Indie Travel in Guatemala for $25 Per Day

The secret is out. In the past few years, indie travelers have started to discover the magical country of Guatemala. Quietly snuggled between its four Central American neighbors, this land of the Maya – with active volcanoes, adventure activities galore, and some of the most beautiful Central American art around, will captivate you.  There is so much happening in Guatemala that even the shortest trip will lead to new discoveries and will have you planning a return before you have even left.

People come, and they stay. Or they leave and return. There’s almost too much going on here, and even the shortest trip takes you to completely different places, with new challenges and surprises. The antique village of Antigua, complete with its ancient churches and monasteries, is picturesquely nestled between three volcanoes and boasts a variety of adventure activities. Spanish students flock to Quetzaltenango to perfect their speaking skills, while those desiring a more indie-style holiday might visit the unspoiled Maya village of Nebai, which is hidden in Cuchumatanes mountains. On Guatemala’s western coast you can get your beach fix. Known as La Costa, this region has beautiful expanses of relatively undeveloped beachfront, and its turquoise waters rival that of any Caribbean island.

We chose the $25 per person, per day number after personal experience and research. Accommodation is abundant and includes everything from dormitories to private rooms.  Hostels are the most popular way to save on accommodation, and range from $6-10USD for a mixed dorm bed. And the best part? Most include breakfast.  Guatemala is a solo-travelers paradise as almost all hostels and guesthouses have social areas (and some even have attached restaurants or bars), making it super easy to meet other travelers. This budget also assumes that public buses or shuttles will be your main mode of transportation.

Eating the street food in Guatemala is essential. Not only because it is the cheapest option, (think a full meal for $2-$4), but it is delicious, and it is also the easiest way to experience Guatemala’s vibrant local culture.  There is nothing more exciting than wandering into the chaos of a Guatemalan market, choosing from one of the hundreds of “cafeterias” hidden in their center, plopping down next to a local worker, and sampling one of Guatemala’s many specialty dishes.

When it comes to activities, I didn’t say “No” to anything because of cost – I experienced everything there was to experience. From touring a coffee plantation in the mountains outside of Antigua, to paragliding in Lago de Atitlan, to wandering through the hundreds of archeological sites, the suggested $25/person/day budget will allow you to do pretty much everything.

Following is a breakdown of how you, too, can travel around Guatemala on $25 per day, and we’ll offer tips, advice, and practical information for those of you who want to do it on less or more than that.

Lago de Atitlan

Transportation

The transportation infrastructure in Guatemala is a well-oiled machine. It is reasonably reliable, semi-comfortable, and is user friendly.  Options range from local buses to private cars, so depending on your budget and desired comfort level, you have plenty of choices.

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Getting in

You can enter Guatemala by several different methods:

  • Plane: Almost every single international flight arrives at the Guatemala City airport (GUA). The only other airport that has international flights is Flores (only from Cancun, Mexico, and Belize City)
  • Land: Guatemala shares its borders with four other Central American countries: Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. It is relatively easy to cross by land from each of these countries.
    • To/From Belize: The crossing point from Belize to Guatemala is called Benque Viejo del Carmen/Melchor Mencos. There is one direct bus from Belize City to Flores, which takes 4-5 hours and costs about Q160 ($20USD). There are also regular buses that run between Benque and Belize City.  Additionally, microbuses (2 hours, $4USD) run hourly between Benque and Flores from 5:45am to 6pm.  If coming to/going from central Guatemala, an option is to take a bus from Melchor Mencos to Guatemala City via Poptun and Rio Dulce.
    • To/From El Salvador: There are several different border crossings between El Salvador and Guatemala. The main ones are La Hachadura/Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado on the Carretara al Pacifico, San Cristobal/San Cristobal, Las Chinamas/Valle Nuevo, and Anguiatu/Anguiatu. There are several different bus companies that run directly between San Salvador and Guatemala City (about 6 hours), and they range in comfort level and price accordingly (anywhere from $10USD-40USD). To access other towns take local buses to the border town and switch on the other side.
    • To/From Honduras: The main crossings between Honduras and Guatemala are Agua Caliente (connects Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras and Esquipulas, Guatemala), El Florida (connects Copan Ruins, Honduras and Chiquimula, Guatemala), and Corinto (connects Omoa, Honduras and Puerto Barrios, Guatemala). Daily first class buses make the 11.5 hour trip via El Florida between Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa (approximately $55USD). For shorter distances (and a cheaper option), take local buses between border points and continue on the other side. There are also shuttle buses that are organized by hostels that connect various locations.
    • To/From Mexico: The three main border points between Mexico and Guatemala are Ciudad Hidalgo/Ciudad Tecu Uman, Talisman/El Carmen and Ciudad Cuauhtémoc/La Mesilla.  All of these borders have plentiful bus connections to various cities within Mexico and Guatemala.
  • Boat:  Mexico is the only country that is accessible from Guatemala by boat.  You can cross the Rio Usumacinta (which divides Guatemala and Mexico) from Frontera Corozal in Mexico to either La Tecnica ($1.50USD, 5 minutes) or Bethel ($6USD, 40 minutes) in Guatemala. 

Getting around

Guatemala bus

Travel in Guatemala is pretty easy, albeit not necessarily the most comfortable. Budget travelers can expect long, bumpy bus rides, sometimes with interesting neighbors of the animalia species. Those willing to spend a bit more will find the conditions (and journey lengths) vastly improved.

  • Bus: You will find several different bus transportation options. From luxury, air-conditioned express buses to old, local beauties. As a rule of thumb buses are always the fastest option (other than hiring a private car).
    • Unfortunately in Guatemala, other than the Guatemala City-Flores route, there are few over-night buses, and they are generally considered unsafe.  First class buses traverse between main cities, and some even have toilets and televisions. Luckily, most destinations within Guatemala are not far from each other, so taking the ancient, once-school-buses-turned-local-buses, is bearable.  These buses, nicknamed chicken buses by tourists because of their creative cargo, make shorter journeys.  It is normal to see families of 5 squeeze into one seat, and these buses stop anywhere they are hailed. While super cheap (think about $1USD per hour) they take forever and are not the most comfortable.
    • Microbuses are starting to replace chicken buses for shorter distances and operate on the same “never too full to fit another passenger” principle. They cost around the same price, but are often less comfortable because there is less legroom.
  • Bicycle: Several tourist agencies in more popular tourist locations such as Antigua and Quetzaltenango rent bicycles, and this can be a great way to explore the surroundings at your own pace.
  • Air: The only scheduled internal flights are between Guatemala City and Flores on Taca Air, but are expensive and not recommended for a budget traveler.
  • Rental:  You can rent cars or motorcycles in most of the main tourist locations in Guatemala.  A four-door vehicle with air-conditioning normally costs around $60USD a day, including unlimited kilometers and insurance, but the cheapest, smallest options often start at a mere $25USD a day. Discounted rates are often offered for longer rental periods.  The minimum age to rent a car is 25 years old, and you will have to provide your passport. **Safety note: insurance often does not cover loss or theft, so especially in cities, be aware of where you park**
  • Boat: While not the most convenient way to traverse Guatemala, there are some very enjoyable boat rides. The town of Livingston can only be reached by boat from the Bahia de Amatique and Puerto Barrios, or from down the Rio Dulce, and these are both beautiful trips. The picturesque towns that pepper the lakeshore of Lago de Atitlan are also accessible by small fiberglass boats.

Transport costs

  • First-class bus ride:  The cost of first class buses is quite expensive in comparison to local transportation options. For example, the overnight trip from Guatemala City to Flores costs around $20USD.
  • Chicken bus:  This is by far the most affordable method of transportation in Guatemala. A typical 4-hour bus journey that covers 175-200km costs $5-6USD.
  • Air:  Airfare is always changing, but it is always the most expensive form of internal transportation.

Read A Step-by-Step Guide to Riding the Chicken Buses of Guatemala

Accommodation

Antigua

When it comes to accommodation in Guatemala, you have tons of options ranging from simple dormitories to exclusive high-end hotels. The thing that is great about Guatemala is that even super-budget pricing provides decent accommodations.  A bed in a shared dormitory can cost as little as $6USD per night, and even that sometimes includes a simple breakfast.  You can get a basic double room in a guesthouse for as little as $10/night (but we’re talking bare-bones, no window, shared bathroom situations here), while those with a slightly higher budget (think $20-$30 USD/night), can get a decent sized, clean double room.

Anything that costs upwards of $50USD/night is considered exclusive and will include all of the luxuries. While my friend and I were traveling in Guatemala, we averaged about $8USD per bed per night each. In most situations we were in a clean dormitory, most of which had shared social spaces and included breakfast. The cost of dorms/rooms was relatively constant throughout Guatemala, and we were perfectly happy staying in dormitories the entire time because it was cheap and comfortable, and also a great way to meet other travelers. Here’s a price breakdown on what you can expect in Guatemala for accommodations:

  • $6-$12:  A bed in a comfortable dormitory, often including breakfast. Shared bathrooms. This is the cheapest option, but is still recommended for single travelers, as well as those with a tight budget. Most hostels have Wi-Fi available in common areas.
  • $12-$20:  Spending just a bit more can often make a big difference.  This budget will get you a decent sized double room with a fan (which in the summer months is essential), breakfast included, a private bathroom, linens, and sometimes even a TV.
  • $20-$50:  This is considered relatively expensive accommodation in Guatemala. For this price you can expect a beautiful private room, air-conditioning, breakfast, clean quarters, cable TV, internet, and great service.
  • $50+:  When you are willing to spend more than $50, you can expect a huge jump in quality. Air-conditioning and lavish breakfasts are standard, rooms are large and airy with nice views, and staff are ever-present and ready to appease your every whim. 

Food

Guatemalan breakfast

While your taste buds are probably not going to experience culinary heaven in Guatemala, the food is filling and flavorful. Guatemalan cuisine takes influence from both traditional Mayan staples (such as beans, rice, maize, avocados, squash) and Spanish foods (like more meats and European vegetables). Your typical meal routine will more than likely consist of a combination of local foods from smaller cafeterias and international foods in more touristy locations.

The tortilla de maize is incorporated in almost every Guatemalan meal, and rice and beans are ever-present. A variety of different meats accompany these staples (chicken is most common), and their sauces vary as well.  Mealtime in Guatemala is an important part of the day, where families gather to share food and converse about the day. The local markets were always my go-to meal spot. The comedors in the center of these markets were home to a plethora of different restaurants offering tons of different local dishes for minimal cost. I would choose the one that was most busy, sit down at a shared table or counter, select from their “menu del dia,” and enjoy.

If you’re on a tight budget, you can easily eat in Guatemala for $2-$5 per day by going the street-food only route. There are millions of street kiosks selling savory treats like arepas for pennies. While cleanliness is questionable, you won’t find a better place to people watch and interact with the local population than in the market comedors and local street restaurants. If you get tired of rice and beans, Guatemala has many quality restaurants serving international cuisine ranging in price from $7 to upwards of $20 dollars per person per meal.

The “drinking culture” in Guatemala is robust and has tons of options.  The two most popular beers are Gallo and Cabro, and will put you back a mere $1.50USD per bottle. Rum is by far the most popular alcohol, and you can’t go wrong with a good Cuba libre or mojito. Especially in tourist locations, there are plenty of bars that have well-stocked liquor cabinets.

Highlights

Tikal

  • Antigua – Nestled between huge volcanoes and coffee-covered slopes, Antigua is a colonial treasure that cannot be missed.  Wander the colorful streets, sip a hot beverage in one of its many cafes, take a Spanish class, or shop for local Guatemalan art in the plethora of artesian markets, Antigua will charm all who visit.
  • Lago de Atitlan – With picturesque towns peppering its shore, Lago de Atitlan is a naturalist’s paradise. Trek to the many surrounding peaks, paraglide over the lake and witness its incredible views from a birds-eye perspective, or take a horse ride through local villages.
  • Tikal – This ancient Maya capital is a wonder to behold, especially in the early morning before the tourist buses have arrived.  Climb to the top of its two main pyramids, eerily peeking over the top of the jungle canopy, and you will feel transported back in time.
  • Semuc Champey: The multiple turquoise limestone pools of Semuc Champey are a sight to behold. Hidden in the dense jungle, this oasis is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala.

Read A Guide to Visiting Maya Ruins in Central America

Off the beaten path

Chichicastenango

The tourist trail is pretty well trodden in Guatemala, but there are still some places to get away from the crowds.

  • While crowds of crafts vendors and tour groups visit Chichicastenango for the huge Thursday and Sunday markets (the largest in Central America), it is worth the trip. The narrow cobbled streets and red-tiled roofs are often enveloped in mist, giving Chichicastenango a magical quality. Take local transportation instead of a tour to really engulf yourself in the experience, and who knows, you might even make some deals (and some friends) along the way.
  • Take a spelunking excursion while in Semuc Champey. Swimming through one of the regions’ many caves with just a candle for light will make you feel like an explorer in your own right.

To read more about traveling in Guatemala, check out the following articles and resources:

manifesto - value discovery over escape

Photo credits: Harry, chensiyuan, Adam Seper, DavidDennisPhotos

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Leave a Comment

  • Cavelle Lindsay said at 2013-03-09T04:40:39+0000: Chelsea Elise - this is fantastic!
  • Jenni Mahnaz said at 2013-03-07T18:54:16+0000: This article is fantastic! We are headed to Guatemala in a few months and re busy gathering info. Thanks for sharing what you know!
  • Chelsea Elise said at 2013-03-07T22:16:34+0000: Thanks so much - I'm glad you liked it! Follow/tweet at me @chelseaperino if you have any other questions! Have fun!