Guatemala for first-timers

Guatemala for first timers

Guatemala for first timers. With its diverse indigenous culture, rich Maya heritage and colonial charm, Guatemala is indeed an intoxicating adventure for both the experienced and novice traveler.

That said, visiting for the first time can be a daunting experience. Embassy warnings, economic hardships and a bewildering range of things to see and do can be off-putting.

Should you be worried? No! Guatemala is a very accessible and welcoming country. With a bit of planning and the right smarts, you are in for an enchanting ride. Here’s Lonely Planet’s classic itinerary and insider tips for the perfect, hassle-free first-timer’s trip.

  1. Antigua Guatemala
  2. Lake Atitlan
  3. Chichicastenango Market
  4. Mayan City of Tikal
  5. Natural Monument of Semuc Champey
  6. Planning… Guatemala for First Timers
  7. Transportation in Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala

A gorgeous colonial masterpiece

Antigua Guatemala is a highlight for most travelers. The town has jaw-dropping streetscapes at every turn, an excellent selection of restaurants and a small but varied nightlife. It is also a great place to brush up on your Spanish in one of the towns myriad language schools.

Urban rooftops in the historic town of Antigua Guatemala. Explore Antigua Guatemala
Urban rooftops in the historic town of Antigua Guatemala.

Spanish schools in Antigua Guatemala are rated within the best of the world. It is possible to get the International DELE Certification by The Cervantes Institute of Spain in one of the Spanish Schools accredited in Antigua. 

Additionally you can use it as a base to hike the volcanoes that loom over the town. Colonial Antigua and the colorful chicken bus: classic Guatemala.

Guatemala for First Timers Tip: Antigua is a party town for Guatemala City dwellers on the weekends. Midweek is quieter, so plan your Guatemala trip according to what you are looking for.

Lake Atitlán

Lauded by everybody from Aldous Huxley (‘too much of a good thing’) to this writer’s mum (‘Why don’t you live here?’), the volcano-framed shimmering blue waters of  Lake Atitlan have been dazzling travelers for generations.

The lake is ringed by villages both quaint and bustling, with plenty of interesting options for Places to stay.  Locals and tourists alike get their kicks at Lake Atitlán. 

Surrounding mountains in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Mountain hikes Guatemala.
Panorama of Lake Atitlan with it’s volcanic highlands

Guatemala for First Timers Tip: It is tempting to stay a couple of nights here, the boat rides between villages are fast and cheap.  With this in mind, save on time and logistics by settling in one place and visiting other villages by boat on day trips.

 

Chichicastenango Market

A short hop up the road from Lake Atitlán you can visit Chichicastenango, famous for its Thursday and Sunday markets. Definitely a photographer’s dream, the markets are full of color and movement

Sunset over Santa Cruz La Laguna on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Indigenous villages
Sunset over Santa Cruz La Laguna on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, Central America

With household items, traditional weavings, tourist knick-knacks, medicinal herbs and religious artifacts all squeezed into the tiny stalls that take over the central plaza.

Another fascinating aspect of the town is the merging of religion that can be witnessed – here Maya religion and Catholicism blend seamlessly. The Santo Tomas Church is only really Catholic by name – Mayan priests use it for traditional rituals.  For this reason the 18 steps leading up to the church symbolize the number of months in the Maya calendar.  Market visitors catch up during the most colorful and popular market in the whole Central America. 

Guatemala for First Timers Tip: Avoid the whirlwind day trip on and stay in town the night before the market. Getting up early and watching vendors set up is almost as interesting as the market itself.

Mayan City of Tikal

One of Guatemala’s absolute must-sees. Tikal rates among the most impressive archaeological sites in the Maya world. Relatively easy to travel to, expansive in size and hugely atmospheric, the site rarely disappoints.  

Ah, Tikal: arguably Central America’s most impressive Maya ruins and a traveler must-see.

Guatemala for First Timers Tip: To get the most out of the site, consider staying at one of the hotels within the park and arranging a guide to go on a sunrise or sunset tour.

Natural Monument Semuc Champey

For places of natural beauty in Guatemala, it is hard to beat Semuc Champey.  A series of limestone pools connected by a cascading river and surrounded by jungle.  This is one of Guatemala’s best freshwater swimming spots

Additionally the range of caving and rafting opportunities in the surrounding area has earned it a solid place on the backpacker trail.  Thus the cascading pools of Semuc Champey are now firmly on the backpacker trail – what’s not to love?

Tip: Semuc Champey is in a remote location, but its popularity means you can get here by shuttle bus from nearly anywhere in the country. Do check your travel times, though – sitting in a cramped minibus for 12 hours is probably not your idea of the perfect trip.

Planning a trip to Guatemala

For a perfect itinerary, you could loop around from Guatemala City to Antigua, then Lake Atitlán and on to Semuc Champey, ending your trip with Tikal and then back to Guatemala City. Don’t fall into the first-timers’ trap of trying to squeeze too much into too little time.  Hence to do all those places justice and not end up completely frazzled. you will need about two weeks, but you could obviously stretch that out to months.

Amazing mountains landscape in Guatemala
Amazing mountains landscape in Guatemala

Guatemala for First Timers Tip: Budget at least two days in each destination, with a full day for travel for all but the shortest hops. It is better to end up with time on your hands than spend your entire trip looking out a bus window!

Transportation in Guatemala

Where possible, private transportation is preferable. First class and Pullman (greyhound-style) buses are just okay; cheaper ‘chicken buses’ go almost everywhere but are slower and are not considered safe to use at night.

Arriving to Guatemala City 

Undoubtedly arriving at Guatemala City’s Aurora international airport can be overwhelming. Relax – there’s a lot of bad stuff that’s been said about the capital in the past, but these days the city’s a lot more traveler-friendly. Nevertheless, you might want to leave off exploring it until the end of your trip, once you have your street smarts firmly in place.

Onward transport options from the airport abound, especially if you are heading for nearby Antigua. Shuttle (private minibus) operators congregate around the Arrivals exit, calling out ‘Antigua’. Hence if you’re traveling alone, a shuttle is the way to go, but if you’re in a group, a taxi is a better option. 

Guatemala for First Timers Tips:

  1. Even if you need some of the local currency ‘Quetzales’, don’t change cash in the unpredictable exchange booths in the airport. Go upstairs to departures and look for the 5B ATM hidden sneakily under the stairs.
  2. Hanging off the back of an open-sided truck might sound like fun, but buses are a safer means of transport in Guatemala.