Time: 15 days
Cost including flights: $1300* (flights were $375, flew into Guatemala City and out of Belize City)
*We could have cut cost easily, but we chose to "splurge" a bit on our vacation. Things in Guatemala are inexpensive. For one person, we generally spent $10-$15 per night for accommodation, $15 per day on food, and then when you factor in transportation and activities, it will add up to the full amount.
Day 1 – Antigua
You'll probably fly into Guatemala City. Guatemala City is not safe, especially if you don't know someone there. When you leave the airport, there will be a handful of buses transporting everyone to the most popular destinations. Grab one to Antigua.
Antigua is a classic, Spanish-style, cobblestone town, lots of people rave about it. I prefer the more outdoorsy part of travel, so this city wasn't my favorite part of the trip, but it's definitely worth at least a day. If you want to stay longer, check out the volcano El Fuego! For just the day, walk around and explore the city, check out the chicken buses, and set up your ride out of town for the next day.
Ate at: Ta'cool ★★★★☆
Stayed at: Villa Estela ★★★★☆
Day 2-4 — Lake Atitlan
I made a few mistakes when booking our time at Lake Atitlan. Luckily, I made them, so you don't have to. First thing to note, this lake is gigantic....when reading the guidebooks, I thought it would be easy to boat or walk to all the towns around the lake. I was very wrong. You really can't walk from town to town easily. And even in the places you can, it comes with a warning...AKA bring a group and hike during the day. You can boat from town to town but its about 10-15Q each time, and boats only run until 5pm. So wherever you stay, plan to be there for the night.
We stayed at La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz for the first two nights. The place itself was beautiful, with delicious food, and a nice communal area to hang out that includes a pool table. However, beware, the staff is clicky, and not that pleasant. But the real problem is this place isn't easily accessible and the town itself, Santa Cruz, doesn't offer much. There is a town square at the top of the very steep hill, with some delicious, albeit dirty-looking, pizza stands. We watched some kids play soccer there one night. There's also a cooking school there called CECAP that has wonderful food and smoothies.
I would actually recommend staying in San Pedro, which is where we stayed on our third night. We randomly found Hotel El Gran Sueño and it was perfect! Highly recommended. This town is more of what I expected with bars and restaurants and travel agencies. Book your bus out of here the day before you are ready to leave. We took a 5am shuttle to Lanquin.
You should: rent kayaks! It was only 7Q per hour. And from San Pedro, if you take the kayaks right, you'll come across a flooded building. You can kayak into the building and climb to the second story.
Be careful: This is a tourist hotspot and people will take advantage of tired travelers trying to get where they are going. We got WAY over charged multiple times for boats because we didn't do our research. Boats to and from each town should only cost 10-15Q unless it's after hours.
Day 5 — Lanquin
Lanquin itself is a small, very rural town. The bus ride there from the lake (12 hours long) is mountainous, curvy, bumpy, but lovely. People come to Lanquin to see Semuc Champey. The bus from the lake will drop you off in a muddy area and then a picup (pick-up truck with metal hand rails in the back) will come pick you up and take you to your hostel).
We stayed at El Retiro and had a lovely time. The grounds are beautiful, and they have a great bar with a wonderful menu. You most likely won't venture into town, so pick a hostel you want to stay at all night. You can also reach Semuc Champey, from Coban, but it's two hours away, while Lanquin is only 45 minutes so I would highly recommend Lanquin.
Tips: Bring bug spray!!!! Also, there are no ATM's in Lanquin so come prepared.
Stayed at: El Retiro Lodge ★★★★★
Day 6 — Semuc Champey
This was truly one of the best days of my life. It was unbelievely fun. We spelunked in bat caves, swung on massive rope swings, jumped off a 30 foot bridge, and swam in crystal clear terraced pools. We organized this trip with our hostel, El Retiro, for 185Q (about $24) round trip including transportation. You only had to buy your own lunch.
Get the full story of this epic day here! If you go to Guatemala, DO NOT miss this! You can book your travel out of Lanquin at your hostel the night before.
Day 7 — Rio Dulce
Rio Dulce is a crazy town, tons of shops, busy streets, very over-stimulating. The town itself isn't that beautiful so I would recommend staying in a hostel along the river like the Hotel Kangaroo. Just know that these hostels only run boats into town until around 5pm so find a hostel that will be fun to stay at all night.
Two common things to do from Rio Dulce are a day trip to Livingston, which I recommend skipping, and a day trip to Finca El Paraiso and El Boquerón Canyon which I would highly recommend! Check out more on this here. As for Livingston, the guidebooks make it sound like this really cool mix of cultures, as its a place where the Garifuna people live, however it's hard to get a sense of that in the 2 hours that you are there during your day trip. Plus it was swelteringly hot. The boat ride to Livingston from Rio Dulce is kind of nice, but overall not worth it and you'll see enough of the river when you boat to your hostel.
Stayed At: Hotel Kangaroo ★★★★☆
Day 8 — Finca el Paraiso + Boquerón Canyon
So after you spend a day on the river hanging at your hostel and maybe going to Livingston, on Day 8 you can visit the hot waterfall and the canyon, thorough details here. This was an amazing experience, especially the canyon. If you go to the canyon, and the guides tell you it's safe, go on your own and swim into the canyon!
You can fit these sites into one day and take a bus out of town to Flores in the afternoon. There are a couple of different choices, one thats comfortable and one that's not. =) We took the less comfortable option, which is fun to look back on now. I stood for the first hour while Gui squished onto the floor, no AC of course, and for the last few hours I Gui and I shared one seat.
Day 9 — Flores
Leaving Rio Dulce Town around 2, you'll arrive in Flores between 6pm and 8pm depending on the bus. Have a plan or some patience once you get into Flores. Your bus driver will most likely be fast-talking, persuasive, with a "cheap" hostel with "views of the lake." He may even try to force you to sign up for your next day adventure right then and there. We were tired and made this mistake and ended up over paying a bit to get to Belize. Just have your wits about you, and be willing to say no, or I'll think about it. It's worth noting that if you do want to pay a bit more, you can get your whole ride from Flores to Caye Caulker packaged up nicely together including the boat road all the way to the island. Any travel agency can do this for you 1-2 days in advance.
Flores is a cool little town/island on a big lake. You can take boats to the other towns across the lake. I wanted to visit the Petencito Zoo on the other side of the lake. It has mixed reviews, however, so do your research.
Flores is a cool place to hang out at and chill along the water at night; grab some ice cream and listen to music. It's one of the more touristy places we went and can be very hot inside the city where not much breeze gets in. It's nice, but the real reason to see Flores is so you can see Tikal....
Day 10 — Tikal
We chose to do the Sunrise Tour. You can choose sunrise or sunset. That meant we got up at 3am, so we could get to the park while it was still pitch black, walk through the jungle hoping not to step on any spiders, and make it to the viewing spot just before the sunrise. They really have the schedule down to a science.
Tikal was really beautiful, and has a most interesting history. Take advantage of the knowledge your guide has, as they don't have time to tell you everything, but usually love answering questions.
You'll have a good bit of free time to walk around the park and explore the ruins. It can be exhausting walking up and down all the stairs and rocks so bring good snacks!
My favorite part of Tikal were the animals! We saw SO many spider monkeys, toucans (amazing), kudamundi (omg), and heard many howler monkeys. Listening to the forest wake up was really beautiful.
What you'll pay: Tikal was the most expensive excursion we booked on the trip. I think it ended up coming out to about $50/person for everything. That includes transportation and park entry, but not lunch. You can make it through the day on snacks if you want to.
Day 11–14 — Caye Caulker
Cake Caulker is an awesome way to end the trip, and it's very different than Guatemala! We spent our days swimming, napping, biking, exploring, and our nights drinking with new friends, petting the local dogs, and buying $3 Chinese food from Dragon Palace and having a date on a dock out under the stars.
The island is about 5 miles long, but was split in two by a hurricane and there's nothing on the North side of the island. So you can easily explore the whole place in a few days. Check out The Split for swimming and the Lazy Lizard for drinking. All places have happy hours!
The motto here is "Go Slow" and you should do just that!
Ate at: the Sports Bar. ★★★★★ I can't remember what it's called but it's the only sports bar on the island. It's really fun and so delicious. I had this amazing chocolate cake there.
and: Bamboo Grill. ★★★★★ This place had the best fried fish ever. Whatever they used for the crust was magical.
Night life: The Reggae Bar is pretty much the only place opened after 9pm. It's wild there but it's the place to be late night.
You should: snorkel! ★★★★★ There are a ton of dive spots around. They'll take you to the Great Barrier Reef and Sting Ray Alley where you will seen tons of sting rays and swim with the nurse sharks!
and: canoe! ★★★★★ Dirty McNasty's had free canoes, so one night we paddled out to the Split and watched the sunset in our canoe. It was so beautiful, and a special memory.
Stayed at: Dirty McNasty's ★★★★☆ If you are looking for a party hostel, look no further. The accommodations aren't great, but they'll make sure you have a good time. Free rum punch at 7pm, ping pong table, pool table, cheap breakfast the next morning. We had an awesome time.
and: Barefoot Beach Belize Resort ★★★★☆ This place has a completely different vibe. We stayed in our own little hut which had air conditioning! (the first time on the whole trip). It was definitely luxurious compared to everywhere we stayed and it came with bikes which is necessary because it was on the far end of the island.
Day 15 — FREE DAY
This free day is "baked" into the itinerary so you can add it in wherever you'd like to stay an extra day. However, I kept this free day in case something went wrong; transportation isn't always perfectly reliable so you should remain a bit flexible if possible. Our trip ended up going perfectly as planned, so we got to use this extra day at the end of our trip in Belize!