Guatemala was my most favorite country in all of Central America, with it’s high mountains, an abundance of volcano’s, it’s exuberant Mayan culture, with colorful towns and cities. I spent a little over three weeks backpacking there and had such an amazing experience! It’s relatively cheap and mostly safe. There is definitely theft and crime there, but with some safety tips and common sense, the average person should have no trouble experiencing this beautiful country.
What to expect in Guatemala
Note: There is a video at the end of the article!!!
Right now, as of January 2017, the current exchange rate has 1 USD equivalent to 7.55 Quetzals. The country is in the mid price range to travel through with all of Central America in mind. It is less expensive than Belize and Costa Rica, but is more expensive than Nicaragua. On average, the meals cost anywhere between 2 US dollars and 5 US dollars. The average hostel or hotel costs 6-10 dollars a night. And the transportation through chicken buses (old American buses that are cheap) to private shuttles (most tourists use these) are relatively inexpensive.
*A safety tip for transportation- I used chicken buses with no problems all the way through Central America and had no problem, but I did use private shuttles through Guatemala. I met a traveler in a hostel who said people come up on the buses with guns, hold up the tourists, and steal everything from them (cell-phones, computers, credit cards, etc.) The girl I talked to personally had her credit card stolen and said that thefts happen on these chicken buses every day in Guatemala. After I heard this and seen what she had went through, I organized private shuttles through the rest of the country. It was triple the price than chicken buses, but I wanted to make sure I would be safe. What it comes down to though it really just a luck of the draw. I’m sure that could have happened anywhere in Central America, but I got lucky. I had to have used 100 chicken buses and nothing bad happened to me.
In Guatemala there is a huge Mayan decent. The Mayans came here 4,000 years ago building pyramids and temples and some of them are still here in Guatemala today. They have stayed with their own traditions and cultures, wearing their hand-made clothing, so it’s easy to pick them out. They sell many hand-made things to the tourists including clothes, jewelry, purses, bags, etc.
Guatemala is a pretty large country and for this, there are different climates. In the Northeast by Belize, it’s hot. It is low-lands, with no mountains, and just covered by jungle. Pretty hot and muggy here. Near the west (pacific ocean), is the highlands. The elevation even in the towns are pretty high, so it gets pretty cold at night. Most towns and cities are surrounded by mountains and volcanoes and if you chose to hike up these, it gets very very cold. Outside of Antigua, a large town, I hiked up volcano Acatenango and needed a warm hat, gloves and a winter jacket.
There is a lot to see in Guatemala. This country really has a lot to offer, so if you are interested in really getting to know Guatemala, I would say to spend at least two weeks here. Here are some of the my favorite activities I did:
This was one of my favorite tours I did in all of Central America. Sooo much fun! You literally have a whole day of fun and adrenaline! This tour hasn’t been around for long so many people don’t know about it. You start off with getting on the back of a truck, driving down a dirt road, holding on for your dear life, going through the mountains. Soooo pretty! Then, you go to this cave, with a river running through it. They give you a candle that you hold onto for light as you wade through the water going deeper into the cave. You climb, swim, its fun! At the end of the cave, there is a waterfall you jump off of. The jump is not that high but the climb up there, for me was the worst. You are on a ledge climbing up there and it scared the hell out of me. You don’t have to do it. If you don’t want to it’s ok. Most people in my group did not.
You then walk/swim out of the cave, head down to a river where people are there selling you beer! I took one, or two! And there is this gigantic swing that goes into the river. I got to say, I did not hop off the swing properly and landed right on my face. Cut my lip open. It was awesome lol. After that, I was drinking beer and blood. Then they give you an inter tub and you float down this river. This is pretty relaxing. You just sit there on your tube, floating down this river and boys swim out to you selling you beer right on the water if you want. You pay them later after the tour is over so you don’t have to have money on you.
After floating down this river, you get out right at this bridge. And you go on this bridge and of course jump off of it. The bridge is 40 feet high. It’s a lot of fun, but so scary!!!! Still not done yet! You then take a 45 minute hike to Semuc Champey, which is a series of turquoise pools in-between mountains and is so pretty! You have a relaxing time in here, walk out at sunset and then your tour is over. Then the truck brings you back to where your hostel is and you have a night filled with memories of everything you did that day. Seriously one of my favorite tours of all time!
Want to hike up a volcano watching the Sunrise over other Volcanoes!
Hiking up Volcano Acatenango is an overnight trip. You start off hiking during the day, maybe around 10:00 am you get to the trail. It is pretty much straight up. And a lot of the time, the ground is sand-like, so when you take a step up, you seem to slid back down. It can be exhausting, but you make it through. And with in 5-6 hours you get to camp. You set up camp, not quite at the top, because it gets really cold! If you do not have a hat, gloves or jacket, you really should get these items, either by the market in town of Antigua (the town that most people stay at when hiking this volcano), or you can rent them from the tour company. I bought a hat for super cheap at the market and rented a jacket from the company. Just a few dollars each and you will need them. So, our guide built a fire when the sun went down and we watched the sunset over this volcano. If you are lucky, the volcano next to you is active. If it is active during your time up Acatenango, you can see lava spewing out of the volcano. This is why most people do this hike in the first place. In hopes to see live lava coming out of the Volcano!
So you wake up around 3:45 in the morning, to finish the hike up at night. Make sure you bring a light of some sort (headlamp, flashlight, phone). This hike is cold and difficult but it doesn’t last long. You are up at the top in less than an hour. Then you reach the top when the sunrise is just about to begin. The hardest part is dealing with the cold and the wind. But the sunrise is beautiful! You stay up here I would say for a good hour or more watching the sunrise, and walking around on top of this volcano, hoping to see the other Volcano spew out lava. Then, when everyone is ready, you head down the volcano and this is fun! It’s pretty steep with lose gravel so you can run down the volcano! It only took us a few hours to get down because a lot of it, you just basically slid down!
As far as gear, you basically stay in Antigua the night before, and ask if your hostel can hold onto your things. You won’t be hiking up this volcano with all your gear. You will be bringing your big backpack but most of the stuff in it will stay at the hostel. You will carry your own sleeping bag, bed roll and tent which the agency provides. They will also provide you with three meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner,) but it is not enough! Make sure you bring snacks with you because you will be hungry! And all you have to bring is water, a flashlight, your toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, etc.), clothes, camera, stuff like that. I liked this tour a lot and hope that you can see lava coming out from it!
Antigua, an awesome Market
Antigua is the town right outside of Volcano Acatenango. This town was significant to me because of the market they have to offer. I went to markets all over Central America and this was one of my favorites. They sell many things, really cheap and its very interesting walking through it. Most people go to Chichicastenango. Chichicastenango has one of the most colorful markets in the world. They only hold this market twice a week, every Sunday and Thursday. Going to this market, was very colorful and most things where hand-made by the Mayans. The only thing I did not like about it was it was very touristy and because of this, the gifts were outrageously expensive compared to all the other markets I seen. I do think that it is worth going to Chichicastenango to check out, and if you have the money, they do make really good, strong material there. But if you are on a budget, you can pretty much get the same things and more of a variety at a cheaper price in Antigua. If you do check out Chichicastenango, there is a colorful graveyard right around the corner. Definitely check this out! I love colorful graveyards!!!!
Tikal, A Mayan Ruin
Tikal is the most popular Mayan ruin in Guatemala. Tikal is a massive site! They still have yet to uncover so much of the site because the jungle took over it, but many areas are uncovered so you can witness how big this place really is! Very beautiful! You can do this tour in many ways. Just go during the day, or you can see a sunrise or sunset tour. I did the sunset tour, but you have to pay extra to do so. Everyone said it was a must do to see the sunrise or sunset tour, but I think as long as you see it during the day, that is enough. If you are on a budget, take a bus to Tikal, very cheap and all you have to pay is the entrance fee to get into the park. To have a guide is extra and to see the sunrise or sunset is also extra. There are signs everywhere so it is really easy to do it on your own.
El Mirador, Largest Mayan Ruin by Volume in the Whole World!!!
Not many people come here. Only about 4,000 people come and visit this place a year. It was found only in 1926 and the government set out an archaeologist in 1968. Didn’t start excavating until 1973 and the government was not and still is not helping with this project at all, so it is taking them a long time to dig this massive site out! The Mayans arrived here in 2,000 BC. So over 4,000 years ago. They kept building it until 25o A.D. Then leaving the site because of a drought, but returning for a little bit, and then completely fleeing the site in 900 A.D. Anyway, because this site has been unoccupied for over 1,000 years, the jungle engulfed it! No one knew about this Mayan ruin for so long because they just thought they were seeing mountains all this time when really, there were pyramids underneath the soil. How cool is that!
Well, to see this site, you need to do one of two things. Take a helicopter out to see it ($400.) Or, walk to it. There are two different ways of walking to it. You can take a five day trip or a six day trip. A five day trip you hike two days to get to it, the third day to walk around the site, and then day 4 and 5 walking back out of the jungle, the same way you came.
The six day hike, you hike in the same way the five day people do. See the site on the third day, but instead of going back the way you came, you do a loop. The loop is longer. You put in more miles, but you see more. You see another site, not big, and you hike on a different path. And stay in the jungle one extra night. Walking in is quite expensive. If you don’t like walking or spending the night in the jungle, the helicopter way might be the way to go. Plus you get to ride on a helicopter. Woo hoo! The price for the six day journey is $300 US. The five day, a little less expensive.
But as a backpacker, 300 dollars is a lot, but for six days, you don’t have to pay for food, accommodation, tours, any thing else. This 300 dollars literally covers everything! You may want to bring some snacks with you. Maybe a couple bananas, apples, nuts and cookies but that’s about it. They do give you enough food, but hiking on long walks sometimes you like snacks. You stop for lunch but the snacks are far and few in between.
The hiking is far and long, but you don’t have to carry your big pack! In fact, you leave all of that at your hostel. You are only expected to bring a 2 liter bottle of water, bug spray, your toiletries, and that’s it! I brought a first aid kit, they also have one, but I brought my vitamins, a couple band-aids for blisters, anti-diarrhea pills and Ibuprofen for the pain. All of that is good to have on you, even at all times in Guatemala. The food is good, but coming from the US to Central America, my stomach was messed up, a lot of the time! I did not adjust too well to the food.
As far as how long you are hiking;
Day 1: 10.5 miles (17 kilometers)
Day 2: 16.7 miles (27 kilometers)
Day 3: Walk all around El Mirador
Day 4: 8.7 miles (14 kilometers)
Day 5: 23.6 miles (38 kilometers)
Day 6: 5 miles (8 kilometers)
One of the best places to book your tour is from Los Amigos. The hostel is really clean, pretty, and fun. It’s quiet but also a party hostel. At night, many people like to party but they have their own party room and the noise is sealed shut. You would not think a party was going on at the hostel it is so quietoutside the party room. It’s cool. I loved my time there!
Lake Atitlan, a beautiful natural lake in the highlands
Lake Atitlan is a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. This lake also has many small towns going all around the lake with everything from tours, to markets, to Mayans, to bars, hostels and food. This place is a little more touristy than most so the prices are a little higher. It is not too bad though. I stayed in two towns around the lake and my favorite was Panajachel. The other town was San Pedro. Panajachel had a bigger market with really cheap accommodation and beautiful sunsets on the lake. I actually spent Christmas there and it was beautiful.
Laguna Chikabal, a lake in the crater of a volcano
This lake is just outside of Quetzaltenango. The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, so after knowing that, the word gets a little easier to understand. Experiencing this crater lake, through a hostel (tour) can be expensive. It’s super easy to do this one on your own. Just take the public bus to where the trail starts (tell the bus driver). It was less than a dollar to get there. Then you hike in. The hike to the park entrance is about one mile. Then unfortunately it costs a bit to hike in the park. Maybe around 20 US dollars. You can do this hike on your own. There are signs. Then, just make sure you have enough time to catch a bus back to town. Very easy! And you save about 5o US dollars doing it all on your own. This lake is also sacred to the Mayans so you will see a lot of them here as well. Not many tourists come here.
I enjoyed all of these destinations! It really is a different world here, coming here from the US. You will see things that you aren’t use to seeing. I saw a guy kill a chicken right in front of me, people bringing machetes on the bus, people walking around with guns, and the list goes on and on. But I really did feel safe here. I loved it here in Guatemala. Met a lot of cool people, saw so much, and really had a good time! I hope this article helps you out and have a great time out there!
Here is the Video I promised!!!