Guatemala is one of Latin American's best destinations for backpackers, hands-down. Prices are often startlingly cheap, getting around is relatively easy -- if you don't mind a few bumps in the road -- and the country's beauty is unsurpassed. Truly, some of the most gorgeous landscapes I've ever beheld have been in Guatemala. Though crime is still an issue in a number of areas, especially Guatemala City, problems are unlikely for Guatemala backpackers who travel smart. Here's a selection of the very best destinations for backpacking in Guatemala.
1. Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan – Lago de Atitlan in Spanish – isn't just a backpacker paradise, it's paradise, period. Imagine a brilliant blue lake surrounded by lush vegetation, three massive volcanoes, and twelve Mayan villages, each entirely unique. Most popular and easiest to get to is Panajachel, but San Pedro La Laguna attracts more of a backpacker crowd. Santiago Atitlan and tiny Santa Cruz are also fantastic. View photos of Lake Atitlan.
Antigua Guatemala (ancient Guatemala) is undeniably the most popular backpacker destination in Guatemala, if not all of Central America. Just a couple hours from Guatemala City, the Spanish colonial town is a bouquet of Easter-colored buildings, colonial relics and cobblestone streets, with misty blue volcanoes looming in the distance. There are also tons of hostels, cafes, Spanish schools, and backpacker haunts of every variety. A couple days spent in Antigua has a way of turning into a month.
3. Tikal and Flores
Located in northern Guatemala's El Peten region, Tikal is one of the largest and best preserved ancient Mayan sites in all of Latin America, a must-visit for Guatemala backpackers. The tiny colonial town of Flores, set on an island in Lake Peten Itza, is a great jumping-off point for getting there. Backpackers will find a number of budget accommodations and cheap eats in Flores, or the mainland town of Santa Elena. There are also several basic guesthouses in the Tikal park itself, optimal if you hope to greet the sunrise from the ruins. (Totally worth it. Trust me.) View photos of Flores and Tikal.
4. Quetzaltenango (Xela)
Quetzaltenango, or "Xela" for short, is a perfect spot for Guatemala backpackers and Spanish students who seek natural beauty and like-minded travelers, but wish to avoid more crowded spots like Antigua and Panajachel. While while the town of Xela itself is picturesque, the landscape around Xela is even more stunning to explore. The most adventurous backpackers can opt for a trek up nearby Volcán Tajumulco, the highest point in Central America.
5. Rio Dulce
Rio Dulce is the name of a sleepy, backpacker-friendly town as well as a river. The town is set on the banks of Lake Izabal, which feeds the river. One of the best journeys I've ever taken in Central America was a boat ride through the rainforest from Rio Dulce to Livingston and the Caribbean (see below). A bit off the beaten path, but absolutely worthwhile.
Livingston is hands-down one of the most unique towns in Guatemala, and worth the extra travel time to get there. Set on the banks of the Caribbean with no road in – only waterways – the rainforest village is a cultural melting pot. Most notable are the Garifuna, descendants of West Africans and Amerindians. Livingston is also a great spot if you're heading for Belize; boats leave the village for Punta Gorda a few times a week. Several backpacker hostels make their home in Livingston, and the hiking is phenomenal. Remember, this is the rainforest – the insects can be quite colossal!
I've been to many marketplaces in Central America, and Chichicastenango (called "Chichi for short" beats them all. It's packed, it's chaotic, it's colorful, and on Thursdays and Sunday market days, it's the best place to buy Guatemalan souvenirs (or anything, really) in the entire country. There are a few budget places for backpackers to stay, though most take a day trip from Antigua or one of the Lake Atitlan villages.
Located in central Guatemala, Cobán is a mediumish city primarily populated by Q'eqchi Mayans. Because Cobán is located near several Guatemala National Parks – famously lush with orchids, and among the few places travelers might catch a glimpse of the elusive quetzal – the city has become one of Guatemala's top ecotourism destinations in recent years.
9. The Pacific Coast
Guatemala isn't famous for its beaches, but there are several notable Guatemala beaches on the country's Pacific coast, such as Monterrico and Iztapa. You'll see many more Guatemalan tourists than foreign tourists on these beaches, but for backpackers, it's part of their charm.