There is something distinct about Guatemala. I’m not sure if it is the active volcano landscapes, deep Mayan cultural roots, rainbow-hued chicken buses or charming colonial towns, but Guatemala is a country that stays with you (or in my case, stays in your home). The sheer amount of handicrafts and textiles I bought in Guatemala is slightly staggering… Regardless, Guatemala is an easy flight from the United States and Canada, making it an ideal destination for a regional getaway.
Are you an American traveler with limited vacation time, like me? Don’t worry, a one week vacation in Guatemala is a great way to get a taste for the country— which will likely inspire a return trip in the future. With one week in Guatemala, you can easily see Guatemala’s Big Three – Antigua, Lago de Atitlán and Tikal – no matter how tight or expansive your budget.
How to Plan the Perfect One Week Vacation in Guatemala
Day 1 + 2: Antigua
Flying into Guatemala City, start your 7 day trip with a shuttle or taxi directly to Antigua, a colonial city that can be described in one word: charming. Our shuttle from Guatemala City airport arrived in the morning of our first day, giving us a full day to explore. The former capital city of Guatemala is filled with adorable streets, friendly locals and picturesque facades. Despite its widespread popularity with tourists, Antigua still feels like a quaint colonial town with lots of character. The entire city was named a UNESCO world heritage site! Out of all the places in Guatemala, this was the city I knew the most about prior to arriving because it is an Instagram darling.
There are lots of advertisements for paid tours of the city, but with a guidebook of Antigua in hand, there’s no need to spend the extra money! We easily did a self-guided walking tour of the central town area, which is do-able in a few hours since the parque central is quite compact. Power up your walk with a quick latte from Cafe Condessa — you won’t be disappointed with their organic Guatemalan roasts. If you’re hungry, grab breakfast at the adorably hip Y Tu Pina Tambien. Run by a pair of 20-somethings, this cozy coffee shop and cafe that offers tasty brunch food as well as live music and local art.
While exploring Antigua, make sure to peek in some of the interior courtyards that hide behind the colorful facades. Because Antigua was a Spanish outpost, you’ll notice traditional Iberian architecture interior courtyards on nearly every block. Our AirBnb host recommended that we just go in any open door that we found, and that’s exactly what we did, much to our pleasure. Lots of the courtyards have little restaurants, cute fountains and small mom & pop shops to check out which you wouldn’t initially notice from the street.
Notable sites to visit on a one day walking tour of Antigua include:
- Santa Catalina Arch
- Merced Convent & Church
- Santiago Cathedral
- Las Capuchinas Ruins
- Parque Central
- San Agustin Church
One of the highlights of our walking tour was the Santo Domingo Church & Convent on the east side of town. Restored to its 18th century glory, Santo Domingo is now a hotel, church, museum, restaurant, bar, and gardens. As you wander through the expansive complex, you’ll take in the beautiful, airy gardens with sun-bleached pergolas and local flora. The restaurant inside Santo Domingo, El Tenedor de Cerro, is a great spot for a date night because they offer a traditional yet elevated Guatemalan menu in a historic and romantic venue. We opted for an 8 course tasting menu (for only $40!!) that turned out to be the best meal we ate on the entire trip. A few highlights from the meal include a delicious red bean & pumpkin soup served with pepitas, melt-in-your-mouth short ribs served with a blue-cheese au gratin potatoes and a four-piece dessert which included homemade raspberry sorbet, dark chocolate mousse and a honey poached pear. This is a must-visit if you’re a foodie like me!
Antigua is centrally located in Guatemala’s main tourist region, so it is a great jumping off point for excursions. For your second day in Antigua, consider signing up for a day trip! There are volcano hikes, ChiChi market excursions, and many more options. We opted for a tour of a working coffee plantation, because we knew that Guatemala is well-known for its high-quality coffee production.
Located on the slopes of one of Guatemala’s famous volcanoes, Finca Filadelfia, while not certified organic, tries to utilize as many sustainable principles as possible, such as shade-grown, compost fertilized, and sun-dried beans. The affordable guided tour of the finca’s premises takes you through all the major steps of the coffee making process. It is a bean to cup kind of tour!
Coffee beans grow right along the branch of the tree in big clusters. They transition from green to red as they age and ripen. Once the beans are roughly the same red color as a red delicious apple, they are ready to pick. All of the beans at Finca Filadelfia are hand-picked and we were there in the middle of the harvest season, getting to see the action in progress. Largely a female industry, women go out daily to pick the trees, carrying the collected beans in a big fabric satchel which hangs off the crown of their heads.
Once the beans are picked, they head to the factory for cleaning & drying, in which the several layers of the bean need to be removed before the bean can be roasted. Size, deformities, age, and color are all part of the quality inspection process, and are largely stream-lined using specialized machinery that sorts the beans quickly. Usually only the top-tier, 5 star quality beans are used for export, while the 4 and 3 star beans are used for blended, lower-quality production or instant coffee.
Roasting is a highly unique process depending on what type of flavor is desired from the coffee. Although the beans themselves will have certain characteristics depending on the region they’re grown in, roasting might include different types of wood or additives to create a certain profile or enhance certain qualities in the flavor. The longer the bean is roasted, the darker the bean becomes, and in fact, the lower the caffeine content.
My favorite stop on the tour was naturally the tasting room! We got to sample a few different roasts as well as espresso and standard brew coffee. The flavor was so bright and fresh, and our guide explained that a lot of the flavor from Guatemala is actually from the volcanic soil the plants grow in. It imparts a different profile than other regions of the world, which I could certainly pick up on the types we tried.
We ended our second day in Antigua with a meal at a modern Guatemalan gastronomy restaurant, Michos. Small on the inside but with a nice outdoor seating along the courtyard, this place is getting experimental with some of their flavor combinations. Highlights from this meal include roasted garlic and avocado, baked Brie with papaya and prosciutto and lamb sliders with a flavorful jalapeño and feta spread.
Day 3-5: Lake Atitlan
When I remember my time in Guatemala, I remember Lake Atitlan. I remember the colorful Mayan clothing, the fresh lake air, the incredible scenery, the smells of the farmers market, the bustle of the artisan markets. There is an intense beauty and spirituality in this place that really spoke to me. We actually spent an entire week in the Lake Atitlan area during our trip to Guatemala, and I just loved it there. For the purpose of this itinerary, I am only highlighting my favorite experiences in a compact 3 day schedule.
You should schedule a shuttle bus from Antigua to Lake Atitlan (there are many options available), and it will take about 2 hours driving. You are most likely to arrive in Panajachel, which is the biggest city on the lake, and the main point for boat transfers around Atitlan. Don’t underestimate how long it takes to transfer on the lake (several hours sometimes) and most boats only run in the morning, thanks to strong winds that come most afternoons.
The perimeter of the large lake is peppered with small Mayan towns and human outcroppings, all of which have their own unique character and flair. Depending on where you booked your hotel, you may need to take additional transportation from Panajachel, such as a boat taxi leaving from the city’s main docks. Budget travelers typically head to the party town San Pedro La Laguna, but for a more authentic Guatemalan experience, consider accommodations in San Juan La Laguna. This small village is known for its striking Mayan textiles and unique artistic style of painting. San Marcos La Laguna is the lake’s hippie hangout, home to yoga studios and vegan cafés galore. We stayed in the quiet but boutique Santa Catarina Palopó. Wherever you stay on the lake, keep an eye out for local Mayan people dressed in traditional outfits, with the symbols and patterns which denote exactly what village they hail from.
For your three days in the Lake Atitlan area, I would recommend the following activities:
- Day 1: Nature Hike + Kayaking on the Lake
- Day 2: Mayan Cooking Class + Indigenous Culture
- Day 3: Chichi market
For a leisurely hike near Panajachel, head to the Reserva Natural Atitlán where you will see plenty of beautiful foliage and fluttering butterflies. You can also organize a guided hike up Rupalaj K’istalin, the mountain above San Pedro, for glorious lake views. In the afternoon and early evening, get some adventure in with a kayaking tour on the lake.
Because Lake Atitlan is one of the primary regions where indigenous people live in Guatemala, I think it is essential to spend a day learning about the culture and traditions of Mayan descendants. Food is an amazing vessel to experience Mayan traditions, and a cooking class at Lake Atitlan Cooking School is a perfect way to dive deeper into the culinary history of the Mayan people. The intimate class sizes and visit to the local farmer’s market allow you to really touch, learn and taste all about traditional Guatemalan food.
I can easily say the cooking class and market tour I took with the company’s founder, Anita, was the best experience of our entire trip in Guatemala, because it was real; it was authentic; it was meaningful. Anita spoke from her heart and cooked from her heart, opening up her home to us and sharing her traditions. I walked away in awe of her accomplishments, inspired by her story, and empowered with a reinvigorated hope that even a single person can create change. For lunch, we made 3 dishes– Pepian, tamalitos de chipilin and rellenos de platanos. Pepian is one of the oldest dishes in Guatemala’s culinary history and is probably the most famous Guatemalan stew today.
If you’re anything like me, then shopping some of the incredible artisan markets that Guatemala has to offer is a must-do activity. World-renowned for its colorful woven textiles, handmade pottery, and general artisan craftsmanship, it would be a shame not to visit at least one market during your 7 days in Guatemala. To experience the beating heart of indigenous craft, take a day trip out to Chichicastenango (also called Chichi), the largest market in Central America, on either a Thursday or Sunday. There are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of colorful booths full of woven goods, bags, blankets, jackets, jewelry — really anything you could possibly want. It is definitely overwhelming at first, so I would recommend going to the market with a few items in mind ahead of time. For me, I knew I wanted some huipil-weaved items, a woven rug, and some spare fabric. The locals are used to tourists, so you can expect friendly and helpful interactions in broken Spanish or English.
Day 6-7: Tikal + Flores
Since its semi-recent rediscovery in 1848, Tikal has been named a world heritage site making it a popular destination for visitors hoping to explore the El Peten region. Take an early morning shuttle back to Guatemala City from Lake Atitlan, and then hop on one of the daily flights to Flores, which is the major city in the region. It is surprisingly cute, so I recommend spending the afternoon of your arrival exploring Flores on foot.
For any Star Wars fans out there (such as my husband who told me this fun fact), Tikal might look familiar — it was used as a filming location for Yavin 4 in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope. Nestled in the hilly, jungle-covered region of El Peten, Tikal offers a step back in time to the turn of the millennium, but also a raw view of the true splendor of the Guatemalan rainforest.
Archaeologists believe that the foundation of the city of Tikal was laid around 700 BC, making it the oldest site found in Central America to date. Tikal was a major Mayan city, which at the height of its glory in the 6th century AD, may have housed over 100,000 residents. It was abandoned in approximately 900, corresponding with the wider, regional decline of the Maya civilization.
The pyramids themselves are of course impressive, the tallest standing at 65 meters tall. There are 5 main pyramids (Templo I-V) open to tourists. The most iconic is Temple I, which will most likely be your first view of the park. It was built as a burial temple for one of Tikal’s most influential kings and it was the only temple that was found with a tomb still intact. My favorite pyramid however, was Templo V, which is a little off the beaten path (ie: less visitors). Pictured above, It’s unique rounded sides and half-uncovered profile make it a special sight to see.
Speaking of the jungle, that was my other highlight from visiting Tikal. Only about 25% of the Mayan ruins have been uncovered with the rest of the site left in the wild and raw condition it was found. The biodiversity reserve at Tikal is massive, filled with dense rainforest and rolling hills. From the top of Temple IV, you can get a view of just how expansive the forest really is. As you wander through the ruins, you’re also wandering through the rainforest. There are excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing in Tikal, including howler monkeys, tapirs, turkeys and sometimes even ocelots & jaguars. Going at sunrise is the best time to go for wildlife viewing (although we didn’t do this), because you can hear the forest come alive.
This post is a compilation of posts originally published in January 2016 and updated in January 2021.