When you hear about Guatemala you may think of vibrant textiles, large markets and ancient ruins. Guatemala is lush in biodiversity, rich in Mayan culture and booming with enticing culinary attractions. Whether you want to dive into Mayan traditions, dream of trekking through dream-like cloud forests or dining on authentic local food while enjoying breathtaking views, this remarkable Central American destination is calling. Read on for my personal Guatemala travel guide, which brings together my favorite experiences and useful tips drawn from living there for several months.
First, a Few Basic Tips…
Let’s start with a few bare essentials and helpful hints that allowed me to enjoy my travels in Guatemala. I hope it will help you experience it to the fullest, too!
The Weather, and What to Bring
Guatemala has two main seasons, wet and dry. While the dry season is from November to April, do note that central Guatemalan areas like Antigua and Lake Atitlan are much warmer and more temperate than Xela to the west or Livingston in the northeast.
This means that you should always carefully research the regions you plan to visit to ensure you’re properly prepared! No one likes getting stuck in the mud in flip-flops or expecting t-shirt weather, then finding conditions demand you wear a jacket and a hat.
Remember, owing to its beautiful, lush greenery and extravagant biodiversity, a trek through Guatemala often comes with insects and occasionally harsh weather. Exploring the great views Guatemala has to offer, be mindful of insects and mosquitos! No one likes to wake up to buzzing in your ears, so make sure to bring along some natural bug repellent. Here is a great recipe for Home- made bug repellant.
Sunblock is also a must! During my first trip to Guatemala, I forgot to put sunblock on, fell asleep in a hammock and woke up being so sunburnt I couldn’t carry my pack for several days. Starting off a vacation like that is no fun. Learn from my mistake: be smart and protect your skin!
Don’t even consider leaving your camera behind: with so much color and beauty to capture here, it’s an essential companion. Between the ancient ruins of Tikal to the vibrant market in Chichicastenango to elegant colonial architecture in Antigua, you don’t want to miss a shot.
Read related: Our Top 8 Tips For Taking Beautiful Travel Photography
A word of caution, though: As a tourist you should always be conscious of your surroundings and watch out for your valuables.
Weaving class: A Gateway to Guatemalan Culture
As you wander through the streets of a typical Guatemalan city, you may easily notice the vibrant clothes native residents wear. This traditional, typically hand-made clothing is a reflection of their regional location, ancestry, season, and economic status. Since weaving is a tradition that dates back to Mayan times, I could not pass up the chance to take a course and learn more about it.
Located in Xela, Trama Textiles called my name, especially after I learned that it’s a 100% worker-owned women’s association. The organization directly works with 17 weaving cooperatives representing 400 women from five different regions of Guatemala. I signed up for a 10-hour course, which is the length of time it takes to make a simple scarf.
To give you an idea of how long it takes to make something more elaborate: it can take from between three to six months to weave one shirt depending on its detail and embroidery! Completing my scarf, I was amazed I did it, and was deeply impressed by the talent of the local weavers in these communities. I wholly recommend that you give it a try yourself on your trip. Why not support the locals and take the time to learn about something different and colorful?
Trekking in Guatemala: Between Trees, Clouds & Towns
Guatemala, also known as “The land of trees” has endless spectacular hikes and opportunities for trekking. If you’re travelling with some extra time on your hands, I’d look into the Quetzaltrekkers 3-day trek from Xela to Lake Atitlan. I’ll admit I was excited to get moving after a few days sitting and weaving!
Read related: The 10 Most Breathtaking National Parks in the World
I found myself tucked away in the cloud forests of Quetzaltenango, passing corn hills and vibrantly diverse villages– all giving me some real time to reflect. I was able to better understand how certain villages have been able to survive high in the mountains with no electricity, nor real roads, drawing sustenance only from what the earth provides. It was refreshing to take myself away from my daily disturbances and really live in the moment.
Quetzaltrekkers not only offers an incredible and educational trek through some of the most beautiful places in Guatemala: they also aim to help the communities they trek through. One essential part of the trek is a Temazcal experience, a traditional Mayan sauna. What better way to unwind and relax your muscles! This is not a fancy resort-style Temazcal, but rather an authentic one that is traditional to the area and enjoyed by locals as well as tourists.
Shaped like a dome, the entrance is low to the ground making you crawl in on your knees. You often sit in the sauna with another person, taking in the intense heat and sweating. After you feel you’ve released all the toxins from your body, you mix together hot and cold water found in two tubs on the ground. You can then pour the mixture over you at the temperature you prefer.
You exit the Temazcal the same way you entered, on your knees. This practice stems from the belief that the dome represents the mother’s womb: when you enter you are seeking nourishment and cleansing. When you exit it is believed your mind, body and soul are prepared and ready for the universe!
A Magnificent Sunrise Over Lake Atitlan
Waking up feeling rejuvenated, I was ready to catch the sunrise over Lake Atitlan. What a magical sight: to welcome the day as sweet yellow rays danced on the lake peeking between three volcanoes.
What to do next in the area? I recommend the following: Once descending into San Pedro, one of the villages in Lake Atitlan, take the time to explore local art and galleries, wander through organic coffee farms and perhaps some vibrant local nightlife.
From Lake Atitlan to Antigua
Taking the so-called “Chicken bus” from Lake Atitlan to Antigua is accessible. The Chicken bus runs directly from Panajachel to Antigua for about 35Q or $5 USD. While this choice is the cheapest, it’s not for everyone. it takes several more hours than a private option such as a taxi. Also, buses run at very specific and limited times, typically early in the morning. Many travelers have also reported the Chicken bus to be a bit less reliable than they would have expected. Still, if you’re looking for a colorful and locally authentic way to get around, this is certainly an experience to have at least once!
If you miss the direct bus then you will have to take 3 separate buses. To make life easier don’t miss the direct bus, or book a shuttle bus. If you are seeking a more direct and less crowded ride many travel agencies provide shuttle transportation from Lake Atitlan to Antigua. A shuttle will pick you up directly at your location and drop you at your destination in Antigua or if preferred the main square. This option currently costs about 75Q or $12USD.
For more practical information on getting around Guatemala by bus, as well as other useful options, see this page at Lonely Planet.
My Recommendations for Eating Out in Antigua
Antigua is a bustling city tucked away in the central highlands looking out to several volcanoes. Not only does this city offer an example of well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture, overlooking the most active volcano in Central America. It is also becoming a popular place for foodies to explore and expand their taste buds. Living in Antigua for several months, I found myself walking familiar paths leading me to my favorite restaurants.
Near the city center is my favorite place, Luna de Miel. if you are craving something sweet or savory this place has what you’re looking for! The options available are overwhelming and at night the line for to-go crepes can reach the end of the block on a weekend. I’d recommend going in the evening and sitting on the terrace upstairs. Their cozy, open air terrace is not only welcoming but the perfect place to rest after exploring the city. The portions are large, easily shared between two or three people.
Caoba Farm was my favorite place to go on Thursday evenings to grab a bite to eat and listen to live music. Tucked away on the outskirts of the city, it’s become an essential spot in the local culinary scene. This local farm uses all of their locally grown produce to create an extravagant and original menu. They have options for all, including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diners! This is something that’s a bit difficult to find in Central America.
Read related: The 11 Best Food Markets in the World
Not only can you find peace in a quiet corner, enjoying a slice of pizza from their brick oven: you can also sign up for one of their yoga classes. If you are looking to educate yourself a bit more about the agriculture in the area, sign up for a workshop on the topic– or even volunteering on a weekend if you want to really roll up your sleeves and get to work. Volunteers help maintain their lush farm, assist in the farmers market and everything in-between.
Caoba Farm is roughly a 20-minute walk from the city center, or you can take a free shuttle leaving from the city center underneath the yellow arch. Either way, this farm is a must see!
About the Author
Ashlie McGrath is a travel writer and photographer for The Loftus Guides. When she’s not creating new features for us, she’s teaching English as a second language throughout Europe. Ashlie often writes about experiences as a solo traveler and hopes to give more insight about other cultures. She has visited over 20 countries and has lived in five. Ashlie loves to be secluded in nature as well embraced by different cosmopolitan areas. She enjoys writing poetry, drinking red wine, listening to live music and laughing.