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 many awesome volcanoes and lakes. All that plus dense jungles, colonial cities, and relatively inexpensive food makes Guatemala one of the best places in the region. This travel guide can help plan your trip there and avoid the hordes of tourist who are slowly discovering this inexpensive and wonderful country.
Accommodation – Most hostels have dorm beds starting around 60 GTQ. You can splurge for a private single or double room in a hostel and pay about 190-250 GTQ. Decent budget hotels will cost you around 250 GTQ per night for a double bed, though you can find cheaper options with fewer amenities. Airbnb options are available in the larger cities, with shared accommodation starting around 75 GTQ per night. For an entire home or apartment, expect to pay at least 175 GTQ per night. Couchsurfing is possible in the country, however, there are very few hosts. Be sure to send requests early if you are hoping to find a couch. For those traveling with a tent, camping is not very common and not recommended.
Food – Dining out is relatively inexpensive in Guatemala. In cheap eateries called comedores, you can get a two-course meal for around 30 GTQ, with a meal in a “tourist” restaurant costing about 85 GTQ. Pre-made plates of food (usually chicken or beef, rice, and tortillas) are often sold on the buses during stops for about 20 GTQ. If you want a fancier meal at a mid-range restaurant, expect to pay at least 85 GTQ per person. National brand beers cost about 12 GTQ a bottle and 23 GTQ per liter from the store. Overall, if you stay away from Western food and tourist restaurants, you can eat really cheap here! If you plan on cooking your own groceries, expect to pay at least 120 GTQ per week.
Transportation – Las camionetas (or “chicken buses”) are old school buses from North America and offer the most inexpensive way to get around Guatemala. Expect to pay around at 10 GTQ for a 1-2 hour journey. Shorter journeys can cost as little as 3 GTQ. Shuttle buses between Antigua and Guatemala City cost around 115 GTQ. Taxis are common in the larger cities, and cost around 60 GTQ for a 10-minute ride. Renting a car will allow you to get off the beaten path, and prices begin around 1,200 GTQ per week. There are regular flights from Guatemala City to Flores, usually costing around 1,200 GTQ per person. Hitchhiking is not common and not recommended for safety reasons.
Activities – Most of the activities in Guatemala are centered around historical or natural attractions. The entrance to Semuc Champey is 50 GTQ, and a private tour will cost you at least 300 GTQ. The National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is 60 GTQ. These are typical prices for attractions in the country. The entrance fee to Tikal is 150 GTQ per person.
Suggested daily budget – 225-260 GTQ / $30-35 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
- Bring snacks – Although eating out is cheap in Guatemala, avoid spending money on snacks at tourist cafes when sightseeing. Instead, buy food from local markets. For example, you can get a bunch of bananas for around 10 GTQ.
- Take the chicken buses – These are a very cheap way to get around Guatemala. At times tourists can be overcharged, so check out what the locals are paying and offer the same money to the caller (the 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.
- Bring your cash – Many smaller towns will not even have ATM’s and there are not even available in many tourist areas. Be sure to exchange your money in larger cities or before you depart to Guatemala. Don’t bother with traveler’s cheques (for the few people who still use them) as most major banks won’t even accept them.
- Take a free walking tour – There are walking tours available in most major cities, and some of those are even free (like Antigua City Tour in Antigua). This is a great way to explore the city while learning about its history, architecture, and people.
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 — 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. Admission to the park is around 150 GTQ.
- Relax at Monterrico – This is the most popular beach in the country. Located close to Guatemala City and Antigua, it’s a great place to catch some sun and hit the waves. Just don’t head out too far as there is a strong undertow here!
- 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 less crowded and you can spend time more looking at ancient drawings and intricately carved hieroglyphs. Admission is around 15 GTQ per person.
- 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. Admission for foreigners is 60 GTQ per person.
- 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. Entry is 60 GTQ per person, though if you book a tour this price is usually included in your booking fee.
- 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 into 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 to visit both Semuc Champey and the caves for about 150-225 GTQ.
- Explore Quirigua – The archaeological site of Quirigua contains the largest stelae (standing stone slabs covered in drawings or carved into 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.
- 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. There is a lot of trekking and water activities in this area.