If you ask a traveler on the Central American travel circuit what their favourite country has been, there is a high chance they are going to answer Guatemala. Traveler’s left and right exclaim how Guatemala was the place they decided to stop and take Spanish lessons, to rent a house or to work in a hostel. It just seems to be the type of place that attracts a long term traveler, the place that screams for visitors to stay just a little while longer. With volcanoes to climb, fabulous food, amazing party hostels, nature on nature on nature, and a cheap price to top it all off, Guatemala is a destination not to be missed. With so many things to see, backpacking Guatemala is one hell of an adventure! Let me me help you organize your future trip by filling you in on the most adventurous things to do in Guatemala.
Arriving in Antigua, because thats where the airpot is, here’s how to start your Central American adventure!
Backpacking Guatemala: Where to go
Explore and Eat in Antigua
Antigua is Guatemala’s cultural centre. This colourful colonial town is filled with history, ruins, and…well…food. There are restaurants, on restaurants, on restaurants all over Antigua offering everything from international food to local Guatemalan delicacies, not to mention a variety of cafés lining the colourful street. There is a selection of awesome bars and night clubs where travelers can party and a few amazing hostels to welcome you. What I am trying to say is that, basically every spoil you could imagine you can find in Antigua, Guatemala.
Climb Acatenango Volcano
Guatemala is covered in volcanoes, awesome erupting fiery volcanoes. SVolcanoes you can climb, and if you plan on backpacking Guatemla volcanos should be on your bucket list! Volcano Acatenango stands at 3,976 meters high and is located just outside of Antigua. If you are looking to try your hand at mountain climbing, this is the perfect moderate level summit to attempt. While the hike is steep at times, the terrain is forever changing between sweeping farm land, cloud forest, and rocky scree. The hike takes 2 days, and one night which is spent at a campsite with a perfect view of the constantly erupting volcano, Fuego. That’s right, all night long your entertainment will be provided by the adjacent volcano which rumbles like thunder and shoots red fiery lava high into the sky.
Climb Pacaya Volcano
Ok, so maybe you are not feeling committed to a 2 day 4000m hike up a steep volcano. I get it. You are on holiday and are looking for a more…relaxed level of adventurous effort. Well then maybe hiking Volcano Pacaya is for you. You get all the joys of volcano climbing in one day, and you even get to roast marshmallows on the active volcano itself. There are a variety of tours to Pacaya, some which feature marshmallows, some which include spa treatments and others which are simply hikes.
Backpacking Guatemala: Fun places to stay
Stay in a tree house
The Earth Lodge is one of the most unique hotels in Guatemala. It is an Eco lodge located on an avocado farm only a 20 minute drive outside of Antigua. The rooms at the Earth Lodge are built into tree houses with epic views of Volcano Fuego. That’s right, from your luxury tree house you can watch the volcano erupt, puffing black smoke into the sky all day long. Meals at the Earth Lodge are served family style and made to order daily. It is a great place to disconnect, relax, eat good food, enjoy epic views, and stay in tree houses. Superbly situated it can even be used as a base for exploring Antigua. Earth Lodge was one of my favourite unique stay’s in Guatemala.
After enjoying Antigua, take a flight to Flores and Tikal, trust me, you wont regret the flight.
Backpacking Guatemala: Top sites
Visit the ruins of Tikal
Did you know that the largest UNESCO heritage site in the America’s is in Guatemala? Tikal National park encompasses 756 km2 of Guatemalan jungle and over 3,000 detectable structures. The city of Tikal covers 16 km2 itself, and these ruins just happen to be part of a one million-hectare biosphere reserve. Tikal is the first site in the Americas to contain both natural and archeological certifications.
Visiting Tikal is a must, there is so much to see as well as fabulous places to stay. One can spend days in the area wandering through ruins. The coolest part? You can actually climb to the top of them, in fact you are encouraged to. There is something to be said about imaging history, but there is something special about being able to feel the history, to see it from the views of the once thriving Mayan people. Take a sunrise tour. The 4:00am start is a little daunting but watching the sunrise, and listening to the jungle awaken from the top of an ancient temple, above the canopy, is just the best thing ever.
Hang out in tropical Flores
Flores is a colourful town built on an island in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá. The vibe of Flores is that of a Caribbean island presenting bright coloured streets and amazing street food. The people in Flores live their lives relaxing and hanging out to the reggae tunes playing from every restaurant and bar. The only difference between a Caribbean island and Flores is that you are nowhere near the ocean…you are in fact, on a lake, in the middle of the jungle. Night life in Flores is hoppin’. There are bars and restaurants lining the streets enticing everyone to go dancing, in the jungle. Happy hour extends through the day here, filling locals and guests with liquid encouragement all day long. Walk the streets, feel relaxed and feel safe while partying in Flores. There is even a sweet rope swing for those that wish to enjoy some lake time.
Moving away from Flores and Tikal, the next stop is Lanquin, a simple 8 hour shuttle ride away.
Visit Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is Guatemala’s natural wonder. It’s a gem. Situated near to the small town of Lanquin, just an easy (and horrible) 15 hour shuttle ride from Antigua and 8 hours from Fores, lays Semuc Champey. Consisting of a series of natural limestone pools which spend their days collecting clean and clear water from the surrounding mountain springs, Semuc Champey is a special part of the Cahabón River. It is here where the river itself runs underneath the natural pools which form a limestone bridge. It provides an interesting sight to see the power in which the brown jungle water cruises underneath the natural pools and out the other side. It is truly beautiful, with its bright blue waters surrounded by the lush green Guatemalan jungle. Semuc Champey is a photographer’s dream and an adventurer’s fantasy.
Visit the caves near Semuc Champey
The caves near Lanquin are surprisingly amazing. I never knew they existed until the day my feet found their first hostel in Guatemala. Everyone was talking about it, saying how the caves were the best part of the Semuc Champey tour. I wondered how? When Semuc Champey was as renowned as the best…so obviously I went. The caves are visited via the first half of the Semuc Champey tour in Lanquin. When you arrive at the caves each person is given one tall lit candle which provides the only sources of light in the caves. For 1 mile you swim, and I mean swim your way through a big, deep, dark cave system in the mountains of Lanquin. As you make your way through the caves, you spend your time trying to determine the best places to step while simultaneously avoiding put out your candle. There are waterfalls to climb around and up, and even a 3 meter jump into a volcanic hole at the end. It is what I would consider to be a ‘not to be missed adventure.’
Leaving the jungle, the next stop is famous Lake Atitlán, finally, some chill time.
Visit Lake Atitlán
It has been said that Lake Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes, is of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Encircled by stunning Mayan villages, Lake Atitlán receives prestige and recognition for its surrounding terrain. Crooked wooden stilt docks line the shores while lush green jungle fill in the gaps between the beautiful cone-shaped volcanoes which produce an everlasting effect of mysterious mist on the lake. As you can imagine Lake Atitlán is a photographer’s dream. Rest, relax, and adventure around Lake Atitlán, a must-see destination for travelers experiencing Guatemala. There are 11 towns surrounding Lake Atitlán, the biggest task is deciding which ones fits you best.
Climb the Indian Nose on Lake Atitlán
While a visit to Lake Atitlán often consists of rest and relaxation in a surreal location, there are those who choose to visit the area to go hiking. Indian Nose is the place to do this. Many choose to hike Indian Nose to watch the sunrise and look over the towns of Lake Atitlán. The peak sits at 2,863 meters and the trip requires a Mayan guide, a 3:00am start and a 45 minute chicken bus ride. The terrain is steep with minor obstacles and the results speak for itself. Watching sunrise from this sacred and ceremonial Mayan locale is something to be remembered.
Ok, you’ve seen the lake, lets explore around it.
Visit the market at Chichicastenango
It would be a shame to visit Latin America without stopping by an epic market filled with colourful textiles, food, pottery and other locally made crafts. Chichicastenango houses the biggest market in Guatemala and is conveniently located close to both Antigua and Lake Atitlán. The market transpires on Thursday’s and Sunday’s as locals bring in their product and crafts from all over Guatemala. The main square and every street around it fills with market stalls. Here, people pleasantly shop, vendors chat amongst themselves, and street food reaches its pinnacle of deliciousness.
Before you move on to your next destination, you can’t visit Central America without checking out at least one beach.
Visit the black beaches of Monterrico
While Guatemala is part of Central America, an area of the world widely known for soft sandy beaches, it unfortunately is not. There are however, a few accessible beaches that travelers should and could visit. Monterrico is a black volcanic sand beach on the Pacific coast of Guatemala known for its turtle conservation. A popular destination for locals from Antigua and Guatemala City, this little town goes from quiet and serene to a wild party on the weekends. A great place to feel that tropical reggae vibe, relax, learn about sea turtles, and then, to rage on the weekends.