5 Reasons You Should Definitely Consider Hiking in Guatemala

Jan 13, 2019 | Guatemala, Hiking

Guatemala is a truly beautiful country with too many hidden gems to talk about. It’s one of those countries that seems to get so many mixed reviews everywhere you read. So much beauty which is often tainted by high crime rates.

While this certainly is true for parts of the country, it shouldn’t stop you from visiting! Thousands of incomers have trouble-free visits every year.

While Guatemala is a goldmine in terms of ‘tourist attractions’, it’s also blessed (or maybe cursed) with some of Central America’s most active and spectacular volcanoes.

This means there are tons of hiking opportunities and different ways to explore this country.

Let’s get straight to the five reasons you should definitely consider hiking in Guatemala!

volcanoes over the water at lake atitlan

It’s safer than you probably think


Let’s get the safety out of the way first. It’s quite a hard one to talk about and you read so many differing opinions/experiences on the web that making a decision on visiting a country like this isn’t always easy.

First of all, when you read all this negative press I honestly don’t blame you for not wanting to visit. They often paint the picture of a warzone like place where you’re almost guaranteed to get mugged/kidnapped at every corner.

These stories all have one thing in common though….

They all focus on the negative!

The news and various reporters in these countries are experts at filling up the tabloids with negative stories. This is also the case with the news in the UK and other western countries! It’s why I rarely read or watch the news.

What these stories fail to talk about is the number of amazing experiences and things to do in Guatemala! It’s a country totally awash with stunning landscapes, amazing people, decent food and volcanoes to hike.

While it does have high crime rates compared to many places, it isn’t as bad as it’s two southern neighbours, El Salvador and Honduras. I felt significantly safer in Guatemala and didn’t get robbed or threatened once in my whole 9 months there.

Remember, the majority of the crime occurs in the urban zones and in impoverished areas.

Yes, there is a lot of corruption and yes, certain zones of Guatemala City are considered as “red zones” (for example zone 18).

church in guatemala city with barbed wire

Heed locals’ advice and stay out of the high-crime zones

I found the simplest solution if I ever even detected a threat while living in the city was to always remain positive and friendly (even if you have an irritated police officer unfairly asking for a bribe) and to simply avoid the undesirable zones.

Outwith the city, crime is definitely much less of an issue and tourism has exploded in recent years. While you still have to be cautious, it shouldn’t in any way stop you from enjoying yourself and making the most of what’s on offer.

There are numerous hiking trails and I never had any negative or threatening experiences while hiking in Guatemala. The guides don’t carry guns or weapons (which they did in El Salvador).

I find that it’s vital to take advice from the locals and stick to it. This is what I try and do wherever I go.

After all, the locals tend to be experts in the area so you’d be daft to ignore what they say. In a new place, simply ask around about the places to visit and places to avoid, where is safe and where’s not.

The Guatemalans are among the friendliest people I’ve ever met and they will go out their way to help you and make your visit as safe and enjoyable as possible.

In conclusion, don’t worry about the crime stats and be aware that the vast majority of tourists visit with completely trouble-free experiences!

 

Lots of Volcanoes (and some erupting ones!)


According to worldvision.org, Guatemala has over 37 volcanoes, 3 of which are currently active. This gives you a huge range of hiking options all around the country. While I was there, I only managed to hike three of the volcanoes and my biggest regret is not finding the time to do more!

The volcanic terrain is very different to what you might be used to – the ascents can be very mixed, ranging from rich vegetation and woodland to black volcanic rocks. The dormant volcanoes are often covered in trees almost all the way to the summit! An example of this was the Santa Maria volcano (link) near Quetzaltenango.

fuego erupting with tree in the foreground

There’s often plenty of vegetation on the level of the erupting volcanoes

Many of the volcanoes are located quite close to popular tourist spots such as Antigua and Lake Atitlan. This makes them easy to access and there are regularly organised tours and excursions.

The easiest one is undoubtedly the Pacaya Volcano which is where you get to toast marshmallows from the lava’s heat! Being the easiest means this one is probably the most touristy.

As well as hiking volcanoes and general mountain climbing, cross-country treks are also popular in Guatemala. Quetzaltrekkers is a non-profit organisation run by volunteers and they offer a range of cross-country hikes and treks.

One of the most popular cross-country treks in the Guatemala is through the mountains from Nebaj to Todos Santos.

Aside from looking incredible, Todos Santos is famous for something slightly more peculiar; an annual drunken race on horseback!! If you have time, then you absolutely must check out the short Vice documentary below.

Another one which I’ll definitely be doing when I go back is the Mayan city of El Mirador – a trek deep into the jungle bordering Guatemala and Mexico. This one lasts several days and takes you into some of the country’s remotest jungles with the chance to see some incredible wildlife and fauna.

 

The Views


I don’t know about you but one of the main reasons I love to go hiking is to experience the views. Nothing beats that epic feeling of freedom while soaking in some of the planet’s most incredible landscapes.

You just forget everything else happening in the ‘real world’.

Guatemala is no different in this sense, with the views often being stunning. It doesn’t have such dramatic mountain ranges like in Europe, but many of the peaks stand alone and have a colossal, intimidating look about them. A prime example of this is the eerie looking Agua Volcano.

agua volcano with clouds

Agua always looks epic standing on its own

Most volcanoes in Guatemala are located in the southwest of the country and follow a chain along the Pacific Ring of Fire. The country’s 3 active volcanoes are all located here.

Talking of active volcanoes, one of the things you can experience here which isn’t boasted in many other places is being able to witness an eruption. Volcan de Fuego is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and mild eruptions can happen almost daily.

A popular hike is to climb the Acatenango Volcano and get front row seats of its neighbouring Fuego spurting out lava all night long. This was one of my most memorable hikes to date.

Sadly, Fuego’s eruptions aren’t always harmless, like the one which caused widespread devastation on 3rd June 2018.

 

The Locals


Among some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, the Guatemalans themselves are a good enough reason to go hiking in the country.

You’ll often come across locals farming or working on the fertile land at the base of some of the country’s extinct volcanoes and they always seemed to be so happy and curious. The kids will smile and ask questions while the adults might look a bit more serious but it’s not uncommon for them to offer you some fruit or something for the road.

I didn’t find the people in certain neighbouring countries to be as welcoming but the Guatemalans are among the most hospitable people I’ve come across.

 

Guides are very affordable


For the majority of hikes you do in Guatemala, you either will want to or will have to hire a guide. It’s just a thing in these parts and obviously brings in a load of money from tourism.

Some of the mountains are huge and the treks extremely long so, as a foreigner, it’s usually better to go as part of a tour (like Acatenango). But there were some, like Pacaya, where I felt a guide was unnecessary. She said it was mandatory to hire a guide on Pacaya in case it erupted mid-hike….not sure how she was saving us from the lava flows! But never mind.



The point is, even if you do have to get a guide, it usually works out extremely cheap. It was around $10 for park entrance and the guide going up Pacaya.

Be aware, that you can book it online but it will likely be far more expensive. It was around $80 for the overnight hike up Acatenango but that was with a reputable tour company from Antigua who supplied absolutely everything. Shop around Antigua and the local areas for the best deal.

When I can, I’ll always hike solo and without assistance but there are certain parts of the world where that’s difficult to do. Guatemala is one of these, they have many of the mountains locked in as ‘hotspots’ which is why a guide is often compulsory.

 

Tips for hiking in Guatemala


While Guatemala is a hiker or outdoor lover’s dream, it still shouldn’t be taken too lightly!

Some of the highest mountains in Guatemala sit at over 4000 metres (14,123 ft) which can come as quite a shock if you’re not used to altitudes like these.

Here are some tips to help best prepare you, especially if you’re maybe not the most experienced hiker.

 

Go with a guide

I’m normally not a fan of hiking with a guide and like to be as independent as possible. In Guatemala (and most of Central America for that matter), I’d make an exception.

Besides the fact there are plenty of routes where guides are mandatory, some of these regions can be unpredictable in terms of security.

“I thought you said Guatemala is actually safe??”

I did, and generally speaking it is! Unless you’re inviting trouble, your trip to Guatemala should be problem-free.

If you hire a guide or go on an organised hike, you’re ensuring a more relaxed experience for yourself. They show you some of the best spots with views and tend to know the areas like the back of their hands.

By all means, if you’re an experienced hiker and have done your research then feel free to head out by yourself. I just found it easier for navigating and finding the best spots, especially when active volcanoes are involved…

Without a guide, I’d never have found the awesome viewpoint of Fuego erupting from the summit of Volcan Acatenango. That alone was worth paying for.

 

Pack plenty of warm clothes

Remember, most of Guatemala is well above sea level and the climate is quite temperate. In Guatemala City, for example, I rarely felt temperatures above 25/26 degrees Celsius.

On the summit of any of Guatemala’s major peaks, you’re sitting at well over 3000 metres (9842 ft) above sea level and it isn’t uncommon for temperatures to plunge into the negatives. Don’t be fooled by your proximity to the equator!

 

Do your research

Whether you’re going with a guide or not, I’d always recommend researching where you’re going.

Have a look at how the weather varies depending on the time of year. You can hike year round in Guatemala but May – October is the wet season where rain is frequent and heavy.

Saying that, I climbed Acatenango in June and views were crystal clear all night! Sometimes it really is luck of the draw.

 

Consider paying for a porter

The hikes can be steep and long. There will almost always be porters with donkeys/horses offering to carry your stuff for a small fee.

I chose to carry my own stuff but several of my group going up Acatenango decided to pay porters. The going rate was around $20 for a weight-free couple of days!

 

Take lots of food and water

Many of the guides you go up with will supply food and water. I recommend you take your own as well. Be especially sure to take plenty of water.

OX expeditions actually gave us tons of food on our hike (they even brought wine for the summit!), but I did hear of other companies offering measly portions, or even the Guatemalan equivalent of a pot noodle…..not ideal.

 

DON’T hike Volcan de Agua alone

Again you may be thinking this goes against what I said about the country being safer than you think.

I’d say this is the big exception to the general safety while hiking in Guatemala.

Due to the nature of the towns and villages at the base of the volcano, robberies are common and hiking alone is not recommended. When I was living in Guatemala, two German tourists decided to tackle it alone and ended up getting robbed at gunpoint.

I heard further stories from guides and locals who all said Agua is the one volcano that needs to be tackled with caution (or not at all).

This does suck because Agua is the iconic mountain you can see from everywhere in Antigua. It’s there and is begging to be conquered! Just be sure you go up in a group or with a guide if you decide you want to do it.

Conclusion


Guatemala really is a hiker’s paradise. There are loads of options from gruelling volcano hikes to more relaxed cross-country treks.

Among the best hikes I did in Latin America were in Guatemala and I’m still aiming to go back to conquer Tajamulco! (The country’s highest peak).

While I still recommend you spend a bit of time checking out certain popular locations such as Atitlan, Semuc Champey, Tikal and Antigua, you should definitely combine these with a volcano hike or two!

I promise you won’t regret it.

As always, thanks a lot for reading and please leave any thoughts or questions in the comments box below! 🙂

 

 

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