Adoration 4 Adventure’s 12-day budget backpacking itinerary for Guatemala.
It is always difficult to plan out an itinerary for a country that you have never traveled to before. It can be hard to know which destinations to visit, how much time to spend in each place and most importantly, how much it is all going to cost.
I spent 12 days backpacking through Guatemala, with stops in Flores, Lanquin (Semuc Champey), Antigua and Lake Atitlan. This is an overview of where I stopped and what I did on my Guatemala trip, including a full budget breakdown below.
Day 1-2: Flores
Flores is located close to the border between Guatemala and Belize. It is an island connected to the mainland by one bridge. The island is small enough to walk around, very tourist friendly and has a slight “European feel”. Lakeside restaurants offer the specialty of fish and various happy hour deals. The best value for money though, is found on the street. At night, food carts line up against the western bank of the river with every imaginable Guatemalan food, both savory and sweet.
The big draw to Flores, is its proximity to the Mayan Ruins of Tikal. It is possible to take a tour from San Ignacio, Belize, however, I liked staying in Flores. The island is well worth exploring and it is nice not to feel rushed on your visit to Tikal.
Tikal is located 65km (40 miles) from Flores. You can arrange transport without a guide, however the shuttle or taxi will not be able to take you past the entrance of the National Park and it is a long walk from there to the ruins. Although I usually prefer exploring temples and ruins on my own, I decided to make an exception for the sake of convenience. It ended up being a good decision. The Parque Nacional Tikal is a labyrinth of pathways which make it quite easy to get lost. Overall the group tour (both in Spanish and English) was very educational and interesting.
The tours of Tikal run at set times with sunrise, morning, afternoon, and sunset. The sunrise and sunset tours do cost a little extra. My friends did the sunrise tour and said it was one of the most memorable experiences of their journey. I took the morning tour, leaving our hostel at 4:30am. This is a good time to go as you arrive after sunrise, but still in the early morning when it is not too hot to explore the ruins.
While walking around the Parque Nacional Tikal, keep a lookout for some of the local residents.
Day 3: Travel from Flores to Lanquin
I took an air-conditioned shuttle bus from Flores, leaving at 9:00 am (shuttle arrived at 8:00 am) and arriving in Lanquin at 6:30 pm. Through a local travel agency in Lanquin, I was able to secure a seat on the shuttle for 125 Quetzales. This included a 2-for-1 accommodation deal at the hostel that I was already staying at. So essentially I received a free nights accommodation.
Alternatively, you could try to take local transportation from Flores to Coban and then onto Lanquin if you are willing to do the trip over two days and spend a night (or more) in Coban. Day tours to Semuc Champey also run from Coban (approximately USD$65).
Day 4-5: Lanquin (Semuc Champey)
Semuc Champey National Park was one of my biggest highlights in Guatemala. There was just one problem – it was hell to get there. From Flores to Lanquin (the closest town to Semuc), it took a full day of travel in a cramped shuttle. The last couple of hours between Copan and Lanquin are all windy, bumpy roads.
When visiting Semuc Champey National Park, most travelers tend to stay at one of the riverside guest houses. The upside to this, is that they are close to the national park and very secluded. The downside is that there are no other options for food or drink and you have to dine where you are staying, which can be expensive. Also WiFi signal is borderline non-existent. I decided to stay in a hotel in Lanquin. This small town has enough cheap cafes and restaurant options to keep you happy for many days. I had some of my cheapest and best sit-down meals in all of Guatemala here.
From Lanquin, it is easy to get to Semuc Champey. Wander down one of the dusty streets and numerous cars will call out “Semuc Champey?” then proceed to negotiate a price. It should only cost 20 Quetzales per person, each way, up to the national park. The ride will involve standing up in the back of a ute (pick up truck), unless there is room and you prefer to sit upfront. Standing up is a really fun and scenic way to see the area, waving to the local kids as you pass.
Upon reaching the Semuc Champey National Park, make sure to ask the ticket office for the direction of “Mirador”. What follows is a steep and moderately strenuous climb, however, you will be rewarded with a stunning view of the falls.
After your vigorous workout, head back down to the falls and enjoy the rest of your day bathing in the cool waters and admiring the natural beauty all around you. The local drivers usually head back to Laquin between 3-3:30 pm, so make sure you get back to the entrance by then. If you still haven’t had enough of Semuc Champey, you could always go back again the next day.
Day 6: Travel from Lanquin to Antigua
Booking directly with the driver of our shuttle to Lanquin, I traveled by shuttle to Antigua for 100 Quetzales. The trip lasted over seven hours and the shuttle was air conditioned.
Day 7-9: Antigua
Antigua is a small, colonial city with cobbled-stone streets and buildings painted in different earthy colors. It is a popular destination for expats and travelers alike. With a large selection of Spanish Language schools, trendy bars and cafes, as well as a smattering of American fast food chains, it definitely caters to tourists. Despite this, the city still maintains its charm. Antigua is also well connected to most other major Guatemalan cities, making it a great base for your travels in Guatemala.
Budget-conscious travelers will appreciate the food carts outside the church “La Iglesia De La Merced”. During weekdays, the carts served sandwiches (giant subs), burritos, tostadas, and hotdogs. On the weekend, even more carts and options are available.
A great free activity to do in Antigua is to visit the “Hill of the Cross” (Cerro de la Cruz). An easy stroll up the hill provides a spectacular view over Antigua. There have been known robberies on this path, so please make sure that you leave your valuables behind and take very little (if any) money with you.
Antigua is close to four different volcanoes, including the active Pacaya. Tours to climb the volcano include transportation and a guide. The guide I had wasn’t especially informative, although it is recommended to have one due to safety reasons. The hike is a moderately steep incline with loose gravel, however, those who don’t feel physically up to it can go by horseback.
Due to the volcano’s activity, it is not possible to climb directly up the volcano, yet from the highest altitude of the tour, you will be able to see the volcano peak. The tour guides also bring along marshmallows so you can roast them over the hot volcanic rocks.
If you want to extend your trip into Honduras, consider visiting Copan Ruinas. It is very easy to travel via shuttle from Antigua. Read about my 2 day itinerary for Copan Ruinas, Honduras.
Day 10: Travel from Antigua to Lake Atitlan
I went by shuttle to San Pedro in Lake Atitlan at the lowest price I could find, which was 55 Quetzales. The shuttle arrived over 30 minutes late at my hostel and the journey took longer than the 3 hours that I was told. The shuttle did not have air conditioning and stopped to pick up local passengers along the way.
Alternatively, you could take a chicken bus for around 30 Quetzales each, which shouldn’t take that much longer than the shuttle. The chicken buses only leave in the morning so make sure that you confirm the details the day before.
Day 11-12: Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is a huge (130 kilometers / 50 miles square) lake in the highlands of Guatemala. The lake is surrounded by various towns, all seemingly with their own personalities. I stayed in San Pedro as I had heard it was one of the more cost-friendly areas. San Pedro has plenty of tour companies, restaurants and bars lined up along the windy alleys. Both local and Western-style restaurants offer a range of low-cost to mid-range meals. There are also a number of great drink deals around.
During your days, you can choose to do one of the many outdoor activities available including horse riding, kayaking, coffee tours, yoga, and hiking. Or just enjoy the splendor of the lake. It is hard not to feel peaceful while visiting Lake Atitlan.
Water taxis run from each town to the other, so you could choose to spend a day (or more) exploring each one. I actually walked from San Pedro to San Juan, then back. Alternatively, you could take a tuk-tuk. San Juan has a great selection of Mayan style souvenirs and clothing. I also took a water taxi across to San Marcos, an alternative and “hippie” town on the opposite bank. If the weather is right and the sky is clear, head to Panajachel for views of the entire lake.
Budget breakdown: Guatemala
All costs are quoted for two people and in the local currency (Guatemala Quetzales). See below for the average daily spend per person including currency conversion to USD and AUD. I always try to find and negotiate the best prices to share with my readers. If you know of a better deal, tell me about it in the comments below.
Accommodation: I searched on various hostel and hotel websites for the best deals. For more information, read my tips for finding travel accommodation on a budget.
- Flores – Private room and bathroom for 2 nights (Q280).
- Lanquin – 2 dorm beds in a shared 4-bed dorm room with connected bathroom. I paid for 2 nights and received the third for free as a deal with our transport (Q240).
- Antigua – Private room and shared bathroom for 4 nights. Included complimentary breakfast and free refills of filtered water (Q532.50).
- Lake Atitlan – 2 dorm beds in a shared 6-bed dorm room with connected bathroom for 3 nights. Included free refills of filtered water (Q378).
Food: I dined on a mixture of street food, local restaurants, convenience store snacks, and the occasional mid-range cost meal. The most delicious meals were often the cheapest and a sign of a good place will be crowded with locals. I also purchase bottled water, unless filtered refills were provided by the hostel/hotel (Q137.46 average per day on food and drink).
Activities: Transport and guide for Tikal (Q300), Tikal Entrance fee (Q300), Transport by local truck to and from Semuc Champey (Q80), Entrance fee to Semuc Champey (Q100), Transport and guide for Pacaya Volcano (Q100), Pacaya Volcano Entrance Fee (Q100), Water taxi to and from San Marcos (Q40).
Transport: Shuttle from Flores to Lanquin (Q250), Shuttle from Lanquin to Antigua (Q200), Shuttle from Antigua to San Pedro, Lake Atitlan (Q210).
Average daily spend: 200 Quetzales each* ($35.45 AUD / $25.61 USD as of 24 May 2016) excluding transport and border fees into and out of Guatemala.
*This daily amount could be reduced by taking local transport (see above for alternative methods), sticking more strictly to street food, or cooking your own meals.
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