6 Best Road Trips in Guatemala for Independent Adventure

Two women sit at a stall covered with colorful textiles in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

From the dramatic western highlands to the jungle-laden ruins of Tikal, Guatemala has no shortage of incredible things to see, and access to a vehicle makes it a lot easier to see more of the country at your own pace.

With an ever-improving road network, many hostels offering dedicated parking spaces for RVs and cars, and the Pan-American Highway to show you the way, a Guatemala road trip is pretty easy, even if things don’t always go the way you want. plan.

While Guatemala is a safe place to drive, obstacles such as traffic jams and last-minute protests can sometimes derail your schedule. If you can roll with the punches, driving here can be a great experience full of opportunities to visit off the beaten track destinations that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

Here are our top six road trips to get the most out of visiting Guatemala.

Discover new ways to explore the world’s wildest places with our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox.
Leave room in your suitcase for all the great finds on the market in Chichicastenango © Visual Communications / Getty Images

Sierra Madre Mountains

Best road trip to shop locally

Antigua-Lago de Atitlan; 77 km (48 miles); allow two days

This popular road trip winds through traditional towns in the Sierra Madre Mountains to get to the spectacular Lake Atitlanwith lush landscaping and plenty of shopping options along the way.

From Antigua, drive north to the town of Chimaltenango and continue onto the Pan-American Highway. An hour-long journey takes you past street vendors selling pottery, fruit, flowers, jewelry and colorful textiles, so be prepared for regular pit stops. At Los Encuentros, take the RN-1 exit, which leads directly to . goes panajachel, the largest city on the shores of Atitlán. The ride gets more technical as the winding descent takes you through narrow streets of mountain villages and gives you a glimpse of everyday Guatemalan rural life.

If you do want to shop, continue north on the Pan American direction Chichicastenango at Los Encuentros instead of descending the RN-1. This little detour adds 40 minutes of driving time each way, but the historic market of Chichicastenango on Thursdays and Sundays is well worth it. Nestled in the verdant mountains of the highlands, Chichicastenango is home to one of the largest markets in Central America. The labyrinth of stalls with vendors selling textiles, jade, gold, pottery, leather goods and jewelry takes a few hours to explore, so the sun may be setting by the time you’re done. Spend the night in Chichicastenango and head to the lake in the morning, or arrive the day before the market opens, do some shopping in the morning before hitting the road again. It is about an hour and a half drive from Chichicastenango to Panajachel, where artisans sell traditional textiles, jewellery, clothing and handicrafts on a daily basis.

Guatemala Pacific Coast

Best road trip for beach lovers

Antigua-El Paredon; 100 km (62 miles); allow two hours

A few hours drive from Antigua, El Paredon is a small fishing village popular with surfers and travelers looking to get off the tourist trail for a while. It is also a favorite weekend getaway for families and couples. With the Pacific Ocean on one side and mangroves on the other, this laid-back city is a perfect escape from busy Antigua that still offers plenty of outdoor activities to keep kids and adults alike busy for a few days.

Getting to El Paredon is an easy drive as far as Guatemala, and most of the trip follows the Pan-American Highway. As you get closer to the coast, you will notice a marked change in the atmosphere from the rest of the country. Expect the air to become hotter and more humid, and the flora more lush and tropical. Palms and flowering trees line the road as vendors of coconut water, papayas and pineapples suddenly pop up. The main road of El Paredon is not paved, but is navigable with a car. Once there, you can stay for a few days, and some hostels offer places to park RVs and trailers.

A cone-shaped volcano topped with clouds, framed by a broken stone wall in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
Quetzaltenango is a great base for exploring the volcanic landscape of Guatemala © Ivan Castro / 500px

Volcano Route

Best road trip for landscapes

Lago de Atitlan-Quetzaltenango; 84 km (52 ​​miles); allow three hours

The start of this volcanic road trip is dramatic: you enter a mountain road as you watch the beautiful Lago de Atitlán and its trifecta of towering volcanoes shrink and further afield. Next, a scenic climb through verdant mountains and volcanoes takes you to Guatemala’s second largest city – the main hub of the highlands, Quetzaltenango

At 701m (2300ft) above sea level, the city is surrounded by impressive volcanoes – such as Volcán Zunil, Volcán Santa Maria and its smaller cousin Santiaguito – creating an epic landscape to drive through, not to mention worthy treks to embark on. grab it if you’re up for the challenge as soon as you arrive.

Central cloud forests

Best road trip for jungle walks, caves and natural pools

Coban–Río Dulce; 215 km (134 miles); allow three days

A road trip for nature lovers, this drive takes you through the wilderness of Alta Verapaz, where cloud forest and jungle full of colorful birds and flowers invite adventurers to get out of the car and explore. Expect dirt roads with many natural attractions along the way, including caves, waterfalls and Biotopo del Quetzal National Park.

The picturesque town Lanquin, surrounded by forested mountains and flanked by the Río Cahabón, offers an excellent stopover for a few nights. From Lanquin, visit the famous turquoise pools and limestone bridge deep in the jungle of Semuc Champey or the neighborhood K’anba Caves for the popular candlelit dip in underground pools. From Lanquín, continue to Río Dulce and on to Lago Izabal, the largest lake in the country – perfect for a day of swimming.

A man looks out over rolling green hills and low clouds in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Huehuetenango offers incredible off-road capability © Rolando Estrada / Getty Images

Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes

Best road trip for an off road adventure

Quetzaltenango-Laguna Brava; 250 km (155 miles); allow two days

Surrounded by the impressive Cuchumatanes, the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America, Huehuetenango’s beautiful Laguna Brava is notoriously difficult to get to unless you have a 4×4 vehicle and a sense of adventure. Parts of this route are quite technical, so it is a trip recommended for those who are confident in their driving skills. Best reached by road trip from Quetzaltenango, the road to Huehuetenango is easy, but the last few hours of the journey to the lagoon require off-road driving through rivers, over rock-strewn hills and down barely-there dirt roads dotted with potholes .

All of this eventually leads to the beautiful crystal clear turquoise lake, surrounded by three cenotes and forested mountains. It is possible to camp for the return journey or to rent a cabin for the night. The journey is challenging, but the experience of being so deeply immersed in the raw beauty of nature is unparalleled.

Guatemala’s Northeast Route

Best road trip for exploring jungle ruins

Antigua–Tikal; 535 km (332 miles); allow one week

If there is one place in Guatemala where it is worth having your own car, it is definitely peten† For travelers looking for a good multi-day road trip, the trip from Antigua is a nice one. Petén contains the ruins of Tikal, a sprawling ancient Mayan city buried deep in the heart of the forest. Here you will also find many smaller archaeological sites and protected areas of jungle where you can enjoy hiking and wildlife watching. Many of these places are much easier to visit if you have your own transport.

Coming from Antigua, it’s best to split this trip with an overnight stay in Río Dulce, where you can swim in Lago Izabal and visit the unique hot waterfalls before hitting the road again the next day. The drive from Río Dulce to Flores (the largest city closest to the ruins) takes three to four hours, and once in Flores, a car will serve you well to explore the area for a few days. The drive to Tikal from Flores takes 1.5 hours, and with a car you can make your way to other lesser-known ruins in the area such as Yaxhaas impressive as Tikal, but rougher and less crowded) and nakuma national park with the largest number of restored structures in Petén, except for Tikal and Uaxactún, a smaller site once used by the Maya as an astronomical observatory.