Central America & Mexico

How to Spend 8 Days in Guatemala

Guatemala is located in Central America, just south of Mexico. The country is home to over 30 volcanoes, filled with lush rainforests, beautiful ancient Mayan sites, and coffee farms. Guatemala is the second most populated country in both Central and South America, with Guatemala City being the capital.

Quick Facts:

  • The currency in Guatemala is the Quetzal and can most easily be purchased when you arrive at the airport or from an ATM
  • The primary language spoken in Guatemala is Spanish
  • The major industries in Guatemala include sugar, textiles, chemicals, and furniture
  • Major agriculture industries include sugarcane, coffee, bananas, and corn
  • You can book most of your tourist shuttles between places easily through your hotels/hostels
  • Yes, it’s safe, just use your common sense like you would anywhere

I visited Guatemala back in November with one of my friends. We went for around eight days, and although eight days isn’t enough to see the full country, we did see a lot of beautiful parts of it.

You should note that you’ll notice this itinerary doesn’t include popular tourist spots Tikal (where the Mayan ruins are) and Semuc Champey, a national monument near Lanquin. The reason for this was with our short amount of time we had to choose between going in one direction or the other. Guatemala is very spread out, and most travel is done through local transportation or shuttle buses. Even though it’s easy to get around everywhere, the drives can be really long to get to each place. So we decided to travel to Lake Atitlan, and the coast instead Tikal and Lanquin this trip. I’ll have to return to see more areas of this beautiful country another time.

Day One: Guatemala City to Antigua

Flying into Guatemala, you’ll likely land in Guatemala City. Guatemala City doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation, but however you feel about the country’s capital, the city doesn’t have a ton of reasons you’d want to stay there anyway. What I recommend is when you land, catch a shuttle going to Antigua. I pre-booked my shuttle, which was private, through my Antigua hotel, however there are a ton of different options for group shuttles heading to Antigua from the airport.

The drive to Antigua is just under an hour long, and once you arrive you’ll be happy that you decided to start off your trip in the beautiful, historical UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua.

Maya Papaya

Your first day in Antigua may be a write off depending on when your flight arrives and how bad your jet lag is, so you may just want to take the rest of this day getting your bearings. If you’re looking for a great place to stay, I recommend Maya Papaya. It’s a super inexpensive hostel with dorm rooms, but also private rooms available. It’s incredibly central, super cute decor, and has a great complimentary breakfast. They were also awesome with helping us book shuttles onward to our next destination, and provide recommendations for our time in Antigua.

Day Two: Antigua

Wake-up bright and early to head for a volcano hike. If you have the time and the commitment level, you may want to opt for Acatenango Volcano, which is a much harder, and a longer trek. Most people do an overnight trek to this volcano so they can see the lava at night. BUT if you’re short on time, Pacaya Volcano is likely a better option for you.

Pacaya is located about an hour from Antigua and is one of the most active volcanos in Central America. Pacaya is super accessible and popular among tourists. There are a ton of tour groups from Antigua that’ll take you to Pacaya for a rather inexpensive price. You can also make your way there yourself, but if you don’t have a rental car, this can be a pain in the ass.

Pacaya Volcano Hike

The cost to enter the trail is 50Q (note you’ll have to hire a mandatory guide if you came on your own too). The trip was probably around half a day. We left early (6ish) and then arrived back to Antigua around 2ish. However, although the hike wasn’t super long, it was exhausting. With the elevation of around 1,500 feet, it wasn’t an easy trek. Thankfully your guide makes lots of rest stops, including one to roast marshmallows on the hot rocks!

Antigua Brewing Co.

After you return back to Antigua, probably exhausted, head for some much deserved alcoholic beverages and food. We stopped at Antigua Brewing Co. to try some of the local craft beers and to sit on their rooftop patio with great views of the city and surrounding volcanoes.

Por Que No

Spend the rest of your afternoon wandering the streets, the shops of Antigua, and strolling through the local vendors and markets before you eventually get cleaned up and head to dinner. If you are going to eat at one place in Antigua, I highly recommend Por Que No, a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a side street that you’ll fall in love with. This place only has a couple tables so either arrive early, or call in advance for a reservation.

Day Three: Antigua to Lake Atitlan

Wake-up and make your way to Lake Atitlan. Shuttles usually leave daily at several different times, and go from Antigua to Panajachel in Lake Atitlan in about three hours. You can take a chicken bus (local transportation) to get there if you’re feeling more adventurous.

Lake Atitlan is a body of water in a volcano crater. It is surrounded by cute towns, Mayan villages and volcanoes.

You’ll want to decide where you want to base yourself in Lake Atitlan. Most shuttles will take you to Panajachel, and lots of tourists stay here or they stay in San Pedro. However, if you’re looking for a little less busy of a spot around the lake, San Marcos can be a good option. San Marco’s a laid-back hippie town which I fell in love with. Either way, once you arrive in Panajachel, you can get anywhere easily on the local boats, you just may have to wait a few minutes until they have enough passengers on the boat to leave.

Entrance to Lush Atitlan

We opted to stay in San Marcos at Lush, a beautiful eco hotel. Spend the afternoon exploring whatever town you decide to base yourself in. If you’re in San Marcos like I was, you can head to Cerro Tzankujil for the afternoon. It’s only 15Q to enter, and is a great place to sit back, relax, and swim (it’s actually one of the cleanest spots to swim on the lake).

View from Indian Nose

Day Four: Lake Atitlan

Start your day off at an ungodly hour to head to Santa Clara and hike Indian Nose. Yes, you’ll have to leave at like 3 or 4am (from San Marcos at least), however, it’ll be worth it, and an adventure you won’t forget.

Indian Nose is famously known as the best spot around Lake Atitlan to watch the sunrise. There are several tour operators around the lake that will take you there, and no one advises you to make it there yourself unless you plan to hike it during the daytime. The reason for this is that many locals in the nearby town will force you to pay to hike the trail, nothing is monitored here in terms of how much you’ll have to pay, and there’s no official ticket booth that marks the entrance. This is where you’ll read the stories of robberies, etc. and why basically everyone advises to use a guide.

When you arrive in Santa Clara, you’ll start your short hike. It only takes about 30-45 minutes to get to the top of Indian Nose, but don’t underestimate it as it wasn’t a super easy climb uphill in the pitch black. Yes, there are no lights at all, so bring a flashlight, or your phone to help you see your way. When you get to the top you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous sunrise views over the lake before hiking back down. Since it’s a short hike, this whole trip can be done before 10am (dependent on where on the lake you are coming from).

Club Ven Aca

Since you are likely exhausted from getting up at an abnormal hour, spend the rest of your afternoon relaxing. Head to Jabalito on the lake to find the perfect oasis. Jabalito doesn’t have much to offer tourists, in fact, when you arrive you’ll wonder why on earth I sent you here, but when you get off the boat, turn right on the dirt path that goes along the water, and you’ll arrive at Club Ven Aca. Club Ven Aca has an infinity pool and restaurant overlooking the lake and it’s the perfect spot to catch some rays for the afternoon. You’ll have to spend a minimum spend in order to stay there all day, but you can easily do that after just a couple of cocktails (try their mojito!).

Day Five: Lake Atitlan

To spend your final day in Lake Atitlan, head out in the morning for a kayak around the lake. If in San Marcos, you can rent kayaks at the nature reserve and they charge by the hour per person. If you are anywhere else on the lake, you’ll likely also have options for renting kayaks or stand-up paddleboards because it’s one of the most popular activities.

Once you’ve spent a few hours exploring the lake from a different perspective, head to Panajachel or San Pedro for the rest of the day. Both of these towns have a ton of shops, restaurants, bars, etc. to hang out and spend your time in. We did some souvenir shopping in the several stores and market stalls in Panajachel, and then caught lunch at Deli Jasmin, a local spot with tons of vegetarian (and non-veggie) options for a very reasonable price. This was actually one of the best meals we ate, and it came at no surprise that this spot had been open for years.

Breakfast at Lush

If you are staying in San Marcos, some great restaurants are:

Day Six & Seven: Lake Atitlan to El Paredon

Wake-up and head to El Paredon, a less popular tourist spot for most people as it’s off-the-beaten-path.

I honestly had no idea what to expect from El Paredon. My friend I was traveling with really wanted to go to try surfing, but since El Paredon didn’t fall on most people’s “must-do” lists I was hesitant to travel all the way to the coast and be disappointed. Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised.

El Paredon is a super small, lazy beach town that sits on the ocean. The drive from Lake Atitlan via tourist shuttle was SO long we thought we would never make it. Although the drive itself claims to be under four hours, we basically spent an entire day in the shuttle. When we finally arrived, it was worth it. Not only was the weather much more tropical than at the higher altitude where Lake Atitlan sits, but it was also such a cute, surfer town which was perfect for ending our trip with sand between our toes.

There isn’t a ton to do in El Paredon other than sit back and relax on the beach, but we did find some fun activities to keep us busy such as:

  • Surfing
  • Watching the baby turtles hatch from the hatchery down the beach early in the morning (note that this only happens during specific times of the year and is free)
  • Cooking classes with La Choza Chula, a local company that creates projects that support locals and helps them benefit from tourism in the area. This was incredibly authentic in a locals home!
  • Mangrove and/or turtle tours (with La Choza Chula), El Paredon is home to one of only seven sea-turtle feeding grounds in the world.
Swell

There are also some great places to stay in El Paredon, but I would highly recommend staying at Swell. Swell is a new hotel run by a Canadian and French couple who were absolutely incredible. The hotel is super Instagram-worthy, well situated, has a beautiful pool, and you can seriously spend all day lounging here. We stayed in “The Loft” which was sort of like an open air treehouse and it was amazing!

If you’re looking for places to eat in the area, I’d recommend:

  • Soul Food (great Asian inspired dishes)
  • Driftwood (they are a hostel but also serve great food)
  • El Tiburon (a pizzaria located in Hotel Pacifico)
  • Yula’s (local cuisine)

NOTE: There are no ATM’s and no WiFi in El Paredon. Come prepared as not many places will accept credit/debit cards either!

Swell

Day Eight: El Paredon to Guatemala City

Dependent on your flight back home from Guatemala City, spend your day relaxing on the beach or by the pool, and splurge to book a private shuttle back to the airport. If you want to save money there are tourist shuttles that leave, but they aren’t flexible in time. For example, if we went back on the tourist shuttle we would’ve wasted an entire day waiting around for our 10pm flight so we splurged and spent the money on a private vehicle which we booked through our hotel, Swell.

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