Bailey and Daniel of Destinationless Travel share their top five reasons to travel Guatemala after spending a month exploring the country.
Guatemala has been gaining international attention as a top tourist destination.
In terms of unique things to do, Guatemala is at the top of my list out of all of the Central American countries. I recently spent a month in Guatemala and was thoroughly impressed with the beautiful landscape, adventure activities, and exciting and friendly culture.
5 Reasons to Visit Guatemala
Most of my highlights from my entire Central America trip were actually the experiences I had in Guatemala, making this country one of my favorites. These are my top 5 reasons to visit Guatemala.
1. The Acatenango Volcano Hike
If you speak to anyone who has completed this hike, you will likely have heard some rave reviews. Hiking the Acatenango Volcano is a hike unlike any other.
It involves hiking for 4-6 hours to a base camp on one side of the Acatenango Volcano. From this camp, it isn’t Acatenango that is impressive, it is the neighboring volcano called Fuego that really makes the overall experience.
Fuego is a very active volcano which sits parallel to the camps on Acatenango. It erupts every few minutes, putting on a show of exploding lava for all of the excited hikers to see.
Several different tour companies offer two-day tours from Antigua for as little as $50 USD including camping equipment, food, and a guide.
Breakdown of Trip
- Day one consists of a short 1-2 hour drive to the base of Acatenango followed by 4-6 hours of hiking up towards camp.
- The afternoon and evening is spent around a campfire waiting for any clouds to part to reveal Fuego’s incredible show.
- The following morning starts at 4am for a hike to the peak of Acatenango. From here, the sun rises above the cloud line and the Fuego volcano continues to erupt right in front of your eyes.
- Then, it is a hike back down the same way to the base of Acatenango. The short duration, cheap price, and tours including all equipment, make the Acatenangovolcano hike a practical activity for most travelers.
The overall experience of hiking Acatenango is just that – an experience. The hike up is nothing short of challenging, several hours of hiking straight upwards is not an easy feat. Camping for the night is cold.
Very cold. Waking up at 4am is not fun. But, in the end it is all worth it. Fuego erupting is a very incredible sight! Besides that, camping overnight on a volcano overlooking the city of Antigua is an experience in itself.
Was it easy? No. Would I do it again? Absolutely!
I would rate the Acatenango Volcano hike as one of the most exciting and unique travel experiences I have ever had.
- For more information about booking and preparing for the Acatenango Volcano hike check out our blog here.
2. The City of Antigua
Antigua is the city where Acatenango Volcano tours start, but it is much more than that.
The city of Antigua is a popular tourist hot-spot – and for good reason. There is just so much to do in and around Antigua.
Historical tours of the city, museums, shopping, markets, amazing restaurants, and street food are just a couple of the things to do in the city.
But, there are also many tours and experiences outside of Antigua including the Pacaya Volcano, ATV tours, and day trips to Guatemala City.
Antigua has become very touristic, and therefore very comfortable and safe.
As a backpacker coming from El Salvador, I was amazed and excited for all of the modern amenities offered in Antigua.
When one thinks of Guatemala, western fast-food chains and upscale bars and restaurants don’t usually come to mind – but in Antigua it is all there.
There are trendy clubs and “hole in the wall” type bars, environmentally friendly shopping, and restaurants offering any type of food one could possible wish for.
The high volume of tourists has made the city much wealthier, and therefore safer, than any other city in Guatemala.
How to Get to Antigua
Because Antigua is such a popular tourist destination getting there is always very simple.
Collectivos in Guatemala are frequent and cheap, allowing one to access the city from pretty much any other city in the nearby vicinity.
I personally came from Santa Ana in El Salvador, and besides an hour-long stop in Guatemala City, it was a quick and direct route. Antigua is only 1.5 hours from Guatemala City, making it a safer and more desirable place to stay.
There are even frequentCollectivos from the Guatemala City international airport to Antigua.
- Check out Get Your Guide for Tours Out of Antigua
3. Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is a unique spot in Guatemala. It is literally a huge lake surrounded by mountains and volcanoes in which small towns cling to the sides of.
This is a chilled-out area for travelers to relax for a couple of days.
The higher altitude of 1500m means it isn’t sweltering hot, but still warm enough for an afternoon swim in the lake.
Other popular activities around the lake include kayaking, hiking, yoga classes, watching sunsets, and guided tuk-tuk tours.
There are several towns around the edges of the lake each offering a unique experience with different activities. There is really something for everyone.
Towns Around Lake Atitlan
The town of San Pedro is the largest “backpacker oriented town” with cheap food (lots of it), good shopping, and budget places to party at night.
It isn’t the most relaxing area but definitely has a fun vibe.
San Marcos is also popular for tourists, but is much smaller than San Pedro and relaxed. San Marcos is commonly known as the “hippie town” which has attracted many yoga-enthusiast expats.
The other less common options are Santa Cruz, which is mainly inhabited by locals with only a couple of accommodation options or restaurants, or Panajachel which is the biggest city without too much to offer tourists.
Getting Around Lake Atitlan
The great thing about Lake Atitlan is that no matter where one chooses to stay, it is easy and inexpensive to get around the lake.
Lake Atitlan is touristic in areas, but is still home to many locals living simply and cheaply. Transport around the lake is for locals and tourists alike in the form of boats that operate much like public buses in cities.
There is set fares from one destination to the next and set schedules. Locals jump on the boats with baskets of produce and sometimes live chickens while tourists lug on suitcases.
The whole boat system as the main form of public transport is a fun and interesting experience in itself.
4. Semuc Champey National Park
On the other side of the country is the famous National Park called Semuc Champey.
Many travelers skip it due to the long bus ride from other destinations close to the Antigua area, which is a shame because it is fantastic!
Semuc Champey is an area of bright turquoise water which flows through hundreds of small waterfalls.
Between these waterfalls visitors can swim in natural pools, jump off waterfalls, slide down them, or find small caves.
There is also a short one-hour long hike to a viewpoint about the swimming pools offering some awesome photo opportunities.
Viewpoint of Semuc Champey
One of the great things about Semuc Champey is that it can easily be enjoyed on a tour or independently. Tours run from hotels, hostels, or the nearest town of Lanquin.
Information and Costs for the Park
Tours offer transport to the park, a guide to explore the falls, a guide for the hike, and a caving experience. They are quite affordable at $25 USD for a full day trip.
However, for those on a tighter budget, it is possible to get public transport to the park for $2 and pay the entrance fee of $7.
The park is easy to explore independently as it is well marked with English signs.
I spent an entire day exploring the park without a tour, just with some friends and I had a blast! I got some incredible pictures and swam the afternoon away.
Accommodation options near the park also make for an exiting experience. There are a few budget eco-lodge type places within walking distance to Semuc Champey.
These places are fun as they have little to no electricity and do family style dinners and games. For those happier to stay in a town, the town called Lanquin is just over an hour drive from the park. Here there are affordable hotels with pools or budget backpacker accommodation.
- For more information on visiting Semuc Champey national park check out our blog here.
5. Tikal Mayan Ruins
In the northern area of Guatemala sits what many consider to be the “best Mayan Ruin site in the world.”
This is interesting considering Chichen Itza, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is also a Mayan Ruin only a few hours from Tikal.
But, after visiting both sites myself, I would agree that Tikal has more to offer tourists.
It was a different ruin experience that would even excite those that don’t find history the most interesting topic.
Where is Tikal?
Tikal is located only about an hour driving from the touristic town of Flores.
Day tours are cheap and easily arranged from Flores for about $10USD. Flores has many budget hostels for backpackers as well as nice waterfront hotels for those looking for a bit more luxury.
Flores is 8 hours by Collectivo from Laquin (Semuc Champey) or 4 hours from Belize City making it not too much trouble to get to.
Tikal can easily be visited during a day trip from Flores, a couple of hours is really all that is necessary to explore the ruins. Tour guides can be organized in Flores or at the park upon entry.
I would recommend a guide as they will make the experience more significant offering lots of information and making sure you don’t get lost. It is also best to visit Tikal early in the morning when the animals are active.
When I was there at 7am I saw Toucans, Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, and Peacocks.
Why Visit Tikal?
Visiting the ruins of Tikal were special for many reasons. One being that the ruins are within a protected National Park, this is why so many animals are around.
The ruins are also in thick jungle with only small walking paths available for navigating around.
People are also allowed to climb almost all of the ruins (some of the ruins are taller than the jungle canopy presenting spectacular views.)
It is also interesting as the ruins are not all uncovered, many remain under dirt and trees, covered up from when the Spanish invaded.
The whole experience feels authentic and is much more adventurous then most other ancient ruin sites I have visited in the past.
Why Visit Guatemala
From volcanoes,to ancient ruins, to gorgeous cities, Guatemala has a ton to offer. I can see why it is becoming a popular travel spot.
I loved my time spent in Guatemala and will encourage anybody who is considering a trip to Latin America to plan for a good amount of time in Guatemala.
It is still a destination that feels untouched and you'll have many authentic experiences. If you want to get off the beaten path, Guatemala is the place to travel.