Guatemala’s Top 3 Destinations for Backpackers
Most traveler’s bypass Guatemala for other tourist destinations in Central America such as Mexico or Costa Rica. However this beautiful country shouldn’t be overlooked and has so much to offer whether you’re a short-term traveler or a long-term backpacker. Lush, green and bio-diverse jungles; clear, cool lake waters surrounded by volcanoes; and picturesque, cobblestone streets of old colonial towns are just a few of the diverse landscapes that Guatemala has to offer. You might travel to Guatemala and decide you never want to leave. This was our experience and if we weren’t in the middle of a trip around the world we may never have left. Here are Guatemala’s top 3 destinations for backpackers with descriptions and further reading available.
1. Flores & Tikal National Park
If you’re traveling to Guatemala from Mexico or Belize, then Flores would most likely be your first stop. Located only 2 hours from the border of Belize, this island-town in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá is the starting point for exploring the lost Mayan world of Tikal. If you’re flying into Guatemala City, then your options are to take an additional flight to Flores or take a VIP overnight bus (10-12 hours, very comfortable) from the city directly to Flores. If you’re an artist or writer you may spend a few days here and decide to stay for months, as it’s the perfect town for relaxing and exploring your artistic side.
Flores is a small, easy to walk town in the middle of an enormous lake with cobblestone streets, cute cafes, and incredible sunsets. Accommodation ranges here from affordable Air BnB rentals, cheap hostels, and boutique hotels. Restaurants offer traditional Guatemalan food, such as the ‘typical meal’ for breakfast or ‘special of the day’ for lunch. You can find Western food restaurants, vegan options, fancy cocktails, as well as cheap Guatemalan street food from the night market. Being that the island is so small most restaurants offer lake views to take in while enjoying your meal. Stores selling handicraft trinkets, t-shirts, and more can be found throughout the island, as well as numerous tour operators to make sure you can safely do all the activities you set out for during your time here.
Tikal National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in our opinion, the best Mayan ruin site found in the Yucatan Peninsula. Located only an hour away from Flores and easily accessible by purchasing a van or bus ticket from town. You can hire a tour guide for the day to teach you about each site and the history of the Mayan people, or walk around solo taking in the sites and sounds on your own. In the park you will find Howler and Spider Monkeys, Coatis, and loads of colorful-tropical birds. You will feel like you have discovered a lost world, especially when you climb to the top of Temple IV for a view of the entire forest with the temples extending higher than the canopy (also if you’re a Star Wars fan, this is where they shot for ‘A New Hope’).
2. Lake Atitlan
Picture a collapsed volcano crater that turned into a massive, deep lake that is surrounded on all sides by steep slopes, more volcanoes, and local Mayan villages. This is Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and one of the top 3 destinations for backpackers. Easily accessible from both Guatemala City and Antigua by local ‘chicken bus’ or by tourist van (the option we chose). Several other options are available, such as if you want to be dropped off in Panajachel and take a water taxi to your final destination (the quicker route) or take a van up and over the rolling mountains and down into the town of San Marcos la Laguna (the longer option but picturesque and thrilling coming down the mountain).
Lake Atitlan has a number of different Mayan villages located around the lake, each with their own personality and style for you to choose from. Panajachel is typically the starting point for most travelers, but we suggest you pass through here unless it’s just for a single night. The town is busy, noisy, and with not too much to do except eat cheap street food (always a plus!). From Panajachel you can get onto a water taxi (boat) to take you to any town you want. San Marcos la Laguna is a perfect town for those interested in a laid-back, spiritual center where everything from massage to energy work to past life regressions can be found. San Pedro la Laguna is the party center of the lake, with numerous bars, restaurants, and backpackers. San Juan la Laguna offers an even quieter option than the other two (no town is too rowdy), with handmade textiles and incredible artwork. Even better, find a lodge or guesthouse near to a town but not inside of it, for privacy and spectacular views of the lake. We recommend the Maya Moon Lodge, with affordable rooms directly on the lake and only 25 minutes walking distance to San Marcos la Laguna.
On Lake Atitlan you can hike the breathtaking mountains or even Volcan San Pedro, swim in the cool, clear waters of the lake, enjoy delicious homemade foods, try raw cacao for its healing benefits, take a yoga or chakra dance class in San Marcos, party in San Pedros, or just take in the gorgeous views from your lakeside retreat.
Antigua is one of the most popular destinations for travelers to Guatemala. Located only 1 hour by bus or taxi from Guatemala city, this ancient colonial town was at one point in history the capital of Guatemala. Due to natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods in the past, the capital was moved to its current location. What was left behind developed into one of the most beautiful towns you’ll find on your travels through Central America. Cobblestone streets, nightlife, restaurants offering every type of food imaginable, collapsed churches, volcano views, markets and shopping make this the perfect tourist destination.
From Antigua you can do a day hike of the Pacaya Volcano, or overnight hike up to the top of Acatenango Volcano for incredible sunrise views and to witness all- night explosions of lava from ‘Volcan de Fuego’ or the Fire Volcano nearby. If you’re not interested in those large scale hikes, then taking a short hike up the Cerro de la Cruz from Antigua would be a perfect way to take in views of all of Antigua with Volcan de Agua in the background.
For foodie travelers, Antigua is a dream. Every type of food you could possibly want can be found here, including authentic ethnic food from around the world, vegan and vegetarian options, and much much more. Hipster bars, some that can only hold around 10 people, can be found in every nook and cranny throughout the town. Families and fellow backpackers crowd the streets so you’re guaranteed to meet people like yourself and have a great time.
For shoppers, you can’t beat the local handicraft markets and store of Antigua. Jewelry, textiles, pottery, clothes, trinkets, and more can be found at affordable prices (always haggle a bit!). You can easily walk around the town each day, finding new restaurants, bars, and shops that you didn’t notice the day before.