The Ultimate Bucketlist for Backpacking in Guatemala
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Here it is, my ultimate bucketlist of places to go and things to do in Guatemala for backpackers! I’ll tell you about the historical points of interest, the Guatemala beaches worth checking out, natural wonders both famed and off-the-beaten-track, the most epic hikes in Guatemala plus where to head to relax and unwind. Backpacking in Guatemala is a whirlwind, and you’ll never be short of must-sees to get stuck into. This bucketlist will help you work out what’s on offer and plan your trip to this unbelievable country.
Behold, the best things to do in Guatemala bucketlist:
Semuc Champey, Lanquín
This should 100% be #1 on your bucketlist for backpacking in Guatemala. My day spent at Semuc Champey was by far the most memorable in all of my 8 weeks in the country, and despite not usually liking the uncertainty of what you’ll find when swimming in fresh water, the group struggled to get me to leave the refreshing blue of the natural pools. Semuc Champey is best accessed via a day tour from Lanquín, which usually consists of a cave trek complete with rock slides, waterfall exploration, river tubing, a hike to the aerial viewpoint and a swim in one of the many natural pools in the river itself. Don’t miss this when backpacking in Guatemala!
Siete Altares, Lívingston
This is sort of a smaller, lesser known version of Semuc Champey, hidden deeper in the forest. It’s to be found a few kilometres up from Livingstón, on the east coast, which I’ll mention later on in this backpacking in Guatemala bucketlist. You’ll walk up through several smaller pools before reaching the deepest, into which you can jump from the top of the waterfall.
While backpacking in Guatemala’s eastern region is usually deprioritised by travellers, I’m hoping you can see from this list of things to do in Guatemala that it’s definitely an area worth visiting. Key to the east is Lívingston, a town on the Caribbean coast that’s the hub of the country’s Garifuna culture. The Garifuna are descended from West Africans (following the shipwreck of a slave ship) and indigenous natives. It’s said that due to never having actually been put to work as slaves as originally intended, they have managed to maintain close ties to their African heritage, making this culture incredibly strong and vibrant from Honduras all the way up to Belize. This makes the town of Lívingston a fascinating cultural anomaly within Guatemala.
It’s not a wealthy place, and perhaps doesn’t always feel the most welcoming either, but still worth exploring to get to know this different side to Central America that is not often well represented. Despite being on the coast, there’s no decent beach here (only a very littered one), but waking up with views of the jetty at Hotel Casa Rosada in Lívingston is a beautiful way to start another day of backpacking in Guatemala.
Lake Izabal, Río Dulce
Surrounding the bustling town of Río Dulce is Lake Izabal, a large expanse of water that breaks off into smaller rivers and inlets. Staying at a hostel on one of these riverways (I recommend Hotel Kangaroo y Las Mexicanas), you can easily take out a kayak and go explore what the lake has to offer. A quick stopover at the San Felipe Castle is a good way to soak up some history, too!
Finca el Paraíso, Río Dulce
It seems I just couldn’t get enough of all those natural pools on offer when backpacking in Guatemala! Finca el Paraíso offers something really special though, that so far I haven’t found anywhere else in the world. Hot natural springs at the top of the waterfall flow down into the refreshingly cold river that runs past it below. This means you can walk straight out from a hot shower into a cool bath (probably the only hot shower you’ll get whilst backpacking in Guatemala, amiright?). This natural wonder sits quietly in the Izabal region near Río Dulce.
Indian Nose Sunrise Hike, Lake Atitlán
This is a hike around Lake Atitlán which starts before dawn, usually from San Juan del Sur (check out my vibe guide to the towns of Lake Atitlán here). It takes you on a moderately difficult incline to reach a series of viewpoints over the whole lake just in time for sunrise. It’s not a particularly long hike, so well worth waking up early for when you’re backpacking in Guatemala. And if Indian Nose leaves you wanting more, there are plenty more hikes around Lake Atitlan to choose from!
Maya Moon Lodge, Lake Atitlán
I really need to stop batting on about this place to anyone and everyone who will listen, but I guess Maya Moon Lodge really made its mark on me whilst backpacking in Guatemala. Nestled in the slopes around Lake Atitlán, this hostel is a tranquil escape from the world, right on the edge of the water. It’s the perfect place for some peaceful reflection, but there’s still adventure to be had in their free-to-use kayaks and nearby trails. I found the atmosphere really spurred on my blog writing during my stay; a few of my posts were written from a hammock on the balcony of my dorm, overlooking the lake. For me, this was the best way to experience Lake Atitlán.
Who loves hobbits? I LOVE HOBBITS. I’ve always always always wanted to go and visit Hobbiton in New Zealand, but the trip would just be so expensive and I’ve never mustered the courage to go all in. However, much to my ABSOLUTE DELIGHT, I discovered that Guatemala has its own version: Hobbitenango (for those who don’t yet know, ‘tenango’ is a common ending to Guatemalan town names as it literally means ‘place of’ in K’iche).
Just a short drive from Antigua Guatemala, Hobbitenango is an eco-hotel which allows visitors in for free during the day. There’s a restaurant, AMAZING cocktail bar that does insane hot chocolates too (thus making it into my list of best bars in Antigua), craft beer taps, hobbit games, houses and gardens to explore, all perfectly in theme with Tolkien’s vision. To top it off, its position means there are views over several valleys, too. Best to hire a car with this one; we found that the cheapest deal was with Priceline (as usual!).
Antigua Arch at Sunrise
Probably one of the most famous of the best things to do in Guatemala is to check out the yellow Santa Catalina arch of Antigua. However, this plus the fact that many locals run their business around it means that it’s ALWAYS BUSY, and often has cars parked under it (gaaaaaahd). Luckily, the road to the archway is usually cordoned off during the evening to pedestrianise it, which means if you head there at sunrise you should be able to snap a combination of empty street plus beautiful skies. Set your alarm for this staple of backpacking in Guatemala experiences!
When thinking of things to do in Guatemala, hiking a volcano is probably at the top of most backpackers’ lists. This is the easier and cheaper of the two main volcano hikes offered from Antigua, and therefore in true Lozzy fashion the one that I chose to do. It’s not what I’d call an effortless hike, but the views at the top were pretty worth it (featured in the cover photo of this post), especially as Pacaya started to dribble some lava whilst we were there. The guide said this wasn’t normal and got a little bit skittish about quickly heading back down which definitely wasn’t terrifying in the slightest… But before the lava came, we were able to get up close and personal with some red-hot rock, and toasted marshmallows using only the heat of the ground.
This is the serious volcano to hike, which will take you two days to reach the summit and back (though you can make it 3 days if you’re keen!). Staying in a tent at the base camp is said to feel arctic, and the ashy ground will have you slipping all over the place, however, trekking the last leg to the peak at sunrise to watch the nearby El Fuego volcano regularly erupting is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Again, make sure you’re with a guide that you trust for this one, and do not leave without all the proper gear – extra warm layers are an absolute must. If you didn’t bring lots of hiking gear whilst backpacking in Guatemala, most reputable tour companies will be able to rent items out to you.
Tikal is a sprawling archaeological site near Flores, where historians are slowly uncovering a whole city built by the Mayans from around 600BC. It comprises of dozens of large pyramids – some climbable – deep in the jungle. Now, I’m going to be honest with you, cuz that’s what I do; I went to see the ancient ruins of Tikal whilst suffering from a severe case of temple fatigue. I’d spent 12 months looking at stacks of old rocks, and though I am 100% a history boff, there are only so many stacks of old rocks you can look at before things get a little samey.
HOWEVER, I seem to be the only person backpacking in Guatemala who has ever felt this way about Tikal, and if I hadn’t been all templed out I think I would have found the ruins pretty impressive. Make sure you get a good guide for this one; ours didn’t give much info and that definitely contributed to my waning interest. Sunrise tours are available if you book at least the morning before.
The town on an island in a lake! Usually only a stopover before taking a tour to Tikal for people backpacking in Guatemala, the picturesque town of Flores itself is actually a pretty interesting place. You only need a day or two to check things out, but I recommend renting a canoe or boat to explore Lake Petén Itzá, not forgetting to stop by Jorge’s rope swing! The walls of the town are a great place to sit on the walls and watch the sunset. If you’ve crossed the border from Belize, Flores is definitely worth popping into.
As the biggest outdoor market in the country, visiting this huge spread of stalls is among the best things to do in Guatemala for souvenir collectors and shopping addicts. Return from backpacking in Guatemala with a rucksack full of handmade trinkets, art pieces, jewellery, clothes and bags – and even ethically-made cloth if you want to make your own creations at home. It’s not all novelties and souvenirs though, you can also pick up some fresh-from-the-farm fruit and veg, plus a delicious cooked lunch from one of the traditional food stalls.
Worry not, there is a Guatemala beach that’s worth visiting! Monterrico is a small but growing resort town on the black-sanded Pacific coast of the country, about a 2.5 hour bus from Antigua. It’s known for the parties hosted at Johnny’s Place aimed at natives and travellers alike, but with a turtle hatchery, water park and mangrove tours, there are plenty of things to do in Guatemala’s best beach town during the day, too. Try to visit on a weekday since the area gets a lot busier during weekends as a popular city break for locals.
But wait, do I have another Guatemala beach for your bucketlist?! Hell to the yes I do. Just a little up the coast from Monterrico, you’ll come across El Paredon, which is less popular with locals and more of a place for people backpacking in Guatemala. Hostels such as Swell and Surf House are doing their best to bring tourism to the area, which has all the same things to do as Monterrico but fewer crowds. This spot is the perfect place to learn to surf in Guatemala.
So that concludes my ultimate bucketlist of best things to do in Guatemala for backpackers! Do you have any more to add? Let us all know in the comments section 🙂