Guatemala Vacation Guide
Home to spectacular Mayan ruins, gorgeous Pacific and Caribbean beaches, lush jungles, the highest point in Central America, Guatemala is an ideal destination for adventurers or those seeking some R & R on the beach. As the cradle of Mayan civilization, Guatemala has a rich cultural history as well as active volcanoes, beautiful lakeside villages and Spanish colonial architecture, making it a great travel destination for any type of traveler. Whether you want to hang out in a beachside hotel or trek up as many of Guatemala’s large volcanoes as you can, this Central American country has a little bit of everything to offer the adventurous traveler.
While some of Guatemala’s remote areas are difficult to access and should probably only be explored by more intrepid travelers, no matter what your travel style or budget, you can plan your ideal trip in Guatemala. We’ve got great deals on airfare to Guatemala to get you started and once your flight is booked we can also help you figure out the best accommodation option for your trip—whether it’s a luxury resort, mid-range hotel or budget hostel. Whether you are traveling with your brand new designer luggage or your old trusty backpack, we can help you plan a fun-filled Central American adventure. Once you are in Guatemala, you’ll have to figure out how to spend your time during your vacation. You can stay at an eco-lodge, get the best tips for how to backpack on a shoestring budget, visit Mayan Ruins, find the best beach, spend some time along the shores of the spectacular Lake Atitlan or roam the bustling streets of Guatemala City.
In this guide to Guatemala, you’ll find everything you need to plan an unforgettable and truly enjoyable trip. Bargain hunting for a deal on a flight? Want to know what kind of food you’ll be eating during your trip or how to get around? Looking for pointers on how to stay safe? Want to find a tour that will help show you the best that the country has to offer? Want to navigate local culture and find hidden gems often overlooked by guidebooks? Want to know what to wear when you climb one of the country’s many volcanoes? All you have to do is navigate the site, pack a few bottles of bug repellent and join a community of Guatemala lovers and travelers!
Guatemala City is one of the largest urban areas in all of Central America. The city may be the largest in Central America, but it certainly isn’t the prettiest. If you are willing to put up with the hustle of the city and its massive transportation problem, there are a few things Guatemala City can offer.
One of the main attractions in Guatemala are the Mayan Ruins located in the city of Tikal. The ruins once served as the capital of the vast Mayan empire. Today, they are a popular tourist destination. The Mayan ruins at Tikal area great way to spend a day or two of exploring. There are a number of tours, day trips, and overnight trips to the ruins and surrounding area.
Tikal is easily the grandest and most popular set of ruins in Guatemala. The ruins in Tikal are better known as The Great Plaza. This set of ruins once served as the capital city of the large Mayan empire. This set of Maya ruins has everything from large temples, to buildings, and even a ball court.
The archaeological site of these ruins is now part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park. The ruins found in Tikal are currently the largest set of Mayan ruins in the world. and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even after decades of excavation, there are still thousands of buildings that have yet to bring to the surface. Among the number of excavated sites, the most prominent surviving buildings include six very large Mesoamerican step pyramids. Some of these pyramids are over 200 feet high.
Quirigua is one of the smallest Mayan cities in Guatemala, but still widely popular. Its popularity is due to its number of beautiful monuments. Among these monuments is the largest stelae ever found in a Mayan city. A ghost town of sorts, Quirigua was abandoned in the 10th century for unknown reasons.
If you are looking for an adventure to accompany your visit to Mayan ruins, you’ll be interested in finding your way to Aquateca in the region of Peten. Found in the jungle alongside the Pasion River Ceibal, Aquateca is an interesting assortment of waterways, ruins, and jungle.
Climb a Volcano
There are two claimable volcanoes located in Guatemala. The Tajumulco Volcano is the highest volcano and Central America. Surprisingly enough though, the Tajumulco Volcano is only moderately difficult to climb. If you are looking for a little more of a challenge, you can check out the Tolimán Volcano. If you want something very unique, climb Hunapu and you can sleep in a refugee located inside the crater.
If you are in Guatemala on November 1st, you are in for a treat. November 1st marks the Day of the Dead or All Souls Day in which Guatemalans celebrated departed loved ones. This festival is full of ghoulish treats and plenty of visual stimulation. Graveyards are decorated with an abundance of flowers, skulls, skeletons, and more.
Guatemala is known for a lot of things, unfortunately, beaches aren’t one of them. The East coast of Guatemala is small and offers little in the way of coastline and beaches. The Pacific coast offers a number of black sand beaches that offer a nice change of scenery from the rest of the country. Beaches on the Pacific Coast can be rough at times, so expect a wicked rip tide in some places.
It will probably never make a top 10 beaches list, but Monterrico is one of the nicest and closest beaches to Guatemala City. Monterrico is only a few hours from Guatemala City and Antigua by bus or car. The beach has the small-town coastal city feel you usually only find in the Caribbean. The small town is more concerned with enjoying life than worrying about the rest of the world. here you will also find Hawaii Beach which is home to the Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii animal sanctuary.
The Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii animal sanctuary is a nature preserve located on/near the Hawaii beach. Here you can visit the nature preserve and maybe even participate in the parks turtle release program. Monterrico offers a number of accommodations that range from backpacker-friendly hostels to some mid-rate hotels. There are a number of restaurants and shops.
A little further up the coastline from Monterrico is Puerto San Jose. Puerto San Jose is the second largest port in Guatemala. Here you can find a Guatemalan beach that is as good as any in the country. The town has some restaurants, bars, and shops near the main drag. The only drawback here is the town itself. It’s not as nice as Monterrico, its a bit more dirty and dull.
Just outside of the Puerto San Jose you will find the small village of Chulamar. The town and beaches of Chulamar are much nicer than Puerto San Jose. The town also features one of the more upscale resorts in Guatemala, The Hotel Villas del Pacifico Resort and Conference Center.
If you are looking to do some sport fishing, head to the next town over, which is Itztapa. There are plenty of decent hotels here and even more places to arrange for sportfishing tours.
Lake Atitlan gets its name from the Mayan word “Atitlan”, which translates to, “where the rainbow gets its colors.” That description of Lake Atitlan is about as good and accurate as they come. Among other things, Lake Atitlan is known as not only being the deepest lake in Central America but arguably the most beautiful as well. Lake Atitlan is located only about 80 miles from Guatemala City and rests in the western highlands of Guatemala. The area is easily reached from both Guatemala City and Antigua. The most popular destination when arriving to the Lake Atitlan area is the city of Panajachel. Buses to Panajachel are easily found in most major cities, especially Guatemala.
Exploring the Markets of Latin America
Whether I head to a large city such as Budapest, Vienna or London, or to a smaller, hidden location, such as the medieval town of Sighisoara, I always ask around to find where the local market is located. Why? Because shopping at markets is one of the things I love to do while traveling, helping me to get the vibe of the local community.
If you are used to the markets in Europe or in farmers’ markets in North America, you’ll probably have a bit of a shock reaction when you visit the markets in Latin America. For the outsider, it looks like chaos, but you should know things are actually organized. Knowing at least some phrases in the local language will definitely help a lot. And in many places, you can even bargain (depending on the local customs).
Probably the first thing that will catch your eyes in Guatemala are the exotic Latin American fruits: dragon fruit, guava, tamarillo, physalis (Cape Gooseberry), passionfruit, Cherimoyas or the Indian fig; all are available in the area and some are native to Guatemala. And yes, if you tried them at home (bought from a supermarket) they will taste totally different when you buy them from a local market.
But aside from soaking up the local atmosphere, you can also shop at the markets to cut down the costs of your vacation. Hostels in Guatemala offer affordable accommodation and most also have a common kitchen you can use. So, buy the food at the market and cook at the hostel.
And don’t forget to pick up some souvenirs for your family and friends back home. I tend to favor clothes.
hanks to an interesting history, Guatemala has a very eclectic cuisine. The food of Guatemala has been influenced over the years by the Mayans, Spanish rule, and the modern Republic. These influences can be seen in the variety of dishes served throughout the country. While Guatemala doesn’t have a national dish, there are a number of food items that have become staples in almost every dish.
As with many of the Americas, rice and beans are one of those staple foods found in just about any dish. Thanks to the Mayans, corn-based items such as tortillas have found their way into many dishes as well. Other items such as eggs, cheese, and potatoes are widely consumed.
The Best Local Drinks
Guatemala Coffee – While not exactly a food, the coffee in Guatemala is certainly worth mentioning. Most of the coffee found in Guatemala is exported out, and with good reason, it is considered to be some of the best coffee in the world. Oddly enough, Guatemalans don’t like strong coffee. They tend to make very weak coffee and add loads of milk and sugar. For the real taste of the coffee, you will either have to make it yourself or visit some of the more touristy areas.
Fruit Juices – Next to the coffee, the juices here are some of the best around. This probably has something to do with all of them being made from fresh fruit right before your eyes. At most restaurants, you can have your fruit of choice served with milk or water. Both of these choices are amazing and you will undoubtedly order several over the course of your meal.
Quetzalteca – This is the local liquor. It is very potent stuff and made from raw sugar cane.
The Best Local Food
Tamales – There are probably hundreds of different varieties of tamales across the country. These local tamales are probably the closest thing you’ll come to finding a national dish. There are a number of things that make tamales unique from what they are wrapped into what they are stuffed in. Typically the tortilla dough is made out of corn, potatoes, or rice. Stuffing can include meats, fruits, nuts, and just about anything else you can think of.
Backpackers Budget Guide
Guatemala has been gaining popularity by hardcore backpackers for some time now. Maybe it is the overly friendly people, the country’s beautiful landscapes, or the abundance of history. I would guess though, that it has more to do with how far you can make your budget stretch here. While many places in Central America are backpacker budget-friendly, Guatemala is certainly near the top of the list.
Average Budget Prices
If you can stick to your budget, it is very possible to live and travel off of US$12 to US$17 a day per person. This, of course, assumes you are staying at hostels and backpacker-friendly lodging. This US$12 to US$17 a day price includes meals if you eat at local restaurants and avoid the more upscale places that target tourists.
It is possible to eat out locally and still stay on a very backpacker friendly budget. The trick here is to eat where the locals eat, not the tourists. Most of these local restaurants serve the same basic food at the same basic prices. A typical style meal of rice, beans, and some sort of meat or poultry will usually run you around US$2 to US$3.
Breakfast in Guatemala is perfect for a hungry traveler. Breakfast here is one of the biggest meals of the day. For only a few dollars you can get a full breakfast of coffee, eggs, bread, beans, juice, and tortillas.
Sodas, juices, water, and other simple drinks are all usually under US$2. Beer and liquor tend to be more around US$3 to US$4.
While Guatemala doesn’t have a huge network of hostels like other Central American countries such as Costa Rica. It still has a decent amount of budget hotels and hostels.
The average hostel in Guatemala will usually cost you around US$7 to US$12 a night. A room at this price is almost always a dorm room or some variation of it. Hostels and backpacker hotels usually have shared rooms with 3 or 4 beds in them. There are not very many hostels with large amounts of bunk beds and almost none of these budget-priced rooms have showers or bathrooms in the room.
If you feel like living it up for a night or two, there are plenty of nice hotels and lodges that aren’t too expensive. These moderately priced accommodations can be a nice retreat from the hostel life, but without breaking the bank.
Some of the more remote places have plenty of things to do that cost next to nothing. Areas like Lake Atitlan and Tikal can provide the backpacker with lots of personal exploring, people watching, and day hiking.
Most National Parks in Guatemala charge an entrance fee of about US$5 to US$7
Chiminos Island Lodge
One of the most popular eco-lodges in all of Guatemala has to be the Chiminos Island Lodge. The Chiminos Island Lodge is located about six and a half hours from Guatemala City, but most people come here from the nearby city of Flores. From Flores, is only about a one hour drive to Chiminos Island Lodge. Once here, be prepared to experience the nature of Guatemala in a very unforgettable way.
Chiminos Island Lodge is a very private eco-lodge accommodation. The Chiminos Island Lodge consists of five very comfortable bungalows that rest amongst the jungle wilderness. These luxuriously rustic bungalows can sleep up to five people with no problem. the rooms at Chiminos Island Lodge are equipped with their own water treatment system, private bathrooms, hot water, and much more.
Since these bungalows are secluded deep in the jungle, you will undoubtedly see and hear an abundance of wildlife right from your room. Aside from the wildlife viewing, the Chiminos Island Lodge offers breathtaking views. make your way to one of the many hammocks found in the lobby to enjoy views of the lagoon, sunset, and surrounding area.
The Chiminos Island Lodge also has a new floating dock. The dock is a perfect place to spend the day swimming, sunbathing, fishing, or just relaxing around the lagoon after a long day of exploring the nearby ruins and other archaeological sites.
On the grounds of the Chiminos Island Lodge you will also find and amazing restaurant. Here you can find some of the best food in the jungle! The restaurant here serves an eclectic blend of traditional meals with modern-day twists. Among the more traditional meals, you will also find some worldly inspired dishes. The husband and wife team of cooks will help take care of any of your food needs as well as cook anything on the menu to your liking.
For such a private jungle bungalow, one would expect to pay hundreds of dollars a night, this is not so in Guatemala. Prices for the Chiminos Island Lodge start at around US$95 a person during the slow season. During the busy tourist season, prices can increase to US$110 a night per person. This is an incredible deal for such an amazing location and eco-lodge.