Guatemala is a small country geographically, but really packs a punch. Diverse landscapes, from volcanoes and lakes to coastlines and jungles, mark it as an outdoor paradise, while historical wonders of the Mayan and Spanish colonial periods will astound those who prefer slightly tamer activities.
But what do you need to know to plan a trip here? How long will you need? What are the must-dos and, for lovers of knowledge, the must-learns? This guide will attempt to distill the country down to its essence, covering the essentials as experienced by me personally.
Note: all links in this guide are to other Guatemala content produced here on The Royal Tour, so be sure to check them out!
The ancient Mayan city of Tikal is one of Guatemala’s main tourism draws.
Unless you are coming via land route from a neighboring country (more on this in the next section), or the rare cruise ship, you will fly into Guatemala City’s La Aurora Airport, a small and easily navigable international hub. All three US legacy carriers (United, Delta, and American) fly in from their hubs in the southern United States, although the most cost-effective airline seems to be Copa via Panama City.
You’ll need to fill out a written customs declaration, which should be provided to you on the plane. Other than that, immigration and customs are relatively easy and quick. However, once you emerge into the public area beyond baggage claim, the chaos of Guatemala will hit. Taxi drivers and shuttle operators will approach you asking if you need a ride, especially to Antigua, as few tourists stay in Guatemala City. Prices will vary, and most will be in US dollars – and cash only, so it may make sense to have your transportation booked ahead of time. A shared shuttle will cost you $10-15, while private will be around $35. You can also take one of the iconic chicken buses, but I don’t recommend it.
Where to Go
For most visitors to Guatemala, there are two main areas in which to spend time: Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Antigua Guatemala, literally Old Guatemala, is the colonial capital, and perhaps one of the coolest cities I’ve visited. A small town these days with about 30,000 inhabitants and thousands of travelers, it is easily walkable, vibrant, and beautiful.
Lake Atitlan is considered by some to be the most beautiful lake in the world. Surrounded by three volcanoes, it is clear, cold, and home to some cool little villages.
I am also going to add here that the great Mayan city of Tikal, in the north of the country, is incredible and worth seeing!
Guatemala City can largely be ignored other than as a transit hub. Many areas are not safe, traffic is terrible, and unless you love urban jungles, your time is probably better spent elsewhere.
Please note that this doesn’t mean there aren’t other wonderful places in Guatemala. However, in my opinion, these are the ones to focus a first-time trip around.
Antigua Guatemala is the place I’d dedicate the most time in the country.
Public transportation in Guatemala is limited. Unlike European countries which have wonderful bus and rail systems, Guatemala is limited to chicken buses and shuttles between cities. There are a number of different operators for these shuttles, but prices tend to be roughly the same. They will pick you up at your lodging and drop you off at your destination. There may or may not be modern comforts like air conditioning, seatbelts, room inside for luggage (it will likely end up on the roof under a tarp if it rains), or proper suspension. If these things are important to you, book private.
The journey from Guatemala City to Antigua is roughly an hour depending on traffic, and from Antigua to Lake Atitlan about 2.5. Roads are of decent quality but are slow moving, and even major highways have speed bumps in places.
Uber is usable inside of Guatemala City and Antigua (and between them), and is also a decent option. In addition, there are tiny airplanes flying domestic routes inside of the country, making some of the outlying areas a bit easier to see. (The journey from Guatemala City to Flores, near Tikal, is about 40 minutes by air or 6-7 hours by bus/shuttle.)
There are also bus connections to neighboring countries, and many use this to explore the region. If money isn’t a huge issue, I’d fly (and I did to Nicaragua) for the sake of safety, as the buses aren’t considered especially safe for tourists.
The chicken buses are great fun to look at, but I wouldn’t recommend taking one.
Where to Stay
Outside of Guatemala City, large hotels – and even small hotels of American chains – are basically nonexistent. There are a TON of hostels, small boutique properties of varying degrees of comfort, and a ton of options on Airbnb. Personally, the last option is the one I consider best, as with the incredible poverty in Guatemala I prefer to support an individual than a company.
In Antigua, stay in the old city. It is safe – although some of the surrounding towns are less so – and easy to get around. If you want a hotel, the Santo Domingo is lovely, albeit expensive by Guatemala standards.
When visiting Lake Atitlan, you’ll have several options of towns to stay in. Panajachel is the easiest to reach, but the most touristy. San Pedro might make a good alternative if you don’t mind having to take a ferry after your transportation to the lake. Other towns all have their charms and unique lodging, so a bit of research is necessary.
If you plan to go to Tikal, book lodging as part of a two-day package through a reputable tour company rather than trying to do it on your own. (Or skip it altogether and do it as a day trip as I did.)
What to Do
Some of this was covered above under “Where to Go,” but let’s talk some specifics.
Lake Atitlan is, without question, beautiful. Day tours are offered that will ferry visitors to three or four different towns for an hour or so each. This is worth doing. However, there is a big caveat: during the rainy season (May to October or so), the beautiful panoramas of Atitlan can be covered with clouds, and when the winds pick up in the afternoon, the lake can get very choppy (it is normally glass-like and smooth). While I don’t advocate completely skipping the region during the rainy months, I certainly wouldn’t allot as much time.
Climb a volcano. There are two that are popular. Pacaya can be done as a day trip and you’ll see some old lava flows, and even get to cook s’mores using the heat of the mountain. Acatenango is an overnight hike and you’ll spend the night watching the neighboring Fuego volcano erupt every few minutes.
Take a Spanish class. Guatemala is known for having a very easy to understand accent in Spanish, and Spanish schools are everywhere!
Visit Tikal. It’s the most important Mayan site. Enough said.
For a complete list of activities in Antigua, view our guide here.
Lake Atitlan with just a few whisks of cloud. This was a rare sight for me during the rainy season.
Other Useful Information
Food in Guatemala is good, but not overly exciting. Lots of rice and beans, plantains, and meat. Do, however, make sure to drink plenty of coffee, which is among the best in the world.
Poverty is evident, especially in the towns around Lake Atitlan which are heavily Mayan. It is painful to turn someone down for purchasing a craft when you are literally begged, but it is important to remember that we as travelers can’t save everyone.
A note on safety. Antigua is very safe. Panajachel on Lake Atitlan is very safe. Other places are not. Use common sense, don’t travel with flashy expensive items, and if you are robbed, your life is worth more than your wallet.
Wear closed-toed sturdy shoes in Antigua. The cobblestones are uneven and twisting an ankle (or worse) would be easy.
Finally, give this country a chance. It gets bad-mouthed a lot in the news, but Guatemala is a lovely place with great people! Its government leaves plenty to be desired, but that isn’t the fault of those who try to eke out a life here.
Definitely get coffee, and even visit a plantation like Finca Filadelfia outside of Antigua.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I came to Guatemala. What I found was a beautiful country, warm hospitable people, and plenty of culture. I only spent two weeks, and could easily have lived here for much longer. I hope you, too, will fall in love with this Central American nation.
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