With its diverse indigenous culture, rich Maya heritage and colonial charm, Guatemala is an intoxicating adventure for both the jaded and novice traveler. That said, visiting for the first time can be a daunting experience. Embassy warnings, economic hardships and a bewildering range of things to see and do can be off-putting.
Should you be worried? No! Guatemala’s a very accessible, welcoming country and with a bit of planning and the right smarts, you’re in for an enchanting ride. Here’s Lonely Planet’s classic itinerary and insider tips for the perfect, hassle-free first-timer’s trip.
A gorgeous colonial masterpiece, Antigua is a highlight for most travelers to Guatemala. The town has jaw-dropping streetscapes at every turn, an excellent selection of restaurants and a small but varied nightlife. It’s also a great place to brush up on your Spanish in one of the town’s myriad language schools, and to use as a base to hike the volcanoes that loom over the town.
Tip: Antigua is a party town for Guatemala City dwellers on the weekends. Midweek is quieter, so plan your stay according to what you’re looking for.
Lauded by everybody from Aldous Huxley (‘too much of a good thing’) to this writer’s mum (‘Why don’t you live here?’), the volcano-framed shimmering blue waters of Lake Atitlán have been dazzling travelers for generations. The lake is ringed by villages both quaint and bustling, with plenty of interesting options for places to stay.
Tip: It’s tempting to stay a couple of nights here, a couple of nights there, but boat rides between villages are fast and cheap – save on time and logistics by settling in one place and visiting other villages by boat on day trips.
A short hop up the road from Atitlán is Chichicastenango, famous for its Thursday and Sunday markets. A photographer’s dream, the markets are full of color and movement, with household items, traditional weavings, tourist knick-knacks, medicinal herbs and religious artifacts all squeezed into the tiny stalls that take over the central plaza.
Another fascinating aspect of the town is the merging of religion that can be witnessed – here Maya religion and Catholicism blend seamlessly. The Santo Tomas church is only really Catholic by name – Mayan priests use it for traditional rituals, and even the 18 steps leading up to the church symbolize the number of months in the Maya calendar.
Tip: Avoid the whirlwind day trip on offer from travel agencies and stay in town the night before the market. Getting up early and watching vendors set up is almost as interesting as the market itself.
One of Guatemala’s absolute must-sees, Tikal rates among the most impressive archaeological sites in the Maya world. Relatively easy to get to, expansive in size and hugely atmospheric, the site rarely disappoints – even if it’s packed out with tour groups (which it probably will be).
Tip: To get the most out of the site, consider staying at one of the hotels within the park and arranging a guide to go on a sunrise or sunset tour.
For places of natural beauty in Guatemala, it’s hard to beat Semuc Champey. A series of limestone pools connected by a cascading river and surrounded by jungle, this is one of Guatemala’s best freshwater swimming spots and the range of caving and rafting opportunities in the surrounding area has earned it a solid place on the backpacker trail.
Tip: Semuc Champey is in a remote location, but its popularity means you can get here by shuttle bus from nearly anywhere in the country. Do check your travel times, though – sitting in a cramped minibus for 12 hours is probably not your idea of the perfect trip.
For the perfect itinerary, you could loop around from Guatemala City to Antigua, then Lake Atitlán and on to Semuc Champey, ending your trip with Tikal and then back to Guatemala City. Don’t fall into the first-timers’ trap of trying to squeeze too much into too little time: to do all those places justice and not end up completely frazzled, you’ll need about two weeks, but you could obviously stretch that out to months.
Tip: Budget at least two days in each destination, with a full day for travel for all but the shortest hops – it’s better to end up with time on your hands than spend your entire trip looking out a bus window.
Arriving at Guatemala City’s Aurora international airport can be overwhelming. Relax – there’s a lot of bad stuff that’s been said about the capital in the past, but these days the city’s a lot more traveler-friendly. Nevertheless, you might want to leave off exploring it until the end of your trip once you have your street smarts firmly in place.
Onward transport options from the airport abound, especially if you’re heading for nearby Antigua. Shuttle (private minibus) operators congregate around the Arrivals exit, calling out 'Antigua' – if you’re traveling solo, a shuttle is the way to go. If you’re in a group, a taxi is a better option.
Tip: If you need some quetzales, don’t change cash in the unpredictable exchange booths in the airport – go upstairs to departures and look for the 5B ATM hidden sneakily under the stairs.
Guatemala serves up a near-bewildering range of transport options. Where possible, first class and Pullman (greyhound-style) buses are preferable; cheaper ‘chicken buses’ go almost everywhere but are slower and aren’t considered safe to use at night. The only regular domestic flights connect Guatemala City and Santa Elena (gateway to Tikal).
You might hear a few horror stories when you tell people you’re going to Guatemala, but rest assured – any problems travelers experience are mostly freak incidents that could probably happen in your home town. Do brush up on your street smarts, though – don’t carry unnecessary valuables, be wary if approached by a stranger and so on. Check out Lonely Planet’s Guatemala safety page for more tips on staying safe on the road in this enchanting country.
This article was refreshed in August 2017.