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Plan your gap year to Guatemala with this ultimate travel itinerary

Written by Milly Whitehead on 11 / 05 / 2022

Gap Year Advice

Since covid Guatemala, the ‘off grid’ central American country has come into the lime light to satisfy the boundary-pushing gap year traveller.

With a foot in both the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans, a string of majestic volcanoes running through its core (30 to be exact), highlands, rainforests, glorious sandy beaches and the breath-taking crater lake of Atitlan, we can see why.

Most gap year travellers combine with Costa Rica and Mexico as they add great contrast to create a dynamic travel itinerary and often opt to start in Guatemala as it is easy to navigate due to great hostels, bus system and tour agencies. However, lots of flights connect Guatemala with South America so if Peru, Colombia or Ecuador are on your wish list - super easy to combine with.

Perfect Itinerary

Bang in the middle of Central America - below Mexico and Belize and above Panama and Honduras - with a foot in both on the white sandy beaches of the Caribbean (kick-back opportunity) and the black turtle nesting beaches of the Pacific Ocean (volunteering opportunity).

In between these two oceans you’ll find a string of majestic volcanoes running through its core, decorated with rainforests, coffee plantations, the breath-taking Lake Atitlan and the uber cool city of Antigua.

1. Antigua

Once the capital – this stunning, ancient, colonial beauty is what you would hope for – half renovated, half faded glory, enveloped by 3 towering volcanoes who create a majestic, looming backdrop.

The cities centrepiece is the Cathedral de Santiago - a stunning 17th century cathedral surrounded by meandering cobbled streets and plaza’s brimming with street vendors, cafes, boutiques and markets selling everything you could possibly need - even the largest goat!

Only 40 mins from Guatemala City so a great place to start and acclimatise. Lots of funky hostels, bars and markets to explore.

2. Acatenango Volcano Hike

Towering over Antigua is the dramatic Acatenango Volcano, which delivers an amazing overnight hike to witness the exploding Fuego Volcano in the distance. This is a must despite being pretty tough, so don't approach with a hangover.

The trek up takes about 4.5 hours and be prepared – it’s steep, go slowly. There will be plenty of rest breaks and the scenery is absolutely stunning, initially climbing through pasture, then into virgin rainforest and finally above the trees to the volcanic area.

As you near base camp you’ll start to witness the active volcano called Fuego, which is about 850m away - erupting large plumes of ash and fire – absolutely stunning and sounding like thunder.

Base camp is about an hour from the summit, here you go for a sunset walk to watch Fuego in all its glory, before having supper and camping for the night.

You’ll start the summit trek at 4 am the next morning, which involves a 1-hour trek to the top with head torches on to catch sunrise. You then start the descent which will take about 3 hours.

This climb will be tough due to altitude but it is absolutely stunning, with breath taking views at the top - so worth getting fit for.

3. Lago de Atitlán

Nestled in amongst the towering volcanos is the aquamarine Lago de Atitlan, home to many indigenous communities who go about their day fishing from their rustic rafts, while women in their multi-coloured outfits do their washing by the banks, under bloom bursting trees. So peaceful.

The lake is 8km across from north to south, 18km from east to west, and averages around 300m deep. Aim for the main lakeside town of Panajachel and from here springboard down to Santiago Atitlán, (to experience local life), San Pedro La Laguna (for a party or 2), San Marcos La Laguna (healing) and Santa Cruz La Laguna and Jaibalito, for picture perfect downtime.

Top things to do:

  • For some retail therapy visit the handicraft Chichicastenago (Chichi) market
  • Craving spectacular views, then hike to the “Indian Nose”, also known as La Nariz
  • Experience the Guatemalan culture at the Solola Market
  • Go for a dip in the inviting Lake Atitlán – San Marcos is the cleanest shore for swimming
  • Join a yoga class
  • Paddle on the lake in a kayak
  • Try Guatemalan chocolate

4. Semuc Champey

Nestled away in the densely forested mountains of Alta Verapaz. This is a gap year traveller favourite which many people fail to get to as it is so off the beaten track. Semuc is famous for the tubing experience down the Lanquín River where you navigate turquoise natural pools, caves, and waterfalls. It is absolutely stunning and the photos do not do it justice.

5. Tikal

Set amongst the rainforest is the ancient site of Tikal – a complex of temples, plazas and broad limestone causeways, who have been protected over the centuries by the canopy of their jungle setting.

The most striking features of Tikal are the towering, steep-sided, partially restored temples, rising to heights of more than 44m, the plazas - which have been cleared of trees and vines, linked by causeways set under a jungle canopy who home monkeys, agoutis, foxes and ocellated turkeys - so take your binoculars.

The best time to see this is at sunrise – to see the ruins emerging in the dawn jungle light and listening to the dawn chorus. The history of this lost civialistion is fascinating and you will be led by local guides.

6. Livingston Best Caribbean Beach

Livingston is located at the mouth of the Río Dulce at the Gulf of Honduras. The town is fairly tranquil with a relaxed, Caribbean-infused pace of life so expect a chilled vibe, delicious food, reggae and a few bars to wet your whistle.

While here it’s easy to hire a boat, and explore the canyons, jungles, beaches and waterfalls up-river and for a real Caribbean experience, head out to the Zapotillo Cayes. The Cayes are part of the Belize Barrier Reef— where you will find the powdery, white-sandy beaches and delicious turquoise water. Postcard perfect.

How to travel around Guatemala?

Independent backpacking or in need of some structure?

The above itinerary could be enough for many gap year travellers but if you would like more information about where to stay, how to get about and a few in country contacts then join LEAP VIP- a travel resource built by our gap year travellers for future gap year travellers.

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Rinse our extensive knowledge on Guatemala - find out more about flights, buses and places to stay.

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