For first-timers to Guatemala, it’s no surprise if you’ve some concerns. Having done little research before my trip to Guate, I definitely made quite a few mistakes before & during my travels. But fear not, here is a list 10 essential Guatemala travel tips from my experience backpacking across the country.
After spending a few weeks backpacking Guatemala, I quickly fell in love with all that the country has to offer. From Semuc Champey to Tikal National Park, there was so much to see and more to do. Nonetheless, I made a few mistakes due to a lack of knowledge regarding the towns I traveled to. So, here is a list of Guatemala travel tips that will hopefully help with planning your trip! Do let me know if you’ve other recommendations and tips for the country!
1. Where to Find the Best Food
One of my first Guatemala travel tips is to try its soups and street eats. To be honest, Guatemalan cuisine has never been on my radar. It wasn’t until I arrived in the country that I realized how much I’ve been missing out on. From the sweet to the savory, there is a long list of recipes that I vowed to master once I returned home.
Although restaurant outings are great, local markets might be a better place to grab some local Guatemalan food. For example, Mercado Central is one of the best places to grab a quick bite in Guatemala City. This huge food market features fresh fruit, a few bakeries, and dozens of food stalls with dining tables and luring feasts.
In smaller towns such as Lanquin and Flores, there are popular street food options that appear at specific dates and times. While shopping for breakfast in Lanquin, I stumbled upon a row of tables out on the street that had a bunch of cheap options to choose from. I went back the following day only to learn that these food assemblies happened every Sunday morning. Planning stops at popular local eateries is definitely one of the things you should know before traveling to Guatemala!
Guatemala has one of the largest indigenous populations in Central America, with 23 Mayan groups that reside in the country. The indigenous people wear beautiful traditional clothing, traje. For women, traje is the combination of a colorful blouse (huipil), a woven skirt (corte), and a shawl (rebozo). There are other components to the ensemble as well, including a hair ribbon and a sash. Although men have their own set of directives, the women’s traje, to me, was much more captivating (like most women’s clothing tend to be, ?).
While in Guate City, my friend pointed out several different women wearing their indigenous attire and told me that they have traditionally been woven by hand. She said that more than pieces of garments, the traje is a form of expression. With its colors and embroidery, it tells the story of the wearer-such as where they are from and which community they belong to.
If you are interested in sustainable travel and like to support local businesses, the second of my Guatemala travel tips is to purchase a piece of traje during your trip. There are many local merchants that have shops around the country. Prices are better in less-touristy towns and can cost much more in Panajachel and Antigua (except La Antigua Galería de Arte). The sad truth is that despite the recognition of their history and architectural achievements, the Mayan population still faces discrimination in the country. I really wish I’ve learned more Spanish so I could better communicate with a local.
Speaking of Spanish, Guatemala is one of the best places to learn the language. The flights to Guate from North America are much cheaper than most other Latin American countries and the cost of living in Guatemala is on the lower end.
Most cities in Guatemala offer a variety of Spanish courses. Guatemalan Spanish, like that in Colombia, has a relatively neutral accent. Guatemalans also speak Spanish at a much slower pace than their counterparts. Many recommend taking courses for 3-6 hours a day for at least 3 weeks to have a basic understanding of Spanish. These courses range between US 90-US 250/week depending on your chosen hours, whether you opt for homestay, and meal options. There are numerous social initiatives in Guatemala and many Spanish schools contribute to projects in the local community.
Due to the natural scenery and nearby activities, Antigua and towns around Lake Atitlan are popular choices for learning Spanish in Guatemala. Combined with lots of options and affordable prices, one of my Guatemala travel tips is to settle here for a few weeks if you intend on learning Spanish!
There are a few different forms of ground transportations when traveling Guatemala. Chicken buses, local buses, and shuttles are the most popular options.
Chicken buses are colorful school buses that operate in different cities. Although they are super cheap and fun, it was hard to find them for long-distance trips. Formal bus lines are more common for long hauls between destinations that locals tend to. For example, there were no bus operators between Flores and Lanquin, a more prominent tourist destination. I had to take a local bus from the Santa Elena Station to Copan, then another to Lanquin.
Therefore, most travelers opt for dedicated destination shuttles or buses between various tourist cities. These are usually arranged through travel agencies or hostels, who charge a premium. Although the prices can be negotiated, I find that speaking directly with the bus operators is a much better alternative. You can negotiate prices with these operators as well! For example, I was looking for a bus from Lanquin to Panajachel. A travel agent gave me a rate of Q 175 and promised that it was much cheaper than the market price.
At that point, I was low on cash and had some ATM problems. After looking around, Lanquin Travel Agency, a company that also operated their own bus line, offered me a rate of Q 100. Since it isn’t uncommon for travelers to be overcharged, I’d recommend people to research standard bus prices before traveling Guatemala. As well, the fourth of my Guatemala travel tips is to shop around town and negotiate prices with shuttle buses if need be!
Oooof, talk about money struggles! I took a bunch of Canadian and small US bills to Guatemala, without realizing how useless they were. Other than Guate City, which had three banks that exchanged Canadian, I couldn’t find another town with banks that exchanged the currency! Once in Flores and Lanquin, no single place would take my Canadian and small US bills. They only accepted crispy US 50 dollars, which I didn’t have.
Panajachel had a money exchange place with crazy bad rates for Canadian dollars. Their banks also only took US 50 bills. I was in quite a situation trying to budget my last few Qs. Luckily, unlike Lanquin, Panajachel had loads of restaurants that took credit cards. Most places (restaurants, bus stations, tourist attractions) operate cash only ☹
The ATMs have better exchange rates than money exchanges. So my fifth and one of the most important Guatemala travel tips is to bring US 50 bills or your debit card! There were quite a few ATMs around each town, but unfortunately, I forgot my debit at home ☹
Lake Atitlan is one of the most popular destinations in Guatemala. With clear blue waters and volcanos as the backdrop, this scenic spot is the perfect getaway. Although Panajachel is the most well-known town, Lake Atitlan is home to 11 different villages. Each town has a different Mayan community and is unique from the others
The 5 most visited towns are Panajachel, San Marcos, San Pedro, Santa Cruz, and Jaibalito. While some are hippie-dippy, others are more community-focused. For example, San Pedro, a known backpacker haven is famous for its nightlife. San Marcos is more popular amongst yogis. You can also opt for more secluded villages with fewer travelers. I spent a morning wandering around San Juan La Laguna, a beautiful town with many local artisans and street art. Many towns offer local tours that provide insight into its culture and artistry. I advise anyone traveling Guatemala to spend a few days around Lake Atitlan and learn about the Mayan’s rich heritage!
I’ve always been a street foodie with a fair share of shitty experiences (pun intended :’() However, nothing will deter me from continuing to chow down on local eats. In Guatemala, I had tortillas off the grill, gravies and corn soup at street corners and fried chicken with little trouble. What I didn’t anticipate, was how Cervecería Gallo, the local beer could put me to bed for a few days.
On the last day of my trip, my friend took me out for some Italian. She was a tad hesitant when I was recommended to try a local beer by the server and told me that she couldn’t even stomach it. But I was curious.
After a few sips, I found it no different than most light brews.
My torment started the next morning. I woke up to a strange tingle in the pit of my stomach. Thinking it would go away, I got up to prepare for my trip home. Without going into any details, the journey back wasn’t as smooth as I hope Apparently, the beer can be heavy, especially after a few weeks of backpacking and exhaustion. The pain lasted for a few days after I got home.
But I couldn’t find any similar experiences online. And since I’ve never gotten sick from a beer and my friend told me she often suffered at the hands of the same lager, the only explanation I have is that Gallo is not for everyone.
8. Wear Good Shoes & Have Extra Clothes for the Volcano Climb!
As I write this, two of my toenails have left my body. Graphic but true-that’s what happens when you don’t properly plan for a lengthy hike!
With 37 volcanoes on its land, it’s not a surprise that trekking volcanoes have become a popular tourist activity in Guatemala. I didn’t finalize my hike until after arriving in the country. With a 25L backpack on hand, I decided it was better to grab items on the road if needed.
When my friend decided to climb Acatanengo Volcano with me, I readily agreed. She was considerate enough to find me a jacket and some runners, which I happily borrowed for the hike.
Unbeknownst to me, volcanos are not easy hikes, as it had loose debris and plenty of small rocks. As well, the weather on top was hella Canadian and I was freezing cold despite the extra layers.
Although my feet were sore from the hike, I didn’t realize that my toenails were completely purple after I came back down. A few weeks later, they were gone with the wind. One of the most important things to know before travleing Guatemla is to cut yo toenails if you are going on lengthy hikes! The eighth of my Guatemala travel tips is to bring good shoes and extra layers if you plan on hiking a volcano!
Guatemala is one of the cheapest countries for thrift shopping, with prices comparable to that of China! The country has numerous second-hand markets, much of which offer clothes from Goodwill. Interestingly, most thrift shops are decorated like that of high-fashion boutiques. It was quite fun to shop around town, especially when dresses and shirts can cost as little as US 1!
Most towns in Guatemala are lined with second-hand stores. For those who like to thrift shop, a walk down a random street will give you ample options for affordable purchases. These shops are more likely to appear in local marketplaces. My favorite were ones in Guatemala City, especially the markets around the National Palace of Culture.
10. Is Guatemala Safe for Solo Travelers, Female Travelers, & the Like?
I backpacked for two and a half weeks across Guatemala and had no worries! I took local buses and visited night markets like every other person without any trouble. As always, I tend to cover up more when on the road, but I often saw short shorts and tank tops on travelers.
Keep your essentials in a money belt under a shirt and don’t flash any valuables around. The crime rate is not low in Guatemala and I’ve heard a local friend tell me to be careful in certain areas, especially in parts of Guatemala City. I also didn’t go out too late or partied much as my schedule was quite tight.
I often asked locals about the safety in the town, only took buses that locals say are safe, and avoided chicken buses along the mountain routes.
However, it’s not common to see violence towards travelers, so long you don’t get involved in you know, drugs, go wandering about completely wasted, and show up with a gazillion dollar bills.
All in all, I felt safe traveling alone around Flores, Lanquin, Antigua, and Panajachel!