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Planning a trip to Guatemala, eh?
Guatemala is the bomb dot com—hands down one of my favorite countries in Latin America.
There are TONS of cool things to do in Guatemala. I spent over two months there and barely scratched the surface.
The best part is, most of the top things to do in Guatemala are super close together. So if you’re short on time, you’ll still be able to visit loads of amazing places (and not waste your whole trip traveling).
So, without further ado, let’s dive in!
As you’ll see, most of the popular things to do in Guatemala are all located close to each other in a centralized area.
Guatemala Digital Nomad Outlook: You won’t find blazing fast internet speeds here. But if you’re looking for a cheap place to live oozing culture, natural beauty, and fun—Guatemala is right up your alley. Antigua has a small digital nomad community with a coworking space that offers internet speed of 20mbps. But anywhere else, you can expect around 4-5mbps. If you don’t care about community and want somewhere peaceful and nature-y to focus on remote work, check out the villages surrounding Lake Atitlán.
Table of Contents
- Map of Best Things to Do in Guatemala
- Northern Guatemala
- Central Guatemala
- Antigua + Guatemala City
- Lake Atitlán + Nearby Areas
- #8.) Learn Spanish in San Pedro La Laguna
- #9.) Take a Guatemalan Coffee Tour in San Juan
- #10.) Hike Indian Nose for Sunrise
- #11.) Relax at La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz La Laguna
- #12.) Do Hippie Stuff in San Marcos La Laguna
- #13.) Parasail Over the Lake in Panajachel
- #14.) Kayak and Paddleboard on Lake Atitlán
- #15.) Get Your Haggle On at the Chichicastenango (“Chichi”) Market
- #16.) Visit the Iximche Mayan Ruins
- #17.) Volunteer in the Community
- Southern Coast
- Guatemala Packing List – Important Items You Can’t Forget
- Insider Guatemala Travel Tips
- How to Stay Safe in Guatemala
- What to Do in Guatemala Recap
Map of Best Things to Do in Guatemala
I created this handy map to help you plan out your Guatemala itinerary. It includes all the places mentioned in this post.
To keep things organized, I’ve grouped the activities into zones based on their location (from north to south). If you already know where you will be traveling in Guatemala, you can click the links below to jump to a specific zone.
Money in Guatemala: To help you estimate the prices given in this article, $1 USD is roughly 8 Quetzales (GTQ). You can check the current exchange rate here.
Most of the fun things to do in Guatemala are located in the southern half of the country. That said, there is one BIG reason you’ll want to visit the north—that is Tikal.
#1.) Explore the Tikal Jungle Ruins
Tikal is the top tourist attraction in Guatemala. It covers 575.83 square kilometers (over 200 square miles), is the largest archeological site of pre-Colombian Mayan civilization, and—fun fact—was used to film Star Wars Episode IV.
The crazy part is, a huge portion of it is still unexplored. They are still unearthing new structures as we speak.
The highlights of Tikal are the Temple of the Grand Jaguar and the different numbered temples. One of my favorite spots was dragging myself up the steep steps of Temple IV to enjoy the view of the jungle.
If you decide to visit, I highly recommend taking a guided tour. Tourism is important in this area, helping support the locals. Not only that, but the fascinating stories the guide shares makes the ruins really come to life.
That said, if you don’t care about history and just want to take epic selfies without getting photobombed, here’s how to explore the Tikal ruins without a tour.
To get to there, you’ll need to arrive in the town of Flores via flight or bus. Since Flores is in Northern Guatemala, it is actually closer to Belize City than Guatemala City. Once in Flores, it’s another hour and a half shuttle ride to the Tikal National Park entrance.
I personally bused from Belize City to Flores, stopping in San Ignacio, Belize (border town) for a couple nights on the way. Side note: San Ignacio supposedly has some cool caves to explore, but they were closed when I went thanks to the stupid amount of rain dumping on the city.
Where to stay in Tikal:
You have two options:
#1 – Stay in the hotels within Tikal National Park itself. This is more expensive, but I heard the jungle sounds at night + the sunrise over the temples is freaking amazing.
#2 – Stay on the nearby town of Flores (more on Flores in a sec) and take an 8-hour guided tour with transport included. This was the option I chose because I was/am a cheap backpacker.
#2.) Wander Around the Colorful Island of Flores
If you’re visiting Tikal, you’ll probably be spending the night on the tiny island of Flores, situated on Lake Peten Itza.
There’s not much to do in the town itself other than stroll around the island, taking pictures of the pretty colorful houses and enjoying the sunset over the lake.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can rent a canoe and paddle around the lake for a couple bucks an hour (the water is calmer in the morning).
And if you have even more time, there are a bunch of fun activities a short bus/ferry ride from Flores—the Uaxactún ruins, Jorge’s famous rope swing, ziplining in Ixanpajul Natural Park, and the quick hike up to El Mirador del Rey Canek.
Money-saving tip: When booking tours out of Flores, always shop around to get the best price.
Where to stay in Flores, Guatemala:
#1 – Los Amigos Hostel – The main backpacker hub. Nice place. But my experience was tainted when I woke up at 2am to my drunk bunkmate pissing into my backpack as if it were the toilet. 🤬
#2 – Hotel Mirador del Lago– Cheap and somewhat dingy, but it has a nice view of lake from bar and offers free kayak rentals. Good option if Los Amigos is full (or you’re scared of getting your bag peed on).
There are two main destinations in Central Guatemala: Livingston (east coast) and Semuc Champey (smack dab in the middle). Livingston is only accessible by boat and WAY off the beaten path. Semuc is a perfect stopping point—and 1000% shouldn’t be miss— if traveling between Northern and Southern Guatemala by land.
#3.) Soak up Caribbean Vibes in Livingston
I didn’t make it to Livingston myself, but I met a handful of travelers who did. Here’s what they had to say…
Livingston is WAY different from the rest of Guatemala. Situated on the Northeast Caribbean tip of Guatemala, Livingston is cut off from the rest of the country (only accessible by boat), and is strongly influenced by the Afro-Caribbean Garifuna culture.
Contrary to popular guidebook advice, if you want to visit Livingston, go for the culture, not the beaches (you’ll be underwhelmed).
Taste the delicious Garifuna cuisine (like Tapado and coco bread), watch the Garifuna drummers (or try it yourself!), and soak up the Caribbean vibe.
To get to Livingston, you’ll need to take the riverboat from Rio Dulce (~125 GTQ) or the boat from Punta Gorda, Belize (~$30 USD).
Where to stay in Livingston, Guatemala:
Casa Nostra – Gorgeous waterfront view, free bikes, and kayaks
Hotel La Casa Rosada – Small private beach area, nice tours, peaceful, cute puppies
Casa de la Iguana – #1 party hostel in town, cool jungle treehouse vibe, but kinda dirty
#4.) Tarzan Through the Jungle at Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey was hands down one of my favorite things to do in Guatemala.
Most people go for the pretty turquoise pools you see on Instagram, but that is only one of many exciting activities jam-packed into your day.
Most hostels in Lanquín can hook you up with a day trip that includes the famous natural pools of Semuc Champey, an adrenaline-filled candle-lit swim through the KanBa Cave, bridge jumping and tubing down the river, fun rope swings, and best of all, little kids selling you cold beer all day long.
You can skip the tour and visit the pools on your own (to avoid the crowds), but you’ll miss out on the other fun-filled activities. Yes, you’ll get a better photo of the pools if you go solo. But are you traveling to take perfect photos, or are you traveling to make unforgettable memories?
Getting in and out of Semuc takes one full day and is somewhat of an ordeal (but worth it). You need to bus to the “town” of Lanquin, and will probably be coming from either the South (Guatemala City, Antigua, Atitlán) or the North (Flores/Tikal). Either way, the bus takes at least 8 hours to Lanquin.
From Lanquin, you’ll need to find transport to your accommodation. In most cases, this involves getting packed like sardines into the back of an open pick-up and driven along bumpy dirt roads through the jungle (FYI it’s all fun and games until it starts pouring rain).
Since it’s such a pain to get in and out, I recommend staying for a few days for a digital detox. You’ll need 2 nights minimum. But I recommend chilling out for 3 or 4.
If you stay longer, you’ll have time to take Spanish lessons, get your yoga on, and learn how to make your own chocolate from scratch.
Where to Stay in Semuc Champey:
Utopia Eco Lodge – This is where I stayed. Highly recommended. They had hammocks when I went, but I don’t see that option anymore.
Zephyr Lodge is a popular choice for party animals. But I’ve heard many stories of food poisoning (which is NOT fun to have stranded in the jungle), so I cannot recommend it.
Pro tip: If you’re staying in an open room and it starts raining, watch out for tarantulas who wanna snuggle.
Antigua + Guatemala City
Now we’re moving down to the South, where you’ll find most of the top places to visit in Guatemala grouped close together.
#5.) Get Your Big City Fix in Guatemala City
I’m not a big city guy and generally recommend skipping big Central America cities altogether. That said, there are a few interesting things to do in Guatemala City.
If you’re a museum person, there are lots to choose from here. Three of the most popular are the Museo Popol Vuh, the Ixchel Native Costume Museum, and the Museo Ixchel de Traje Indigena. I opted out of visiting them because, to be honest, I’m not intellectual enough to genuinely enjoy museums (I pretend to like them so people think I’m smart). But if it’s your thing, you’ll probably like them!
One crazy place you used to be able to visit is this giant sinkhole in the middle of the city. Apparently, the earth just decided to suddenly swallow up a bunch of houses one day (looking at those pics kinda makes you feel super vulnerable, doesn’t it?). Fortunately for the city (and unfortunately for curious tourists like me), the sinkhole has since been filled in.
If you like Geography, another cool place to visit in Guatemala City is La Mapa en Relieve. It’s a huge topographical model of Guatemala, built to scale, showing all the cities, mountain ranges, and volcanoes. I didn’t have high expectations when going to visit, but ended up being pleasantly surprised—it’s pretty neat to see everywhere you’ve traveled through the country.
Other than that, take advantage of Guatemala City to hit up the malls and stock up on any specialized supplies you need. Shopping options are slim everywhere else.
Where to Stay in Guatemala City:
I was actually dating a girl from Guatemala City (spoiler alert: didn’t end well), so I stayed with her family. But here are some other places I’ve heard good things about:
Capsule Hostel– Most popular by far, pancake breakfast, great location in the historic center
Tequila Sunrise Hostel – Breakfast buffet, close to airport, restaurants, and bars
Quetzalroo – Cozy homey vibes, yummy breakfast, great location in zone 10
#6.) Bust Out Your Photography Skills in Iconic Antigua
If you’re after those iconic photos of Guatemala, Antigua is your place. Here you’ll find one of the most distinguishable landmarks in all of Guatemala—the yellow Santa Catalina arch framing Volcan de Agua in the background.
But the photo opportunities don’t end there.
You’ll also find great shots of the ruins of the original town (decimated by an earthquake in 1773), the Cerro de la Cruz (“Cross Hill”) viewpoint, La Merced Church, and many other monuments. With the cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, and massive volcanoes towering in the background…you’ll find great photos at every turn.
That said, Antigua is one of the most touristic towns in Guatemala. If you want photos that aren’t filled with people, be prepared to drag yourself out of bed at the keistercrack of dawn.
Bonus: If you want some truly unique photos and don’t mind crowds, schedule your trip for Semana Santa (Holy Week).
Where to Stay in Antigua, Guatemala:
Tropicana Hostel – Popular party hostel. Great place to meet people. Not a great place if you’re recovering from Chikungunya.
Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel – Great breakfast and afternoon cake. Shockingly high ratings and reviews.
Selina Antigua – Beautiful courtyard, nice hot showers, and rooftop yoga.
#7.) Scramble Up Active Volcanoes
Here’s the perfect activity for all my adventure lovers out there. Every traveler I’ve met who has done a volcano hike in Guatemala has said it was easily the highlight of their trip.
I was stoked to experience it for myself, but a few days before I was scheduled to climb Acatenango, I came down with a gnarly case of Chikungunya and had to cancel. (Btw, Chikungunya BLOWS. Always wear skeeter spray.)
Luckily (and somewhat irritatingly), I spoke with tons of travelers who were able to experience this unforgettable adventure. Here’s the info I gathered…
The two most popular volcano hikes are Volcan Pacaya and Volcan Acatenango. Guided tours for both can be arranged from Antigua.
The Pacaya hike lasts 6-7 hours and is the easier of the two volcanoes. Tours leave from Antigua in the morning and afternoon, but if you want to see lava, I recommend the afternoon hike—you’ll reach the summit at sunset and be able to see it better (make sure to bring a headlamp for the hike down!). Most tours include roasting marshmallows over the lava fields, and some even offer a sandboarding experience.
Climbing Acatenango is a much more challenging and can be done as a day hike (12 hours) or overnight hike (recommended). If you opt for the overnight hike, you get to camp near the top of Acatenango, overlooking its often-erupting neighbor, Volcan Fuego. Then, the next morning, you climb to the summit of Acatenango for sunrise. If you go this route, here are two important recommendations:
#1 – Research your guide – Not all guides are created equal. This is a long, strenuous hike, and your guide can make or break your experience. Try to find one with the best ratings.
#2 – Check the weather – My lil’ bro got caught in a torrential wind/rainstorm and almost died (at least that’s how he describes it). After reaching the campsite, everyone was soaked and shivering, so they decided to turn back—hiking all the way back down in the dark.
Lake Atitlán + Nearby Areas
Lake Atitlán is magical a magical place. It is the deepest lake in Central America and is thought to have mystical powers (and beasts) within. I spent 5 weeks living in a homestay and studying Spanish along the lake, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.
I traveled from Antigua directly to San Pedro La Laguna (the village I studied in) via shuttle bus. However, the path down to San Pedro is RIDICULOUS, and I only recommend this option if you want to die.
For those who want to live, you can catch a shuttle, chicken bus, or private car from Antigua to Panajachel—the biggest town on the lake. From there, take a quick ferry ride to any of the other towns. Here is a handy map to show you what I’m talking about.
Here are some of the best activities in each of the surrounding villages.
#8.) Learn Spanish in San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro is, in my opinion, the best place to learn Spanish in Guatemala.
As I mentioned, I spent 5 weeks living with a beautiful Mayan family, studying Spanish each day with a stunning view of the lake. And you won’t believe what it cost me…
My package with Cooperativa Spanish School included five hours of private classes per day, a private room in a complete immersion homestay, and three delicious home-cooked meals per day…all for a grand total of $200/week.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
Antigua and Quetzaltenango (Xela) are two other popular towns to study Spanish—Antigua for its party scene and Xela for its immersion. But I wouldn’t trade my experience in San Pedro for the world.
In San Pedro, you get the best of both worlds. If you want immersion, you stay in the local side of town. If you need a break from Spanish and want to party, you can head down to the “Gringo Strip” for the night.
Even if you don’t have time to do a longer stay like I did, I still highly recommend taking classes for a few days. If you’re going to be traveling in Spanish-speaking countries, learning the basic Spanish phrases and practicing your comprehension skills will go a long way.
Where to Stay in San Pedro La Laguna:
I highly recommend staying in a homestay and taking Spanish classes for at least a week. But if you’re short on time and just stopping by San Pedro for a few nights, these are the top places to stay:
Hostel Fe – Popular party hostel, close to main bar, Bar Sublime.
Hotel Mikaso – Another great budget option with a sweet rooftop hot tub to watch the sun setting over the lake. It’s further away from the bars and not as noisy as Hostel Fe.
For longer stays (if a homestay isn’t for you), you can rent studio apartments with beautiful lake views for as little as $200 per month.
#9.) Take a Guatemalan Coffee Tour in San Juan
One of my favorite parts of my homestay (apart from the beautiful family, of course), was the delicious 100% organic Atitlán coffee my homestay mom prepared for me every morning. The coffee beans she used came straight from her father’s coffee farm nearby.
In this region, coffee is a way of life. My 8-year-old homestay sister drank 10 cups per day. They even gave coffee to the baby!
If you visit San Juan, you can take a two-hour tour of La Voz Coffee Cooperative and learn all about the maturation, roasting, and packaging process of organic Atitlán coffee.
San Juan is a quick tuk-tuk ride away from San Pedro, and can also be reached by ferry from Panajachel.
#10.) Hike Indian Nose for Sunrise
While in San Pedro, Hiking to La Nariz del Indio (“Indian Nose”) for sunrise is something you won’t want to miss.
I was this close *holding fingers super close together* from skipping this hike thanks to some “fragile” stomach problems I was dealing with. I’m glad I powered through.
It’s one of the best views of Lake Atitlán you’re going to get. You can set up a tour from San Pedro for ~100 quetzales ($13), which includes transportation and a guide. Going without a guide is not recommended unless you like getting robbed.
Plus, while we were waiting for sunrise, our guide even started a fire and made coffee to warm us up!
#11.) Relax at La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz La Laguna
I only spent one night in Santa Cruz, but I wish I would have had time for more. Santa Cruz is the least touristy of the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan, and it is only accessible by boat.
The main draw to this town is La Iguana Perdida hostel located on the waterfront. It’s the perfect place to disconnect, meet new friends, and relax in a hammock overlooking the water.
It has a real family feel. When I went, we had a communal BBQ dinner followed by a costume dance party. Not a get-blasted-be-obnoxious-and-break-stuff type dance party, but a strangely freeing, non-judgemental we’re-ten-traveling-strangers-at-a-beautiful-secluded-hostel-in-the-Guatemalan-jungle-on-a-mystical-lake type dance party (if you know what I mean).
Other than chilling out at the hostel, you can hike up into the village for gorgeous views of the lake or even scuba dive on the lake with the hostel’s dive shop.
#12.) Do Hippie Stuff in San Marcos La Laguna
If you aren’t familiar with the ways of the hippie, you will find San Marcos to be a peculiar place (as I did). If you’re a hippie, welcome home!
For non-hippies, keep an open mind. I’m not saying you have to buy any crystal chakra spirit-cleansing amulets, participate in cacao group energy transfers, or become a vegan. But just approach it with a sense of wonder.
Practice some yoga at the Yoga Forrest, join the drum circle, do some tantric meditation (I guarantee it’s something you’ll never forget)…
Try new things—no matter how wacky you think they are. The more bizarre experience, the better the story.
Where to Stay in San Marcos La Laguna:
Hostal del Lago – Very popular with budget backpackers that offers yoga classes, mediation sessions, waterfront dock, and more.
Eagle’s Nest Atitlán – Waterfront dorms and private rooms, sauna, spectacular views
For more privacy (or if you want to stay longer), there are tons of beautiful lakefront apartments, cottages, and bungalows available for rent (like this one 😍). They normally get booked out way ahead of time, so make sure to reserve in advance.
#13.) Parasail Over the Lake in Panajachel
If you go to Lake Atitlán, you HAVE to go paragliding in Panajachel. It’s non-negotiable. It’s easily one of the top things to do in Panajachel, and honestly, is one of the funnest activities to do in Guatemala as a whole.
At first, I was a bit skeptical. After all, launching myself off a cliff strapped to a human kite in a third-world country sounded mildly unsafe. But after some convincing, I took the plunge, and am glad I did.
If you’re up for some adrenaline-filled fun, I recommend going through the company Real World Paragliding. They’re the real deal.
The cost is around 700 Quetzales (~$90), and your flight will last 20-45 minutes depending on the wind and you’re weight. My fat ass lasted 20 minutes.
Insider Tip: Don’t worry about taking pictures or videos. They’ll take care of it for you. I was so obsessed with getting the perfect shot, that I forgot to relax and enjoy the moment. And in the end, the shots that the guide took were way better than mine anyway.
Where to stay in Panajachel, Guatemala:
Dreamboat Hostel – Great social environment, best place to meet people in Panajachel
Selina Atitlan – Clean, organized, work stations, internet, and swimming pool
PanaHouse – Cozy atmosphere, tucked away in a quiet alleyway away from street noise, great value
#14.) Kayak and Paddleboard on Lake Atitlán
No matter which village you’re staying in, make sure you schedule some time for fun Lake Atitlán water activities—namely kayaking or paddleboarding.
I rented a kayak in San Pedro, but there are places to rent equipment all around the lake (many accommodations even offer free rentals).
This is one of the best ways (aside from perhaps Parasailing) to get breathtaking 360 views of the lake and surrounding mountains. You’ll also be able to explore flooded structures, local properties, and other nooks and crannies otherwise inaccessible.
If you decide to kayak Lake Atitlán, morning is best. Afternoon waters tend to be a bit choppier. Regardless, always pay attention to the water and wind. If the wind is at your back while you’re paddling out and everything feels super easy, that means it’s going to be BLEEPING difficult and take 3x as long to paddle back (not fun, trust me).
#15.) Get Your Haggle On at the Chichicastenango (“Chichi”) Market
The Chichi Market is the biggest market in Central America. And it’s not for everyone.
You won’t find the best deals here. You’ll probably have to deal with pushy sellers and kids asking you for handouts. And you’ll want to make sure you guard against pickpockets…
That said, it’s definitely an adventure. If you’re looking for a crazy, overwhelming, yet memorable experience—The Chichi Market could be for you.
The market takes place every Thursday and Sunday starting at 9:30am. You can get there via a tourist shuttle from Lake Atitlán or Antigua, or you can take much cheaper (and adventurous) chicken buses. The journey takes around 1.5 – 2.5 hours depending on your starting point.
Visiting the Chichi Market can be done as a day trip, but if you want more time to explore other parts of the town (like the famous colorful cemetery), there are plenty of accommodation options to make it an overnight trip.
Where to Stay in Chichicastenango, Guatemala:
There aren’t many hotels you can book online in Chichicastenango:
Casa en Chichicastenango – Cheapest, breakfast included
Hotel Chalet – Medium-priced, I’d only book here if Casa en Chichi is full
Hotel Museo Mayan Inn – Most expensive
#16.) Visit the Iximche Mayan Ruins
Iximche was the site of the first capital city of Guatemala (The second was Ciudad Vieja, which was destroyed by the eruption of Volcan de Agua. The third was Antigua, which was destroyed by an earthquake. The fourth is present-day Guatemala City. History is interesting, innit?)
The Iximche Ruins is a well-preserved archaeological site located in Tecpán. It is WAY less touristy than places like Tikal. When I went, I practically had the whole place to myself!
While exploring the ruins, I accidentally stumbled on a tiny costumed man performing a chicken sacrifice ritual to mischievous Saint Maximón. I was told to refrain from photography, but…I couldn’t help myself #secretshot
Tecpán and the Iximche Ruins are located right in the middle of Antigua, Chichi, and Lake Atitlán, and can be easily reached from any of these towns via private transport or chicken bus.
#17.) Volunteer in the Community
There are many ways to volunteer your services in Guatemala—you can work with kids in orphanages, help build houses for the poor, teach English, work to protect animals, and more.
In 2012, I went on a church mission trip to Guatemala to build houses in a poor community and teach the kiddos about Jesus.
It was a life-changing experience.
I ended up sponsoring a child from the local church to help pay for his schooling. Then, 5 years later when on my backpacking trip, I got to meet him and stay with his family for a couple days.
It’s easy as travelers to always take take take (I’m certainly guilty). If you ever get the opportunity to give back, I bet it’ll be one of the most meaningful travel experiences you ever have.
Alrightyyy, making our way down to the DEEP south. These spots are pretty far off the beaten path, close to the borders of Mexico and El Salvador. But if you’re traveling by land along the coast (or you happen to meet a Guatemalan girl on Tinder who invites you to spend New Years at her family’s beach mansion on a military base), then they are great places to stop.
#18.) Visit a Black Sand Beach
If you’ve never been to a black beach before, you’re in luck. Guatemala’s Pacific coast is full of black sand hidden gems.
Three of the most popular beaches in Guatemala are Monterrico, Champerico (“Champe”), and Playa Tilapia.
Monterrico Beach: One of Guatemala’s most popular beaches. Laidback and rustic vibe. 2.5 hours south of Antigua. The best budget option in Monterrico is Black Sand Beachhouse. If you can splurge, here are some stylish high-end options.
Champerico: Great for surfing. 2 hours from Quetzaltenango. The only place in town you can reserve in advance is Hotel y Restaurante el Diamante.
Playa Tilapa: Quiet beach in small, off-the-beaten-path fishing village. 3 hours from Quetzaltenango, on the border of Mexico and Guatemala. There’s really no place to stay in Tilapa other than these two beach houses (which are almost always booked). Your best bet is staying in Coatepeque, 45 minutes away.
Whichever beach you choose, there’s a good chance you’ll have plenty of black-sanded paradise all to yourself.
#19.) Take a Chicken Bus Adventure
I’ve mentioned chicken buses a lot in the article. And if you’re still feeling uneasy about taking one…I get it.
Antique school buses with bald tires driven by maniacs on sketchy roads… They’re dangerous. There’s no question about it.
That said, some routes are a lot safer than others (stay away from anything going down to San Pedro). And it’s a unique experience I think everyone should have at least once.
I’ve seen some crazy stuff on chicken buses, including people riding on the roof, an entire stuffed pork (head and all), and —you guessed it—old ladies carrying around rambunctious chickens.
Plus, you’ll spend a fraction of what it costs for a tourist shuttle, allowing you to splurge on other fun activities.
If you’re still not convinced, check out the Chicken Bus Song 🐓↓
Guatemala Packing List – Important Items You Can’t Forget
Here are a few Guatemala packing essentials you won’t want to forget.
Strong mosquito spray – Let me tell you, Chikungunya is NOT pleasant. Make sure to protect yourself with Ben’s mighty insect repellent.
GoPro – You’re going to want a rugged GoPro to capture footage of cave swimming, volcano hikes, river tubing, bridge jumping, sandboarding, and all your other adventures.
Water shoes – If you’re going to be tubing, caving, and rope swinging into rivers, some sturdy water shoes are a good idea (or anything that dries quickly).
Rain jacket / Windbreaker – Your future self will thank you for packing this if you plan on doing any volcano hikes (this is the one I use…I actually picked it up in a second-hand clothing store in San Pedro for five bucks. STEAL!).
First aid kit – Since many of the best places in Guatemala are out in the jungle, it’s best to have a basic kit with you (like this one) to treat small injuries (and prevent them from getting infected).
Headlamp – This will come in handy on hikes that start before dawn or go after dark. They’re also handy to have since you never know when you’ll lose power. I recommend Black Diamond headlamps for their durability and power.
Secret pocket shirt – These are awesome for crowded markets, chicken buses, or if you have to walk around at night (here’s a bunch of different styles). An alternative is to have a seamstress sew pockets inside your pants. I had this done in San Pedro for $5.
Money belt – Not your typical money belt. This belt is a great place to hide cash, and it doubles as an actual belt (unlike normal touristy money belts).
Packing cubes – Don’t leave on any trip without packing cubes. They’re AMAZING.
Quick dry towel – If you’re still traveling with a normal, bulky, dank-smelling towel, get with the times, my friend! A quick-dry microfiber towel makes your life easier.
Pacsafe – If you’re a digital nomad or travel with expensive equipment, I always recommend a PacSafe Travel safe. It’s basically a wire mesh bag that you can lock to a stable fixture wherever you’re staying to keep your valuables secure. Oftentimes your accommodation will have some sort of locker, but when it doesn’t, you’ll be glad you brought this.
Safetywing Travel Insurance – Don’t leave yourself unprotected. No matter how careful you are, there are too many things that are out of your control—chicken bus crashes, tainted food, and water, faulty adventure equipment…grab some travel insurance and give yourself some peace of mind (see box below for instant quote).
Insider Guatemala Travel Tips
When at the market, don’t be afraid to haggle and always shop around. The vendors always start with an outrageous price to see what you’re made of. That said, don’t fight for pennies. Spending an extra dollar here and there won’t break your bank, but it’ll mean a world of difference for them.
Do not drink tap water or any fruits, veggies, or drinks prepared with tap water. They might look delicious, but you’re gonna pay for it in the bathroom.
Spanish is the official language in Guatemala, but 25 other indigenous languages are also spoken. If you hear something that doesn’t sound like Spanish, it probably isn’t. Also, if you take Spanish classes, you might find the accent to be slightly off.
Guatemalan kids like firecrackers. At first, you’ll think they’re gunshots. After a while, you get used to it.
Always have small bills on hand. Most small shops, restaurants, tuk-tuks, etc. won’t be able to break large bills. Whenever you’re in a supermarket or somewhere that moves a lot of money, make sure to break those bills.
To save money, try to eat the menu of the day (“menu del dia”) for lunch. Also, buy food from local markets instead of tourist cafes.
How to Stay Safe in Guatemala
- Be careful which ATMs you use and when you use them. If possible, try to only use highly trafficked ATMs in public places during the day (ex. In supermarkets, banks, and tourist areas).
- Don’t buy bus tickets from people in the streets. Always buy in the terminal (or on the bus itself).
- To make sure you’re not overcharged for bus fares, taxis, entrance fees, etc simply ask the locals standing around you (“Disculpa, Cuanto cuesta?”).
- If you want to take a chicken bus, research other people’s experiences online for the route you’re looking for. Some routes are extremely dangerous, while others are more relaxed.
- Be careful when drinking and partying. Don’t walk around at night.
- Make sure someone always knows your travel plans.
- Use your best judgement and common sense.
- NEVER TRAVEL WITHOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE. NOT WORTH THE RISK! (Said the man who has been to the hospital too many times to count while traveling). It’s super cheap. Just buy it and travel protected.
What to Do in Guatemala Recap
▢ Explore the Tikal jungle ruins
▢ Wander around the colorful island of Flores
▢ Soak up Caribbean vibes in Livingston
▢ Tarzan through the jungle at Semuc Champey
▢ Get your big city fix in the capitol, Guatemala City
▢ Bust out your photography skills in Antigua
▢ Climb the active Pacaya and Acatenango volcanoes
▢ Learn Spanish in San Pedro
▢ Take a Guatemala coffee to in San Juan
▢ Hike to La Nariz del Indio for sunrise
▢ Relax at La Iguana Perdida Hostel in Santa Cruz
▢ Do hippie stuff in San Marcos
▢ Parasail over Atitlán in Panajachel
▢ Kayak and paddleboard on Lake Atitlán
▢ Test your haggling skills at the Chichi Market
▢ Visit the Iximche Mayan Ruins
▢ Volunteer in the Community
▢ Visit a black sand beach
▢ Take a chicken bus adventure
I hope this post helps you create an unforgettable Guatemala itinerary! If you found it helpful, I’d be psyched if you shared it using the buttons below. Peace! ✌️
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Mitch is your typical nomadic backpacker. Or at least, he was. But after stopping in Colombia to take “one week” of salsa lessons, his life took a sharp left turn. He met a cute Colombian girl in dance class, fell in love, and got married. Over half a decade has passed since he left his career to travel the world as a digital nomad, and he’s never looked back.
Nowadays, he’s the blogger behind Project Untethered—where he runs an awesome email newsletter and Youtube channel teaching adventure-craved wanderlusters how to escape the rat race, earn money from anywhere, and build an “untethered life”.
Mitch's Travel Recommendations:
Travel Planning Resources - Everything you need to plan your trip on one convenient page.
Safetywing Insurance - This cheap travel insurance has saved me over $15,000 in medical bills.
Booking.com - Book accommodation without adding your credit card (in case you need to cancel).
Skyscanner - Find cheap flights.
Trusted House Sitters - Take care of pets in exchange for free (sometimes luxury) accommodation.
Flexjobs - Find remote jobs without having to sift through crappy ones.
Skillshare - Free trial to take unlimited classes that teach digital nomad skills.
Anytime Mailbox - Virtual mail service that can handle your mail while you’re away.
Wise - Send and receive money abroad cheaply (great for freelancers).