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I’m not one to pick favorites, but if I was forced to pick my favorite country in Central America it would be Guatemala.
This country has it all – 37 volcanoes, hot springs, secret jungle pools, beaches, charming cities, ancient ruins, and so much more. If you’re planning to go backpacking in Guatemala, this post will help you plan a perfect Guatemala itinerary.
You could spend weeks, even months, exploring Guatemala. But even with a week or two, you can squeeze in a lot in an itinerary.
If you’re on the backpacker trail through Central America and traveling between Belize and Honduras or El Salvador, Guatemala is well worth a stop along the way.
I’d recommend spending at least three weeks backpacking Guatemala to explore everything it has to offer without feeling rushed.
But if you don’t have that much time, I’ve also suggested two week, 10 day, and one week travel itineraries through Guatemala at the end of this post.
Arriving in Guatemala – Where to Start Your Itinerary
Guatemala borders four different countries in Central America, so depending on where you are coming from, the starting point of your Guatemala backpacking itinerary may differ.
Wherever you are coming from, I highly recommend booking your transportation tickets online in advance when traveling around Guatemala via Bookaway.com.
If you’re flying internationally into Guatemala, then you’ll likely be landing at La Aurora International Guatemala Airport (GUA) in Guatemala City.
I’ll be honest, Guatemala City doesn’t have the best reputation, so I decided to skip it and head straight to Antigua since I arrived early in the day and had plenty of time to do so. Antigua is just an hour away, so it makes a perfect first stop on your Guatemala itinerary.
From Guatemala City, you can also fly or take an overnight bus to Flores, where the Tikal ruins are.
The other airport is Mundo Maya International Airport (FRS), which is outside Santa Elena/Flores in the North.
From Mexico and Belize
If you’re traveling overland from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico or through Belize, then the most logical first stop in Guatemala is Flores in the North. I came from Belize the first time I visited Guatemala and it was relatively straightforward using the tourist shuttle from Belize city.
If you are arriving from Mexico from the northern border, a logical first stop is Lake Atitlan or the city of Quetzaltenango, which is home to the largest market in Central America.
From El Salvador
Coming overland from El Salvador, it would make sense to start your trip in Guatemala City/Antigua, or in the beach towns of Monterico and El Paredon on the Pacific coast.
Guatemala is connected to both the Atlantic and Pacific ocean. Cruise ships often come into Puerto Quetzal on the Pacific Side.
Top Things to do While Backpacking Guatemala
Best Places to Visit While Backpacking Guatemala
Antigua (2-3 days)
Antigua is the perfect place to start your trip in Guatemala. It’s just an hour’s drive from the Guatemala City airport and you’ll be headed off into adventure before you know it. I was legit camping on a volcano in less than 48 hours after arriving in Guatemala!
Antigua is one of the most beautiful towns in Guatemala, with charming cobbled streets and bright colorful buildings. It also doesn’t hurt that there are multiple volcanoes looming in the background.
Must-do activity: Antigua is a great place to go volcano hiking in Guatemala. The Acatenango Volcano overnight hike is my top choice, but it’s a fairly strenuous hike that takes two days. Pacaya Volcano is an easier option. It’s a day hike where you can roast marshmallows on the volcano!
Where to stay: If you’re looking for a fun, social hostel where you can meet other travelers than Tropicana Hostel is a great option.
Lake Atitlan (3-4 days, or more)!
Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful places in the country, you’ll definitely want to add this place to your Guatemala travel itinerary. It’s a huge lake inside a volcanic crater with amazing views of surrounding volcanoes and highlands.
It’s the perfect place to kick back and relax, although there are still plenty of ways to keep active here. You can go kayaking, hiking, and even diving at high altitude. It’s also a great place for yoga retreats.
Lake Atitlán is also nearby to Chichicastenango, which hosts the largest market in Central America every Thursday to Sunday. Locals travel from other villages to Chichicastenango to sell their products, so if you’re looking for a souvenir to take home from Guatemala this is the place to get it.
From Antigua, it’s easy to get a shared tourist shuttle to Lake Atitlan. The drive is 3-4 hours depending on traffic. You can also take a chicken bus if you’re on a tight budget. The bus will take you to Panajachel, and from there you can take a boat to any of the other villages on Lake Atitlan. San Pedro (backpacker haven) and San Marcos (hippie haven) are two of the more popular ones.
Must-do activity: Hike up Indian Nose at sunrise for an unforgettable sunrise.
Where to stay: Mikaso Hotel is right on the lake and has a beautiful rooftop terrace you can sunbathe on while soaking up the view.
Quetzaltenango, known as ‘Xela’ (2-3 days)
If you’re interested in visiting a city in Guatemala that’s not so touristy where you can get a real sense of life in the country, then head to Quetzaltenango, or as the locals call it ‘Xela’.
Xela is one of the cheapest places in the country to visit and as a result, it is a place where long-term travelers go to learn Spanish and volunteer. Xela is also a great base to go volcano trekking. It’s nearby to Tajamulco, Central America’s highest peak. Afterward, visit the Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs to sooth your legs.
Must-do activity: Visit Las Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs for an amazing day of relaxation.
Where to stay: Casa Seibel. This friendly hostel is located just two blocks away from Central Park and has beds as low as $5/night.
Semuc Champey (2-3 days)
Semuc Champey is an incredible natural attraction nestled deep in the Guatemalan jungle. is a 300 m-long limestone bridge that has six turquoise-blue water pools. While it’s definitely worth adding to your Guatemala trip itinerary, it’s not the easiest place to reach.
The best way to get there is via a tourist bus from your location in Guatemala. If you are coming from Antigua or Tikal, this is going to take around 8 hours. If you are coming from Lake Atitlan or Xela, it takes 12, sometimes over. The road is bumpy and generally unpleasant, so prepare for a long day.
It’s worth the journey. Semuc Champey is a stunning natural wonder that you won’t believe until you see it with your own eyes. At the park, you can swim in the pools, go caving, and tube down the river. You can either book a day tour while in Semuc Champey or explore it on your own.
Plan to spend at least one full day here + a day on either end to travel there and back. I recommend spending two days so you have some time to relax between all the travel.
Things to do in Semuc Champey
Swim in the limestone pools
This is the number one thing you’ll want to do at Semuc Champey. Getting to swim in these magical turquoise pools is so much fun.
You can slide/jump from one pool to the next, and the water is lovely to swim in. I kept looking around me while swimming and just couldn’t believe just how magical the area was. Aside from the perfect turquoise pools, the area is covered in beautiful and colorful fauna. I love nature so much!
Candlelight Caving at KanBa Cave
As part of my day tour to Semuc Champey, we visited KanBa Cave for a candlelight caves tour. This is some of the best caving I’ve ever done – it’s a massive cave and so cool to walk through by candlelight. In parts of the cave, you will be almost completely submerged by water. At the end, there is a ledge where you can jump off into the water.
The cave should be included with any Semuc Champey day tour you book. If you are visiting the park on your own, you will have to pay an additional fee to enter.
Outside of the cave, there is a rope swing you can go on and jump off into the river, as well as a small waterfall you can swim by.
El Mirador Hike (the best viewpoint of Semuc Champey)
You’ll want to visit this viewpoint to get this birds eye view of Semuc Champey, where you can truly appreciate how incredible it is.
There are signs marking the trail by Mirador, which means viewpoint in Spanish. It’s a 45-minute walk up a set of stairs which I found pretty difficult because we had just eaten lunch, and the afternoon sun was shining bright. But the views are worth it, and then you get to cool off in the pools afterward.
It’s much easier going back down, and then you can spend the rest of the afternoon exploring and swimming in the stunning turquoise pools.
Another really fun thing to do in the area is tubing down the river. I booked this tour through Zephyr Lodge and did it on a separate day, but you can also go tubing in the park.
The scenery along the river is beautiful as you pass through the jungle full of wild birds. We even saw parrots!
The river is calm at first and then picks up at the end. Major shout out to the guy who attached me to his tube so I stopped getting stuck in the trees. The guides even bring beer down the river so you can refill as you float! This tour is a great way to spend an afternoon in Lanquin.
How to Visit Semuc Champey
Depending on the hostel/hotel you are staying in Lanquin, Semuc Champey is probably still an uncomfortable ride away. Although it is possible to walk from some hotels.
From Zephyr Lodge, it was a 10km drive down a bumpy road. You’ll need to take a 4×4 truck to get there, which they stuff backpackers on like cattle. It’s not a comfortable ride, but Semuc Champey is worth it!
It is possible to visit Semuc Champey on your own, or you can go on a guided tour. You can book that online here or through your hostel/hotel in Lanquin.
I booked my tour through Zephyr Lodge, which included transport there and back, as well as all the activities I mentioned above except tubing (I did that on a separate day).
If you book a tour to Semuc Champey, it should include all of these activities as well as the park entrance fee in the price. If you visit on your own, you will have to pay the park entrance fee (50Q), plus pay separately for the tours you want to do (caving and tubing).
There are some benefits to visiting Semuc Champey on your own. You will pay slightly less than a guided tour, and you’ll be on your own schedule so you won’t have to worry about being stuck in a crowd (my group was about 30 people).
That said, I really enjoyed the tour and was glad I didn’t have to worry about getting to/from the park on my own. It was nice to have everything organized for me and a great way to make friends.
Where to stay
Zephyr Lodge is an oasis in itself, with an infinity pool overlooking the jungle. It’s a bit of a party place, so if you’re looking for something more chill, check out Utopia Eco Hostel. You will spend most of your time outside of the park in the hostel, so choose wisely.
Hotel Oasis is a luxury jungle resort, with a pool, bar, restaurant, and tiki-style rooms.
Flores (2-3 days)
Flores is a cute island on a lake in Northern Guatemala. It’s most known Tikal National Park, one of three UNESCO world heritage sites in Guatemala.
Dating back to the 1st Century AD, Tikal is one of the most impressive Mayan ruins in Central America. Walking through these ancient Mayan ruins will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Plus, they are nestled in the jungle which is great for viewing wildlife.
There are also several other Mayan sites in this area, including Uaxactún, Yaxha, and El Mirador, which you can take a 6-day jungle trek through.
The best time to visit Tikal is on a sunrise tour and sunset tour. Partly because the explosion of colors over the sky is beautiful, but also because this region becomes very hot, and if you visit in the middle of day it will be unpleasant to walk around.
Must-do activity: Visit Tikal!
Where to stay: Los Amigos is one of the most popular hostels in Flores, it’s got a great atmosphere and you can book tours to Tikal directly there.
Rio Dulce & Livingston (2-3 days)
I ended up in Rio Dulce by mistake trying to make my way to Honduras and I’m so glad that I did. It’s such an underrated part of the country. While Rio Dulce town is nothing to write home about, what makes a trip here special is to stay at one of the eco-lodges on the river.
Rio Dulce is a great place to kick back and relax, but there are also many things to do here including a hot spring waterfall, Castillo de San Felipe, canyons, wildlife viewing, and water activities on the lake.
Livingston is a town at the mouth of Rio Dulce near Belize. It’s a completely different vibe than the rest of Guatemala. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the Caribbean with incredible beaches, food, and culture.
Must-do activity: Explore Finca Paraiso waterfall
Where to stay: Dreamcatchers Eco Lodge. is a beautiful place to stay right on the river. It’s right next to a however monkey preserve!
Monterrico/ El Paredon(1-2 days)
Yup, Guatemala even has beaches! They may not be the most beautiful in Central America, but it’s still worth coming here to see a different side of Guatemala. Monterrico and El Paredon are two of the best towns on the coast for beaches, sunsets, and surf.
Both towns are on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. They can be easily accessed via busses from Guatemala city or Antigua.
Must-do activity: Surfing!
Where to stay: Cocori Lode El Paredon
Sample Guatemala Backpacking Itineraries
If you want to see all of the things I’ve suggested in this post, you’re going to need at least three weeks in Guatemala. This will give you enough time to see all of these places without feeling like you’re in a hurry.
This Guatemala itinerary is based on the assumption you are flying into Guatemala city, but you can always rearrange the order of places depending on where you are coming from.
Guatemala 3 Week Itinerary
If you had three weeks, you could easily fit all of this into your Guatemala Itinerary. Here is an idea what that would look like:
Guatemala City (1 night) -> Antigua (3 nights) -> Lake Atitlan (4 nights) -> Xela (3 nights) -> Flores (3 nights) -> Semuc Champey (3 nights) -> Rio Dulce (2 nights) -) -> Monterico (2 nights) -> Return to Guatemala City to catch your flight home
Guatemala 2 Week Itinerary
It’s still possible to see a lot of Guatemala in 2 weeks.
Guatemala City (1 night) -> Antigua (2 nights) -> Lake Atitlan (3 nights) -> -> Flores (3 nights)-> Semuc Champey (3 nights) -> Rio Dulce (2 nights)
Guatemala 10 Day Itinerary
If you only have 10 days in Guatemala, visit Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and either Tikal or Semuc Champey.
Guatemala 7 day Itinerary
If you have just one week in Guatemala, I suggest sticking to the Antigua/Lake Atitlan region.
Getting Around Guatemala
Since there aren’t many airports in Guatemala, you’ll be using busses to get around the country.
The easiest way to get between places in Guatemala is via the tourist busses, but if you’re on a shoestring budget you can also take chicken buses.
These are retrofitted school buses used to transport goods and people throughout Latin America.
You should definitely take a chicken bus at least once while backpacking Guatemala, but personally, I didn’t use these as my main form of transportation as they take a long time and can be quite uncomfortable.
That said, I know plenty of people who used them the entire time in Guatemala. It really depends on your budget and how much time you want to spend traveling. A ticket on a local chicken bus will rarely be more than a couple of dollars.
Tourist shuttles are generally much more expensive, although nothing crazy. For example, a tourist shuttle will cost you $20, whereas the chicken bus will cost you $2. It really comes down to your budget and your level of comfort.
Flying: Since there are only two airports, the only place you can fly is between Guatemala City and Flores, which is near Tikal.
Taxis/Shared Ride Services: Taxies are available throughout Guatemala and are cheap. Uber is also used in major cities.
Best time to go
Best Time to Go
The dry season in Guatemala runs from November to April, while the Wet Season runs from May to October.
However, you can visit Guatemala at any time of year. Even in the wet season, it usually rains heavily for an hour or two, and the rest of the day is fine.
The climate is still warm, and there will be fewer tourists and cheaper prices during the wet season.
The most popular time to visit Guatemala is January and February.
Safety & Solo Travel
Guatemala has a pretty bad safety record, but it’s rare that tourists are targeted. I felt safe the entire time I was in Guatemala. That said, you need to be smart and follow basic safety. Don’t walk alone at night, especially if you’ve been drinking. This is when most tourists get targeted.
Even as a solo female traveler, I felt safe in Guatemala. The locals are wonderful to talk with and will make you feel welcome. The crime you’re most likely to encounter involves pickpocketing, bag-snatching, and bag-slitting in crowded streets and markets. To avoid this from happening, I recommend using a product like Pacsafe.
If you don’t feel comfortable traveling to Guatemala alone, taking a group tour is a great option. Even if you are comfortable traveling alone, tours can be a great thing to do as it takes the work out of planning, and you can just focus on enjoying the trip.
Health/Vaccines: Always check with your doctor or travel clinic before traveling to see what vaccines you need. You can get an overview of what vaccines you need for Guatemala on the CDC website.
Guatemala Travel Tips
The official language of Guatemala is Spanish. Some locals in the tourist industry will speak limited English, but it will make your trip smoother to speak Spanish. Guatemala is one of the best places to learn Spanish in Latin America, as the accent is easy to understand, and the classes are affordable.
Visa requirements: Citizens of most Western countries, including the USA, Canada, and EU, and Australia, don’t need a visa in advance. You will be given a C4-4 90-day visa on arrival, which allows you to travel to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. (It’s 90 days for the entire region, not each country).
Staying Connected – SIM cards can be picked up easily in Guatemala, and data is cheap. Tigo, Claro, and Movistar are the main carriers. Make sure your phone is unlocked, and bring your passport with you when you go to pick up the SIM card.
Power Sockets – Guatemala uses Type A and Type B power sockets, so you won’t need a converter if you’re traveling from North America.
Drone Laws – Drone laws in Guatemala are very relaxed. I flew my drone all over Guatemala with no issues; just follow standard rules and don’t fly over crowds or private property.
Climate and Packing Suggestions
The dress code in Guatemala is relaxed, and you don’t need to worry about any strict requirements. Instead, dress according to the area you are going.
Guatemala has a warm climate overall, and in most places, you’ll be most comfortable in shorts and a tank top/t-shirt. However, some cities can get cold at night, so it’s always a good idea to bring at least one sweater and a long pair of pants.
If you are going to be doing Volcano trekking, which I highly recommend, then you’ll want to bring some very warm clothes for the top. In Antigua, you can rent winter clothes to hike up Acatenango.
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