Things to know before travelling to Guatemala

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 16.05.2024

Thinking of going to Guatemala? Lucky you! A magical world of ancient ruins, vibrant cultures, breath-taking natural landscapes and adventure awaits. To make the most of your trip, read on for handy things to know before visiting Guatemala. You might also want to browse our customisable Guatemala itineraries.

1. Climb at least one volcano

Guatemala is speckled with majestic volcanoes, and climbing (at least) one of them during your visit comes hugely recommended. 

Take Volcán Acatenango, for example. Standing next to its active twin, Volcán de Fuego, this is one of Guatemala’s highest volcanoes and offers a challenging, rewarding experience.

The hike is best tackled over two days, with an overnight stay at a campsite near the summit enabling you to rest up and see Fuego's volcanic activity under the stars. 

The ascent takes approximately 5-6 hours, while the descent will take about 3-4 hours.

Alternatively, head to Pacaya. One of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes, this is also one of the country's most accessible hikes. 

Much less demanding than Acatenango, the hike up Pacaya can be done in around 1.5 to 2 hours each way. As you near the summit, the landscape shifts to volcanic ash and rock. As a bonus, the volcano frequently displays lava flows.

Editor’s tips: read our guide to climbing Acatenango and, whichever volcano you choose, be sure to go with an experienced guide.

Sunset view of Fuego volcano & Acatenango volcano © Shutterstock

Things to know before travelling to Guatemala  — consider climbing Acatenango volcano © Shutterstock

2. Visit in the Nov-April dry season

To max out your experience in Guatemala, we advise that you visit during the November-April dry season. 

These months offer the best weather for exploring the outdoors with minimal rainfall, making it ideal for hiking, city tours, and visiting ruins alike.

In contrast, the May to October rainy season makes outdoor activities a lot more challenging, and the weather is much more unpredictable. 

Wondering when to travel? Read up on the best time to visit Guatemala.

3. Pack wisely

No matter when you decide to visit Guatemala, layering is key, especially if you plan to travel around the country.

The climate can vary dramatically from hot and humid in the lowlands, to cool in the highlands. 

As a general rule, light rain gear, a sun hat, and a sturdy pair of walking shoes are essential whenever and wherever you visit. 

Not sure how long to visit? Read our breakdown of how many days are best to spend in Guatemala and check out our Guatemala itineraries for 10 days, a week and five days.

city-antigua-agua-volcano-guatemala-shutterstock_611201786

Antigua, Guatemala © Shutterstock

4. Antigua is great for day trips

From hiking volcanoes and visiting coffee farms, to exploring nearby villages, the charming colonial town of Antigua serves as a perfect base for memorable excursions. 

First up, in around 1.5 hours, you can reach the base of Pacaya Volcano from Antigua. Or, to meld magnificent landscapes, and scenic boat trips with Mayan cultural experiences, you’ll want to take a trip to Lake Atitlán.

Approximately 2.5 hours from Antigua, it’s oft-described as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Surrounded by lush mountains, each village around the lake has its own unique character and culture, with Panajachel the main gateway to the lake and boat tours.

Editor’s tip: while we rate Antigua, you might want to read up on reasons to stay a while in Guatemala City before you race off. 

Panajachel Town and Atitlan lake with Mountains, Guatemala © Dan Baciu/Shutterstock

Panajachel and Atitlan lake, Guatemala © Dan Baciu/Shutterstock

5. Bring your hiking shoes

It’s fair to say hiking is one of the main reasons many folks head to Guatemala. With trails encompassing everything from cloud forests to volcanic peaks, it really is a hiker’s paradise, with routes for every fitness level.

For example, alongside considering the volcano hikes mentioned above, you could look to tackle the 'La Nariz del Indio' (Indian Nose Hike) that's celebrated for offering awe-inspiring sunrise views over Lake Atitlán and the surrounding volcanoes. 

It’s moderately challenging hike, which typically takes around 30 minutes to 1 hour from the nearest village.

It’s also worth knowing that the jungle trails in Tikal National Park are well worth devoting time to. 

The paths are generally flat — though they can be slippery in the rainy season — and cover everything from short walks between major temple complexes, to extensive trails that'll have you exploring ruins and jungles for several hours.

Tikal National Park, Guatemala © WitR/Shutterstock

Tikal National Park, Guatemala © WitR/Shutterstock

6. The chicken bus is the way to go

Often adorned with religious and pop culture imagery, Guatemala’s iconic “chicken buses” offer visitors a quintessential Guatemalan experience.

Significantly cheaper than tourist shuttles or private transportation, they’re also an affordable way to get from A to B, with routes covering most destinations. In short, if there’s a road, there's likely to be a chicken bus route riding along it. 

While not always the most comfortable mode of transport, chicken buses are known for their speed, which means less waiting time in comparison with other public transport options.

Read up on getting around Guatemala.

Chicken bus, Guatemala

Chicken buses in Guatemala © Shutterstock

7. Learn some Spanish

If you’re planning to take our advice and use chicken buses to get around, we also recommend arming yourself with some Spanish.

Routes and stops aren’t always clearly marked, and most conductors and drivers only speak Spanish. 

Speaking Spanish will also come in handy in more rural areas. While you’re likely to meet English speakers in tourist hotspots — especially among younger people — knowing some basics when travelling off the beaten track will greatly enhance your experience.

In most cases, a little lingo goes a long way, so even just having a phrasebook will come in handy.

semuc-champey-guatemala-shutterstock_1016944120

Semuc Champey, Guatemala © Shutterstock

8. Leave tap water for cleaning

To prevent stomach issues, don’t drink the tap water in Guatemala. In fact, don't even brush your teeth with it.

Instead, always opt for bottled water or bring water purification tablets for your journey.

9. Guatemala is safe, but use common sense

While Guatemala generally offers a safe experience — especially in areas frequented by tourists — it’s always a good idea to keep a few basic safety considerations in mind. 

First up, before you travel, familiarize yourself with the areas you plan to visit — some regions might be safer than others. Also stay abreast of travel advisories from your government’s foreign affairs department.

As always, be aware of your surroundings. Petty theft and pickpocketing does happen, especially in crowded areas like markets, bus stations, and tourist sites. It’s also not a good idea to have expensive watches on show, or to flash your cash. 

We also suggest checking your accommodation is in a safe area and has adequate security measures, such as safes for valuables.

Lastly, whenever possible, travel with others, particularly if you plan to explore rural areas or go hiking.

colorful antigua guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala © Shutterstock

10. Be health savvy

Before you go, check you’re up to date with typhoid, hepatitis A and B, rabies, and TDaP (tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough) shots.

It’s also worth bringing your own bug spray. While you can get hold of it in Guatemala, locally produced DEET-free repellents aren’t terribly effective, and mosquito-borne diseases are widespread in parts of Guatemala. 

11. Guatemala can be cheap

In good news if you need to travel for less, Guatemala can be cheap, especially if you travel during the shoulder seasons. These run from early May to mid-June, and from September to early November.

During these periods, you can take advantage of lower-priced accommodation, flights and tours. 

You’ll also save cash if you get around on a chicken bus, stay in hostels, guesthouses, or budget hotels, and eat street food or shop in local markets (mercados).

Also note that haggling is common in markets and with street vendors. So, don't be shy — try to bag yourself a bargain.

Guatemalan style enchiladas displayed to show their ingredients on a white plate © Shutterstock

Eat local to save cash and savour specialties © Shutterstock

12. Tikal is great, but Yaxha is magical

Thanks to its grand scale and historic significance, Tikal is the most famous, most-visited Mayan site for very good reason.

While we're not suggesting you strike Tikal from your schedule, for a more serene and — arguably — more mystical experience, consider heading to Yaxha.

Located between Tikal and Quiriguá, it’s beautifully sited on the banks of Lake Yaxha and, though smaller than Tikal, it boasts over 500 buildings in its core area. 

Less frequented by tourists, the site enables visitors to connect with cultural history and natural beauty in relative peace.

Editor’s tip: the sunset views from atop the main temples are to die for.

Things not to miss: Pyramid of Maler group at the archaeological site Yaxha,, Guatemala.

Pyramid of Maler, Yaxha, Guatemala © Shutterstock

Decided to visit Guatemala? To help plan your trip, get yourself The Rough Guide to Guatemala, and read up on the best things to do in Guatemala.

Not keen on planning? Contact our local experts to have them craft your customised Guatemala itinerary.

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 16.05.2024

Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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