San Marcos in Lake Atitlan, a key stop on the Guatemala Tourist Trail

A Guide to the Guatemalan Tourist Trail for Backpackers

Guatemala is an incredible country, and a must-see on your itinerary if you’re travelling in Central America. There’s so much to see and do in Guatemala, from hot springs to active volcanoes (and climbing dormant volcanoes!), to overnight hikes to ancient Mayan ruins. There’s just about something for everyone here, but Guatemala is especially for you if you’re into hiking and the outdoors.

Although never an official route, most countries that are typically less safe for foreigners have a well-trodden “tourist trail” of routes and cities that are relatively safe and welcoming to travellers. Guatemala is no different, and there’s quite a wide gap between the safety of the cities and routes on Guatemala’s “tourist trail” versus cities outside of the well trodden path. In fact, I’ve had a similar experience of most other countries in Central America as I’ve made my way down here to Costa Rica! 

Now, this is just based on my experience of travelling in Guatemala for a couple of weeks and is by no means an exhaustive list. This is a general guide of the best places to go (bearing in mind what there is to see as well as the safety of the area), but the best way to keep yourself safe in any city is to talk to people. Talk to locals, talk to the staff in your hotel, or talk to roommates in your hostel. You’ll surely meet people who’ve been where you’re going or want to go and can give you more up-to-date information than is on this list!

If you do want to go off the tourist trail in Guatemala, I recommend taking a local guide. Using a local guide is a great way to give back to the local economy, and they will know the safest way to get you to and around where you want to go. They’ll also know the best way to diffuse a situation (worst case scenario).

A Word on Guatemala City 

Please note that this is a forewarning about the dangers of Guatemala City and not the first stop on the “tourist trail”! 

At the time of writing, Guatemala City is dangerous and not somewhere you should be hanging around. Unfortunately, it is also home to the only major airport in Guatemala, so chances are that Guatemala City will be your first stop.

You basically have two choices, and they may depend on what time your flight gets in. 

If you arrive in Guatemala City especially late, it may be best to get a hotel close to the airport and wait until daylight before any onward travel. Try and find somewhere close to the airport with easy onward travel options.

You can also go straight from Guatemala City Airport to Antigua, which is most backpackers’ first stop in Guatemala. You could also head straight to other places in Guatemala such as Lake Atitlan or Quetzaltenango, depending on the route you want to take.

The Guatemalan Tourist Trail

Here is a list of places that are well-trodden and generally considered safe by travellers I have met along my way. Please note I have not been to every one of these places, and I have not done every one of these trips!

The majority of people we met were travelling roughly this route:

Antigua (including Acatenango) -> Lake Atitlan -> Quetzaltenango -> Semuc Champey -> Flores -> Tikal

They would then either travel back to Guatemala City to take a flight or head onwards to Belize. Interestingly, we didn’t meet many people who were heading south like we were! 

After our stint in Guatemala, we took a full-day bus across 3 borders through El Salvador and Honduras to reach Leon, Nicaragua. Keep your eyes peeled for more on border crossings and Nicaragua in the coming weeks! I’m writing this pitched up in a hostel in central San Jose, getting ready to head to the Caribbean. (Yes, I’m writing as I’m travelling, so this information couldn’t come to you much fresher!) 

A view of Guatemala City close to La Aurora Airport from an Airplane

Read more about Central America

6 Ways to get from Guatemala Airport to Antigua

Antigua Guatemala

For most people, Antigua is their first stop in Guatemala. It’s one of the most touristic cities in Guatemala, it has easy (ish) access to the country’s only proper international airport (technically Flores Airport is international too, but they only fly to and from the south of Mexico). It’s considered one of the safest cities in Guatemala. There isn’t anywhere in Guatemala that I’d say it’s safe to walk alone at night and Antigua is no exception to that rule, unless perhaps you’re going just a block or two right in the city centre. 

I spent plenty of time walking around the city centre alone (as a very European-looking woman) during the daytime and I felt perfectly safe, even alone in the central market. 

Keep an eye out for my article on getting from Guatemala City Airport to Antigua! 

Antigua is a UNESCO world heritage site, and was awarded that status for various reasons including its monuments and churches. However, the most interesting reason that Antigua is a UNESCO world heritage site is because of its city planning. It’s one of the earliest examples of a grid city layout in Latin America! Antigua also gives you great access to some of Guatemala’s best sights, including epic views of surrounding volcanoes, the Santa Catalina Arch and the Cerro de la Cruz mirador (viewpoint). You can also find day trips to just about anywhere, alongside easy access to the famous Acatenango Volcano Hike. 

Acatenango Volcano 

Okay, this multi-day trek isn’t exactly a “stop” on the tourist trail… you’re very unlikely to spend more than one night at Acatenango Volcano base camp, but it’s such a popular thing to do that it still deserved a mention on this list. For me it was a completely new and unique experience, and one of the best things I did whilst travelling the tourist trail in Guatemala. The Acatenango hike is an overnight hike, so you will generally spend one night at base camp on the volcano before finishing your trek to the volcano’s summit the next day. (It is technically possible to hike this volcano by yourself, but that’s really for expert hikers. The best way to see Acatenango Volcano is on a guided tour. 

It’s worth noting that this hike is part of the well-trodden path by backpackers. That is to say that the majority of backpackers you’ll meet in Guatemala will have done this hike, or will be on their way there. Other than needing a basic level of fitness to do the hike itself, it’s a safe, fun and exciting activity that you should definitely include in your Guatemala travel plans. If you get good weather, you can see the active volcano next to you (Fuego volcano) erupting – at night, you can see the lava flow down the side of the volcano!

If you want to go against the grain, there are also a lot of other Antigua volcano hikes you can do with access from the city, including Volcan de Agua and Pacaya Volcano. 

Lake Atitlan 

Lake Atitlán is an absolute must-see in Guatemala, and I’d really recommend you go there, even if you only have a few days in Guatemala. You could see a lot of the lake in a full day trip, but I recommend staying there for a few days. If you want to know how to get there from Antigua, here’s my guide to taking the chicken buses from Antigua to Lake Atitlán. (Be warned… it’s not for the faint hearted! It’s also really easy to take the shuttle bus there from Antigua or Quetzaltenango.)

The most popular and safest place to stay around Lake Atitlán is Panajachel. We heard a lot of people say “there isn’t much to do there”, but we found the opposite! There’s lots to do in Panajachel. We stayed in both San Pedro La Laguna (the party town) and San Marcos La Laguna (the hippie town) and found there was more to do in Panajachel. Some other popular towns that we didn’t have time for (but that we heard a lot about) were Santa Cruz and San Juan La Laguna. Wherever you stay in Lake Atitlan, most of them are welcoming to tourists and it’s easy and cheap to get the boat for the day to any of the other towns. The only problem is if you want to party – the boats public stop from around 7pm! 

Quetzaltenango

A lot of people we met at Lake Atitlan had come from Quetzaltenango or were heading there, and it’s a great stopping point if you want to head further north in Guatemala. 

Ellie and I narrowly missed out on visiting Quetzaltenango, because we didn’t have much time and we spent a little too long going to-and-fro from Antigua. Quetzaltenango is another one of the safer cities in Guatemala for tourists, and there’s a lot to see and do.

San Agustín Lanquín / Semuc Champey

San Agustín Lanquín is less than a day’s travel from Quetzaltenango, and it’s the perfect stop on your way to the far north if you plan on visiting the incredible island of Flores or the national park of Tikal. 

There is not much to do in San Agustín Lanquín, other than one of the best things you can do in Guatemala: visit Semuc Champey. Semuc Chamey is a unique, natural monument in the northern part of Guatemala, featuring a series of stepped turquoise pools filled with perfect turquoise water. You really need to see it to appreciate what a natural beauty this is, and if you have enough time in Guatemala it must must go on your list!

Another popular town to stay close to Semuc Champey is El Mirador. It’s bigger than San Agustín Lanquín, but you have to travel further to see Semuc Champey from here. 

Santa Elena / Flores

Veering further into the list of “places Ellie and I haven’t been yet” is this northern part of the country that contains their incredible ancient Mayan Ruins. Flores is an island on Lake Peten Itza, which is accessed via causeway from the town of Santa Elena. Some people will stay on the island, whereas some people prefer to stay in Santa Elena and visit the island by day. Either way, both places are safe enough for tourists as long as you’re taking the relevant precautions.

We met a lot of people that were on their way to Flores, but we just didn’t have time to go so far north in the country, only to come all the way back down again.

For a little context on my journey: I’m planning to travel all the way from Guatemala City to Santiago de Chile in four months, completely by land and boat (i.e, not taking any planes). Recent events in Ecuador may have scuppered my plans, but I’ll keep you posted! I’m currently in Costa Rica, and one of my best friends, Ellie, joined me for my first two weeks in Guatemala and Nicaragua.

So… because of my absolute determination to avoid taking flights at all costs, we kept our journey around the south of Guatemala and then headed down through El Salvador and Honduras by bus to arrive in Nicaragua. More on that coming soon!

Tikal

Tikal National Park is an ancient city, the urban centre of the pre-Columbian Mayan Civilisation and one of its largest Geographical sites. It’s one of the only places to see ancient Mayan ruins in Guatemala. You can stay in the national park of Tikal itself, or take a full day trip from Guatemala City (by plane!), from Flores, or even from southern cities in Belize. Whichever way you decide to do it, Tikal is definitely worth a place on your itinerary.

If you’re a wildlife kind of person, Tikal will be a must on your trip; it’s the only place in Guatemala where you can see the famous howler monkeys that live in this area. 

Other Notable Stops in Guatemala

As I mentioned, most of the people we met were hitting the stops above on their trip through Guatemala (those in themselves are quite a lot to see in a few weeks!), but there are other places to go that you could consider to be on the Guatemalan “tourist trail”. These include the city of Chiqimula, the beach town of Monterrico, and San Felipe de Lara on the shore of Lago de Izabal. Further up from Lake Izabal you’ll find Rio Dulce. There are a few places to stay in Rio Dulce, but it’s more often done as a day trip from Lake Izabal. Around here are some of the best hikes in the north of Guatemala, which are not to be missed if you have the luxury of spending several months exploring Guatemala.

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