Guatemala (aka Guate) is home to volcanoes, rainforests, and ancient Mayan sites. Its diverse culture, rich heritage, wonderful people, and beautiful landscapes offer something for every type of traveler. In fact, there are so many fun things to do in Guatemala, you could spend months on end traveling here. Of course, there are stories of economic hardship, which may raise cause for concern, but with a little planning, Guatemala will surprise you.
I spent 2 weeks traveling in Guatemala, and I discovered there are so many things to do in Guatemala that I should have spent three or four weeks!
Here’s a list of my favorite things to see and do in Guatemala to help you plan your next adventure.
A Brief Introduction to Guatemala
Guatemala is located just south of Mexico and is home to 5 different ecosystems. Additionally, Guatemala lies in a major fault zone, namely the Motagua and Chixoy-Polochic fault that forms the tectonic boundary between the Caribbean Plate and the North American Plate. As a result, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are prevalent, especially in the south. In fact, Guatemala has 33 volcanos that make up the Pacific Coast ring of fire. Northern Guatemala, on the other hand, is quite different and is composed of dense rainforest and several impressive natural wonders, such as Semuc Champey.
In terms of economy, Guatemala has the largest in Central America, yet it is one of the poorest in Latin American and faces many social problems. One of the major drivers for the economy is tourism, and Guatemala receives around 2 million tourists annually. As this number continues to grow, the infrastructure has started to improve, which will, hopefully, encourage others to visit Guatemala.
The local currency is quetzales. It is not possible to acquire quetzales outside of Guatemala. If you are traveling from Mexico, pesos, and USD can be exchanged at the border (at an OK rate), otherwise, quetzales can be obtained at the airport. It is best to have USD, as this is the easiest currency to exchange and offers the best rates. There are plenty of ATMs throughout Guatemala, and I would recommend withdrawing from inside a bank when possible.
Prior to traveling to Guatemala, many ask themselves, is it safe to travel in Guatemala? The simple answer is yes. I never felt in any danger while traveling in Guatemala. I found Guatemalans very helpful, and they always gave excellent advice. I took normal precautions such as keeping an eye on my valuables, and not flashing fancy equipment in public (but this is standard travel advice). Night travel, in general, is not recommended, but I never needed to travel at night, so this was not an issue. I also avoided Guatemala City (the capital), which has a reputation for being unsafe (but, again, most big cities don’t have a reputation for being the safest).
Fun Things to Do in Guatemala
Guatemala’s diverse ecosystem lends itself to endless things to do. Below is a list of some of the fun things to do in Guatemala, based on my experience.
Visit Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is a body of water in a massive volcanic crater in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands. It’s most noted for its traditional Mayan villages and majestic volcanoes that surround the shores of the lake. Lake Atitlan is, perhaps, one of the most popular places to visit in Guatemala, and is easily accessible from the travel hub of Antigua.
Lake Atitlan spans a total of 130.1 square kilometers and is made out of 11 ethnic towns and villages. Each town/village has its own personality and unique atmosphere.
Below is a list of the most popular villages/towns. I don’t cover all of the towns as Panajachel, San Pedro, San Marcos, and San Juan are the most popular among travelers.
Panajachel: Panajachel is the most developed town around Lake Atitlan, you will not get the laidback vibes of some of the smaller villages. But, in exchange for peacefulness, you will get lots of options when it comes to shopping, hotels, and restaurants.
San Pedro: San Pedro is known for having some of the cheapest prices around Lake Atitlan. In addition, San Pedro attracts a young backpacker crowd and has a lively nightlife scene.
San Marcos: San Marcos is a tiny but beautiful town on the lake. This area is popular for those who want to relax and practice yoga. Often dubbed, the original hippie town, it’s truly a place to come and relax.
Santa Cruz: Santa Cruz is one of the smaller towns. This is a very authentic town with mostly traditional Mayans. There is little tourist infrastructure unless you’re at the lakefront. It is also located on a very steep hill, which is something to consider as the lake itself is at 1500m.
San Juan: San Juan is located next to San Pedro, so it’s a welcome escape from the tourists and madness. It’s comprised of colorful buildings, few tourists, and authentic culture. This small and artistic town is great for weaving demonstrations and souvenir shopping.
Once you have decided where you want to stay, there are endless things to do on Lake Atitlan. I would recommend staying in a village that you also want to explore and has the activities you want to do. If you are limited in time it will not be possible to do everything. Since I had only 2 weeks in Guatemala, I stayed in San Pedro and spent 3 days exploring this wonderful town. I also climbed San Pedro Volcano (see next activity). In general, San Pedro was very convenient and well connected, in terms of transport, so, it was the obvious option for me.
Climb San Pedro Volcano
San Pedro Volcano is located next to the town of San Pedro on Lake Atitlan. The 3,020-metre stratovolcano is a challenging day hike, but the stunning views make it worth the effort.
It’s best to start hiking early so you can have a clear view at the top and avoid the afternoon rains. The trailhead can be reached by tuk-tuk from just about anywhere in San Pedro and costs roughly 10 quetzals. Tuk-tuks are available starting from 7:00 am. Once at the trailhead, there is a visitor’s center where you will need to pay an entrance fee of 100 quetzals – this includes a guide, however, you are not obligated to use a guide (the fee is the same regardless of your choice).
Useful tip: Travel agencies in San Pedro may try to convince you to hire a guide through their agency, however, you will still need to pay the 100Q entrance fee at the visitor center.
The ascent takes on average 3-5 hours, and the descent is, only, slightly faster. The trail is a dirt footpath with a gradual incline at the bottom and becomes significantly steeper at the top. Stone steps begin appearing on the trail at about the halfway point and then alternates between stairs and a dirt trail. There are several look-out points along the trail that offer splendid views over the lake. Due to the high altitude, it is important to hike slowly and drink plenty of water.
Antigua is a small city surrounded by volcanoes in southern Guatemala. It’s renowned for its Spanish colonial buildings, many of which were restored following a 1773 earthquake that ended Antigua’s 200-year reign as Guatemala’s colonial capital. Given Antigua’s popularity, there are numerous activities here.
Hike a Volcano: This is the most popular thing to do in Antigua. There are 4 volcanos that are visible from the city itself: Acatenago (3976m), Fuego (3763m), Agua (3760m). Of these three, only Acatenago and Agua can be hiked, as Fuego is still active. The most popular volcano to hike in Antigua is, however, Pacaya (2552m). This is an active volcano about a 1.5-hour drive from Antigua and is a good option for anybody looking for a relatively easy day hike. I, personally, hiked Acatenago, and I absolutely love it (see next activity).
Wander the Streets of Antigua: This beautiful colonial town is full of markets, delicious restaurants and cafes, and beautiful architecture. Wandering the streets and observing daily life is definitely an experience in itself.
Explore Antigua’s Central Park: The central park is a great place to relax and enjoy the city.
Enjoy a Cup of Delicious Coffee: Some of the most delicious coffee originates from Guatemala, and Antigua has excellent cafes where you can enjoy a cup!
Learn Spanish: Antigua is also a popular place to take affordable Spanish classes. While I did not do this myself, I met several travelers that were taking Spanish classes in Antigua.
Climb Acatenango Volcano
Acatenango is Guatemala’s 3rd largest volcano, towering at 3976m just outside of Antigua. Even more intriguing, it joins with Volcano Fuego (aka Volcano of Fire) – a very active volcano!
I recently wrote a detailed guide about my experience hiking Acatenango. Of the adventures I have had during my travels, this was by far one of the best. Watching Fuego erupt and lava pour down the sides of the volcano was an unforgettable experience.
Swim in the Turquoise Pools of Semuc Champey
Tucked away in the densely forested mountains of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, near the town of Lanquín, lies an idyllic limestone paradise-Semuc Champey. Despite the grueling hours of off-road forging it takes to get there, it is one of the most beautiful hidden natural gems.
I recently wrote a detailed guide on visiting Semuc Champey. This off-the-beaten-path destination is definitely worth a visit. There are several activities to do here, so head on over to my other blog post to learn everything you need to know!
Visit the Ancient Ruins of Tikal
Tikal is an ancient Mayan citadel buried deep in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala. It is one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Colombian Maya civilization with 85% still buried in the jungle.
This ancient Mayan city was once a powerful empire. In fact, there are signs of life dating back to 1,000 B.C., however, it wasn’t really a thriving city until 300 B.C.
Researchers do not know the exact population of Tikal, but they estimate it could have been close to 100,000 residents at the city’s peak. In fact, in its prime (around 700 – 750 A.D.), Tikal was one of the most powerful city-states in the Americas. Yet, for unknown reasons, Tikal was abandoned, and over time became engulfed in the jungle. While locals remained aware of its existence, it was not until the mid-19th century that Tikal was fully surveyed, and, in 1979, Tikal National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tikal National Park covers an area of 575 square kilometers, and you can expect to see exquisite temples, palaces, public squares, and residential dwellings throughout the park. This site was less touristic than other Mayan sites I had visited, and it can be easily reached from Flores (1.5 hours). You can book a ride with your hotel or any tour agency (either with or without a guide) in Flores.
Cost of Visiting Tikal: Round-trip Bus Ticket without a Guide = 80Q ($10.70 USD), Round-trip Bus Ticket with a Guide = 120Q ($16 USD), Ticket to Enter Tikal = 150 ($20 USD)
Trips depart either in the morning for the sunrise or in the evening for the sunset. I chose the sunrise and toured Tikal without a guide. The map and my guidebook were more than sufficient to visit the site. I was also able to see more of the hidden ruins that were not covered in the guided tours. This was my favorite Mayan site, and I found the park to be absolutely fantastic.
A Recap of the Fun Things to Do in Guatemala
I spent 2-weeks traveling in Guatemala, and it was, in my opinion, absolutely spectacular. Stunning landscapes, epic adventures, and wonderful people are just some of the things you will experience while traveling in Guatemala.
At the end of my adventure, I wished I had spent more time here. There are endless things to do in Guatemala, and with a little preparation, you are guaranteed to have an epic adventure.
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Check Out My Other Guatemala Travel Guides
Hope you enjoyed my post on fun things to do in Guatemala. Here are some of my other Guatemala travel guides that you might find interesting.
Have questions about things to do in Guatemala? Send me a message in the comments below!
Interested in more travel tips? Check out my other posts for more travel tips.