered to Tikal, which are some of the best preserved Mayan ruins in the world. Keep a look out for the howler monkeys while you explore the dense jungle here.
Purchase fabrics and textiles – Handcrafted traditional Mayan blouses and skirts, or huipiles and cortes, are specialty items here. Keep a look out for those that aren’t entirely authentic.
Spend time volunteering – In Quetzaltenango, there are several nonprofit organizations. Working on social projects in a new country is an awesome way to get to know the area and its people. Consider anything from teaching math to village children to aiding in the development of sustainable agriculture.
Visit the Antigua Market – This busy, sprawling market is colorful and somewhat chaotic. It is open-air, and filled with everything from fruits and vegetables, to handmade crafts and poultry. This is where the locals go, so be prepared for a lot of noise and some dustiness.
Explore Rio Dulce – Rio Dulce is a gorgeous river and popular backpacker destination in eastern Guatemala. Two towns, El Relleno and Fronteras, lie on either side of the river, and are connected by one of the largest bridges in Central America. This place offers a lot of opportunity for trekking and sailing.