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I was so fortunate this year — or rather, so incredibly careful — to make it out of the United States Covid-free and visit Guatemala with a large group of friends for New Year’s Eve. I had heard about the beauty of this country for years, but it was my first visit, and it didn’t take long for me to understand the hype… which wasn’t hype at all. The rumors are true: You should absolutely go for a visit.
I did the hardest and most rewarding hike of my life up a live volcano. I ate and drank both typical and modern-fusion food and cocktails in Antigua. And I danced the night away and stretched it out in a yoga class on a platform high above Lake Atitlán. I even did a little bit of shopping, and quickly made new friends in the international community there and practiced my Spanish with the endlessly patient and kind locals. I couldn’t really ask for more.
So, what should you bring for a successful visit? I’ll get to a more specific packing list below, but first, a few overall tips:
Pack light. The thing about Guatemala is that it is all hills. I don’t think I saw one elevator or escalator. A friend brought a full-sized suitcase and I’m sure if my husband wasn’t there to schlep it for her (and throw it onto the boat as it pulled away) she would have tipped someone nicely. However, I think you will be happier if you pack light. And if you have a large hiking backpack or duffel, bring it. I simply cannot imagine dragging even my carry-on-sized suitcase up and down all the flights of stairs and hills we had to navigate. Plus, the streets in Antigua are quaint. By that, I mean cobblestone.
It’s casual. The overall crowd is composed of hippies, backpackers, outdoorsy types, and yoga teachers. The streets are cobblestone, so don’t bring heels. You’ll be leaping on and off bobbing boats and hoofing it up and down steep hills. If you show up dressed like you’re going to a resort in the South of France, you’ll feel very out of place. While we did go to a couple of newer high-end restaurants and bars in Antigua, there was never a dress code. So if you’re worried about looking cute, just pack some lipstick and dangly earrings and call it a day.
It’s safe-ish? Guatemala has become safer in the past decade, but you still need to be smart. I’ve heard a couple of stories about women on their own after dark getting robbed. So leave your diamonds at home, don’t travel between lake towns after dark, always have a trusted buddy (who is male, if possible), and stow large wads of cash in a safe place that is non-obvious and out of sight. Oh, and bring a headlamp.
Pack as if you’re going to hike. The thing to do in Guatemala is hike a volcano. All your friends will do it, so you might as well pack for it even if you’re not usually a hiker. Like I said, it was tough (and very cold at the top!) but it was worth it. The hiking expedition company you book with will lend you some supplies, but they tend to be haphazard. For example, you can snag a scarf, fleece, hat and gloves and be happy, but the boots they provide are rough. (Doc Martens, anyone?) So if you have room, pack the essentials that will make you comfortable, such as a hiking puffer coat, zip merino sweater, hiking boots, thick socks, and hiking pants and/or leggings.
The temperature swings. Like many mountainous regions, it’s warm during the day, but the temperature drops. So pack layers. A poncho or wrap should do the trick.
On the Plane
This list is for when you’re flying from a cold place to Guatemala. But even if you’re not, everything in here you’ll want if you’re hiking to the top of the volcano. Did I say it was cold up there? It’s cold.
- Backpack or large purse
- Black leggings in a natural fabric – natural fabrics are more comfortable and odor-fighting for long travel days
- Long-sleeved cotton tee
- Packable puffer – You’ll want this for the volcano hike.
- Light merino wool sweater – Black ensures if you layer it under a scarf or poncho, no one will know it’s also for hiking. But they have other colors if you want something more fun!
- Comfortable undies in natural fabric
- Socks – I love merino wool specifically because it feels nice and wicks away moisture and odor.
- Lightweight sneakers
- Sling bag – I’ve started carrying a sling bag when I travel, because it gives me quick access to my passport, wallet, and tickets, without me having to take off my backpack.
- Passport case – We like this leather option or this recycled design. Pockets for vaccine cards and extra passport photos are crucial.
- Phone and charging cord
- Laptop and laptop sleeve
- Portable phone charging battery
- Lifestraw purifying water bottle – Our eco-resort claimed to have filtered water, but I saw the filter and it’s the kind you fit under your sink in the suburbs, definitely not heavy duty enough for the kind of microbes swimming around the area. All our friends seemed to get very ill, except me. Because I brought my Lifestraw. Trust no one! Filter it all yourself.
- Wide-mouth reusable coffee cup with sealable lid – Can be used for coffee, tea, or also as a to-go container in a pinch for soup, fruit, snacks, etc.
- SPF chapstick
- Hand sanitizer
- Portable spork – so you don’t have to use a disposable one. Make sure it’s plastic so it doesn’t get confiscated by security.
- Pack of tissues – For bathroom emergencies
In Your Suitcase/Backpack
I’m going to reiterate here that if you have a large hiking backpack or duffel, bring it. I simply cannot imagine dragging even my carry-on suitcase up and down all the flights of stairs and hills we took on just to get to our resort at Lake Atitlan. Our hotel had stairs and no elevator. Plus, the streets in Antigua are quaint. By that, I mean cobblestone.
- Smaller backpack, tote, or net bag that packs flat – (this Terra Thread one is great) but a cotton tote or cute net bag would also work great. Just don’t pack something that will take up a ton of space.
- Washable button-down blouse in cotton or linen – something casual to wear in the sun.
- 2 tanks
- Reversible tie-top – tie it in front for going out, tie it in back for a more modest look.
- Shorts – Either jeans or lightweight cotton.
- Casual, wide-leg pants – in cotton or washable silk.
- Long loose jacket – Otherwise known as a kimono, you’ll want this for swanning around the resort or jumping in an ecstatic dance.
- Poncho/serape/wrap in a natural fiber – It gets chilly at night, so you’ll want one to throw over your shoulders. Try one of these from Lauren Manoogian, one of these colorful and affordable alternatives, or one from Diarrablu. (Or, go shopping in San Juan, the textile town, when you arrive at the lake!)
- Light sweater
- Comfortable sandals that strap onto your feet – You’ll be jumping to and from boats on the lake. Bring something with thick soles, too, because of those cobblestones.
- Hiking boots – If you’re doing the volcano hike, you will be happy you brought these. Usually, I travel with trail running shoes, but the volcano is so slippery and steep and cold, you’ll want the heavy-duty kind if you have them. Hiking companies will lend you some, but they’re pretty low-quality.
- Hiking pants – You might be able to get away with just leggings, but I’m glad I brought my alpine hiking pants.
- Ankle and long socks – make at least two pairs very warm, for the volcano hike
- Pajamas – washable silk is the easiest and most lightweight to pack. Bring a style that you can wear during the day, too, for more outfit options.
- Packable wide-brimmed hat or baseball cap – Depending on your personal style, of course. I used both.
- Costume jewelry – keep it minimal and not too flashy. Leave the diamonds at home.
- Bathing suit
- Yoga bottoms and top – You will do some yoga, trust.
- Sarong – Great as a cover-up, towel, or beach blanket.
- Toiletry bag
- Underwear and bras
- Non-toxic sunscreen
- Headlamp or Solar lamp by Luci – Important for navigating after dark through the lakeside towns.
- Universal sink plug– So you can wash your clothing in the sink. I used mine while there!
- Waterproof reusable laundry bag
- PurSteam traveling iron/steamer – this thing is tiny, but crucial if you travel with natural fibers like cotton and linen.
- Travel first aid kit
- Dramamine – If you tend to get sick on boats
- Dr. Bronner travel-sized soap – Great for if the place you are staying doesn’t provide hand soap, or if you need to wash your clothes in the sink.
- Ear plugs – The walls tend to be very thin in Guatemala, wherever you are.
For Rainy Season
- Matador droplet wet bag
- Rain jacket with hood – Folds up tiny. I’ve been so grateful for this multiple times.
- Luggage rain cover
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