By Karlie Marrazzo
Guatemala, the northernmost country in Central America and one of its largest, had been at the top of my list of places to visit for years before I finally made my way south from Canada. The combination of volcanoes, Mayan ruins, Colonial architecture, fabulous food, the promise of no jet lag and fewer tourists than other parts of the world are just a few of the reasons I wanted to visit this captivating country. While I am fascinated with this part of the world, it still remains off the radar and a country of concern for a lot of travellers out there. It is my hope that this one-week Guatemala itinerary will help to inspire you and to put your own Guatemala trip together!
Getting to Guatemala
I had been checking on Guatemala flights every so often for about two years before I finally booked my trip. Prices could vary wildly from $700CDN roundtrip to $1100 and higher. I would most often see roundtrip flights for $900+, more expensive for fewer stops. I live in a fairly isolated part of Canada as far as good international flights go, yet I prefer to only make one connection if at all possible.
I booked my flights in December 2017 for travel in March 2018. The main airlines I looked at were Delta and United. I was able to book my roundtrip flights from Edmonton to Guatemala City, with only one stopover in Los Angeles, for the amazing price of $628CDN. I had a five-hour layover at LAX on the way there (in the evening), and an eight-hour, daytime layover on the way home. I took advantage of this by leaving the airport for the day and hanging out at Malibu Beach.
Day 1 to 3 – San Marcos, Lake Atitlan
Transportation options to Lake Atitlán, a dazzling volcanic crater lake that is arguably one of the most gorgeous, and spiritual, spots in the world, are limited, and for good reason. The main options for traveling from Guatemala City/La Aurora Airport to Lake Atitlán, about 150km away, are to take a shuttle bus or to hire a private shuttle. The cost of the shuttle bus is significantly cheaper; however, this option didn’t work for me as I arrived at the airport at 6:30am and did not want to wait around the airport for hours for the first of a few shuttles that day.
Many companies offer a shuttle service from the airport to Panajachel, the main transportation “hub” of Lake Atitlan, for around $25USD per person. However, the route is not direct and also stops in Antigua, making the trip more than four hours.
I opted for a private shuttle through Xocomil Tours for $100USD. Yes, I tend to lean towards the frugal side of things, but time is more important than money and I wanted to start enjoying the splendour of Lake Atitlan ASAP. My driver was professional and friendly. Unfortunately I don’t speak Spanish very well, but he did point out some volcanoes to me and pulled over at important lookout points.
Upon arrival in Panajachel, walk a couple of minutes down to the pier, let one of the drivers know which town along the lakeshore you’re headed to, and they will direct you to the right lancha, one of the small speedboats that zip around the lake daily. The trip to San Marcos took about 20 minutes and cost 25Q. My ride that day was smooth and I was immediately in awe of the breathtaking scenery surrounding me.
Cost: Xocomil Tours, $100USD (approx. $130CDN), private shuttle booked in advance
Speed boat to San Marcos from Panajchel 25Q ($4.50CDN)
Time: The drive from the airport to Panajachel is approximately three hours; the boat ride onto San Marcos is approx. 20 minutes, depending on stops
Accommodation: Eco Hotel La Paz
I paid 250Q ($44CDN) per night for a private room with bathroom.
More information: Soul searching in San Marcos, Guatemala
For more accommodations in San Marcos La Laguna, click here.
Day 4 and 5 – Antigua
No matter where you’re heading next on your Guatemala trip, first take the lancha back to Panajachel. Boats run approximately every half an hour, starting at 6:30am and ending at 7:00pm. Double check with your accommodation to be sure.
My next stop was Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage city bursting with colourful colonial architecture nestled at the base of three volcanoes; Acatenango, Volcán de Agua and Volcán de Fuego. Xocomil Tours runs a shared shuttle to Antigua four times a day at 05:00, 09:00, 12:00 and 16:00. I took the noon shuttle with about ten other people for a cost of $16CDN. I booked my spot on the bus a day in advance, which I would recommend if possible as there were two full shuttles heading to Antigua that day. I’m not sure if anyone would’ve gotten a spot if they showed up at the last minute. There are several companies running shuttles but I was happy with the service provided with Xocomil.
Cost: Speed boat to Panajachel 25Q
Shared shuttle to Antigua, booked via email two days in advance. $12USD ($16CDN)
Time: Approximately two and a half hours, if the shuttle driver avoids the main highway with high/slow traffic (mine did not)
Accommodation: Casa Del Arco Antigua
$83CDN per night, private room with private bathroom
More information: Antigua, Guatemala’s charming crown jewel
For more accommodations in Antigua, click here.
Day 6 and 7 – Flores/Tikal
No trip to Guatemala would be complete without a visit to their most famous archaeological site: the ruins of the ancient Mayan city called Tikal, set deep among Guatemela’s tropical rainforests. I was going to top of my one-week trip to Guatemala with a visit to these epic ruins that I had wanted to see for so long.
When the time comes for you to move on from the charm and beauty of Antigua, there are many shuttle services in town that you can book with. I typically like to book everything far in advance, but there was really no need. I walked by a handful of tour companies in the centre of Antigua, randomly walked in to one and booked my shared shuttle back to La Aurora Airport for the next day with no problems. Each tour company has a board advertising their prices, but the differences weren’t great enough for me to shop around. I paid 80Q (about $14CDN) for the one hour ride to the airport.
Getting to Flores, the main hub for visitors to Tikal, is another story. Sure, you can take an overnight tourist bus that takes 8-10 hours, if you have the time or are trying to save a few dollars. The bus option is also available with a 07:00am departure, but I‘m not sure why anyone would want to waste an entire day of their trip on the bus. A quick Google search just showed me a price of $55USD. Don’t even think about taking the local chicken bus unless you want to be crammed in like a sardine and run the risk of getting mugged (this actually happened to a woman I know in real life and is very common).
I opted to take a flight with TAG Airlines instead. With a price tag of $160CDN and a flight time of only one hour in the air, it was a no brainer for me. With only a week in Guatemala (which I’d already realized was not enough), I didn’t have the luxury of time. Plus, the state of the roads in Guatemala make an 8-hour road trip far different than one on smooth, straight Canadian Prairie roads. Arrive at the airport up to two hours in advance for domestic flights.
Cost: Shared shuttle from Antigua to La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City, booked a day in advance in person: 80Q ($14CDN)
Roundtrip flights from Guatemala City to Flores and back: booked two months in advance through TAG Airlines, approx. $160CDN
Time: Shuttle ~1 hour, flight ~1 hour
Accommodation: Hotel Villa del Lago
370Q ($65CDN), private room with private bathroom
More information: Tikal National Park: Guatemala’s mystical Mayan ruins
For more accommodations in Flores, click here.
Day 7 – Guatemala City
After a short yet glorious visit to Tikal, I turned right around and flew back to Guatemala City, where I stayed for one night before flying back to Canada early the next morning.
My flight arrived at La Aurora Airport at 19:30, and I had to depart the next morning on the 07:00am flight to LAX, leaving me no time to see any of Guatemala City. There are plenty of hotels within a 5-minute drive of the airport for travellers just like me. The hotel I booked included free shuttle service to and from the airport, which was immensely helpful, especially when I had to be up at 4:00am.
Accommodation: Mariana’s Petite Hotel
224Q ($39), private room with private bathroom
Total expenses and final thoughts
Flights: $628 roundtrip from Canada + $160 internal domestic flight = $788CDN on flights
Accommodations: I always prefer private rooms with a private bathroom. I choose basic rooms that are clean and comfortable. You can spend much less, or much more, on accommodations in Guatemala, depending on your preferences.
For seven nights of private accommodations in Guatemala, I spent $402CDN.
Transportation: This is for transportation between cities and towns in Guatemala, not including the domestic flight I took. This total does not include taxis or tuk-tuks, which typically cost only 10-20Q per ride (less than $4CDN).
For a mix of private and shared shuttles, I spent $160CDN.
Tours: A group tour of Tikal, beginning at sunrise, cost 150Q ($26CDN). The park entrance fee was an additional 150Q.
Total expenses, excluding food and shopping: $1400CDN.
Guatemala will always hold a special place in my heart as it is the first country I traveled to on my own. The atmosphere, scenery, people, the spirituality, the music and the food all combined to make my week there truly wonderful. The only thing I would have done differently would have been to spend more time there! With a week I was able to cram in the highlights and get a taste of the country, but I would have liked to stay in each of the places I visited for longer, plus add in more spots that I didn’t get to see at all. I don’t often want to return to a country immediately after I leave, but Guatemala is always on my mind and I’m sure I will be returning.
All prices as of March 2018
All travel and accommodations were booked independently and all opinions are my own.