top of page

What’s so great about Guatemala?

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

So much! Where do I start?

2 Adirondack chairs overlooking volcanoes
Volcano views are par for the course in Guatemala

I get asked this question a lot- and for good reason. For all of the traveling I do, and how much I like to explore, I sort of hate repeating destinations that I’ve already visited when I could be blazing new trails.  Yet, I just returned from my third trip to Guatemala, and I can guarantee that it won’t be my last.


So, WHY is Guatemala so great?

In 2015 during my work sabbatical, I spent 6 weeks in Guatemala, attending Spanish school in Quetzaltenango (also called Xela).  My expectations were low going in- all I knew of the country were the travel warnings listed on the Travel.State.Gov website. I was so surprised once I arrived!  I discovered a country full of volcanoes, mountains, lakes, hiking, good coffee, and friendly people- all at an extremely affordable price point. I also learned a lot of Spanish and made great friends at school. And it’s all of those things keep me coming back year after year- I actually plot my imaginary move there each time I visit. I shall now attempt to persuade you to do the same, with my captivating list of why Guatemala is awesome:


Volcanoes

That’s right- Hawaii isn’t the only place with ‘em. Volcanoes are everywhere you turn in Guatemala- some even erupt hourly! There are 37 total volcanoes, 3 of which are active. All are beautiful to look at, and there is something SO cool about seeing an eruption- without being in imminent physical danger.  There are a bunch of lakes made from volcanic craters (Lake Atitlan, Chicabal), you can do some insane hikes on some of the dormant volcanoes, and there are even a bunch of volcanic hot springs to relax in.

volcano erupting at dawn
Volcano erupting at dawn, as seen on a camping trip

Hiking

I am more of an active vacationer- a day doing nothing is glorious every now and then, but in general, I like to get in some exercise to work off the indulgent food choices I’m making abroad. Thankfully, Guatemala makes that easy. Volcano hiking is a challenging, but rewarding endeavor. There are some nice day hikes, such as to Laguna Chicabal or Indian Nose. And then there are some epic overnight hikes, such as volcano Santa Maria, Acatenango, or Tajumulco. All volcano hikes are fairly greuling- they are very steep and at decently high altitudes, usually on dusty/rocky terrain. The bonus of an overnight hike is getting to rise above the clouds and watch them roll in over the mountains at sunset- then waking up at dawn to watch the sunrise. Some of these hikes even give you an up close and personal view of eruptions of other nearby volcanoes. For any kind of hike, I highly recommend hiking with the company Quetzaltrekkers– I used them to overnight hike Santa Maria, and they were prepared and professional, had good food, will rent you any gear you need, and their mission helps local kids. Pro Tip: if sleeping on a volcano, rent the warmest gear you can possibly find. It’s freezing up there. And no, the snow pants are not overkill.

girl drinking coffee on top of mountain

Lake Atitlan

Basically, it’s a huge volcanic crater lake, surrounded by more volcanoes. There are a bunch of little towns around the lake, which you get to by taking little boats.  How cool is that? Each town has its own vibe, so do some research and stay in the one that matches what you’re looking for- San Pedro is the more affordable backpacker/partier scene, whereas San Marcos, where I stayed this last time, is a haven for yogis and hippies (both which I am the polar opposite of, but can definitely appreciate the good food and relaxed vibe that comes along with such a lifestyle). Lake Atitlan offers kayaking, yoga, opportunities to visit local coffee farms and textile co-ops, as well as good old fashioned relaxation. The sun shines brightly, the birds sing, the water shimmers, and there is so much peace there that you may never want to leave.  Pro Tip: Don’t bring a big suitcase/backpack to the lake, it gets a bit awkward on the small boats. And it’s about a 3 hour drive from Antigua.

dock on Lake Atitlan
Killer view from the San Marcos boat dock
covered walkway in San Marcos La Laguna
A magical walkway in San Marcos La Laguna

Antigua

This is the classic picture of Guatemala one might see in a magazine. Colorful colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and the famous Santa Catalina Arch- this is a beautiful city, no doubt. It’s also very touristy- you may even see a tour group or two walking around with a flag on a stick. You don’t really need any Spanish skills either, for that reason. Almost every conversation that I initiated in Español was replied to in English- kind of a bummer. The touristy nature of Antigua makes it feel like a less authentic version of Guatemala, but there are quite a few pros to that. There is really good food- including organic and vegetarian options. You almost never need to wonder if your veggies and fruit are safe to eat, or if the ice in your smoothie was made from purified water. In addition, you can get any type of creature comfort you need in Antigua, it is a great jumping off point for tours and transportation to anywhere else in Guatemala, and it’s only an hour from the airport.

Oh, and there is good coffee. A LOT of it. But that is a whole other blog post in itself.

tuk tuk under Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua Guatemala
Santa Catalina Arch


colorful houses in Antigua
Colorful streets

Coffee

Obviously, coffee has to make this list of why I love Guatemala. There are coffee farms allllll over the country, and it is one of the major coffee producing countries in the world. However, as it is a major cash crop, about 90% of the good stuff is exported out. In fact, most Guatemalans drink instant coffee (insert horrified look here). But that surely doesn’t mean you can’t get a delicious cup of joe while you’re there.  Many local coffee shops are also roasters, and committed to using local beans and preserving the highest quality in production and serving. Antigua is the densest collection of such fantastic cafes, which made it pretty easy for me to visit approximately 3 each day while I was there. Check out my best recommendations in this post. There are also a bunch of different tours to local coffee farms to see the whole process from bean to cup.

coffee looking out window at plants
Always in a coffee mood in Antigua

Affordability

It’s a super cheap destination- a luxury hostel bed in Antigua which included breakfast set me back $13/night. My friend and I stayed in a cabin treehouse with our own bathroom for less than $40/night. You can definitely find some pricey places too, but there are a plethora of nice budget options. Shuttles between towns were $7-10. Meals were virtually always under $10. Come to think of it though… the coffee was expensive. Ah, that’s a quality of life expense. Guatemala, while definitely not as cheap as a place like India, has a lot of creature comforts and minimal culture shock for bargain prices.


Honorable Mentions:

Tikal- incredible Mayan pyramids and ruins

Semuc Champey- series of cascading blue pools of water in the jungle

bottom of page