The truth is I felt safer in Guatemala than I did in many places in Europe. The people are warm, the prices are cheap, and the scenery? Spectacular. The backpacking route in this country is exceptionally well organized, with cheap and plentiful shuttles all over the place. Even hiring a private shuttle isn’t such a bad idea. The only place I was advised to really stay away from was Guatemala City.
If you want an introduction to Central America, Guatemala is a great place to start. If you come, these are the must-see places. And if none of those things excite you, Guatemala is home to some terrifying hiking trails.
Antigua has some of the finest examples of colonialism architecture in the entire country. Cobbled streets, Renaissance architecture, and religious monuments abound… but in Antigua, you can find them all underneath the shadow of the giant active volcano. It erupts every morning without fail, usually around 8 AM.
You’ve probably seen Antigua in photos. Here are giant yellow churches with outstanding Italian Renaissance designs, and arches spanning the tops of streets that were used for religious figures to cross from one road to another. Stop by Capuchinas, the Church and Convent of Capuchins. While past earthquakes destroyed much of the architecture, the ruins remain as beautiful relics.
Antigua tends to be a hub for young backpackers and travellers of all ages, making it a fantastic place to soak up some nightlife. Opt for a salsa lesson with an experienced instructor, or hit up one of the nightclubs. You can also take a guided tour to the top of the volcano!
Lake Atitlan essentially belongs to Guatemala’s Maya people. It’s located in the highlands, in the Sierra Madre mountain range, and it’s ringed with several stunning volcanoes (all inactive). It’s also the deepest lake in Central America, and the Maya people believe there is a certain special energy here, perhaps fuelled by all the volcanic activity. That’s why all around the lake you’ll find many hippie towns and meditation centres.
One of the most interesting things about Lake Atitlan: the Mayan language is different on one side of the lake than the other. When two different Maya tribes meet, they speak in Spanish to understand each other. How crazy is that?
Even crazier: the water levels continue rising in the lake. As my boat taxi pulled up at a dock in San Pedro, somebody pointed out the submerged buildings that fell victim to rising waters. Just 10 years ago, they were dry and secure. Enthusiastic divers can spend some time exploring various submerged buildings, including hotels and their rooms preserved just as they were in their time. For safety reasons, though, we recommend hiring a SCUBA diving guide.
Panajachel (Pana) was my first stop around Lake Atitlan. It’s also an epic place to watch the sunset. This place has all the modern amenities you need, including affordable hostels and plenty of good restaurants. There’s even an awesome sushi spot, and a few upscale pasta places. If you want coffee, hitting up Crossroads Café is a must! The owner is one of the friendliest people in the world, and his stories will keep you entertained for hours. Oh, and the coffee is great.
There’s a great expat community, and you’ll find many of them hanging out at the Gringo Loco bar. From here, rent a motorbike and explore some of the nearby towns along the lake. If you’re lucky, a Maya person may even divulge the secret location of some hot springs in the lake. But only if you’re lucky!
Jaibalito is only accessible by boat. There are no roads coming into the town, and only a single tuk-tuk navigates the streets. This might be one of the most underappreciated, underrated parts of Lake Atitlan. If you’re looking for a quiet and friendly retreat after a few weeks or hardcore travel, Jaibalito is it.
While here, my friends and I splurged on the luxury Volcano Lodge accommodations, set back into a stunning garden away from the main drag (which really consists of maybe 10 buildings). We spent our time hanging out at the pool at Club VenAca, or lounging at our hotel. There are a handful of restaurants around town, including Hans’, the German hostel where you can find all sorts of German goods. Yes, in the middle of Guatemala.
San Marcos is THE hippie town of Guatemala. Coming here is like stepping into a bizarre otherworld – massage parlours, numerology readings, meditation gardens, and a dozen or more vegetarian restaurants. In fact, it’s here that I had some amazingly delicious curry! You may shame me for eating a lot of non-local foods, but honestly, the abundance of international cuisine is just too good to pass up.
Peruse the shops here. Sometimes there are artist festivals, but generally San Marcos is a pretty quiet spot. Take a walk along the edge of the lake, and you’ll come to a high jump-off point from the cliff. Daredevils, this one’s for you!
San Pedro is the party town of Atitlan Lake. It’s a backpacker haven. Cheap booze, plenty of ladies’ nights, and laidback folks who come here for a few days and sometimes end up never leaving. If you want to learn Spanish, this is the place to do it. Extremely cheap language schools are available all over the town, and most of the proceeds go to helping underprivileged families in the area.
You can also hike the volcano here, but I’ll warn you: it’s NOT an easy hike! The summit takes about 3-4 hours to reach, and it’s a steady incline the entire way. Still, the views at the top are worth it.
Semuc Champey wasn’t on my radar until several people recommended that I make the trek there. It can be a little difficult to reach, but the journey is well worth it. Semuc Champey is a natural monument near the town of Languin. Here you’ll find a natural 300-metre high limestone bridge, with the beautiful Cahabon River flowing underneath it. There are many stepped pools of turquoise water here, making Semuc Champey a very popular swimming destination.
It’s advisable to stay in Languin when you’re visiting Semuc Champey. That way you have all the amenities you’ll need in the middle of the jungle (seriously), but you’ll be within easy reach of the site.
El Mirador is also known as “the lost city of the Maya,” and is easily one of the most fascinating sites in Central/South America. It’s also the earliest and largest pre-classic archaeological site in Mesoamerica, and is home to the largest pyramid in the world: La Danta. It’s also surrounded by deep, lush rainforest. In other words, it’s one of those things you kind of have to do.
Visiting El Mirador generally means having to hire a local guide. It’s a little inaccessible, but in a way that’s a good thing – this site isn’t swamped with tourists. You can hike to the top of El Tigre, with some of the most epic views of the entire site, including other lost cities scattered around the jungle.
If it’s the Maya culture that fascinates you, visiting Tikal is another must-do. Tikal is home to the ruins of an ancient city found in the Guatemalan rainforest, now declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Inhabited by the Maya civilization from the 6th century BC to the 10th century AD, this ceremonial centre contains temples, palaces, and ruined city squares.
If you come, opt for a tour with a local guide. That’s the best way to understanding the stone carvings and mural paintings with hieroglyphics. Although the site is massive, it’s actually only partially uncovered. Excavations are still underway.