Guatemala is a Central American backpacking gem, filled with mind-blowing nature, fascinating culture, amazing ancient ruins and some of the most beautiful small towns in the entire region. It may have been overshadowed by Mexico or Costa Rica in the past, but nowadays every adventurous traveller knows that this epic country needs to be on their wishlist. If you’re dreaming of a trip here – which you absolutely should be – this list of the best places to visit in Guatemala will make sure you don’t miss a thing.
1. Volcano Pacaya
Hiking Volcano Pacaya was an incredible experience. Sure, you can hike volcanoes in other parts of the world, but there aren’t many places where you can actually see red-hot lava flowing down the side of a volcano as you ascend towards it – a thrill-seeker’s dream. On top of that, if you manage to find an awesome guide like I did, you’ll get to roast marshmallows over the burning hot rocks, which is pretty unforgettable.
The hike only takes a few hours up and the same back down, so you can be back to your hostel in Antigua, showered and ready to hit the town that night if you still have any energy left. I’d suggest making this an early morning hike, as you might not see the red glow from the flowing lava when the sun is fully up.
Best time to visit: There’s no bad time, but you’re less likely to get a good view of the lava flow in the rainy season.
How to get there: It’s only a 90-minute drive out of Antigua, which is where you’ll likely be based. Your hostel will be able to organise a shuttle for you and some new friends to get there easily.
Cost: $7 USD per person for park entry, but you should be able to get a complete package including transportation for $15-20.Find more hostels in Antigua
2. Semuc Champey
Even though there’s a long list of beautiful places in Guatemala, Semuc Champey is the country’s most precious natural jewel. Picture bluer-than-blue cascading water over dozens of levels of limestone ridges, trickling back down into the river. Tucked deep into the jungle and only accessible via a road that should be described as precarious at best, just getting there is an adventure that will get you stoked. But once you lay eyes on this beauty you’ll be completely blown away! Make sure you bring something to swim in, as the hike through the jungle will have you sweating by the end. While you’re there, river tubing is a must, as is the K’an Ba cave hike where you’ll get to climb a 10ft waterfall!
Best time to visit: Semuc Champey is incredible all year round. The roads get a little harder to navigate in the rainy season, but the main event doesn’t get any less beautiful.
How long to stay: You could easily spend a couple of days in this region, but if you’re on a time limit one full day will allow you to experience the falls.
How to get there: There are daily buses from Antigua that cost $15-$20 USD per person and take about 8 hours.
Where to stay: If you’d like to soak up more of this stunning part of the world. The hostel Greengo’s is located in the middle of the forest and has a massive swimming pool, Jacuzzi and colourful villas. But warning – you might never want to leave!
Cost: There is a $6 USD park entrance fee.Find more hostels in Semuc Champey
Antigua is a charming city with beautiful colonial-style buildings that are surrounded on all sides by mountains and volcanoes. There’s awesome nightlife, authentic restaurants and some of Guatemala’s best hostels. It’s also the starting point for a ton of different activities. Make sure you check out the local food market, where fruit and veg are incredibly cheap and the way the women are dressed gives you a little window into the local culture. Antigua is a pretty small city, so you can explore the highlights in a few hours.
Best time to visit: All year round.
How long to stay: 3 days to a week. It’s a great place to base yourself and plan activities outside of the town.
Where to stay: Maya Papaya is a pretty hostel with an outdoor bar and courtyard serving legendary (and cheap) mojitos, and Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel is an Instagrammable spot with cosy dorms, bougie privates and an awesome central location.Find more hostels in Antigua
4. Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is a mystical lake hidden deep in the Guatemalan mountains. Many travellers make the mistake of trying to visit it as a single destination, but it’s actually a bunch of small towns on the shores of the lake, surrounded by epic volcanoes and mountain scenery. You’ll find yourself wanting to spend at least a few days here to try and explore it all. The most awesome thing about visiting Lake Atitlan is that you’ll get a great mix of nature and the indigenous cultures that exist in Guatemala at the same time.
If you only have time for one day here then you’ll want to hit Panajachel, the most developed town in the area. From here there are tons of options for tours to other towns and parts of the lake, as well as local shops and restaurants and fun places to stay, like the super social Dreamboat Hostel.
When to visit: Any time is good here, as temps don’t vary much.
How long to stay: I’d suggest at least 3 days, but you could easily spend 4 or 5.
How to get there: Buses run from basically everywhere in Guatemala to Lake Atitlan – you just need to ask at your hostel and they’ll sort you out.Find more hostels at Lake Atitlan
5. Crater Azul
Crater Azul is one of the best places to visit in Guatemala that you won’t find in every guidebook. It’s not the easiest spot to get to, but the boat journey there offers the chance to see turtles, rare birds, snakes and other wildlife, before eventually ending up in the most crystal-clear waters you could ever imagine. So yeah, I think it’s worth it! Swimming and snorkelling in the pristine ocean will leave you with an SD card full of amazing pictures to make your friends back home jealous.
When to go: December- March is best for this one.
How long to stay: A day trip.
How to get there: Ask your hostel in Flores about a tour.Find more hostels in Flores
Tucked away in the dense rainforests of Northern Guatemala, filled with unique wildlife and steeped in history, say hello to Tikal. Every backpacker in Central America knows Tikal’s status as one of the best places to visit in Guatemala. If you’re searching for Mayan history and culture then look no further, because this is the biggest and most complex Mayan city that has ever been unearthed. The towering structures are enormous feats of ancient architecture, made even better by the surrounding rainforest that’s home to toucans, ring-tailed coatis, howler monkeys and giant tarantulas, just to name a few.
When to go: It’s always a good time, but take a rain jacket if it’s wet season.
How long to stay: A day is enough if you get there early, but you could easily spend a few days. This place is enormous.
Cost: 150 GTQ (about $22 USD) not including transport.
How to get there: The most popular option is to hop on a tour from Flores.
Flores is a town located on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá. It’s small but mighty, taking about 20 minutes to walk around but filled with adorable colourful buildings and offering amazing lake views. Spend a chilled-out day or two before heading off to explore Tikal and Uaxactun. Some travellers think it’s just a stopover town, but it’s well worth your time to explore its colourful colonial streets, visiting the churches or watching the sunset over the water.
When to go: All year.
How long to stay: 1-2 days.
How to get there: Buses run daily from Antigua and Guatemala City.
Where to stay: Casa Ula Hostel has a terrace over the water where you can watch the sunrise, plus amazing staff that can help you plan your travels.Find a hostel in Flores
Acatenango is the iconic volcano featured in almost every single photo of Antigua, with its peak towering over the city and cutting through an otherwise empty skyline. Hiking Acatenango is an experience that’s as challenging as it is rewarding. It shouldn’t be taken lightly, but with views from the top over Lake Atitlan and its neighbour Volcano Fuego it should be high on your list of the best places to visit in Guatemala. Volcano Fuego is an *extremely* active volcano that’s had some major eruptions over the last few years, so when you’re sitting atop Acatenango it’s very likely that you’re going to see her sister volcano puffing away right in front of you.
When to go: December-March is dry season, but it’s possible to hike all year round.
How long to stay: The hike takes 2 days and you camp overnight on the volcano.
How to get there: Tours are organised from Antigua. If you’re adventurous enough to go without a guide, you can also take a bus straight there.
Where to stay: Camp on the Volcano!
Things to consider: Once you get to around 3000 meters above sea level things start to get chilly, so be sure to bring warm clothes.Find more hostels in Antigua
After a seemingly endless and very bumpy road that runs 24km north from the ancient city of Tikal, you’ll come across Uaxactun. Welcome to one of the oldest Mayan cities in Guatemala! As you enter Uaxactun, you’re met by a gentle nod from people in hammocks who have taken refuge in the shade. The locals live among ancient temples and restore the area using the same methods used for hundreds of years. The best ruins to visit are Group E, three structures built side to side from north to south that function as an astronomical observatory, all perfectly aligned with the sun. Free-range horses wander through the temples.
Bring food with you as there are no supermarkets or restaurants, but a few times a week you are able to purchase bread made in the traditional way in a wooden stove. Uaxactun has the same crazy wildlife as Tikal, but way fewer visitors.
Best time to visit: November to March for ideal weather.
How long to stay: One to two days. There’s a lot to explore and barely anyone else around!
How to get there: You can take the bus from Parque National Tikal for 10 Quetzales, which takes just over an hour. A bus from Santa Elena leaves at around 3pm, costs 40 Quetzales and takes about 3 hours.
Cost: If you’re only visiting Uaxactun you can get a ticket for 50 Quetzales at the park entrance, or you can get a combined ticket for Tikal for 150 Quetzales.
10. Quetzaltenango (Xela)
Quetzaltenango (or Xela) is the second biggest city in Guatemala, but it doesn’t see very many backpackers as most of us head straight out into the wild. This gives visitors the chance to observe the local culture a little better, without the influence that tourism brings to so many Central American cities and towns. Xela is also the perfect place to plan multiple day trips and adventures from, or if you’re looking to improve your Spanish there are loads of cheap classes available.
There are a bunch of different markets in Xela all worthy of strolling through, from Minerva Terminal Market, to Democracy Market and then Chichicastenango, which is the biggest outdoor market in Central America. Of course, in true Latin American style there are plenty of beautiful churches and cemeteries to explore too.
When to go: Year-round.
How long to spend: Without taking any day trips, 2 days is a good amount of time to explore.
How to get there: Any major town will have buses running to Xela.
Where to stay: Casa Siebel has an ideal location by the city’s Central Park, set in an old Colonial mansion packed with rustic charm.Find more hostels in Quetzaltenango
11. Hiking Volcano Tajumulco
Volcano Tajumulco is the highest volcano in Central America, so if you’re after a serious adventure then look no further. With an altitude of 4220 metres, this is not a hike to be taken lightly. The air turns what might normally be a mild walk into a literally breathtaking experience that is not for the faint of heart.
The hike can be done in a single day, but the best option is to do it over two and camp about 45 minutes from the summit, so you can make the rest of the hike for sunrise. Sleeping isn’t easy at that altitude, and you’re going to need warm clothes and something cosy to sleep in, but the views from the top are so insane that a little discomfort overnight will quickly be forgotten.
For a full rundown on hiking Volcano Tajumulco, check out my guide!
When to go: December to March is best, but it can be hiked year-round.
How long to spend: 2 days.
How to get there: Stay in Xela and plan a tour from there, or take a bus from Xela with some friends and tackle the hike yourself.
Where to stay: Camp on the mountain!
12. Fuentes Gorginas
Fuentes Gorginas is another fun day trip to take from Xela. Expect to find a series of hot springs tucked into the mountains and surrounded by dense rainforest. The springs consist of multiple pools with different levels of warmth, so you can ease yourself in. Outside of the hot springs, I saw some incredible wildlife on the journey there and the drive through the mountains and farmland also gives a good insight into the farming practices of the local people.
When to go: All year.
How long to spend: 1 day.
How to get there: Take a day trip from Xela.
Has my list of the best places to visit in Guatemala got you pumped for a Central American adventure? I hope so! If you’ve got any more recommendations, let us know in the comments below.
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About the author:
Dane Faurschou is a photographer, surfer, and alpinist from Byron Bay, Australia, who splits his time between the ocean and the mountains. Currently, he’s driving from Canada to Patagonia in search of as many waves and mountains as possible and anything else in between. Follow his adventures on his blog, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.