Let’s talk about Guatemala, a country so ripe with cultural significance that its lush jungles and towering volcanic landscapes often get left out of the conversation (at least initially). An understandable omission, really, when you consider that this heart of Central American civilization, barely covering the surface area of Tennessee, is home to Mayan powerhouses Tikal and El Mirador, as well as trendy bohemian hubs like Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Whether you’re more interested in massive ancient ruins dating back thousands of years or Spanish-colonial architecture set ablaze with color and tradition, you’ll feel right at home here. And even though contemporary Guatemala may make headlines for its unfortunately high crime and poverty rates, rest assured that, as with most countries, the bulk of its citizens are all too happy to share their culture and history with anyone genuinely interested in experiencing it.
But enough about what you do know, let’s take a look at a few things you might not. If’n you’ve never been to this nation just south of Mexico before, allow us to be the first to tell you that it may very well be Guatemala’s adventurous appeal, not its cultural one, that’s the jewel in the tourism crown. Surprised? Don’t be. For starters, consider the fact that the country is home to twelve “high” volcanoes measuring between 10,000 and 13,845 ft. Just about every one of them is climbable and some, including Fuego and Santiaguito, happen to be among the most active in the world. This means an almost guaranteed opportunity to watch lava and ash spew forth from the belly of the Earth firsthand, and should elicit at least a few giddy hoots and hand claps from the audience. Should this somehow not be appealing enough for you, though, you could always satisfy that adventure itch with some rock climbing at Lake Amatitlan or white water rafting on Rio Los Esclavos. And let’s not forget about Guatemala’s ace in the hole: that incredible geologic amalgam of caves and spring-fed land-bridge pools known as Semuc Champey.
Now before you go excitedly punching your ticket thinking everything here couldn’t be peachier, it’s worth mentioning that a trip to Guatemala is not without its challenges. Putting aside for a minute the persistent crime and poverty we alluded to before (notice we’ve just sort of bypassed Guatemala City altogether), the country’s infrastructure is in dire need of an overhaul, making even the shortest jaunts out of town a chore at best and a 4-wheeled nightmare at worst. You’ll also notice that pollution and litter have had a deleterious effect on some of its most popular natural attractions (we’re looking at you, Volcan de Agua). With the right prep, precautions and expectations, however, these can be relegated to mere hiccups in the midst of an otherwise mind-blowing adventure. So do your research, then pack your bags, because the views from Acatenango are surreal and the water in Guatemala’s natural hot springs is juuuuust fine.
If you’re a resident of the US, the EU, Australia, Canada or Britain, a valid passport is all that’s required to enter Guatemala for stays of up to 90 days. If you happen to call a country home that’s not mentioned in the above list, however, you’ll want to check for specific entry requirements. Click here to do just that.
The Quetzal (GTQ) is the national currency of Guatemala, with an exchange rate that favors all of the world’s major currencies and then some. Click here to check up to the minute exchange rates and see how your country’s legal tender stacks up.
Guatemala operates as a presidential representative democratic republic, where the elected president serves as both head of government and head of state. Like many democracies, there are three distinct branches of government (the executive, the legislative and the judicial), so in theory its political arena should be pretty familiar to most travelers. In practice, however, the country still has a long way to go to escape the violence, corruption, vigilante justice and gang-related activity that plagues its day to day life. If your trip is brief and relegated to the more touristy parts of the country, you likely won’t experience much (if any) of these less desirable realities. They’re certainly good to be aware of, though. If you’re interested in learning more, check out both our Crime and Safety section below and the official government site.
Although Spanish, its official language, is spoken by over 90% of the Guatemalan populace, it’s certainly not the only language you’re likely to hear while visiting. In areas like Antigua, Flores and much of Guatemala City and Xela, English will get you by in a pinch; however, should your travel plans include venturing into rural towns and farmlands, be prepared to immerse your aural senses in any of the 20+ Mayan languages that are still utilized by indigenous Guatemalans. You certainly won’t be expected to know any of these, but it would be a great start to at least study up on a few basic Spanish phrases before making the journey. If you’re at a loss for where to start, try here.
When it comes to safety, if your rate of violent crime is considered high even by Central American standards you’re not off to a particularly good start. Such is the unfortunate reality in Guatemala, a country that still finds itself plagued by issues like drug trafficking, inadequate law enforcement and a history of general violence and vigilante justice. Though much of the worst acts tend to be perpetrated against residents or long-term visitors, travelers who venture away from the tourist hubs (and even some who don’t) report issues like burglaries and muggings with unsettling regularity.
Does this mean you’re better off removing Guatemala from the “to-see” list? Absolutely not; an adventure here can be (and usually is) both completely safe and incredibly rewarding . It does, however, mean that you should take your well-being and security seriously while visiting. For one, be sure to check with guides and locals before taking to the countryside. You should also get in the habit of walking/cabbing in groups when exploring even the most touristy urban centers like Antigua, and know which Zones of Guat City are considered safe for visiting well before making any hotel reservations. Other than that, just use an excess of common sense (don’t display valuables, keep smart phones and electronics out of sight, etc.) and avoid night driving whenever possible. If you’re looking for more info, check out the DOS report on Guatemala here.
For the most part, your means of getting around Guatemala are pretty cut and dry. Because its passenger railways are no longer operational (you can blame a whole bunch of factors, including poor infrastructure and natural disasters), just about all travelers moving around within the country are limited to one of two options: roadways and airports. However, since Guatemala is a fairly small country, traveling through the air pretty much only makes sense if you’re heading from Guatemala City to Santa Elena or vice versa (check either TAG or Avianca airlines for tickets). This means you should brace yourself for the one-of-a-kind experience of traversing at least a few stretches of the country’s infamous highway system.
To be fair, the popular roadway between Guat City and Antigua is fairly uneventful, thanks in no small part to the flow of tourists between Guatemala’s old and new capitals. The remaining roads and highways, however, have not been so lucky. Predominantly narrow, almost always two-lane, at times unpaved, plagued by mudslides (during the rainy season), packed with trucks, chicken busses and unmarked speed bumps – these are the things of motorist-nightmares. But hey, when in Rome, right? Cities themselves aren’t so bad, with taxis and tuk-tuks readily available; just do your best to make sure the driver is trusted/legit. For more info on getting around and booking taxis/busses ahead of time, click here.
There’s an elevation gap of 4,220 m separating the lowest and highest points in Guatemala, which means that, for a country with less surface area than the state of Tennessee, it has a surprising variation in annual climates. In general, however, the rainy season here lasts from the end of May until mid-October, characterized by a daily shower or downpour throughout much of the country sometime in the afternoon. The remainder of the year stays mostly dry, and things can get pretty hot along coastal or lowland regions like Peten. The higher in elevation you go, the more moderate the temperature, making destinations like Antigua and Quetzaltenango warm/hot during the days and comfortably cool/chilly at night. As has been said before, however, there’s never really a bad time to visit Guatemala, so it’s easily enjoyable year-round.
The dispersion of wealth in Guatemala is severely unbalanced, so tourism and tipping have started to provide a welcome financial reprieve to those nationals working in the service and hospitality sectors. As a rule of thumb, it’s good to leave an extra 10% for your server and bartender when you don’t see a section marked “propina” on your bill. When it comes to tour guides, consider anything from a few dollars for small tours to $5-$10 per person per day for strenuous, multiple day hikes and adventures. In taxis you’ll only need to round up the change on your fare.
As for meal times, there’s nothing out of the ordinary here. Breakfasts are usually served between 6-9 am, lunches between noon and 2 pm, and dinners anywhere from 6 – 10 pm. If you’re going to be eating local, prep yourself for meals heavy on the rice, beans and chilies, and keep on the lookout for traditional favorites like stuffed tamales and paches.
Guatemalan law states that you must be at least 18 to both purchase and consume alcohol legally in the country. There are plenty of options to go around, although the most abundant drink by far will be Gallo (the Budweiser of Guatemala). Other types of “cerveza” include Dorada and Monte Carlo, but you’d be wise to leave any beer-snob attitudes at the airport. If you’re in the mood for something a bit more exotic, think about sampling any of the homemade libations that come out of the small town of Salcajá. In particular, Caldo de Frutas (a kind of fruit wine) and Rompopo (eggnog-ish) are two to look out for, which will likely be available in small quantities throughout the country.
Got a thing for s’mores? Though recent evidence suggests that the history of chocolate dates back well before the Mayan civilization to the Olmecs of southern Mexico, all signs point to Guatemala being home to the world’s first chocolate bar (of sorts). So if you’ve been searching tirelessly for the origins of that delicious Hershey’s campfire creation, consider your quest satisfied.
Peak season:Mid-December - April
Currency:Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ)
May Day / Labor Day
Celebrated on May 1 along with much of the rest of the world, May Day is an important holiday in a country not known for its stellar reputation on issues concerning workers' rights. Guatemalans, especially in the capital, take to the streets in numbers up to the thousands demanding equal access to fair, dignified and gainful employment. Not exactly Mardi Gras, but a good day to be mindful of nonetheless.
Guatemala's Independence Day
Guatemala officially declared itself free of Spanish rule on September 15, 1821. These days, preparations for this national holiday usually start a week in advance, with images of Guatemalan pride displayed on schools, offices and any number of public buildings. Be prepared for parades, dances, children in traditional outfits and a lot of celebrating (drinking) no matter what city or town you happen to be in.
A Christian holiday commemorating the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven, August 15 can either be rowdy or contemplative depending on where you are in Guatemala. In just about every major hub (Guat City, Antigua, Xela, etc.) you'll find plenty of feasting, parading and fireworks to help get you in the spirit of things. In rural towns, however, it's not uncommon to spend the holiday together with family in quiet observance. You'll likely be in the former camp, so brace yourself for some good old fashioned Guatemalan festivities.
Coban Folkloric Festival
If you want to pair up your visit to Semuc Champey with one of the coolest cultural festivals in Guatemala, head to Coban in late July. The annual Folkloric Festival here is a celebration of local customs that is almost unrivaled in the country, with plenty of music, costumes, parades and traditional Paab'ank dancing to go around. It's usually held at the very end of the month, so plan ahead expecting a good crowd and a good time.