Guatemala travel tips
I visited Guatemala for the first time in February 2023! On this page, I've written some of my tips and linked to some great videos I came across.
- Exchange rate: 1.00 US Dollar = 7.84 Guatemalan Quetzales in 2023 ... (current rate here).
See my photo album here.
My Main Advice
- Most people enter Guatemala via the Guatemala City International airport.
- Get a local SIM card at the airport - they will install it for you.
- Guatemala City doesn't feel like the friendliest city though, so tourists usually immediately catch a 1-hour shuttle bus to Antigua - for a little extra I did a taxi instead (which was ~$30 USD on 40 minutes drive).
- Most towns (especially the lake towns) have only a single ATM (with significant withdrawal fees too), and sometimes their ATMs run out of money! Get a bunch of local money out at the first ATM you come across - enough to last several days - it would be such to run out of money somewhere.
- Book accommodation ahead of time - it can run out! (happened to me in San Marcos!)
- At each destination, there is a pretty friendly backpacker community to talk to... in Antigua, there's a big community of English speakers doing homestays and specifically there to learn Spanish by immersion and/or one of the Spanish schools there.
- There are not that many locals who speak English, and I don't speak Spanish, but somehow using Google Translate on my phone I was able to get by. It's amazing how many white people there speak Spanish, so I almost felt inadequate, but hey - I got by.
- Sometimes AirBnB has some great deals.
- Research the transport - chicken buses are fun to do once, but often need transfers and so what you save in money you may lose in time versus asking a local travel expert to book you a direct mini-bus or sometimes a private ride back to the airport won't be too expensive.
- If you have a week:
- Spend 2-3 days in Antigua. Pay for a guided tour of the city, see the museums, attend a free salsa lesson.... and (most important) book ahead of time an overnight Acatenango volcano tour (leaving from Antigua)... the good ones give you extra warmth, but you'd do well to bring some cold gear also - or just wear/carry all the layers from your backpack. If the volcano is erupting it's unforgettable!
- Spend 3-4 days around Lake Atitlan... for not much, you use the ferries to get around the lake & you should plan to visit at least two of the lake towns.
- If you are into spirituality then San Marcos La Laguna should be your main destination, and you'll find walls + the Facebook groups below full of dance/yoga/somatic events. The Gaia dance temple is especially awesome - I believe the main dance is every Sunday (catch a short Ferry from San Marcos and tuk-tuk back), and Eagle's Nest Atitlán - Yoga, Dance & Community is an amazing place for events where you can stay - although typically you can get cheaper rooms down the hill from Eagle's Nest and just walk to events.
- If you are into drinking, 'San Pedro La Laguna has nightlife. All the young backpackers seem to stay at Mr. Mullet's Hostel, which does pretty frequent pub crawls and organizes occasional booze cruises. From San Pedro you can catch a tuk-tuk or the ferry to nearby San Juan which is a beautiful half day to walk around the colorful streets.
Those are my main recommendations! I can't remember the rest so maybe message me directly if you have questions.
Oh, my other biggest advice is to watch some of these videos way ahead of time - especially the first one - to help plan your trip!
- The PERFECT Guatemala 7 Day Itinerary | Antigua + Lake Atitlan | Travel Guide - A couple that does a amazing job, explaining so many details of their trip! They start by explaining that Guatemala can be split into South and North. Almost all people people enter at the Guatemala City International airport. With 7 days it's best to just do the South > Antigua + Lake Atitlan.... To go to the ruins in the North is a 10 hour drive. Ouch! Eating out very cheap. Is a famous party town on the lake. Advice is that Guatemala City itself isn't very safe, so leave to Antigua immediately > you might even pay a private driver for 1 hour trip (~4 hour).... Once there do a volcano hike > Acatenango volcano tour is the best one (~$50 but includes food) < don't do night tour. Stay 4 nights in Antigua. Then get a shuttle to Lake Atitlan (2.5 hours drive for ~13 USD) take motion sickness pill - best to go to Panajachel (biggest of lake cities) and from there can boat to other lake cities ($3 taxi boat or $30 private taxi boat) to avoid windy roads. Most backpacker destination is San Pedro La Laguna > most nightlife > probably get shuttle. Other town: San Marcos La Laguna > hippy town with yoga etc.
- Island hopper TV > EVERYTHING To Know BEFORE Visiting Guatemala 2023. Great video. Suggests the big three as: (1) Lake Atitlán, (2) Antigua, (3) Tikal (ruins), markets... and I like the he shows some of these things on Goggle maps. Talks about money > go to ATMs..... > some places do USD, but get quetzal. Everyone arrives at same airport. Transport > has Uber > motion sickness > pre-arrange transport. Food, clothes, altitude sickness.
- Travelmogi - Top 10 Things To Do in Guatemala - Not the best video actually, but mentions Actoon caves etc, Cherro de la Cruz, Great Jaguar Tacal (temples) the Basilica of Esquipulas (church), The Lost World (pyramid), Xetulul Theme Park (amusement park), Iglesia de la Merced (church). Transportation is the hardest part. Same guy has a videos specifically about Lake Atitlan and Antigua.
- Guatemala - 10 Things That Shock Tourists in Guatemala - warns that ATMs often don't work, used TP goes into a big, people with big guns, the chicken bus (people bring everything, old US school busses), the distances (takes a while to get anywhere - 3 hours to the lake and ruins, and want to throw up, big speedbumps), hikes are not easy, do not use tap water or eat fruit without washing it, 60% of people here are mayan (and they speak Mayan), colonial towns are stunning, people are chill, lots of TRB (tortillas, rice and beans).
- Guatemala: The Land of Eternal Spring | Travel Documentary & Guide | Things to Know & Expect. A massive 70 minutes video! Haven't watched it yet.
- www.smartraveller.gov.au - "Overall: Exercise a high degree of caution" (but all videos say safe if you follow some simple principles and stay to tourist areas) > no COIVD proof or test needed > buy 90 day visa over there.
Groups / Links for the Lake
If you are visiting Lake Atitlan - in particular San Marcos - these are some great groups to figure out all the events & get connected to the community:
- WhatsApp Group: Lago Atitlan Family 🌋 - Has ~800 members and frequent posting of all the yoga, dance and spiritual events in San Marcos and the rest of the lake, this was the only group I signed up for actually.
- Events group: Telegram & Facebook
- General group: Facebook
- Parties group: Whatsapp & Facebook
- Marketplace: Telegram & Facebook
- Housing group: Telegram & Whatsapp
- Tsununa group: Facebook
- nomadicmatt.com - Guatemala Travel Guide - talks about top things to do: (1) Visit Lake Atitlán, (2) Head to Antigua, (3) Explore Tikal National Park, (4) Visit Semuc Champey, (5) Explore the Chichicastenango Market. Bonus: (1) Visit the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, (2) See the Yaxha ruins, (3) Explore Quirigua, (4) Hike the Volcán de Pacaya, (5) Wander Flores, (6) Visit the ruins at El Mirador, (7) Explore Rio Dulce, (8) Visit the Antigua Market, (9) Relax at Monterrico, (10) Hike Acatenango, (11) Watch the sunrise from Indian Nose, (12) Learn to surf.
- Things to know before visiting Guatemala - mentioned getting shots, but I hope doesn't apply to me... also mentions: sunscreen, pack lightweight clothing (you don't need jeans), dress a little conservative (religious), know when to be polite and when to be assertive (in lines).
- alittleadrift.com Guatemala - includes tips about a LifeStraw and Tigo SIM card + via (American, EU. and British passport holders enter for free and can stay for up to 90 days) + booking.com recommended for hostels + transport (chicken buses and shuttle buses) - arrange with your guesthouse/hostel > transportation is the most dangerous aspect of traveling because the drivers hug corners and drive far faster than is safe & keep your daypack on your lap > never above you > and don't fall sallied you will be robbed > same for pickpocketing at night > night travel has the highest risk factor > stay on the tourist route.
- The Complete Guide To San Pedro La Laguna (Lake Atitlan) - some good tips.
- A Guide to Living in San Marcos La Laguna, Lake Atitlán - talks about the climate where you might need a jacket, but weather estimates are inaccurate.