Why You Need to Visit GUATEMALA!
Updated: Apr 20, 2019
Before setting out on my Central America trip I didn't really know what there was to do in Guatemala, nor did I know anyone that had ever been there! Little did I know, Guatemala would become on of my favourite countries. I recently spent two-and-a-half weeks Mayan ruin exploring, volcano trekking, lakeside relaxing and jungle-adventuring in this epic country.
Guatemala is a Central American country boarded by Mexico, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. I traveled through Guatemala in January and fell in love with the country almost instantly. I didn't know all that much about Guatemala before I visited but I'm so glad I got the opportunity to explore such a wonderful country. In this blog post, I share with you some of the reasons why you need to visit Guatemala!
There's SO Much to See!
What I loved the most about Guatemala is there is such a variety of things to see and do as a tourist. You can visit the jungle, relax by the beach, explore colonial cities or ancient ruins or chill out by a lake. I spent just over two weeks in Guatemala and I visited Flores, Lanquin, Antiqua and Lake Atitlan.
Popular destinations for tourists in Guatemala include:
Flores (3 nights)
I entered Guatemala from Mexico via Belize so Flores was the perfect first destination for me. Flores is a tiny island located in northern Guatemala on Lake Petén Itza and linked by bridge to the town of Santa Elena. There's not too much to do in Flores but most travellers use the tiny colonial town as a stepping-off point for visiting the famous Tikal mayan ruins.
It's popular to visit Tikal at either sunrise or sunset. I chose to visit for sunset as I figured I'd save myself from a 3am wakeup call. Tikal is an ancient Mayan city nestled in the jungles of northern Guatemala. After touring the impressive ruins, we climbed to the top of one of the towers to watch the sunset. It was beautiful. A couple even got engaged!
I stayed at the Los Amigos Hostel in Flores which is super nice. It has its own spa, yoga studio, soundproof nightclub and travel agency. However, the hostel is not listed on any booking sites - you have to email them to make a reservation.
Lanquin (3 nights)
Lanquin is a small village set in the mountains of central Guatemala. Semuc Champey is the main attraction here and it's easy to see why. A series of steeped, naturally-formed, turquoise limestone pools flow from the Cahabón River - perfect for swimming. I did a day tour here which included a visit to nearby waterfalls and caves.
I spent my second day in Lanquin floating down the Lanquin River in an inflatable tube. Our guide provided beers and music and we spent a couple hours relaxing on the river - it was great fun!
River tubing in Lanquin
River tubing in Lanquin
Zephyr lodge was perhaps the coolest hostel I've ever stayed in. Nestled in the mountains, just outside Lanquin, this hostel has an epic infinity pool, treehouse-like dorm rooms and a reputation as the place to party in Semuc Champey. Plus you get to to ride to this backpacker's oasis via typical Guatemalan transport - standing in the back of an old truck!
En route to Zephyr Lodge
Antigua (5 nights)
Antigua is the former capital of Guatemala - a small Spanish-colonial town surrounded by volcanoes. The town has a lively vibe and there's plenty to see. Many people come to Antigua to take Spanish classes. It's also a great spot to check out the surrounding volcanoes - Acatenango and Pacaya are the most frequented by tourists.
I ended up staying in 3 different hostels while in Antigua (as I kept booking things last minute). I stayed at Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel, Three Monkeys Hostel and Somos Hostal. They were all really good, but Cucuruchos was my favourite - it had the best free breakfast spread ever!
By far one of the coolest (and most challenging!) experiences I've ever had was climbing the Acatenango volcano just outside Antigua. I joined a Wicho & Charlie's (would highly recommend this tour operator!) overnight volcano hike trip. We left Antigua at 9am on the first day and hiked up to base camp, then camped overnight and summited for sunset the next morning. The hike was so hard. Like really really hard. The high altitude really got to me and it was an uphill trek on sandy volcanic rock the majority of the way.
But, it was so worth it. Our base camp was perfectly situated next to the active Fuego Volcano. We watched the volcano erupting lava every 30-minutes or so. It was truely one of the most incredible things I've ever seen - so worth not being able to walk for the next couple days!!
Acatenango Volcano Hike
Fuego erupting - Acatenango Volcano Hike
Our base camp - Acatenango Volcano Hike
Acatenango Volcano Hike
Lake Atitlan (4 nights)
Lake Atitlan is a lake located in a massive volcanic crated in Guatemala's southwestern highlands. Surrounded by volcanos and many small Mayan villages, the lake is also home to a number of small towns. Panajachel, San Pedro, Santa Cruz and San Marcos are some of the most popular settlements around the lake.
I spent two nights in San Pedro which is known as a the 'backpacker hotspot' on the lake. To be honest, I didn't really like San Pedro all that much. However, I did do a great cooking class there. I wrote a whole blog post on the experience. See:
San Pedro cooking class
I spent one night at Free Cervezza in Santa Cruz. This was my favourite spot on the lake and one of the coolest hostels I've stayed in. Santa Cruz has a perfect view of the lake and volcanoes but is quite isolated - it's not connected by road and has no stores/restaurants closeby. Free Cervezza is a glamping-style hostel situated on right on the water. Yes, the hostel does live up to its name (Cervezza means 'beer' in Spanish) and offers backpackers a three-course family-style meal with 2 hours of free beer daily.
*ree Cervezza hostel, Santa Cruz
Panajachel is the biggest and busiest town on the lake and is likely where you will first arrive on your visit to Lake Atitlan. I spent one night here and really enjoyed my stay at the brand new resort-like Selina hostel. The town has a great local market - the perfect spot to pick up some souvenirs.
After Antigua/Lake Atitlan, many people go on to visit El Paredon which is small fishing village popular with surfers.
I travelled through Guatemala as a solo female and felt completely safe the entire time. Most dangerous places in Guatemala are far off the tourist track and are related to inter-gang conflicts. However, Guatemala is a place where you have to be more wary of your belongings and cautious when going out at night alone.
Guatemala is a Haven for Backpackers
Guatemala is really well set up for backpackers. It achieves a nice balance of not being overcrowded with tourists, but popular enough to meet lots of likeminded travellers - perfect for solo travellers!
There is a well-developed backpacking trail and all the popular destinations have well-connected transport and cheap, decent accommodation. I stayed at many really awesome hostels - there are also plenty of party hostels on the backpacker trail, if you're into that.
Some of my favourite hostels that I stayed in were:
Free Cervezza, Santa Cruz - a glamping-style hostel with picturesque views of Lake Atitlan that serves up a delicious nightly three-course family-style meal for guests accompanied by free beer.
Free Cervezza, Santa Cruz
Zephyr Lodge, Lanquin - treehouse-like dorms nestled in the mountains with the best views from the impressive infinity pool.
Zephyr Lodge, Lanquin
Selina, Panajachel - a brand new hotel converted into a hostel with a lakeside bar perfect for sunset drinks.
Getting Around is Easy
I found getting around Guatemala super simple, albeit lengthy. Tourist shuttles (vans) connect to a range of popular destinations in the country. They offer a door-to-door service, direct from one hostel to the next and are safe and reasonably priced. However, travel in Guatemala can be slow - I had many long travel days. I learnt quickly that 8 hours Guatemalan time is equal to more like 10-11 hours regular time!
There is also the cheaper option of taking chicken busses (local busses), but they are often unreliable and take way longer.
Typical tourist shuttle van
Price-wise, Guatemala is a very backpacker-friendly country. You can do a lot on a very tight budget. The following list gives you an idea of the average prices:
Hostels: $10-15 AUD/night for a decent hostel, often includes breakfast.
Food: it's easy to find meals for under $10 AUD at local restaurants, street food is even cheaper
Activities: expect to pay between $25-45 for a group day tour with a guide. My overnight volcano hike cost only $70 AUD.
Shuttles: around $40-$50 for an 8-9 hour trip in a van.
Locals are friendly
Despite the fact that a huge percentage (as many as 50%) of Guatemalan people live in poverty, the locals are really friendly and welcoming. I was often greeted on the streets with 'buen dia!' (good day) and if it weren't for the language barrier, they'd be up for a chat. I would definitely recommend learning some basic Spanish before coming to Guatemala!
Local house in rural Guatemala
You Can Experience Guatemalan Culture First-Hand
Guatemala is one of the few countries I've been to where indigenous cultures and traditions are still very much displayed in day-to-day life. There are 21 different Mayan communities in Guatemala making up an estimated 51 per cent of the national population. Indigenous Mayan languages are still spoken all over Guatemala - many people don't even speak Spanish and the local women wear their beautiful traditional clothing.
Traditional Guatemalan clothing
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