Guatemala becoming tourism hot spot for young travelers

Adventurous travelers seeking beauty and budget thrills should look no further than Guatemala: a friendly country that remains largely unexplored by many Americans.

A question I fielded several times before my late February trip: Why Guatemala?

My partner and I have made a habit of planning at least one international trip each year. Actually, I’ll shoulder most of the blame — nothing scratches my travel itch like a new passport stamp. But because we’re early-career professionals, with limited stockpiles of paid time off and inevitable bills, a month-long vacation to Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe is out of the question (for now).

Last summer, I found myself in a rabbit hole of research: Panama, Aruba, Curaçao. Slowly, the pieces fell together for Guatemala.

Compared to my other potential destinations, Denver International Airport offers inexpensive connecting flights to Guatemala City that take a minimum of around six hours of travel time. I started to hear about this friend or that roommate who had visited — or even temporarily moved to — the Central American country over the past few years and couldn’t get enough of it.

Residents of Antigua, Guatemala, wake up every Sunday during Lent, and create alfombras — intricately designed “carpets” made of flower petals and sawdust dyed in every color. (Megan Ulu-Lani Boyanton/The Denver Post) 

Social media platform TikTok features videos of jet-setters of every creed successfully journeying through the tourist destinations of Antigua and Lake Atitlán, offering tips on how to navigate the nation. By August, our accommodations were booked.

Both sets of our parents initially balked at the idea. My dad had previously flown to Guatemala City on business, and was confined within the limits of Central America’s largest metropolis. Like others in the baby boomer and Generation X demographics, much of what they’d grown up hearing about the country was related to its conditions during the Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted 36 years.

However, over the past decade, the nation’s tourism industry has consistently grown — minus a setback during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data-gathering platform Statista. And I was hearing piqued interest from millennials and zoomers about making the trip south. Days before my trip, a shopping center clerk peppered me with questions about my itinerary as she considered doing the same.

After my editors gave me the green light to briefly chase a story on the ground, the trip became both work and play — four days off, two days on. I took the necessary precautions learned on my last reporting trip to Peru in the pre-COVID era: monitor travel advisories with the U.S. State Department, submit my itinerary to the agency’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and set an appointment with a travel clinic to get relevant vaccines.

With interviews set and bags packed, we hopped on our 6 a.m. American Airlines flight, then stopped briefly at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, before touching down in the early afternoon at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. On the flight, our seat neighbor — a Guatemalan who planned to visit her family for a long weekend before heading back to the U.S. — excitedly shared her recommendations, then led us through the winding halls of the airport to customs and immigration.

Guatemala’s cash economy

After a quick and easy process, we were set to embark into a new country — and learned lessons pretty quickly. We brought cash because Guatemala is a cash-reliant economy, particularly outside of its capital city. The airport provides several opportunities to exchange dollars for quetzales, with $1 worth about 8 quetzales, as of mid-April. It’s best to fork over the added exchange fee there and avoid the inconvenience of hunting for a bank like we did later.

More than three million people reside in the city’s urban area, which is made up of 21 zones — some of which tourists are advised against visiting. We stayed one night in Zone 4, which a travel blog calls “the upcoming hipster area.” Zones 9 and 10 come highly recommended, too. We felt safe and relaxed in the neighborhood around our Airbnb — a unit in a modern apartment complex, with its own private patio.

Our plans for that first day were ambitious: see the National Palace of Culture, stop by the city’s market and eat dinner at steakhouse Hacienda Real Zona 10. Instead, we took in the sunset views on the rooftop of restaurant Los Tres Tiempos in the city’s historical district, cocktails and croquetas de pache — mozzarella croquettes made of Guatemalan potato dough — in hand, before turning in. But if you’re short on time or not a big city person, then you can skip visiting the capital like most tourists do.

Disclaimer: I’m not sure what it would be like to travel through Guatemala without a Spanish speaker by my side. Spanish and even some Mayan dialects take precedence over English throughout the country. Because that’s my partner’s first language, I didn’t have to put my rudimentary skills to the test. However, I encountered plenty of Europeans and North Americans who managed to make it from Point A to Point B.


The next morning started with the one-hour drive west to the colonial city of Antigua. Visitors have several options for transportation. Uber is available, and we used it for a short ride in Guatemala City, but I’d read enough mixed reviews for me to largely opt against it. The bravest — and stingiest — of travelers sometimes ride the chicken buses: decorated buses that serve as public transportation. However, I’d also seen a litany of online grievances, as the buses can often run unreliably and feel crowded, with the risk of pickpockets.

Instead, we used private cars and shared shuttle services to travel from town to town, which are affordable by American standards. Viator Travel served as a trusty resource for finding highly-reviewed drivers, who often arrived early and provided a smooth ride.

Our two nights in Antigua left us wishing for more time. There, activities abound — sightseeing at the famous Santa Catalina Arch and Central Park, bartering at the massive Mercado Central and eating so many piping-hot tortillas. My go-to breakfast for days in a row: plantains, refried beans, farmer’s cheese and eggs soaked in salsa, scooped into tortillas and washed down with that famous Guatemalan coffee.

Explore the sprawling Mercado Central in Antigua, Guatemala, which has indoor and outdoor sections. (Megan Ulu-Lani Boyanton/The Denver Post) 

Antigua is the place to buy souvenirs. I scored a Mayan cookbook, plus trinkets for my family like handmade worry dolls: tiny dolls that you tuck under your pillow to whisk away your stresses as you dream. It’s also the spot for nightlife, with several dozen bars and restaurants concentrated in a walkable area that’s both spotless and safe.

Speaking of walking, follow our lead and bring a duffle or weekend bag, instead of a suitcase. Otherwise, navigating the cobblestone roads can quickly turn into the bane of your existence. And wear comfortable sneakers. We walked almost 9 miles one day, but that’s the best way to find hole-in-the-wall joints like restaurant Cafeteria La Concepcion, which is where I tried the traditional dish of pepián de pollo, a Guatemalan chicken stew.

Depending on the timing of your trip, you could also experience a local festival. I was delighted to realize that we visited ahead of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, with Guatemala considered a deeply Christian country. Street vendors sell cheap delicacies, such as empanadas de leche, or sweet cream empanadas. Antigua residents wake up every Sunday during Lent and create alfombras — intricately designed “carpets” made of flower petals and sawdust dyed in every color — on the streets before the evening’s religious procession. Then, just hours later, the temporary creations are stepped on and swept up.

From Antigua, you can admire the surrounding peaks of towering volcanoes, and tour operators like OX Expeditions take hikers on excursions to Pacaya, Acatenango and Agua volcanoes. We signed up for an easy sunset hike up to Pacaya and its lava fields. The other two are known as longer, more intense endeavors. I would strongly advise any hiking hopefuls to cough up the money and join a group because robberies of solo tourists are common along the trails.

Lake Atitlán

My first work day was spent reporting in Jocotenango, a town on the outskirts of Antigua, with the team at the nonprofit Education for the Children Foundation. They run the School of Hope, a free private school for disadvantaged students. I chatted with pupils and teachers during the school day. Then, U.S. executive director Sara Miller drove me around town and up to La Vista Hermosa, a shantytown of homes built illegally on the hillside where about 150 of the school’s families reside.

As a journalist, I’m grateful to have spent those hours getting the perspective that tourists often don’t see, but, for that reason, I won’t highlight Jocotenango as a place that visitors need on their itineraries. Then, we hopped in a shared shuttle — a small van that fits 10 passengers — for the three-hour ride to Lake Atitlán. If you get car sick, then it is absolutely necessary to bring non-drowsy motion sickness medicine to survive the winding roads.

Related Articles

Travel |

Bay Area getaway: Tomales Bay and Dillon Beach make a great weekend escape

Travel |

An emergency slide falls off a California-bound Delta plane, forcing pilots to return to New York

Travel |

Wish You Were Here: Japanese adventures in Kyoto, Tokyo

Travel |

Highway 1 closure: Public can convoy in and out of Big Sur starting today

Travel |

Travel Troubleshooter: Expedia said it would refund my tickets four years ago. Help!

Lake Atitlán is often referred to as “the Lake Como of Latin America,” referencing the Italian lake in the Alps’ foothills. It’s also held sacred by the nation’s Mayan population — Guatemala’s largest Indigenous group. Outside of Guatemala City, Native people in their traditional garb are a common sight. A Mayan woman typically wears a corte (skirt), huipil (blouse) and faja (belt), and you come across shops selling the clothing in different colors and patterns.

Upon arriving at the lake, you’re typically dropped off in Panajachel — one of almost a dozen towns and villages sitting on the water’s edge. There, I spent my final day of reporting at the headquarters of nonprofit Friendship Bridge, which works with Indigenous women entrepreneurs to provide loans, business training and more.

Nicknamed Pana, the town is accessible by car, but several of the most popular destinations can only be reached by boat. Before departing Pana for other lakeside locations, stock up on sunscreen, beer or any other desirable products because the small stores in the remote villages offer limited stock.

Public and private lanchas, or boats, float at the main dock to ferry locals and tourists across the lake. Beeline for the cheap public option, which costs 10 to 25 quetzales, or you could be swindled by a private captain into paying hundreds of quetzales for your own boat. It’s a longer wait as the water taxi loads up on passengers, but it’s worthwhile for your wallet.

The lake is a place to relax, swim and hop from village to village, which is exactly what my partner and I did on our last day of vacation. Boats are ever reliable on the lake, and you can flag one down at the nearest dock. But I wanted to try out a tuk-tuk — a doorless, three-wheeled vehicle, manned by a driver, who can transport you between towns. I highly recommend the very Guatemalan experience.

Our favorite village: San Juan La Laguna, which bursts with art, restaurants and merchants. Our least favorite: San Marcos La Laguna — a hippie haven, known for its yoga retreats and meditation centers. However, it felt very gentrified to me.

We didn’t get the chance to visit Santa Catarina Palopó, where the houses are painted in eye-popping colors. Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve has a prime spot for cliff jumping into the lake, which I’d add to my list when we return.

And that’s “when,” not “if,” because I’d happily fly back to Guatemala for a much longer trip in the future. Not only did I feel welcome and safe during my travels, but I also experienced an adventure that I won’t soon forget.


Where to eat:

Los Tres Tiempos, 6ta. Avenida “A” 10-13 Zona 01, Azotea Del Edificio Centro Vivo, Cuidad de Guatemala: A chic rooftop restaurant, this is the ideal spot to watch the sun set in Guatemala City’s historical district. Enjoy 360-degree views of the Central American metropolis on the outdoor patio.

Cafeteria La Concepcion, H75F+5C4, Antigua: This unpretentious, hole-in-the-wall restaurant offers a limited menu for low prices, with top-tier Guatemalan food like pepián de pollo.

Restaurante 7 Caldos, 3a Calle Oriente 24, Antigua: Enter through the cobblestone street into an open-air restaurant where you can watch as your tortillas are made fresh. The expansive menu, which includes cocktails, is sure to satisfy most cravings.

Café 22, 6a Calle Poniente 8, Antigua: This small café feels like your own private courtyard. Stop by for a cup of Guatemalan espresso and lunch.

Casa Troccoli, H758+773, 5a Avenida Norte, Antigua: With its romantic architecture and expansive garden, date night should go smoothly at Casa Troccoli. Its red sangria is a great way to cool off, so check it out for a quick drink or a meal.

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *