Earth : North America : Central America : Guatemala
Guatemala is a small country (the size of Ohio) in the Central America region. It has borders to Mexico in the north/northwest, to Belize in the northeast, to Honduras in the southeast, to El Salvador in the south. It has a Pacific coastline to the southwest, and a tiny piece of Caribbean coastline to the east.
Guatemala has a rich and distinctive culture from the long mix of elements from Spain and the native Maya people. This diverse history and the natural beauty of the land have created a destination rich in interesting and scenic sites.
The first evidence of human settlers in Guatemala goes back to at least 18,000 BC. Sites dating back to 6500 BC have been found in Quiché in the Central Highlands and Sipacate, Escuintla on the central Pacific coast. Archaeologists divide the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica into the Pre-Classic period (2000 BC to 250 AD). El Mirador was by far the most populated city in pre-Columbian America. Both the El Tigre and Monos pyramids encompass a volume greater than 250,000 cubic meters. Mirador was the first politically organized state in America.
The Classic period of Mesoamerican civilization corresponds to the height of the Maya civilization, and is represented by countless sites throughout Guatemala, although the largest concentration is in Petén. This period is characterized by heavy city-building, the development of independent city-states, and contact with other Mesoamerican cultures. This lasted until around 900 AD, when the Classic Maya civilization collapsed. The Maya abandoned many of the cities of the central lowlands or were killed off by a drought-induced famine. The Post-Classic period is represented by regional kingdoms such as the Itzá and Ko'woj in the lakes area in Petén, and the Mam, Ki'ch'es, Kack'chiquel, Tz'utuh'il, Pokom'chí, Kek'chi and Chortí in the Highlands. These cities preserved many aspects of Mayan culture, but would never equal the size or power of the Classic cities.
After arriving in what was named the New World, the Spanish mounted several expeditions to Guatemala, beginning in 1519. Before long, Spanish contact resulted in an epidemic that devastated native populations. During the colonial period, Guatemala was an Audiencia and a Captaincy General of Spain, and a part of New Spain (Mexico). It extended from the modern Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas to Costa Rica. This region was not as rich in minerals (gold and silver) as Mexico and Peru, and was therefore not considered to be as important. Its main products were sugarcane, cocoa, blue añil dye, red dye from cochineal insects, and precious woods used in artwork for churches and palaces in Spain.
On September 15, 1821, the Captaincy-general of Guatemala (formed by Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras) officially proclaimed its independence from Spain and its incorporation into the Mexican Empire, which was dissolved two years later. The Guatemalan provinces formed the United Provinces of Central America, which dissolved by 1840, resulting in Guatemala being an independent nation. Guatemala's "Liberal Revolution" came in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios, who worked to modernize the country, improve trade, and introduce new crops and manufacturing. During this era coffee became an important crop for Guatemala. Barrios had ambitions of reuniting Central America and took the country to war in an unsuccessful attempt to attain this, losing his life on the battlefield in 1885 against forces in El Salvador. From 1898 to 1920, Guatemala was ruled by the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera, whose access to the presidency was helped by the United Fruit Company.
On 4 July 1944, dictator Jorge Ubico Castañeda was forced to resign his office in response to a wave of protests and a general strike, and from then until the end of a murderous civil war in 1996, Guatemala was subject to a series of coups with massive attendant civil rights abuses. State-sponsored murders of students, human rights activists and the ethnic Mayan peoples, gained Guatemala a terrible reputation around the world. In 1999, US president Bill Clinton stated that the United States was wrong to have provided support to Guatemalan military forces that took part in the brutal civilian killings.
Since the peace accords in 1996, Guatemala has witnessed successive democratic elections, most recently in 2007 when The National Unity of Hope and its president candidate Álvaro Colom won the presidency as well as the majority of the seats in congress.
The climate in the Central and Western Highlands is generally mild. It can get cool at night even in the summers, especially at the higher altitudes.
El Petén and the Pacific Coast are tropically hot and steamy.
It is difficult to travel in the more remote areas during the rainy season between mid-May and mid-October (into mid-November in the north).
The months of March and April are very hot especially in the low lying areas such as the Pacific coastal plain.
Cities and towns
Valid passports are required, except for citizens of Central American countries.
People producing valid passports from the following countries do not need 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, Spain, San Marino, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan,Turkey,United Kingdom, United States of America, Vatican City, Venezuela.
Guatemala's main airport, La Aurora International Airport (GUA), is in Guatemala City. International flights arrive mostly from other Central American countries and North America. The airport recently underwent modernizing reconstruction. It is now a glass-and-concrete edifice with modern shops and duty-frees that you might expect in any large city. Food options may be somewhat still limited, however.
Guatemala's secondary airport is situated in Flores, Petén. This small airport receives flights from a small number of close destinations including Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala City.
It is sometimes cheaper to fly into Cancun and take buses through Belize or to fly into Mexico City and continue to Guatemala City on another ticket with Interjet.
From the United States, Spirit Airlines offers great ticket prices from a number of US destinations (normally connecting through Miami/Ft. Lauderdale). A lot of people also dislike Spirit and many people have had Spirit close the gates early because Spirit was overbooked and Spirit did not refund money to people.
Another idea from the American west coast is to fly into San Diego and continue to Guatemala City from Tijuana on another ticket with Interjet (via Mexico City) or with a number of other carriers (United, Avianca, American, Taca, Copa, Aeromexico) from Los Angeles. Alternate route is fly Tijuana to Villahermosa (check out Palenque) then transfer to Tikal. Also flying back through Tapachula to Tijuana.
From Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador access is via the Pan-American Highway. Road access is also possible with more difficulty from Belize. If you've rented a car in Belize and wish to drive into Guatemala, the immigration officials will require a you to produce a letter of from the rental agencies authorizing you to take the car outside the country.
Tica Bus is a bus company that has newer buses and mainly travels between Central American countries with limited stops.
Guatemala has several first-class (or Pullman) inter-city bus companies:Adrenalina Tours, Linea Dorada, ADN, Fuente del Norte, Galgos, and Alamo. In addition, the international companies Tica Bus and King Quality provide service in Guatemala. See the " By Bus" entry in the Guatemala City chapter for a list some major national and international bus companies and their Guatemala City addresses as Guatemala City is the principal transportation hub for the whole country. Each bus company maintains their own bus terminals in Zona 1 (central Guatemala City) and/or other parts of the city.
It's hard to miss the colourfully decorated buses that crowd the streets of major cities and highways of Guatemala. These are chicken buses, or camionetas in Guatemalan dialect Spanish, and are a common form of travel for Guatemalans and a travel adventure for tourists. They are much cheaper than tourist vans or taxis and are usually very crowded, with three people squeezed into seats barely big enough for two children, and more people standing in the aisles.
The buses are often used North American school buses with the "Blue Bird" (brand of school bus) and "Ford" logos clearly visible. In addition to the driver there is usually a conductor standing in the door. The conductor collects fares, and from time to time jumps out to direct the bus through a blind intersection or around a tight turn and to climb up to the top to retrieve or put in luggage & cargo people bring along. On the highways, the chicken bus drivers are aggressive, not hesitating to overtake in the face of oncoming traffic. Riding these buses on the steep highways of the Western Highlands is especially harrowing, but may be the most quintessential Guatemalan experience there is. It is recommended you don't use these buses though, as thieves usually operate in their routes and may assault them.
Bus conductors may sometimes charge out of country tourists more than the going rate. If you look to see what other travellers are paying you can usually avoid this problem, however, they often charge you the same as everyone else. Sending a message to the Guatemala tourism department, Inguat , will let them know of this problem.
You can board a chicken bus almost anywhere along its route. If you put out your arm, it will stop. You board and find a space to sit or stand. The conductor will come back to you after the bus is under way, and collect your fare. You need to recognize where your stop is, and move to the door in time. You ask the bus to stop, more or less wherever you want to get off.
Chicken buses are not common throughout the country. They are, rightly, in the locations where populations warrant their necessity. The south-central, and south-western region of Guatemala- Guatemala City, Antigua, Lago Atitlan, Chichicastenango, and Quetzaltenango contain plentiful amounts of busses. However, the middle region of Guatemala, Las Verapaces does not provide many buses.
Prepare to travel by van around central and north-western Guatemala, especially the Ixil Triangle region and the area surrounding Coban. The Ixil Triangle lacks any real infrastructure, and what is there is unkempt. As well, Central Guatemala's population does not warrant chicken bus existence.
Public transportation van rides are only slightly more expensive than bus fare. However, be warned, the equality in price rule of buses does not apply to vans. Public buses are truly public transportation, the vans are not; they are privately owned. Plan to pay more than the domestic next to you in these vans. This price difference will be obvious and the assistant will blatantly ask for it. Attempting to haggle is worthless, you might as well pay the requested fare.
The tourist can always pay the USD price for tourist-oriented van rides. These rides are non-stop transportation to cities. Public van and bus rides will always stop at multiple bus stops and for anyone else wishing to board. These van rides are much more expensive than normal van fare, often 5 to 7 times the price.
Private "picops" (pick-up truck) operators will drive around the rural areas of Guatemala. These are small Toyota (mostly), Hyundai or Ford trucks that have a metal frame placed in the bed so people can hold on during travel while standing. For a very low fee, cheaper than bus and van, you can travel to remote locations. Like bus and van, people are packed in tight. In some places these are the only thing available for public transportation.
One great advantage of renting a car is that you can visit many of the secluded beaches and mountain areas. And with the power of the Internet, you can now rent just about any vehicle online and have it waiting for you when you arrive.
For USD150-500 a week you can rent a econocar/mid size 4WD. Insurance is the majority of this cost and it is not optional. Four-wheel-drive is good for extensive travelling outside the main tourist centres, especially in the wet season.
You have to exercise caution when renting a car in Guatemala; where it is not uncommon for rental companies to claim "damage" they insist you inflicted on the vehicle. It is by far the best policy to rent a car through a Guatemalan travel agent. Make sure to check the car carefully before you sign off on the damage sheet. Check the oil, brake fluid, fuel gauge (to make sure it's full) and that there is a spare tire with good air pressure and a jack. Look up the Spanish word for "scratches" (rayas) and other relevant terminology first, so you can at least scrutinize the rental company's assessment. Ask them to write down all the minor damages, not just check on the drawing, and keep a copy of this document on you.
Rental car companies such as ""Hertz"", ""Budget"" and ""Tabarini"" offer GPS navigation systems for rent on a daily basis. The maps are provided by GPSTravelMaps and can be purchased before arrival through http://www.gpstravelmaps.com/guatemala.php and will save you money by loading to your own Garmin GPS instead of renting from the car rental company.
Regular domestic flights only operate between Guatemala City and Flores. Service is provided by Avianca (Merged from Grupo Taca which included Taca Regional and Aviateca) and TAG (Transportes Aereo Guatemaltecos)
The closest thing to having a trolley for regular public transportation are the green Transmetro buses in Guatemala City that run on dedicated lanes to bypass the parallel traffic and stopping at a limited number of stops along the road. There's also has a local trolley tour (actually a bus made to look like trolley) service aimed at tourists.
There is a rail network but, aside from the occasional steam charter aimed at tourist groups, no trains - neither freight nor passenger - have run since 2007.
Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, and the most commonly spoken. Over twenty indigenous languages are still spoken throughout, but many of the Maya people have at least a working knowledge of basic Spanish as well, except in the more remote areas. For the Garifuna people in Livingston, Garifuna and an archaic form of British English are the main languages (but Spanish is spoken as well).
The most familiar form of Spanish spoken among good friends is the "tú" and "vos" form, but varies between regions. It is considered rude and very informal if used with someone that you do not know. As a tourist, it is safer to stick with the "usted" form. However, don't be surprised if some homestay families and some language teachers jump right into using the "tú" or "vos" form. If they do, you may respond in kind.
Guatemala has a lot of volcanoes, many of them over 3,000 metres high.
If you decide to travel to Pacaya alone the prices are quite reasonable. About GTQ50 (USD6) entrance to the park itself. At the entrance to Pacaya National Park you will be required to have 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 located in the town of El Cedro and the second in the town of San Francisco. The El Cedro route is an easier climb, around 2 hours up & 1 hour down the volcano. The San Francisco entrance is a few miles further past El Cedro. It's a bit of a steeper climb. The entire park is patrolled by local police as well as soldiers...it is quite safe. Locals also offer horses to bring you for around GTQ125 (USD15) which if you're not into hiking is a great alternative. These are offered to you when you begin your ascent. There are restrooms & snacks/drinks available for sale at both entrances as well. Secure parking is available for those travelling without a tour group.
Many companies offer this travel like:
Guatemala is rich in natural beauty and travel opportunities, it's a country that offers so much to those willing to step off the beaten track for a little while.
Antigua Guatemala is often regarded as the travellers hub, a crumbling, picture-perfect central american town ringed by volcanoes. From here you can take a hike up Volcano Pacaya, take a bus to the bustling market of Chichicastenango, or simply sip some coffee in a street-side cafe and watch the world go by.
Lake Atitlan (or Lago de Atitlán) is another frequent stop on any visitors itinerary. A volcano-rimmed lake with plenty of backpacker hostels and Mayan villages that dot the shores.
Flores in Guatemala's wild north is a tourist friendly island in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá. From here you can take a bus ride to one of best preserved Mayan ruins in the world, Tikal. Howler monkeys and dense jungle make walking around the ruins an adventure in itself.
Rio Dulce The Rio Dulce is a majestic emerald river, sandwiched between Belize & Honduras, which sweeps out to the Caribbean. The Rio Dulce area consists of two towns on either side of one of the largest bridges in Central America, Fronteras & El Relleno. Rio Dulce is a haven for Sailors and Backpackers alike, with plenty to do and to see. Finca Paraiso is a hot springs waterfall which is like having a spa day in the jungle; Castillo San Felipe de Lara is a historical fort site and an inexpensive way to spend the afternoon touring the castle and swimming in Lake Izabal. The many species of Birds & Animals (including manatees) makes Rio Dulce a great spot for birdwatchers, animal lovers & fishing fans. Definitely a Must See!
In different parts of Guatemala can perform many adventure activities in island flores can make a 5-day hike to reach el mirador archeological site, or can rent kayaks on Lake Atitlan, climb the volcanoes that have Guatemala,cycling tours and others activities can be performed in any part of this country. in several cities tourists can contact community tourguide could ask for their services.
There are a lot of attractions that tourist can visit in Guatemala. For more information, visit the official website of tourism .
The local currency is the Quetzal (plural: quetzales), the national bird, with ancient and mythic connotations even today. This is symbolised internationally and in our guides by GTQ being placed before the amount with no intervening space.
One US dollar is equivalent to about GTQ7. US dollars are highly regarded and can be exchanged in most small towns at a rate unfavourable to travellers; you will most likely have difficulty using other currencies. ATMs can be found in the major towns but do not expect to find them in every tourist spot. It is fairly easy to find yourself in a town without an ATM or a place to change money. Banks are also very useful, such as Banrural, which is commonly found throughout Guatemalan cities and towns.
Do not expect to be able to easily exchange travellers cheques in Guatemala. You might find a few places willing to accept checks that are issued by American Express, but other types are universally turned down. Amazingly, even major banks in Guatemala City do not accept VISA travellers cheques.
The rate of exchange was approximately 7.65 Quetzales per US dollar in February 2015 and 8.64 per euro.
It is common to bargain for most purchases in the open air market. Though you may be able to bargain in other places, be aware that chain-owned shops have fixed prices (you are no more likely to bargain in a Guatemalan Radio Shack than an American one).
These are some characteristically Guatemalan things you might consider buying here:
A typical breakfast is Frijoles, eggs and bread with coffee of course.
The type of food really depends on how much you want to spend and what type of place you want to spend it at. You can get almost any type of food at the main tourist locations. In the aldeas (small towns) your choices are mostly limited to those items listed above. Most Guatemalan food differs from Mexican food in that it is a lot less spicy, and chillies are generally served in a separate dish from the main course to be added as desired, rather than included in the food. However, as one gets closer to Mexico, the food does get more spicy.
There exist "comedores" throughout the country. A comedore is a small house-restaurant. Normally, a family will set up 3-4 tables in a portion of their household and this well act as a makeshift restaurant. Comedores are known for providing a cheap lunch-sized portion of food. They will offer one or two options to choose from. This is not a real restaurant, there will not be a bathroom, menu, or real server; however, eating in these locations can provide one of the most efficient ways to experience Guatemalan culture first hand.
Atole de Elote is a popular warm corn drink. This sweet concoction must be drunk while warm; when cold, it becomes much too dense.
Popular Guatemalan beers are Gallo (lager, by far the most popular with Guatemalans), Victoria, Brahva (a 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's a custom to put some salt on the toes of the bottle, and screw out the lemon in the beer. Sometimes it is mixed with V8 vegetable juice, and the concoction is called michelada.
Guatemala produces a number of rums, including the superb Ron Zacapa Centenario which is aged up to 30 years.
Tequila is a very popular drink in Guatemala.
Guatemalans usually dress up when they go out.
If you order a bottled drink, you will normally get a tissue to clean the bottle. Coca-Cola and Pepsi-type products are available, plus many from local soft drink manufacturers.
You will likely find cheap hotels "hospedajes" in every town or village in Guatemala. Hospedajes normally provide either a bed in a communal room with a communal bathroom, or private rooms with a communal bathroom. Private bathrooms in hospedajes are not found very often. In the main tourist areas, there are also many high quality hotels. You can find and book many of these accommodations in most major travel websites and also in other smaller on-line directories (for example: Directory of Hotels in Guatemala).
Guatemala is a great place to learn Spanish. The prices are low, and Guatemalan Spanish is considered pleasing. Antigua has the highest number of Spanish schools and is also the most popular place for tourists. But if studying Spanish is your main concern, you might be better off elsewhere, because you can actually go around in Antigua for a whole day without hearing anything but English.
Because of this, many language students head towards Quetzaltenango in the Western Highlands, where a wide range of language schools also offer Spanish language courses (some quite inexpensive). Another alternative is San Pedro la Laguna, seated by Lake Atitlan. The website [http://www.do-guatemala.com] has several options for Spanish lessons on their website, including different locations and programs.
You can also travel and learn Spanish at the same time. Spanish Language Travels [http://www.spanishlanguagetravels.com/en/] has a so called Traveling Classroom tour where you combine learning Spanish in Antigua, Quetzaltenango, San Pedro La Laguna and Monterrico with traveling and activities.
There are various volunteering opportunities around the country.
Newspapers and Magazines for tourists:
Do not go to areas known to be hotbeds of drug trafficking activity (ie: some parts of the Peten), and do not go to the most dangerous neighborhoods in Guatemala City (zones 3, 6, 18, and 21). Be careful in Zone 1 in Guatemala City, especially after dark, and do not stay in any hotels there. Using the slightly more expensive hotels in Zone 10 or Zone 13 (near the airport) is a better idea if you intend to visit Guatemala City.
Women should be especially careful around men, even if the men present themselves as local hotel employees. Over the last year, several tourists have been the victims of brutal sexual assaults in the beach community of Monterrico and the town of Panajachel. In one case, a local man pretended to be a hotel employee before torturing, raping, and attempting to kill a young woman staying in the area.
Do not use buses at night in Guatemala City, as buses are frequently robbed by gangs. Instead, radio-dispatched taxis (Taxi Amarillo) are a safer way to get around the city. Another note is that when traveling by chicken bus, beware of anyone sitting next to you.
Although some say that travelers should always carry a bit of extra cash and be prepared to bribe a few police officers, most tourists will have no reason to give bribes to anyone. The most likely situations in which you might have to bribe police would be if you are driving a car or riding a motorcycle and are stopped for a false violation of traffic rules. Most North Americans and Europeans find it immoral to bribe but it is, unfortunately, almost a way of life in Guatemala and it is much easier to spend 50Q to avoid the headaches of being harassed by the police. Phrases such as "I'm sorry officer. Is there any way we can resolve this right now?" work well. Do not offer bribes directly to an officer because bribes are illegal, and if you encounter an officer who actually does follow the law, you could end up in more trouble.
Never take photos of children without permission. Some Guatemalans are extremely wary of this and will think that you are mixed in with kidnappers and planning to take the child for ransom. Kidnapping is a common occurrence in Guatemala. The country also has many problems with children being kidnapped and sold for adoption on the black market. Taking pictures of adults at a distance wth a few children included is generally fine. In the major cities, people are somewhat more open towards picture taking, but still avoid it.
It is dangerous to travel between cities after dark. Doing so significantly increases your risk of being the victim of an armed robbery.
Pickpocketing is common in markets, so never keep anything in your back pocket and take as little with you as possible.
Guatemala has an abundance of natural beauty and numerous treks. But some of these are notorious for robberies (Volcan de Agua, trails around Lago de Atitlan, Volcan de Pacaya). Always ask around about the situation before embarking blindly. Inguat, locals, and fellow travelers are safe bets for information. Traveling in groups during daylight sometimes decreases the risk, but not always.
Traffic can be dangerous. You will encounter many two-lane roads (one lane each way) and drivers are apt to swerve back and forth, avoiding potholes and bumps along the way. There are also various multiple lane highways. Traffic in Guatemala City and surrounding metropolitan areas during rush hour is very slow, but general driving everywhere is usually very fast (average speeds of up to 60 mph in some city roads).
Drink only purified water (Agua Pura Ecológica is recommended by most of hospitals and hotels).
CDC  states that malaria risk exists in rural areas at altitudes lower than 1,500 metres, with no risk in Antigua or Lake Atitlán. Preventative anti-malarial medication can and should be purchased ahead of visiting malaria-endemic areas.
Dengue fever is endemic throughout Guatemala.
Hepatitis A&B vaccinations are recommended.
Address people you don't know in a formal manner (Señor, Señora, Usted), and greet people in the following way:
You'll encounter this in more suburban, rural areas. Native Guatemalans are raised to greet strangers formally.
Guatemala's international calling code is 502. There are no area codes. Phone numbers all have eight digits. On September 18, 2004, the phone system switched from seven to eight digits, and there is a scheme for adding specific digits to the front of seven-digit numbers (WTNG.info description ).
The phone system it works OK. Tourists can call abroad from call centers, where you pay by the minute. It is also easy to use coins to use at public pay phones. Typically, the cost is around 8 quetzals for a 10 min call to North America. Cell phones are quite cheap and calling to the US through one can get as low as $0.08 a min. If you are planning to stay for a while and plan to use the phone, you should consider buying a cheap prepaid phone. Wireless nation-wide internet access for laptops is also available as a service from some companies. Telefonica has good coverage with their PCMCIA EV-DO cards.
The post system is quite reliable and cheap, although slow, your post cards usually get through. A stamp for Europe is Q5. There are; however, many other alternative companies to the federal mail system that are reliable, though frequently somewhat pricey.
Internet access is widely available. Even most of the more remote areas have some type of internet access available. Many larger areas also have WiFi. All of the Camperos chicken/pizza restaurants (which are numerous) offer free WiFi, as well as many other restaurants and cafes. Some hotels may also offer computer banks with internet access. Just ask and you eventually will find some sort of free access.
Mobile (3G/GPRS) internet access
If you have an internet capable mobile phone such as iPhone, Google Android, Nokia N95 etc or USB dongle for your laptop, you just need a local SIM card (roughly Q25) and can start enjoying the prepaid access plans, which generally come in lots of an hour, a day, or a week.
Anecdotal: when I passed through Guatemala in May 2010 I bought a TIGO Guatemala SIM and automatically received an SMS within a day or two offering me 30 days of free internet access without any need to do anything, which was variable in its reliability but very useful all the same. With a program such as PDANet you can create a mini Wifi network that follows you around as you travel. I asked around and apparently the normal way to activate the internet after putting in the right configuration settings I was supposed to send the SMS message "WAP" to the shortcode 805, but I didn't need to do this. The APN (access point name) was internet.tigo.gt
Here is a table for the settings and activation options for various providers, including approximate costs.