Guatemala is, without doubt, one of the most amazing countries I’ve ever visited and a must if you’re travelling through Central America. With its mix of diverse landscapes, rich history, colourful architecture and abundance of things to do, Guatemala is the ideal trip for anyone. I had the privilege of travelling throughout the country in 2020 (pre-pandemic) and can’t wait to go back one day. In this post, I hope to provide recommendations on places to visit in Guatemala and tips to help you have a smooth trip.
Things To Do in Guatemala
Flores is a small town, located in the North East end of Guatemala and is often the starting point of your time in Guatemala. The town has become famous given its close proximity to some of Guetamala’s biggest Mayan ruins. We travelled from Mexico, taking buses straight from Tulum to Flores in one trip and bypassed Belize.
Upon arrival, we spent the day exploring Flores by foot – stopping for lunch at a cafe and rooftop cocktails later that evening. Our main purpose of staying in Flores was to use it as a base for visiting Tikal, but I found a great guide on other things to do in Flores if you’re there for longer.
Tikal National Park
Tikal is UNESCO World Heritage site found deep in the jingles of northern Guatemala, a 90 drive away from Flores. As one of the most iconic and well-persevered Mayan archaeological sites, Tikal boasts towering temples, plazas and ceremonial structures. For nature lovers, the flora and fauna surrounding these Mayan ruins were incredible. We went exploring with our tour guide, who pointed out toucans, monkeys and a wild tarantula!!
We signed up to one of the main popular Tikal tours whilst in Flores. The tour organised a shuttle bus that went round varies hotels and hostels to collect people, before taking us to Tikal. Once at Tikal National Park, we were all taken around by a guide, who showed us the key sites before the shuttle took us back to Flores. We opted for a tour to take the stress out of navigating the journey, and to have someone explain the history of the area and what each site meant.
We stuck to the main areas within Tikal which included the Central Acropolis, a complex of royal palaces and tombs, and the North Acropolis, a monumental architectural wonder. We also visited the Lost World complex which had fascinating pyramid and labyrinthine structures. It was fascinating to hear about the significance of this area, particularly its role as a major trade and culture hub during the peak of Mayan civilisation.
Tikal showcases archaeological sites, panoramic view points of the surrounding jungle and a fascinating insight into what life was like during the Mayan’s peak.
Our tour ended in the late afternoon, so we were walking around in the dark towards the end. This was a bit unnerving but the group’s size made walking through the jungle in the dark less unnerving. We headed back to Flores for an evening meal and good night’s sleep before the journey on to Semuc Champney.
After our time in Tikal and Flores, my sister and I took a shuttle bus from Flores to Semuc Champey. We thought this was the safest and most cost-effective way of doing the journey. The buses leave from Flores and drop you in the small village of Lanquin, where your accommodation will arrange to get you.
Semuc Champey is nestled in the lush landscapes of Alta Verapaz and is great stop if you’re backpacking across Guatemala. Our three days here offered the perfect respite for our journey between Tikal and Antigua/Lake Atitlan area, whilst providing for more adventurous activities. We took a private, full-day tour, organised by our hostel, which included; cave exploring, rope swinging, tubing down the river, hiking to viewpoints and swimming in the limestone pools.
Semuc Champey is most famous for its stunning terraced limestone pools, fed by the Cahabón River, creating a mesmerizing natural staircase. We spent some time swimming in the crystal-clear pools, surrounded by dense jungles, which was incredible. This was a refreshing treat after our hike up to the viewpoint, which offered breathtaking panoramic views of the pools against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains. The hike up was fairly strenuous, comprising of 40 minutes of steep walking up stone and wooden steps. We got to the top in a sweaty mess but it was so worth it!
We also took a candlelit tour of the caves. I would say it was fairly spooky going into a cave filled with water, only lit by our candles. To travel in the caves we had to swim with one hand out the water (to hold the candle) and climb up roped ladders to explore the different areas. My sister and I enjoyed this part the least as we were quite freaked out over the safety of it. After the cave we took it in turns to swing on a rope into the river. From there we walked through the jungles to get to the famous hike and limestone pools. You then take a tube down the river that ends where your jeeps take you back to your accommodation.
We loved our time in Semuc Champey and it was the perfect stop over during a trip backpacking across the country. From here, we took a long shuttle to Lake Atitlán.
Lake Atitlán is a stunning lake surrounded by volcanic highlands and a popular destination in Guatemala . We decided to base ourselves in Panajachel for our entire trip. Panajachel is the main arrival/departure hub for the lake and had the most accommodation options. We then did day trips to other areas of the lake from here. If you’re staying a while, it would be worth travelling and stay in each main area whilst here.
The best places to visit in Lake Atitlán include:
Panajachel – Panajachel is the largest town around Lake Atitlán, known best as a bustling hub of restaurants, shopping, dining, traditional textiles and stunning lake views. We based ourselves here for most of our stay in Lake Atitlán and did day trips from here. It’s also a great place to be based as it’s the gateway from other places in Guatemala. If you’re coming from places like Guatemala City or Antigua, this is where you’re likely to arrive/depart from.
San Pedro La Laguna – Another very popular location for backpackers and travellers alike is San Pedro La Laguna. Smaller than Panajachel, but still very lively, full of local cafes and bars to explore. A big selling point of this village is the San Pedro Volcano hike. We visited San Pedro from Panajachel by ferry, which took around 50 minutes and cost $4 USD.
Santiago Atitlán – Santiago Atitlán is the more traditional Mayan village of the three popular places. The best things to do in Santiago Atitlán are visiting the Maximon Shrine and explore the local artisan markets filled with arts crafts. This village has a strong indigenous culture, with many people wearing traditional clothes and you’ll hear Mayan dialects spoken here. Again, you can get the ferry here from other areas in Lake Atitlán.
Lake Atitlán is a great place to visit before undertaking any high-altitude hikes in Guatemala, given the lake is situated 5,128ft above sea level. For example, staying here before visiting Antigua and climbing Acatenango will help you acclimatise better for the hike. It isn’t possible to swim in the lake, due to the high pollution and bacteria levels in the water, caused by a long history of landslides.
After enjoying out time in Lake Atitlán, we took a shuttle bus from Panajachel to Antigua. There are several ways you can do this journey; private shuttle bus, group shuttle and chicken buses. The shuttle bus from Panajachel to Antigua took around 2.5 hours and cost $15 USD. If you’re looking to take chicken buses from Panajachel to Antigua, read this guide on what to expect.
Antigua was undoubtably my favourite place in Guatemala – I can’t recommend it highly enough. Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s known for it’s volcanic landscapes, Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture and cobble-stoned streets. Filled with rich history, artisan markets, colonial-era colourful buildings and a fun food/bar scene, there’s a lot to do in Antigua. If you venture just outside of the city, you’ll find a number of different adventure activities like volcano hiking.
We arrived early from Lake Atitlán and headed to our hostel. We spent our week in Antigua hiking Volcano Acatenango, roasting marshmallows on Volcano Pacaya, taking Spanish lessons, local cooking classes, enjoying the nightlife and exploring the cobblestoned, colourful streets that make up this beautiful city. This charming city is a must-do when in Guatemala and is one I’ll definitely be going back to again.
I have a guide on the best things to do in Antigua that goes into this city in more depth.
When our time in Antigua came to an end, my sister travelled on to Guatemala City for her flight back to London. I went on to travel from Antigua to Leon, Nicaragua by shuttle bus. It took 18 hours, and included a stop in El Tunco, but didn’t require an overnight stay anywhere.
For those wanting to spend some time in Guatemala City, key activities to explore as the historic district of Zona 1, the National Palace, the Mercado central, the Lxchel Museum and some scenic views from Mirador El Carmen. The backpackers I met that had travelled through Guatemala City had mixed reviews on its safety and if they felt the trip was worth it. As I went directly to Nicaragua from Antigua, I can’t add my personal experience on Guatemala City.
I hope you enjoy this itinerary and your time in Guatemala.
Happy Travels x