Guatemala is the Mayan heart of Central America. Home to ancient historical sites and incredible ruins, dense jungles, colorful architecture, lively markets, and towering volcanoes, Guatemala is a diverse and beautiful country ripe for budget travel.
The rugged mountains and jungles offer adventurous travelers a chance to get off the beaten path and explore pristine landscapes for a fraction of what you’d pay elsewhere in the world.
I love this country and have always had an incredible time here. (One of my favorite memories involves camping in Tikal!)
In this travel guide to Guatemala, I’ll show you how to make the most of your trip, save money, and stay safe in one of Central America’s most popular destinations.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Guatemala
1. Visit Lake Atitlán
2. Head to Antigua
3. Explore Tikal National Park
4.Visit Semuc Champey
5. Explore the Chichicastenango Market
Other Things to See and Do in Guatemala
1. Visit the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
Located in Guatemala City, this museum houses the many artifacts uncovered from the Mayan archaeological sites around the country. Created in 1898, the museum holds over 20,000 items and artifacts and is a good place to visit so you can learn more about the Mayan culture. Admission is 60 GTQ per person.
2. See the Yaxha ruins
If Tikal is too touristy for you, consider the more secluded Yaxha ruins. Like Tikal, Yaxha is a massive Mesoamerican archaeological site. Located in the northeast, it was the third-largest city in the region. Home to several huge stone pyramids, the site was “discovered” in 1904 and dates to 250-600 CE. Spend a few hours looking at ancient drawings and intricately carved hieroglyphs. Admission is 80 GTQ per person.
3. Explore Quirigua
The archaeological site of Quirigua, located in the southeastern corner of the country near the border with Honduras, contains the largest stelae (upright stone columns 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 that date from the 2nd-8th centuries CE. Although the stelae are unrestored, they are a magnificent sight; the largest of these is a whopping 25 feet tall! Admission is 80 GTQ.
4. Hike the Volcán de Pacaya
This active volcano frequently erupts ash clouds over Antigua, however, it makes for a fun day hike (don’t worry, it’s safe). The trail is relatively easy (it’s not that steep) and takes around 2 hours to hike, giving you lots of time to admire the view before you actually get a chance to peer into the volcano’s cone. Pacaya can only be accessed with an authorized guide so you will need to book a tour. Be aware the cheap tours often just offer transportation and a Spanish speaking guide. If you don’t speak Spanish you will need to ask for an English-speaking guide. Expect to pay 250-550 GTQ.
5. Wander Flores
This small island sits on Lake Peten Itza, a large lake in the north and the second-largest lake in the country. A narrow man-made causeway connects the island to the mainland and the region is perfect for hiking, swimming, and spotting wildlife. From here, you’re just a short drive away from some of the most untamed jungles in the country (it makes for a good base for exploring the nearby jungles). It’s also close to the ruins at Tikal.
6. Visit the ruins at El Mirador
El Mirador is one of the most undiscovered Mayan sites in Guatemala. Located near the border with Mexico in the northeast, the majority of its complexes lie in the depths of the jungle and remain relatively inaccessible to tourists. It’s the largest of all the Mayan ruins, rivaling even the pyramids in Egypt in size. Though discovered in 1926, researchers didn’t start studying it until 2003! Multi-day tours cost around 3,100 GTQ (plus a single supplement sometimes) since it’s so remote.
7. 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. The area is famous for its trekking and water activities, including the Finca Paraiso hike, which leads to a hot spring and a waterfall. The Quiriguá ruins (mentioned above) are also nearby and worth a visit.
8. Visit the Antigua Market
This sprawling market is colorful and somewhat chaotic. It’s open-air and filled with everything from fruits and vegetables to handmade crafts and poultry to fake DVDs and knock-off jeans. Come here to buy souvenirs, people watch, and take in the bustling chaos!
9. Relax at Monterrico
This is the most popular beach in the country. Located close to Guatemala City and Antigua, this laid-back beach town is a relaxing place to catch some sun and hit the waves. Between June-December, you can also see giant leatherback, green sea, and smaller olive ridley turtles. There are also lots of tours of the nearby mangroves.
10. Hike Acatenango
Located near Antigua, Acatenango is a stratovolcano standing almost 4,000 meters. It’s the third highest volcano in Central America and last erupted in 1972. It offers a strenuous 7-8-hour hike up to a campsite, where you will camp overnight before summiting to watch the sunrise. Tours cost around 600-800 GTQ and include cold-weather gear, an English-speaking guide, and park admission.
11. Watch the sunrise from Indian Nose
The sunrise from the Indian Nose volcano is quite possibly one of the most magical sunrises you will ever experience. Located next to Lake Atitlan, you’ll get to look out across the water and the magnificent volcanoes before you (including the Atitlán and San Pedro volcanoes). You can do this hike alone but it is difficult finding the path in the dark so it is much better to go with a guide. Expect to pay around 250 GTQ.
12. Learn to surf
Guatemala isn’t known for its beaches but the small coastal town of El Paredon is a well-kept secret where you can hit the waves. The black sand beach is beautiful and the surf is great. A board rental is around 100-125 GTQ per day and surf lessons are around 150 GTQ an hour, including a board.
Guatemala Travel Costs
Accommodation – Most beds in a 6-8 bed dorm start at 60 GTQ. Private rooms cost around 200-300 GTQ. Free Wi-Fi is standard and some hostels also offer free breakfast. Not many hostels have a kitchen so be sure to check first if you want to prepare your own meals.
Budget hotels are plentiful in Guatemala and rooms cost as little as 230 GTQ for a double or twin bed with basic amenities. For a mid-range hotel with free breakfast, expect to pay closer to 500 GTQ
Airbnb is available around the country, with private rooms starting at 250 GTQ night. For an entire home or apartment, prices begin around 400 GTQ per night though they average closer to 700 GTQ.
For those traveling with a tent, camping is not common and not recommended. You can camp in the parks of El Paredon and Tikal though. Camping there costs around 50 GTQ per night.
Food – Guatemalan cuisine uses a lot of corn, chilies, avocados, and beans. Popular dishes include tamales, seafood soup, and meat stews (usually chicken or beef), which are readily available and usually quite affordable.
If you’re on a budget, you can get a large meal of beans, rice, corn, and meat for around 40 GTQ from a comedor (local eateries that usually offer large portions). Another local favorite is a tortilla with beans and eggs with sour cream and fried plantain on the side, which usually cost the equivalent of just a couple of dollars.
Lunch is the main meal of the day here, and many restaurants offer set menus for under 40 GTQ. These usually include soup and grilled meat.
Pre-made plates of food (usually chicken or beef, rice, and tortillas) are often sold on the buses during stops for about 25-30 GTQ. Street food, like hot dogs or tamales, can be found for less than 12 GTQ.
A three-course meal in a mid-range restaurant with a drink costs around 250 GTQ. Mexican-style dishes like tacos or enchiladas are a popular evening choice (since dinner is usually a lighter meal).
Fast food like McDonald’s costs around 50 GTQ for a combo meal. For a meal at a Western restaurant (think burger and fries or pizza), expect to pay at least 100 GTQ.
A beer costs 20 GTQ, bottled water is 10 GTQ, and a cappuccino/latte costs around 19 GTQ.
If you plan on buying your own groceries, expect to pay at least 200 GTQ per week for staples like vegetables, rice, and some meat.
Activities – Most 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 310 GTQ. Museums cost around 60 GTQ. The entrance fee to Tikal is 150 GTQ per person.
Backpacking Guatemala Suggested Budgets
As a budget backpacker in Guatemala, expect to pay around 250 GTQ per day. This assumes you’re staying in a hostel dorm, cooking most meals, sticking to free activities (like hiking and the beach), limiting your drinking, and using local transportation to get around.
On a mid-range budget of 625 GTQ, you can stay in an Airbnb, eat out for all your meals, have a few drinks, take some guided tours, use taxis here and there, and visit more attractions such as museums or ruins.
On a “luxury” budget of 1,750 GTQ per day, you can stay in a hotel, take taxis everywhere, book higher-end tours (including private tours and day tours), and eat out every meal at nicer restaurants. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Prices are in GTQ.
Guatemala Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
It’s easy to save money while traveling in Guatemala since the country isn’t that expensive. However, a good budget traveler always looks for way to maximize value. Here are some of the best ways to save money in Guatemala:
- Take a free walking tour – In some of the larger cities (like Antigua) you can find free walking tours. They’re the best way to get introduced to a new destination. Freetour.com has options you can choose from. Just be sure to tip your guide!
- Couchsurf with a local – While accommodation is cheap here, staying with a local via Couchsurfing will make it free. Not only will you save some money, but you’ll get firsthand knowledge from a local!
- Have an ISIC Card – To save 20-50% on the cost of admission to museums and other tourist attractions, be sure to present a valid student card. The ISIC is typically accepted in places where a foreign student ID is not.
- Visit the Mercado – Although eating out is cheap in Guatemala, it makes sense to shop at the markets for your food to take on day trips or to prepare at your hostel. Fruit costs mere pennies and everything is always fresh.
- Eat street food – The local street food is the cheapest food you can eat, costing 15-25 GTQ for a meal (tamales, tacos, hot dogs, etc.).
- Avoid flying – Bus rides are longer, but if you are trying to see the country on a budget you shouldn’t fly. An hour-long flight can cost hundreds of dollars. Avoid flying as much as possible!
- Avoid drinking – Sure, the beer here is cheap but a couple of beers every day will add up. Watch your drinking to keep your budget intact!
- Bring a reusable water bottle – Avoid the tap water here. Instead of wasting money on single-use plastic bottles, bring a reusable water bottle and a filter. LifeStraw has a built-in filter so you can ensure your water is always clean and safe to drink.
Where to Stay in Guatemala
Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Guatemala:
How to Get Around Guatemala
Public Transportation – The main method of transportation in Guatemala is las camionetas (“chicken buses”). They are old school buses from North America and are the most inexpensive way to get around. Expect to pay around 10 GTQ for a 1-2 hour journey. Shorter journeys can cost as little as 3 GTQ.
If you are traveling between places like Antigua and Lake Atitlan, shuttle buses are the most common form of transport for backpackers. Travel between Antigua and Guatemala City costs around 150 GTQ on a shuttle bus. On a chicken bus, it costs considerably less (around 30 GTQ).
Taxis – Taxis in Guatemala are safe to use and affordable. Taxis are common in the larger cities and cost around 60 GTQ for a 10-minute ride. Tuk-tuks are the most common form of transport for short journeys in most of the towns and villages. Most journeys will cost no more than 15 GTQ.
Uber is available in larger cities like Antigua and Guatemala City. It’s generally cheaper than taxis but more expensive than shuttles for longer distances.
Trains – There are no trains in Guatemala.
Bus – Because of the poor condition of the roads in Guatemala large busses aren’t available on many routes. You will find large night busses between Guatemala City and Flores to take you to countries like Mexico, Belize, and Nicaragua. For most other places, you will rely on shuttle busses.
You have two options for booking: asking in your hostel and paying in cash or booking online through guatego.com. Unfortunately, websites like Busbud don’t operate in Guatemala as their transport infrastructure is still developing.
Keep in mind the shuttles are pretty basic. Most don’t have working AC and are not very spacious.
Budget Airlines – There are regular flights from Guatemala City to Flores, usually costing around 1,400 GTQ per person for the one-hour flight.
Car Rental – Renting a car costs around 150 GTQ per day. Do take care if you decide to drive in Guatemala as the roads aren’t the best and landslides are common during the rainy season (which can often result in both accidents and road closures). Make sure you have an International Driving Permit (IDP) — you’ll need one for any car rental.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking is not common in Guatemala and not recommended for safety reasons. For more information, visit HitchWiki.
When to Go to Guatemala
Guatemala is a fantastic place to visit at any time of the year because of its spring-like climate. As many places are at altitude, you can expect cool mornings and evenings and warm days. Expect temperatures to sit between 18-28°C (65-82°F).
Many choose to avoid Guatemala during the rainy season (May-September) as the rain can be a bit disruptive, especially if you want to do things like hiking. That said, it is during these months that Guatemala is at its most beautiful as the country turns green and the flowers bloom. Prices also drop significantly during the rainy season.
To beat the crowds, visit in the shoulder season (the start or end of the rainy season). You’ll see fewer people and things will be a little cheaper. The weather won’t be perfect but it will still be sunny and warm most days so you’ll still be able to hike.
How to Stay Safe in Guatemala
While Guatemala is generally safe, there’s no denying that certain precautions should be taken as there’s still a lot of petty crime and safety issues in the country. Avoid isolated areas, especially at night and in big cities. Keep your personal belongings on you while using public transit (especially chicken buses) and night buses.
Additionally, don’t wear flashy jewelry or leave your valuables out in the open. Petty theft is common here so you must be vigilant.
Violent attacks against tourists are rare. Most of the time it’s because the tourist was involved in something drug-related or was where they shouldn’t be at night.
Opportunistic theft is the most common crime so if you keep your possessions close you shouldn’t have any issues. Scams are common in the larger cities so be wary of any overfriendly strangers. If you keep your wits and pay attention, you’ll be able to avoid the most common problems.
Guatemala is home to 37 volcanoes so volcanic activity isn’t uncommon. Be sure to check for warnings before you embark on any hikes/activities (especially ones on or around volcanoes).
Additionally, due to its political instability, protests and demonstrations are common. If one is occurring near you, simply head back to your accommodation and avoid taking part.
You can read about the 14 travel scams to avoid right here.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. You have every right to remove yourself from the situation.
Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Guatemala Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Central America. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, a great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Central America, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Guatemala Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Guatemala Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, by Martin Prechtel
Secrets of the Talking Jaguar is an incredible story of a young musician and painter from New Mexico who decides to up and leave his old life. He embarks on an incredible journey through Mexico and Guatemala. When he arrives on shores of Lake Atitlan, he meets one of the most famous shamans in Tzutujil history who believes he has been sent by the Gods to be his new student. For thirteen years, Prechtel studied and became a famous shaman in his own right before being forced to leave due to the civil war. His book brings to life Lake Atitlan and the lost Mayan traditions of the region.
Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala, by V. Sanford
A civil war raged in Guatemala from the late 1970s into the mid-1980s. Known as La Violencia, it was a time of mass terror and extreme violence that displaced 1.5 million people and saw over 200,000 civilians murdered. Of the death toll, 83% were Mayan. This book sheds light on the stories of the Mayan people who suffered through La Violencia. Sanford provides a unique look into the experiences of Maya survivors as they struggle to rebuild their communities and lives. If you want to learn more about the war in Guatemala and understand the context of the struggles of the Mayan people this book is a sobering and insightful place to start.
I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, by Rigoberta Menchú
Rigoberta Menchú is quite possibly the most well-known Guatemalan in history. In her bestselling book, she reflects on the experiences common to many Indian communities in Latin America. Menchú suffered greatly during the bloody civil war. Both her brother, father, and mother were killed. Rather than crumbling, she learned Spanish and became politically active. Here commitment to social reform and the women’s rights movement won her a Nobel Peace Prize. Menchú brings to life the traditions of her Mayan community and her enduring courage in the face of such adversity.
Walking the Americas, by Levison Wood
This is the true story of Levison Wood’s 1,800-mile trek across the Americas, through eight countries, from Mexico to Colombia. He works his way down through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama — meeting refugees in Nicaraguan camps, friendly locals, and dangerous wildlife along the way. Some of his tales are harrowing, but they bring to life his incredible and adventurous journey.
Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest, by Mary Jo McConahay
Mary Jo McConahay has been living and traveling in remote areas of Central America for three decades. Maya Roads is her fascinating account of the people, politics, and archaeology of the rainforest, otherwise known as the “cradle of Maya civilization.” It’s a beautiful chronicle of not only the sheer beauty of Central America and the resilience of its people but also the region’s harsher side — including drug trafficking and intense violence.
Guatemala Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Central America and continue planning your trip: