COUNTRY VISITED #28
GUATEMALA IS BEAUTIFUL. Everything about this incredibly cultural and authentic place took me by surprise. It is one of the prettiest countries I've ever been to where true hidden gems are waiting to be found. You won't think you will top any on the towns or villages you head to, but each one manages to be even better than the last. Be awed by the remote rural ways of life, the vibrant historical cities and the dense nature filled with jaw-dropping landscapes, mountain scenery, incredible lakes, countless volcanoes and colourful markets. The bus routes are hot, long and uncomfortable but it's an amazing country to travel through and where we met life-long friends, stayed in shockingly good hostels (some seemed like resorts) and ticked some excellent activities off our travel lists for Central America.
CAPITAL CITY: GUATEMALA CITY
POPULATION: OVER 17 MILLION
CURRENCY: GUATEMALAN QUETZAL (GTQ) FOR EXCHANGE RATE CLICK HERE
LANGUAGE(S): SPANISH (LITTLE ENGLISH IS SPOKEN HERE OUTWITH TOURIST SITUATIONS)
BORDER COUNTRIES: MEXICO - BELIZE - EL SALVADOR - HONDURAS
WHERE TO GO
PLACES TO VISIT: FLORES - TIKAL NATIONAL PARK - EL MIRADOR - LANQUIN - SEMUC CHAMPEY - CHICHICASTENANGO - LAKE ATITLAN (PANAJACHEL, SAN PEDRO, SAN MARCOS, SANTA CRUZ)- QUETZALTENANGO - ANTIGUA
THINGS TO DO:
WANDER AROUND THE RUINS OF TIKAL NATIONAL PARK:
This was my favourite Mayan site throughout my time in Mexico and Central America. Exploring the huge national park by foot, finding sets of ruins hidden in the forests, climbing the sacred buildings for epic views was all truly incredible. While you're there you can really feel and imagine people living there and what it could of been like in the ancient city all those year ago. To experience Tikal National Park, either visit from Flores (we managed to rent a bike and drove to Tikal for the day on our own) or you can sleep at the national park campground.
STAY AT DREAMBOAT HOSTEL IN PANAJACHEL & FALL IN LOVE WITH LAKE ATITLAN:
Lake Atitlan is a travellers dream and probably the best part of my time in Guatemala. The journey is long to get there but it's worth every curve, knock and hill of the road to reach the stunning lake. Volcanoes line up around the glistening water, unique and traditional villages call Atitlan home and the colours created by the sun at different times of the day are breathtaking. There is a magic about this place that just has to be experienced. Overall a really dreamy space, you can relax, do yoga, make friends, scuba-dive, hike, wander plus loads more. I recommend staying in Panajachel which offers some of the best market stalls and merchandise I came across during my trip (expect to splurge and shop).
Dreamboat Hostel in Panajachel is amazing. It's a social hostel that organise fun, boozy activities, family dinners and friendly game nights. We had great night outs there, met some amazing people and just generally loved the place and the environment that's been created. Check it out, you won't be disappointed!
SPEND THE DAY AT CHICHI MARKET:
The famous market in Chichicastenango is well worth a day trip from Lake Atitlan. Either take a shuttle bus from Panajachel or take the adventurous route by making your own way there by 'chicken bus' (public bus). The Thursday and Sunday market is what brings travellers to this authentic and bustling town. Here you will find colourful indigenous clothing for sale along with handmade crafts, pretty jewellery, textiles, plants and loads more! However the real attraction here, I felt, was witnessing and watching the way of life of this traditional community. Hang around by the church within the market and watch the comings and goings, as women carry their cute kids and babies by tying them around themselves with blankets or see the many men happily transport heavy heavy loads of goods on their backs. Make sure to go the towns cemetery, only a short walk from the market. It houses huge family tombs and spirit houses, all painted different colours. There are viewpoints that can be found looking over the whole town. The contrast between the large vibrant coloured graves to tiny grey houses has to be seen to be believed -- sad some of us only live in colour after we had died.
BE WOWED BY LANQUIN & IT'S NEARBY NATIONAL PARK, SEMUC CHAMPEY:
The mountainside town of Lanquin is a trek to reach and means one of the most tiring bus journeys ever but trust me, it's worth the effort. The small village is charming, offers fun things to do like tubing along their turquoise river or a visit to their cocoa farm and shop and there's always something random going on while you're in the centre of town. They have brilliant hostels here, that include friendly bars or even pools surrounded by mountains. I loved our hostel, El Retiro Lanquin, which sits right on the river, has stunning views, is filled with hammocks and cooks buffet style banquets which made it perfect to make new friends.
But the best thing about this town? It's the ultimate gateway to the natural park, Semuc Champey. For such a small price, you can take a full day, guided tour through hidden caves by candlelight, jump off bridges or waterfalls into the light, clear blue water, tube down the river, hike through dense jungle, listen to howler monkeys and relax and swim in the many blue lagoons. It is a place to head to feel more alive.
Guatemala was a country I visited that I had wished I'd learned more Spanish phrases before I arrived (luckily we met many friends that could speak pretty much fluent). Travelling around on your own by public transport will be a lot easier if you can speak the local language. Luckily, it's one of the cheapest and coolest places to pick up Spanish lessons. From a few hours in a local language school in Antigua or at least a week staying with a local Guatemalan family in the highlands in exchange for lessons - the choice is yours.
SPEND TIME IN THE COLOURFUL TOWNS OF FLORES AND ANTIGUA:
I couldn't believe how tranquil and pretty the island old-town of Flores was when I arrived. Colourful square buildings, beautiful boat rides on the lake, night markets selling delicious fresh food and pretty hikes to the beach from San Miguel (make sure to check out the viewpoint there) makes this place a jewel of the country.
The colonial town of Antigua is also, a must see. Surrounded by volcanoes and filled with Spanish influenced architecture and cobbled streets -- it seems like with every corner you turn, you've stepped straight from a postcard. Wander the streets and gardens, capture irreplaceable photos or enhance your knowledge at one of the language or cooking schools. This romantic town was one of the highlights of my time in Guatemala. (Make sure to visit the chocolate museum and workshop!)
OVERALL COSTS: CHEAP
ACCESSING MONEY: ATM'S ARE LESS COMMON HERE & SOME ARE KNOWN TO NOT ACCEPT CERTAIN CARDS. TRY AND CARRY CASH WITH YOU WHEREVER YOU GO & TAKE OUT AS MUCH AS YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE WITH AT A TIME. I HAD TO LEND MY CARD TO A SOLO TRAVELLER IN LANQUIN (SHE TRANSFERRED ME MONEY) BECAUSE HER CARD WOULDN'T WORK. SHE WOULD OF BEEN LEFT WITH NOTHING OTHERWISE - DON'T TAKE THE RISK
DAILY BUDGET: Q280 (£28)
ACCOMMODATION COST: HOSTEL DORMITORY (START FROM Q40 £4 PER PERSON) HOSTEL PRIVATE ROOM (START FROM AROUND Q150 £15 PER ROOM) BUDGET HOTEL (START FROM Q200 £20)
Without a doubt, a bed in a hostel dorm was the best and cheapest option while travelling in Guatemala. Some of the hostels were honestly like boutique resorts and didn't feel like we were 'slumming' it at all.
During our trip, some hostels even offered 'buy 2 nights get 2 free' deals like El Retiro Lanquin Hostel (Semuc Champey) so it's worth walking around when arriving somewhere new and asking for a discount, especially if you will be staying there for a while.
I really can't recommend Dreamboat Hostel in Panajachel (Lake Atitlan) enough. It's probably the best hostel I stayed in while backpacking Central America and you really should experience it for yourself! The staff were so helpful and kind. When we arrived they actually had only one bed left for the night so let my boyfriend and I share a bunk until other rooms opened up in the morning.
TRANSPORT COST: PUBLIC BUS (AROUND Q10 £1 PER HOUR) SHUTTLE BUS (START FROM AROUND Q115 £11.50 ONWARDS PER JOURNEY) TUK TUK (BETWEEN Q5-Q10 £0.50-£1) WATER TAXI (LAKE ATITLAN) (FROM Q10-Q25 £1-£2.50)
The cheapest way to get around the country is by public bus or 'chicken bus' as they're known throughout the region. They are old school buses from the states and are an experience to say the least! Vendors will come and go throughout the journey selling all sorts including refreshing Q1 (10p) ice creams!
Because of the very long and tiring journeys, shuttle buses that are set up between tourist towns come in handy even though more expensive. But don't plan on booking anything else for these travel days, just take the day as it comes. We had buses break down for a few hours at the side of the road and drivers stop to get the bus cleaned (not joking) so sometimes the journeys were even longer than expected. Overall I felt they were a lot more convenient because many would offer door to door pick up's and drop offs but expect the unexpected.
FOOD & ALCOHOL COST: WEEKLY SHOP (AROUND Q150 £15) LOCAL STREET FOOD (START FROM Q10-Q15 £1-£1.50) LOCAL RESTAURANT (START FROM Q15 £1.50 PER MEAL) WESTERN FOOD (START FROM AROUND Q50 £5 PER MEAL) BEER (START Q15 £1.50)
Fresh produce at local markets is incredibly cheap and is where to head to buy snacks and food to munch on throughout the day while exploring.
Some hostels we stayed at did buffet style evening meals or smaller 'family dinners' for a set price which not only was cheap and convenient but great for making friends while all eating together. Only a couple of hostels we stayed at had on-site kitchens for guests to use.
During day tours or very long shuttle bus journeys food is not included with the price. There will always be a place to purchase meals but usually the options available are more expensive and low quality. I would bring your own snacks or meals with you to save buying overpriced food during the day. Some hostels even make up take away lunches specifically for busy day tours.
Eating out in Guatemala is generally very cheap and they serve large portions!
VISA REQUIREMENTS: MANY COUNTRIES RECEIVE A 90 DAY VISA EXEMPTION WHEN THEY ARRIVE CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS
ONWARD TRAVEL: ONWARD TRAVEL ISN'T REQUIRED OR USUALLY ASKED ABOUT
To get around town, there are tuk tuks available if needed for a low cost. I found everything pretty much walking distance in each place though so didn't have to get one often.
For longer journeys, the best way to get around the country is by the shuttle buses available in all tourist spots because of their direct routes, and many times door to door service.
The cheapest way to get around the country however is by public bus, also known as 'chicken buses'. They are far cheaper than shuttle buses but mean multiple changes in most cases plus less comfort and assurance you are heading for the right place. You will need to speak at least basic Spanish in order to travel around effortlessly on your own by public bus - it will go a long way!
You may hear about thefts that occur on the road while using chicken buses in Guatemala, some involving threatening violence. Although I didn't experience anything like that, I did hear that it happened from other travellers to them.
BOOKING ACTIVITIES: BOOKING ACTIVITIES & SHUTTLE BUSES IS VERY EASY EITHER THROUGH YOUR HOSTEL OR BY A LOCAL TRAVEL SHOP
BEST TIME TO GO:
DRY SEASON: NOVEMBER - MAY
RAINY SEASON: JUNE - OCTOBER (THE WORST OF THE RAIN IS IN SEPTEMBER & OCTOBER)
HIGH SEASON: DECEMBER - MARCH & JULY & AUGUST
(THROUGHOUT THE YEAR, THE HIGHLANDS ARE KNOWN TO BE LOVELY, WARM & SUNNY BUT CAN BE COLD IN THE EVENINGS WHEREAS THE LOWLANDS ARE NORMALLY QUITE A BIT HOTTER & HUMID)
DO'S & DON'TS:
DO: BE CAREFUL OF YOUR BELONGINGS ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT - LEARN BASIC SPANISH BEFORE YOU GO - PLAN FOR LIMITED ATM'S OR THAT THEY WON'T ACCEPT YOUR CARD - VISIT ONE OF THE MANY CHOCOLATE EXCURSIONS
DON'T: WALK ALONE AT NIGHT - SHOW OFF EXPENSIVE VALUABLES ESPECIALLY ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT - WANDER OFF ALONE WHILE VISITING NATURAL PARKS WHEN YOU SHOULD BE WITH A GUIDE
Hola (Hello) Cómo estás? (How Are You?) Mucho Gusto (Nice to Meet you) Cuánto? (How Much?) Perdona / Lo Siento Señor (Excuse Me/Sorry Sir) Perdona / Lo Siento Señorita (Excuse Me/Sorry Miss)
MEMORABLE TO ME
DON'T MISS: TIKAL NATIONAL PARK - LAKE ATITLAN - ANTIGUA - CHICHICASTENANGO - SPANISH LESSONS
MY HIGHLIGHTS: SEMUC CHAMPEY & PANAJACHEL
FAVOURITE FOOD: (STREET FOOD) HEALTHY PRE-MADE WRAPS TOPPED WITH FETA, GUACAMOLE & TOMATO SAUCE - CHOCOLATE - COFFEE - TACOS/ENCHILADAS W/ BEANS, GRILLED CHICKEN, GUACAMOLE - PUPUSAS
BEST PHOTO OPPORTUNITIES: LAKE ATITLAN - LAGUNA LACHUA - ANTIGUA - CHICHI MARKET - VOLCAN TAJUMULCO
MY POSTS ABOUT GUATEMALA
3 -4 WEEKS:
FLORES: Start your trip in pretty Flores and use it as a base to explore the ancient Maya city within Tikal National Park. Either book a tour through Flores or visit on your own by renting a motorbike. Enjoy the markets and local restaurants while in Flores and make sure to take a boat over to San Miguel. Here you can rent a kayak, do some short hikes to the viewpoint and to the beach (this is a great place to relax for the day, drinks beers and jump into the water from the small pier). Boats can also be hired out for the day along with a driver to explore the Lake Peten Itza. They can take you to the Jorge’s Rope Swing where you can jump in and swim in the lake and relax at the local restaurant there or chill in a hammock. You can also use Flores as a base to explore nearby Ixpanpajul Natural Park which has rich forests, plenty of wildlife, zip-lining and a sky walk. Next get a bus transfer to Lanquin.
LANQUIN: Located within the beautiful mountains, the small town of Lanquin has so much to offer. Stay in one of the many great hostels (some have pools, bars and even tubing as they are right on the river), explore the nearby caves and take a chocolate tour at Utopia Cacao Farm. This village is also the ultimate gateway to visit the stunning natural park, Semuc Champey. Here you can pay for a guided tour through hidden caves by candlelight, hike through luscious jungle, swim and jump through waterfalls, go tubing and swim in blue lagoons. Next book a bus transfer to Lake Atitlan.
LAKE ATITLAN: Use Panajachel as your base (I recommend staying at Dreamboat Hostel) and explore the market stalls around town, watch amazing sunsets, have some great night outs, go kayaking, diving or paddle-boarding. By boat, explore or stay in surrounding villages of San Pedro and San Marcos. Here you can practice yoga, go horse riding, experience authentic Mayan culture, hike Volcan San Pedro, soak in thermal bahts (Los Termales) and learn Spanish. There is just so many places to find and things to do in this magical place. Either on a Thursday or Sunday, jump on a bus to Chichicastenango to visit the famous market and cemetery. After it's time to drag yourself from Lake Atitlan, book a bus transfer to Antigua.
ANTIGUA: The incredibly beautiful setting of Antigua is a must visit on your trip to Guatemala. Boasting excellent architecture, viewpoints, culture, Spanish schools, coffee plus the birthplace of chocolate and home to an active volcano. Spend days wandering the cobbled streets, picking up new language skills and taking photographs.