I’m always surprised at how few Americans visit Central America, with the exception of expensive, western-monopolized, crocks-with-socks Costa Rica. There are so many countries in this region where you can get off a fucking resort and have a blast for less money. Like Guatemala!
Guate is probably the least expensive Central American country, which makes it family friendly AND backpacker friendly. It has everything you could want: charming architecture, healthy local food, rich historical sights, and fun nature adventures. Here are my best tips for a perfect trip to Guatemala!
Skip Guatemala City
Guatemala City is a prime example of “sometimes capital cities suck.” Guatemala City doesn’t have much to offer travelers other than, well, armed guards. Unless you are visiting family or friends, you’ll probably only want to stay one night before an early morning flight out, which is what I did. To be honest though, if I were to do it all over again, I would have just gotten a ride from Antigua super early in the morning to the airport. Antigua is only about an hour away (give or take 20 mins as traffic can be crazy) and is easy to get to from the GC airport: Once you exit with whatever baggage you have, you will be assaulted by cab drivers wanting your business. Just say you want the shuttle to Antigua and someone will shuffle you over to a little mini van. You’ll probably have to wait a few minutes until they get more passengers, but it’ll only cost you 90 Quetzales (about $12.50USD) and they’ll drop you off right at the door to your accommodation. Easy peasy.
*Pro tip* Before getting into the shuttle make sure you ask how much (in Spanish, cuanto cuesta?) just to make sure you don’t accidentally hop into some bougie ass mini van or something.
Spend less time in Antigua
Hear me out, I LOVE Antigua, and you most definitely cannot skip this bustling little town. HOWEVER, sometimes people spend like, nine fucking days here and that’s a bit hectic.
Antigua has exciting nightlife and TONS of awesome food (Guatemalan food is Mexican food minus the spice, and is so healthy and fresh I guarantee your skin will glow like you just marinated yourself in snail semen). BUT. It’s a small city. It’s a beautiful, charming, lovely city, but you don’t need more than a few days here as a traveler. Do note, however, that a shit ton of expats live here so if you’re looking to put roots down, this is the place.
If you are traveling anywhere other than Antigua, then this town will be your hub where all buses come in and out. You can spend a day or two in Antigua, head over to Lago, come back to Antigua for a few more days, etc. Basically just don’t blow your fucking load.
*Pro tips* It sounds disgusting, but the shrimp and bacon tacos at a joint called Cactus will diddle your tastebuds so fucking hard. Their Micheladas are shit, though.
Also, if you have a bit of $$ to throw down, the wine bar under the main arch, Tabacos y Vinos, is heaven. There’s one communal table and everyone just sips wine and gets to know each other. The four hours I spent drinking and conversing, with not one person looking at their fucking idiotbox phone, were some of the most special of my entire time in Guatemala.
Lastly, for my budget travelers: I stayed at two different hostels during my trips to Antigua.
Three Monkeys is more centrally located, and has a lovely rooftop area, but it was a bit too beer-pong for me. You know, a bit too...Penn State. If you’re twenty years old and fuck without condoms, you might dig it. It wasn’t my jam. Also, the taco place next door was fucking awful.
The second time around I stayed at Matiox, which is a bit more of a schlep to “downtown” Antigua (lol like 10 mins), but still totally safe and lovely. The hostel itself is waaay more chill, mostly 28-35 year olds. The hot tub is a sweet perk and is scrubbed down every single day. They’ve got a nice happy hour at the little bar. Plus, huge lockers for luggage. Strongly recommend.
Spend more time in Lago
Lake Atitlan is probably your main reason for visiting Guatemala, and so it should be. This place lives up to the hype.
Not only is it truly breathtaking, but it offers something for everyone. Lake Atitlan is only 4-5 hours drive from Antigua (you can book your buses the day before, sometimes even the day of). There are a few main towns around the lake. Here is a basic breakdown to help you decide where to stay:
*Panajachel* (or as everyone calls it, Pana). So many travelers base themselves here but honestly it’s so eh. If you’re a trinket whore, I suppose you’ll like it as there are tons of stalls selling souvenirs, but it’s mostly just busy and, well, unmemorable.
*San Pedro* This is where most young people go. It’s backpacker heaven. The views are beautiful and the parties go all night. I stayed at Hostel Fe and I have to say the rooms were where hookers go to die, but the bar was dope and in true Central American what-the-fuck-are-rules fashion, there was a cliff jump into the lake literally at the bar.
Don’t drink and jump, guys. If you want a unique experience, I also recommend taking a cooking class at Ixiim. You’ll make a traditional Mayan meal of pepian, rice, beet root salad, tortillas and rellenitos and meet some lovely new friends!
*San Marcos* This is hippie town. You can read a bit more about it here, but if you’re into crystals and yoga, this is your spot. Of all the main towns, I have to say that the view around San Marcos is unmatched, and the water is way cleaner here than in San Pedro. I also relaxed in a way I am not able to in New York - almost like my ribs unlocked and I was finally able to breathe into my whole body.
I stayed a little walk (like three minutes) from the main street, at a place on the water called Hostel del Lago. The beds aren’t great, but the bar and food is superb (veggie friendly, plus homemade kombucha!), there is a yoga platform and numerous yoga classes a day, plus a sauna. You know my naked ass got all sweaty in the sauna and then skinny dipped in the lake while Bjork’s doppleganger played an improptu electric cello concert. #truestory
*Warning* There is some serious cultural appropriation here. Like, white people with dreads. Oof.
*If you’re interested in a yoga retreat, check out The Yoga Forest. If you are just in town for a few days, I highly recommend waking up early to hike here, about 30 minutes from town, and taking a community class. The views are perfect!*
*Santa Cruz* If you hate being in super touristy areas, this place is your spot. Heads up, the town is very….vertical. There’s a hostel right where the boats dock that also has a diving school, so if you just want to chill and dive, it’s great. Also fantastic food, so perhaps consider coming over for a lunch! (Get the tacos!)
*Jaibalito* I didn’t go here but I overheard some girls talking about the infinity pool overlooking the volcanoes and I felt massive FOMO.
For the record, I stayed three days in San Marcos, two in San Pedro, and I took the very very cheap boat to visit Santa Cruz and Pana.
Hike a volcano
Guatemala is so fucking beautiful because there are volcanoes all the fuck around you like some Oprah goddamn giveaway.
There are two popular volcano hikes. The first, Pacaya, is a half day excursion. You should be reasonably fit, but the hike isn’t going to kill you. You also get to roast marshmallows in the lava which is pretty dope!
If you’re into a much, much bigger challenge (with a far greater reward), you’ll want to hike Acatenango. This is a two-day adventure (you can rent gear in Antigua, don’t sweat it), but it is HARD. Every person who came down said it was the hardest thing they have ever done in their entire lives. I don’t think these people have tried to get contacts out after cutting up jalapenos, but whatever. The reward? You get to see a volcano erupt in the middle of the night. Like blow its fucking load. Like fire in the sky, you get me?
Here’s the catch...the volcano doesn’t erupt every day, it’s a week on, week off type thing. When I was in Antigua, the volcano wasn’t erupting and frankly, I wasn’t going to spend my money, time, or toenails climbing up a volcano just to get blue ballsed. This is another reason why I recommend chopping up your time in Antigua. If you arrive in Antigua and the volcano is active, do the hike! If not, go to Lake Atitlan for a week, come back to Antigua and you’ll be good to go!
Visit Semuc Champey
Confession: I didn’t go to Tikal. I didn’t go to Tikal because the bus to Flores was going to take a long ass time, and I wasn’t exactly psyched about Tikal itself. I respect the site, but I’ve just seen so many fucking pyramids and ancient ruins in my decade of solo travel that it’s not an adventure I get particular excited about anymore. Instead, I took what was supposed to be a 9 hour bus (but was actually 13 because our van broke down) to Semuc Champey. Semuc Champey is perfect for people who love nature AND adventure. You get to swim through DOPE caves (and cliff jump! And go down a slide!) holding onto a janky ass candle. Then you get to go on a swing and belly flop straight into a lake and pray your ribs stay intact.
And then you get to hike over to these hidden pools surrounded by jungle. It’s fucking exhilarating and gorgeous and worth every penny and the long ass bus ride.
I stayed at Zephyr Lodge which was really quite beautiful. There is a stunning pool (with a bar inside!) a nice hot tub, and the most beautiful shitter with a view...
Keep in mind, you’re in the jungle so like....there are jungle critters (like big ass spiders in the bathrooms) and when I say it was beautiful I mean it was beautiful in a rustic, jungley, don’t-spend-more-than-two-night-here way. My biggest qualm was that the crowd was a tad young/hyped up for my taste. If you want a more chill alternative, Oasis is beautiful and low-key. They also sell weed there.
I have vomited what feels like all my information out in this post. If you have any more questions, comment below!