Guatemala may be small, but it has a lot to offer the adventurous and curious traveller.
The Central America country, bordered by Mexico, Belize and Honduras offers volcanoes, beautiful colonial cities, and Mayan ruins.
You’ll need at least 10 days to enjoy the best of Guatemala, and here’s a suggested itinerary. This itinerary can be done in either direction by entering Guatemala through the neighbouring countries of Mexico, Belize, Honduras or El Salvador.
Day 1 – Explore Mayan ruins
After a long day of travel to Flores no matter where you came from, the stunning Mayan ruins of Tikal are waiting for you to explore on your first full day in Guatemala.
The ruins are located in the jungle about an hour’s drive from Flores – or you also have the option to stay at very basic accommodation closer to the ruins if you want to visit at sunrise.
It’s easy to get to and from Tikal with every tour agency in Flores offering transport. You can opt for transport only, or get a local guide as well.
Prices start from 80 GTQ (Guatemalan Quetzals) for return transport only ($14 AUD).
You can organise your preferred option the night before easily in Flores.
Cost of entry into Tikal is 150 GTQ ($25 AUD). Plan to spend at least 4-5 hours exploring the ruins as they are spread across a large area under a dense jungle canopy. You can also climb to the top of many temples for spectacular views.
You’ll feel like Indiana Jones as you explore the ruins.
Day 2 – Transit to Lanquin
Unless you chose to skip Lanquin and fly direct to Guatemala City from Flores, there’s no way around the fact that Day 2 will consist of you seeing the Guatemalan scenery pass by in a minibus for eight hours. But trust me – Semuc Champey is worth the journey.
The highlight of the bus journey is the drive down to Lanquin from Copan. You have to traverse a narrow road on the edge of a cliff. If you’ve seen pictures of the Death Road in Bolivia, this is pretty much identical. If you’re scared of heights, maybe close your eyes for this section!
Prices for the tourist shuttle bus will cost between 120-150 GTQ ($20-25 AUD).
There’s many activities you can do from Lanquin to make the most of the Semuc Champey area. Semuc Champey means place of the underground river in the local language.
Semuc Champey is a 300-metre natural limestone formation that forms a bridge over the River Cahbon.
You can choose to the hike up to the viewpoint for a stunning view of Semuc Champey, head into the water for a swim, or go tubing down the river.
The hike up the viewpoint is short but steep and will take about 30 minutes each way. You can them wash the sweat off in the swimming holes. Make sure you bring a padlock with you to store valuables in the lockers next to the swimming hole.
You can also explore the caves around Lanquin. There’s the Bat Cave (Lanquin Cave) where you can see thousands of bats swarm out of the cave at dusk, or you can go swimming through the Marias Cave.
The latter involves getting a candle at the cave entrance to light your way, then wading through sometimes chest deep water into the cavernous depths. Two guides lead the way through the cave and you will also be assisted by ropes and ladders. The tour lasts about an hour.
Cost of transport to the Semuc Champey entrance is 50 GTQ return ($9 AUD). You’ll be transported in the back of a 4×4 vehicle. Be warned it’s a bumpy, bone jarring ride.
Packages are also offered which include a guide to Semuc Champey, the cave tours and tubing.
Day 4 Transit to Antigua or Panajachel
Another day, another long bus journey.
From Lanquin, it’s an 8 hour bus to Antigua or an 11 hour bus to Panajachel – the gateway to Lake Atitlan.
If you like volcanoes and colonial cities, then Antigua is definitely worth a visit.
Day 5 – Antigua
Antigua is one of my favourite colonial cities. It’s filled with beautiful old buildings and is also rimmed with volcanoes. There’s a photo opportunity at almost every corner.
Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala and dates back to the 1500s. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Guatemala’s capital was relocated from Antigua to what is now present day Guatemala City after a severe earthquake in 1773.
Must do sights include the Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) lookout, the ruins of the San Francisco and Capuchinas convents, San Jose Church and the Church and Convent of Santa Clara.
Don’t forget to get a photo of Antigua’s iconic Santa Catalina arch on 5a Avenida Norte with a great view of Volcano Agua.
And you have to try the savoury and sweet treats at the Santa Clara bakery – it’s a local and tourist favourite.
Day 6-7 Get up close to one of Antigua’s volcanoes
No visit to Antigua would be complete without getting up close to a volcano. You have a couple of options.
The first one is going to check out the Pacaya Volcano. Tours depart at 6am and 3pm daily to walk up to the top of Cerro Chino and check out the Pacaya Volcano. The hike up takes about an hour and you’ll need a reasonable level of fitness for the steep and sometimes slippery hike.
Expect to pay 80 GTQ ($14 AUD) for the tour plus an additional 50 GTQ ($9 AUD) for the national park entrance fee.
The more adventurous can opt to camp overnight on Acatenango Volcano to witness the regular eruptions of Fuego Volcano. The volcano is extremely active and on a clear night you’ll be able to see lava flows.
Day 7-9 Lake Atitlan
The long bus journeys are behind you now and it’s only a 3 hour bus trip to Lake Atitlan from Antigua.
You have many accommodation options to choose from when you arrive. You can stay in the gateway town of Panajachel, or choose to stay in one of the small villages on the lake. The most popular options are San Pedro La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna and Santiago.
You reach the lake villages by boat. The cost of each journey costs between 20 -25 GTQ ($3.50-$4 AUD) one way. Payment is cash only when you get off the boat at your stop.
Boats are small and fitted with horizontal seats. It can be a bumpy ride so beware if you’re prone to motion sickness. Also if you sit up the front, you’re likely to get wet.
San Pedro is best for bar lovers, while San Marcos are for lovers of the quiet lakeside life.
You can also hike up the San Pedro volcano. It can be done independently or through an organised tour. It’s best to do the hike in the morning as cloud cover usually starts to creep over the volcano by midday.
Day 10 – Stay longer at Lake Atitlan or head to nearby towns
If you’re loving the Lake Atitlan vibe, stay a little longer or head onto the nearby towns of Quetzaltenango (usually shortened to Xela (pronounced shay-la) or Chichicastenango.
Chichicastenango can be done as a day trip from Panajachel to visit its renowned artisanal market. Xela is a beautiful highland town.
From Lake Atitlan, you can head into Mexico to San Cristobal de las Casas, or return to Antigua to go onto neighbouring countries. The most popular options are Copan Ruinas in Honduras or Leon, Nicaragua via El Salvador.
Things You Should Know
- It’s easy to access Guatemala by land from Mexico or Belize and you have several options. You can start your Guatemalan adventure at Lake Atitlan or Xela by catching a daily shuttle bus from San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico. You can reach Flores, Guatemala from Palenque, Mexico by crossing the border via a combination of minibus and boat. Marlin Espadas also offers a bus from Tulum, Lake Bacalar or Chetumal in Mexico to Flores, Guatemala via Belize. You have to change buses in Belize City. You can also get to Flores by booking a ticket on a bus from the Belize City Water Taxi Terminal or San Ignacio.
- Overland travel through Guatemala is slow going and there’s no other tourist spots between Flores and Lanquin and Lanquin and Antigua, so allowing travel days in your itinerary is essential. It is an option however to fly between Flores and Guatemala City.
- Tourists are recommended to take organised shuttle buses rather than the local chicken buses for safety reasons and also efficiency. Shuttle buses go direct, are safer and are not much more expensive than the local buses.
- Guatemala is a cash economy and you’ll need cash for shuttle buses, tours, accommodation and food. ATMs are plentiful and accept most foreign cards, however many ATMs have a withdrawal limit of 1,000 GTQ at a time.
- You can’t drink the tap water is Guatemala but bottled water is easily available.
- Roads are bumpy and often windy in Guatemala. Be prepared if you’re prone to motion sickness.
- You’ll need to pack for all weather conditions in Guatemala. Tikal is often wet, and volcano summits can be very cold. Antigua and Lake Atitlan can have very warm days, but get cold at night as soon as the sun goes down.