Experiencing Guatemala’s Best on a Budget

It’s no secret that Guatemala is a favorite budget destination. What seems to have eluded the collective consciousness is that it’s really close to the U.S. If I had a dollar for every time someone reacted with surprise upon learning that the flight from Houston or Miami to Guatemala City is just two-and-a-half hours, well let’s just say I could take this trip with the money.

In addition to the country’s proximity, Americans are not always aware that Guatemala is one of the best travel values in the world. For a very reasonable price, you can get a whole new perspective in Guatemala, with enough cash left over to treat yourself along the way to some fine restaurants and hotels that would probably cost two or three times as much in the U.S. Rather than some ramshackle collection of tin-roofed houses, Guatemala City is a mountain city of broad, tree-lined boulevards and high-rise condominiums. The country’s wealthy elite have historically overseen the creation of Guatemala’s high-end offerings. Surprised? Most first-time visitors, like my most recent traveling companion—a writer for UK’s Condé Nast Traveller—usually are.

A trip to Guatemala is like having your cake and eating it too. This is the real deal. What does this mean for you? It means you can enjoy a holiday in a country with truly world-class attractions and infrastructure at affordable prices with enough money left over to enjoy life’s little indulgences. Below is a 10-day travel itinerary put together with a budget of approximately $1,250. This is the amount AAA reports that the average American couple traveling in North America spends for accommodations, food, and sightseeing for a 2-to-5 day getaway (not including transportation).

Day One

Fly in to Guatemala City around lunchtime. Take the afternoon to visit the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología or the Museo Popol Vuh and Museo Ixchel (next door to each other) for a crash course on the Mayan civilization. Use some of that splurge money to enjoy dinner in one of Guatemala City’s excellent restaurants. I like Tamarindos, and Jake’s. Go ahead and order dessert. For your overnight stay, head to Quetzalroo Hostel, where you can enjoy a private room without busting your budget ($35 USD). Its friendly owners and staff are a great place to get your bearings before heading out to Guatemala’s ruggedly fascinating interior. Want to stay in one of the city’s high-rise international chain hotels? That’s fine. It will only set you back about $80 USD on average.

Day Two

Hang out in Guatemala City the next day and take in another museum. It will make a good introduction to the Mayan sites in Guatemala’s north. That evening, take an overnight bus to Flores, gateway to the ruins of Tikal and the myriad archaeological sites in Guatemala’s Peten department. (You can also take the trip on the evening of day one if you don’t wish to stay in Guatemala City). The overnight bus costs just $15, as opposed to the overpriced $250 plane ticket. The buses are über comfortable and don’t make stops along the way.

Day Three

You’ll arrive in Flores early in the morning. Life is all about the journey, so stop off in one of Flores’s wonderful cafés for your morning coffee. You can take a leisurely stroll around the island city’s malecon and enjoy your java lakeside. The morning flights from Guatemala City arrive around 9 a.m., so hail a tuk tuk and head over to the airport and grab a colectivo bus to Tikal National Park. These are timed to leave with the bank of morning flight arrivals. Journey time from Flores airport (FRS) to Tikal National Park is about one hour.

Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the most famous of Guatemala’s Mayan ruins and boasts impressive temple pyramids. Spend all day exploring the site and enjoying the sublime jungle environment.

This evening, you have the option of staying at the park or heading back south to El Remate, on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá, where you have your choice of lakeside accommodations. If your budget allows, you can stay at Francis Ford Coppola’s swanky La Lancha resort, but there are plenty of reasonably priced and stylish alternatives. The lake, with its turquoise waters and tropical forest ecosystem, makes a good alternative to staying at the ruins.

Day Four

Whether you stayed at the lake or not, head over and enjoy it. Enjoy the day in El Remate or in Flores prior to taking the evening bus back to Guatemala City. El Remate may not be a Caribbean resort town, but the clear, aquamarine waters sure make it feel like it is.

Day Five

You’ll arrive early in Guatemala City. Transfer here for La Antigua Guatemala, one of the finest colonial cities in America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are several good-value hotels in town to choose from. Check in to one and get acquainted with your surroundings. Have lunch at your leisure and take some time to see Antigua’s major sights. Return to your comfortable hotel room for some chill-out time before heading out to dinner. I highly recommend Meson Panza Verde for a splurge.

Day Six

Grab breakfast or coffee from any of the coffee shops along the plaza. Café Condesa makes a fine choice for breakfast. Take in some more sights and maybe even go see a coffee farm. Alternatively, you can enjoy a round of golf at La Reunion Antigua Golf Resort, just 30 minutes away and at the foot of active Fuego Volcano.

Lunch is at your leisure (La Reunion has great food, too) and you can use the afternoon to do some shopping in town. In the late afternoon, head out with a group making the Pacaya Volcano climb. The hike up Pacaya Volcano is a spectacular lava light show and you’ll also be treated to the lights of sprawling Guatemala City in the valley below. The trip returns late at night.

Days Seven & Eight

Take a late morning shuttle bus for Panajachel, on the shores of spectacular Lake Atitlán. You also have the option of continuing to nearby Santa Catarina Palopó or Santa Cruz La Laguna if Panajachel doesn’t suit your style. There are many villages to choose from, each with a unique feel. The afternoon is yours to explore or simply relax. Plan on day eight being a Sunday or Thursday so you can grab a shuttle bus from Panajachel to Chichicastenango to see the colorful Chichicastenango Market. Return to Panajachel in the afternoon.

Days Nine & Ten

It’s up to you. Head to the other side of the lake to San Pedro La Laguna or Santiago Atitlán for some more highland Mayan culture amid splendid settings or any of the other Mayan villages around the lake. You can also stay where you are and do the other villages as day trips. This will give you time to enjoy the lake, as the pace of your visit to Atitlán thus far will have been a bit hurried.

Take a shuttle bus back to Guatemala City on the afternoon of day 10 and check in to your hotel. Savor the culinary delights at another one of the city’s excellent restaurants before packing your purchases for the flight home (no one comes to Guatemala without buying more than they planned). Be sure to leave room in your carry-on for the excellent duty-free shopping at La Aurora Airport.

Total estimated cost for two people: $1,250 (not including airfare)

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