A salutatory, unwound puff of black smoke rising above a volcano. The Pacific ocean’s roar foaming around black sand. Cacao and coffee farms sprinkled across the country. Smiling women dressed in floral patterns waving at you. With its diversity and hospitality, this country had instantly drawn me under its spell. Thus, I can’t wait to take you on this journey of adventurous things to do in Guatemala –  “the colorful land” in the Mayan language – with me.
Already when landing in Guatemala, the spectacular view across majestic volcanoes and wide lakes give you a foretaste of the country’s fascinating landscapes.
In between the rough black sand Pacific coast in the south and the calm Caribbean sea, Guatemala embraces a diversity that I’ve rarely experienced in one single country. And I’ve traveled to 45 countries so far, so I guess I’ve seen quite a lot.
Lush rainforests, blue lagoons, ancient Maya ruins, and titanic mountains are calling for one adventure after the other.

As I’ve volunteered in an environmental organization in rural Guatemala for several weeks, I got to know many locals. During this time, I’ve been on the scrounge for my Guatemalan friends’ favorite places and fun things to do in Guatemala.
So I’ve gathered the best of my personal experiences from 4 weeks in the country as well as the local’s recommended highlights and travel tips for Guatemala.

Traditionally dressed women at Lake Atitlan

Traditionally dressed women at Lake Atitlan

11 incredible things to do in Guatemala

1 | Explore the colonial streets of Antigua

As I’m walking along the cobblestoned streets with the colorful houses, I’m splendidly surprised by this beautiful colonial town with its lush green patios scattered across the whole town.
Antigua was the first place I got to when I came to Guatemala, and I was so warmly welcomed by amazingly friendly locals on every corner. While it’s busy around the main square and the streets are bustling, there’s a calmness in the air nonetheless.

This city used to be Guatemala’s old capital before it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption and Guatemala City displaced Antigua as the new capital. It’s still the much nicer town of the two, and you can easily get around on foot.
There are lots of awesome and pretty restaurants for all kinds of budgets.
An awesome hostel right in the heart of Antigua is Somos Hostel. It even has a hot tub tucked in its beautiful lush backyard!

Here are some of the fun things to do in Antigua:
  • Explore – Walk through the cobblestoned alleys and get lost.
  • Cerro de la Cruz – A viewpoint from which you get an awesome view across Antigua and on a clear day with the impressive Volcán de Agua watching over the old town.
  • Caoba Farms – An organic farm where you can eat fresh, organic food right where it was grown (on Saturdays they even have an organic market).
  • Walking tour – There are several free walking tours in Antigua worth checking out.
  • Hike – In Antigua, you’ll find all the tour operators to start your hike to one of the volcanoes.
  • Feast – Eat at one of the delicious restaurants with their beautiful lush backyards.
  • Take Spanish classes – If you don’t know any Spanish, Antigua is a great place to learn. There are many Spanish schools and it’ll help you a lot for traveling through the country.

Some of my favorite restaurants and cafes are:
  • Taqueria El Changarrito – awesome veggie tacos with soy meat
  • Once Once – simply put a vegan’s heaven
  • Samsara – for exotic vegan food with oriental influences
  • La Bruja – located in a pretty courtyard shared with other restaurants and cafes, they offer nice vegan choices
  • Café Fernando – for yummy typical breakfast and amazing tea and coffee
  • Union Café – for awesome smoothies

2 | Climb a volcano for sunrise

Did you know that Guatemala has over 30 volcanoes? So climbing a volcano is among the things to do in Guatemala that you shouldn’t miss. And there are lots of options. While most of them are dormant you can regularly see smokey clouds rising from four active volcanoes.

The most popular volcano hikes in Guatemala are the following three:
  • Pacaya – A comparably easy hike that takes only around 2 hours during which you can see lava flowing down this active volcano if you’re lucky. Here you can book a Pacaya Tour.
  • Acatenango – The tough hike is also the most popular for good reason: After 4-5 hours up to base camp you have an amazing view of the other volcanoes, and from there you can climb to the summit for sunset or sunrise in another hour. More about the Acatenango hike further down.
  • Volcán de Fuego – Here you have the rare chance to climb an active, but quite a safe volcano, watching it spitting red lava at night.

Other volcano hikes are for sure very scenic as well. However, the remote ones can be more dangerous, as there have been several cases of mugged hikers.
Not only because of that, it’s recommended to never go on a hike by yourself but always with an experienced guide. For the challenging hikes, there’s usually no great signposting and the weather in the Guatemalan highlands can change quickly.

The view from Acatenango volcano

The view from Acatenango volcano

Acatenango volcano hike

We decided on the epic Acatenango hike, as everyone we had met was raving about the incredible views on fire-spitting Volcán de Fuego.
With a sustainable focus, all plant-based food, reusable food containers, and the only basecamp with proper shelters, our decision was clear – we would do the guided hike with Wicho’s and Charlie’s.

And we didn’t regret the choice of our tour company at any time. You can rent all the equipment needed. Don’t forget to rent hiking poles! They’ll be a lifesaver on the steep, sandy paths.
Especially when we saw other groups getting their food in styrofoam and plastic packaging and heading to basecamps with thin tents, we were glad about our tour.
The hike is challenging and the temperature gets down to zero, so good food, the right equipment, and a warm shelter are super important.

On the 4-5 hour hike up to the base camp, you cross completely diverse landscapes – from mossy forests to dry, dusty paths. And the view from up there simply can’t be put into words. You just have to experience it! Definitely one of the most amazing things to do in Guatemala and an adventure that I’ll never forget.

Just when we arrived at the basecamp, we were welcomed by a loud roar of neighboring El Fuego spitting large junks of rocks and ash into the air. Even during the nights, we felt the ground vibrating several times. What a spectacle!
After some time to rest, you can decide if you want to continue hiking to the summit or to El Fuego for sunset or simply stay at the basecamp.
Also, the next morning you can hike up to the summit for breathtaking sunrise views.

El Fuego volcano hike

Adventurers who can’t get enough of the volcano experience can further raise the game. To be specific, you can add another 4-hour hike to climb Volcán de Fuego, the active neighbor of Acatenango.

You may ask, who would be so crackbrained? That’s exactly what I said. And then I ended up doing it anyway. Seeing the sputtering lava from close by just sounded so alluring. And it was beyond words.
But it’s among the hardest things to do in Guatemala and for me it was for sure one of the most exhausting hikes I’ve ever done. Especially the way back up to Acatenango basecamp in the dark, after you’ve seen all you wanted to see, is physically and mentally challenging.

3 | Go surfing on the black-sanded Pacific coast

Tucked between the roaring Pacific coast and the calm Caribbean, Guatemala has a stunning location. The two coasts couldn’t be more different. While you’ll find flat, sandy beaches in the country’s northeast Caribbean, the long southern coast lures with black volcanic sand and rough waves.
These great waves that you can find along the Pacific beaches attract many backpackers. A paradise for surfers (or those who like to watch)!

El Paredon

Surfing in the small village of El Paredon is among the most fun things to do in Guatemala. With a growing number of chilled surf hostels and good vibes, it attracts more and more surfers from all around the world.
At Mellow Hostel you can stay in a lovely tipi tent in between lush palm trees and hang out in their stylish common area full of hammocks and chill-out spaces. You can even order a drink from their pool bar inside the cool water. Refreshment from the outside and the inside at the same time! Doesn’t it sound appealing?

Monterrico

If you prefer a local vibe and love surfing you should consider heading to Monterrico. This small town a bit further south mainly attracts local tourists.
Before you go, check if the shuttle buses are actually running, as they stopped some of the routes during the pandemic.
And the ride by chicken bus is a really long one with several changes.

4 | Volunteer in sea turtle conservation

When you’re at the Pacific coast, one of the best things to do in Guatemala between August and December is volunteering in a sea turtle hatchery.
During these months, sea turtles come to nest on the Pacific beaches. Due to poachings and the growing pollution of the oceans, many sea turtle species are endangered.

That’s where organizations for sea turtle conservation come into play. You can volunteer to help protect the sea turtle eggs and to release the hatchlings into the ocean.
A great organization I can recommend is ARCAS in El Hawaii near Monterrico. I spent a few weeks there, supporting the biologists in all kinds of projects within the protected area. It was the perfect mix of nature, adventure, animals, beach vibes, and great people!
They’re happy about helping hands all year round, but especially during turtle season.
It’s a great experience to combine your trip with doing good.

5 | Relax at Lago Atitlán

Between three dormant volcanoes, Lago de Atitlán lies in a huge volcanic crater and makes up the deepest lake in Central America.
There’s quite a unique vibe at Lake Atitlán. Sprinkled along its coast you can find hippie towns, traditional Maya villages, and impressive viewpoints.

The most popular places to stay are the largest town Panajachel, busy San Pedro, and the hippie village San Marcos. The villages San Juan and Santa Cruz are also pleasant, more local places where you can find local accommodation.
In San Marcos, you will find many eco hostels and hotels, such as Lush Atitlan, and great vegan and vegetarian restaurants and cafes.
But no matter where you stay, you’re just a short boat ride away from all of the best things to do in Guatemala’s most picturesque lake.

Over here, it’s all about enjoying the blue lake and yourself:
  • Viewpoints – You can hike up all the way to the famous “Indian nose” for sunrise or just do a short 20-minute walk up to one of the smaller viewpoints such as Mirador Kaqasiiwaan close to San Juan.
  • Boat rides – Among the villages, it’s super easy and cheap to get around by boat. And it’s super fun! Be aware that the last boat leaves around 4 p.m., so keep that in mind in order to get back to your accommodation.
  • Reserva Natural Atitlán – The natural reserve close to Panajachel offers waterfalls, rope bridges, and monkey watching platforms.
  • Day trip to Chichicastenango market – The lake is a great starting point for a day trip to the largest market in Guatemala. It’s on Sundays and Thursdays, loved by locals and around a 2 hours ride by bus from Panajachel.
  • Join a yoga class – There are many yoga centers around San Marcos where you can do retreats or just pop in for single sessions

One more thing: While some areas are inviting to hang out by the lakeside and sunbathe and you hear about platforms from where you can jump into the lake, I wouldn’t recommend swimming there.
I’ve met several people during my time in Guatemala who got serious stomach problems due to parasites from swimming in the water of Lake Atitlán.

Lakes, lakes, lakes

While Lake Atitlán for sure is the most popular lake in Guatemala, the country has quite a few gems.
You probably won’t be able to see them all (except if you have several months to explore Guatemala), but these are definitely worth seeing:
  • Lake Atitlán – the second largest and most popular lake in the country
  • Lake Amatitlán – a charming lake close to Guatemala City & Antigua
  • Laguna De Lachuá – a peaceful lagoon located in a national park within the rainforest
  • Lago de Izabal – located in the awesome area of Río Dulce, it’s Guatemala’s largest lake
  • Lago de Petén Itzá – you can stay on the peninsula Flores right on the lake

6 | Swim in the stunning natural pools at Semuc Champey

When you’re in Guatemala, you cannot miss the natural monument Semuc Champey! Even though the bus ride to Lanquín is winding and bumpy, it’s so worth going deep into the Guatemalan rainforest to see this natural gem.
With its natural limestone pools and turquoise water, you can spend a whole day hanging out and bathing. Swimming there was probably one of the most magnificent things to do in Guatemala for me.

Besides jumping into the pools there’s lots to do and explore around the area of Semuc Champey:
  • Stay in a bungalow by the river and immerse nature
  • Do a chocolate tour and make your own organic chocolate
  • Hike along the river and take a bath in the refreshing waters
  • Visit the caves of Semuc Champey
  • Go tubing on the river

I don’t think there’s the need to do a guided tour around Semuc Champey. It comes with a touristy visit to the caves with candles. I’m quite glad we enjoyed the pools at our own pace without someone stressing us.

The best eco-lodge in Semuc Champey

For the best nature experience close to Semuc Champey, you should stay at Utopia Eco Lodge. It’s a stunning location right next to the river, as opposed to many hotels which are in Lanquín town.

When we arrived at this hidden gem surrounded by lush rainforests after an adventurous ride, the roar of the river Rio Cangrejal was humming in our ears.
This eco-lodge has quite a unique story, as it was built on fallow land that they’ve transformed into a natural reserve. With thousands of trees, they’re striving to be self-sustaining.
For me, the stay at Utopia Eco Lodge is definitely among the things to do in Guatemala that I will always think back to.

For most of the food they serve (which is vegetarian only) they use as much produce from their own plants surrounding the lodge.
Also, they’ve planted thousands of cocoa trees from which they make their own organic chocolate and delicious chocolate treats.

Besides, they support many community projects In Lanquín, such as providing the local school with water and building a new roof. That makes them a truly sustainable accommodation.

7 | Visit the Maya ruins in Tikal

Deep in the rainforests in the north of Guatemala, where the toucans sing and the monkeys jump from one tree to another, rest the ruins of the ancient Mayan capital.
Tikal is the largest Mayan site, with an area of temples and pyramids way more enormous than any other Mayan site that can be found in Mexico, Honduras, or Belize.

When you walk through, you get an idea of how large this capital of the Mayan empire must have been, as there are many pyramids still hidden under mounds that you pass by. Actually, only 15% of the area has been excavated. So imagine, 85% are still buried under the earth and trees.

What’s exceptional about the Mayan buildings is the acoustics. When you clap your hands in front of a Pyramid, its echo sounds like the call of the Quetzal – the national bird of Guatemala.

The most popular time to visit is for sunrise or sunset. However, we went during the day and enjoyed the beauty of this area that felt like we almost had it to ourselves. It’s just so large that the crowd scatters.

You can stay in the town of Flores, an island on Lake Petén Itza, and do a day trip or overnight trip to Tikal. There are loads of tour companies in Flores offering transportation or a guided tour.
The best place to stay in Flores is definitely Los Amigos Hostel with its surprisingly beautiful backyard.

8 | Enjoy the nature of Río Dulce & Lago de Izabal

What a natural paradise!
Connecting Guatemala’s largest lake Lago de Izabal with the Caribbean sea, Río Dulce has become a beloved sailing area.
Grab a kayak and explore the area by yourself. You can paddle to the castle or visit some hot springs.
Besides, it’s worth taking a boat trip into the mangrove forest or to Livingston, the waterfalls of Siete Altares, or Playa Blanca.

Hidden between mangroves and palm trees you can spot many beautiful wooden houses along the river and the lake, blending into nature.
You should definitely stay in accommodation directly by the river. It’s the most beautiful experience to wake up with the birds chirping and the sun glistering on the river.
For a high-class stay in a riverside bungalow, you can head to Hacienda Tijax Ecolodge. Besides, Kangaroo Hostel is more for the average budget. All of these are directly located on the river and offer boat transfer from the town of Río Dulce.

9 | Immerse yourself in Garifuna culture by the Caribbean coast

As we’re gliding across the massive river towards the sea we can feel the changing surroundings. We pass by guys in dreadlocks wearing flip flops and a more relaxed vibe fills the air.
Around the town of Livingston, you can almost forget that you’re in Guatemala, as you dive into Garifuna culture. Disconnected from the rest of the country and only reachable by boat, Livingston offers Afro-Caribbean vibes and a culture descending from African-American roots.

Traced back to Nigerian slaves who got shipwrecked in front of theCentral American coast and then mixed up with the Caribbean people, the Garifuna are quite a unique community. Some say they’re the only black people in America that have escaped slavery and are therefore distinctly African.

We’re approached super friendly and locals are curious about where we’re from. As I talk to an elderly man, he’s surprised that I’m from Germany. With a thick accent, he tells me that Germans rarely keep talking to the locals as they see danger in the Garifuna people. That struck me quite a bit. I can only encourage everyone to embrace the interaction with locals. You can have the most surprising conversations with them, get juicy insider tips, and experience their hospitality.

The dish everyone is enthusiastic about is Tapado – a spicy coconut stew with seafood and plantains.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a vegetarian version, so I didn’t try it. Also, it was quite expensive with Q100 (around 11 Euros) – almost 3x the price we usually paid for any dish in Guatemala.

Livingston, Guatemala

Livingston, Guatemala

Caribbean beaches

If you’re craving some relaxing days on white sandy beaches at the end of your trip, I got good news for you.
The place to go is Playa Blanca. You can reach it by boat in around half an hour from Livingston. I’d also recommend you to stay there as Livingston itself is an experience, but not the prettiest place. There is so much trash on the streets and polluted beaches. So I really wouldn’t swim around Livingston.

A great option is to do a day trip from your accommodation in Río Dulce, which is an amazing boat ride along the river. The boat ride is a highlight itself where you pass by mangroves and huge pelicans peaking down from the trees.

Boat ride to Livingston, Guatemala

10 | Try delicious Guatemalan food

Well, you haven’t really seen a place, if you didn’t try the local food.
I found Guatemalan food really yummy. You can feel the influences of Mexican food but it’s still different. Many signature dishes are heavy on beans and tortillas. And even though it’s quite common to eat meat, you can find very tasty vegetarian food as well. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Desayuno Chapin with tortillas – The hand-sized flatbreads are essential in Guatemalan cuisine and make up the typical “Chapin” breakfast with beans, eggs & fried platano. But Tortillas can be eaten any time of the day with almost everything.
  • Tacos  – They’re pretty much the fried version of tortillas and are often served with meat and dipped in different sauces. But in many places, such as Antigua, you’ll also find veggie ones, sometimes even with soy meat.
  • Burrito – A big tortilla wrap, packed with beans, veggies, lettuce, avocado, and sometimes rice. You can often add spicy sauces, guacamole, or jalapeños.
  • Tayuyos – A filled version of tortillas with a bean paste inside. Eat it with guacamole, chili salsa & some typical Guatemalan cheese. Yummy! (They’re very similar to pupusas from El Salvador)
  • Guatemalan Ceviche – As opposed to the famous Peruvian Ceviche, the Guatemalans prepare it with different kinds of seafood (not just fish) and tomatoes, often accompanied by avocado. I tried a vegetarian version with mushrooms instead of prawns and squid and it was delicious! So refreshing.
  • Tortilla soup – a tomato soup topped with crunchy tortillas and usually avocado
  • Tapado – typical dish from the Caribbean coast: a spicy coconut stew  with plantains

11 | Travel sustainably in Guatemala

Although you will find many places struggling with a waste problem, such as littered sides of the streets and no garbage bins insight, it is possible to travel more sustainably in Guatemala.

Transport & sustainable accommodation

The public transport is not bad and there are shared shuttles (collectivos) within the country and to neighboring countries. So no need to fly!
Besides, there are great eco hostels and lodges with a sustainable approach for any budget. My favorite was definitely Utopia Eco Hotel near Semuc Champey. A stay here is one of the things to do in Guatemala that I can truly recommend to anyone.

Eco-friendly food

As a vegetarian, I actually found it easier than expected to find meat-free or even vegan dishes. If there’s no vegetarian option on the menu, you can always ask for rice or tortillas with beans.
Try to support local restaurants, guides, and accommodation to make sure your money actually supports their economy.
Moreover, almost any accommodation provides free filtered water, so bring your reusable bottle and avoid plastic bottles.

Filling up a filter bottle in Guatemala

Eco-Tours & activities

You have the option to find eco-tours such as Wicho and Charlie’s.
Besides, there’s even a bulk store in Antigua (called Somos Tierra). Also, you can check out Megapaca – a secondhand shop that you can find in many locations all over Guatemala and other Central American countries. I met lots of travelers who got super cheap but pretty clothes, shoes, and other equipment there.

To do some good while traveling check out the many volunteering opportunities in the country – from sea conservation to animal rescue centers to supporting eco hostels, there are lots of options.

Guatemala is establishing more and more national parks in order to preserve the environment. However, there’s still a long way when it comes to trash. You have to actively refuse plastic packaging again and again. But stay consistent, as this shows that people are caring and can make people start to rethink.
Education is key. I hope by drawing their attention to waste reduction, over time there will be fewer people throwing their trash out the car window.

Good to know before you go

How do you get around Guatemala and reach all these places?

The most comfortable way is definitely the tourist buses (shuttles) running regularly and safely to most places.
But riding a chicken bus at least once is definitely part of the Guatemalan experience! And it’s much cheaper. Usually, you have to change a few times but you can reach your destination for a fraction of the shuttle’s price.
Another great option is to get a rental car. We had one for part of our Guatemala adventure and had great fun exploring the country this way.

How do you get around Guatemala and reach all these places?

In order to experience the country properly, I’d recommend a minimum of two weeks in Guatemala. The distances are quite long and you’ll spend many days on the bus.
To have a more relaxed experience in Guatemala, three weeks are perfect.

Chicken buses in Guatemala

Chicken buses in Guatemala

Is Guatemala safe to travel?

Absolutely yes! From the second I arrived in Guatemala I had only positive experiences with the open and friendly Guatemalans who often go out of their way to help me. Not once did I feel unsafe in their beautiful country.
Of course, you should be cautious and take the usual measures such as not walking home alone at night and in Central America in general, I’d suggest not to travel at night. Also, you should avoid certain areas. For example, I heard a few bad stories of people getting robbed in Guatemala City. And since there’s not that much to see anyway, I decided to skip the capital.
With open eyes and common sense, you can have a super good experience exploring all the amazing things to do in Guatemala.

Do you need to speak Spanish to travel through Guatemala?

Well, you don’t necessarily have to. I felt that in many more touristy places, like in Antigua, some people speak English. So it’s enough to get around.
However, it’s much better if you speak at least a few words of Spanish to get more in touch with locals and to be able to have basic chit-chat. I felt, that it has helped me a lot that I was able to communicate, for instance when I needed to ask locals where the bus leaves. Also, if you want to see more local places like Monterrico, or want to take the cheaper chicken buses instead of the tourist shuttles, I’d recommend a basic knowledge of Spanish. Or find some travel buddies who speak Spanish.

Is Guatemala cheap to travel through?

For us, Guatemala turned out more expensive than we had expected. Especially for food (dishes for around Q35 – Q60 in many places, which is around 4 – 7 Euros) and the shuttle buses (which were easily around 20 – 40 Euros for most distances) we had to dig deep into our pockets. We met many other travelers who had exactly the same feeling. Apparently, the prices have gone up quite a lot during the pandemic.
You can always make your way of travel cheaper by eating street food (however, we didn’t find that many stalls), taking chicken buses, and sleeping in dorms.

Backpacking in Guatemala – a wrap-up

Guatemala in three words: volcanoes | tortillas | singing birds

Did you know? There are 23 different spoken languages in Guatemala. Among them are 21 completely different ancient Mayan languages.

Favorite photo spot: Watching the sunrise from the top of Acatenango volcano

Favorite food: Veggie tacos with soy meat, spicy sauce, and Guacamole

Can’t miss: Jump into the pastel-blue waters in Semuc Champey

More about Central America

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