Guatemala is one of the many places you can go on a budget. This is the trip I took in May 2016 and it’s the perfect itinerary if you want to see the best of everything in a short amount of time. Overall, I felt very safe while visiting Guatemala. I went with my best friend, but we met many solo female travelers—so adventure on single ladies! The whole trip cost me $1100 but it could have easily been $300 cheaper if I did not buy as many souvenirs and searched for a cheaper flight. Before leaving for a trip it’s a good idea to get the currency on hand so you don’t have to deal with the awful exchange rates in the airport and have money for transportation right off the bat.
The weather during most of your trip will be just right. Antigua and Lake Atitlan are warm in the day and cool at night. Lanquin…is a different story, but we’ll get to that later.
DAY 1: Antigua, Guatemala
Arrive in Guatemala City and get a taxi to Antigua. Guatemala City is regarded as dangerous, but you should have no issues getting a legit taxi right outside the airport. The ride is about 30 minutes and should cost you $25-40 depending on the amount of people with you and your haggling skills. Once you arrive in Antigua, give your taxi driver the address to where you will be staying. Three Monkey’s Hostel is an excellent choice if you’re looking for affordable, chill and a great location.
Wherever you decide to stay, be sure to book a shuttle to Lake Atitlan (Panajachel) for the next afternoon. Enjoy the rest of the day walking around Antigua. There are plenty of shops, spas and bars! Yes people, there are plenty of bars not only in Antigua, but all of Guatemala! If this isn’t enough of a reason to get on a plane and vacay then no reason is! Day 1 is for moseying around and relaxing. Don’t miss out on the nightlife! There are plenty of places to dance and eat delicious food on the cheap.
DAY 2: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
After having breakfast, head to the Antigua look out point. It’s a easy trek to the top and it gives an incredible view of Volcan de Agua and the whole town. One of the funniest memories from my trip happened on the walk to the lookout point with my friend, Jaymie. The night before I dropped my toothbrush on the nasty bathroom floor so naturally I was in need of a new one. We stopped in a little bakery for breakfast on the walk to the lookout and we were laughing hysterically as we recalled that I need to pick up a toothbrush. Sure enough as we walked out of the bakery a little Guatemalan man was standing outside selling TOOTHBRUSHES at 10am… like why?!
Anyways, after you’ve walked around town it should be time for the shuttle to pick you up for Lake Atitlan. The drive is about 2 and 1/2 hours and drops you off in Panajachel. Be prepared for bumpy roads and making friends on the bus. Once you arrive in Panajachel you will take the boat taxi across the lake to San Pedro. You will be completely stunned by the beauty of Lake Atitlan. Its magical blue waters and towering volcanoes will have your jaw dropping! San Pedro is a hilly little town right on the lake with awesome restaurants (specifically Indian food) and very interesting people. The best place to stay is Mikaso Hotel. It’s a little hard to find the first time so we took a tuk-tuk for the sake of convenience. Inquire about renting kayaks and a guide for hiking San Pedro Volcano at the front desk on arrival. Spend the rest of the night getting settled in and exploring the many bars and restaurants around town. We spent our first night in San Pedro at Bar Sublime. The power went out in the whole town so Bar Sublime lit up the place with candles. It set the mood for the evening to say the least 😉
Day 3: San Marcos, Guatemala
If you do even a minimal amount of research on Lake Atitlan you will realize there are different towns around the lake. We were fortunate enough to have a friend of a friend living right on the lake directly across from our hotel in San Marcos. San Marcos is worth a visit, even if you don’t have a friend to meet. It’s known as the “hippie town” on the lake. There are amazing yoga classes there and a high platform to jump off of into the lake! Personally, I feel the best way to get there is by kayak. Ask the front desk at Mikaso (or wherever you stay) where to rent a kayak and from there you will find your way. Assuming it’s not stormy or windy, the lake should be flat and perfect for a straight shot across to the dock at San Marcos.
Once you arrive in San Marcos, walk around town, take a yoga class (booking ahead would be wise) and check out Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve. The nature reserve is where you will find the lookout point/platform. It sticks out way over the lake so you can jump off, climb back up and do it 10 more times; but be prepared, it’s pretty high! Make sure to wear your bathing suit and bring cash for the nature reserve entrance fee. Get lunch in town and leave in time to kayak back to San Pedro before dark.
Day 4: San Pedro Volcano – Difficulty level = Challenging
When you arrived in San Pedro you should have booked a tour guide or asked directions to hike San Pedro Volcano. We did it with a guide which was very affordable and entertaining but definitely not necessary. Pack enough water and snacks and head to the park entrance at the crack of dawn to beat the heat. It’s 3000 meters to the top and takes approximately 3 hours if you go at a moderate pace. I am physically fit and this hike was doable, but not easy. You are basically climbing a steep staircase for 3 hours straight. I really want to be one of those gals that loves hiking, but I was miserable climbing this volcano and by many it’s not even considered hard. Nonetheless, I made it to the top and the view is absolutely breathtaking! It was very cloudy when I was there so I could not see clearly across the lake but it was still 100% worth it. If you love to hike, don’t miss this volcano! Once you make it down the volcano, use the rest of the day to explore other towns on the lake, complain about how much you hate hiking, shop, get a massage or just relax!
Day 5: Explore Lake Towns
It’s your last day at Lake Atitlan! On this day during my trip, we went back to San Marcos to spend time with friends. You should use the day to adventure to another town or take advantage of Lake Atitlan’s many activities. A girl we met went scuba diving in the lake to a hotel that is now underwater, so there is no shortage of incredible offerings! Make sure to stop at one of the many travel companies along the main road to book a bus to Lanquin for the following morning. Lanquin is 9-10 hours away so you want to get the earliest bus possible. Your bus should take you back to Antigua where you will then switch buses to head to Lanquin. DO NOT LOSE YOUR BUS TICKET! Even if the drive asks for it before changing buses be sure you have some form of ticket/proof you reserved a seat for your second bus. I highly recommend getting an air conditioned bus if you have the money to spare, you will be glad you did.
Day 6: Journey to Lanquin
You have a long drive ahead (but not nearly as long as the way back, trust me). Hopefully you have a solid book to read or music to listen to because you are going go be on a bus ALL DAY. Semuc Champey is totally worth it though, so fear not! Your journey is not in vain! Depending on the bus you take, you may have to get separate transportation or walk to your accommodation once in Lanquin. When you arrive, book a tour to Semuc Champey for the next day and make sure it includes caving!
A little bit about Lanquin – it’s in the middle of BFE. You will have to pay for wifi at most places you stay and there are mosquitos everywhere. Maybe you’re European and totally used to sleeping without A/C in super hot weather…OR maybe you’re normal and air conditioned dorms for a small additional fee will be the best thing that’s happened to you in Guatemala. I really try to be the easy going backpacker that can put up with anything but when it comes to sleeping in a hot and moist (I’m so sorry I just said that word) room, I’m OUT! If you choose to stay at El Retiro Lodge, take advantage of the beautiful river it sits on – my form was wading with a beer in hand in the crisp water. Tomorrow is going to be a packed day so eat, drink and swing in a hammock for the evening!
Day 7: Semuc Champey
Today you are going to Semuc Champey which will be one of the most unforgettable places you will visit in this life. Make sure to have an early breakfast and catch your scheduled tour in time as they usually leave early. Wear your bathing suit and pack a snack, waterproof camera and water shoes if you have them. Your tour will include
caving, tubing down the river, hiking to the lookout over Semuc Champey and hopping through all the crystal clear pools. I cannot stress enough that you have a waterproof camera as this place is magical!
The tour started out with the cave when we did it and I will say it was one of the coolest things I’ve done. Each person will get a candle and you have to hold it out of the water as you walk and swim your way to the back of the cave. Some people were a little freaked out in the beginning but the tour is nothing too extreme-just lots of cold water and climbing up and down rocks. Make sure you have them paint the warrior stripes on your face…it definitely enhances the experience. Once you exit the cave you will move on to one of the most breathtaking little lagoons you will ever see! This is one of those places you just want to sit still and soak it all in so you never forget! By this point in the day you will be having SO much fun you’ll forget you haven’t even made it to the main attraction.
Before going to the whole of Semuc Champey, you will have the option to hike to the lookout point with your group. The hike is very short but you are going straight up so it’s tiring. You can take amazing pictures once you reach the lookout point and you have chilly pools of ice blue water waiting for you at the end so just make yourself do the damn hike! Once you arrive at the long-awaited destination, get ready to swim, jump into pools and slide down natural water slides. There is a succession of pools leading down the river so you can jump from one to another until you reach the end!
Day 8: Journey Back To Antigua
Today you are spending the day riding back to Antigua. You should have booked your bus back upon arrival in Lanquin. Pray to baby Jesus you have an air conditioned bus and your drive back is smooth and quick. When we took the bus back it was packed like sardines with no A/C and we ended up stuck in traffic for 2-3 hours behind a truck full of cows headed to the slaughterhouse probably (the friend I traveled with is vegan so this was absolutely miserable yet hilarious at the time). However, it is just as likely you will arrive in Antigua without any delays and free of frustration.
Day 9: Volcano Pacaya And Last Night Out On The Town
Here you are at the end of the trip. You’ve seen so much and traveled so far and hiking a volcano is probably the last thing you feel like doing. I know it was definitely the last thing I felt like doing, but Volcano Pacaya is active and ended up being one of the COOLEST things I’ve ever done. It was super rainy and foggy during my hike, so the closest thing I can compare the sight to is something from space…it looks like another planet! This hike is super easy and a little bit terrifying; mainly because you are walking along the edge of slippery volcanic rocks and could just roll off the side. You will get to roast marshmallows over steaming holes in the volcano and visit a shop where you can buy awesome jewelry made of volcanic ash. The ground was so hot my shoes were melting on the bottom, so pay attention if you love your shoes (or don’t want burnt feet)!
Once you make it back to town plan how you will spend your evening before flying home tomorrow. My travel buddy and I opted for going out all night to clubs then getting stranded at an intense rave in an empty swimming pool outside of town…so really let your mind run wild on your last night in magical Guatemala.