6 best road trips in Guatemala

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

With an increasingly improved network of roads, many hostels offering designated places to park RVs and cars, and the Pan-American Highway to guide your way, taking a road trip in Guatemala is pretty straightforward – even if things don’t always go according to plan. 

Although Guatemala is a safe place to drive, obstacles like 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-path destinations that would otherwise not be possible.

Here are our top six road trips to make the most out of a visit to Guatemala.

1. Sierra Madre mountains

Best road trip for shopping local
Antigua–Lago de Atitlán; 77km (48 miles); allow two days

This popular road trip winds through traditional towns in the Sierra Madre mountain range to arrive at the spectacular Lago de Atitlán, offering lush scenery and plenty of shopping opportunities along the way. 

From Antigua, head north to the town of Chimaltenango and get on to the Pan-American Highway. An hour-long stretch will take you past street vendors selling pottery, fruit, flowers, jewelry and colorful textiles, so prepare for frequent pit stops.

At Los Encuentros, take the RN-1 exit, which heads directly to Panajachel, the biggest town on the shores of Atitlán. The drive becomes more technical as the winding descent takes you through narrow streets of mountain villages, allowing a glimpse into everyday rural life in Guatemala. 

If you still want to shop, continue north on the Pan American toward Chichicastenango at Los Encuentros instead of heading down the RN-1. This slight detour adds 40 minutes of driving time each way, but Chichicastenango’s historic market on Thursdays and Sundays is well worth it.

Nestled in the green mountains of the highlands, this town 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 will take a few hours to explore, so the sun may be setting by the time you are done.

Spend the night in Chichicastenango and head to the lake in the morning, or arrive the day before the market begins, shopping in the morning before getting back on the road. It’s just about an hour-and-a-half drive from Chichicastenango to Panajachel, where artisans sell traditional textiles, jewelry, clothing and crafts daily.

2. Guatemala’s Pacific coast

Best road trip for beach lovers
Antigua–El Paredon; 100km (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’s also a favorite weekend getaway for families and couples. With the Pacific Ocean on one side and mangroves on the other, this relaxed town is a perfect escape from busy Antigua but still provides enough outdoor activities to keep both children and adults entertained for a couple of days. 

Getting to El Paredon is an easy drive as far as Guatemala goes, and the majority of the journey follows the Pan-American Highway. As you get closer to the coast, you’ll detect a distinct change in the atmosphere from the rest of the country.

Expect the air to become hotter and more humid, and the flora lusher and more tropical. Palms and flowering trees line the road, while vendors selling coconut water, papayas and pineapples suddenly appear. El Paredon’s main road is not paved, but it’s easily 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 Guatemala’s volcanic landscape © Ivan Castro / 500px

3. Volcano route

Best road trip for scenery
Lago de Atitlán–Quetzaltenango; 84km (52 miles); allow three hours 

The beginning of this volcanic road trip is dramatic: you wind up a mountain road while watching the stunning Lago de Atitlán and its trifecta of towering volcanoes become smaller and farther away. Next, a scenic ascent 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 – that create an epic landscape to drive through, not to mention worthy treks to tackle if you are up for the challenge once you arrive.

4. Central cloud forests

Best road trip for jungle walks, caves and natural pools  
Cobán–Río Dulce; 215km (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 teeming with colorful birds and flowers beckon the adventurous 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 of Lanquín, surrounded by forested mountains and flanked by the Río Cahabón, provides an excellent stop for a few nights. Visit the famous turquoise pools and limestone bridge nestled deep in the jungle of Semuc Champey or the nearby K’anba Caves for the popular candlelit underground pools.

From Lanquín, continue down to Río Dulce and on to Lago Izabal, the country’s largest lake – 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 opportunities © Rolando Estrada / Getty Images

5. Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes

Best road trip for an off-road adventure
Quetzaltenango–Laguna Brava; 250km (155 miles); allow two days

Surrounded by the impressive Cuchumatanes, the tallest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America, Huehuetenango’s beautiful Laguna Brava is notoriously hard to access unless you have a 4×4 vehicle and a sense of adventure.

Parts of this route are quite technical, so it’s a trip recommended for those confident in their driving skills. Best reached via a road trip from Quetzaltenango, the road to Huehuetenango is straightforward, but the last few hours of the journey to the lagoon require off-road driving through rivers, up rock-strewn hills and on barely-there dirt roads littered with potholes.

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

6. Guatemala’s northeastern route

Best road trip for exploring jungle ruins
Antigua–Tikal; 535km (332 miles); allow one week

If there is one place in Guatemala that makes it worth having your own car, it’s definitely Petén. For travelers looking for a great multi-day road trip, the journey from Antigua is a lovely one.

Petén contains the ruins of Tikal, a sprawling, ancient Mayan city buried deep in the heart of the forest. Here, you’ll also find many smaller archeological sites and protected tracts of jungle that are wonderful for hiking and observing wildlife. Many of these spots are much easier to visit if you have your own transport. 

Coming from Antigua, it’s best to split this journey up with an overnight stay in Río Dulce, where you can swim at Lago Izabal and visit the unique hot waterfalls before getting back on the road the following day.

The drive from Río Dulce to Flores (the biggest town closest to the ruins) takes three to four hours, and once in Flores, a car will serve you well for exploring the area for a few days.

Driving to Tikal from Flores takes 1.5 hours, and you can make your way to other lesser-known ruins in the area, such as Yaxha (as impressive as Tikal but more rugged and less busy) and Nakúm, a national park with the largest number of restored structures in Petén apart from Tikal and Uaxactún – a smaller site that was once used as an astronomical observatory by the Maya.

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