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Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala

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What You Need to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala

Guetamala mountains and trees

The first time I ever heard about Guatemala was over 20 years ago when I was backpacking and traveling through the US and Mexico, and I really wanted to learn Spanish and everybody was like Guatemala is the place to learn Spanish, they have the cheapest private Spanish lessons in the world. That’s how I ended up in Guatemala originally, and now I’m an ex-pat living here, that’s why I can tell you exactly what you need to know before traveling to Guatemala.

I arrived in Guatemala as a visitor because when you’re traveling to different places, you usually have between seven days to two weeks tops. And when people arrive in Guatemala, there are usually three top locations in Guatemala that everyone kind of goes to when they first arrive, like the first time. If you’re going to stay longer, I have special ideas for you as well that you could add in.

And each of these locations has a separate podcast and post to get really more detailed. This is just to give you the whole travel aspect of traveling in Guatemala.

Arriving in Guatemala

When you arrive in Guatemala, usually you arrive by air. You arrive at Aurora International Airport. It’s just a tiny, really accessible, really easy airport.

There’s only one terminal. I personally recommend having a taxi or a driver already waiting for you because you just don’t want to take the risk of just some pirate taxi. There is a taxi that is part of the airport, but you could also have a driver already set up. It’s just much safer.

So when you arrive, you arrive in Guatemala City. Now when you’re only coming for seven days to 14 days, you really don’t want to spend that much time in Guatemala City simply because there are a lot more things to do.

Head To Antigua

street in antigua guatemala

The very first place usually where people go to is Antigua. Antigua is what Guatemala really is known for, is this beautiful, colonial, colorful, cobblestone town nestled in a valley that is surrounded by three amazing volcanoes. So that’s really the place that everybody goes to.

Antigua is only 1 hour from the airport. So you could get into your cab or the driver, whatever, and go straight to Antigua.

Where To Stay

When you arrive in Antigua as I said earlier, it is this adorable ten-block squared town, literally cobblestone, colorful. It’s a UNESCO site. You should have a hotel, a hostel, or an Airbnb already booked up simply because you don’t want to arrive and just walk around with your backpacks or suitcases.

There’s so many different amazing hotels and hostels. If you’re traveling on a lower budget or even Airbnb, from private rooms to full homes, colonial-style homes. So make sure that you have that.

Getting Around

You do not need a car when you are in Antigua, where everything is pretty much walkable.

You could also take Tuktuk. Tuktuk is a very popular model of transportation to get around Antigua and the surrounding areas of Antigua.

Ho much time to spend in Antigua?

You can pretty much do all of that within three, or four days because of the day trips, and add an extra day if you’re going to be doing the Acatenango Volcano hike.

If you do come to Antigua, I definitely recommend two to three days minimum, one day just for sightseeing to go to Central Park, to go to the Cathedral. Jade is the national gem, kind of, there are Jade museums. Jade was the main stone, the main gem, the main rock that the Mayans used. So it is really interesting, and there are some places you could go and visit different museums.

Day Trips

There are also some really cool day trips that you need to take when you get to Antigua.

So the really big thing to do in Antigua is to go to a volcano. So as I mentioned earlier, Antigua is literally in the heart of the ring of fire, which is three different volcanoes. You have Agua, which has been dormant. And it is like the main volcano that’s right there. You could certainly go for a hike on it.

However, it’s the least popular one to visit like that. It’s just kind of a thing that you enjoy and admires from anywhere you are in Antigua.

Pacaya Tour

There are two volcanoes that you can visit. One is Pacaya. Pacaya is actually not visible from Antigua, but it is a really popular tour to go and see.  But this is the one where you could walk on lava stone. You could roast marshmallows on the lava rock, that’s one type of and that is a day trip you could do by horse or hike. It’s a relatively mild hike.

Acatenango and Fuego Tour

The most popular volcano tour to take is a hiking Acatenango and Fuego volcanoes. There are actually two volcanoes together. You go up Acatenango, but you’re looking at Fuego. Fuego is known to be the most popular one because it is the active one.

It literally does a volcanic show every single day. Pretty much you could see it erupting and giving you lava and whatnot. So the whole Acatenango tour, it’s an overnight tour. It is truly rough. It’s like you’re camping, but it is so worth it, although I have to say.

I have an episode for Acatenango. So make sure that you go and check out that episode. So it is not a mild hike. It is a pretty medium-advanced hike. So make sure that you’re doing it.

💡 You can listen to the full Acatenango Volcano Hike Tour podcast Here

There are ways there are many different operators. Again, I give all the specifics in Acatenango tour Tour episode. So make sure that you go and really listen to it and understand it. So those are the main tours that you want to take when you are in Antigua. But then when you’re also in Antigua itself, you have to go to the central market.

Chichicastenango

Another really popular city to visit is Chichicastenango. That’s a really popular place. It’s where a lot of Spanish schools are, a lot of people go and learn Spanish and it is the second largest city in Guatemala outside of Guatemala City.

It is one of the most bustling markets that there is and it’s really fun. You can also take a day trip to Chichicastenango, which is literally the largest Central American market. It’s 2 hours away from Antigua. You could do a day trip to it. It’s only on market days, which are Monday, Thursday and Saturday.

So if you want to do that, you need to definitely hire a tour company. It’s actually cheaper to do that than to have your own car because you don’t need a car to do that. 

This is a really popular place to visit and that is about a four-hour drive from Guatemala City or from Antigua. It does not matter where you’re going to be going from and you probably want to spend at least two days there to visit.

local market in guatemala

Atitlan Lake

Another really popular place to go is Atitlan Lake. This is about two, 3 hours from Antigua. Again, you could take a shuttle or a private driver and it will still be cheaper for you than to rent a car, you do not need a car when you get to Atitlan. So again, it will just be that transport from Antigua to Atitlan.

I have a whole episode on Atitlan Lake, so please go listen to it to really understand.

Atitlan Lake is a lake that is in a super old volcanic crater that is now obviously completely not alive. However, there are volcanoes all around it. Again, they are totally not active. But this crater that was once a volcano is now this Lake.

Atitlan is surrounded by all these little villages that are known to be where the Mayans live. There are all these different dialects. These are the Indigenous villages of Guatemala. It’s a really interesting place to go and visit. The main town is called Panajachel.

Getting Around

Then there are these other villages and the only way to really get around is by taking a boat. You’ll see there are these public boats. You can hire a private boat if you’re a big enough party. But honestly, you could just take these public boats to any of these locations.

So you would start at Panajachel. Then there is another, really popular town that’s called Santa Catalina. Then another one called San Marcos or another one. San Pedro Santiago is the largest town, but it is mainly locals and Indigenous. It is interesting to visit, but usually, the majority of visitors stay in Panajachel.

How much time to spend in Lake Atitlan?

You could spend a good two, three, even four days. It will depend on your schedule. You could spend one day just enjoying the village you’re staying in for one day to do like a village tour. And also you could kayak, you could do outdoor activities. It depends on what your main interests are when you are visiting.

a lake in guatemala

Tikal

Now, if you arrive early enough, another place that people go to almost immediately is Tikal. It’s the Northern region of Guatemala, which is the most famous Mayan ruin. You could take an airplane there.

It’s only like 45 minutes, but that’s only if you arrive early enough and you can make that connection and arrive directly at Tikal.

As I mentioned, Tikal, which is the Mayan ruin, is all the way in the Northern region of Guatemala and is also one of the most popular places to visit, but because it is so far, it’s about nine to 10 hours driving from Antigua or Guatemala City. That’s why it is recommended if you are on a limited time to fly to Tikal and you could do that from Guatemala City. 

So you would go back from either of the villages to Guatemala City to take a plane. There are several planes every day that go up to the name of the town that you would visit. And it is this adorable colorful little island that is about 45 minutes drive from Tical itself.

Tikal is a National Park. It’s also a UNESCO site.

It is this humongous rainforest where you have to walk to the actual ruins. The closest ruin is about 1 km.

Where to Stay

You could actually stay in hotels right in Tikal National Park. Or you could stay in Flores which is this cute, adorable town.

There’s also another town in between and it is called El Remate. And that also has a ton of really cool hotels and even campsites and some Airbnbs. So Airbnbs are mainly in Flores and Flores and El Remate are on a beautiful Lake. So that makes the city even more attractive, you could go swimming in this Lake.

How much time to time spend on Tikal?

So you really don’t need more than one night. There was like a day and a half in that whole region and you could fly back to Tikal.

A lot of people put that trip either in the very beginning when they first arrive and they fly directly to Flores, spend the night, spend all day in Tikal and then take an evening flight back to Guatemala City and then go with the first ideas of going to Antigua and Atitlan or they do it at the very last part

Or they do Antigua and Atitlan Lake and then they go back to Guatemala City, take a flight there, do Tikal, fly back and either spend one night in Guatemala City or catch their flight. So that is the most popular thing to do and it’s usually a good ten days.

Mayan piramid in tikal guatemala

Rio Dulce

Now if you are lucky enough and have extra time, there are some incredible other locations to visit. One of them is called Rio Dulce and it’s right on the river. That’s why it’s called Rio Dulce and you could take a boat to Livingston which is this town completely inaccessible other than by boat, there are no cars, there’s nothing that you could take to get there.

So this is a really cool place but it is about a five-hour drive from Guatemala city to get there so you have to add an extra three or four days.

kayaking on rio dulce

Semuc Champey

Also another place, again, everything is from Guatemala city. I’m saying it’s a really popular trip to Semuc Champey and it is considered one of the wonders of Guatemala. It is these beautiful blue pools where you could river raft and tubing and it’s just this incredible place very much in nature. Again, it’s about a seven-hour drive from Guatemala city. There are no planes and I have episodes for each of these to really help you.

If you want to go there and there are little towns that you could visit surrounding that area and you need at least three or four days simply because it’s one day drive there and one day drive back. So at least two or three extra days just for that certain area alone. 

woman at semuc champey in guatemala

Conclusion

These are the main locations that you would do right when you get from Guatemala City. You can certainly cut down on some of the days that you will be in certain areas. So this really captures all of the highlights of Guatemala.

Again, these have all separate episodes that I really recommend you check out to see if this is what you want to go and visit if you have any questions you could also send me an email.

two locals and a tutk on a guatemala street

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