Guatemala Backpacking …. that sounds like adventure in untouristy areas and natural places. Even though Guatemala was not as untouristic as we thought, this beautiful country still impressed us. With the backpacking trip you can already look forward to an unforgettable and very diverse vacation. Everything you need to know you will learn in or Guatemala Travel Guide for first timers.
Before our big trip through Latin America we hardly knew anything about Guatemala. The more surprised we were, which sights and highlights the beautiful Guatemala would give us on our backpacking trip through the country. Colorful colonial cities, dense jungle, ancient Mayan temples and lots of volcanoes to discover. Find out how to pack all the highlights into a 2 week itinerary through Guatemala in this travelogue.
Backpacking Guatemala – Our itinerary
On a Google Maps map we have entered the individual route points. On this map you can see our exact route through Guatemala:
The individual stops of our Guatemala backpacking trip are then described in detail in the following chapters.
Day 1 | Arrival Guatemala
Your backpacking trip through Guatemala can either be done by arriving from Guatemala City or, if you are traveling longer, from Belize. We flew from Costa Rica to Guatemala City and after landing we went directly to the next touristic destination Antigua. Since you can always
Since one reads again and again that Guatemala City is not exactly the safest place in Guatemala, we did not want to stay there overnight or spend more time than necessary.
As soon as you leave the airport terminal, the drivers of the shuttle buses are already waiting for the tourists. Thus, within a few minutes we had organized our ride to Antigua for 10 USD per person.
The journey to Antigua takes 1-2 hours depending on the traffic (in our case of course 2 hours).
Day 2-3 | Antigua
The first stop on our itinerary through Guatemala led us to the small colonial town of Antigua. There we felt very comfortable. We spent a few more days here than planned due to illness (we caught a parasite), but we didn’t regret it at all. Antigua really has a charm that we have not seen in any other city in Central America. And that although the city is very touristy. Both backpackers and families vacation in Antigua. There are many tour operators, McDonalds, Taco Bell and souvenir vendors without end. But the good thing is, you don’t notice it that much.
The souvenir vendors aren’t as pushy and all the fast food places don’t have blatant advertising on their facades, but all have pretty uniform looking store signs. This is to maintain the style of the city and it works pretty well. In addition, the stores are mostly totally stylishly decorated in colonial style from the inside. We have at least never sat in such a beautiful McDonalds branch. In the courtyard there is even a beautiful fountain next to the obligatory Ronald McDonald figure.
Antigua has many nice hotels to offer, most of which are also relatively cheap. The hotel we stayed in was a bit outside, was furnished in the old colonial style and super cozy:
Hotel recommendation in Antigua
Casa de Don Moncho
In this hostel everything is lovingly decorated and perfectly coordinated. There is a beautiful terrace, a courtyard and a small communal kitchen. The price is unbeatable for the rooms with private bathroom.
We think Antigua is worth spending a few days there, no city in Guatemala we found so relaxed and almost picturesque as Antigua.
Day 4-5 | Hike up the Acatenango Volcano
The hike up the volcano Acatenango was definitely our highlight during our backpacking trip in Guatemala and should not be missing on any round trip. The hike brought us physically almost to our limits, but was worth every drop of sweat and the subsequent muscle ache. Not only do you spend the night on a volcano, you also have a continuous view of the opposite volcano, Fuego, which spews ash, smoke and lava at regular intervals. At sunrise, it then goes up to 4000 meters on the summit of the volcano to see the sunrise above the clouds.
Day 6-8 | Lago Atitlan
Lago Atitlan was actually also on our itinerary through Guatemala. However, a nasty gastrointestinal parasite threw a spanner in the works and made us stay longer than planned in Antigua and therefore we couldn’t go to Lago Atitlan.
If you have the opportunity, you should definitely include Lago Atitlan on your itinerary through Guatemala. The lake is surrounded by several volcanoes and offers with its different places for every taste the right place to stay.
You can take the chicken bus (direct bus at 7am from the marketplace in Antigua) in just under 2 hours to the main town of Panajachel and from there take a water cab to your hotel. Or you can take the tourist shuttles from Antigua that leave at 8am and 2pm and go directly to San Marcos and San Pedro. Then you save the money and time for the water cab. The cost for the shuttle is about Q 50 per person.
Where should you stay at Lago Atitlan?
You should leave the main town Panajachel on your left. You should go directly to San Marcos or San Pedro. San Pedro is more known as a party place for backpackers and San Marcos is more quiet. So it is best to choose according to your preferences.
Hotels in both places you can search here at Booking.com.
Day 9 | Arrival to Semuc Champey
Well, unfortunately the journey to Semuc Champey takes a whole day. No matter if you travel from Antigua or Lago Atitlan, you should plan a complete day. It took us 9 hours to get from Antigua to Lanquin. Lanquin is the closest town to Semuc Champey. You can easily organize the transfer in both places through the travel agencies that are everywhere. In case of need just ask in your hostel. We paid 125 Quetzales (about 15 Euro) for the ride from Antigua to Lanquin and were picked up at 8am directly at the hostel.
The ride is quite comfortable and is done in small minibuses. If you are there early or are picked up first, you can grab the first row of seats in the bus, because there you have the most legroom.
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Are you traveling from Lago Atitlan?
If you are traveling from Lago Atitlan, the onward journey will start around 7-8 am and you should be in the main town of Panajachel. If you stay overnight in another town on Lago Atitlan (e.g. San Pedro or San Marcos), you should cross over to Panajachel the day before your onward journey to avoid problems with the cab boats in the early morning.
Day 10 | Splashing in Semuc Champey and cave hike
Semuc Champey was really one of the highlights of our itinerary through Guatemala. We had seen some pictures and read articles about it beforehand, but they just don’t do this beautiful spot justice. Even though it was relatively crowded during our visit, the atmosphere is great. The natural water pools of Semuc Champey look beautiful and are great to splash around in.
Semuc Champey is created by channeling the raging river through a limestone cave system. This has created wonderfully calm pools above the caves. In these turquoise-blue pools you can swim and relax to your heart’s content. In addition, the whole thing also looks wonderful.
Right next to Semuc Champey there is the Kan’ba cave, where we did a one hour hike. The only light in the cave, flooded with water, came from candles that we carried with us. A Wahnsinns experience, which we have experienced so far nowhere in the world.
Day 11 | Arrival Flores
Unfortunately the journey to Flores is not better than the journey to Lanquin. Again you will spend a whole day in the shuttle bus on your backpacking trip through Guatemala. Almost 10 hours including breaks, we sat in the small minibus. Although the ride in the air-conditioned bus went by quite quickly, but of course you realize at the end of the day that you actually longed a whole working day on uncomfortable seats towards the destination.
Flores also has its own airport, but the prices are of course much too high to fit into our budget. And there is no connection from Semuc Champey to here anyway. But if you want to come from other parts of the country, the plane could be an option for you.
After the exhausting 10 hours, the bus will drop you off directly at the end of the long land bridge and thus at the beginning of Flores. From there you can walk to your hotel, because the island of Flores is not really big. Maximum 15 minutes you walk from one end to the other. A cab or TukTuk is not necessary here.
Day 12 | Flores
Flores was for us much more than just a place to spend the night or to visit the Mayan temples of Tikal from there. We were glad in the end that we didn’t go for the much more expensive option of staying directly in Tikal. Because then we would have missed a lot.
Flores is a very small island in Lake Petén-Itzá and is only connected to the mainland and its sister city, Santa Elena, by a long land bridge or causeway. Because the island is so small and surrounded by water, almost every hotel is also on the waterfront and offers great views of the lake.
What can you do in Flores?
Aside from preparing your tour to Tikal, there are several other activities and attractions that make Flores in Guatemala worth visiting.
Stroll through the city
Flores is really nice to look at with its cobblestone streets and nice little houses and it is worth to explore the island in 1-2 hours. Especially the center of the island with its church perched on the hill is much quieter than the outskirts with the many restaurants and bars. While strolling you can explore the numerous souvenir stores of the island and pay a visit to the only larger supermarket (which also has an ATM).
By the way, if you want to go to a really big (and also cheaper) supermarket, you just have to cross the land bridge and go to the huge shopping center on the left side. There you will find a large supermarket and, among other things, a Burger King.
Rent a kayak
At many hotels you will get kayaks for free or you can rent them at one of the many tour providers or restaurants on site. You have circumnavigated the island very quickly and can also go to the beach (Playa San Miguel) on the opposite side or to one of our highlights of Flores: The Rope Swing of Jorge.
Take a cab boat over to Jorge’s Rope Swing
We only discovered this activity on Flores by accident. Jorge’s Rope Swing is a small bar on the opposite side of the lake. You can get a water cab to take you across for small money, and it’s best to make a time for pickup right away, too. At the bar you have to pay an entrance fee of 10 Quetzales, but then you are allowed to use the ropes that are attached to the trees there to swing into the water.
Not only does this sound mega fun, it is. When we were there, there were only two other girls on site and so we had everything almost to ourselves. You can not only swim well there. Jorge also offers delicious food and tortilla chips with guacamole. We spent a great afternoon there.
Learn more about Jorge’s Rope Swing here: Tripadvisor
Take advantage of the happy hour in the numerous bars
We actually did not get cheaper cocktails or long drinks anywhere on our trip through Central America. In almost every bar or restaurant there is a happy hour. Mostly this is in the evening (from 6-9) like in our country. In some bars the happy hour is also the whole day. So you can drink for example two Margaritas, Daiquiris or Long Island Icetea for together 25-35 Quetzales (1.50€ -2.50€).
Day 13 | Tikal
Tikal is one of the most important Mayan sites in northern Guatemala and was inhabited by the Maya since 1000 BC. It is also one of the best explored Mayan sites and has been considered abandoned since the 10th century. Tikal is very well developed and can be easily reached by bus from nearby Flores.
How do you get from Flores to Tikal?
Since all tour operators pack their people into the same buses, it doesn’t matter where you book your tour. You can choose the cheapest one. We were picked up from our hotel in Flores at 04:30 in the morning … and not by bus, but on foot, which surprised us a bit. We then walked after the guide and the other guests through the city to pick up other passengers. Not exactly the nicest activity at half past four in the morning. If we had known that, we would have just walked to the bus parking lot ourselves.
The bus was then also packed and occupied up to the last (emergency) seat, on which I was of course allowed to sit. Unfortunately, we did not like that, especially since the American tourists in the back of the bus were probably not already, but still awake and thus the volume from behind was not to be underestimated.
The buses to Tikal leave at the following times:
- 03:00: If you want to see the sunrise in Tikal, you have to take this early bus. Since we were in Guatemala during the rainy season, our tour provider advised us not to go there that early because it wouldn’t make sense with the cloud cover in the morning.
- 04:30: If you want to be there at the opening of the park, you have to take this bus.
- 12:00: If you want to stay until sunset.
For the return trip from Tikal to Flores you have the following options:
- 11:00 am (If you want to go back directly after the guided tour)
- 12:30 p.m.
- 3:00 p.m.
- 18:30 (If you want to see the sunset on the spot).
You only have to decide in advance on a time for the outward journey and then you can organize the return journey quite flexibly. You just stay as long as you like. We went back at 12:30 and the time was enough to visit many of the temples.
Do you have to stay overnight in Flores if you want to go to Tikal?
Of course not. But it makes the most sense and is the cheapest option. Besides, Flores is really a beautiful city and is worth spending a few days there. But then you have to take the 1.5 hours to get there and back. If you don’t want to do that, there is still the possibility to stay overnight directly in Tikal.
In Tikal itself there are 3 rather luxurious resorts, which start at about 100 € per night. For us, this was out of the question for financial reasons. But the advantages are obvious. You are the first ones in the national park in the morning and the first ones back in the hotel in the evening. And you save the exhausting drive.
If you are willing to pay the much higher price for the hotels directly in Tikal, then you can have a look at them under the following link:
Our visit to Tikal
Tikal was to be our first visit to a Mayan site. When I think of Mayan temples, I think of a mystical atmosphere and ruins in an enchanted jungle. Unfortunately, Tikal is rather the opposite of that. These are perfectly exposed Mayan ruins that have been developed for tourism and therefore do not give off a spark of mystical atmosphere. At least that was our impression. In addition, there are the masses of tourists who are always loudly noticeable.
There we sat now in the drizzle on the highest of the Maya temples and tried to enjoy the view, while in front of us a group of tourists shouted repeatedly loudly “CHEESE” for the camera and on the other side a group of young people sounded us with gangster rap from the cell phone.
This was not the mystical jungle atmosphere we had imagined. Nevertheless, the numerous temples are very beautiful to look at. But it only takes a little imagination to picture how an advanced civilization ruled here hundreds or almost thousands of years ago, producing this wonderful architecture.
Many of the temples in Tikal have not even been uncovered, but have lain dormant for centuries under a dense dress of bushes and trees. If you didn’t know that one of the most important Mayan sites is located here and you just happened to walk through this forest, you wouldn’t even recognize these green hills as temples. This is probably one of the reasons that Tikal remained undiscovered for so long.
All in all, we were of course impressed by the architectural masterpiece of the ancient Maya and also by the importance and history of Tikal. But, anyone who has been to Angkor in Cambodia like I have, has probably seen more impressive temples. In Angkor I found the atmosphere much more intense and mystical. Maybe one reason was that on the day of our stay the Guatemala Triathlon passed through Tikal. Or the Mayan culture is just not for us. But that should not stop you from visiting this unique site.
Is a guide necessary in Tikal?
We had organized a tour with a guide from Flores, and that although we prefer to travel on our own. But the guide only cost us Q 20 more per person and it was worth it. In total we paid Q 80 for the tour including guide per person and were very satisfied. The group was quite huge (about 40 people), but the guide spoke perfect English and was a super funny guy who gave us a lot of interesting info about the history of the Mayas.
Besides, the tour was over after just under 2.5 hours. After that, everyone could explore the area on their own and climb the temples on their own. Since the return trip by bus was also very flexible, it was the perfect mix for us.
Useful info for visiting Tikal
- The entrance fee to Tikal National Park is Q 150. If you want to go in directly at sunrise/sunset, it costs Q 250.
- You can buy snacks and drinks directly when you arrive by bus.
- On the grounds of Tikal there are very few stalls where you can buy drinks.
- Drones are forbidden in Tikal and it is also pointed out on some signs inside and outside the area. Of course I could not miss the opportunity to fly there secretly.
- There is only a large overview map directly behind the entrance of Tikal. Take a picture of it with your cell phone so you don’t have to buy one.
- Souvenirs you can buy after the visit of Tikal, behind the exit on the right side on a large area. But they are much more expensive than in Flores.
Day 14 | Departure or onward journey to Belize
Here your backpacking tour through Guatemala could be over after almost 2 weeks. You could take the bus back to Guatemala City and from there fly back to Germany and enjoy the great experiences you made on your round trip.
OR you can do like we did and travel on to the land of the turquoise-blue sea and the “Go Slow”, to Belize. This really makes sense, because Belize is only 100 km away from Flores and is a great place to spend some more days (or weeks) at the beach. Also a complete round trip through the Yucatan Peninsula (with Guatemala, Belize and Mexico) can start here.