The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Guatemala

Awesome photo spot, Santa Catalina Convent in Antigua

We had some awesome adventures backpacking in Guatemala; exploring volcanoes, jungles, lakes and colonial cities. Transport was exciting, getting around using the colorful chicken buses. Eating was a pleasure; living on cheap and delicious tropical fruit, tortillas and amazing local coffee. Backpacking in Central America is a massive adventure and Guatemala was definitely one of our highlights!

What to Do in Guatemala

  • Hiking to the highest point in Central America, Mount Tajamulco
  • Learn Spanish in Antigua.
  • Explore the villages surrounding the beautiful volcanic lake, Lago de Atitlán
  • Experience the cosmopolitan, colonial city Antigua
  • Semuc Champey – this beautiful place was our highlight of Guatemala
  • Tikal – famous Mayan temple in the rain forest of Guatemala
  • El Mirador is a remote Mayan settlement in the middle of the jungle
  • Pacaya is a live volcano you can hike to the top
  • Chichicastenango is a town near lake Atitlan famous for markets
semuc chapey guatemala
The Road to Semuc Champey.

Best Places to Stay in Guatemala

Dormitory beds in nice backpacker hostels vary between $5 and $12 and a double room in a hostel is 14-$25. Budget hotel rooms with good ratings start at about $25. Search in Booking from this website, read reviews  and choose highest ranking possible, we try not to stay in anything ranking less than 8.

Don’t forget AirBnB, you can stay in a room in someones house starting at $7 for the room or rent an entire apartment for as low as $20, you can find incredible places on AirBnB. Your first time using AirBnB? use The Stingy Nomads AirBnB voucher and get $44 discount on your AirBnB booking!

If you book  from links in this page you won’t pay anything extra, but some commission will come our way, thank you!

Quetzaltenango (Xela)

  •  Casa Seibel $5 for a dorm bed nice hostel, friendly helpful owners, good kitchen, excellent location in the city centre close to Parque Central walking distance from everything. There were many people staying here to learn Spanish. Nice vibe

Semuc Champey

  • Hostal El Portal had a great time here! Unreal location on the river, walking distance from park entrance. Not self catering, but restaurant has some budget options, food not bad, we made a lot of noodles. $19 for a double room. We ordered record numbers of cups of hot water, about 4 per meal, 2 for tea and 2 to make noodles

Antigua

  • Hostel Villa Esthela, nice hostel, super friendly staff, awesome location close to Santa Catalina Arch. Love the rooftop bar with hammocks. Dorm $7, double room $20.

Lake Atitlan


Booking.com

Budget Guatemala

  • Backpacking $15 -20 per day
  • Mid Range budget $35-45 per day
  • High end (luxury) $90+

Our budget in Guatemala was very low, less than $15 per day each so it is possible.

  • Total: GTQ 1619/$210 in 16 days,
  • $13.13 per day
  • Accommodation: GTQ 59/$7.60 per day
  • Transport: GTQ 24/$3.12 per day
  • Trekking: GTQ 300/$39

All details and tips on packing for a backpacking trip you’ll find in this post. ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓

Transport in Guatemala

You can get anywhere in Guatemala by Chicken bus or shuttle bus. Shuttle buses can be organised in any backpackers. The shuttles are only used by tourists and are expensive, but definitely the easiest way to move between locations if you are limited on time. Uber is also available in Guatemala and an easy way to get around in the cities.

  • Chicken Bus – 10 GTQ ($1) per hour, short rides about 3 GTQ
  • Shuttle Bus – Antigua to Semuc Champey, 10h – $20
  • Taxi – 5km trip 52GTQ ($7)
  • Uber 2.3GTQ per km and 5GTQ basefee so 5km ride $3
chicken bus guatemala
Chicken buses lined up in Antigua.

Traveling by Chicken Bus

The old US school buses, now repainted in bright colors and called second class bus or chicken buses are as part of travel in Guatemala as traveling by train is part of traveling in India. There are two schools of thought when it comes to foreigners and chicken buses; either fun, entertaining, cheap and part of the experience; or dilapidated, uncomfortable, fume filled and overcrowded.

These buses are always easy to catch, just go to the local bus station usually located close to the local market or flag down a passing bus. There may not be a bus going all the way to your destination, thus for longer trips you might switch buses up to five times before arriving. Cost is more or less $1 per hour.

There is never a dull moment with music playing loudly, many touters selling all kinds of refreshments and sometimes artists performing or fired up priests preaching. Your backpack is usually strapped on the roof. I have heard about many people that got robbed on these buses by pickpockets when falling asleep at night. Tourist shuttles are also available to most destinations and tickets can be organized at a backpackers or travel agent.

Food in Guatemala

  • Cooking for yourself is always the cheapest way to travel.  The local markets were very cheap, selling a huge variety of delicious tropical fruit and vegetables.
  • Stick to the local markets, supermarkets were European prices
  • Corn tortillas are the main source of carbs and can be bought anywhere; they are made from white, yellow or blue corn, all tasting similar.
corn-tortilla-guatemala
Corn Tortillas are very popular in Guatemala, blue color comes from the blue corn.
  • Meal at local restaurant, $3-5
  • Mid range restaurant $15
  • McDonald’s Combo meal $5.50
  • Our favorite fruit was the granadia, this tropical fruit has a hard yellow shell, and once broken open the white interior resembles a passion fruit.
  • Guatemalan breakfast (Desayuno chapin) involves eggs, refried beans, tortillas and coffee for about Q15-Q20 ($1.50).
  • We often ordered breakfast somewhere and cooked the other meals at the hostel.
guatemala-backpacking-lunch
Typical lunch for us, we ate lots of fruit, cheese and tortillas backpacking in Guatemala!

Is Guatemala dangerous?

The locals are super friendly and we never felt the country is dangerous. I understand people are poor, but I would not call them an honest bunch. They attempted to over charge or short change us countless times. We always asked the locals on the bus what the correct price was for a trip. So count your change and speaking some Spanish is very helpful, even if you can only count!

Places to visit in Guatemala

Quetzaltenango (Xela)

  • Xela is a major place for learning Spanish
  • There are some nice hikes to do around the town.

The majority of travelers in Xela are either learning Spanish or hiking one of the surrounding volcanoes.  English is not widely spoken in Latin America and many backpackers thus take Spanish lessons before traveling this region for a couple of months. There are many cheap Spanish schools or home stays including food and four hours of Spanish lessons a day.

We did a two day hike up Mount Tajamulco, at 4220m this volcano is the highest point in Central America. It was a great hike, beautiful views and not too tough. We reached our campsite (4000m) after about 4 hours, set up camp, made a fire and were four people sharing a tent. I don’t think anybody slept much since at this altitude it was freezing!

climbing-mount-tajamulco
Camping during our 2 day climb of Mount Tajamulco. it was freezing!

Lago Atitlan

Lake Atitlán is a lake in a massive volcanic crater ringed by steep, verdant hills, it’s known for many small Mayan villages surrounding the lake and volcanoes with striking pointed cones. You can move between towns by boat taxi. We stayed in two villages on the lake, San Pedro and San Marcos.

Villages around Lake Atitlán

  • Panajachel (Pana) one of the largest towns along the lake. Good shopping, lots of expats, few backpackers.
  • San Pedro  “Gringo Trail” favorite and the backpacker capital of Lake Atitlan, great night life, parties, not much culture
  • San Marcos hippie town. All about yoga, chilling out and free love. Fun 10m cliff jump
  • Jaibalito is one of the smallest villages on the lake. Nice volcanoes and jungle
  • Santa Cruz is a medium sized town. Nice boardwalk, dive school here
Lago de Atitlan
Lago de Atitlan

Antigua

Our next stop was the cosmopolitan, colonial city Antigua.

  • Four volcanoes; Agua, Fuego and Acatenango directly overlook the town whilst Volcan Pacaya is about an hour’s drive away. They can all be climbed on one day excursions or as an overnight hike.
  • Strolling around the cobble stone streets lined with multi-colored houses under terracotta roofs makes for many photo opportunities of the picturesque streets with Volcano Agua in the background.
  • Antigua is  Guatemala’s oldest and most famous coffee producing region. The surrounding coffee plantations sit between 1500 and 1800 meters above sea level and have perfect coffee growing conditions – rich soils, ample rain and sun and relatively consistent temperatures. The surrounding coffee plantations sit between 1500 and 1800 meters above sea level and have ideal coffee growing conditions – rich soils, ample rain and sun and relatively consistent temperatures. There are an abundance of modern, trendy cafes sprawled throughout the historic city.
  • Antigua streets
    Volcano Agua and the streets of Antigua

Walking around the large local market shopping for fruit, veggies and ingredients was fun and cheap.  Antigua is well known among travelers for its Spanish schools. Many backpackers study spanish here for weeks. This is a nice location, but I think the homestay/learning deals in Xela are cheaper. Want some cool tips for spending a couple of days in Antigua?

Semuc Champey

Here I have to agree with travel guides describing this as ‘the most beautiful place in Guatemala’ and I think the most beautiful place in Central America.

semuc-champey-stingy-nomads
Semuc Champey, swimming in the crystal clear pools in this unreal setting was awesome, so perfect and beautiful it looks artificial, like a movie set.

Semuc Champey is a collection of a row of linked pools atop a natural limestone bridge in the lush jungles of Guatemala. Crystal clear, cool water flows in a stepped series from pool to pool, beautiful and fantastic to swim in.

semuc champey
A collection of a row of linked pools atop a natural limestone bridge.

There are some amazing view points in the surrounding jungle and walking next to the river and on the roads cutting through the jungle made for some awesome scenery.

swimming-semuc-champey
Alya going for a swim at Semuc Champey.

The bungalows we stayed in had great views of this unreal area and it was great to sit on the deck with a beer looking at the river and listening to the sound of a myriad of birds and monkeys in the surrounding jungle. The river was also good for swimming, crossed by a fun bridge to jump off (about 10m high).

Local children were walking around with little tin foil packets of chocolate they make themselves  from sugar and cocoa beans of pods. They pic  these from the Theobroma cacao trees growing everywhere in the jungle.

bridge-jump-semuc-champey
Campbell jumping off the bridge in front of Hostal El Portal

Transport Antigua to Semuc Champey

Getting from Antigua to Semuc Champey by local transport is an interesting journey with chicken buses. Sometimes arguing about prices, listening to live music and catholic preachers. Off course hoping your pack is still on the roof after every switch

  • From Antigua bus terminal take a chicken but to Guatemala City
  • Take a bus from Guatemala City to Coba
  • From Coba take a bus to Lanquin
  • Travel Time:  12 hours
  • Cost: about 100Q ($13.50)

 Getting from Antigua to Semuc Champey by shuttle we went back this way.  Leaves at 8am, pick up at hostel, can be organised at a hostel in Semuc Champey or Antigua.

  • Travel Time:  10 hours
  • Cost: about 150Q ($20)

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