Guatemala is what I would classify as a perfect destination- its topography includes mountains and active volcanoes, as well as beautiful beaches and coastal towns, large cities, small towns, lush rainforests, and prehistoric Mayan ruins. The country is physically magnificent, with various spectacular natural wonders dispersed throughout.
In addition to the actual beauty of Guatemala, the local culture infuses the local towns with history, customs, and a vigor for life. Every town in Guatemala has something interesting to learn about and is fascinating to tourists, from the intricately woven garments to the Mayan languages and traditions to the grand churches and traditional markets.
There’s just so much to do and see that it’s hard to know where to begin planning a trip to Guatemala. This blog post will help with that!
Many have said that they’re terrified to visit Guatemala; that they don’t know if it’s safe enough; or if it’s overrun with drugs. Honestly, unless you’re actively seeking some kinds of narcotics, I do not think drugs would affect your time in Guatemala at all! Mainstream media has us all fooled with its misrepresentations of countries like Guatemala. Don’t allow yourself to be duped.
Note: The flights, accommodation and activities mentioned in this post were NOT sponsored/discounted/gifted.
Is it Safe?
Yes. The answer is a simple yes. I definitely felt safe in Guatemala. I travelled with Expat Dragon- a female friend- and we did not run into any issues. We took necessary precautions and maintained vigilance but no more than I would while travelling in Europe or some other allegedly safe place.
DID YOU NEED A VISA?
South African passport holders do not need a visa to visit Guatemala. I was stamped into the country without a second glance.
Many nationalities are also visa exempt if they hold a valid residence or tourist visa issued by Canada, the United States or a Schengen member state. However, this is for specific passports only. I advise checking with the closest embassy/consulate or use this government website.
Something you need to be mindful of is the C-4 Agreement: a treaty between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. A visa issued by one of the four countries is honored by all four of the countries. The time period for the visa, however, applies to the total time spent in any of the four countries without leaving the CA-4 area.
When planning a trip to Guatemala, remember that your total stay in the four countries must not surpass the limit of 90 days. The first day you step into one of the four Central American countries, is counted as your day one, even if it is only before midnight. Same applies to the day you leave.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT MONEY?
The Guatemalan Quetzal is the official currency of Guatemala. ATM’s are widely available but card payment isn’t always accepted. I also would not plan to change money in Guatemala as money exchange places were uncommon.
HOW TO GET AROUND Guatemala?
Its very simple to book long distance shuttles (minibuses) or buses to go long distances. Check with any tour agency in Guatemala. There were an abundance in all the areas of Guatemala that I visited. Do not book any transfers online as its much cheaper when in the country.
For short trips, you can easily pick up a tuk tuk or use the local (chicken) bus.
FIRST IT’S TIME FOR A BRIEF PPG (PANDA’S PROGRESSIVE GEOGRAPHY) LESSON!
The Maya were a prehistoric people who lived in Guatemala. This powerful and sophisticated culture constructed numerous pyramids, many of which are still standing today. The Spanish took control of Guatemala in 1524, a century after the arrival of the first Europeans. They dominated the nation for approximately 300 years, until numerous Central American nations proclaimed their independence in 1821.
Following its independence, Guatemala went through several dictatorships and brief periods of democracy. But a brutal civil war that lasted 36 years overtook the nation (1960–1996). Over 200,000 people are said to have died or vanished during this time.
Due to natural calamities, Guatemala has had three different capital cities. The first was Ciudad Vieja, which was completely wiped down by floods and an earthquake. The second was Antigua, which was also obliterated by earthquakes. Guatemala City, the third capital, was established in 1776. Guatemala won independence from Spain in 1821 and joined the Mexican Empire. It afterwards joined the United Provinces of Central America for a brief period of time.
The official currency of Guatemala is the Quetzal (QTZ) and it is bordered by Belize, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.
PREPARING FOR TRAVELLING TO Guatemala
There are so many enjoyable things to do in Guatemala that making travel arrangements before arriving might be challenging. Depending on how long you stay in the country, there are many things you can do and I urge you to only book once you are in Guatemala for the best prices. When planning a trip to Guatemala, remember that places are often quite far away from each other so it helps to pinpoint things on a map and choose only the ones that are of real interest to you.
I will break down my itinerary into 3 sections: Flores, Antigua & Lake Attitlan. Please note that we started our Guatemalan journey overland from Belize hence why our itinerary is structured differently from people who would fly into Guatemala City.
Section 1: Flores
Sunrise at Tikal
Unpopular opinion but the town of Flores and the ruins and Tikal were my least favourite portion of my Latin American adventure. I was drawn in by the many blog posts online saying that getting up for sunrise was a magical experience worth the early morning hour.
It was not.
What it is is a money making scheme that enterprising locals have latched on to. After all, the ‘sunrise’ entrance fee is higher than the regular entrance fee to Tikal as it’s touted as a VIP experience. It isn’t really. Sure it’s quiet without crowds but it’s also pitch black, muggy, slippery and generally unpleasant. The climate in the area means that the area is often foggy so the chances of seeing an epic sunrise are minimal. The tour agencies and guides all know this but they push the more expensive tour on you. It’s frustrating.
As a part of a scheduled excursion, we visited with a guide and spent the morning exploring the Mayan temples and the local structures. We got the opportunity to climb some of the temples, and we liked learning about the local flora and fauna and looking for howler monkeys. By 11:30, our day was over and we headed back to our hotel to eat. Would I do it again? NOPE.
Buying tickets for Tikal is a complex affair if you want to DIY it. You need two tickets to enter the park if you’re doing the sunrise tour. From 4:00 AM to 6:00 AM, one ticket is valid. Your admittance will be covered by the subsequent ticket from 6:00AM to 5:00PM. Depending on exchange rates, the price of the sunrise ticket is about $34.00, while the price of the midday ticket is about $20.00. Children under 12 go in free. You can only purchase tickets at certain places (like at the airport or Banrul Bank) as the staff at the park do not handle any money. You have to show them proof of payment in order to gain entry with a wristband.
If you take a sunrise tour, you must purchase your tickets the night before. The main gate’s ticket office (Banrul Bank) doesn’t open till 6:00am. Buy them the day before! The easiest way to organise this is to liaise with a tour company in the town of Flores. There are a few and it doesn’t make a difference which one you use (in my opinion).
We left Flores that very night having found that the town of Flores was just overrun with young, white backpackers; there wasn’t much else to do/see there and the hotel we had booked at refused to communicate with us because we were fluent in Spanish.
Overnight bus to Antigua
The same tour agency we used to book our Tikal tickets, also organised us an overnight bus to Antigua. It helps to purchase multiple things from one agency so you can get a discount on your total price. The bus ride was as comfortable as it could possibly be for an 8-10 hour journey. We disembarked in Guatemala City and hopped into a smaller minibus for the last hour to Antigua.
Section 2: Antigua
Not only is Antigua charming and beautiful, theres an abundance of hostels, hotels and the city is small enough to enjoy on foot. All amenities you may need, like banks, ATMs and currency exchanges, or medical centers and pharmacies, are within reach in Antigua.
Arrive in Antigua
We stored our bags at our hotel, freshened up and then headed straight out to find food and start our day!
Stop 1: Chocolate-making class at Ek Chuah
Guatemala is known for high-quality cacao and chocolate production. From bean to bar, the Ek Chuah store offers all kinds of treats and tastings. We booked the class online beforehand and paid upon arrival to the store. The workshop went on even though we were the only 2 people there.
What to expect: You will gain a fundamental understanding of cacao during the “Mayan Origin” chocolate seminars, including how it grows, is fermented, and is roasted. On a clay griddle, you’ll get to roast some cocoa beans. You’ll discover how to produce chocolate tea from the cacao husks before attempting to use a mortar and pestle to ground the roasted cacao.
After that, you’ll get to try two different kinds of hot chocolate, one of which is made “Mayan-style” with honey and chili and the other with milk and vanilla. Then you’ll receive a little pot of pre-made chocolate that you can pour into molds and top with any extras you like, such sea salt, almonds, cranberries, pistachios, and coconut. It was a great way to spend 2 hours and our workshop facilitator- Jessica- was tons of fun.
Price: 165QTZ per person.
We spent the rest of this day planning out our next few days in Antigua. Something great about Antigua is that there’s travel agencies all over the town which canhelp you arrange hikes, tours and any other activity your heart desires. Find one the day you arrive in Antigua and book everything that you want to do.
Restaurant recommendation: Saberico is a stunning garden restaurant that offers traditional Guatemalan dishes. They also have a variety of vegan and vegetarian options too. The food is delicious and don’t miss out on their hot chocolate!
Accommodation: For our time in Antigua, we stayed at Posada El Ataño. It was super comfortable and perfectly located. Its run by a team of awesome women and I highly recommend it!
Stop 1: Explore Antigua and shop for souvenirs
If you’re going to shop anywhere in Guatemala, Antigua would be the easiest place to do it offering the most variety. From table runners to shoes, you can purchase local goods at any of the numerous stores around the town.
Stop 2: Sunset hike at Pacaya
Hope you didn’t overdo it when shopping because you have a long afternoon ahead of you! While I thought the Pacaya sunset hike was a must do when in Guatemala, I also have to admit that I wasn’t mentally prepared based on conflicting information I read online. I wrote a detailed guide to hiking Pacaya Volcano including the price, process and duration so you know exactly what to expect.
Restaurant Recommendation: Coco Bambu was somewhere we went simply because it was close to our hotel but we were so glad to find it! We tried Tapado. Tapado is a traditional delicacy from the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. It is a tasty seafood soup made with coconut milk. Its flavorful coconut broth, fresh fish, lobster, shrimp, plantains, and veggies make it the perfect post-hike supper.
Stop 1: Visit Hobbitenango
I was both skeptical and intrigued by this eco-park named after the Hobbit village from Lord of The Rings. Families from the neighborhood and local communities gather her, so if you go on the weekend, expect crowds.
Even so, exploring the themed areas while admiring the breathtaking views of the nearby volcano peaks and taking tons of corny Hobbit-related pictures is a quick and enjoyable experience. If you’re feeling very daring, you can spend the night in one of the hobbit huts that were constructed to resemble those on the Lord of the Rings filming location.
A highlight here is the restaurant that serves HUGE portions of delicious food with a wide variety of options. I strongly recommend having breakfast here if you can.
The easiest way to travel to Hobbitenango is to use their official shuttle srvice. It takes you from their office in Antigua all the way to the top of the Hobbitenango hill. You can find their contact details on their website and liaise with them via Whatsapp. You could try Uber, however, Uber kept canceling on us and it won’t take you all the way to the entrance of Hobbitenango.
Price: 45QTZ each for the round trip transportation to and from Antigua.
Stop 2: Travel to Lake Attitlan (4 hours)
In the afternoon, we used a tourist shuttle to take us to Lake Attitlan. When you organize this (at any of the tour agencies around town), you will need to tell them which accommodation you’re staying at so they can make sure to drop you at the correct side of the lake.
Accommodation: Sababa Resort. A well located resort with a stunning pool and wonderful views of the lake. However, it was aimed at young party-goers.
Section 3: Lake Attitlan
The lake owes its name to the Mayan word ‘atitlan’ which means ‘the place where the rainbow gets its colours’. The lake has a circumference of about 20 kilometres and is surrounded by the volcanoes Atitlán, Toliman and San Pedro. We stayed on San Pedro island which was relatively quiet despite having the reputation as a party island. We chose this place simply because it was centrally located and offered easy access to other islands.
Stop 1: Visit San Juan La Laguna
The town is well-known for its farming, medicinal herb gardens, textile and weaving work with natural colors, and more lately, its peaceful lanes covered in murals have drawn tourists. Along almost every street are colourful mural depicting an aspect/person of life in Guatemala.
Price: It cost us 10QTZ to catch a tuk-tuk from San Pedro.
Stop 2: Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan
One of the best things to do in San Juan is to walk to the Mirador Cerro Kaqasiiwaan (also known as Cerro de la Cruz). Set on a high point above the town, this cool vantage point was constructed offering visitors breathtaking views from the top. The mirador, which was formerly an undeveloped ridge with a concrete cross, now has steps painted with murals on the short hike up, a restaurant at the halfway point of the trail (if you need a place to stop and have a cold drink), and an attractive wooden observation deck with murals at the top.
This is a steep but leisurely walk up stairs. I advise you to come early before the local crowds arrive and before the sun starts beating down.
Price: 30QTZ per person
Stop 1: Indian Nose Hike
The Indian Nose, also known as La Nariz del Indio or Rostro Maya, is a mountain that resembles the shape of a person’s face while they are lying down. Many tour companies offer sunrise hikes to the Indian Nose. The tours typically depart from San Pedro at 4 am. The trailhead is 20 minutes away, and the viewing point is a 30- to 45-minute trek. The hike is brief yet challenging. While you wait for the sunrise, you can get a cup of coffee at the top of the Indian Nose.
This was nowhere near as challenging as the Pacaya Hike and I would definitely say its suitable for people of all fitness levels. Please note that you MUST go with a tour guide for the sunrise hike as it passes through privately owned land. Yes the views are worth waking up early for!
Price: 100QTZ per person
We spent the rest of this day relaxing and buying the last of our souvenirs.
Travel back to Antigua
From here you can make your way back to Guatemala City or catch a shuttle to any of Guatemala’s neighbouring countries. We headed to El Salvador and if you’d like to do the same, here is my blog post.
Restaurant Recommendation: Cafe Condesa is the perfect place to fuel up before a long journey. Their custard French toast might be the best thing I have EVER eaten and their spicy chai is the perfect drink to wake you up for a day of adventure.
There is a lot in Guatemala that is overshadowed by many negative perceptions. But if you’re an independent thinker, you’ll soon realize that Guatemala is a land worth visiting at least once. With its spectacular landscapes, stunning volcanoes, lush valleys, tropical jungles, and fantastic views, Guatemala is certain to impress you. The country is also renowned for its rich culture, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, beautiful colonial cities, superb coffee, delectable cuisine, and much more. If you enjoy history and are eager for an outdoor adventure, prepare to be amazed by Guatemala.
Lastly, I have a wealth of information on my Instagram especially in the Guatemala highlight and my reels. Do have a look. If you enjoyed this post about planning a trip to Guatemala, please pin it using the pin below:
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Have you visited Guatemala before? Or have I inspired you to start planning a trip to Guatemala? Let me know in the comments below!