The Best Things to do in Guatemala

volcan agua

Guatemala… what are the first things that come to mind when you hear this name? Jungle? Poverty? Tikal? The thing is, Guatemala is so much more than just another Central America country and to summarize it to a handful of westerner’s clichés is unfair.

Here you will find lush forests, volcanoes, a lively culture, ancient ruins and black sand beaches. Head over to the pacific coast to watch baby sea turtles being released, or boat to one of the quiet Atitlán villages for some tranquil R&R. Try the street tacos and tortas, and walk through the various archaeological ruins (Tikal is not the only one!) for a trip back in time. Over 40% of the population is of Mayan descent, and you’ll see their unique culture through their beautiful textiles, various languages, and religious ceremonies.

And the colors! From the clothing to the buildings to the landscapes, Guatemala is one of the most colorful places we have ever been. It is vibrant in every sense of the word. Visit the local market for fresh produce and skilled crafts, and walk through a cemetery or two to see striking examples of a blend of culture. Here we’ll share not only some of the best things to do in Guatemala, but also how to do them economically.

1. Hike an active volcano

Volcan Fuego
Volcan Fuego

Guatemala is renown for its volcanoes. The most notorious one is Volcán Fuego near Antigua, which frequently erupts with smoke and fire. Volcan Fuego caused a good amount of damage in June 2018 when a major eruption and landslide destroyed hillside villages. Luckily, things have calmed down again and Antigua is so far from Fuego that there’s no risk for tourists. Our advice? Spend the night on Volcán Acatenango. On a clear day, you’ll get an incredible sunrise, sunset, and being there after dark means you have a good chance of seeing bright lava from nearby Fuego.

Prices for tours up Acatenango, not including Fuego, can reach near $100, a whopping Q750. Shop around. In our experience around Antigua, price doesn’t necessarily mean quality. Go for cheaper and be thorough in your questions to tour companies, as many may make false claims to get you onboard. Wherever possible, don’t pay in advance and bargain hard. Don’t like tours? On a budget? Read on for information on how to save some serious bucks climbing the mighty Acatenango.

Climbing the Pacaya Volcano

Looking for an easier hike around Antigua? Try Volcán Pacaya, which is about 45 minutes drive from town. The trail up is much milder but the volcano is equally active. You have to go with a local guide on this one. Even tour companies are required to have a Pacaya guide join them. Prices for Pacaya day hikes vary widely. For example, a day hike starts at Q75 with the company C.A. Travelers, excluding the Q50 access fee, and can easily reach Q450 with some of the ”fancier” agencies.

While both Pacaya and Acatenango can be done on day trips, we seriously recommend camping for the experience. Seeing and hearing the eruptions throughout the night is sure to be a highlight of your Guatemala trip!

Climbing Acatenango without a guide

Acatenango camp
Better than any tour company base camp!

Most people hike Acatenango with tour companies, paying absurd prices for guides that more often than not don’t speak English and are around for little more than showing the trail. It’s also possible to climb Acatenango on your own. It’s about an hour’s drive away from Antigua, and you can take chicken buses to the trailhead.

Check out our in-depth guide to hiking Acatenango without a tour. You’ll find maps, specific buses and prices to get you there and back like clockwork.

The path is well traveled and clear. You just have to make sure to take the right direction at a few key intersections. Getting a good offline GPS app like maps.me is useful, and most people you meet along the way should be able to tell you which way to go. This a serious endeavor and it requires good planning as the weather on the mountain can be unforgiving. The trail is challenging, steep in some parts, and you’ll feel the altitude affect you. Drink lots of water the day before your hike and during. Remember to bring the Q50 entrance fee and some warm clothing! It gets cold up there at night and if you’re in doubt of your experience, you should probably be going with a tour! Unsure of what to bring? Check out our backpackers packing guide for tips.

2. Explore the Colonial Ruins in Antigua

Ruins in Antigua, Guatemala
Ruins in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua used to be the capital of Guatemala. After one too many earthquakes and disasters, the capital was moved to the safer Guatemala City, where it remains today. While the most impressive cathedrals are now preserved ruins, they still have a ghostly beauty about them. Walk around the main square for some more modern architecture, or simply take a stroll through downtown to enjoy the colorful cobblestone streets.

One striking thing about Antigua is how clean it is.

Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so it has strict guidelines on cleanliness, but even the neighboring villages take pride in keeping their streets swept and litter-free. The expansive bus station has buses leaving to just about anywhere you want to go in the area. Next to the station are a couple of markets, although they tend to blend together into one large maze of booths, selling everything from lingerie to fried chicken. Here you can find art, textiles, pots and pans, toilet seats, clothing, and all sorts of food.

Antigua is a touristy town, so avoid restaurants and stores around the main square, as they will be much pricier than the outlying stores. In general, the prices in Antigua will be much higher than the average cost of travel in Guatemala.

Near Parque Central, check out the iconic decorated arch that defines the historical city. There are also great things to do in the villages that surround Antigua. Valhalla Macadamia Farm, for example, is a quiet place to relax and the church in San Juan del Obispo is a fantastic seldom-visited historic building.

3. Take in the peaceful shores of Lake Atitlán

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

It’s hard to describe the feeling you get standing at the base of Lake Atitlán. First off, it’s beautiful. Surrounded by volcanoes, Lake Atitlán is so large that it feels peaceful, despite the distant boat traffic. You get to choose your own experience at Lake Atitlán. If you’re into partying and touristy markets, stay in Panajachel. Called Pana for short, this is the starting point to get to most of the villages around the lake.

For all its beauty, Atitlán is a proud cornerstone of Guatemala’s big three touristic sites, the others being Antigua and Tikal. For this reason, tourist-focused experiences and restaurants are prevalent, prices go up accordingly and the infamous ”gringo price” is fully enacted.

If you’re into a more quiet and cultural experience, take a lancha (shared water-taxi) to Santiago Atitlán. It is one of the most indigenous villages. Avoid hustlers and head straight to boat captains. They will still try to charge you Q50, or even Q100, but the fair price is Q25. Some other destinations around Atitlán actually are only Q10. Quoted above price? Bargain or walk away to the next boat. These scams rely on the unsuspecting tourist simply obliging and are in fact attempted on the locals as well. The difference is that Guatemalans generally won’t fall for it.

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4. Wander around Zaculeu

A temple at the site of Zaculeu, Guatemala
A temple at the site of Zaculeu, Guatemala

See? I told you Tikal isn’t the only ancient site. At Q50, we had reservations about going to Zaculeu. Sure, Tikal is Q150, but it is the most popular ancient Maya site in Central America. We’d only stumbled upon Zaculeu by chance. After experiencing it, though, we can recommend it without reservations. Upon entry, check out the museum, which houses a decent collection of pottery, blades, skeletons and art found during the restoration of the site. Information about the site is on signboards in Spanish, so download an offline translator if you are interested but aren’t fluent.

Next, walk out into the bright center of what was once the Mam capital. Restoration on these structures was done by a fruit company, rather than a university or professional archaeology firm, so preservation isn’t the best, but under the thick plaster-covered structures you can still sense the magnitude of this place. Locals come here to offer prayers, make sacrifices, or simply picnic on the top of a structure (they have a much lower entrance fee).

To get to Zaculeu, take a chicken bus from Huehuetenango. It costs Q5 one way and leaves every half hour, give or take. It’s so easy to reach, we’re amazed it’s not more popular, but we’re not complaining. Like what you see? The partially restored site of Q’umarkaj, near Santa Cruz del Quiche is well worth checking out!

5. Paddle by the mangroves of Monterrico

Mangroves in Monterrico, Guatemala
Mangroves in Monterrico, Guatemala

Monterrico is a coastal town with a jungle feel. Here you can stroll along the black sand beaches, or walk inland to the get to the Mangroves. Visit the Tortugario to see their turtles, iguanas and alligators, and come back at sunset to watch them release hundreds of baby sea turtles into the Pacific Ocean.

There is a long line of hostels along the beach geared toward tourists, but there are few local options where you can get genuine cheap lodging, if you don’t mind a little discomfort. We found a hotel for $3 each. Eating-wise, your wallet will stay happy, because you can eat for almost free at the cheap food carts that line the streets. However, if you choose to sit down at restaurants, don’t be surprised to find the highest prices we’ve encountered in Guatemala.

6. Explore the Mysterious Tikal

Exploring the main plaza surrounded by temples in Tikal
Exploring the main plaza surrounded by temples in Tikal

The most popular archaeology site in Guatemala and last member of the Big Three, Tikal is famous for good reason. Located in the jungle of El Péten, this remote site is at the heart of the ancient Mayan world and boasts some of the most impressive Mesoamerican ruins.

Tikal National Park spans 575 square kilometers, so the park you walk into is only a tiny glimpse of what was once a powerful civilization. As a bonus, you’ll likely see some monkeys playing in the trees while you walk around.

While it is a costly endeavor, no visit to Guatemala can be considered complete without a visit to Tikal. Want to fully appreciate this gem? Camp directly on site, catch the sunrise from Tempolo 4 and use the extra time to better explore this gigantic site.

7. Relax in Flores

View from a ferry of Flores, Guatemala
View from a ferry of Flores, Guatemala

Most people include Flores in their tour of Tikal, but it’s such a unique little city that it is worth its own category. It’s a touristy little town with a local feel. Flores is only a few hundred meters across so you don’t need days to explore it, but a day relaxing on a veranda of its many hotels is fun. If you’re interested in a little hike, take a five-minute lancha ferry to San Miguel (Q5), where you can trek through the jungle and see an archaeology site and an impressive banyan tree. There is even a lookout tower to watch the sunset over Flores.

Surprisingly, food in Flores is cheap and delicious if you look for it. Accommodation options are slightly more expensive than we like but dorms can sometimes be found for Q40 if you search properly.

What about El Remate? Some guidebooks incorrectly suggest that nearby El Remate is a quiet place, safe from tourists but our experience is very different. With a highway traversing it and every other door being geared towards tourists, it has none of the quaint charm Flores boasts and unless you have a specific reason to avoid Flores, you shouldn’t make any detour to see El Remate.

8. Live it up in Livingston

Garifuna man
Garifuna man

One of Guatemala’s hidden niches, Livingston is an isolated town made of mostly Garifuna people. Their lively, rhythmic culture is unlike anything you’ll find in Guatemala. The town is only accessible by boat, which helps maintain the spirit of the small community. Experience some of their unique music and dance around town, and be sure to try their local rum drink, gifiti.

Around an hour’s walk along the beach from town are Los Siete Altares, a series of freshwater pools and waterfalls hidden in the lush Caribbean jungle. Here you can swim in the rock pools and visit the Garifuna cultural center.

Checking out these places will give you a diverse overview of Guatemala, and we managed to travel to each place for cheap through travel hacking, research and a bit of creativity. Have you been to cool places in Guatemala? How about Latin America in general? Let us know in the comments below!

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The best things to do in Guatemala

4 thoughts on “The Best Things to do in Guatemala”

  1. Hello. I am interested to go to Livingston. Do you know how I can go from Guatemala City? Do you have to stop at Dulce Rio first and then take a boat? How does it work? Thx!

    1. Hey,

      We haven’t gotten around to writing our guide about Livingston, but here’s what we suggest. From Guatemala City, take a coach bus, Litegua if I remember, to Puerto Barrios. We normally like chicken buses but for this distance, we didn’t see that many on the highway, and it didn’t seem to be an option. From there, take a lancha (ferry) to Livingston. Fastest, cheapest option. On the way out, you can cruise through Rio Dulce or use a lancha again. There are bus terminals in Rio Dulce so it’s easy to catch any of the Tikal bound buses. Tour companies in Livingston advertise the ride from Livingston to Rio Dulce as a tour but it’s not, it’s just a taxi that slows down once to show you some shoreline. So do yourself a favor, take the absolute cheapest tour, bargain hard and don’t hesitate to show discontent at your destination if the tour wasn’t as promised. Our captain decided to skip the tour to the castle on the end of the tour. We got to shore, complained and he took us back after some other passengers also complained. He had to call the tour company because apparently no one had told him it was a tour.

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