In 2014, after what can only be described as a series of classic travel pitfalls and sheer luck, I caught up with a friend who was backpacking through South America. Together we spent 10 awe-inspiring days in Guatemala. Today, this trip ranks near the top of my travel experiences.

Below is a combination of my personal experiences and recommendations for you to complete a similar trip – one that includes the exploration of historic cities and dense rainforests. Warning: if you decide to go, you may never want to leave. If that’s the case, we’ve got you covered.

#1 – Antigua

Just a few miles from Guatemala City’s International Airport, Antigua is a great starting point for a Guatemalan adventure. The first thing you’ll notice about this ancient city is it’s complete serenity — especially in juxtaposition to the energy of whatever American city you’re coming from. Something about walking along the disheveled cobblestone streets and seeing the vibrant, primary-colored buildings against a breathtaking volcanic backdrop makes you forget you’ve ever been anywhere else.

Antigua, Guatemala The beautiful streets of Antigua, with a backdrop of Volcano Agua
The entire town looks like this.

Surrounded by four active volcanoes, Antigua is the cultural hub of Guatemala — and that’s been the case for quite some time. Not only is it marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was once the capital of the entire Guatemalan kingdom and is full of Spanish baroque architecture.

Here are some things you can’t miss:

Volcano Tour

Did I mention Antigua was surrounded by active volcanos? Volcán Pacaya, Volcán De Aqua, Volcán Acatenango, and Volcán Fuego — all of which are known to produce consistent volcanic activity. Some ascents are more difficult than others so take that into account before booking a tour. This tour company is one of the most popular in the region, but you can book volcano tours from any of the tour desks in the in city. Costs range from between $10-$40 per person depending on the size of the group, the length of the tour, and whether or not meals are provided. Don’t. Miss. This.

Authentic Souvenir Shopping

Antigua’s local market is the perfect place to scoop up locally-made and sourced goods – everything from hand-woven fabric to children’s toys. Don’t forget to haggle!

#2 – Lanquin & Semuc Champey

Next on the itinerary is a small village in the middle of the rainforest – Lanquin – the perfect place to relax and enjoy the fresh mountain air and mist rolling in from the green valley. Nearby is a collection of extraordinary natural pools and caves, Semuc Champey.

Spelunking (With Candles)

Cave-diving with only the light from small wax candles to guide feels like something out of a children’s story book – it’s an eerie and unforgettable experience. Inside these caverns are cliffs to jump off of and mini waterfalls to slide down. Definitely bring water shoes.

via Adventurous Kate
via Adventurous Kate

Natural Pools

After your spelunking experience, you’ll want to spend some time relaxing in the nearby natural spring and pools which are surprisingly refreshing, even in the Guatemalan heat. Important: if you don’t enjoy pedicures where tiny fish nibble the dead skin from your feet, these pools might be best enjoyed from the shore. If you’re feeling adventurous, hike to the top of the nearby overlook to take in a panoramic view of the colorful pool system.

Semuc Champey
via Expert Vagabond – those rocks will destroy your feet.

#3 – Flores

Home to the single coolest hostel I’ve ever stayed in, Flores is one of a kind. Not only is it an island city, it serves as the “base camp” for travelers who wish to visit some of the oldest ruins in South America. Spend a day swimming, canoeing, or just enjoying the island breeze. Lunch from local restaurants is served street-side – in the form of delicious grilled meats.

via The Adventures of DR
via The Adventures of DR


Built in 400 BC, Tikal is a 20-story stone temple built by the Mayans and I challenge you to find a better place to stop and watch the sun set over the Maya Mountains. Epic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Fun fact: scenes from Star Wars IV were filmed here.

Sunset in Tikal, Guatemala
A photo could never capture this moment, but it didn’t stop me from trying.

Bonus: Caye Caulker, Belize

Need a vacation from your vacation? Head northeast and cross the border into Belize where you can visit one of the country’s many islands. Hop aboard a ferry to Caye (pronounced “key”) Caulker to unleash your inner beach bum. If you ever tire of lounging on the beach with pina coladas (though why would you) there’s always diving, snorkling, fishing, and a variety of other water sports to keep you entertained.

Caye Caulker - The Split
Caye Caulker – The Split

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