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Guatemala is slightly more off-the-beaten-track than Costa Rica or Mexico, but boasts arguably the best-preserved Mayan history and the greatest range of activities in Central America. Where else can you watch the sunrise over infamous Mayan ruins, swim through caves by candlelight, tube down turquoise rivers, observe traditional Mayan rituals, toast marshmallows over lava on active volcanoes, or shop for unique souvenirs in Guatemalan markets?


Capital: Guatemala City

Languages: Spanish and Maya

Backpacker budget: £9 - £19 per day

Currency: Quetzals (£1 is approximately Q12, and US dollars are accepted)

Climate: Cooler in December to February, hottest in March and April and occasional rains from May to September.

When to go

Anytime! Although the humid and rainy season of May to October makes unpaved roads difficult, downpours are only occasional and constant rain is rare. The dry season of November to April is sweltering along the coasts, but comfortable in the highlands. The foreign tourist season runs from December to April, with popular destinations becoming crowded around the Guatemalan holidays of Christmas, New Year and Easter. June to August sees an influx of North Americans, keen to travel and study Spanish.


Similarly to Mexico, the Maya civilisation existed with little outside influence until the early 16th century Spanish invasion. Guatemala became firstly a part of the Spanish empire, and then a part of the Mexican empire, before gaining full independence in the 1840s. The country recently emerged from a 36 year civil war, and re-established a representative government in 1996. Guatemala is currently attempting to dispel its unfair reputation for being an unsafe place to travel, mainly due to crime problems in Guatemala City. In reality, numerous chicken buses make the country easy to travel around, the people are helpful and relaxed, and the opportunities available are plentiful. 

Don’t miss

Antigua – Described by Lonely Planet as “fantasyland”, Antigua boasts colonial buildings, cobbled streets, and views of three volcanoes on the horizon. Antigua is superior in every way to nearby Guatemala City, and is thriving amongst the backpacker community due to it’s abundance of language schools, friendly hostels, amazing markets and thriving bar and restaurant scene. Nearby Volcan Pacaya is accessible by numerous tour agencies, offering hikes to the summit and the opportunity to toast marshmallows over lava. 

Tikal – Arguably the most famous Mayan ruins in Central America, the temples at Tikal tower above the treetops, reaching heights of up to 70 metres. Situated in the heart of the jungle, Tikal is both a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and presents the visitor with 10 square miles of temples, pyramids, palaces, ball courts and inscribed stone monuments. Stay in nearby Flores, a tranquil town set on a beautiful lake; perfect for swimming and relaxing in the numerous lakeside cafes. 

Lanquin – A small town situated in the Guatemalan mountains, Lanquin is a welcome break from the commotion of the cities. Visitors can relax, enjoy the breathtaking views and float down the river with a beer in hand. Don’t miss tours to nearby Semuc Champey, where travellers can swim in turquoise waters, explore underground caves by candle light, and hike to amazing viewpoints.

Lake Atitlan – The largest lake in Guatemala, Lake Atitlan is another beautiful mountain location, flanked by volcanoes. Stay in popular backpackers’ town San Pedro, where canoeing on the lake, Spanish classes, hot tubs, and plentiful interesting bars and restaurants will keep everyone occupied. Take a boat across the lake to traditional Santiago, where the majority of the residents are indigenous Mayans and plenty of traditions are still in practice.  If you can stomach the early start, catch a chicken bus then hike up one of the mountains for stunning dawn views overlooking the lake.

Guatemala with Frontier

Central America Ethical Adventure Trail

“We started the second week in Guatemala, at an excellent, chilled out, scenic lodge in the mountains. We have been tubing, caving, partying and relaxing. Afterwards we went to Antigua for Semana Santa. Beautiful sand paintings in the streets and big processions. Antigua is lovely, we climbed a local volcano that is active - lava marshmallows are the best! On to San Pedro La Laguna, a chilled place on the lake Atitlan. Kayaking and more climbing before going onto Honduras.”

Julie Thurgood, May 2011

Guatemala Spanish School

“I lived in the beautiful city of Antigua with the amazing Juarez family who housed and fed me for the whole 4 weeks. Mr and Mrs Juarez were so kind, hospitable and always willing to help me practice my Spanish. The language school was also very kind and I became good friends with my teacher who not only taught me but also showed me round the city and introduced me to other students at the school. I highly recommend this trip to anyone who wishes to not only learn Spanish but who wants to be completely immersed into the language, culture and people for a once in a lifetime experience.”

Andy, August 2010

Guatemala Environmental Education Experience

“I was beginning my gap year in Guatemala and planning on working my way down through Central and South America, but I wanted to start my travels by doing something a bit more meaningful, getting to know a place and its people. Having just finished my biology degree at uni I though this project would be a chance to put it to good use! I was helping to educate local communities about the importance of the natural environment and how they can live more sustainably. I had a fantastic time, picking up some of the language, making new friends, and having the rewarding experience I was looking for.”

Elizabeth, February 2010

By Denise Bartlett

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Reader Comments (1)

I didn't know that the Mayan History could be this rich. I really find their remarkable places interesting especially the Antigua.

November 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVivian Kendricks

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