Out of all the places that we travelled in Central America, Guatemala stole my heart. Though admittedly Nicaragua was a close second. This vibrant country hasn’t let anything get it down. Despite being notorious for gang activity, bus drivers being held up at gun point more frequently than is comfortable and many communities living in poverty, the Guatemalan locals still have a smile on their face. The challenges of everyday life mean that local communities and families are tight-knit, and work together to get by.
Why You Should Travel to Guatemala
Guatemala may not be as popular as other Latin American countries like Costa Rica and Mexico, but if anything that’s even more reason to head over there.
- Natural beauty. Oh my gosh. From rugged volcanoes to giant lakes, Guatemala is absolutely oozing natural beautiful.
- Local culture. Guatemala is a very culture driven country, and many locals still wear indigenous Guatamalteca clothing, make traditional handicrafts and cook recipes that have been passed down through generations.
- Colonial architecture. Even the buildings are beautiful in Guatemala, which is thanks to the strong Spanish colonial influence.
- Affordable travel. For backpackers and budget travellers, Guatemala is ideal. Remember though that the touristy Antigua has higher prices than the rest of the country.
Where to Travel in Guatemala
Guatemala is a great country for culture lovers and nature lovers alike, though it’s not as big on beaches as it’s other Central American neighbours. Use your time for enjoying beautiful cities, historical ruins, incredible lakes and hiking volcanoes.
Luke and I both arrived in Guatemala city separately, him by bus and myself by plane, but we both decided not to stop there because of rumours that it’s dangerous for tourists and because on first impression it’s not exactly stunning. I’ve since read through that there are some very cool and arty zones worth checking out in Guatemala City, so maybe we wrote it off too soon.
Endless cobbled streets, more churches than you could stop for a prayer at, and yellow-painted colonial buildings make this UNESCO World Heritage Site a favourite for all travellers. Antigua is the perfect city for exploring by foot and just wiling away the day. The cafe culture is a highlight, and there are some damn good coffee joints dotted around the city. I’ve got to say though, I wasn’t all that impressed by the food, which seems to be very tourist-driven and less authentic than other places. On the bright side, Antigua is a real language learning hub and has countless Spanish schools.
Get out into the neighbourhoods around Antigua. It gets pretty touristy in the city, so slow travellers like us will prefer the surrounding neighbourhoods. We house sat in San Pedro Las Huertas, and discovered some off-the-beaten path local eateries just located in locals’ own front yards, and great tortillerias making fresh corn tortillas every day.
When you’re out of the city, definitely join a local Guatemalan cooking class with the community tourism group De La Gente. Though if cooking isn’t your thing they also organise coffee tours, bag workshops and woodworking amongst other activities. Head to the macadamia nut farm in San Miguel Duenas while you’re out there and grab some pancakes for breakfast. Don’t miss out on Finca los Nietos, an independent coffee growers either.
Hike a volcano when you’re in Antigua too. The city is surrounded by magnificent volcanoes and guided hikes scale all of the main volcanoes in the area. You can organise hikes with tour operators or find your own local guide, but you should definitely not try and go it alone. Read a bit more about choosing a volcano to hike and other things to do in Antigua here.
There’s no other word for this volcano lake than incredible. This absolutely huge lake is surrounded by towns, which are all quite different from one another. Lake Atitlan is a highlight for all travellers, provided you make a wise choice about which town you want to be based in.
You can easily reach the lake towns of Panajachel and San Pedro by shuttle bus from Antigua, which takes just a couple of hours. You can hop between Atitlan’s lakeside towns on a shuttle boat that goes constantly during the day time.
San Pedro is a real hit amongst backpackers and is where Luke spent a couple of weeks in a local homestay while learning Spanish. Panajachel is the biggest town on Lake Atitlan and is a true market town. Take my advice: only visit Panajachel in the morning. In stark contrast, Jaibalito is completely serene with undisturbed volcano views and nothing more to it’s name than a dock. If you’re anything like me then you’ll be pleased to know there’s some awesome cafes for vegetarians and healthy eaters around Lake Atitlan as well.
If markets are your thing, then Chichicastenango is the place to be. It’s the largest market in Central America, but as with any markets is bustling and crowded so keep your bag close and remember to haggle well before agreeing a price with anyone.
The Mayan ruins of Tikal looked pretty awesome on all of the posters, but it’s also quite far north so Luke and I never got the chance to head up there.
The Pacific side
I am so keen to go back to Guatemala and explore over this side of the country. The towns of Livingston and El Estor are much lesser known and have less travellers frequenting them. I heard from a Nicaraguan guy on a plane that Livingston is a total gem and that the food is some of the best and most exotic in the whole of Central America – and why wouldn’t I trust that random Nicaraguan guy from the plane?
Safety in Guatemala
You hear a lot of stories about crime in Guatemala and I was pretty freaked out about the idea of even taking a bus from the airport to Antigua at 10pm with mum after some of the things that I read. Luke also heard first-hand stories of a tourist shuttle bus that was held up (they all got robbed and frisked over, but nothing more) while he was in Lake Atitlan, but how frequent those kind of incidents actually are I don’t know.
BUT we never experienced any kind of trouble while travelling in Guatemala at all. Certainly Antigua felt like the safest place ever thanks to it being a police protected tourist area, and though I was wary of busy markets at Lake Atitlan (so kept my bag close), I didn’t have any problems.
My advice for travelling safely in Guatemala is to exercise as much caution as you would anywhere else, don’t panic or lose perspective when it comes to the possibility of crime, and don’t get drunk and wander around after dark. Here’s a useful read: How Not to Get Robbed in Central America.
More Info on Guatemala
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