Backpacking Guatemala: what you should know before heading there

If you are looking for a less commercial vacation destination with great hiking opportunities on active volcanoes, an everywhere live showcase of the remaining pieces of the Mayan culture, amazing nature and sightseeing places, then we strongly recommend you giving Guatemala a try.

For us this will stay as one of the most authentic traveling experiences so far and brought a few unforgettable “firsts” in our backpackers life, but I would be lying if I would say that we had no surprises coming here. For sure, there were things we learned the hard way and had missing information that would have helped us start this part of the journey with the right expectations, so this is why we hope you will find useful this short guide.

Volcan de Fuego erupting during the day, spotted from the Acatenango Volcano
Volcan de Fuego

Entry requirements (and the land border crossing experience from Mexico)

We entered Guatemala by land in August 2021, using the Ticabus service. If doing the same, just get ready for an interesting border crossing experience. Our journey started in the Mexican city of Tapachula, from where the bus ride takes around 30 minutes until the border. Here are the documents you will need:

  • if vaccinated against COVID: passport (Romanians do not need a visa), vaccination certificare in English/Spanish showing you have been baccinated with the 2nd dose at least 14 days before arrival
  • if NOT vaccinated against COVID: passport, PCR/Antigen negative test taken with maximum 72 hours prior to the arrival or a health certificate proving you have recovered from the disease

Contrary to some information we found online, you will NOT need the proof of an onward plane/bus ticket, nor confirmation of acommodation.

We passed the border around 21:30. A few minutes before arriving at the Mexican side of the border our driver strongly insisted on nobody talking to strangers or showing them any documents on the way to the office (10 meters away from the bus). we got the exit stamp pretty fast, and had to hand in the migratory form received at the entrance to Mexico. We had to board again the bus, this time for 2 minutes of drive. You can also go to the Guatemalan side of the border by foot, but it is strongly not advised during dark (probably not even during daylight). This small border settlement is a very shady area, and although you might think a border should be a safe place this is not the case.

There is no electrivity there, only a generator making a horrible noise, used by the only office counter (located in a random building on the left side of the street, you can easily miss it). As we approached the counter we could see strange people with piles of money in their hands sitting near the officer and approaching travelers. The process was very fast, we showed the passport, COVID vaccine certificate and got the stamp in no time. They did not require even taking off the mask although we were sitting in the dark outside.

Safety

I will be honest, we discussed a lot about whether or not we should visit Guatemala before buying the tickets, only out of safety concerns. However, we are so happy we did it, since it is such an amazing and overall safe country.

Coming after 1,5 months spent in Mexico, we can say that often we felt safer here. At least in Antigua and the villages around the Atitlan Lake everything is chill, people nice and friendly and lots of other visitors around. We had only positive experiences here, from riding chicken buses to shopping in local markets and walking on empty streets.

However, you need to still be careful with your belongings, walking the streets after dark and traveling inside Guatemala City. We knew about the safety issues there before we came to Guatemala, but locals also reconfirmed this.

Antigua seen from Cerro de la Cruz

Costs

Probably you would expect to find a cheap country (and so did we), but it is not the case of Guatemala for sure.

In terms of transportation, except for the chicken bus and UBER, the other options are quite pricy compared to the neighboring countries. We also found the prices of food to be unexpectedly high, with local restaurants and grocery shops practicing prices comparable to the ones you can find in big European capital cities. A budget-friendly option would be to buy your groceries from the small local businesses/sellers that can be easily found in local markets or specialized small shops. Basically shop where the locals shop and you will also gain some authentic experiences.

When it comes to the accommodation you can expect to pay an average of 15-20 Euros/night/room in decent guesthouses in big cities, and 20-25 in some smaller villages (e.g. around Lake Atitlan). The best tip we can give you for a budget trip would be to search for options with either access to a shared kitchen for you to cook your own meals, or with the possibility for the host to serve some traditional meals for a small fee.

You can find below a list of prices you should expect to find here, as of August 2021 in Antigua:

ItemPrice in GTQEquivalent price in EUR
Water 1 L(supermarket)3,550,4
Water 1 L (small corner tienda)15-201.6-2.2
SIM card with 15 days recharge505,5
McFlury icecream182
Meal for 2 at a local restaurant>90>9,9
Laundry service5 GTQ/0,5 KG of clothes0,66/0,5 KG
Milk 1 L (supermarket)141,5
Small jar of honey(supermarket)80,9
1 kg of tomatoes (local market)50,5
1 kg of potatoes (local market)50,5
Small bread at local bakery10,1
Pepsi 0.5 L (supermarket)4,50,5
Cheese (small specialized shop)262,8
Eggs (piece)1,10,1
Corona beer (bottle, supermarket)91
Nutella jar (supermarket)909,9
National bananas 1 kg (supermarket)20,2
A small tienda in Antigua, specialized in dairy products

ATMs and cash availability

While ATMs are highly available in the main cities, where you will also be able to pay by card in most of the businesses, you should stock on some cash if you are heading to smaller villages or remote areas of the country (e.g. in Guatemala City, Antigua and Panajacel there are enough ATMs to be used, compared to the villages around the Atitlan Lake, with no ATM  or POS coverage).

It is important to know that the ATMs charge around 32-35 GTQ per withdrawal in fees and that there are daily withdrawal limits of 2000-2500 GTQ/account (it depends on the bank).

Foreign exchange houses are not a popular business here and we found only 1 outside the capital city. However, for us the best option for handling GTQ here was Revolut: it offers the best exchange rate, no transaction fees and is widely acceptable for both ATMs and POS’ in Guatemala.

Lake Atitlan’s volcanoes

Transportation

Here you can find 3 main public means of transportation, all of them with their positive and negative sides:

  • Uber/taxi/tuk-tuk: Uber is highly available in all the big cities and the fares are quite good. We used it to get from Guatemala City to Antigua (1,5 h trip) and paid 116-137 GTQ per ride (2 different rides, 2 different prices). In case you are at least 2 persons using this option to get to Antigua will be more economical compared to a shuttle. With regards to the tuk-tuks, you can find them almost everywhere, from big to small cities, and are an option the locals also use for short distances. The fares are good and you will end up having an interesting experience also, but do not forget to ask the price and even negotiate it upfront;

  • Private shuttles: probably the choice of the majority of travelers here, but not the most economical one. Do not let yourself fooled by the skillful sellers and check all your options first. You will see that the prices differ from office to office and sometimes it will cost even triple compared to a chicken bus ride. The good part of this option: you will have a careless trip, because of the door-to-door service many offer. And remember that the fares might even be negotiable sometimes, just give it a try;

  • Litegua.com: safe, easy to buy the tickets online, but not a widespread coverage around the country and definitely not the best price you can get;

  • Chicken bus: our personal favorite and an incredible authentic experience. While riding these old American school busses on mountain roads might not be for the faint of heart ones, taking a ride across the city is something you should not miss. The good thing is that you don’t need to get worried about taking a wrong bus or direction, everyone is trying to sell a ticket and convince you to get into their bus (what a madness…), just try to find a seat in the front and soon after it starts moving the ayudante will come and take your money. This is the cheapest and a highly authentic option, and we can say that overall it is a safe one also. The only route we would not take by chicken bus is to Guatemala City for safety concerns (inside Guatemala City), but apart from this you will not regret giving it a try.

Hope the information in this article will help you be better prepared for your next Guatemalan adventure!

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