There are so many things to do in Guatemala, a challenging country, and yet a must-visit. Blessed with mighty vulcanos, a profound indigenous culture, charming colonial architecture, delicious coffee, and colorful textiles. In this post, I am sharing all the unmissable places to visit in Guatemala and many useful practical tips.
I have been to Guatemala twice and in both cases for a long period of time. I haven’t been traveling all the time, because I was housesitting in Antigua for a few months. However, I have been traveling solo around the most incredible places and explored Antigua inside out in the 9 months I spent here.
I have to be honest, for as much as I love Guatemala, it is not an easy country, especially for solo female travelers. If you consider that I am scared of everything, you can imagine my concern.
However I made it and I manage to feel pretty safe everywhere I went, but with some precautions of course. The first main one is avoiding infamous places that are well known for being unsafe, such as Guatemala City, for example.
In fact, if you are traveling with an open mind and some common sense you can travel around on your own and stay safe while enjoying this beautiful country.
Among the most popular landmarks in Guatemala, the most noteworthy are Semuch Champey, one of the most beautiful of Central America’s natural wonders, and the Volcano Tajumulco the tallest mountain in Central America.
But also rich coffee plantations, charming colonial cities, and the famous lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes in Latin America surrounded by mountain peaks and lush vegetation are places that make Guatemala a great place to include in your Latin America itinerary.
With its 37 vulcanos, Guatemala is definitely a popular destination among hikers, but you don’t have to be a pro to get on top of one of those majestic peaks, as there are many hikes that are suitable for beginners as well. I will tell you more about it later on in this post.
I will share my perfect Guatemala Itinerary on another occasion, while here you will find the most incredible things to do in Guatemala and places to visit, not necessarily in preference order. That would be a difficult task.
The best things to do in Guatemala and the best places to visit
Spend few days on Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan (not to be confused with the smaller lake Amatitlan) has been one of the most popular destinations for any traveler who set foot in the Guatemalan territory. It’s a must-visit place that requires full attention and a separate post. However, let me tell you a little about this spectacular postcard-worthy destination.
Nestled amongst the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range, Lake Atitlan belongs to the Department of Sololá in the southwestern region of Guatemala.
It is the deepest lake in Central America with a maximum depth of 350 mt. and although it’s not properly considered a crater lake, the lake basin is indeed volcanic in origin formed by a volcanic eruption something like 84.000 years ago. (source).
It is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, if not for the spectacular green backdrop of mountains, hills, and volcanos.
Besides the spectacular views, you will enjoy visiting the Mayan villages scattered around the coast, a few of them, such as San Juan la Laguna, Santiago Atitlan, and Santa Catarina, are less touristy and where you can find the most authentic Mayan Culture.
Backpackers love San Pedro La Laguna, though, for some reason, I didn’t particularly like it, and though I didn’t have any bad experience. In fact, it is notoriously the hub for drug and party seekers.
Yoga lovers prefer San Marcos which has made itself a name within the yoga world offering cheap Yoga teacher training schools and mystic ceremonies, which I wouldn’t trust unless they are imparted by a local authentic shaman.
Panajachel is a friendly called Gringotenango… which will give you an idea of what you will find.
Still, the views of the lake are just magic.
How to get to Lake Atitlan
There are tourist busses leaving from Antigua every day, that will take you to Panajachel and from there you can travel by boat to other towns. You can walk to Santa Caterina, a long walk, which is not particularly fancy until you are almost to the town where you will have spectacular views of the colorful village from afar. Totally worth the walk.
Get to know the local culture in San Juan del Lago
Although as I mentioned before I will write more in detail about Lake Atitlan and all the amazing things to do, I had to include San Juan del Lago as one of the most places to visit in Guatemala, not only on Lake Atitlan.
I fell in love with this small village mostly for the initiative of the local tourism office to help local artisans to show their work to the world and empower local women to live by their art of weaving, a long-time tradition and part of the Mayan heritage.
In San Juan del Lago you can join a guided tour led by one of those women and learn the art of weaving but also their coffee plantations and bee breeding, browse through the magnificent work of local painters, see how they cultivate and use medicinal plants, and much more.
You can also go on a hike to the Cerro de la Cruz, while bird watching and enjoying the stunning views and then hang out and relax in one of the coffee shops in town.
One and a half-day is enough but you may fall in love and want to stay longer. You are invited to spend the night in a homestay to help the local economy and try the experience to live like a local. However, keep in mind the accommodation is very basic.
Join a trek from Antigua to Lake Atitlan
All around Guatemala there are amazing treks which you must do with a local guide, for safety reasons. Getting to Lake Atitlan from Antigua is one of them. You will sleep in local homes in the villages you will meet along the way and enjoy stunning views. Check with local travel agencies in Antigua to learn more.
Visit Semuc Champey natural monument
Nestled within a lush jungle Semuc Champey is a spectacular natural monument in Guatemala that cannot be missed. Located in the northeast region of Alta Verapaz, near the town of Lanquin, Semuc Champey consists of natural emerald green pools on top of a natural 300 m limestone bridge, formed by the collapsing of a rock.
The best way to visit Semuc Champey and enjoy it fully is to spend two nights in one of the Eco Lodges scattered around the Jungle, enjoying the silence of nature interrupted only by birds chirping and howler monkeys claiming their territory.
I stayed at the Utopia Eco Lodge and loved it but there were several others for any budget and location.
How to get to Semuc Champey
Depending on where you are coming from there are tourist busses (which I always recommend) leaving for the major tourist places. I went from Flores, but you can get there from Antigua, Panajachel, Rio Dulce, and Guatemala City.
All the shuttle busses will take you to Lanquin and from there the hotel that you have previously booked will send a shuttle for you. They are very well coordinated. I was really impressed.
Get lost in Chichicastenango Market
The small town of Chichicastenango is well known for the spectacular colorful local market that takes place every Thursday and Sunday.
However, I would recommend visiting on Sunday because you will be able to assist to an incredible example of religious syncretism between the roman catholic church and the Mayan rituals during the mass celebration.
The market itself is an outburst of colors, as local artisans come from all the nearby villages to sell their artifacts, such as textiles, woodworks, natural healing herbs, pottery, but also porks and chicken.
Mind the pickpocketers!
Chichicastenango is located between Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango in the department of El Quiche and the last census stated that 98,5% of the town population is indigenous Mayan K’iche, which makes it the center of the Mayan Culture in Guatemala.
Although it has always been one of the most touristy places to visit, I found it still maintains its own authenticity and by all means worth a visit. Besides, you will contribute to the local business by buying their products.
Just keep in mind that you have a limited luggage allowance because once you are there you will want to buy everything. 🙂
How to get to Chichicastenango
To get there you can join day trips either from Antigua, Panajachel, or Quetzaltenango which is a great option if you have limited time. On the contrary, if you can spend there one night, that would be the best way to visit, without rushing it.
Enjoy a volcano hike
In Guatemala, there are something like 30 active volcanoes over 37 which makes it a paradise for outdoorsy and adventurous travelers. The good part is that you can find any difficulty level and you can choose the one that is suitable for you.
If you are an extreme hiker you can use the easy hikes to train for the heavy ones.
Also, remember the altitude. I wouldn’t recommend going from Rio Dulce or El Paredon, which are at a sea-level to Acatenango which is 3,976 meters (13,044 ft).
If you are planning such a strenuous hike, which leaves from Antigua, I would recommend spending some time in the beautiful city, which you will want to visit anyway and acclimatize before getting to the Acatenango.
If you love to challenge yourself, after Acatenango you can try Agua, Santa Maria, and Tajumulco, for more difficult hikes. Although mind that Agua Volcano is considered at risk of assault and you must go with a good travel agent and police escort and pray that the police didn’t make a deal with the assaulters. (just saying)
Hike the Acatenango Volcano
Among all the possible hikes in Guatemala, Acatenango is the most popular and also the most spectacular, especially if you choose the 2-day trip.
You will start the hike in the late morning and reach the base camp by early afternoon where you can relax, eat and enjoy the peaceful natural surroundings. (some agencies provide the food some others don’t, so make sure you ask)
You will have the option to get to the top of the Acatenango and watch the volcano Fuego erupting in the evening and then go back down to sleep in your already set up tent to wake up in the middle of the night and climb again to the top to be there by sunrise.
Remember this hike is not for the faint of the heart. In fact, I haven’t done it yet as I am writing this and I am still pondering on it. I might go on a private tour, which is more expensive but it will give me more chance to get there, as I walk slow. In fact, you need to be aware of your level of fitness and your pace before joining a group.
You could also hike the Acatenango in one day, which means leaving very early in the morning and get back in the evening, but you will miss the sunrise which is the highlight of the trip.
Hike to the Pacaya volcano
The hike to the Pacaya volcano is the mildest one, perfect for those, like me, who are not in the best shape or those who want to train for a more challenging hike.
It’s only a 2 hours steep walk up to the lookout to watch the spectacular smoking volcano peak and then you will be able to walk on the volcanic rocks very close to the top. No worries it’s not dangerous.
It’s a half a day trip, which leaves you time to explore Antigua in the afternoon. For those who don’t think that can make it there are horses available as well.
Climb Santa Maria volcano
The hike to Santa Maria volcano is considered even more challenging than Acatenango, including some safety issues related to the area. It’s a more off-the-beaten-path hike among the unique activities to do from Quetzaltenango.
I would recommend going with a local certified guide although I know a few people who have done it on their own. If this is your choice, please make sure you are at least with other people and have an offline map on your phone. Also, bring no valuables with you.
Fall in love with Antigua Guatemala
I am not sure if Antigua Guatemala is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but it is definitely one of the prettiest colonial towns in Latin America.
The colorful colonial homes, with flower-decorated bow windows, cobblestone streets, crumbling ruins of old majestic churches, and an overall authentic feel despite being invaded by tourists and a strong community of expats.
You must spend a few days in Antigua, and walk around the historical center, get lost in the colorful Market, visit some of the local museums, including the chocolate one. There is so much to see in Antigua and surrounding that I will dedicate a separate post to it and show you all the Antigua wonders.
One of the best ways to enjoy the historical center, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site is to wear comfortable shoes and just walk around. Or you could join one of the free walking tours. I did one with Pablo and I loved it. He’s a young student and so knowledgeable and passionate about his country’s history and culture.
If you go on your own, do not miss the central plaza/Parque central, the Santa Catalina Arch, the ancient churches, and their fascinating remains, and the Cerro de la Cruz where you can get amazing views of the city and the surrounding volcanoes
If you are a foodie and interested in the local cuisine Antigua offers excellent cooking class options.
Antigua is also the perfect place to get acclimatized before going on a hike.
Visit one of the coffee plantations around Antigua
Guatemala is the 9th largest exporter of coffee in the world, making 2.7% of the world coffee market.
Despite being a small country, the combination of mineral-rich soils (thanks to the proximity of the volcanos) rainfall, humidity, altitude, and temperature allows Guatemala to produce something like seven distinct types of Arabica coffee in different regions.
In fact, Guatemala’s most well-known coffee-growing region is Antigua, for its location between the three volcanos Fuego, Acatenango, and Agua. However, coffee is cultivated in many other regions including Huehuetenango and around the lake Atitlan, Alta Verapaz among others.
In Antigua, though it’s easier to take some tours to visit some of the coffee farms and understand how it is cultivated and processed.
Take a tour to the local villages around Antigua
If you are interested in some off-the-beaten-path places you should explore the surrounding villages a few miles from Antigua. I have taken a tour with Pablo, a young history student passionate about Guatemalan Culture who went out of his way to show me around although I was the only client. He normally does private tours.
We took a local bus to San Antonio Aguascalientes where I could appreciate the old church and the artisan market where women in traditional clothes were practicing the unique art of weaving. I was given a demonstration of how it works and how they use those beautiful and expensive handmade clothes for their ceremonies.
Pablo also took me to the home of a great musician and national Marimba player where I was thought about the marimba music tradition, very interesting as well.
We then moved to the Ciudad Vieja, where we looked at the Iglesia de Santiago de Almolonga with its beautiful white facade in Guatemalan baroque style.
Among other villages that you can visit are, San Pedro Las Huertas, San Juan del Obispo and San Felipe de Jesus.
You can ask Pablo to take you or you can go on your own either by local busses, to have a chicken bus experience, or by Uber.
Take a cooking class
Among all the tours available in Antigua, taking a cooking class could be a great idea if you want to learn about the local cuisine and you want to replicate it at home. There are many different options and here below I am sharing a few
Visit Tikal National Park
Another Guatemalan UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most interesting and visually breathtaking Mayan ruins, the archeological site of Tikal should certainly be included on your Guatemala itinerary, even if it’s a little off path.
In fact, you must get to the pretty town of Flores first and take tours from there. Or if you are ready to splurge you can stay in one of the fancy hotels by the ruins.
Keep in mind that the bus ride from Antigua to Flores is quite long and exhausting. If you don’t have much time you may want to consider getting a domestic flight from Guatemala City to Flores.
Join a 5 days trek to El mirador
El Mirador is one of the Mayan ruins that have been discovered and brought to light from the tick jungles not too long ago.
The trek is not that difficult as it is pretty much on a flat territory but you will need to go with a local guide if you don’t want to get lost or having to deal with the local wildlife by yourself. I would suggest you check with different local travel agencies and see what the options are.
Spend a few days in the town of Flores
Flores is a little island and a town in lake Peten Itza and also one of the departing points of the tour to Tikal. It’s a cute tiny town that you can also use as a base to relax and take sunset boat tours in the lake.
It was my first Guatemalan stop when I visited the country for the first time and I got there after a misadventure while crossing the Mexico-Guatemala borders.
Chill at El remate
El Remate is a sleepy town only 30 minutes bus ride from Flores and besides being a great departing point for your tour to Tikal, it is also a great place to relax by the lake in one of the cute Eco Lodges by the shore. Besides relaxing you can also enjoy outdoor activities, such as hiking, kayaking, swimming, birdwatching, and horseback riding.
Definitely a quieter alternative than Flores to rest on your way to and from Tikal.
Relax in Rio Dulce
If you want to check out the Caribbean coast of Guatemala you should get to Rio Dulce and use it as a base for your tours.
Rio Dulce is a quiet and laid-back village situated right where Lake Izabal and Rio dulce meet. The town in itself is not exactly what I would call a nice place, but you will love to stay in one of the Eco Lodge right by the river opposite to the town, nestled among mangroves and birds.
You can take a boat trip to the Rio Dulce up to Livingston where you can walk around and get the feel of the Caribbean culture, very much different from the rest of Guatemala, and closer to Belize. In fact, that’s where the frontier is.
If you have time I would suggest you stay a couple of nights in Livingston and check out the spectacular Caribbean beaches besides taking a hiking tour to the seven altars waterfall.
Back in Rio Dulce, you can check out the Castillo de San Felipe or what remains of it, where local guides will give you a tour. From the tours of the castle, you can have incredible views of the lake.
Don’t miss Quetzaltenango
Quetzaltenango is one of my favorite places in Guatemala, after Antigua of course. It’s a less touristy city, with a more authentic feel that you can appreciate while walking around the narrow roads, or visiting the nearby villages.
Quetzaltenango is the second-largest city and one of the favorite cities chosen by backpackers who decided to spend some extra time in Guatemala and learn Spanish.
It is in fact cheaper than Antigua and yet with so many attractions to offer, besides a great choice of Spanish schools for international students.
From Quetzaltenango, you can enjoy incredible hikes of all difficulty levels, hot springs, and guided tours to the local villages exploring their ancient churches and markets.
Very popular among hikers and nature lovers, there are in fact so many things to do in Quetzaltenango for solo female travelers too.
I didn’t include Guatemala city in my itinerary except for that one time that I had to go to immigration to fix the immigration situation – you can read my story about crossing the Mexico-Guatemalan border.
I was told it’s definitely one of the least safe places in Latin America and I didn’t want to take any chance. However, if you have to, you should check out Popul Vuh Museum, which is not even far from the airport.
The museum is home to exhibitions about colonial and pre-Hispanic art, definitely an interesting visit if you are into history and culture.
Monterrico was originally the official beach destination in Guatemala where locals and tourists alike used to flock every weekend to enjoy surfing or relaxing on the beach. Active travelers can also enjoy a boat tour in the Natural Reserve and watching the turtle breeding and hatching in the conservation center Tortugario Monterrico.
The area offers a wide variety of accommodation types, from cheap hostels to luxury hotels, for every budget.
I have checked out how to get from Antigua to Monterrico and unfortunately, there are no frequent shuttles, probably because it’s not really popular among tourists anymore who are instead keen to get to El Paredon. (see below)
Locals have their own cars and using the chicken busses is not the safest option.
Surf at El Paredon
El Paredon has now become the most famous place on the Guatemalan Pacific Coast for surfing, beach time, and relaxing and totally replaced Monterrico, both for quietness and safety. Although, party lovers, no worries, because you will find your gem, here!
I visited El Paredon in 2018 and it was a laid-back town with dirt roads and 3 hotels. I will be visiting again soon to check it out now, but I noticed that it has definitely grown since then as the accommodation offer has increased. I will let you know more.
Getting to El Paredon is easy. From Antigua, there are shuttle busses twice a day for about 30 USD and a 3-hour ride.
Visit a sacred lake
A lesser-explored corner of Guatemala is the sacred lake of Chicabal, a crater lake not far away from Xela, that you can reach by a steep but short hike (2-3 hours, depending on your pace).
Chicabal Lake is considered sacred to the Mam Mayan people and for this reason, is prohibited to swim in it. It was formed in the crater of Volcán Chicabal at an elevation of 8,879 feet (2,712 meters) surrounded by cloud forests.
While you walk around the lakeshore you will be able to see several altars placed by the local Mam Mayan for their occasional rituals. However, there are restrictions in places for visiting the lake in May, which is when the Mam people can celebrate their traditional ceremonies.
You can definitely reach the lake lookout on your own, probably even by car, but still, I would recommend going with a local guide, for three main reasons. It is safer, he will provide interesting information on the local culture and history, you will help to sustain the local economy.
Relax in the Fuentes georginas
Another interesting thing to do in Guatemala is relaxing in natural hot springs. There are many scattered around the country, but the most popular ones are at only 30 minutes drive from Quetzaltenango.
They are called Fuente Georginas because they have been restored by president Jorge Ubico around 1930.
Although the pools are man-made, the entire complex is totally built in harmony with the surrounding nature, using wood and stones. It is a great way to relax after strenuous hikes to the volcanoes surrounding Xela.
Located within the municipality of Zunil, you can get there by local chicken bus and then get a taxi to the hot springs.
Or, if you like to be comfortable, like me, you can join an organized tour, which is basically a private transport to Las Fuentes Georginas. Or there is always Uber.
Celebrate the Holy Week in Guatemala
Holy week in Guatemala is a unique glorious event, that blends the profound religious sentiment with a celebration of local art and traditions at their highest expression.
If you have the privilege to be in Guatemala during this time you will enjoy incredible unique ceremonies and performances, a series of sublime imagery displayed in the main churches and points of celebrations.
Local communities will wear their original costumes, altars are generously decorated with flowers and fruits of all sorts and the most elaborated rugs are displayed along the streets.
And of course music. Coral and instrumental music, hymns, and chants are always accompanying the processions. Last but not least, the Guatemalan gastronomy at Easter reaches its maximum expression, and meals are specially prepared with shellfish and chicken, while the sweet dishes for this occasion are torrejas and molletes.
The most significant and worthy celebrations can be seen in Antigua Guatemala, Quetzaltenango, Chiantla (Huehuetenango),Villa Nueva (Guatemala), San Andres Semetabaj (Quiche) and Chicabal (Quetzaltenango).
Visit a cemetery during the day of the dead
I was lucky enough to be around during the day of the dead, twice, and let me tell you it’s the best time to visit Guatemala if you love to dive into the local culture and spirit. The way they celebrate the day of the dead is like in Mexico.
In fact, they share the essence of the Mayan culture. Visiting the cemeteries during that time is one of the best ways you can learn their way to celebrate their deads.
Just like in Mexico, every cemetery, from the big cities to the small towns, is adorned with colorful flowers and altars with food, figurines, incents, and object for their rituals and prayers.
In some cases, you can also find mariachis playing or families banqueting around the tombs of their dearly departed.
It is an occasion to celebrate, not to mourn and it is beautiful to see.
How to move around in Guatemala
Although Guatemala is a relatively tiny country, distances are made longer by the rough road conditions. The main cities are connected by a safe network of public busses (not the chicken busses) but the safest way to travel, although more expensive is by tourist shuttle buses.
Traveling by chicken bus in Guatemala
I know this is the ultimate adventure that you will want to try at least once, but I suggest you pick the least dangerous route if you do.
Chicken busses are so-called because it’s most likely that you see chickens on top of the roof among the luggage and another object of all sorts. Chicken busses are notoriously dangerous for two main reasons.
First of all, they are more exposed to assaults, which are common in an extremely poor country such as Guatemala. Second of all, drivers drive like crazy, something like I have never seen before. They all must be in a hurry for some reason.
I took a chicken bus from Chichicastenango to Quetzaltenango because I had no other options and a private taxi was too expensive and I regretted not having paid for the taxi.
Although that stretch of road is relatively safe in terms of criminality, I cannot say the same for the speed. I have never prayed so much and kissed the ground when we arrived safely to our destination. My thought was… never again!
If you love adventure and daring, I would suggest you avoid getting on a chicken bus from or to Guatemala City, where the crime level is higher.
Shuttle buses in Guatemala
The best way to travel around Guatemala is by shuttle busses, not only for safety reasons but also for comfort.
I know what it means to want to live like a local and when in Rome do as the Romans do, but after such a long time on the road, I love to treat myself with a little more comfort and less hassle. Therefore this is my choice, but hey, each one her own. That’s why I included both options. It’s totally up to you.
The shuttle busses are minivans organized by the local travel agents and connect to the main destination when they reach the minimum number of passengers, which is almost always the case. They all have more or less the same price.
So once you have decided on your Guatemalan itinerary you can just pick any local travel agent and buy your ticket. You may want to check on a couple of them and compare prices, just in case. But the chance is that they are booking the same shuttle, although prices may be different.
When I went to El Paredon beach town I booked with a travel agent who wanted to charge me 200 Q and then went down to 150. When I was on the shuttle I realized that the others paid 110.
So I asked the driver the name of the original travel agent that organized the transfer. I contacted them and booked my return trip with them. And here are their schedule and prices. It’s called New Way Tours.
Although I believe those are the most honest prices keep in mind that to get to the airport from Antigua, it’s much more convenient by Uber which would cover 150 Q at the time you want.
When is the best time to visit Guatemala
Besides the day of de dead and the Holy Week that are special occasions for you to learn about the Guatemalan culture and heritage, here is what I think about the seasons in Guatemala.
I have been in Guatemala for almost a year and I have covered every season. If you are a hiker and you would like clear skies and sunny days, winter is your friend (although they call it Verano, meaning summer in Spanish).
From December through April you will have much less chance of rain and your hikes to the volcano peaks will be rewarded with spectacular unobstructed views. On the negative side, it is extremely cold up there, so be well equipped.
From the end of April, the rain season starts, and it rains indeed. I have never seen so much rain in my life. Like clockwork, rain would come every single day after midday, sometimes even before, with very few exceptions.
So make sure you pick the right time for you, with that in mind.
Is Guatemala Safe?
According to the UK travel advisor site
“Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America; there were 4,914 violent deaths in 2018. Although the majority of serious crime involves local gangs, incidents are usually indiscriminate and can occur in tourist areas.”
And yet, “Despite the high levels of crime, most visits to Guatemala are trouble-free.”
Also keep in mind that not so long ago Guatemala ended one of the most atrocious civil wars which left indelible scars, including extreme poverty, a corrupted government an even more corrupted justice system, and everything that comes with that.
Having said that, Guatemala is a beautiful place, with the kindest and friendliest people, and totally worth visiting.
And yes it is possible to visit Guatemala safely, even for a solo female traveler, if you use precautions and common sense, as I always say.
In my article on Safety in Mexico I laid out the basic rules to observe to stay safe, but Guatemala indeed requires even more care and precaution.
Briefly, here are some of the main safety tips for traveling to Guatemala:
Antigua, the most loved city, as much as Lake Atitlan, Semuc Champey, Rio Dulce, Xela, El Paredon, are relatively safe places where walking around during the day is relatively safe. However, still use the below-mentioned precautions.
Guatemala is definitely an amazing country to visit and I hope my chapter on safety in Guatemala didn’t scare you off from visiting. Just keep your mind open and use some common sense and you can enjoy this amazing country as I did.