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Lately, Guatemala has been erupting (literally, it has 37 volcanoes) onto our radars. It’s fast becoming one of the top destinations to visit in the world.
Why? Because this Central American country is unique and unforgettable. It offers experiences that you didn’t know should be on your bucket list!
Guatemala is home to the famous 4,000m-high Acatenango Volcano. Sitting above the clouds, you can sip hot chocolate and watch an explosive show from the active volcano right in front of your eyes.
Nurse your sore muscles in the UNESCO town of Antigua. From exploring hauntingly beautiful ruined churches to joining a food tour, you’ll be spoilt for choice of incredible things to do in Antigua.
Discover Guatemala’s rich history and culture
Immerse yourself in Guatemala’s rich and ancient history by climbing to the top of one of Tikal’s impressive Mayan pyramids. Here you can try imagining what life used to be like for its 100,000 residents.
Or learn about the stories and lives of Guatemalans and the indigenous Maya people through their food, celebrations and music.
Guatemala, particularly Lake Atitlan, has become a hotspot for yoga, meditation and spiritual ceremonies. The incredible natural beauty of the lake creates the perfect space for reflection and relaxation.
Start planning your trip to Guatemala
A lot of countries will claim to have something for everyone, but Guatemala really does! It’s a haven for hiking, a hub for history and a destination for rejuvenation.
We’ve created this Ultimate Guide to Guatemala to share with you everything that this unique country has to offer. Decided that Guatemala is somewhere you HAVE to visit?
Check out our eight in-depth guides to learn about the best things to do and see in Guatemala.
3 best places to visit in Guatemala
Guatemala is a country that is brimming with culture, colonial towns and natural wonders. That means there are quite a few spots you’re going to want to visit.
Luckily, these places form a circular route around the country, making it easy to create your Guatemala itinerary.
To help you start building your Guatemala itinerary, here are our 3 must-visit destinations:
Antigua – the city of volcanoes
Antigua is a unique city that captures your heart and quickly becomes one of your favourite places in Guatemala.
Maybe it’s the cobblestone streets and colourful buildings that make you fall in love? Or that the city is surrounded by volcanoes, including one that is constantly erupting? (don’t worry, it’s safe).
Steeped in history, culture, delicious places to eat and unforgettable hikes, Antigua is an essential stop on any Guatemala itinerary.
Lake Atitlan – a nature and spiritual hotspot
Travelling to Lake Atitlan is a magical experience that’s hard to describe.
It’s not just us who feel it. Lake Atitlan has now become a hotspot for yoga, meditation and spiritual ceremonies. Once you arrive, you won’t want to leave.
Lake Atitlan’s landscape is unforgettable. The huge crystal-clear lake sits at the base of a number of impressive volcanoes and rolling hills. A hiker’s heaven!
Which town on Lake Atitlan is the best? We weighed the pros and cons of the main towns in our Guide to Lake Atitlan.
Tikal National Park – a glimpse at an ancient civilisation
Tikal is a must-visit in Guatemala! These ancient Mayan ruins date back to 900BC and were once home to around 100,000 Mayans.
The national park is huge. There are over 3,000 structures scattered throughout the jungle. Tikal makes other Mayan ruins, such as Chichen Itza, look small.
Climbing to the top of one of the towering pyramids, overlooking nothing but jungle, is sure to be one of the highlights of your trip to Guatemala. Also keep an eye out for the birds gliding in the air and monkeys swinging in the trees.
You really feel like you’ve left the modern world once you enter Tikal.
Tour or no tour? Sunrise or sunset (or both)? Read our best tips for visiting Tikal.
Other places to visit in Guatemala
These are just 3 places in Guatemala that you can’t leave without visiting. If you have the time, there are plenty more things to see and do in Guatemala that should be part of your itinerary.
Here are some more of our favourite destinations in Guatemala:
Destinations in Guatemala
Is Guatemala safe for tourists?
Guatemala is generally safe to visit for tourists.
Following basic safety precautions should be enough to have a trouble-free trip, especially if you travel to popular tourist destinations like Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Flores. The majority of serious crime in Guatemala involves local gangs — tourists are unlikely to be targeted.
One place on the Guatemala tourist route where we’d recommend keeping your guard up is Guatemala City. Read more about safety in Guatemala City and which areas to avoid in this blog.
How to stay safe in Guatemala?
As a tourist in Guatemala, the biggest danger you face is petty theft.
To minimise the risk of getting pickpocketed or robbed, use these safety precautions:
- Don’t carry more cash than you need.
- Always watch your bag.
- Leaving your treasured valuables at home is the best way to keep them safe.
- Check with your accommodation if the area you’re staying in is safe to wander around after dark. When in doubt, don’t walk around late at night.
- There are a few hiking trails in Guatemala with an increased risk of robbery. As a rule of thumb, hiking in a group is safer than hiking alone. If you’re travelling solo, buddy up or join a guided tour.
When is the best time to visit Guatemala?
Guatemala can be visited all year round, but travelling outside of the dry season can add some challenges to your trip.
Dry season (November-April)
The dry season runs from November to April, with temperatures staying between 23-32°C.
This is the best time to visit Guatemala. Your days will be full of sun, the countryside will be lush and green. These months also offer ideal hiking conditions.
As with all popular destinations, the downside of travelling when the weather is at its best, is the number of tourists. Guatemala can get busy in this peak season and prices also increase.
Wet season (May-October)
Whilst it’s still possible to visit during the wet season from May to October, your trip might be disrupted.
The wet season in Guatemala sees afternoons filled with heavy rainfall and cloud coverage. It’s not the best weather if you’re an avid hiker. Even if it’s not raining, the heat and humidity can be hard to deal with.
Transport can also be disrupted during this period — heavy rainfall can lead to landslides that end up blocking the roads. If you ask us, the roads in Guatemala are already menacing enough without the added obstacles!
Visiting Guatemala in the shoulder months
If you want to avoid other tourists, think about visiting Guatemala in November, April and May. These are the start and end months of the dry season, and often have fewer people.
Thanks to its elevation of just over 1,500m, Antigua has a relatively stable climate for most of the year and doesn’t experience as much rain as other destinations in Guatemala.
That makes the shoulder months a potentially better time to visit Antigua. You’ll still have good weather, but with fewer tourists and cheaper accommodation.
Top tip: If you want to hike the famous Acatenango Volcano, this is best done between November and April. Outside of these months, you might experience rain whilst hiking, or so much cloud coverage that you won’t be able to see Fuego Volcano erupting — the star of the show!
How to get around Guatemala
Your budget, the number of people you’re travelling with, whether you have a driver’s licence or not, are all factors that will influence how you decide to travel around Guatemala.
If you’re seeking adventure in Guatemala, taking one of the chicken buses is certainly that. Previously US school buses, the iconic yellow is no more.
Now, every inch of the buses is decorated with wild patterns and vibrant colours. They’re hard to miss as they trundle down the streets pumping out smoke.
Chicken buses are the cheapest way to travel around Guatemala. The cost of a ticket varies, but a rough guide is $1-2 per hour of the journey.
Prepare to be squished alongside locals and animals on bench-style seats. The buses don’t offer the comfiest of rides, but they’re very memorable.
We don’t blame you if you want a bit more comfort for those long journeys in Guatemala. Luckily, Guatemala also has first-class buses (more like coaches) where you’re guaranteed a seat, air conditioning and sometimes even a toilet.
You’ve probably already guessed that they are more expensive than the chicken buses.
These buses mainly run between the larger cities in Guatemala such as Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango (Xela), as well as capital cities in neighbouring countries.
Shuttle buses are the most convenient way to travel around Guatemala.
They run between most popular tourist destinations in Guatemala, and offer pick-up and drop-off to your hotel. You can book a shuttle directly with your accommodation or at a tour agency in town. It’s the most stress-free option, but also the most expensive.
You can opt for either shared or private shuttles.
Renting a car provides freedom to travel at your own pace and the ability to stop at smaller towns off the beaten track. Having a car can completely alter your experience of Guatemala.
But be warned: your blood pressure might be slightly higher after driving in Guatemala. The roads and drivers can be pretty crazy. Make sure that you’re up for the challenge!
Car rental starts at around $30/day for a hatchback, and $55/day for SUVs which are better suited for Guatemalan roads.
Top tip: Car theft and damage are common in Guatemala. We’d recommend parking your rental car in secure locations to avoid a hefty bill at the end of your trip.
The only domestic flight in Guatemala is between Guatemala City and Flores. Guatemala is a relatively small country anyway, so it’s not really necessary to fly.
If you are short on time and really don’t want to spend 8 hours on the bus between Flores and Guatemala City, then you can take a 55-minute flight for around $100 each way.
Taxis are mainly used to get around a city, rather than between them. The distances between destinations in Guatemala are quite big, so this would cost a lot of money! Opt for a private shuttle instead.
You can use Uber or a taxi to get between Antigua and Lake Atitlan, though. If you’re travelling in a larger group, a taxi or Uber can work out cheaper than a shuttle.
Entry requirements for Guatemala
Luckily, a large proportion of the world can enter Guatemala visa-free for 90 days – around 117 countries!
These countries include the US, UK, countries within the EU and Canada, to name a few. You can check whether you need a visa here.
Whilst that part of entering Guatemala is easy, not everyone is aware of the Central America Border Control Agreement (CA-4). If you’re planning on visiting other Central American countries then this is important to know.
The CA-4 group includes Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. You get 90 days total spread between these four countries. For example, if you have already spent 30 days in Guatemala, you only have 60 days left to travel around Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
If you overstay the 90 days, you will be charged a fine.
Passports also need to be valid for at least 6 months on arrival.
The Perfect Packing List for Guatemala
Guatemala’s climate can be as diverse as its landscapes. Some destinations might have you sweating all day. Whilst in others, you’ll be wishing you brought a bigger coat. Bring clothing for all types of weather.
There are also plenty of hiking and adventure opportunities throughout Guatemala. We’d recommend bringing hiking shoes and warm clothes (it’s always cold at the top of Acatenango).
Top tip: Want to go hiking in Guatemala? Read Top 14 Things to Do in Lake Atitlan for scenic hike ideas and tips on how to plan them.
Aside from the essential travel gear, here are some things that have become permanent fixtures on our packing list:
- Reusable water bottle — they’re better for the environment and keep your water cold. Tap water in Guatemala isn’t drinkable. But a lot of hostels and hotels provide water that you can fill up your water bottle with. Having a refillable water bottle saves you having to buy water.
- A portable charger — it’s likely that there will be a time when your phone’s battery is on red, and it’s probably going to be when you need it most. A portable charger saves you from these situations.
- An adaptor — Guatemala uses the same plugs as the US (A&B), which is different from European plugs. A universal travel adaptor is a great buy if you’re travelling between different continents — it covers 150+ countries!
Essential travel advice for Guatemala
Here are some of our best tips to make your trip to Guatemala that bit easier:
Guatemala uses the Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ). As of September 2022, $1 was equivalent to around Q7.72.
Like most countries in Central America, it’s good to always have cash on you as not all establishments take card. You can withdraw money from ATMs, known in Guatemala as ‘cajeros’.
The language spoken in Guatemala is Spanish.
It’s always good to know a few essential words before travelling to a place, so here are a few to get you started:
- Hello – Hola
- Thank you – Gracias
- Please – Por favor
- Sorry – Lo siento
- Beer – Cerveza
If learning Spanish is on your list of things to do in Guatemala, you’re in luck. Guatemala has plenty of professional, fun and cheap language schools, especially in Antigua and Quetzaltenango.
Food and drink
Guatemalan food is a creative blend of Mayan cuisine with Spanish influences.
Corn, beans, rice, meat, cheese and tortillas are all staples in Guatemalan cuisine. It’s hard to find a dish that doesn’t have one of these few things in it.
Try these dishes before leaving Guatemala:
- Tostadas — are the perfect snack or light lunch. They’re deep-fried or toasted tortillas topped with a variety of ingredients. You can put whatever you want on top of a tostada. Guatemalans tend to add guacamole, tomato salsa or refried beans along with meat, cheese or vegetables.
- Tamales — you can find them all over Latin America, with each country adding their own twist. Tamales are made from either corn or rice flour, and are filled with various meats, cheeses and fruits. They are then steamed in fresh plantain leaves giving them a rich flavour.
- Kak’ik — is an important part of Guatemala’s history and culture having been created by the Mayans. Kak’ik is a turkey soup made with native turkeys, tomatoes, cilantro and chillies. And its vibrant red colour comes from the spice achiote.
Did you know Guatemala is also said to be the birthplace of cacao? It goes without saying that you need to try some of the purest chocolate that you will have ever tried.
You can even join a chocolate-making workshop in Antigua! Read about this and other cool things to do in Antigua.
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About the author(s)
Based in Bali, Maarten’s passion for travel is undeniable. In 2016, he decided to quit his job as a stock analyst and started doing what he always dreamed of: travelling through South East Asia and helping other people plan their trips. When he is not working on Gecko Routes, you’ll find him surfing in the ocean or exploring the best gems of Indonesia.