Mysterious Mayas, volatile volcanoes, classic colonial structures, placid lakes - Guatemala offers you a slice of each. If the mysteries of the Mayas intrigue you, visit the ancient sites that reveal just enough to stoke your interest. Or stroll through the museums and monuments in the cities and be transported back in time. The uneven terrain of Guatemala conceals many a volcano (some active) that are a network of trails perfect for hiking. Canoe, swim or just relax by the Lago de Atitlan sipping a drink.
Wild and untamed, Guatemala offers you more than you can imagine. Unfortunately, the political instability of the country has had adverse effects on tourism.
Guatemala, a Central American country south of Mexico, is home to volcanoes, rainforests and ancient Mayan sites. The capital, Guatemala City, features the stately National Palace of Culture and the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Antigua, west of the capital, contains preserved Spanish colonial buildings. Lake Atitlán, formed in a massive volcanic crater, is surrounded by coffee fields and villages.
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GUATEMALA QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Guatemala City
- Currency: quetzal (GTQ)
- Area: 108,890km²
- Population: 17,293,545 (July 2006 estimate)
- Language: Spanish 60%, Amerindian languages 40% (23 officially recognised Amerindian languages)
- Religion: Roman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous Mayan beliefs and none.
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GUATEMALA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 1 May, Labor Day
- 30 June, Army Day
- 1 July, Banker’s Day (bank holiday)
- 15 August, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (in Guatemala City only)
- 15 September, Independence Day
- 20 October, Revolution Day
- 1 November, All Saints Day
- 24 December, Christmas Eve (afternoon only)
- 31 December, New Year’s Eve (afternoon only)
Also, Semana Santa (Holy Week) from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.
FESTIVALS IN GUATEMALA
Desfile de Bufos - (March) Guatemala City university students take to the streets during the Parade of Fools (held on the Friday before Good Friday) to mock the government and make other political statements.
Semata Santa Antigua - (the Holy Week before Easter) Although celebrated all over Guatemala, nowhere it comes more alive than Antigua. The faithful dress in purple to accompany revered sculptural images from the city’s churches in daily street processions commemorating Christ’s crucifixion. The streets are covered in elaborate alfombras (carpets) of colored sawdust and flower petals.
Rabin Ajau - (July/August) Guatemala’s most impressive indigenous festival, this folkloric gathering takes place in Cobán in late July or early August.
Día de Todos los Santos - In Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango, just outside Antigua, celebrations include the flying of huge kites, while in the tiny highlands town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, November 1 is celebrated with drunken horse races through town.
BEST TIME TO VISIT GUATEMALA
Guatemala’s climate varies according to its diverse topography, ranging from cool highlands, tropical semi-dry savannah, tropical jungle in the northern lowlands, and humid coastal areas. The average annual temperature for the coast ranges from 25°C to 30°C; for the central highlands the average temperature is 20°C, and drops to 15°C for the higher mountains. The rainy season in Guatemala extends from May to October in the inland areas and from May to December along the coast, while the dry season extends from either November or January to April.
- December to May - Festivities such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated with gusto.
- April to September - Prices drop and crowds thin out as the rainy season starts in earnest.
- October to November - Rains begin to ease, making for good hiking weather.
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
HIKING & CYCLING IN GUATEMALA
The best time for outdoor activities in Guatemala is from November to April when the weather is dry and temperatures moderate. The most popular hiking destinations are the volcanoes around Antigua. The ultimate is the 60km hike into the Petén jungle to El Mirador, a sprawling, largely unexcavated Maya city.
BEACH OPTIONS IN GUATEMALA
The best time to enjoy the beautiful beaches of Guatemala is from November to April when the weather is dry and temperatures moderate.
SURFING IN GUATEMALA
Guatemala is a pretty good all year round surfing destination. From March to June is usually the best time for good waves and weather. July to February is the rainy season which brings bigger waves with the best swell from June through October.
KITESURF IN GUATEMALA
Guatemala’s main kitesurfing spots are on the lakes of Lago de Atitlan and Lago de Amatitlan where it is common to require a boat start. The windy season is from September to February.
For more details on kite surfing in Guatemala expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN GUATEMALA
Be aware of possible health risks in
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
GUATEMALA TRAVEL COSTS
Guatemala is considered a budget country. How much you should budget varies greatly based on your travel style. To be fair, Guatemala can get very expensive if you are not careful. Despite its initial stereotype of being cheap, it’s easy to spend more than expected in Guatemala. Antigua is by far the most expensive region in Guatemal and prices per meal for example can easily reach $15 per person in the city. Lake Atitlan is also considered as one of the priciest places in the country, and popular places like Monterrico and Flores near Tikal can have very expensive lodging. Overall though, prices in Guatemala vary a lot. San Pedro La Laguna is a perfect budget destination: cheap hotels, cheap food and cheap drinks.
MONEY SAVING TIPS FOR GUATAMALA
- Consider traveling in low season, when rates are cheaper.
- Travel by bus and other public transportation.
- Go on self-guided hikes and tours, instead of hiring a guide.
- Stay in hostels or rooms with shared bathrooms.
- Sample street food, pack picnics and cook for yourself.
GUATEMALA TRAVEL TIPS
Uber Guatemala launched in December 2016 and as expected the local cabbies didn’t like it resulting in common protests. Due to the general low prices of taxis in Guatemala, it’s difficult for Uber to really undercut the taxistas to the same extent as in countries like Costa Rica. The key reason to use Uber in Guatemala is safety – a way to travel around with somebody who is accountable. When ordering an Uber in Guatemala you’re restricted to the Guatemala City/Antigua & Quetzaltenango areas and you’ll find a few Uber drivers around Lake Atitlan.
Buses go almost everywhere in Guatemala, and the buses will leave you with some of your most vivid memories of the country. Most of them are ancient school buses from the US and Canada. It is not unusual for a local family of five to squeeze into seats that were originally designed for two child-sized bottoms. Many travellers know these vehicles as chicken buses, after the live cargo accompanying many passengers. They are frequent, crowded and cheap. Chicken buses will stop anywhere, for anyone. To catch a chicken bus, simply stand beside the road with your arm out parallel to the ground. These busses get packed to the brim so you should not expect much of a comfortable ride.
Some routes, especially between big cities, are served by more comfortable buses with the luxury of one seat per person. The best buses are labelled 'Pullman,' 'especial' or 'primera clase.' Occasionally, these may have bathrooms (but don't count on them working), televisions and even food service. For a few of the better services you can buy tickets in advance, and this is generally worth doing as it ensures that you get a place. On some shorter routes, minibuses, usually called 'microbuses,' will replace chicken buses. These are operated by the same cram-'em-all-in principle and can be even more uncomfortable because they have less leg room. Where neither buses nor minibuses roam, pickup (picop) trucks serve as de facto buses; you hail them and pay for them as if they were the genuine article.
Shuttle minibuses run by travel agencies provide comfortable and quick transportation along the main routes plied by tourists. You'll find these heavily advertised wherever they are offered. With a few notable exceptions, they're more expensive than buses (anywhere between five and 15 times as expensive), but more convenient – they usually offer a door-to-door service, with scheduled meal and bathroom breaks.
There is also a decent network of internal flights in Guatemala on domestic airlines with the most popular route between Guatemala City and Flores, although routes over to Livingston on the Caribbean coast are also used more than others
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF GUATEMALA
- Tikal - Sidestep the tour groups to find out for yourself why this is Guatemala’s number one tourist attraction.
- Antigua - Eat, drink and sleep well, study Spanish and climb volcanoes in this cosmopolitan and picturesque town.
- Lívingston - See another side of Guatemala in this Garifuna enclave.
- Western Highlands - Hike the country’s best trekking routes.
- Semuc Champey - Discover why people call this the most beautiful place in the country.
- Boat tour - Take a spectacular boat ride through a jungle-walled canyon on the Río Dulce between Río Dulce town and Lívingston.
- San Marcos La Laguna - Explore Lake Atitlán's prettiest and most laidback village.
- Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa - Investigate beguiling stone sculptures from a pre-Mayan culture.
You won’t see it all in one week, but you should be able to at least catch the Big Three. Head straight for Antigua and spend a couple of days immersed in colonial glory and climbing volcanoes before heading off to Lago de Atitlán. Choose which village suits you, from bustling Panajachel to out-of-the-way San Juan, and explore the lake and its surrounds by boat, kayak, horseback, bike or whatever else takes your fancy. From there, head back to Guatemala City and catch a bus or plane to Flores, your stepping-off point for the mother of all Maya ruins, Tikal.
Add another week to the above and you’ll have time for a dip in the limestone pools at Semuc Champey as well as a boat ride down the lush Río Dulce. It might be worth setting a day aside for Guatemala City's fantastic collection of museums and galleries.
Stretching from the steamy lowland forests of El Petén to the dry tropics of the Río Motagua valley, and from the edge of the western highlands to the Caribbean Sea, this is Guatemala's most diverse region. The north of the region is lush and mountainous coffee-growing country. The limestone crags around Cobán attract cavers the world over, and the beautiful pools and cascades of Semuc Champey rate high on Guatemala’s list of natural wonders.
Depending on who you talk to, Guatemala City (or Guate as it's known) is either big, dirty, dangerous and utterly forgettable or big, dirty, dangerous and fascinating. Either way, there's no doubt there's an energy here unlike anywhere else in Guatemala. It's a place where dilapidated buses belch fumes next to BMWs and Hummers, and where skyscrapers drop shadows on shantytowns. Many travellers skip the city altogether, preferring to make Antigua their base. Still, you may want, or need, to get acquainted with the capital, because this is the hub of the country, home to the best museums and galleries, transportation hubs and other traveller services.
A place of rare beauty, major historical significance and vibrant culture, Antigua remains Guatemala's must-visit destination. A former capital, the city boasts an impressive catalogue of colonial relics in a magnificent setting. Streetscapes of pastel facades unfold beneath three volcanoes. Many old ecclesiastical and civic structures are beautifully renovated, while others retain tumbledown charm, with fragments strewn about park-like grounds. Despite becoming a global hot spot Antigua remains a vibrant Guatemalan town, its churches, plazas and markets throbbing with activity. Outside the city, indigenous communities, coffee plantations and volcanoes offer ample opportunities for exploration.
The magnificent spectacle of Lago de Atitlán is a three-hour bus ride west from Guatemala City or Antigua. Here, fishermen in rustic crafts ply the lake's aquamarine surface, while indigenous women in multi-coloured outfits do their washing by the banks where trees burst into bloom. Fertile hills dot the landscape, and over everything loom the volcanoes, permeating the entire area with a mysterious beauty. It never looks the same twice. No wonder many outsiders have fallen in love with the place and made their homes here. The main lakeside town is Panajachel and most people initially head here to launch their Atitlán explorations.
More location information and points of interest are available in the above map.
THE PACIFIC SLOPE
Separated from the highlands by a chain of volcanoes, the flatlands that run down to the Pacific are universally known as La Costa. It's a sultry region – hot and wet or hot and dry, depending on the time of year – with rich volcanic soil good for growing coffee, palm-oil seeds and sugarcane. Archaeologically, the big draws here are Takalik Abaj and the sculptures left by pre-Olmec civilizations around Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa. The culture is overwhelmingly ladino (mixed indigenous and European heritage), and even the biggest towns are humble affairs, with low-rise houses and the occasional palm-thatched roof. Guatemalan beach tourism is seriously underdeveloped. Monterrico is the only real contender, helped along by a nature reserve protecting mangroves and their inhabitants. Sipacate is slowly developing as a surf resort, although serious surfers find more joy in Mexico or El Salvador.
Heading east from Guatemala City brings you into the long, flat valleys of the region Guatemalans call El Oriente (the East). It's a dry and unforgiving landscape of stunted hillsides covered in scraggly brush. Most travellers pass through on their way to Copán in Honduras, or to visit the pilgrimage town of Esquipulas. Further east, the landscape becomes a lot more tropical and you'll see plenty of fruit for sale at roadside stalls. If you've got some time in this area, a quick side trip to the ruins at Quiriguá is well worth your while.
The country becomes ever more lush, tropical and humid heading further east from La Ruidosa junction toward Puerto Barrios.
Port towns have always had a reputation for being slightly dodgy, and those acting as international borders doubly so. Puerto Barrios has an edgy, somewhat sleazy feel; for foreign visitors, it’s mainly a jumping-off point for boats to Punta Gorda (Belize) or Lívingston, and you probably won’t be hanging around. Quite unlike anywhere else in Guatemala, the largely Garifuna town of Lívingston is interesting in itself, but also has the attraction of a couple of decent beaches and its location at the end of the river journey from Río Dulce.
Vast, sparsely populated and jungle-covered, Guatemala's largest and northernmost department is ripe for exploration. Whether it's the mysteries of the Classic Maya, the bounty of the jungle or the chance to lounge lakeside that inspires you, it's all here in abundance. The towering temples of Tikal can be reached by tour from just about anywhere, while more remote sites such as El Mirador and Piedras Negras require days of planning and further days of jungle trekking. The Reserva de Biosfera Maya (Maya Biosphere Reserve) covers virtually the entire northern third of El Petén, and together with its counterparts in Mexico and Belize forms a multinational wildlife haven that spans more than 30,000 sq km.
WHAT TO EAT IN GUATEMALA
What you eat in Guatemala will be a mixture of Guatemalan food, which is nutritious and filling without sending your taste buds into ecstasy, and international traveller-and-tourist food, which is available wherever travellers and tourists hang out. Your most satisfying meals in both cases will probably be in smaller eateries where the boss is in the kitchen themselves.
The cheapest eats are found at food stalls around the central plaza or bus terminal of a town – exercise common sense when buying food at these places. Family-run comedores (eating halls) are the next up the budget scale, often serving good-value set meals for a pittance. Towns with large tourist populations, such as Antigua and Panajachel, offer the greatest variety of eats, all the way up to world-class fusion restaurants.
What to Eat:
You won't be able to avoid corn tortillas, and you shouldn't try, either – done right they're delicious. The most common varieties are made with yellow or white corn, but the blue corn and flour ones are worth looking out for, too.
The best drinks for miles around are licuados, fresh fruit juice blends made with milk or water.
Keep an eye out for regional specialties like tapado (a seafood stew, found mostly on the Caribbean coast), pepián (spicy sesame-seed sauce served with chicken or turkey) and jocón (a stew of chicken or pork with green vegetables and herbs), found in the highlands; and boxbol (maize dough and chopped meat or chicken), a staple in the Ixil Triangle area.
LGBTQ IN GUATEMALA
Few places in Latin America are outwardly gay-friendly and Guatemala is no different. Technically, homosexuality is legal for persons over 18 years, but the reality can be another story, with harassment and violence against gays too often poisoning the plot. Don't even consider testing the tolerance for homosexual public displays of affection here. Though Antigua has a palatable – if subdued – scene, affection and action are still kept behind closed doors; the chief exception is the gay-friendly club Las Vibras de la Casbah. In Guatemala City, Genetic and the Black & White Lounge are the current faves. Mostly, though, gays traveling in Guatemala will find themselves keeping it low-key. Gay.com has a personals section for Guatemala, and the Gully (www.thegully.com) usually has some articles and information relevant to Guatemala.
WHERE TO STAY IN GUATEMALA
It’s generally not necessary to book your accommodations in advance. If, however, you’re planning on being in Antigua or down at the beach during Semana Santa, the sooner you book the better.