WHERE TO STAY ON A BUDGET IN GUATEMALA
Updated: Sep 11, 2022
Over Thanksgiving weekend last year, a good friend of mine from college invited me to her wedding. She’s from Guatemala, and her wedding (like so many others) had to be delayed nearly two years due to Covid. Even though I would have to journey there all the way from Berlin, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to be there for her big day, and experience a magical Guatemalan wedding.
Of course, if you travel that far, you’re not just going for the weekend (at least if you are me). Also, if you’re saving up for a round-the-world backpacking trip at the same time, you’re also traveling on a budget. Fortunately, Guatemala is a great place to travel on a budget, and I want to share with you four incredible places I stayed there that didn’t break the bank.
1. Hostal Antigüeño, Antigua
Total cost: $16.82 for 3 nights (so about $6.50/night)
My first stop in Guatemala was the old colonial city of Antigua, with its charming colorful streets tucked between active volcanoes. This was the memorable location of my friend’s wedding, which was taking place at the Hotel Casa Santa Domingo—a 5 star hotel that, while ridiculously beautiful and with fascinating history, was way out of my budget range. Lucky for me, the most amazing hostel was just a few blocks away, Hostal Antigüeño.
Hostal Antigüeño is on the edge of the town but still central enough that the whole town feels walkable. You walk into a welcoming reception and common space where fellow travelers relate the adventures from their latest volcano hike, as birds chirp in the verdant courtyard and backpackers take turns using the showers. It was a social hostel, yet not a party hostel.
The staff were really helpful with arranging anything and everything I needed, including booking a reasonably priced and unforgettable hike to Volcan Picaya the day after the wedding, and a shuttle the following day to continue my journey to Lake Atitlan.
For $3 you also get a good value breakfast. With the extra money I saved on accommodation, I was able to treat myself to a nice Guatemalan coffee and cat cuddle at Fernando’s and a half-price massage at Create Therapy by Iglesia Merced (go 10am-12pm for the discount).
2. Hotel Sueño Real, Panajachel
Total cost: GTQ 596 for 4 nights (so about $19/night)
When I got to Lake Atitlan, I had to work remotely for a few days as I was running out of vacation days. I wanted to find a place that wasn’t miserable to work from yet still helped me save money and boy did I hit the jackpot. Sueño Real, which translates to real dream in Spanish, was just that. Just look at this view from the rooftop!
What was even crazier was that, while the wifi didn’t work so well in my room, it was fast and strong on the patio that had a stunning view over Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. So for a week, I was that person at the office that everyone probably despised and weren’t at all convinced (or amused) when I replied “Oh yeah, what do you think of my new Zoom background?”
The hotel is close to a public beach off the lake and feels a bit more local, a couple streets away from the most touristy parts of Panajachel. I fortunately found a great coffee shop around the corner with delicious cardamom coffee and breakfast options. It was also about a 20 min walk from the hotel to where you could catch the lancha (public water taxi) over to the other villages around the lake.
One day I decided to take an extended lunch break, so I closed my computer, walked over to the lancha for a windy ride to a nearby village. I naturally got off too soon, eager to explore the lakeside, and took a winding path through the forest to the restaurant Cafe Sabor Cruceño where I ate a traditional dish made using an indigenous recipe and local ingredients. I then continued on with another lancha to the beautiful Mirador. An affordable and memorable lunch break, thanks to my little remote work paradise in Panajachel.
3. Ch’i Bocol Community Hostel, Lanquin
Total cost: $13.90 for 2 nights (so no more than $7/night)
After a stunningly beautiful week in Panajachel, I took a 9 hour shuttle through the mountains to the inimitable Semuc Champey, a series of natural turquoise blue pools nestled deep in the jungle. I left Panajachel on the shuttle that left at 8am, and I didn’t reach Lanquin, the town closest to Semuc Champey, until it was pitch black outside again. As I got out of the shuttle, legs numb from the long journey, I grabbed my pack and found the guy who works for Ch’i Bocol, which intrigued me mostly because it is only accessible on foot.
We jumped into this man’s pickup truck. He said he was supposed to pick up four more people for the hostel, but they got stuck in traffic so it will only be me. I remained guarded, as any solo traveling female is when traveling alone in a stranger’s pickup truck on a dark road in a rural town, but the driver was friendly and reliable and told me all about his wife and kids. After a 20 minute drive out of town he dropped me off on the roadside and an older man emerged from the shadows—my guide, Santiago!
Now it was time for the 30 minute hike in the dark along muddy mountain trails to my final destination. Santiago gave me a flashlight and offered to take my 50l backpack, which at this point I gladly accepted (aware I would need to pay him some cash afterwards for the additional service). After sliding and trudging through the mud, crossing rickety bridges and marveling at the starry night sky, we arrived at the cozy glowing hostel hidden in the middle of the jungle. I was offered a bite to eat, in the company of a friendly cat, and played a few card games with the two volunteers working at the hostel and the two other guests staying there that night. After dinner I carried my pack up to the hut on the hill where I would sleep, to the sound of the jungle’s orchestra, its many insects.
The next day I booked the full tour of Semuc Champey offered through the hostel, that is only possible thanks to its unique location. After a delicious fresh breakfast and break in the hammock, I got ready for my tour. Since I was the only one who booked it, I ended up having a private full day tour (at no extra cost). First we hiked across the mountains to the famous turquoise pools of Semuc Champey. After hiking up to a viewpoint, past boisterous howler monkeys and locals selling fresh coconut, we went for a swim, jumping from one clear cool pool to another.
After that memorable swim I had a simple filling lunch, and began a candle lit cave tour, involving swimming while holding a candle and climbing up subterranean waterfalls. It culminated with climbing up into the very heart of the cave and jumping into a 5m pool, only a single candle tucked into a crevice in the corner lighting up the void of darkness that enveloped me. The day finished with an exhilarating tubing tour down gentle rapids as rainclouds descended on the jungle. Before I knew it, the tube had taken us all the way back to where I had started that morning, the magical location of Ch’i Bocol Community Hostel.
Total cost: $70/night for Cerro Cahui Guesthouse, $20/night for Alice Guesthouse
After my adventurous weekend in Lanquin, it was time to journey on to the impressive Mayan ruins of Tikal. After another muddy hike, exhilarating ride in a pickup truck, and 9 hour shuttle ride, I arrived in the island town of Flores. I didn’t stay long though, just enough to catch the sunset over dinner with my dad, who met me there to join my adventures. Since I now had a travel buddy, I could spend a little more on accommodation to make sure we were both comfortable, and because I once again had to work remotely.
After dinner in Flores, we got a cab to El Remate, a little village that is almost the last outpost before entering into the expansive ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Our guesthouse, found on Airbnb, was right by the lake and offered free bikes. I especially appreciated this when I finally wrapped up work the next day, while my dad was off exploring some of Tikal. I closed my computer as I noticed the sky start to come aflame with colors. I grabbed one of the bikes and rode off on the dusty gravel roads to find the perfect sunset spot on the lakeside. Ending a work day dancing to your favorite songs in front of an incredible sunset by a beautiful lake—I could get used to digital nomad life!
After my bike ride I went to Alice Guesthouse, recommended by the airbnb host for their food. Tucked away up into the green hillside, I knew it was the kind of hidden gem I love. I settled into a comfy sofa, ordered a cocktail and explored their library, exchanging the book I had just finished for a new one (Love in the Time of Cholera for The Count of Monte Cristo). Lo and behold, the friends I had made over the weekend at remote Chi Bocol Community Hostel walked right in as I was sitting there, as they were apparently staying there! We decided to explore Tikal together the next day. The world is a beautifully serendipitous place.
If I hadn’t been traveling with my 60-something dad, as much as I loved that he joined me, I probably would have opted for Alice Guesthouse over the guesthouse we found on Airbnb to save money and keep making cool friends on the road. We had a delicious dinner and lovely evening there!
After El Remate and Tikal, my dad and I continued to Belize, but this post is about Guatemala so I might cover a story from that trip some other day. Have you been to Guatemala? What’s the favorite place you stayed at?
Here is some key info about Guatemala in case you choose to visit this enchanting country.
🗣 Language: Spanish, officially, though at least 21 Mayan languages are spoken throughout the country, as well as two non-Mayan languages. Many of these languages are so different their speakers can't understand each other!
💵 Currency: Quetzal (GTQ), the exchange rate being about 7.75 GTQ to 1 EUR or USD
💸 Tipping: Not necessary, but 10% of the bill is always much appreciated
🚰 Tap water: Safe to drink yet it is still recommended to use mostly bottled water
🚕 Transportation: Travel between cities on the cheap using the "chicken buses", refurbished American school buses now serving as a sort of public transportation, decked out personally be each driver and usually blasting popular cumbia tunes
🥗 Dish to try: Kak'ik, a popular Mayan dish involving turkey cooked in a spiced red broth. Another dish you can't miss is pepian de indio, a satisfying chicken stew.
🍷 Drink to try: that amazing Guatemalan coffee, but try it with cardamom, of which Guatemala happens to be one of the top global producers. Or mix it with ice and Licor 43 for an alcoholic caffeine kick that helped me beat jet lag the whole wedding!
🏛 Favorite fun fact: I already mentioned my favorite fun fact, that Guatemala is one of the top producers of my favorite spice, cardamom, but how that happened is the best part – in 1914 a German farmer in Guatemala decided India shouldn't have the monopoly on the production of this spice and introduced it to Guatemala. Voila! The world is so wonderfully random and interconnected.
💃 Song to listen to: Guatemala by Rae Sremmurd was still playing on the radio when I was heading there, but I prefer the beats of Guate by Robby East feat. Martina Camargo or the cumbia tune No se acaba el amor that I heard on a chicken bus to Chichicastenango