Try to picture a colorful land with lush rainforests, majestic volcanoes, clear lakes, cool rivers, and ancient Maya ruins. A country tucked between two coasts that couldn’t be more different. When backpacking in Guatemala you can experience a country with a variety that goes beyond what you can imagine. So prepare yourself for the best Guatemala itinerary to see everything the country has to offer.
When backpacking Guatemala you cross a variety of climate zones and altitudes. Traveling around comes with long winding bus trips up and down mountains. But try to see this time as free cinema, because you constantly have an awesome view.

This article is packed with up-to-date information about transportation for backpacking in Guatemala from February 2022. Unfortunately, all the prices have gone up during the pandemic, so all the info I had found online before my trip was outdated.
That’s why I’ve gathered all the information from our trip to give you an insight into backpacking Guatemala. With this suggested Guatemala itinerary you can see a huge part of the country’s variety within a few weeks.

Rio Dulce is a highlight when backpacking in Guatemala / Rio Dulce ist ein Highlight beim Backpacking in Guatemala

Good to know before backpacking in Guatemala

How many weeks to see Guatemala?

I’d recommend spending at least 2 weeks in Guatemala, as this country is so diverse.
From the rough Pacific coast to the white sandy Caribbean Sea, from 4000m volcanos to calm clear lakes, from Maya culture to African-American influences. Guatemala got it all!
So, to truly experience its diversity, different landscapes, and cultures I’d say a minimum of 2 weeks is essential. Also, the distances are quite long, so be prepared to spend lots of days on the bus.
Of course, there’s so much to see, so you can easily spend 3 weeks or longer in the country. This allows you to shift down a gear and dive deeper.

A woman selling fruits in Guatemala

How to get around in Guatemala?

Transportation options in Guatemala are great which makes it easy to travel from one place to the next. There’s something for all budgets and comfortability needs.
Here are the different options to get around in Guatemala:
  • Chicken buses – The local, colorful buses are actually old American school buses that have been upcycled and painted by artists. Traveling by chicken bus is super cheap and an authentic experience, as they’re mainly used by locals. However, it can get really cramped in there, they’re not super comfortable and you usually have to change many times on most routes.
  • Shared shuttles (collectivos) – Shuttles are the most used means of transport by travelers. These minibuses are the fastest option to reach a different location, as they go directly, are reliable and safe. Yet, they’re way more expensive than chicken buses.
  • Private shuttles – There is the option to book a private transfer as well. Of course, this is extremely expensive. In my opinion, booking a private shuttle only makes sense if you’re planning to go to a really remote location. Otherwise just sitting in your private car with a driver is a waste for the environment.
  • Rental car – I love driving a car in other countries! It’s just so much fun going your own pace and stopping every now and then when you see something interesting. However, I’m aware that it’s not the most environmentally-friendly option, as long as there are no electronic cars to rent.
    We had a rental car for a few days in Guatemala and it was easy to drive around. Prices are around 20 – 25 US$ per day, depending on how long you rent it.

In many places, like around Lake Atitlán, there are also TukTuks for short distances. Or you can rent a scooter for a few days.

Which way of transport you choose, eventually depends on your budget and the time you’re willing to spend on the road when backpacking in Guatemala.
For some routes, it would take four times as long to take the chicken buses and requires you to change buses many times, compared to a shared shuttle. Yet it also costs many times more than a chicken bus ride.

TukTuks are great for short distances on your Guatemala itinerary / TukTuks sind super für kurze Distanzen auf deiner Guatemala Backpacking Route

TukTuks are great for short distances on your Guatemala itinerary / TukTuks sind super für kurze Distanzen auf deiner Guatemala Backpacking Route

Where to find the bus tickets?

Finding and buying bus tickets when backpacking in Guatemala is pretty easy.
For shuttles, just ask at your accommodation and several local “travel agencies” that you can find everywhere. Always compare prices to get the best offer.
Chicken buses are paid directly on the bus.

When planning to head to your next destination, you should always ask around. People at your accommodation will probably know the routes by chicken bus and by shuttle and other travelers might have taken the same route before. This way, you can figure out the costs and length of the trip and which type of transport works out the best for your Guatemala itinerary.

What are the coolest hostels in Guatemala?

The selection of cool hostels and guest houses in Guatemala really blew me away. We stayed in so many amazing places on our backpacking trip, where we got to know (and meet) other travelers and which were run with passion and made my backpacker heart beat faster.

I have also listed hostel/accommodation recommendations for the individual destinations below.

Our absolute favorite accommodations in 3 weeks of backpacking in Guatemala were the following:

Suggested Guatemala itinerary

2 weeks Guatemala itinerary

If you have two weeks for your Guatemala backpacking trip and enter the country to Guatemala City or Antigua, I’d suggest the following itinerary:
  • Antigua – 2 days in town & 2 days for the volcano hike
  • 3 days at Lago de Atitlán
  • 2-3 days Semuc Champey
  • 2 days Flores & Tikal
  • 2-3 days Río Dulce

After ending your Guatemala itinerary in Río Dulce you can cross the border on to Honduras or Belize, or head back to Antigua or Guatemala City for your flight back.

A boatride in Guatemala

A boatride in Guatemala

3 weeks Guatemala itinerary

With three weeks, you can take it more slowly by extending a day every now and then and adding another destination to your Guatemala itinerary. This could be from Antigua down to the Pacific coast to go surfing in El Paredon. Alternatively, you can visit Livingston and hang out at the Caribbean coast for a few days:
So a 3 weeks itinerary could look like the following:
  • Antigua – 2 days in town & 2 days for the volcano hike
  • 3 days on the Pacific coast
  • 3 days at Lago de Atitlán
  • 3 days Semuc Champey
  • 2 days Flores & Tikal
  • 3 days Río Dulce
  • 3 days Livingston and the Caribbean coast

Guatemala itinerary overview: Antigua → (add on: Pacific coast) → Lago de Atitlán → Semuc Champey → Flores & Tikal → Río Dulce → (add on: Livingston & Caribbean coast) → next country or back to Antigua

Chicken buses in Guatemala

Riding a chicken bus is an experience when backpacking in Guatemala / Eine Fahrt im Chickenbus ist definitiv ein Erlebnis beim Guatemala Backpacking

Stops along your Guatemala itinerary

1 | Arriving in Guatemala

Chances are that Antigua will be the first stop of your Guatemala itinerary. If you arrive by land from neighboring countries in the north you can also enter to Flores or Río Dulce. But many buses head to Antigua.

From Guatemala City Airport to Antigua

In case you fly to Guatemala City, my advice is to also directly head to Antigua. It’s just around an hour’s drive from Guatemala City Airport. There are collectivos (shared shuttles) taking you to Antigua for 12 US$. Just watch out for the guy with an “Antigua Shuttle” sign.
In case no more people want to take the shuttle to Antigua, better take an Uber (around 20 US$ to Antigua) instead of a private shuttle (40 US$).

Flying into your Guatemala backpacking adventure

Flying into your Guatemala backpacking adventure

2 | The old capital Antigua and its surrounding volcanoes

When I arrived in Guatemala, I was directly swept up in the positive vibes and hospitality of the locals.
Hearing them laughing with each other while chatting loudly in the streets of Antigua, I instantly got infected with their good mood.

Surrounded by majestic volcanoes, the cobblestoned town of Antigua is the perfect place to start your Guatemalan adventure.
With its pretty Spanish colonial buildings, it used to be Guatemala’s capital until a huge earthquake destroyed it. Don’t miss one of the amazing free walking tours in Antigua.

What about Guatemala City?

Most travelers skip Guatemala City or head directly to the old capital Antigua after landing. And this is for good reason. Guatemala City has many dangerous areas and there’s not that much to see for visitors.
Even though I’ve met some extremely lovely locals from Guatemala City who happily invited me to their capital, I’d suggest other places are much more worth seeing.

A visit in Antigua is a must on your Guatemala backpacking itinerary / Antigua darf bei der Guatemala Backpackig Route nicht fehlen

A visit in Antigua is a must on your Guatemala backpacking itinerary / Antigua darf bei der Guatemala Backpackig Route nicht fehlen

Acatenango volcano hike

After a few days of adjusting to the height in Antigua (it’s already at an altitude of 1600 m), you can start the hike to one of the volcanoes from here. Don’t miss this, as it’s such a unique experience. The hike to the volcanoes Acatenango and El Fuego was definitely one of my highlights of backpacking in Guatemala. Seeing a lava-spitting volcano from that close can’t be put into words.

A volcano highlight is a unique experience when backpacking in Guatemala / EIne Vulkanwanderung ist ein unvergessliches Erlebnis beim Guatemala Backpacking

Climbing Acatenango is one of the best parts of a Guatemala itinerary / Einen Volkan zu besteigen gehört zu den Highlights beim Guatemala Backpacking

3 | Down to the Pacific coast (add on for 3 weeks Guatemala itinerary)

From Antigua, it’s fairly easy to reach most of the country. And it’s the best starting point if you want to go down to the Pacific coast. Especially after your volcano hike, some days by the beach sound great, don’t you think?
Recommended stay: The perfect place to stay and hang out is definitely the beautiful Mellow Hostel in El Paredon. Awww, how I enjoyed relaxing in their hammocks by the pool!
Check for availability right here.

When I visited the pacific coast, shared shuttles only drove to El Paredon (in 2022). There were no shuttles going to Monterrico, as it’s more known for local tourists and there are too few international travelers since Covid. That may have changed by now.
A shuttle to El Paredon is around 90 Quetzales (around 12 US$) for a 4-hour ride.
If you want to go by chicken bus, they leave next to the market in Antigua. The trip by chicken bus takes longer, as you have to change buses in Esquintla and Puerto San José. The same applies if you plan on heading to Monterrico.

Loved by surfers, Guatemala’s Pacific Coast allures with black volcanic sand and great waves. There’s a laid-back vibe in El Paredon with its amazing surfer hostels. A more local atmosphere can be found in Monterrico.
One thing is definitely true for both places: The sunsets are breathtaking!

Surfing in El Paredon is one of the most fun things to do in Guatemala / Für Surffans ist El Paredon ein top Guatemala Reisetipp

Surfing in El Paredon is one of the most spots when backpacking in Guatemala / Für Surffans ist El Paredon ein toller Spot beim Guatemala Backpacking

4 | Lake vibes at Lago de Atitlán

Panajachel (short: Pana) is the gate to the lake and the largest town along its coast. You can find different kinds of shuttles going to Lake Atitlán. The most-traveled option is to take a bus to Panajachel and then hop on a boat to one of the other towns around the lake.
At some travel agencies in Antigua, you can also find buses that go straight to San Marcos or San Pedro. We took one from Antigua to San Marcos (the last bit was a TukTuk ride but it was included in the bus ticket).

Both options leave Antigua around 1 or 2 p.m. with the bus to Pana you’ll be at the lake around 4 p.m. – just in time for the last boat to the other towns and villages.
Driving directly to San Marcos or San Pedro will take a bit longer, and you arrive just in time for sunset.

The cost is 125-150 Quetzales (16-19 US$) per person. If you have to take a boat from Pana to another place around a lake this will be an additional 25.

While there are many hotels, Pana is not really a nice place. Busy San Pedro and the hippie village San Marcos are loved by backpackers in Guatemala.
Other nice, more local places to stay are San Juan and Santa Cruz.
Recommended stay: We had a wonderful time at Lush Atitlan with their jungly surroundings and beautiful rooms within nature in San Marcos.
Check for availability right here.

But no matter where you stay, it’s super easy to get from one town to the next by boat. Between most villages, a boat ride is only 10 Quetzales (around 1,30 US$), and it takes just a few minutes. The longest ride is the 20 minutes to Panajachel for 25 Quetzales per person (around 3,20 US$).

A stop at Lake Atitlan is a must during Guatemala backpacking / Ein Halt am Lago Atitlan ist ein Muss beim Guatemala Backpacking

A stop at Lake Atitlan is a must during Guatemala backpacking / Ein Halt am Lago Atitlan ist ein Muss beim Guatemala Backpacking

5 | Into the jungle around Semuc Champey

The place to stay near the national park of Semuc Champey is the small town Lanquín. Shuttle buses leave from Panajachel around 7:30 in the morning and it’s a winding, bumpy 10-hour drive to Lanquin. These minibuses speed from one curve to the next, as if they were on a racecourse.
Most shared shuttles are around 350 Quetzales (45 US$). When you’re 2 people or more you may get a deal for 325 (42 US$) each. The most expensive shuttle ride we took in Guatemala.
By chicken bus, we were told, the distance is probably not doable in one day. So you may need to stay in Cóban or another town on the way.

However, the ride is so worth it. Once you leave the bus you may have to take another short ride by TukTuk to your accommodation. Many hotels and hostels offer a pick-up, depending on their location. On this last bit of the trip, you can already feel the power of nature surrounding you.
Recommended stay: We spend a few amazing days in Utopia Eco Lodge and had the best time after a really fun ride to this hidden gem. The view is simply stunning, the vibes among the people are great and they have a strong sustainable focus.
Check for availability here (Booking) or here (Hostelworld).

Besides the epic natural pools of Semuc Champey which you can jump into, there are nice hiking paths and viewpoints inside the natural reserve. Spend a day swimming and in the pools, go tubing, or hike through chocolate plantations. It’s all about nature over here.

The pools of Semuc Champey are a highlight for Guatemala backpacking / Die Becken von Semuc Champey sind ein Highlight beim Backpacking in Guatemala

Don't miss Semuc Champey when backpacking in Guatemala / Semuc Champey solltest du beim Guatemala Backpacking nicht verpassen

6 | Heading north to the ruins of Tikal

You can’t go backpacking in Guatemala without seeing the ruins of Tikal. They’re the remains of the Mayan capital and the area is huge. Over here you can climb some temples for a stunning sunrise or dive deep into ancient Mayan history.

A great base to stay for your day trip to Tikal is the island Flores. It’s located on the lake Petén Itza and many chicken buses, as well as shuttles, drive there.

From Semuc Champey to Flores you once more have to leave early in the morning. Shuttles leave around 8 a.m. and take around 8 hours for 250 Quetzales (32 $) each. You even take a small river crossing on an adventurous “ferry” (which looks more like a raft). Adventure calling!
I had heard many things about this winding journey before but I honestly didn’t find it that bad.
As on most bus rides my recommendation is to have your ears blasted with an audiobook and enjoy the view of the stunning nature you’re passing.

I’d suggest spending a few days in Flores, as it’s another 1.5-hour bus trip to get to the ruins of Tikal.
Recommended stay: A great place to stay is Los Amigos Hostel with an awesome hidden backyard! No matter if you prefer a double room or a dorm bed. We’ve met great friends here, spending evenings sipping beer and chatting for hours in their backyard.
Check here for availabiliy!
In February 2022 the price per person was 100 Quetzales (13 $) for the transport to Tikal without a guide and Q130 (17 $) including a guided tour.
To get to know more about the background and history of the monuments and temples, I’d opt for a guide. It’s a few Quetzales well spent to support the local guides.

Tikal can't be missed when backpacking in Guatemala / Tikal gehört auf die Guatemala Backpacking Route

Don't miss Tikal on your Guatemala itinerary / Die Tempel von Tikal gehören auf jede Guatemala Backpacking Route

7 | A relaxing finish in Río Dulce

After a few really long days on the bus, you will be glad about a relatively short 4-hour ride from Flores to Río Dulce. There are many buses leaving at different times during the day. Then you reach your accommodation by boat.

Many agencies in Flores offer the bus for around 150 Quetzales (19 $), but you can get good deals if you haggle a bit and book both a Tikal tour/transfer and the transport to Río Dulce at the same company.

Connecting the large Lago de Izabal with the Caribbean Sea, Río Dulce invites you to enjoy Guatemalan nature to the fullest. Kayaking, hiking, boat trips across the river, and bathing in hot springs are just a few of the area’s highlights. Or simply hang out by the water in your riverside accommodation.

A boatride into the mangroves should be on any Guatemala backpacking itinerary / Eine Bootsfahrt in die Mangroven sollte auf jeder Guatemala Backpacking Route stehen

Rio Dulce is a highlight when backpacking in Guatemala / Rio Dulce ist ein Highlight beim Backpacking in Guatemala

8 | Caribbean vibes around Livingston (add-on for a 3-week Guatemala itinerary)

If you’ve got spare time, you could think about adding a few days around Livingston, where you can easily get to by boat from Río Dulce in two hours.
Arriving in Livingston, you can experience a completely different side of Guatemala. You can feel the African roots of the Garifuna culture there.
Apart from different traditional dresses from the rest of Guatemala and different food, there’s also a different language.

In order to combine the last few days of your Guatemala itinerary with some relaxation, I’d recommend staying in Playa Blanca. Here you can find calm, Caribbean beaches. Even though Livingston is also located next to the sea, it lacks nice and clean beaches.

In case you’re short on time, a day trip from Río Dulce is worth it. After just a 2-hour boat ride, which is a highlight itself, you can dive into that different culture for a day.

Livingston, Guatemala

Livingston, Guatemala

Heading on to other countries or back to the capital

When you end your Guatemala itinerary in Río Dulce but want to continue to other Central American countries, you’re in a good location. From Río Dulce you can get shuttles to Belize or to Honduras.

In case you have a different destination, take a bus back to Antigua to continue your journey.

After backpacking Guatemala, we continued our trip to Honduras to get to the divers’ paradise Utila. However, we weren’t able to find a journey by chicken bus so we ended up taking the shuttle bus. With 60 US$ per person to La Ceiba, it was our most expensive transport in Central America. But they sent us all the documents we had to fill out for the border crossing. Also, the driver assisted other travelers who didn’t have the necessary printed documents. For this super helpful and smooth service, I can recommend Roneey Shuttles for this stretch.

More about Central America

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