View of Volcan de Agua from Tanque La Union Antigua Guatemala, Street view Antigua Guatemala

Visiting Guatemala is a must for any Central America Trip. In this post we share our Top 5 things to do in Guatemala. Guatemala has so much natural beauty, from the dramatic Acatenango Volcano to the jungle paradise of Semuc Champey and breathtaking views of Lake Atitlán. Explore the rich history of the country including the beautiful city of Antigua Guatemala not to mention the ancient Tikal Mayan Ruins.

Short on time? Here are our Guatemala top recommendations:

Places: Antigua for a charming colonial city,
Lake Atitlán for a stunning lakeside setting with charming small towns and outdoor activities,
Tikal for fascinating Mayan ruins.

Activities: book your Guatemala Tours with Get Your Guide.

Accommodation: we use to find the best hotels.

Flights: find cheapest flights with cashback on WayAway.

Airport Lounge Access: start your holiday the right way with Priority Pass.

Travel Medical Insurance: SafetyWing Nomad Insurance is the ideal choice for long-term travellers and digital nomads.

Why we LOVE Guatemala!

In our years of travelling across the world, visiting over 40 countries we have found some amazing places. Among them, Guatemala is one of our all-time favourite countries to visit. From ancient Mayan Ruins and UNESCO world heritage sites, to spectacular volcanoes and gorgeous natural pools and lakes, there are just so many fun things to do in Guatemala.

About Guatemala

Cafe Sabor Cruceño Santa Cruz Guatemala
Cafe Sabor Cruceño Santa Cruz

The birthplace of chocolate, Guatemala is a country of rugged natural beauty, charming cities and towns and of course rich Mayan culture. With mountainous terrain, including 37 active volcanoes, travel times within the country can be long and arduous, but you are rewarded with an unforgettable travel experience. Guatemala is a great low cost destination and a popular spot on the backpacker trail through Central America. It was one of our favourite countries in the region, and it will be yours too!

Getting to Guatemala

Guatemala travel guide: Arriving by land

Guatemala has land borders with Mexico, Belize, El Salvador and Hoduras. We arrived from Belize, which was a very straightforward process and we were able to walk across the border. The exit fee to exit Belize is $35 BZD per person (prices as at 2024). There was no entry fee to enter Guatemala. We arrived in Guatemala on the CA4 90 day visa, which allows 90 days in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras as well as Nicaragua.

We exited Guatemala by minibus and continued our journey onward to El Salvador. Our shuttle cost 125 quetzales or $18 USD per person (prices as at 2020). Be ware of scammers that try to get you to pay extra. Our driver asked everyone to pay a couple of dollars extra to cross the border, we disputed this charge as it was not a legitimate fee, but that did take a significant amount of discussion in order to not pay this extra bribe. The border guards were also in on that scam and tried to back up the driver’s claim. However they suggested different amounts and were not able to provide receipts. All of this negotiation was done in Spanish, so we were fortunate that we had a friend with us who had a reasonable level of Spanish to be able to dispute this fee.

Guatemala travel guide: Arriving by air

There are two international airports in Guatemala:

  • La Aurora International Airport (GUA) in Guatemala City
  • Mundo Maya International Airport (FRS) near Flores

Most flights arrive in Guatemala City.

Getting around Guatemala

Most towns and cities that we visited were very walkable. For those that don’t want to walk, there are also tuk-tuks available which is a cheap alternative for getting around.

Minibuses in Guatemala

Minibuses operate between most cities and towns in Guatemala. You can buy tickets for the minbuses from hostels and tour operators. The cost should be around 225 quetzales per person for a 8-10 hour trip and around 125 quetzales per person for a trip between Antigua and Lake Atitlán (prices as at 2024). Keep in mind that the roads in Guatemala are not always the quickest. This means that so trip times may be longer than you expect.

Minibus from Flores to Lanquin Guatemala
Minibus from Flores to Lanquin Guatemala

Local buses in Guatemala

For a cheaper option, there are also local buses which operate throughout Guatemala. This is the cheapest way to get around. Moreover, it’s a fun local experience to ride on the colourful local buses. These buses are old US school buses which painted in vibrant colours.

The local buses are a slower alternative to the minibuses and will not take you directly between the major tourist attractions, so you may have to transfer a few times to get to your final destination. A further complication is that the buses that you want may not operate from the same bus stop. For these reasons we found local buses weren’t suitable for our travel needs in Guatemala, but we’d definitely recommend trying them out in other Central American countries.

Local Bus Antigua Guatemala, Red Old School Bus Central America
Colourful Local Bus

Colectivos in Guatemala

Colectivos are a common way to travel in Central America. These are minivans that locals use. They have regular routes and they pick up people along the way. They are a fairly inexpensive way to travel. For example, we caught a colectivo from the border to Flores after arriving from Belize and that was 30 quetzales a person (price as at 2020).

Publico boats in Guatemala

If you are in the Lake Atitlán region, be sure to take a ride on a publico boat. This is a cheap and scenic way to discover the area. A boat ride on a publico boat will cost you between 10 and 25 quetzales per person, depending on how far along the lake you go.

Boat at Wharf at Santa Cruz Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Wharf at Santa Cruz

Pickup truck to Semuc Champey

Getting between Lanquin and Semuc Champey is done by riding for an hour in the back of a pickup truck. This ride was included in our tour price.

Tour Group riding on back of van to Semuc Champey Guatemala
Travelling Central American Style!

How long to spend at Guatemala

Guatemala is a beautiful and budget friendly country for travel. So long as you’ve got the time, you could easily spend a month or two here. We spent 2 weeks here in 2020. During that time we were able to see all the major attractions, but felt like we would have liked more time to just relax and enjoy each area.

Visitors from most countries will be on a 90 day CA-4 tourist visa, which covers Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras as well as Nicaragua.

What to do in Guatemala

Here is our Top 5 of Things to Do in Guatemala:

Best adventure experience in Guatemala: The Acatenango Volcano overnight hike

View of campground on Acatenango Volcano, Sun rising over Pacaya Volcano Guatemala, clouds surrounding Pacaya Volcano
Imagine waking up to this!

The Best adventure experience in Guatemala is undoubtedly the Acatenango Volcano Hike. This overnight trek takes you up Acatenango Volcano. From there you can get up close and personal with the very active Fuego Volcano. Once we reach base camp you have two options. Firstly, you can hike up to the summit of Acatenango Volcano for some glorious sunrise or sunset views. Another option is to pay a bit extra and actually hike onto Fuego Volcano itself!

Climbing Acatenango Volcano is not for the faint hearted. This is because it is a very steep 4 hour hike at altitude on a gravelly and uneven path. Unless you hire a person or a donkey to carry your pack for you, you’ll be carrying around 10kg of water, food and clothing for your trip.

Wicho & Charlie's tour group approaching the summit of Acatenango Volcano Guatemala
The steep hike to the summit

Which tour company to choose for the Acatenango overnight hike

We did the Wicho and Charlie’s Overnight hike. We chose them because they are one of the more established tour companies for Acatenango Volcano. They are undeniably one of the best tour operators in the area. This is because their tours are extremely well run and their guides are very professional and helpful. One of the reasons we chose to do the Acatenango overnight hike with Wicho and Charlie’s was that they have a permanent camp site set up on the volcano in a prime position for the best views of Fuego Volcano. There’s nothing quite like sitting at a campfire under the stars watching the glow of lava erupting from a nearby volcano!

Fuego Volcano erupting at sunset, volcano eruption surrounded by clouds, purple sky and stars
Fuego Volcano Erupting at Sunset

For more details of this amazing Guatamalan experience, see our Acatenango Volcano travel guide.

Best place for rest and relaxation in Guatemala: Lake Atitlán Guatemala

Woman Sitting on Pontoon at Santa Cruz Lake Atitlan Guatemala, Volcan San Pedro and Volcan de Atitlan
View of Volcán San Pedro and Volcán de Atitlán from Santa Cruz

For a more relaxed pace, we recommend Lake Atitlán Guatemala. This must see Guatemala destination is set in the crater of a massive volcanic crater in the Guatemalan Highlands. There are three volcanoes that overlook the lake, which makes for a spectacular backdrop. We spent three nights here, and it wasn’t nearly enough.

When exploring Lake Atitlán Guatemala, you should definitely take a ride on a publico boat to get from one village to the next. The lake covers a large area, and it takes about half an hour by boat to get from one side to the other.

Sababa Restaurant San Pedro Guatemala, lakeside restaurant, dreamcatcher, Lake Atitlan, water view
Sababa Restaurant San Pedro

Where to go in Lake Atitlán

There are 4 main areas in Lake Atitlán that most travellers explore:

  • Panajachel, which is the launch point for entering the area and has a wide variety of restaurants and accomodation. If you only have time for one destination along the lake, then this should be it.
  • San Marcos has a distinctive hippie vibe. If you want your chakra’s balanced or past life regression then this is the place for you!
  • San Pedro is known as the main backpacker attraction, you are guaranteed to have a great time here without breaking the budget.
  • Santa Cruz is a more tranquil area with a local village up a very steep hill. We loved this area to chill out in, take a dip and admire the breaktaking views of volcanoes surrounding the lake.
Woman standing on Rooftop Balcony Casa Kaktus Santa Cruz Guatemala, woman in pink dress with yellow shawl
Rooftop Balcony at Casa Kaktus Santa Cruz

If you want to find out more about what to do in Lake Atitlán, check out our Lake Atitlán travel guide.

Best swimming spot in Guatemala: Semuc Champey

Jumping into Water at Semuc Champey Guatemala
Jumping into Water at Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey Guatemala is the hidden gem of Guatemala. The Natural Monument Semuc Champey is a series of stunning turquoise pools set in a lush tropical jungle. We can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than swimming in this tropical paradise. While you’re here don’t miss the waterfalls and the Semuc Champey cave tour.

Visiting Semuc Champey requires a bit of effort to get there, as it is a day’s full travel to get there from either Flores or Antigua. And in the final hour to get to Semuc you’ll be standing up on the back of a pick up truck. However for lovers of off the beaten path travel, this is one of the top things to do in Guatemala.

View from the Lookout at Semuc Champey Guatemala
The best vantage point for viewing Semuc Champey!

For more on this beautiful location, check out our Semuc Champey travel guide.

Best city escape in Guatemala: Antigua

Parque Central Plaza Mayor Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala Flag
Parque Central Plaza Mayor

Antigua is a great place to base yourself when visiting Guatemala. This UNESCO Heritage Site was the old capital of Guatemala. It is a charming Spanish influenced city in the central highlands of Guatemala. We loved its relaxed vibe, the wide variety of great food on offer and the spectacular views of the nearby volcanoes.

What to do in Antigua Guatemala

A must do in Antigua is to get a photo under the iconic Santa Catalina Arch. If you have a sweet tooth then you can’t come to the birthplace of chocolate without trying some locally made chocolate! There are plenty of chocolate shops and even museums to sample. For shopaholics, you could easily lose yourself in the huge Antigua markets. They sell everything you can think of!

Woman Standing In Front Of Santa Catalina Arch Antigua Guatemala
Santa Catalina Arch

For more ideas on what to do in Antigua, see our video on the Top 5 things to do in Antigua Guatemala.

Best ruins in Guatemala: Tikal

Tikal The Great Plaza
The Great Plaza

The ancient Mayan city of Tikal is a must visit destination in Guatemala. This relic of Mayan civilisation is located deep in the Guatemalan jungle, which makes for a striking setting. This atmospheric setting, as well as it’s sheer scale sets it apart from the majority of other Mayan ruins in Central America. There are 4 main temples to visit and you are able to scale a couple of them for some amazing views across the jungle. We can understand why it was chosen as one of the filming locations for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

We couldn’t help but have a bit of fun with lightsabers while we were here!

Lightsaber Battle at Tikal Guatemala
Lightsaber Battle at Tikal

For more on the Tikal Mayan ruins, watch our guide to visiting Tikal.

Where to stay when visiting Guatemala

Rooftop Garden Casa de Leon Antigua Guatemala
Rooftop Garden at Casa de Leon

As Guatemala is a big mountainous country with huge travel times, you will probably want to stay in a few different regions during your trip to Guatemala. If you’re short on time or don’t want to sit in a minibus for 8 hours, we’d recommend staying in Antigua and Lake Atitlán. If you have more time then Flores and Lanquin / Semuc Champey are well worth the trip.

El Retiro Lanquin Guatemala
El Retiro Lanquin Guatemala

Best budget accommodation in Guatemala

Our favourite places for budget friendly private rooms for couples in Guatemala were:

  • Casa Itzayana in Flores – their air conditioned rooms are very spacious and comfortable and we loved their well equipped kitchen and their beautiful rooftop balcony.
  • El Retiro in Lanquin (for trips to Semuc Champey) – this is a beautiful property located on the edge of the river. We loved their beautifully manicured gardens and their delicious buffet style dinners. It’s a great place to spend a few days relaxing and taking in the gorgeous scenery. We enjoyed lazing in the hammocks, swimming in the river and chilling out in the common areas (they even have arcade video games!)
  • Casa de Leon in Antigua – this boutique hotel was one of our absolute favourites! Their breakfasts are amazing and you can enjoy breakfast on their rooftop terrace while watching Fuego Volcano erupting in the distance. Absolutely unbeatable! Plus some of the rooms come equipped with a TV with Netflix. Score!
  • Casa Kaktus in Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlán – This boutique hostel is only a short walk from the shoreline. Their massive rooftop terrace overlooks the lake with views of 2 volcanoes! We love this place for its tranquillity, large rooms, friendly service, and nice inclusive breakfast. We made good use of the proximity to the lake here and swam a lot.
Bedroom Casa Kaktus Santa Cruz Guatemala
Bedroom Casa Kaktus Santa Cruz

Money in Guatemala

The currency in Guatemala is the quetzal. As at the time of writing (August 2021) the exchange rates were as follows:

  • United States Dollar: $1 USD = 7.75 Quetzales
  • Euro: 1 Euro = 9.21 Quetzales
  • Australian Dollar: $1 AUD = 5.71 Quetzales
  • Canadian Dollar: $1 CAD = 6.21 Quetzales

Guatemala is more of a cash based economy, so make sure you have enough cash with you while you’re travelling, and keep in mind that ATMs may not be available outside of major cities. We recommend using a credit card that refunds foreign ATM fees.

If you need to have some cash when you arrive in the country, there are money exchangers at the border.

Is Guatemala safe?

Tikal Sacrifice Stone
Tikal Disemboweling Sacrifice Stone

We found Guatemala to be one of the safest places to visit in Central America. We avoided Guatemala City, and we felt very safe in every place we visited.

Altitde sickness in Guatemala

Some areas in Guatemala such as Antigua and Lake Atitlán are at altitude, so altitude sickness is a risk.

The signs of altitude sickness are:

  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of Breath

Natural disasters in Guatemala

In terms of the risk of natural disasters, Guatemala is on the Ring of Fire and is exposed to the risk of volcanic activity and earthquakes as well as hurricanes. Pacaya Volcano and Fuego Volcano have seen increased volcanic activity in 2021.

Other safety considerations in Guatemala

Other general safety considerations for travel in Guatemala:

  • Drinking water – The tap water in Guatemala is not safe to drink. Everywhere we stayed while we were in Guatemala provided bottled water for guests to use
  • Mosquitoes – The Tikal Area is a dense jungle area and there is the risk of mosquito transmitted diseases, so we made sure we used plenty of insect repellent in that area. One thing we loved about the areas of Antigua and Lake Atitlán is that because they are at altitude, there are no mosquitoes. Yay!
  • Road safety – While we had no issues travelling around Guatemala, it’s worth mentioning that vehicle safety standards are a bit more relaxed than many other parts of the world. We didn’t see much helmet or seat belt usage while we were there and riding in the back of a pickup truck comes with its own risks.
  • Water safety – If you visit any of the coastal areas or lakes, take care when swimming as currents and waves may be stronger than you expect
  • Sun safety – The UV Index is very high in Central America, so sun protection such as sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses is very important to ensure you don’t get burnt, particularly in places where there are high altitudes.
  • Dogs – In the Lanquin area there were quite a few stray dogs out at night. It was a little bit intimidating getting barked at them as we walked back from dinner, but other than that Lanquin was very safe. For more on dog safety while travelling, check out this video.

As with any destination, take all of your normal safety precautions.

Final thoughts on Guatemala

We loved our experience of Guatemala and had only scratched the surface of what the country has to offer. The combination of natural beauty, rich history and affordable travelling make Guatemala a must for every serious backpacker’s travel bucket list.

If you want to learn more about visiting Guatemala, check out our Guatemala video.

Guatemala Blogs

You can find our Guatemala travel blogs below.

View of Volcan de Agua from Tanque La Union Antigua Guatemala, Street view Antigua Guatemala

Why you need to visit Guatemala right now!

Visiting Guatemala is a must for any Central America Trip. In this post we share our Top 5 things to ...
Parque Central Plaza Mayor Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala Flag

Top 5 Things to do in Antigua Guatemala

There are so many things to do in Antigua Guatemala! In this post we share our Top 5 things to ...
Cafe Sabor Cruceño Santa Cruz Guatemala

Why 4 days at Lake Atitlán was not nearly enough!

Lake Atitlán Guatemala must be seen to be believed. Surrounded by breathtaking volcanoes, this stunning location is a must do ...
Man at Tikal Temple I - Temple of the Great Jaguar - Tikal Guatemala

Tikal: Exploring Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

For lovers of history or for those looking for the perfect Instagram shot, Tikal is a must visit destination in ...
Smoke rising from Fuego Volcano Guatemala, man jumping in front of erupting volcano, man in white shirt and brown pants

Acatenango Volcano Overnight Hike: Everything you need to know (updated 2024)

The Acatenango Volcano Overnight Hike is a must do in Antigua Guatemala. Not only do you get to sleep on ...
View from the Lookout at Semuc Champey Guatemala

Semuc Champey Guatemala: A Hidden Oasis

The hidden oasis of Semuc Champey is a must visit destination in Guatemala! Visiting Semuc Champey Guatemala is a journey ...

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