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Guatemala travel guide - Travel S Helper

Guatemala

travel guide

Guatemala, officially the Republic of Guatemala (Spanish: Repblica de Guatemala), is a Central American country bordered on the north and west by Mexico, on the southwest by the Pacific Ocean, on the northeast by Belize, on the east by the Caribbean, on the east by Honduras, and on the southeast by El Salvador. With an estimated population of approximately 15.8 million, it is Central America’s most populated state. Guatemala is a representative democracy, with Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, better known as Guatemala City, as its capital and biggest city.

The area that is now Guatemala was originally the heartland of the Maya civilisation, which spanned Mesoamerica. The Spanish captured the majority of the nation in the 16th century, including it into the viceroyalty of New Spain. Guatemala gained independence from the Federal Republic of Central America in 1821 and was dissolved in 1841.

Guatemala suffered from persistent instability and civil conflict from the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It was controlled by a succession of dictators beginning in the early twentieth century, all of whom were supported by the United Fruit Company and the United States government. In 1944, authoritarian tyrant Jorge Ubico was deposed by a pro-democracy military coup, sparking a decade-long revolution that resulted in far-reaching social and economic changes. In 1954, a military coup supported by the United States put an end to the revolution and established a dictatorship.

Guatemala experienced a brutal civil war between the US-backed government and leftist insurgents from 1960 to 1996, which included military-led genocide murders of the indigenous Maya people. Guatemala has seen economic development and successful democratic elections since a peace agreement brokered by the United Nations, but it continues to suffer with high rates of poverty, crime, drug trafficking, and instability.

Guatemala’s wealth of biologically important and distinct habitats supports a high number of endemic species and contributes to the classification of Mesoamerica as a biodiversity hotspot. Additionally, the nation is renowned for its vibrant and unique culture, which is defined by a mix of Spanish and indigenous elements.

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Guatemala - Info Card

Population

17,263,239

Currency

Quetzal (GTQ)

Time zone

UTC−6 (CST)

Area

108,889 km2 (42,042 sq mi)

Calling code

+502

Official language

Spanish

Guatemala | Introduction

Tourism in Guatemala

Tourism has become one of the most important drivers of the economy. In 2008, tourism contributed 1.8 billion dollars to the economy. Guatemala receives about two million tourists per year. In recent years, more and more cruise ships have called at Guatemalan seaports, which has led to an increase in the number of tourists in the country.

Fascinating Mayan archaeological sites are located on its territory (Tikal in Peten, Quiriguá in Izabal, Iximche in Tecpan Chimaltenango and Guatemala City). Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey are destinations of natural beauty. As a historical tourism, the colonial city of Antigua Guatemala is recognised by UNESCO as a cultural heritage site.

There is a strong international interest in archaeological sites because the city of Tikal was built and inhabited at a time when culture was at its most literal and artistic expression, ruled by a dynasty of 16 kings, the Maya of Tikal built many temples, a ball court, altars and stelae in high and low relief.

Guatemala is very popular for its archaeological sites, pre-Hispanic cities as well as its religious-tourist centres such as the Basilica of Esquipulas in the city of Esquipulas and the beautiful beaches on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Guatemala. Other tourist destinations are the national parks and other protected areas such as the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Weather & Climate in Guatemala

Guatemala has a varied climate. Most parts of the country are hot (between 80 [~27ºC] and 90 [~35ºC], depending on the season and location), with post-meridian thunderstorms usually moderating the heat somewhat. In the Altos, the mountainous region, the weather is generally a little cooler, varying between 70 [~25ºC] and 80 [~31ºC] depending on the season.

Geography of Guatemala

Guatemala is a mountainous country with small patches of desert and sand dunes, all of which are hilly except for the southern coast and the vast lowlands of the northern department of Petén. Two mountain ranges cross the country from west to east, dividing Guatemala into three main regions: the highlands, where the mountains are located; the Pacific coast, south of the mountains; and the Petén region, north of the mountains.

All major cities are located in the highlands and the Pacific coastal regions; Petén is comparatively sparsely populated. These three regions differ in climate, altitude and landscape, offering dramatic contrasts between the hot, humid tropical lowlands and the cooler, drier highland peaks. The volcano Tajumulco is the highest point in Central America at 4,220 metres.

The rivers are short and shallow in the Pacific watershed, wider and deeper in the Caribbean watershed and the Gulf of Mexico watershed. These rivers include the Polochic and Dulce Rivers, which flow into Lake Izabal, the Motagua River, the Sarstún River, which forms the border with Belize, and the Usumacinta River, which forms the border between Petén and Chiapas, Mexico.

Biodiversity in Guatemala

Guatemala has 14 ecoregions ranging from mangrove forests to oceanic coasts with 5 different ecosystems. There are 252 listed wetlands in Guatemala, including five lakes, 61 lagoons, 100 rivers and four swamps. Tikal National Park was the first mixed site to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Guatemala is a country with a distinct wildlife. There are about 1,246 known species. Of these, 6.7% are endemic and 8.1% are threatened. Guatemala is home to at least 8,681 species of vascular plants, of which 13.5 % are endemic. 5.4 % of Guatemala’s area is protected by IUCN categories I-V.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve in the department of Petén covers 2,112,940 ha, making it the second largest forest in Central America after Bosawas.

Demographics of Guatemala

Guatemala has a population of 15,824,463 (2014 estimate). With only 885,000 inhabitants in 1900, it is the fastest growing population in the Western Hemisphere during the 20th century.

Guatemala is highly centralised: Transport, communication, economy, politics and the most important urban activities take place in the capital Guatemala City, which has about 2 million inhabitants within the city limits and more than 5 million in the metropolis, i.e. more than a third of the country’s population.

The estimated median age in Guatemala is 20 years, with 19.4 years for men and 20.7 years for women. Guatemala is demographically one of the youngest countries in the Western Hemisphere, comparable to most Central African countries and Iraq. In 2010, the proportion of the population under 15 years of age was 41.5%, 54.1% were between 15 and 65 years of age, and 4.4% were 65 years or older.

A significant number of Guatemalans live outside their country. The majority of the Guatemalan diaspora is in the United States of America, with estimates ranging from 480,665 to 1,489,426. It is difficult to obtain accurate figures for Guatemalans abroad, as many are asylum seekers waiting for their status to be determined. Emigration to the United States of America has led to the growth of Guatemalan communities in California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Rhode Island and elsewhere since the 1970s.

Ethnic groups

Guatemala is a very diverse country, populated by a variety of ethnic, cultural, racial and linguistic groups. According to the 2010 census conducted by the National Institute of Statistics (INE), about 41.5 % of the population are mestizos (also known as ladinos), reflecting a mix of indigenous and European heritage. A similar proportion of Guatemalans (41 %) are entirely of Amerindian descent, one of the highest percentages in Latin America after Peru and Bolivia. Most Guatemalans belong to the Maya people, namely the K’iche’ (11.0% of the total population), the Q’eqchi (8.3%), the Kaqchikel (7.8%), the Mam (5.2%) and the “other Maya” (7.6%). Less than 1% are indigenous non-Maya.

White Guatemalans of European descent (also known as Criollo) make up 18.5 percent of the population. The majority are descendants of German and Spanish settlers, followed by other Europeans such as Italians, British, French, Swiss, Belgians, Dutch, Russians and Danes.

Smaller communities are present, including about 110,000 Salvadorans. The Garífuna, who are mainly descended from black Africans who lived on St. Vincent and mixed with indigenous people, live mainly in Livingston and Puerto Barrios. The Afro-Guatemalans and mulattos are mainly descended from banana plantation workers. There are also Asians, mainly of Chinese origin, but also Arabs of Lebanese and Syrian origin. The growing Korean community in Guatemala City and nearby Mixco currently numbers about 50,000. Guatemala’s German population is credited with introducing the Christmas tree tradition to the country.

Religion

Christianity remains strong and important to the life of Guatemalan society, but its composition has changed over generations of social and political turmoil. Roman Catholicism, introduced by the Spanish during the colonial period, remains the dominant church, representing 48.4% of the population in 2007. Predominantly evangelical Protestants (most Protestants are called evangelicos in Latin America) made up 33.7% of the population at that time, followed by 1.6% of other religions (such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism) and 16.1% who reported no religious affiliation. A more recent survey in 2012 found that Catholics made up 47.6% of the population, Protestants 38.2%, other religions 2.6% and non-religious 11.6%.

From 1970 to 2016, and especially since the 1990s, Guatemala has experienced rapid growth in evangelical Protestantism, which currently accounts for over 38% of the population and continues to grow.

In the last two decades, especially since the end of the civil war, Guatemala has experienced increased missionary activity. Protestant denominations have grown significantly in recent decades, especially the Evangelical and Pentecostal varieties; growth has been particularly strong among the ethnic Maya, with the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala maintaining 11 presbyteries in indigenous languages. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown from 40,000 members in 1984 to 164,000 in 1998, and continues to grow.

The growth of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Guatemala has been particularly strong, with hundreds of thousands of conversions in the last five years, giving the country the highest proportion of Orthodox adherents in the Western Hemisphere.

Traditional Mayan religion persists through the process of inculturation, where certain practices are integrated into Catholic ceremonies and services when they are compatible with the meaning of the Catholic faith. Indigenous religious practices are increasing due to the cultural protection introduced by the peace accords. The government has introduced a policy of providing altars in each Mayan ruin to facilitate traditional ceremonies.

Between 1990 and 2012, PROLADES conducted a study of public opinion polls in Guatemala. The data shows a relative decline in Catholicism and significant growth in evangelical Protestantism, people who do not subscribe to any religion and minority religions (including indigenous traditions).

Language In Guatemala

Spanish is the official language of Guatemala and the most widely spoken language. More than twenty indigenous languages are still spoken throughout the country, but many Maya have at least a basic knowledge of Spanish, except in the most remote areas. For the Garifuna of Livingston, Garifuna and English are the main languages (but Spanish is also spoken).

The most familiar form of Spanish spoken between good friends is “tú” and “vos”, but it varies by region. It is considered rude and very informal when used with someone you don’t know. As a tourist, it is safer to stick with the “usted” form. However, don’t be surprised if some host families and language teachers immediately use the “tú” or “vos” form. If this is the case, you may respond in the same way.

Internet & Communications in Guatemala

Phone

The international telephone code for Guatemala is 502. There is no area code. All telephone numbers have eight digits. On 18 September 2004, the telephone system was changed from seven to eight digits, and there is a system for adding certain digits to the beginning of seven-digit numbers (description WTNG.info.

The telephone system is not great, but it works. Tourists can call abroad from call centres where you pay by the minute. It is also easy to buy a phone card to use on public phones. The phones do not accept money. So to use a public phone on the street, you have to buy a phone card. Generally, the cost of a 10-minute call to North America is about 8 quetzals. Mobile phones are quite cheap and calls to the US can cost as little as $0.08 per minute. If you plan to stay and use the phone for a while, consider buying a cheap prepaid phone. Nationwide wireless internet access for laptops is also offered as a service by some companies. Telefónica offers good coverage with its PCMCIA EV-DO cards.

Post

The postal system is traditionally unreliable, but your postcards usually get through. A stamp for Europe costs Q5. However, there are many other alternatives to the federal post office that are reliable, although often a little more expensive.

Internet

Internet access is widely available. Even most remote areas have some kind of internet access. Many larger areas also have WiFi. All Pizza and Chicken Camperos restaurants (of which there are many) offer free WiFi, as do many other restaurants and cafés. Some hotels also offer computer banks with internet access. Just ask and you will eventually find some kind of free access.

Mobile Internet access (3G/GPRS)

If you have an internet-capable mobile phone (iPhone, Google Android, Nokia N95 etc.) or a USB stick for your laptop, all you need to do is get a local SIM card (approx. 25 euros) and you can take advantage of the prepaid access rates, which are usually offered in hourly, daily or weekly increments.

Anecdote: When I was in Guatemala in May 2010, I bought a SIM card from TIGO Guatemala and a day or two later I automatically received an SMS offering me 30 days of free internet access without having to do anything, which was variable in its reliability but still very useful. With a programme like PDANet, you can create a mini-WiFi network that follows you wherever you go. I looked it up and apparently the normal way to activate the internet after making the correct configuration settings was to send the SMS message “WAP” to shortcode 805, but I didn’t have to do that. The APN (Access Point Name) was internet.tigo.gt.

Economy of Guatemala

Guatemala is the largest economy in Central America with a GDP per capita (PPP) of USD 5 200. Guatemala has many social problems and is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Income distribution is very unequal, more than half the population is below the national poverty line and just over 400,000 people (3.2%) are unemployed. The CIA World Fact Book estimates that 54.0% of Guatemala’s population lives in poverty.

In 2010, the Guatemalan economy grew by 3 %, gradually recovering from the crisis of 2009, which was due to lower demand from the US and other Central American markets, as well as a slowdown in foreign investment amid a global recession.

Remittances from Guatemalans living in the USA are now the most important source of foreign income (two-thirds of exports and one-tenth of GDP).

Guatemala’s main exports include fruits, vegetables, flowers, handicrafts, fabrics and others. In response to the growing demand for biofuels, the country is growing and exporting more and more raw materials for biofuel production, including sugar cane and palm oil. Critics say this is driving up the prices of staple crops such as maize, a major component of the Guatemalan diet. Because of subsidies on US corn, Guatemala imports almost half of its corn from the United States, which uses 40 per cent of its crop to produce biofuels. The government is looking at ways to legalise the production of poppies and marijuana, hoping to tax the production and use the tax revenues to fund drug prevention programmes and other social projects.

Gross domestic product (GDP) at purchasing power parity (PPP) was estimated at USD 70.15 billion in 2010. The service sector is the largest component of GDP at 63%, followed by the industrial sector at 23.8% and the agricultural sector at 13.2% (2010 est.). The mining sector produces gold, silver, zinc, cobalt and nickel. The agricultural sector accounts for about two-fifths of exports and half of the labour force. Organic coffee, sugar, textiles, fresh vegetables and bananas are the country’s main exports. Inflation was 3.9 % in 2010.

The 1996 peace agreement, which ended a decades-long civil war, removed a major obstacle to foreign investment. Tourism has become a growing source of income for Guatemala thanks to new foreign investment.

In March 2006, the Guatemalan Congress ratified the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) between several Central American countries and the United States. Guatemala has also concluded free trade agreements with Taiwan and Colombia.

Entry Requirements For Guatemala

Visa & Passport for Guatemala

The following nationalities do not require a visa to visit Guatemala: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Denmark, El Salvador, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom, United States, Vatican City, Venezuela.

A valid passport is required for all except citizens of Central American countries.

Airlines often require proof of onward travel, but this is rarely checked by the authorities in order to get a visa when you fly to Guatemala.

How To Travel To Guatemala

Get In - By air

Guatemala’s main airport, La Aurora International Airport (IATA: GUA), is located in Guatemala City. International flights come mainly from other Central American countries, the USA, Mexico, Colombia and Spain. The airport recently underwent a modernising reconstruction. Today it is a glass and concrete building with modern shops and duty-free facilities, as you would expect in any large city. However, restaurant options are still somewhat limited. American Airlines, Avianca, Copa, Delta and United all fly to Guatemala, but at high prices. Iberia also flies to Guatemala City.

Guatemala’s second airport is located in Flores (IATA: FRS), in Petén. This small airport receives flights from Guatemala City and neighbouring Belize.

Get In - By bus

  • From Belize. Several companies offer express buses from Belize City to Flores, Guatemala, via San Ignacio and Xunantunich, with connections to Guatemala City. A cheaper alternative is to take a local Belizean bus to the border town of Benque Viejo, a taxi to the border and from Melchor de Mencos to Flores by colectivo or a taxi to Tikal.
  • From El Salvador. Buses are available from San Salvador and Santa Ana.
  • From Honduras. Services are offered from Copán Ruinas, San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba and Tegucigalpa.
  • Mexico. Buses are available from Tapachula, Palenque, Chetumal, Tulum, Cancún and Mexico City.

From further afield, it is possible to reach Guatemala from Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. The following bus companies offer international connections (the addresses in the links below are their addresses in Guatemala City):

Pullmantur, 1a Avenida 13-22 Zona 10 (Holiday Inn Hotel), +502 2495-7000. Operates buses between Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa and San Salvador.

TransGalgosInter.7a Avenida 19-44 Zona 1, +503 2232-3661, +503 2220-6018, +503 2230-5058. Departure at 1pm. International services to Tapachula from Guatemala City via Retalhuleau and Coatepeque on one route and twice daily to San Salvador on another. They also operate a third domestic route to Quetzaltenango from Guatemala City. $17.

PlatinumCentroamerica (King Quality), 4 Ave 13-60 Zona 10, +502 2501-1000. Serves Guatemala City, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and Managua.

Comfort Lines, 4 Ave 13-60 Zona 10, +502 2501-1000. Runs mainly between Guatemala City and San Salvador.

Ticabus (Transportes Internationales Centromaericanos), Calzada Aguilar Batres, 22-55 Zona 12, +502 2473-3737. Departures at 6 am and 2 pm. Central bus company operating buses on the Central American isthmus between Panama City and Managua. From Managua, one route goes to Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula in Honduras, while another goes via the Pan American Highway to San Salvador, Guatemala City and Tapachula in Mexico. They also have another north-south route that connects El Salvador with Honduras…

Transportesdel Sol (Hotel Crowne Plaza), +502 2422 5000, +502 4147 3104. Departs at 3:00 am and 4:00 pm. Goes to Guatemala City, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa and Managua. 28 $ (one way).

Get In - With the boat

There are several ferries to and from Puerto Barrios and Livingston, as well as Punta Gorda, Belize.

How To Travel Around Guatemala

Get Around - By bus

It’s hard to miss the brightly coloured buses that fill the streets of Guatemala’s big cities and highways. These are chicken buses, or camionetas in Spanish, and are a common mode of transport for Guatemalans and an adventure for tourists. They are much cheaper than tourist buses or taxis and are usually very crowded, with three people squeezing into seats barely big enough for two children and others standing in the aisles.

The buses are often second-hand North American school buses with the logos “Blue Bird” and “Ford”. In addition to the driver, there is usually a conductor in the door – these people are often very rude and can even be dangerous if you tell them something you don’t like (e.g. turn down the volume of their subwoofers, which is often used in nightclubs). The driver collects the fare and occasionally jumps out to steer the bus through a blind intersection or sharp curve. On highways, chicken bus drivers are aggressive and do not hesitate to overtake in oncoming traffic. Driving these buses on the steep roads of the western highlands is particularly gruelling, but it is perhaps the most typical Guatemalan experience. It should be mentioned that many people are regularly killed in these harrowing experiences when these buses collide with other vehicles, fly into a ravine or overturn and spin around on the highway, dismantling the bus and serving as a blender and crusher for the passengers inside.

Bus drivers sometimes charge foreign tourists more than the usual fare. If you look at what other travellers pay, you can usually avoid this problem. By sending a message to the Guatemalan tourist office Inguat, you inform them about this problem.

You can get on a Chicken Bus almost anywhere along its route. When you reach out, it stops. You get on and find a place to sit or stand. Once the bus has started, the driver comes back to you to collect your ticket. You need to know where your stop is and get to the door in time. You ask the bus to stop more or less where you want to get off.

Bus robberies are similarly common on the highway, in the countryside and in the capital itself. Usually several people, one or more in the front, middle and back of the bus stand up, draw their weapons and announce a robbery, or simply a group of people – or even children – surround you and demand your belongings. Sometimes this is part of the bus drivers’ routine, sometimes the drivers even organise these robberies.

Get Around - By air

Regular domestic flights are only operated between Guatemala City and Flores by Transportes Aereos Guatemaltecos and Avianca Guatemala (formerly Taca Regional).

Get Around - By train

There is a rail network, but with the exception of an occasional steam transport for tourist groups, no trains have been running since 2007, neither in freight nor in passenger traffic.

Destinations in Guatemala

Regions in Guatemala

  • Central Highlands
    This region is home to the capital of Guatemala and at least one active volcano.
  • Western Highlands
    This region is by far the most beautiful part of Guatemala and includes many indigenous Mayan villages. Lake Atitlan is also in this region, as are at least two active volcanoes.
  • Eastern Guatemala
    An arid region on the roads to Honduras and El Salvador, with a predominantly Hispanic population devoted to cattle ranching.
  • Caribbean coast
    This coast has many beaches.
  • Northern Lowlands
    This region has a very dense tropical forest and amazing Mayan ruins, including Tikal.
  • Pacific lowlands
    These are the gentle foothills of the Sierra Madre, stretching across the vast Pacific plain to beautiful beaches.

Cities in Guatemala

  • Guatemala City – capital and largest city with many amenities.
  • Antigua Guatemala – Spanish colonial capital of Central America, World Heritage Site and the most popular with tourists.
  • Flores – The island capital of Petén, a good starting point for access to the Mayan ruins of Tikal.
  • Melchor de Mencos – border town that is the main crossing point to Belize.
  • Panajachel – gateway to Lake Atitlán, a beautiful and popular tourist area.
  • Puerto Barrios – Caribbean seaport with fast boats to and from Belize.
  • Puerto San José – Pacific Seaport
  • Quetzaltenango – Second largest city in the western highlands. Popularly called “Xela”.
  • Sayaxché – River gate in Petén

Other destinations in Guatemala

  • Lake Atitlan – A beautiful lake region in the mountains, surrounded by many picturesque villages and volcanoes, which is increasingly being developed for tourism.
  • Monterrico – The closest beach to Guatemala City and Antigua, volcanic sand.
  • Rio Dulce – Known as a “unique ecological and cultural heritage for humanity” and home to one of the largest bridges in Central America, the area surrounding this emerald green “sweet river” offers many sights and activities. From jungle walks to hot spring waterfalls (Finca Paraiso is located on the Rio Dulce), a visit to Castillo San Felipe de Lara, sailing and water sports, exploring the colourful and inviting villages and landscapes of the area, to a lancha drive through the majestic Livingston Canyon. There are a variety of places to stay, including some beautiful waterfront spots. The Rio Dulce is also a great access point not only to places in Guatemala such as Antigua, Tikal, Cobán, Semuc Champey and many others, but also to surrounding countries: Belize, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Mayan ruins in Guatemala

  • El Mirador – a massive site of the early Maya, perhaps the cradle of Maya civilisation. As it is still being discovered and explored, it is less accessible to visitors than the other major Maya sites.
  • Tikal – long considered the largest of the Maya ruins (although ongoing research at El Mirador may challenge this claim), this vast and impressive ancient Maya site is probably worth the trip to Guatemala alone. Stay overnight in the park or in the nearby town of Flores for an early morning excursion to Tikal to see the sunrise over the ruins. Excursions from the surrounding area are easy to arrange.
  • Aguateca – some of the best preserved Mayan ruins in Guatemala, where you are more likely to find archaeologists at work than tourists with cameras.
  • El Peru (Waká) – a three-day hike or boat trip from Flores, identified as the source of many looted Maya artefacts.
  • Iximche – ruins in the central highlands, an easy day trip from Guatemala City or Antigua.
  • Nakúm – an impressive classic Maya site
  • Yaxhá – ruins with more than 500 structures, between Flores and Melchor de Mencos.

Things To See in Guatemala

The Mayan ruins are the country’s main attractions and the most notable are El Mirador, perhaps the cradle of Mayan civilisation, and Tikal.

Volcanoes

Guatemala has many volcanoes, many of which are over 3,000 metres high.

  • Volcán de Pacaya (2500m) – this is an active volcano located about 30 minutes from Antigua. Some days it will not be accessible as the volcano may be too active to safely observe. Bring a jacket as it will be windy and cold at the top (although the ground is warm) and wear long trousers as the volcanic rock can easily cut you. Tour guides can be arranged from Antigua. Until the last eruption in late May 2010, it was possible to walk right up to the lava and barbecue hot dogs and marshmallows. Although the excursions are still common and travel agencies still advertise with photos of tourists who have done this in the past, it is no longer possible.

If you decide to go to Pacaya on your own, the prices are quite reasonable. About Q25 ($3) for entry to the park itself. At the entrance to Pacaya National Park, you need to take a local guide licensed by the park to take you to the top of the volcano. There are two separate entrances to the park, the first is in the town of El Cedro and the second in the town of San Francisco. The El Cedro route is an easier climb, about 2 hours up and 1 hour down to the volcano. The entrance to San Fracisco is a few kilometres past El Cedro. It is a slightly steeper climb. The whole park is patrolled by both local police and soldiers…. it’s pretty safe. The locals also offer to take you on horseback for about Q125 ($15), which is a great alternative if you don’t like hiking. They will offer them to you when you start the climb. There are also toilets and snacks/drinks available for purchase at both entrances. Secure parking is available for those arriving without a group.

Things To Do in Guatemala

Guatemala is rich in natural beauty and travel opportunities. It is a country that offers so much for those who are willing to get off the beaten track for a while.

Antigua Guatemala is often referred to as a hub for travellers, a picture-perfect ruined city in Central America surrounded by volcanoes. From here you can hike up the Pacaya volcano, take a bus to the bustling market of Chichicastenango or simply sip a coffee in a sidewalk café and let the world go by.

Lake Atitlan (or Lago de Atitlán) is another frequent stop on any visitor’s itinerary. It is a lake surrounded by volcanoes, with many backpacker hostels and Mayan villages on its shores.

Flores, in the wild north of Guatemala, is a tourist-friendly island in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá. From there you can take a bus to Tikal, one of the best-preserved Mayan ruins in the world. Howler monkeys and dense jungle make visiting the ruins an adventure in itself.

  • Semuc Champey, Lanquin, near Coban, Alta Verapaz. Semuc Champey is a cascade of turquoise limestone pools created by the river, which plunges for some time before emerging with a spectacular waterfall. It is worth going to Lanquin also for the beautiful lodges that have sprung up in this charming hilly landscape.

Rio Dulce The Rio Dulce is a majestic emerald green river wedged between Belize and Honduras and flowing into the Caribbean Sea. The Rio Dulce region consists of two towns on either side of one of Central America’s largest bridges, Fronteras and El Relleno. Rio Dulce is a haven for sailors and backpackers, with plenty to do and see. Finca Paraiso is a hot waterfall that feels like a spa day in the jungle; Castillo San Felipe de Lara is a historic fortress complex and an inexpensive way to spend the afternoon visiting the castle and swimming in Lake Izabal. The many species of birds and animals (including manatees) make Rio Dulce a great place for birdwatchers, animal lovers and fishing enthusiasts.

Food & Drinks in Guatemala

Food in Guatemala

Typical food :

  • Kaq Ik
  • Pepián
  • Jocom
  • Quichom
  • Tortillas and tortillas de harina. Corn tortillas are served with most meals.
  • Frijoles negros – stewed black beans
  • Caldos – Beef broths
  • Tamales – steamed maize flour with various toppings, wrapped in banana leaves.
  • Rice and beans (Garifunafood in Puerto Barrios)
  • Tapado, ceviche and other fish dishes
  • Churrascos

The typical breakfast consists of frijoles and rice, with coffee of course.

The type of food really depends on how much you want to spend and where you want to spend it. In the main tourist areas you can find almost any type of food. In the aldeas (small towns), your choices are essentially limited to the products mentioned above. Guatemalan food differs from Mexican food in that it is much less spicy and chillies are usually served in a separate bowl from the main dish, to be added as you like, rather than included in the meal.

Drinks in Guatemala

The most popular Guatemalan beers are Gallo (lager, by far the most popular among Guatemalans), Victoria, Brahva (light pilsner style), Moza (dark bock), Cabro, Monte Carlo (premium) and Dorada. Don’t be surprised if you get salt and lemon with your beer. It is a custom to put a little salt on the toe of the bottle and empty the lemon into the beer. Sometimes it is mixed with V8 vegetable juice and the brew is called michelada.

Guatemala produces a number of rums, including the excellent Ron Zacapa Centenario, which is matured for up to 30 years.

Tequila is a very popular drink in Guatemala.

Guatemalans generally dress casually when they go out.

When you order a bottled drink, you usually receive a handkerchief to clean the bottle. Coca-Cola and Pepsi type products are available as well as many products from local soft drink producers.

Money & Shopping in Guatemala

Currency

The local currency is the quetzal, named after the national bird, whose connotations are still ancient and mythical today. One US dollar is equivalent to 7.61 quetzals. US dollars are widely accepted and can be exchanged in most small towns. ATMs can be found in larger towns, but don’t expect to find them in every tourist town. It is quite easy to find yourself in a town without an ATM or exchange office.

Do not expect to be able to exchange travellers’ cheques easily in Guatemala. You may find a few places willing to accept American Express cheques, but all other types of cheques are generally refused. Surprisingly, even the big banks in Guatemala City do not accept VISA travellers’ cheques.

The national currency is the quetzal(es). The exchange rate is about 7.61 quetzales for 1 US dollar and 10.88 for 1 euro (May 2011). In tourist areas it is common to use dollars. You will most likely have difficulty changing currencies other than US dollars, but the euro is becoming more common

Shopping

It is common to bargain for most purchases in the open-air market. Although you can haggle in other places, be aware that chain shops have fixed prices (you can’t haggle in a Guatemalan Radio Shack any more than you can in an American shop).

Here are some typical Guatemalan items you could buy here:

  • Ron Zacapa Centenario – the award-winning rum from Guatemala
  • Traditional fabrics and textiles – Traditional Mayan blouses are known as huipiles (whi-peel) and skirts as cortes. Be aware that these garments are almost always entirely handmade and that the price of a high-quality huipil can be up to 1,000 euros.
  • Jade – there is a large jade factory in Antigua, but it is of course a very important stone.
  • Coffee that is considered one of the tastiest varieties in the world.
  • Cardamom – Guatemala is the largest exporter in the world and Coban is the main centre of this trade.

Festivals & Holidays in Guatemala

The Guatemalan Labour Code recognises the following dates as public holidays with paid leave:

  • 1 January: New Year
  • March / April Thursday, Friday and Saturday: Easter, Holy Week
  • 1 May: International Labour Day, known as “Workers’ Day”.
  • 30 June: Armed Forces Day
  • 15 September: Independence Day
  • 20 October: Revolution Day
  • 1 November: All Saints’ Day
  • 24 December: Christmas Eve (from noon)
  • 25 December: Christmas Day
  • 31 December: New Year’s Eve (from noon)
  • The local festival (usually a patron saint)

Culture Of Guatemala

Guatemala City is home to many of the country’s libraries and museums, including the National Archives, the National Library and the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, which has an extensive collection of Mayan artefacts. There are also private museums such as the Ixchel, which focuses on textiles, and the Popol Vuh, which deals with Mayan archaeology. Both museums are located on the campus of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín. Most of the country’s 329 municipalities have at least one small museum.

Art

Guatemala has produced many indigenous artists who follow centuries-old pre-Columbian traditions. Reflecting Guatemala’s colonial and post-colonial history, encounters with various global art movements have also produced a variety of artists who have combined traditional primitivist or naïve aesthetics with European, North American and other traditions.

The Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas “Rafael Rodríguez Padilla” is Guatemala’s most important art school, and several prominent indigenous artists who also graduated from this school have works in the permanent collection of the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in the capital. Contemporary Guatemalan artists who have made a name for themselves outside Guatemala include Dagoberto Vásquez, Luis Rolando Ixquiac Xicara, Carlos Mérida, Aníbal López, Roberto González Goyri and Elmar René Rojas.

Music

Guatemalan music encompasses a variety of styles and forms of expression. Social change in Guatemala has been fostered by music such as the Nueva Cancion, which combines history, contemporary issues, political values and the struggles of ordinary people. The Maya had an intense musical practice, as evidenced by their iconography. Guatemala was also one of the first regions in the New World to be introduced to European music, starting in 1524. Numerous composers from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and contemporary periods have contributed to the creation of works of all genres. The marimba is the national instrument; it has developed a wide repertoire of very attractive pieces that have been popular for over a century.

The Historia General de Guatemala has released a series of CDs of Guatemala’s historical music, representing all styles, from Mayan, colonial, independent and republican times to the present. Many contemporary music groups in Guatemala play Caribbean music, salsa, Garifuna-influenced punta, Latin pop, regional Mexican music and mariachi.

Kitchen

Many of the traditional dishes of Guatemalan cuisine are based on Mayan cuisine and have maize, chillies and black beans as main ingredients. Some foods are also eaten on certain days of the week, such as the popular custom of eating paches (a type of potato-based tamale) on Thursdays. Some dishes are also associated with special occasions, such as fiambre for All Saints’ Day, 1 November, or tamales and ponche (fruit punch), both very common at Christmas.

Stay Safe & Healthy in Guatemala

Stay Safe in Guatemala

Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. Travellers should take extra precautions while in Guatemala. If you are assaulted, robbed or approached by armed persons, cooperate. Do not make any sudden movements or hand over any items or money that are requested. Tourists have been shot for resisting attackers. Be aware that these robberies are sometimes committed by off-duty police officers – incredible as it may seem, being a robber or kidnapper is a part-time job for many police officers.

Do not travel to areas known to be hotbeds of drug trafficking (i.e. parts of Peten) and do not travel to the most dangerous areas of Guatemala City (zones 3, 6, 12, 18, 19 and 21). Be careful in Zone 1 of Guatemala City, especially after dark, and do not stay in hotels in this area. The slightly more expensive hotels in Zone 10 or Zone 13 (near the airport) are a much better idea.

Women should be especially careful around men, even if they pretend to be employees of a local hotel. Last year, several tourists were victims of brutal sexual assaults in the beach community of Monterrico and in the town of Panajachel. In one case, a local man posed as a hotel employee before torturing, raping and attempting to kill a young woman who lived in the area.

Do not use buses in Guatemala City as they are often robbed by gangs. Radio taxis (Taxi Amarillo) are a safer way to get around the city. When travelling by chicken bus, also pay attention to the people sitting next to you.

While some say that travellers should always carry some cash and be prepared to bribe a few police officers, most tourists will have no reason to bribe anyone. The most likely situations in which you would need to bribe the police would be if you were driving a car or motorbike and were stopped for fictitious traffic violations. Most Europeans/North Americans find this immoral, but it is much easier to spend Q50 and avoid a headache than to be harassed by the police. Phrases like “I’m sorry officer, is there a way to resolve this now?” work well. Do not offer a bribe directly to an officer as this is illegal and you could get into more trouble.

Never take photos of children without permission. Some Guatemalans are extremely suspicious about this and will think you are a kidnapper (even if the children are someone else’s). In Guatemala there have been many problems with children being sold or kidnapped and offered for adoption on the black market. This of course does not include a few children mixed with many adults at a distance. This happens mostly in the more remote villages of Guatemala. In the big cities, people are a little more open about being photographed, but they still avoid it.

It is dangerous to travel between cities after dark. This greatly increases the risk of having a car accident or being robbed at gunpoint.

Pickpocketing is common at markets, so never carry anything in your back pocket and carry as little as possible.

One of the best things about Guatemala is the abundance of natural beauty and the many hiking trails. Some of them are notorious for predation (Volcan de Agua, trails around Lago de Atitlán, Volcán de Pacaya). Always enquire about the situation before going in blindly. The Inguat, locals and other travellers are reliable sources of information. Travelling in a group during the day sometimes reduces the risks, but not always.

The traffic can be dangerous. You will encounter many single-lane roads (one lane in each direction) and drivers tend to swerve to avoid potholes and bumps. There are also several multi-lane highways. Traffic in Guatemala City and surrounding metropolitan areas is very slow during rush hour, but generally driving is very fast (average speeds can reach 60 mph on some city streets).

Stay Healthy in Guatemala

Drink only purified water (Agua Pura Salvavidas is recommended by most hospitals and hotels).

The CDC states that the risk of malaria is in rural areas at altitudes below 1,500 metres, and that there is no risk in Antigua or Lake Atitlán. Preventive antimalarial medication can and should be purchased before travelling to areas where malaria is endemic.

Dengue is endemic throughout Guatemala.

Vaccinations against hepatitis A and B are recommended.

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