Guatemala offers a wide range of adventure and has something for every traveller. The landscape is unbelievable and you will find yourself anywhere from the jungle, to a volcano, to a city in the mountains. Backpacking through Guatemala opened our eyes to such a diverse culture and we would recommend our itinerary to anyone! Where to visit? What to eat? What to drink? What is my budget? Continue reading to prepare yourself for a trip to Guatemala!
WHERE TO VISIT IN GUATEMALA
Guatemala offers an amazing itinerary fill with unforgettable adventure and a rich culture experience. We spent an unforgettable 23 days in Guatemala and had a thorough and extremely enjoyable experience. We would not hesitate to head back and explore more. We would recommend our itinerary to anybody, but each individual may choose more or less days depending on their preferences. Our journey in Guatemala began as we crossed the boarder from San Ignacio, Belize. In order of travel, we visited; Flores (3 nights), Lanquin (4 nights), Antigua (3 nights), Lake Atitlan – San Pedro (3 nights) and Panajachel (2 nights), and Quetzaltenango/Xela (7 nights, but only so long because we both ended up sick).
Flores is small island in Lago Petén Itzá connected to the town of Santa Elena by a bridge and is a popular base to visit the massive ruins of Tikal. Flores is a beautiful small town with a number of things to do. Read our blog HERE to learn more on Flores.
Lanquin (and Semuc Champey)
Lanquin is tucked away in jungle of the mountains and is much less developed than other parts of Guatemala you are likely to visit. A visit to the town and the surrounding area you may explore is an experience we will never forget. It’s a bumpy ride in and our but totally worth it. Lanquin is a popular base for Semuc Champey – the beautiful limestone cascade pools. Read our blog HERE to learn more on Lanquin.
With cobblestone roads, this pretty city could confuse you for Europe. Filled with amazing markets and nearby some awesome volcano, Antigua cannot be missed. Check our blog on Pacaya Volcano near Antigua.
Everybody talks about Lake Atitlan like it’s a lake or a city, but it’s a lake surrounded by mountains, volcanoes, and numerous villages and towns with their own personalities. We first started in San Pedro, the backpackers hub, where there is a main street with restaurants, bars, and shops, and offers access to some cool hikes. From San Pedro we took a day trip to San Marco. If you are hippie this might be the place for you as it offers so many spiritual retreats, sessions, ceremonies, etc. After San Pedro, we stayed a couple nights in Panajachel which is the main town around Lake Atitlan. Here we saw some of the most beautiful market items and finally bought the hammock we had been talking about for weeks. There a more towns to visit so do your research before you go. Also, all are accessible by boat for day trips. Read more about Lake Atitlan HERE.
Never referred to as Quetzaltenango but rather Xela (pronounced: shay-la) this city is the second largest city in Guatemala. Surrounded by mountains at 7,640ft (2,330m) the city gives you that off the beaten path feel as you do not see nearly as many tourists as other places or tour operators at every corner. Read more about Xela HERE.
El Paredon is a surf town in the south of Guatemala. It is about 2 hours and 20 minutes south of Antigua on the Pacific coast. We did not plan this into our itinerary until we were already heading up to Xela, and when we ended up getting sick for a week, we decided to just move on rather than backtrack the way we had come. However, next time we are in Guatemala this is a must for us, so if you are interested in surfing/learning to surf, head over there and let us know how it is!
Transportation In Guatemala
The forms of transportation you will take in Guatemala will range widely. When transporting between cities and towns you may debate between chicken bus or shuttle. Our advise, for long trips (ex. Flores – Lanquin, Lanquin – Antigua) save the headache and take a shuttle as they aren’t overly expensive. However, for short trips (ex. Antigua – Panajachel, Panajachel – Xela) chicken buses are an easy and cheap option. Once we planned to take a direct chicken bus from Panajachel to Xela only to find out it was not coming. The bus assistant explained how we could get there with transfers (we don’t really speak Spanish though) so we decided to take the adventure. In our experience the bus assistants are always helpful and tell you where to get off, and which bus to go to if you need a transfer. Within towns and cities, common transports include the tuktuk which will take you anywhere like a taxi, the convertivo which is a mini bus that follows a route and you can hail down and hop in for super cheap (we were once hanging off the side of a convertivo because it was so packed), and if your trying to venture around dirt mountain roads you will probably find yourself in the back of a pickup truck with bars to hold onto.
Safety In Guatemala
Guatemala does not have the best safety reputation in Central America, but it certainly does not have the worst either. In our experience, we always felt safe! During the day we often walked around with our camera out exploring the beautiful country. At night we generally would not wander off of main areas that had lights and people, but that’s a general precaution we take anywhere anyway.
Local Food In Guatemala
We are big on eating the local street food. It’s usually the cheapest and we enjoy the experience of eating at the small local spots and food markets. We found a wide variety of local food options and found out that the Guatemalans often like to put ingredients on top of their creations. Corn tortillas and beans are everywhere in Guatemala, so if you don’t find yourself eating corn tortillas and/or beans during your trip, then you probably were not in Guatemala. On a side note, we found many of these local eats did not have signs or menus so it was difficult to learn exactly the names of all the foods. However, we do got some recommendations for you!
An absolutely delicious dish consisting of finely cut up tomatoes, onions, parsley, garlic, with some lemon, lime, and also spice if you want it. This is a seafood dish and you can include seafood such as shrimp, conch, or shellfish. You can also order it without seafood and enjoy the deliciousness if seafood is not your thing. We did not know this beforehand, but apparently the seafood is traditionally not cooked. However, it is arguable not raw either as the citric acid from the lemons “cook” it in minutes. Regardless, it was delicious.
A delicious crispy pastry that can either be filled with meat or vegetables. When ordering empanadas, they will come with some toppings including; guacamole, tomatoes/salsa, cilantro, and onions.
Basically like a large round nacho covered in specific toppings. You can get them topped with things such as noodles, guacamole, beans, chicken sauce (whatever that is – it tasted good), salsa/tomatoes, onions, and cilantro.
Thick greasy corn tortillas stuffed with either vegetables or a meat, often Chicharrón which we discovered after a quick google to be fried pork belly or rind but can also be chicken, mutton, or beef. If your concerned about the uncertainty, just go with the vegetable pupusa, you will not be missing much (in Jackson’s opinion since Alessia is vegetarian).
Commonly found around Guatemala often filled with chicken or pork (if you eat meat), and other toppings including tomatoes, onion, guacamole, etc.
Desayuno Tradicional (Traditional Breakfast)
The local breakfast containing eggs, beans, plantain, tomatoes, onion, and tortillas. This is a delicious start to your day so don’t miss out on trying the traditional breakfast!
A turkey soup that is traditional to the Mayan culture. We never actually got around to trying this but it is recommended by many people so please let us know how it is if you get around to trying it!
More specifically Cacao, played a part in Mayan history, so it is without a doubt you will find some great chocolate in Guatemala. With varying Cacao levels ranging from milk to dark chocolate, or even chocolate teas, somehow, someway, get yourself a dose of Mayan chocolate.
These are just some of the common foods you will find around. This is a guide just to get you started as Guatemala has a lot more food to offer but some things we only got to try once and never learnt the names. Many cities and towns will offer up some unique options from one another, and we recommend you try as much as you can!
DRINKS IN GUATEMALA
The juices in Guatemala are absolutely amazing. Many local street eats or food markets will be serving up fresh juices from a big container. Our personal favourite was the Pineapple, but you will encounter many awesome flavours such as lemon, mango, tamarindo, orange, etc.
In Guatemala you will generally find three brands of beer including Gallo, Bravha, and Ice. Bravha and Ice are super cheap, no more than a dollar for a tall can (Q5-6) at a convenience shop. Gallo is a bit more money, but the best tasting of the three. Try all three and let us know what you think! A fourth beer you will also likely find is Moza, which is a dark beer if you’re into that.
A cheap local liquor option was Quezalteca that came in various flavours and you could get a small bottle for around Q7 is we are not mistaken. We questioned the quality of this because of the low price and never actually tried it, but we did see people drink it.
The most unique alcoholic beverage we have ever seen. The best way to describe it is a beer with ceviche in it, because that’s basically what it is.
The tap water cannot be drank but we found many of our hostels had clay jug filters and/or jugged water dispensers for water bottle refills.
Budget and Currency in Guatemala
Guatemala’s local currency is Quetzals (GTQ). $1USD will get you approximately Q7.5 (for $1CAD we were getting ~ Q5.5) (May 2018). As for ATM’s, we only ever found success withdrawing from Banco Industrial (Bi) machines. A popular ATM in Guatemala is the 5B but this would not work for our cards and many other travellers we met along the way. Staying on budget in Guatemala was super easy and we did not struggle to keep our average daily budget at about Q200. That is approximately $27USD / $36CAD.