This little gem of a country had been on my to-do radar since I visited Peru back in 2015. I became interested in ancient civilisations ever since the cartoon The Mysterious Cities of Gold was aired on TV back in the early 1980s. While doing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu I got chatting to others in the group about top destinations for ancient civilisation junkies, like myself. Tikal came up in the conversation, and so the seed was planted. Read on to find out how to see all the best bits in just two weeks in Guatemala.
Read on to see how to hit the major highlights in just two weeks in Guatemala.
Once a major hub in the Mayan empire, situated smack-bam in the middle of Central America you’ll find Guatemala. You could spend months or years in Guatemala exploring everything it has to offer. However with a considerably shorter time scale than that, I have to cram the main highlights into a two-week jaunt – a tough job with a country with SO MUCH to offer!
Thankfully, Guatemala is a relatively easy country to get around with the majority of the top tourist attractions being well connected. The country has a decent network of top-class fast tourist shuttles right down to the meandering and brightly coloured chicken buses. There is something to suit every budget and timescale.
I was fully aware that just two weeks in Guatemala, trying to cover a whole country is really pushing it, so I opted to use the shuttles. Although considerably more expensive than the local chicken bus, the pay off in time saved was well worth it. Even so, this is by no means a relaxing trip if you are planning on cramming THIS MUCH into two weeks.
My route took me from South to North - shuffle the itinerary around if you enter Guatemala via a different route.
I’ve suggested an ideal time to spend in each area to allow enough time to see the highlights of that region. A great tip for maximising cramming time was that I tried to do my travelling very early in the day so I’d still have an afternoon in a place to do a bit of exploring. If you have more time than two weeks in Guatemala you could certainly double the time spent in each destination and still find plenty to do.
My point of entry to the country was Guatemala City. I didn’t have any particular reason to stay here apart from arriving late in the evening. At nearly 10 pm and nearly 14 hours in transit I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy at the prospect of taking a bus out of the city at that hour, so I stayed one night here before moving on.
Most people do head straight across to nearby Antigua which lies about 40kms (approx. 25mies) to the west of Guatemala City. There are several ways to get from Guatemala City and Antigua but typically a fast shuttle takes about 90 minutes door to door. If you arrive at a social hour then I’d certainly recommend this and skip Guatemala City altogether.
A couple of hours here the following morning for me was plenty to explore the vicinity. Guatemala City, from my experience was OK although nothing major to rave about – I stayed in Zone 1 near to the Palacio Nacional De La Cultura de Guatemala – the ‘Avocado Palace’ that the staff at my hostel affectionately called it – yes, it is a muggy green colour!
The area felt safe enough, although the distinct lack of tourists or any typical tourist facilities (cafes, shops, vendors) goes to show that not many travellers stick around here for long.
If Disney Land ‘made’ Guatemala then this is what it would look like! Antigua feels like a totally different World to Guatemala City – it’s vibrant (check out its infamous yellow arch, El Arco de Santa Catalina with Volcán de Agua as the backdrop) and bustling with tourists and locals alike; it’s clear to see why everyone flocks here when they arrive in Guatemala.
The UNESCO city of Antigua is nestled between several volcanoes, active ones at that! And being in an area of relatively high tectonic activity, at the bottom of a valley, the City has had more than its fair share of earthquakes and floods. For a while, during the Spanish reign, Antigua was the capital of the country (mid-1500 until the 1700s) hence the grandeur of some of the buildings, albeit lots of them are now ruins.
Hike a volcano!
With Antigua being close to so many volcanoes it would be just plain rude not to take a hike up one. The main two on offer are Acatenango which can be undertaken as either a full-on one day or a more ‘leisurely’ (it’s still tough!) overnight hike. If the weather is clear at the top then this hike is where you can see Fuego churning out red glowing lava in the distance.
Although tempted, I’m not fit enough to have kept up with the seasoned hikers for the one-day hike and the prospect of camping in a tent in 1°C weather put me off the overnight one. It also didn’t help that I had no proper hiking gear and I don’t think tennis shoes and a pair of joggers would have cut it! BUT everyone I met who had done this hike all said pretty much the same, it’s cold, it’s exhausting but it was awesome! So, if that’s your cup of tea then go for it!
I opted for what I refer to as the ‘fun’ volcano hike (the one where you get to toast marshmallows at the top – all the tour operators know this one). This is up Pacaya. This hike can be done in a half day; morning or evening. I opted for the evening hike to catch the sunset. A real mix of people were on this hike, mostly because it’s the more accessible of the two and certainly catered for the unseasoned walker.
If you don’t want to do the slog up Pacaya then there are boys with horses to rent which will take you up to the top and back down again for a small fee (it was about 100Q – about £10 each way, at the time of visiting). At the top you’ll get to the lava field and have a very rugged yet short walk across what looked like the surface of the moon. Down a little crevasse and away from the wind, holes have been dug into the volcano to reveal nice hot stones – we were passed a lump of cooled lava to hold – natures hot water bottles!
Check out sun-set views.
You then get given a marshmallow and a stick, then the waiting starts, you sit there with your stick in the hole, and wait and wait some more for the marshmallow to toast. In all honesty, it’s not quite warm enough to toast said marshmallow, to say it got marginally tepid would be a generous overstatement. In fairness, the whole marshmallow toasting thing is a bit of a gimmick BUT to feel the warm air rising up out of the gound, especially after a chilly windy hike up is certainly welcomed.
If the weather is good and you can see to the top of Volcan Pacaya, you’ll see lumps of rock being spewed out. Yes! This volcano is still very active, but you’re at a safe distance as you don’t actually go up to the very top.
Then commences the walk down. Be prepared to get dirty! There is grit and ash to contend with, lots of it. You’ll find it in your eyes, nose, mouth, hair, shoes and any other orifice that it finds its way into! After the second time of emptying my shoes, only to have them full up again within seconds, I gave up trying to combat the grit and just settled for an uncomfortable walk down. The sunset views made up for the discomfort the soles of my feel were feeling.
Do a City walk to see the ruins!
It would be an absolute sin to visit Antigua and not do a City walk – I used a suggested walk in my Lonely Planet guidebook which was more than ample to see loads of the ruins and landmarks. Antigua is a small city laid out on an easy-to-navigate grid system.
A short walk out of the city you will find Cerro de le Cruz. This short walk up a hill and gives a stunning panoramic view of the pretty low-lying city with the volcanos as a backdrop. The walk is frequented by locals and tourists and patrolled by police during the day.
If you’re a bit of a ruin junkie like me then Antigua is home to some stunning specimens. Tumbla de Don Pedro de Alvarado and Convento de Santa Clara were two of my favourites and for the cost of a coffee is a must-do if you have the time.
Are you a ruin junkie like me? Or don’t have time to read the full two weeks in Guatamala post? Take a look at my album 43 Photos To Inspire You To Travel To Guatemala and see some more stunning buldings like the one below!.
Along with a multitude of local craft stalls (you’ll find these dotted near lots of the bigger ruins and tourist hotspots) high end restaurants (not my thing), international chains like Burger King (most definitely not my thing!) tasty cafes, hipster eateries and artisan shops (selling boots, jewellery, woollen items, etc) as well as being a decent transport hub you can see why Antigua is so popular.
Lake Atitlán, a lake in a volcanic crater in the highlands of southwest Guatemala. The lake is surrounded by steep mountains which leads to a very scenic descent into the crater. Dotted with towns on the shores, each town with its own very distinctive feel, it’s one of the prettiest places I visited during my two weeks in Guatemala.
Due to my time restraint I based myself in one of the busier hubs: Panajachel (aka Pana). Not quite as distinct as some of the other towns, but what it did offer was the best connections to surrounding areas I wanted to see; the other towns around the lake (via speedboat) and the markets (via shuttle bus).
Top time-saving tip
If you plan to transfer to Lake Atitlán from Antigua then try and go on either a Sunday or a Thursday to kill two birds with one stone. Get the shuttle transfer that goes via Chichicastenango; make sure you go with a company that will hold your luggage -you WILL NOT want to carry big backpacks around with you! This transfer gives you a good few hours at the market which is ample time to pick up souvenirs without having to spend a whole day to do the excursion out here from either Pana or Antigua.
Visit the towns around Panajachel.
Like with Antigua there is A LOT to do around Lake Atitlán and it would be easy to spend longer here. Two of the main towns surrounding the lake which are worth a visit, and if you have longer then certainly woth an overnight stay, are San Pedro and San Marcos.
Essentially to sum them up if you are looking for a vibrant nightlife then head to San Pedro where the revellers chill by day on the shoreline sun terraces and party by night. If you prefer the chilled new age hippy vibe, then San Marcos will be your calling where the narrow street is full of holistic therapy centres, yoga retreats and vegan/ raw food places.
Outside the bustle of Pana and a short walk out of town and up the steep hill there is a nice little Nature Reserve. Complete with private beach, jungle walk, a mob of spider monkeys, butterfly house and zip-lining it made for a chilled afternoon. Just watch out for no-see-ums, those horrid little biting flies – unless you fancy being on the menu for the nasty critters, cover up. ‘Becki’ was certainly top of the menu that afternoon as my legs were covered in bites.
Pick up souvineers at the markets of Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango is a town situated in the highlands north of Pana. Twice a week, on a Thursday and Sunday, it holds a huge craft market full of colourful textiles, wooden carvings, traditional clothing, leather products, a multitude of food vendors selling a mixture of sweet and savoury goods as well as your obligatory general tourist tat. If you’re looking for souvenirs this is the place to go. Even if you don’t buy anything it’s great to immerse yourself in the bustle of the whole affair.
Busy, disorientating, and at times claustrophobic with a bombardment of sights, sounds and smells from all directions is how you’d descibe Chichicastenango. If you do choose to buy something remember it’s almost a sport to haggle! Akin with any market around the world, haggling is part of the fun and experience of it. (Just remember to be realistic, something trivial to us such as saving an extra pound could mean the difference between their family eating a decent meal or not that night).
Because I was coming back through Antigua and I loved it so much I decided to stop here for another day to explore some more of the ruins I’d only skimmed past on my previous visit. This allowed for some less rushed photo opportunities. Also coming back through Antigua at the weekend allowed me to see it in a different light. The already bustling streets come to life even more with the locals and their families out enjoying the weekend. Roads get cordoned off and it’s a hive of activity with even more market stalls, musicians and street artists!
Despite leaving early next morning on a direct shuttle, getting to Lanquín is no walk in the park. Perhaps it was the day of the week (Monday), the roadworks or the muddy roads, I don’t know, but 10 hours on a shuttle bus wasn’t exactly how I’d planned to spend one day of my trip. The payoff is that the latter half of the journey is visually stunning with windy roads meandering their way through valleys and jungle. Physically though it’s exhausting and with 10hours on a shuttle bus with mediocre suspension and a rock-solid seat means there’s no chance of catching 40 winks here.
Lanquín lies 275km (approx. 170miles) northeast of Guatemala City but you’ll realise that Lanquín REALLY is in the middle of nowhere! So why bother to take this slog of a journey to get here? It’s certainly not for the town. As charming and as local feeling as Lanquín is, there isn’t much here and in all honesty, it’s a bit of a dive BUT Lanquín does happen to be the hub of everything Semuc Champey related.
Embrace the jungle activites on offer; hiking, swimming in pools, caving and tubing.
Despite it being in the middle of nowhere, Lanquín has a ton of places to stay. Just remember that outside of your ‘resort’ (I’m using that word in its loosest sense) it’s tricky to get the creature comforts that were in abundance in Antigua. Even heading back into the town you won’t yield much more than chicken, rice and a bottle of Gallo (local Guatemalan beer).
Semuc Champey is about 10km (just over 6miles) from Lanquín, accessible only by 4×4 along a very bumpy road through jungle and farmland. It can be done independently, as a half day or full day trip. If you have the time and all you want to see is the river/waterfalls then go independently; this is the cheapest option, it’s also fairly straightforward. You just need to arrange your transport to get the 4×4 to Semuc Champey yourself which can be arranged in town.
The half-day option gives you the transfer and a ‘guide’ for Semuc Champey. Although in all honesty when you are in the park you don’t actually need a guide. There is one path that loops around, so you’d be hard pushed to get lost here. The trip I chose was the whole day option because I wanted to cram in extra activities while in the area – the caving/canyoning and tubing in the afternoon.
Semuc Champey is naturally formed limestone bridge which passes over the Cahabón River. It’s about 300m long. It was so big that it was difficult to imagine the pools had a river flowing underneath them and I’d forgotten that it was a natural bridge until I saw the river flowing out from below the falls/pools. It’s really quite impressive!
The pools are lovely to swim in so don’t forget to take your swimwear, you’d kick yourself if you couldn’t go in.
Top Smug-Face Tip
Do the walk up to the viewpoint first, it’s a steep climb up ladders and steps and because of the humidity you get quite hot, sweaty and muddy. The view looking down is outstanding and well worth the hard work. Saving the pools ’til last are a welcome treat after the climb!
Try to spot the local wild-life.
So I arrived in Rio Dulce right in the middle of a rainstorm, a rainstorm that refused to do-one and sod off from the region for days. Initially I’d scheduled just 2 days to see some of the highlights here. Thanks to the weather and EVERYTHING in Rio Dulce being water based I didn’t have many options but to ride it out by setting up residence in the hostel bar area with copious amounts of tea and coffee until there was a gap in the bad weather.
There was a small break in the rain on the morning of day 3. My initial idea of doing some bird and wildlife watching was poo-pooed as the once clear mangrove water now resembled chocolate sauce. After getting an increasing case of cabin fever and being anxious to get out and see anything but the bottom of a coffee mug I ventured with another equally agitated guest to the mainland to see the Calliente (Hot) Waterfall.
So after the little speed boat back to mainland, flagging down a local bus for a very crowded 40minute journey with 15 adults sqeezed into a van with seating for 9, we found the waterfall. Due to the rain, the waterfalls were surging and basically out of bounds due to the torrent coming down.
Henceforth item number two from my Rio Dulce list I was unable to do. Roll on the next item on my agenda. I was keen to visit the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara – the castle is 3km out of town – in the opposite direction which we had just come. So back on the local bus for another cozy journey to the nearest drop off point we could find and then to start our 3km walk out of town. Within 10 minutes then the heavens opened again with the same gigantic drops of rain so I hasten to add that we never made it to the Castillo! 3 out of 3 fails; bloody weather!
Get lost in the Caribbean vibes in Livingstone.
Still adamant to do something in the area I woke up the next day to no rain and seizing the chance I took the ‘ferry’ boat down to Livingstone. The boat is set up for tourists and stops or slows down at lots of points of interest along the way; hot springs, water lilies, a bird colony on the route down to Livingstone. If I had more time AND the weather was playing ball then it’s certainly worthwhile stopping off here for a night or so. It’s got a real Caribbean feel to the place. Livingstone is mostly inhabited by the Garifuna, who are Guatemalans but of Caribbean descent.
The Siete Altares is an easy addition to your trip to Livingstone and a great little spot in the jungle with fresh-water cascades and pools, perfect to bathing in. (Thankfully the water wasn’t chocolate brown like every other thing I’d seen in this region!) There are two ways to get to Siete Altares – by boat or by foot – the boat is easier; we walked.
That being said, Siete Altares is straightforward to get to by foot, just be prepared for a long walk. To get there by foot, catch a local tuk-tuk from Livingstone town to the swing bridge (there is only one swing bridge) the locals will all know it. Then cross over and walk, walk and walk some more; it takes about an hour. I guarantee it’s worth it! Just remember if you are doing this as a day trip and have to catch the ferry back up the river, to allow enough time to get back to the docks in Livingstone town in time.
I arrived in Flores not only in the dark but also in another rainstorm – probably the same one that had plagued my time in Rio Dulce. Ever the optimist, I was hopeful that the next day would bring me better luck. So with an early start to make the most out of the promised break in the weather and with camera and selfie-stick in hand I went out to explore the pretty, colourful little streets of Flores.
There is plenty to do round Flores, again like with Rio Dulce, lots of it is water based. I’d planned on catching a boat over to the mainland to do a walk up to a popular viewpoint to take some panoramic shots of the island from there. However, my break in the weather was closing in around Flores, which put pay to this. Yet another coffee filled afternoon waiting for the weather to pass.
Another option that I most likely would have done hadn’t it been rained off was to hire a kayak. I settled to pass my time by sampling the local nosh. As was the case in Antigua there is an abundance of amazing restaurants and cafes in addition to rooftop bars and eateries with the all elusive sun-set view. Had the weather been anything but wet I would have found plenty to do here for a good few days, apart from eating!
Like I stated at the very beginning of this post, Tikal was the reason why Guatemala ended up on my Bucket List of countries to visit. I rounded up my two weeks in Guatemala by saving the best til last!
Tikal is a short distance from Flores; 70km (approx. 44miles) so there are two options for accommodation. Either stay near to the archaeological site of Tikal in one of the mediocre hotels (which isn’t really necessary) or stay in Flores and get a transfer (there are tons of transfer options available – in my opinion, this is the better option of the two).
One thing you’ll notice in Flores is that there are A LOT of different tour options available for visiting Tikal. There was 150quetzal (about £15) difference between cheapest and most expensive tour, so it’s important to shop around to get the best deal.
Top Beat-the-Crowd Tip
Get there as early as possible. I didn’t bother with the sunrise tour, the tour reps had said that due to the weather at the time, the sunrises were muted and not really worth the 3.30am pick up, so I opted for the Bird Tour which gave me a heavenly extra hour in bed with a (leisurely) 4.30 pick up! but still making it to the park before the crowds.
Yes, it’s early but we were at the park gates as soon as they opened at 6.00am and very close to being first in. There’s nothing more satisfying than being in a top tourist destination and having it pretty much to yourself. As a reward for your insanely eary start at such a crazy hour, you’re able to climb the temples and take photos without the World and his dog in them.
This tour I chose is called the Bird Tour as (apparenly) there is more chance of wildlife, including said birds, spotting early in the morning. However, we didn’t see much, just a few small birds and some sort of ground scratching chicken-like bird. We did get to hear the Howler Monkeys waking up the jungle from somewhere in the distance.
Although the sun will have risen by the time you get to Temple IV (which is the one that you get the best view of the sunrise from), the sun was still quite low in the sky and the mist is still over the jungle. It still makes for some stunning panoramic shots.
Tikal is an enormous site so you will spend a lot of time walking from temple to temple. Now, I’m ususally one to opt out of sticking with a guide as I find it’s too much talking and not enough photo/exploring time. However, for Tikal, I highly recommend going with a tour guide for the simple reason that they will show you the most efficient way to get around the site.
Check out the 'Star Wars set'
Another bonus of having such an early start, our tour was done and dusted by 10.30am! Getting us to the Grand Plaza and the famous Temple of the Jaguar (Temple I), well before the masses. After the tour we were given the options of either getting the next shuttle bus back to Flores, or staying in the park and to go around on your own.
Naturally, I opted to stay and to relive it all again at my own pace. I thought I had remembered the route we took and set about re-tracing our steps to go back and explore the temples in more depth. Within 10 minutes I was lost! The jungle paths really do look the same and the signage is minimal; although disorientating, it’s not the worst place in the world to be lost in anyway.
I will write a full in-depth review of Tikal in a separate post; but essentially it was awesome! It finished off my two weeks in Guatemala perfectly. Having done my fair share of ancient temples all over the World, I would rank this amongst one of the better ones. Certainly put this as a MUST DO in Guatemala.
Two weeks are up, so then where??
Flores is well connected to both Guatemala City and Antigua so at the end of your two-week jaunt it’s easy to get back. My next port of call was over to neighbouring Belize via bus to embark on a whole new adventure. But that’s for another story.
Naturally, you could spend months, even years in Guatemala so this two-week itinerary really only does scratch the surface. It is a certainly a country I’d like to come back to and spend a more leisurely amount of time in. Think of this two-week jaunt as a bit of a teaser – a little taste that leaves you wanting more.
Are you planning a trip to Guatemala? What are you most excited about seeing? Or have you already visited Guatemala? Is there anything I’ve missed off? I’d love to hear from you so feel free to comment below.
Thanks for reading,