Guatemala


Overview

Guatemala travel guide, including map of Guatemala, top Guatemala travel experiences, tips for travel in Guatemala, plus how to visit jungle-clad Mayan sites

Guatemala, birthplace of the Maya, is a land of kaleidoscopic colours.

The red lava tongues of Guatemala’s volcanoes contrast with the shadows of the caves in the southern Petén region and the thick lush jungles of the north – home to howler monkeys and rare scarlet macaws.

Further south, blankets of white sand coat the Caribbean Coast near Lívingston, while on the black-sand Pacific Coast, turtles and fabulous orange sunsets can be found at Monterrico.

Antigua, a cultural sideshow to Guatemala City, lies in the shadow of three volcanoes. Its cobbled streets are lined with pastel-coloured homes, toppled church arches, columned courtyards, flowers and fountains galore.

Also on everyone’s must see list in Guatemala is Tikal, the majestic Mayan city buried deep in the jungle.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Trek to the greatest city of the ancient Maya, buried deep in the jungle – El Mirador
  2. Freewheel through the Guatemalan highlands and wander along the shores of beautiful Lake Atitlan
  3. Fly a kite in Santiago Sacatepéquez
  4. Hire a local guide in Antigua: you’ll discover rooftops and private areas you might otherwise miss
  5. Take a boat cruise along Río Dulce through dramatic jungle-covered gorges and inlets carpeted with water lilies

Wanderlust tips

If you’re in Guatemala in November head to Todos Santos Cuchumatán for three days of drinking, dancing and a wild all-day horse race.

If you arrive by bus into Guatemala City, get a cab to your hostel: it’s a notoriously dangerous area, especially at night.

I wish I'd known...

Wanderlust web intern Thomas Rees on the thing he wished he'd known before he arrived:

"Brush up on Tz'utujil. Many of the older inhabitants of the Mayan villages scattered along the shores of Lake Atitlan don't speak any Spanish which can make for a few awkward silences!”

Further Reading

Travel in Guatemala: vital stats

 

  • Capital of Guatemala: Guatemala City
  • Population of Guatemala: 14 million
  • Languages in Guatemala: Spanish; Maya dialects
  • Time in Guatemala: GMT-6
  • International dialling code in Guatemala: +502
  • Voltage in Guatemala: 115-125V 60Hz AC
  • Visas for Guatemala: Guatemala visas
  • Money in Guatemala: Quetzal (Q). US dollars are widely accepted, although you’ll need local currency, too. Credit and debit cards can be used at ATMs but aren’t widely accepted outside tourist areas.
  • Guatemala travel advice: Foreign & Commonwealth Office
  • Guatemala tourist board: Inguat

When to go to Guatemala

The climate in Guatemala varies according to altitude, but the driest time is November-April. The coast is, by and large, hot all year round. The highlands have pleasantly warm days and cool nights. In December and January, there may be frost in the early morning at the highest elevations.

International airport

La Aurora (GUA) is 4km from Guatemala City.

Getting around in Guatemala

Tourist shuttle buses, taxis or private car and driver are the best ways of getting around. From Guatemala City airport to Antigua (45km) get a bus or taxi.

As far as public transport goes, you’ll have to rely on the local or ‘chicken’ buses; they are inexpensive and dilapidated but offer a chance to meet ordinary Guatemalans. Poor roads make car hire challenging.  

Guatemala accommodation

Guatemala has everything from luxury hotels to cosy B&Bs and bargain basement crash pads. Travellers on a budget will find it a joy: clean doubles and hostel dorms are easy to find everywhere except Guatemala City. At the top end, there are some fine colonial hotels, especially in Antigua. There are hardly any campsites in Guatemala.  

Guatemala food and drink

Guatemalan food is hearty and filling: corn tortillas are a staple and – served with refried beans, eggs, sour cream, plantain and strong coffee – make a traditional breakfast.

Popular dishes include pepián, a chilli-infused stew made with meat and sometimes chocolate; chiles rellenos, chillies stuffed with vegetables and meat; and tamales, steamed cornmeal stuffed with chicken or meat.

Guatemalans have a sweet tooth: try mole de platano, plantain doused in a chocolate sauce. Gallo, the local beer, rum and aguardiente, a potent sugar cane spirit, are all cheap and popular.

Vegetarians are well catered for but check that beans haven’t been fried in lard (manteca/grasa de cerdo).

Health and safety in Guatemala

Although most visitors experience a trouble-free visit, crime is a serious issue in Guatemala. Take precautions: register with your embassy, don’t flash cash or jewellery, take registered taxis at night and steer clear of known trouble spots (Guatemala City after dark, and some trails around Lake Atitlán).

Highway robbery and robbery along hiking trails are risks. Don't flaunt valuables; distribute money etc around your bags/person; carry only what you need, keeping other belongings locked in hotel safes. Be up to date on key vaccinations. Take malaria tablets. Steer clear of tap water.