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So you’re planning your Guatemala itinerary? I’m jealous because even though I just visited, I want to do it all again!
Guatemala is the most rich and wonderful country I’ve had the pleasure of visiting lately. The people are kind and friendly, the scenery is out of this world, and there’s a fantastic mix of towns and nature so that your trip is full of variety.
Travellers I met all seemed to be spending different amounts of time hence I decided to put together a 2 week Guatemala itinerary, as well as ones for less time and more time, depending how much you have.
How long to spend in Guatemala
Well, how long is a piece of string! I spent 3 weeks in Guatemala AND I’m planning to go back in a few months as part of a longer backpacking Central America trip.
I would recommend at least 2 weeks in Guatemala so you can comfortably explore Antigua, Atitlan, Semuc Champey and Flores with time to hike Volcano Acetanango. It will still be a tight, busy itinerary but it’s possible.
Ideally, I would suggest 3 weeks in Guatemala so you can enjoy the lake towns at your leisure, maybe hike Pacaya Volcano too, and squeeze in a trip to Xela, Guatemala’s second city.
Where to begin your Guatemala itinerary
Following my solo trip to Belize where I had a blast exploring ancient caves full of sacrificial Mayan skeletons, and snorkelling with manatees, sharks and stingrays, I crossed the border from San Ignacio to Flores to begin my Guatemala backpacking itinerary.
However, if you’re not arriving from Belize, it doesn’t make sense to start in Flores. Those arriving by air will most likely begin in Antigua, just an hour from La Aurora International Airport.
Those arriving from Central American countries like Honduras, El Salvador or Nicaragua will also likely arrive into Antigua. So, I’ve structured this Guatemala itinerary starting from Antigua however, you can easily do what I did and go Flores – Semuc Champey – Antigua – Lake Atitlan.
Flying solo? Read my guide to solo travel in Guatemala
1 week Guatemala itinerary
- 2 nights Antigua
- 2 nights Lake Atitlan
- 2 nights in Semuc Champey OR Flores.
10 day Guatemala itinerary
- 2 nights in Antigua
- 3 nights Lake Atitlan (more details about to structure the Lake Atitlan section to come)
- 2 nights Semuc Champey
- 2 nights Flores.
2 week Guatemala itinerary
- 4 nights Antigua (1 full day, 2 days hiking Acetanango)
- 4 nights in Lake Atitlan (more details about how to structure the Lake Atitlan section to come)
- 2 nights in Semuc Champey
- 3 nights in Flores.
3 week Guatemala itinerary
- 5 nights Antigua (2 full days, 2 days hiking Acetanango)
- 2 nights in Xela (day exploring in the middle)
- 5 nights in Lake Atitlan (more details about how to structure the Lake Atitlan section to come)
- 2 nights in Semuc Champey
- 3 nights in Flores.
Guatemala itinerary in detail
Let’s get stuck into the specifics of each place and what to do there with the time you have.
Antigua – 2-6 days
There are few cities in the world as charming as Antigua. Although you wouldn’t think of a city as the best place to begin (or relax during) your busy Guatemala itinerary, actually it’s perfect. This colonial low-rise city is painted like a muted, pastel-coloured rainbow with cobbled streets and, better yet, views of the volcanos surrounding it.
I could easily live here… Or at least stay for months!
Getting to Antigua
From La Aurora International Airport, the drive is just under 1 hour. You can get a shared shuttle for $20 USD or a private taxi from $35.
From Santa Ana in El Salvador, you can also get a direct shuttle for $40.
How long to spend in Antigua?
It depends if you plan to do the volcano hikes. Since Acetanango takes 2 days and you’ll want at least one more to relax and even think about Pacaya (although this is just one day and a lot easier), I’d say at least 6 days is necessary in Antigua to also enjoy the city for a day or two.
However, if you’re not doing any of the hikes, you could see Antigua in a day if necessary… Although this would seem a shame since it’s a great place to wile away time and soak up the city, so I would say schedule two at a minimum!
To summarise, spend 2 nights in Antigua if you have 1 week or 10 days in Guatemala, around 4 nights if you have 2 weeks in Guatemala and around 5 nights if you have 3 weeks in Guatemala.
Things to do in Antigua
- Volcano hikes – more on these to come
- Hill of the Cross viewpoint (Cerro de la Cruz) – this is an easy walk up to the best viewpoint in town looking out over the colourful city and volcanos. You can be up & down in an hour.
- Coffee culture – Guatemalan coffee is delicious not to mention fascinating to learn about. Take a coffee tour out to a plantation where you’ll learn about the stages of production and try it, naturally! Alternatively, just enjoy the countless coffee shops that I’ll mention later…
- Take a chocolate workshop – I had a great time doing this at Ek Chuah (160 Q). After a history and culture lesson on the background of cacao, I got to make my own chocolate to take home and also try chocolate tea and hot drinking chocolate. Informative and delish!
- Do some vintage shopping – this is a famous thing to do in Guatemala. There are several vintage stores in town.
- Shop at the Central Market – at this vast market, you can shop for fruits, veggies, souvenirs and more. Remember to haggle!
- Visit Hobbitenango – fans of Lord of the Rings are going to be in heaven, and your social media followers won’t believe you’re not in New Zealand! You can visit for the day to pose for photos or even stay overnight in one of the huts.
Acatenango volcano hike
Got two spare days and a LOT of energy to burn? The 2-day Acetanango volcano hike is likely to be one of the BEST experiences of your Guatemala itinerary! It’s a gruelling 6-hour (approx) hike up to the area where you’ll camp and a slippy journey down the next day, so make sure to bring hiking boots.
Following a VERY early wakeup on day 2, you’ll have the chance to do an extra hike to see the majestic Fuego Volcano closeup. This is for an extra cost and, although I didn’t do it myself, I’ve heard mixed things, but the majority say this extra leg is very difficult and, depending on the unpredictable visibility, not worth it.
However, the Acetanango hike is WELL worth it, for the views and experience. Soy Tours charge 500 Quetzales (£50/$60) including guides, accommodation in tents, meals, and warm clothes, while Ox Expeditions charge 700 Quetzales for accommodation in huts rather than tents.
Pacaya Volcano hike
Pacaya is the other famous volcano in Antigua suitable for climbing but it’s done in one day rather than two. You could potentially do it first as a warmup, although you don’t want to start Acatanango already sore… It’s easier but still quite the hike!
Something to note about Pacaya is that any photos you’ve seen of flowing lava are old because it hasn’t been erupting for some time now. So if you’re hoping to see the dramatic lava that Guatemalan volcanos are known for, you may be disappointed!
The Pacaya volcano hike offers the chance to roast marshmallows on volcanic heat while admiring the iconic blackened landscape. It’s certainly worth doing, and tours are cheap!
Best coffee shops in Antigua
Does anywhere else in the world have as many coffee shops per square mile as Antigua? (I don’t know the answer but you can read my many coffee shop guides to find out).
Some of the best are…
- 12 Onzas – a relaxed, minimalist cafe with fantastic coffee
- Fat Cat Coffee House – just across the road from 12 Onzas, this is a busy spot with great atmosphere and even better drinks
- Basil & Coffee – amazing cakes, try the key lime pie!
- Cafe Estudio – rooftop views of the volcanos
- River Coffee House – a cute, quiet spot with a wide range of drinks. I had my first London Fog latte!
Where to eat in Antigua
When you get hungry, here are a few places I can recommend eating…
- La Fonda de la Calle Real – upscale Guatemalan dishes like pepian and pollo caldo (chicken soup) in beautiful surroundings
- Caoba Organic Farms – visit for an organic, farm-to-table experience
- Frida’s – colourful, upscale Mexican food is the vibe here
- Wachuma – healthy and tasty bowls with ingredients like sweet potato, veg noodles, tempeh etc
- La Bruja – the best vegan food in town with delicious tacos and more
- Mì Vietnamese Kitchen – I had a tasty banh mi and got a free one because it was a Wednesday!
Breweries & craft beer in Antigua
In town, Antigua Brewing Company is a cool warehouse-style venue with volcano views from the terrace. I also liked sitting in the cute courtyard outside La Taverna and having some pale ale. However, the best place to visit if you have time is El Azote Beer Garden is a cool venue out of town. Take a taxi or colectivo (shared transport).
Where to stay in Antigua
- Hostels – the best two are easily Flore Hostel (9.8 stars on Hostelworld) and Barbara’s Boutique Hostel (9.7 stars on Hostelworld). Both start from $15.
- Budget hotel – with barbecue facilities, stunning rooftop views, a pancake breakfast and garden, Maison Bougainvillea is a well-located budget-friendly option with friendly hosts. Book from US$29.
- Mid-range – you’ll have excellent views from the terrace, garden and balcony at Posada San Sebastian with an eclectic interior full of antiques and spacious rooms. Tip: If you fancy delish pastries and coffee for breakfast, Epicure is a great cafe around the corner. Book from US$51.
- Splash out – if you’re looking for a unique stay with fantastic spa facilities, you’ll love Hotel Museo Spa Casa Santo Domingo. After exploring the hotel museum and onsite local artworks, unwind with a panoramic view from the terrace and an exquisite dinner at El Refectorio. Book from US$261.
Xela (if you have 3 weeks in Guatemala!)
If you just have 10 days or 2 weeks in Guatemala, I wouldn’t recommend including Xela because you already have so many amazing destinations, each offering something different, to squeeze in. You may as well do them justice!
But if you have 3 weeks or longer, be sure to visit Guatemala’s second city. Short for Quetzaltenango, this traditional city is the heart of Mayan culture. Language schools are popular across Guatemala but especially so here where the slower Spanish (as a result of it being many people’s second language after indigenous Mayan languages) makes it optimum for learning.
Xela attracts slow travellers keen for culture, rather than your typical tourists. So, if that appeals to you, don’t skip it! Xela is also a fantastic hiking destination with many 1-day and multi-day trails to be taken.
Lake Atitilan – 3-10 days
This is really where your Guatemala itinerary can become concise or very leisurely. I wasn’t in a rush so loved spending 10 days around Lake Atitlan and checking out eight different villages. However, you obviously don’t NEED to visit that many.
Have one base or move around? I stayed overnight in four different towns (San Pedro, San Marcos, Santa Cruz and Panajachel) for around 2 nights each. However, you could just as easily stay in one and do day trips because all of the towns can be easily reached by boat in under 30 minutes and none have activities that require more than a day of sightseeing.
Let’s run through the vibes of the different lake towns so you can get a better idea of how you might want to structure this leg of your Guatemala itinerary, based on what you like.
Getting to Lake Atitlan
From Antigua, the easiest places to reach are Panajacahel and San Pedro (our shuttle also included a first stop near San Juan before San Pedro). From any agency in Antigua, you can book a journey to either lake hub from 125 Q.
San Pedro La Laguna (best for backpackers)
A backpackers hub popular particularly with Israelis where most of the cafes serve falafel before Guatemalan food! If you’re looking for Guatemalan culture, it may not be the place for you. But the cafe views are the most impressive of anywhere in Atitlan so I didn’t regret visiting, but you don’t need long.
Another reason to visit is the close proximity to the Indian’s Nose hike – best done for sunrise – and the countless tourism agencies selling cheap tours from 70 Quetzales. It’s best to take a tour for safety and because you need to cross local land so need a guide to take you. Tours depart at 4am and return at 7.30am.
I’d suggest spending 2 nights in San Pedro with the day in between spent hiking the Indian’s Nose trail in the morning followed by a lazy cafe afternoon. For the following morning before you leave, take a side trip to San Juan town (more about his place next).
Best cafes in San Pedro:
- Sababa (lake views) – a restaurant with a coffee shop and bakery attached. I only visited the coffee shop and can vouch for the iced coffee and almond croissants
- Forbidden Fruit (lake views) – the best place for a nourishing smoothie bowl breakfast
- Pita Sabij (lake views) – the namesake dish of pita with eggplant, egg, tahini and salad was so good that I came back and ate it again… high praise when I like to always try new places for my blog!
- Al Tempo – a fantastic bakery (takeaway only) serving focaccia, baguettes and sweet treats. If you’re on a budget, grab a freshly-made pizza slice (10 Quetzales) for a quick lunch, plus maybe a cinnamon roll for dessert
- Tornado’s Coffee – it doesn’t have fancy views like some of the cafes here but you can’t beat the quality coffee, best enjoyed in their quiet, shady garden
- Café Tz’utujil – fantastic hearty and affordable breakfasts (just what I needed after a 4am hike!). Breakfast packets cost 40 Quetzales including coffee.
Where to stay in San Pedro:
- Hostel – I went with Mandala’s Hostel which has small 3-bed dorms (you each get a double bed!) from $12 as I didn’t fancy the sound of Mr Mullet’s Party Hostel.
- Hotel – for an ideally located guesthouse on the shore of Lake Atitlan, Mikaso Hotel features a terrace, lakeside dock and shared kitchen. Book from US$37.
WHO should visit San Pedro: backpackers who like nightlife, cafe fiends, hikers set on the Indian’s Nose trail… and anyone craving falafel!
San Juan (local culture)
If San Pedro doesn’t sound like the place for you, I suggest San Juan La Laguna, just a 15-minute drive away (best reached by tuk-tuk for 10 Quetzales). This was my favourite Atitlan town from my Guatemala itinerary because it was bright and colourful with murals showing Mayan culture, and weaving cooperatives selling beautiful products and providing employment for local women.
Not only is it a place to support locals and learn about their culture, but you can join the locals who flock to this town at weekends. Sightseeing amongst the locals, dressed in beautiful traditional dress, was far more enjoyable for me than only rubbing shoulders with fellow foreigners in San Pedro!
But the highlight of San Juan might be the spectacular views from Mirador Kaqasiiwaan which is a spectacle in its own right, decorated with colourful murals. The hike to the top is a little steep but not so hard, and entry costs 30 Quetzales.
Although I just visited a day trip, I have no doubt San Juan La Laguna would be a great base for a few nights because everywhere else on the lake is easy to reach from the lancha (boat) dock.
WHO should visit San Juan: those who love culture and don’t mind missing Western comforts for a few days.
San Marcos La Laguna
San Marcos is another Lake Atitlan hub mainly frequented by foreigners… Especially the spiritual types! If you’re into yoga, meditation, sound healing, cacao ceremonies or any other type of holistic or healing practice, you’re sure to find it here.
The Eagle’s Nest and Yoga Forest offer classes with sublime views (I heard better things about the latter) although both require a bit of a hike to reach. The town itself is little more than one street, peppered with vegan cafes and coffee shops. The main activity in town is taking a walk around Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve (20 Quetzales entry) and finding the famous 18m jumping station.
Best cafes in San Marcos:
- Dragon Moon – healthy bowls and veggie sushi
- Circles – incredible baked goods and tasty pizza slices (these make a great takeaway dinner if you want to stay in)
- Zen – tasty vegan tacos and burgers
- Nectar ArtCafe – a cute artsy cafe with coffees, kombucha, casual meals and baked goods. The comfy floor cushions make it a good place to relax and lounge around
- Ararti Cafe – fantastic coffee and very cheap prices. The best place in town if you need to work on your laptop.
Where to stay in San Marcos:
- Hostel – I liked Casa Ahau with great breakfasts, dorm & private rooms, and a nice social area. Prices start from $10.
- Hotel – located on the lakeside with mountain views, the modern rooms at Lush Atitlán are perfect for nature lovers; you’ll have easy access to swimming and jungle walks. Definitely try the chilaquiles at breakfast! Book from US$65.
WHO should visit San Marcos: travellers looking for soul-searching and holistic classes. If you’re not doing this, there’s not much reason to add San Marcos to your Guatemala itinerary.
Santa Cruz is a tiny, mountaintop town with some highly-rated hostels on the waterfront level. So, if you’re a backpacker seeking community, I highly recommend a stop. However, other travellers may want to miss Santa Cruz from their 10 day or 2 week Guatemala itineraries because there’s not much to do.
Although a visit to Cafe Sabor alone may be worth a visit to Santa Cruz! I don’t think I’ve ever had better cafe views, plus it’s a social enterprise training and supporting local livelihoods. Also, the food was delicious and well-presented.
Where to stay: I stayed at La Iguana Perdida, a cosy family-run hostel with daily, three-course shared dinners for 70 Quetzales. It was a great place to meet people in a non-partyish setting and have proper chats.
Although it was closed for renovation during my visit, I also heard good things about Free Cerveza Hostel, also in Santa Cruz.
WHO should visit Santa Cruz: backpackers looking for community-focused hostels.
This is the biggest town and main hub of Lake Atitlan. One idea for your Guatemala itinerary is to arrive by bus into one and leave from the other, hopping along the above-mentioned lake towns in between (this is what I did).
I also met some travellers staying in Pana for the whole duration of the Atitlan trip and doing everywhere else as day trips. This would work, although I’m not sure I’d need that long in Pana: there’s not much charm and, despite being a large hub, the cafes are better elsewhere.
One pro of Pana is its proximately to Chichicastenango, the largest market in Central America which takes place on Sundays and Thursdays. The drive takes around 90 minutes each way and every tour agency sells return shuttle tours for around 150 Q.
Where to eat & drink coffee in Pana:
- The Little Spoon – a cute cafe with great coffee and friendly staff. I thought the breakfast menu was better than the lunch menu
- Pizzeria Florencia – the best woodfire pizza in town from 60 Q
- Cafe Loco – amazing coffee, chai and hot chocolate with marshmallows.
Where to stay in Pana:
- Hostel – Dreamboat for a fun option, Selina for more chilled travellers (with a pool and cinema room!
- Budget hotel – Hostal Mario’s Rooms is a great budget hotel close to the main attractions. Comfy single, double and family rooms are cleaned daily on request, and there’s an onsite restaurant. Book from US$26.
- Mid-range – complete with gorgeous grounds, thermal pools, massage rooms and a sauna, Regis Hotel Spa is the ideal base for relaxing, just 450m from the lake and a five-minute walk to local restaurants. Book from US$79.
- Splash out – with stunning double rooms, an outdoor pool and beautiful garden overlooking the lake, Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo is where you can really splash out. The onsite restaurant serves delicious Guatemalan cuisine. Book from US$161.
WHO should visit Pana: those looking for a convenient base with easy access to other parts of Guatemala and other towns on the lake.
Safety notes about Lake Atitlan
– The roads around the lake are run down in parts and robberies have been reported. It’s best to ride the lanchas (boats) rather than travel by road. The exceptions are the road between San Pedro and San Juan and the road between Pana and Santa Catarina/San Antonio, which are safe.
– The water from the lake is known to have parasites so avoid getting it in your mouth or nose if you swim.
– Lake Atitlan has a stray dog problem. They can be aggressive (one bit me) and they beg for food whenever you’re in a restaurant which is annoying. Locals told me to pretend to throw a rock to fend them off.
Other Lake Atitlan towns
Here are a few smaller places that don’t require an overnight stay and can be easily visited in a couple of hours…
- Santiago Atitlan – a hub for local culture with a colourful, bustling market and Catholic-Mayan blended traditions surrounding Maximon – the saint of debauchery! A sculpture of him can always be found somewhere (often in a local home) if you look hard enough! There are also a few nice miradors (viewpoints) including one you can easily walk to. Get to Santiago by boat from anywhere on the lake.
- Santa Catarina Palopo – painted as part of a community project, this colourful village that had previously fallen into poverty has become a tourist attraction. Visit the community centre to learn about traditional weaving, Pintando Museum for guided tours of the town, and Cake Tuk for coffee.
- San Antonio Palopo – this is another artisan town where you can visit pottery workshops to see how they’re crafted, glazed and painted. Buy a few souvenirs to take home. I didn’t see any other foreign tourists here so it’s a refreshing change from some of the busier towns.
- Note – Santa Catarina and Antonio are close by and best visited during the same day trip from Pana. The tuk-tuks typically overcharge tourists so catch a pick-up truck from this point. Pay 5 Quetzales and squeeze in with the locals.
Ideas for the Lake Atitlan leg of your Guatemala trip
3 days if you have a 10 day Guatemala itinerary:
- Stay in Panajchel and visit some of the above towns as day trips during your 2 spare days
5 days if you have a 2 week Guatemala itinerary:
- 2 nights San Pedro (1 day for the Indian’s Nose hike, 1 morning for San Juan trip)
- 2 nights Panajachel (1 day trip to Chici Market, then choose from day trips to San Marcos / Santiago / Santa Catarina & San Antonio).
Note – you could do the Indian’s Nose hike & San Juan in the same day if you’re not too tired after the 4am start!
6 days if you have a 3 week Guatemala itinerary:
- 2 nights San Pedro (1 day for Indian’s Nose hike, 1 morning for San Juan trip)
- 1 night San Marcos (visit Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve / do spiritual activities)
- 2 nights Panajachel (1 day trip to Chici Market, either a day trip to Santa Catarina & San Antonio or Santiago).
10 day itinerary (if you have lots of time like me!):
- 2 nights San Pedro (1 day for Indian’s Nose hike, 1 morning for San Juan trip)
- 2 nights San Marcos (visit Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve / do spiritual activities)
- 2 nights Santa Cruz (day in middle relaxing / visiting Cafe Sabor)
- 4 nights Panajachel (1 day trip to Chici Market, 1 day trip to Santa Catarina & San Antonio, 1 day trip to Santiago)
- This is a super leisurely itinerary (and the exact one I took) and will give you most afternoons to chill as the activities rarely take a full day.
Semuc Champey – 1-2 days
As soon as I started planning for my trip and saw photos of the turquoise pools at Semuc Champey, I knew I had to go!
I won’t lie, it isn’t the easiest place to get to. In fact, it’s quite tricky because it’s at least an 8-hour drive from anywhere else you’ll be visiting (and that’s in good traffic!). But provided you have more than 10 days in Guatemala, I’d say it’s worth it. If you have less time than that, it’s probably best omitted because you’ll spend 2 days on the bus for 1 day there.
But since I had a month to play with, there was no way I was going to miss it from my Guatemala itinerary! Semuc Champey is a beautiful region most famous for the striking blue pools. Hiking up to the viewpoint (where I took this photo) is well worth it. During the tour I took from my hostel, we also got to climb and swim through K’an Ba Caves each holding a giant candle.
How long to spend in Semuc Champey?
A day is enough because you can see all the highlights during a 1-day tour bookable through most accommodations. I do recommend exploring as part of a tour because the area isn’t easily walkable, there’s no public transport and you need an off-road car. If you’re really not a tour person, stay in the park rather than Lanquin town within walking distance to the pools.
However, it’s a long way to travel for just one day so, if you have the time, you might choose to spend 3 nights, 2 days like I did. This gives you a second day which can be spent tubing along the river or simply relaxing in your accommodation and soaking up the surrounding vistas. If you pick a place with a pool, even more reason to stay longer!
Where to stay in Semuc Champey
Most of the accommodation in the region is in the town of Lanquin which is where shuttles arrive. There’s not much to do here but it’s a good launching point into the park.
Hostels: I stayed at Zephyr Lodge, possibly the world’s most Instagrammable hostel with a swim-up bar! There’s no kitchen but the restaurant has a wide range of options and sublime views. I recommend staying in the 11-bed dorm because it’s new and much nicer than the other rooms. Book here from $20.
I heard good things about Greengo’s Hostel inside the park, just a 10-minute walk to the famous pools, so no need to pay for a tour.
Hotel: If you’re after truly unique accommodation in the heart of splendid Guatemalan scenery, you really can’t beat booking a chalet at Mountain Nest. You can arrange direct transport to this remote – and breathtaking – location. Book from US$94.
Getting to Lanquin/Semuc Champey
It’s best to arrive by bus; the service leaving Antigua takes 8-12 hours (depending on traffic in Guatemala City where it passes through). It’s 8 hours to and from Flores. Generally, you’ll arrive late afternoon – hopefully in time for sunset – and book your activities for the next day.
The bus arrives into Lanquin where shuttles from most accommodations will be waiting. I was also able to book an onward journey from Zephyr Lodge who drive you to the bus stop the morning of. I expect most accommodations offer the same.
Flores – 2-3 days
The idyllic island of Flores in the east of Guatemala (close to the border of Belize) is cute and colourful with quaint cobbled streets and tuk-tuks to whizz you across the bridge to the mainland. The lake views aren’t as mountainous or striking as Lake Atitlan but they’re sublime in their own way… with wonderful sunsets to boot!
Although most travellers don’t visit for Flores itself but the nearby Tikal ruins, I was pleasantly surprised by Flores and found it a lovely place to wile away a few days. After my 4am start for the Tikal tour, I wasn’t ready to continue my travels right away so decided to spend an extra couple of nights (keep reading for what to do around Flores).
If you have a 7 or 10 day Guatemala itinerary, just spend a day seeing Tikal. But if you have a 2 or 3 week Guatemala itinerary, spend 2-3 days like I did!
As the heart of the island is small and touristic, prices are a little high for some services but it’s easy to walk to the mainland in 15 minutes.
For example, laundrettes charge a bit and there aren’t any decent grocery stores, however I found one on the mainland that was cheap, not far from Maya Mall where there’s a huge supermarket and a Claro store where you can buy a SIM card (useful if you’ve just arrived from Belize).
How to visit Tikal Mayan ruins from Flores
Tikal is utterly unmissable so don’t skip it from your Guatemala itinerary! It takes around 1.5 hours to drive from Flores so, considering how hot it gets, it’s worth visiting early. By which I mean… 4am early. Sorry!
There’s also a 3am sunrise tour but, since I was visiting in rainy season, tour guides told me it wasn’t worth it because you can’t guarantee a clear sunrise. So, it was 4am I chose to depart. Of course, there are later tours but it was scorching when we left so I didn’t envy people just arriving!
During a tour of Tikal, you can expect to trek through the jungle (so don’t wear flip-flops!), spotting wildlife and learning about the region from your guide. As you enter the vast Mayan complex once home to 600,000 inhabitants, you’ll get to climb up some of the ruins and take photos from the top. But you can’t climb all of them so be sure to listen to the instructions of your guide!
Fun facts about Tikal:
- It’s one of the largest archaeological sites in Mesoamerica
- The name translates as ‘place of voices’
- One of the Star Wars movies was partially filmed here!
- It was already abandoned when the Spanish arrived
- Howler moneys and toucans be seen. We were lucky to see both!
I paid 100 Quetzales for the Tikal tour from Flores and another 150 for Tikal entry. Bring your official ID or a photo of it because they check when you line up to pay.
Other things to do in Flores
If you have a 2 week itinerary in Guatemala (or longer), Flores is a great place to spend a couple of extra days. You can…
Hang out at Jorge’s Rope Swing – just across the water is a little family-run venue that’s a hit with travellers thanks to the fun rope swing and hammocks with lake views where you can relax and sink a beer. Get a public boat there, arrive by kayak or ask your accommodation to phone the family who will send their boat to get you (100 Q return inc entry).
Hire a kayak to explore the lake – this is a fun way to spend a day exploring the lake. It also doubles up as a mode of transport to reach Jorge’s!
Take a lancha (boat) across the water to San Miguel – this costs just 10 Quetzalas and allows you to spend a half-day or slightly longer visiting Mirador de Canek for beautiful views (free entry), Chechenal Lake Beach (10 Quetzales entry) and the Mayan World Museum (free entry).
In San Miguel, be sure to eat lunch at Cool Beans 2. I was already a fan of this restaurant because the original branch was near my hostel on the island, so I was thrilled to find the other branch serving iced coffee (I was very hot and sweaty from the mirador hike and beach), which I enjoyed from a hammock while waiting for my veggie burrito to arrive.
How to spend time in Flores
For a 10 day Guatemala itinerary, I’d suggest just spending 2 nights in Tikal with a day in the middle for Tikal but, for longer, I suggest spending 3-4 nights exploring the island and surroundings.
- 1 day – Tikal tour
- 2 days – take a lancha to San Miguel for the activities listed above OR chill at Jorge’s Swing
- 3 days – take the lancha trip or chill at Jorge’s; whichever you didn’t do yesterday. Or simply enjoy the island or hire a kayak.
- Note – since the early Tikal tour arrives back at 2pm, you could go to Jorge’s then but personally I just slept!
Where to eat in Flores
Cool Beans (affordable): as mentioned before, I love this chilled-out cafe with branches in Flores and San Miguel. They serve generous, affordable meals from burritos to burgers and breakfasts (with lots of veggie options), washed down with Guatemalan craft beers.
Maracuya (midrange): this place has excellent food from brunches to Guatemalan dishes like pepian and international dishes like falafel. Wash it down with kombucha or smoothies. The views from the upper floor over the lake are stunning.
Street food on the bridge (budget): not only is it super affordable with meals from 5 Quetzales but they have some tasty dishes like tamales and tostadas. I chose to go veggie with my tostadas and got served various salad toppings like coleslaw, noodles, avocado, beetroot etc. Unusual but tasty – and kinda healthy!
Tacos Los Peches (budget): this is a great, no-frills street food stall serving ‘tacos del norte’ (Mexican food, basically) such as tacos and burritos. Most of it’s meaty but I actually had some great mushroom tacos with all the trimmings and salsas.
For evening drinks, head to Sky Bar. The drinks are nothing fancy but the views are sublime!
Getting to Flores
From Lanquin/Semuc Champey, organise a shuttle with your accommodation. It should cost around 200Q. It’s also well-connected to Antigua.
Where to stay in Flores
- Hostels: Los Amigos for a party option (from $15) / Hostal Don Cenobio (from $10) for a more chilled option with great lake views.
- Budget hotel – with fab views, a tropical garden, a refreshing pool and welcoming staff, Zapote Tree Inn is a rare travel gem for budget travellers. A yummy breakfast is included. Book from US$51.
- Mid-range – you can’t go wrong with a lakeview stay at Hotel Peten complete with hot tub, tour desk, restaurant and modern, air-conditioned rooms. Book from US$78.
- Splash out – with a sun terrace and pools, exceptional views and an onsite bar and restaurant, it’s no wonder Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel is one of the top-rated hotels in Flores. Book from US$349.
Extra time in your Guatemala itinerary? Visit Rio Dulce!
Translating as ‘Sweet River’, the beautiful Rio Dulce is a place you could visit if you find yourself with extra time, or fancy substituting any of the destinations in this itinerary for a naturally beautiful hidden gem.
Connecting Lake Izabal and Livingston, this wonderful river flows along the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, far from the typical tourist attractions.
Kayak on the river, relax in an eco-resort on the banks reading from a hammock, explore the port of Livingston town and learn about Garifuna people descended from Carribean slaves. The vibe of this town with dance and drumming music is quite unlike anywhere else in Guatemala!
The other benefit of visiting is ticking off Guatemala’s third and final UNESCO site (alongside Antigua city and Tikal) of Quiriguá, around a 1.5-hour drive from Rio Dulce.
Getting to Rio Dulce: Get a shuttle from Antigua (8 hours) or a public bus from Flores (4.5 hours) or Guatemala City.
Where to stay:
- Hostel – stay at El Hotelito Perdido for riverside luxury with dorm rooms. Book from $12.
- Mid-range – with free kayak rentals, an onsite library, delicious homemade food and beautiful bedrooms, Tortugal Boutique River Lodge is a friendly, comfy place to stay. Book from $35.
- Splash out – head to Banana Palms for the biggest bedrooms you’ve ever seen, an outdoor pool, fitness centre and onsite restaurant and bar. Book from $70.
Best season for a Guatemala itinerary
The high season runs from November to April and generally offers the most predictable, pleasant weather with little rainfall. The downsides are higher prices and more crowds. During research for this blog, I realised that many of the hostels I’d paid £10 for are charging DOUBLE one month later as peak season gets underway.
I went to Guatemala in September, the wettest month of the year, something I initially was a little worried about. However, it wasn’t too bad: it really only rained in the last week when I was in Lake Atitlan and only during the afternoons. Luckily, I was on a leisurely schedule so did half a day of sightseeing per day then sheltered with a tea while journalling, working or reflecting in the afternoons.
If you have a 10 day or 2 week itinerary for Guatemala, it’s best to go in peak season because the rain could ruin your plans. But if you have three weeks in Guatemala like me, then low season may be ideal. It was for me because it lowered my expenses and forced me to have some downtime during rainy afternoons which preserved my energy while backpacking!
How to get to Guatemala
By flight: most travellers arrive into Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport. You can get direct flights from US cities including New York, Atlanta, LA, Washington and Houston, as well as several Latin American cities including Mexico City. I use Skyscanner to find cheap flights, using the ‘search by month’ feature to see the cheapest dates.
Unlike in many countries where you’d spend a few days in the capital after landing, this is not common for travellers visiting Guatemala. The capital is the least safe place to visit with few major tourist attractions so I wouldn’t suggest staying overnight; take a shuttle or taxi to Antigua, instead.
Overland from Mexico: if you’re travelling to Mexico next, you can book transport between San Cristobal from most tourist hubs in Guatemala. In Panajachel, I saw prices starting from 400 Q.
Overland from Belize: What I did! From the inland destination of San Ignacio, I caught a bus and a taxi to Flores, however you can take the easier option of a tourist shuttle for $20.
Overland from El Salvador/Honduras: shuttles to and from Santa Ana in El Salvador cost around $40.
How to get around Guatemala
These are your main options…
This is the easiest way to get around during your Guatemala itinerary. Tourist shuttles connect all the popular destinations like Antigua, Atitlan, Semuc Champey and Flores, either taking you from a designated meeting spot or the door of your accommodation! It couldn’t be easier.
The shuttles are minibuses in good condition where you’ll travel with other foreign tourists (which doubles up as a way to meet new people). They generally run on time, although when they do door-to-door pick-ups, you may be waiting up to 30 minutes.
Note – if you have a time-sensitive journey such as to the airport, you may want to double-confirm it the night before. My shuttle from Panajachel to the airport never showed and, when I called the agency, they’d lost my booking! Luckily, they put on a taxi for me so I didn’t miss my flight… But it was stressful!
These old US school buses are pimped out with all manner of jazzy details! They’re quite the sight to behold. They’re a cheap way to get around although not all destinations are well connected so you may need to change buses.
Ultimately, they’re a cheaper, slower and slightly less convenient (but more adventurous) way to get around.
After practically living in tuk-tuks around India and Southeast Asia, I was filled with nostalgia to see them in Guatemala. They’re a common mode of transport in Flores and, around Lake Atitlan, you can even get them between towns such as San Pedro and San Juan, and from Panajachel to Santa Catarina and San Antonio.
However, for longer distances around the lake, it’s best to take a…
It’s so easy to hop on the lanchas to get anywhere in Lake Atitlan within 30 minutes.
However, I’m still confused by the pricing. I was told locals pay 5 Q and tourists pay 10 Q. I did this on my first journey but after that, drivers told me I had to pay 15 or 25 and the ‘official’ signs do say 25. So basically… journeys cost up to 25Q (£2.50/$3).
Usually, you pay to the driver when you get off, so don’t give any money to the touts who hang around the docks.
This isn’t a common way to get around Guatemala but there’s one flight route, from Guatemala City to Flores, that some people take for around $100. Unless you’re on a super tight itinerary, it’s not really worth it – or environmentally sustainable.
Guatemalan SIM cards
It’s easy to stay connected during your Guatemala itinerary. Claro are the main mobile provider and have stores across the country. I can recommend the store by Maya Mall in Flores where I got mine after arriving from Belize, however there are also stores in Antigua if you’re beginning there.
Important note – bring your passport when buying a SIM. They’ll ask!
You’ll pay 15 Q for the SIM which comes with a tiny bit of data, then choose one of the following packages.
- 10GB for 30 days – 100 Q (£10/$12)
- 6GB for 15 days – 50 Q (£5/$6)
- 4GB for 7 days – 30 Q (£3/$3.8).
How expensive is Guatemala?
It’s one of the cheapest countries in Central America – far cheaper than Belize! Two weeks in Guatemala can cost as little as $500.
My daily spend as a backpacker worked out about £40 ($50) a day including accommodation, food, transport… Everything! Hostels (as it was off-season, expect them to be a bit more in peak season) typically cost $10-20, street food costs around $2 and meals in nicer touristic restaurants cost $5-10.
Tourist shuttles cost $12-30 depending where you’re going. I even managed to find a shuttle from Flores to Semuc Champey (8 hours) for 100 Q ($12) by shopping around. Accommodations and tour agencies all seem to charge slightly different prices so it’s best to compare.
The Guatemalan Quetzal, named after the national bird of Guatemala, is the official currency. At the time of writing (October 2023), 100 Quetzales equal £10 (easy for me!), $12.75 or €12.
Unfortunately, there are no free ATMs in Guatemala so you will usually have to spend around 40 Q to withdraw cash. So I generally took out larger amounts at a time and securely stored it in my room (or locker when I was in a dorm).