Do you long for breathtaking landscapes, warm people and mysterious cultural treasures? Then you should definitely visit Guatemala. The landscape is characterized by volcanoes, lakes, coffee plantations and endless jungle. Many indigenous peoples – the descendants of the Mayas – still live here and show old traditions and craftsmanship. Guatemala is extraordinary – probably hardly any of your friends have been here before. This small country has tons of surprises in store for you. From the fascinating nature and unique wildlife to the colorful cities where you can experience the culture and the special way of life, Guatemala offers everything your traveler’s heart desires. But see for yourself – our main city Antigua is made for a stay in the volunteer project of your choice, there are exciting projects and a variety of hostels just waiting to welcome you.
Antigua is our personal favorite city in Guatemala and in many ways something very special.
Young people from all over the world stroll through the cobblestone streets and there are endless things to discover. Between the colorful houses you will find many small stores and hip cafes. The restaurants offer creative dishes that are as diverse as the rest of the city. In the evening, bands from all over the world play in the bars and backpackers exchange travel stories at the tables.
Until a devastating earthquake in 1773, Antigua was the capital of Guatemala. Due to the great destruction, the seat of government was moved to Guatemala City. However, some of the old buildings have been preserved until today and characterize the cityscape as magnificent ruins. Of course, due to its uniqueness, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Don’t miss the small climb to the Cerro de la Cruz viewpoint. From here you have a breathtaking view over Antigua and the surrounding three volcanoes. From the famous archway Santa Catalina you can see the volcano El Agua, the most famous postcard motif of the city. A tour on one of these volcanoes is another highlight of your Guatemala visit. On a two-day tour you can climb to the top of Acatenango. You will spend the night in tents below the crater and have a fascinating view of the lava of the neighboring active volcano El Fuego. Before sunrise you will climb to the top and experience one of the most impressive sunrises of your life.
Around Antigua you will find many coffee farms that offer tours of the plantations and production. Many are still owned by German families who emigrated to Guatemala in the 17th century and specialized in coffee cultivation. It is also worth visiting the small organic farms in the area, especially to enjoy the fantastic food offered by the restaurants.
The city is about an hour from the international airport in Guatemala City and is easily reached by shuttle or chicken bus.
To and from Antigua
- one hour by shuttle or chicken bus from the airport in Guatemala City.
- In Antigua, local travel agencies offer excursions and bus tours for the entire country.
- There is a shuttle bus to Flores, the trip takes about 12 hours overnight and costs about 30 euros.
- A shuttle or chicken bus will take you to the famous Lago Atitlán in about 3 hours.
- Via Guatemala City you can reach Río Dulce in about 5 hours.
- You can get to the surfing village El Paredon in about 2 hours for 15 Euros with a shuttle.
Embedded in an enchanting landscape lies one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, surrounded by three mighty volcanoes in the heart of Guatemala. Lago Atitlán was formed by the explosion of a huge volcano many millions of years ago and is a natural wonder of a very special kind. From the top of the volcanoes you have a breathtaking view of the lake and the surrounding nature. Such a tour is very strenuous, but definitely recommended. Especially fascinating is the view at sunrise, when the clouds give way to the sun’s rays and the lake begins to shimmer pink. You will never forget this magical moment. During the day, the lake invites you either for a swim or for a boat trip. With a canoe you can enjoy the nature. Or you can take a boat and explore the surrounding villages. Around the lake you will find many small villages full of tradition and joie de vivre. The alternative San Marcus attracts many backpackers with its great yoga offers and vegan restaurants. The accommodations are located directly on the lake, many even have their own jetty. In lively San Pedro, the international backpacker scene is bustling and there are parties almost every day until the wee hours of the morning. If you are interested in traditional handicrafts, you can buy wonderful weavings directly from the local cooperatives in San Juan, attend a class and watch the women at work. From the towns around Lago Atitlán, many tour companies offer a day trip to Chichicastenango. There, twice a week, one of Guatemala’s largest markets takes place, where you can find everything from food, clothing, to souvenirs. At this market many things are cheaper than in the rest of the country and the sellers even insist that you bargain for the price.
To and from Lago Atitlán
- 3 hours by shuttle or chicken bus from Antigua, depending on the type of transportation, the trip costs between 10 and 30 euros.
- From Guatemala City you can reach the lake by chicken bus for about 5 euros in about 2.5 hours.
- From the lake there are also shuttles to the surf village El Paredon. The trip takes about 4 hours and costs about 30 euros.
Flores und Tikal
Most backpackers use Flores as a base for a trip to the fabled Mayan ruins of Tikal, but this pretty town has much more to offer. Located on a small island in Lake Petén-Itzá, you’ll love its narrow cobblestone streets and brightly colored houses with red tile roofs. Good restaurants and cool cafes can be found on every corner and there is a super relaxed atmosphere everywhere. The magical sunsets over the lake, surrounded by rainforest, you will not forget so quickly.
Amidst the dense jungle of the northernmost state of Petén, the enigmatic Mayan city of Tikal was first explored by researchers in 1957. It is considered the best researched Mayan city and its more than 3,000 buildings are among the most important of the Mayan culture. The most imposing building is Temple 4, which rises 64 meters into the air. It looks particularly mystical at sunrise, when it peeks out of the jungle, shrouded in mist.
You can reach Tikal by bus from Flores in one hour. There are daily organized tours offered by the hostels.
To and from Flores
- From the airport in Guatemala City you can fly to Flores. The direct flight with a local airline takes about 2 hours and the cost is between 80 and 150 euros, depending on the travel time.
- In Antigua you can book a shuttle to Flores with a local travel agency. The 12-hour trip will cost you around 30 euros.
- From Flores there are shuttles to Río Dulce for 20 Euros. The trip takes about 6 hours.
- Flores is also a good place to travel on to the country of Belize. To Belize City it takes 5 hours and a shuttle will cost you between 20 and 30 Euros.
Across the Río Dulce to Lívingston.
A very special tour is the trip by boat across the Río Dulce to Lívingston.
The bright green river flows quietly through eastern Guatemala, surrounded by a hilly landscape covered with palm forests. The nature is uninhabited and pristine, besides the few inhabitants that have settled on the edge of the river, there are all kinds of exotic bird species. On the way you will pass by the Castillo San Felipe de Lara, one of the main sights along the river. The fortress was built in the 17th century to protect against pirate attacks, as they dominated the region for a long period of time. You should also stop at the hot springs and the hot waterfall.
After a few hours of boating you will reach the town of Lívingston at the mouth of the river. This place has nothing in common with the rest of Guatemala. It has a flair that is probably more comparable to Jamaica. Here live the descendants of the Garifuna, an ethnic group from Africa who settled there several centuries ago to escape slavery. Since the place can be reached only by boat, life there is very secluded and the old cultures and traditions have been preserved. Due to its location by the sea, you can eat excellent fish or enjoy the magical sea at the only Caribbean beach in Guatemala.
To and from Río Dulce and Lívingston
- From Flores there are shuttles to Río Dulce for 20 euros. The trip takes about 6 hours.
- From Antigua via Guatemala City you can reach Río Dulce in about 5 hours.
- From Río Dulce you can reach Lívingston by boat in about 5 hours, the price is between 5 and 20 Euros.
- From Lívingston you can take a boat to one of the islands off Belize or directly to Belize City for about 50 Euros.
Semuc Champey is for many the scenic highlight of their visit to Guatemala, as it is a natural wonder in a class of its own. Semuc Champey bedeutet in der Maya Sprache so viel wie „dort, wo der Fluss in der Erde verschwindet“. Tief im Dschungel befinden sich treppenartig angeordnete, aus Kalkstein geformte Pools, die dich ins Staunen bringen werden. Hier kannst du im Wasser plantschen oder den Aussichtspunkt erklimmen, von welchem sich das Phänomen bestens beobachten lässt. Auch befinden sich unzählige faszinierende Wasserfälle in der Umgebung.
As a starting point for travelers is the city of Copan, where there are many cool hostels and the international backpacker scene meets.
Country & people
If you ask yourself today where the Mayas have remained, you can say relatively clearly: in Guatemala. And indeed everywhere. Because the direct descendants of the former advanced civilization still live here today. When the Spaniards came to Guatemala in 1524, the ancient traditions of the Maya were mixed with those of the Europeans. To this day, the country is strongly influenced by the ancient Mayan culture, whose impressive history and traditions can be seen everywhere. The people are hospitable and always happy to share their culture with visitors.
Even though the Spanish caused a lot of havoc in Latin America, they left behind an admirable architecture that still reminds us of the colonial era and will amaze you. Many pretty city centers and imposing churches await your visit. Likewise, the colorful markets attract many travelers. Guatemalans love the colorfulness that is present throughout the country. Old handicrafts are still produced everywhere by the Maya and combined with modern patterns. So it is worth to bring some treasures of this kind back home.
Guatemala has also been blessed with breathtaking nature. Enchanting lakes lie between fiery volcanoes and deep rainforest. Since only 2% of the country is populated, there is room for several national parks. The biodiversity is remarkable, Guatemala is home to countless exotic animals such as monkeys, jaguars, snakes, crocodiles, and parrots.
Food & Drink
Guatemalan cuisine is influenced by the ancient culture of the Maya and is strongly based on that of their neighboring country Mexico. Accordingly, you will find tortillas, enchiladas and tacos. Some must-try dishes are Chiles Rellenos (chile peppers stuffed with rice, vegetables, cheese, and meat and served with tomato sauce), Kak’ik (traditional Mayan turkey soup), and Chicken Pepian (chicken in spicy pumpkin-sesame sauce), the national dish of the Guatemalans. Other typical dishes of Guatemalan cuisine are Hilachas, (spicy meat stew from the highlands) or Tapado (seafood soup from the Caribbean coast) Accras (small fried balls of cod), Boudin (spicy pork sausages), Frijoles (black beans), and Caldo de Res (beef soup). These are accompanied by tortillas, but they are much thicker than the Mexican ones.
In Guatemala, excellent coffee has been produced for centuries, accordingly, in every town you can find great cafes where you can taste the local products. However, Guatemala is not only famous for coffee, but also cocoa tastes particularly good here. If you have the chance, you should definitely try one of the traditional cocoa drinks, often refined with cinnamon, cloves or chili.
Best time to travel
Guatemala is a wonderful place to visit all year round. In the rainy season from May to October it rains at most for a few hours per day and this mostly at night.
There are three different climate zones. The “Must Sees” Antigua and Lake Atitlán are located in the central highlands, which range from 1500 – 4200 meters above sea level. Here the climate is pleasantly mild all year round, at night it can sometimes get fresh. The average temperature is between 22 and 28 degrees.
The coasts of Guatemala, on the other hand, are characterized by a tropical climate, here it is very hot all year round. The rainy season is also between May and October.
In the lowlands in the north of the country, it is tropically warm all year round and rains occur between May and October. Humidity is high and the climate is therefore humid.
However, the rainy season should not affect your decision much, as it never rains here for a long time at a stretch. The country shows different sides depending on the climate and you will learn to love each side.
You can reach Guatemala by plane via the international airport in Guatemala City from all neighboring countries and also from some European cities or the USA. From Germany you are there with only one stopover. From San José, Mexico City and Cancún there are daily cheap direct flights. By land you can go to Flores via Belize or you can take a shuttle from San Cristobal in Mexico to Antigua in about 8 hours. From Costa Rica by land it takes 2 days, also here there are shuttle buses that take you directly to Antigua.
Throughout Guatemala there are the so called “Chicken Buses”, with which you can reach most places without any problems. The buses owe their nickname to the habits of the locals to transport really everything with it – sometimes even chickens. Another reason could be that you feel like a chicken in a cage. These are discarded school buses from the U.S., which are brought to Guatemala after their time is up and repurposed in every color imaginable. Of course, a flat-screen TV and a decent music system are not to be missed. The buses are the most popular means of public transportation for the population. A ride on a chicken bus is part of the typical Guatemalan experience and an adventure you should not miss. There are no schedules, but you never wait long for the departure. The destination is shouted loudly out the window by the drivers.
A more comfortable way to travel, but not as exciting for a long time, is private transfers. In any hostel or travel agency you can book a transfer to the most popular attractions. For example, the transfer costs about 10 euros for a trip from San Pedro to Antigua and takes 3 hours. You will receive more detailed information about local transportation in your preparation seminar after your arrival.
With the tourist visa you can stay up to three months in Guatemala. If you want to stay in Guatemala for a longer period of time, you can extend the visa locally up to 180 days. It is also easy to exit and re-enter the neighboring countries of Belize or Mexico, after which you can stay again for three months. After your registration we will discuss all visa matters with you personally. When entering the country (especially over land) it is absolutely necessary to make sure that you get an entry stamp to avoid difficulties when leaving the country.
In Guatemala you pay with Quetzales. As a travel budget, you can get by with 30 – 40 euros a day as a backpacker. Guatemala is much cheaper than Mexico and Costa Rica. A night in a hostel costs 5 – 8 euros, street food is available from one euro. The regional specialties are great to try on the street or local markets. In the restaurant you eat for 3 – 7 euros, in classic tourist restaurants it is much more expensive than in places where the locals go to eat. A cocktail is available at happy hour for one euro and a beer costs about 1.50 euros. A three-hour ride on the Chicken Bus costs about 2 euros, with a private transfer about 10 euros. For a 20-minute cab ride you’ll pay about 4 euros, though we recommend going with Uber as it’s cheaper and also very safe. You will receive extensive help with the calculation of travel costs from us after your registration.
history and culture
The origin of the name Guatemala is believed to be the Aztec words “Quauhtemallan”, which means ‘place of many flowers’, or “Guauthemallan” – ‘place of trees’. Guatemala is considered the heartland of the ancient Mayan culture, which is probably one of the most famous pre-Columbian cultures. The earliest beginnings of Mayan culture and civilization date back to 2000 B.C. The most powerful Mayan cities included Tikal in northern Guatemala, which can be visited today. Based primarily on ceramics, archaeologists divide the Maya advanced civilization into three sections. The first period is called Preclassic, which lasted until 250 AD. This was followed by the Classical period from 250 to 900 A.D., at the same time the Roman Empire was crumbling in Europe. The last period is called Postclassic and ends with the Spanish conquest of Guatemala in 1524.
In 1821, Guatemala declared its independence from Spain, but did not get its own currency until 100 years later, the quetzal, named after Guatemala’s national bird. Already during the colonial period, products were exported, which have their origin in the Mayan cultures, such as cacao. Only in the 19th century coffee cultivation was added and has been strongly promoted since then. It is interesting to note that at that time many Germans emigrated to Guatemala and started to produce and sell their own coffee. Even today, many coffee plantations are owned by German immigrants.
As you can see, Guatemala has an incredibly interesting and diverse history. Even today, the Mayan population is 60%, they practice centuries-old ceremonies and recipes for drinks and dishes are still spread throughout the country. Don’t miss the chance to try them.
WanderWorld Insider Tips from our staff Basti
Every country in Latin America is fascinating in its own way. It goes without saying that you can’t quickly decide on a favorite country here. Basti has already gotten to know many countries and also visited Guatemala on his Latin America trip. He will not forget his experiences there so quickly and the country will probably have a place in his heart forever. For us, he has summarized a few of his highlights.
- The small town of Antigua is a beautiful colonial city and made my heart beat faster after just a few seconds. The cobbled streets and the architecturally unique buildings give the place a distinctive charm. In addition, you have the opportunity to discover a lot and there are countless restaurants and cafes where I liked to stay. Especially the scenery is breathtaking, as you have an excellent view of the surrounding volcanoes from there.
- Not far from Antigua is the Acatenango volcano, which is a very special highlight in this region. Everyone who does not want to miss a real adventure should dare this experience. As part of a two-day tour, I hiked with a group to the top of the volcano, from where I had a fantastic view. The special thing about it? Directly opposite is the still active volcano Fuego, whose activities I could enjoy relaxed with a cup of warm Guatemalan coffee. After a comfortable overnight stay on the mountain, we set off for the summit early in the morning. A climb that is well worth it, because you are rewarded with a sunrise that is second to none.
The idyllic Flores is located directly on the third largest lake in Guatemala, Lake Peten-Itzá. Flores is the perfect place to spend a few days relaxing and combining this with great things to do. Among other things, you can go exploring in the jungle at nearby Tikal and marvel at one of the UNESCO travel wonders of our planet. If you feel like a little relaxation afterwards, Flores offers you the opportunity to take a boat trip and enjoy the jump into the cool water.
- Tikal was my absolute highlight of the Guatemala trip. The ancient Mayan site has important historical significance and was declared a cultural and natural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 1979. The great pyramids rise from the dense canopy of the jungle and the ambience is magical. The subtropical forests are the habitat of numerous animal species and with a little luck you will see the so-called Spider Monkeys up close. My tip: the sunset tour. Here the groups are often smaller and the fiery red combined with the temples of the Maya conjures you into another world.