Guatemala is a small, lush, and mountainous country, graced with beautiful scenery, a rich indigenous culture, colonial history, and important archaeological ruins. The country lies at the heart of the Mayan culture in Central America with remarkable Mayan sites scattered throughout the land, none more so than the magnificent ruins of the ancient city of Tikal set deep within the jungle.
The Mayan villages of the highlands are spread amid the breathtaking scenery of smoking volcanoes and spectacular lakes, where ancient customs and traditions persist despite five centuries of European domination.
Their culture is expressed through vibrant weekly markets, bright traditional clothing, fabulous handicrafts, different languages, and colourful religious festivals. Lake Atitlan, a beautiful deep lake ringed by volcanoes and Mayan villages, is a remarkable place combining astounding vistas with traditional culture.
Guatemalan society is split between the traditional and the modern, each following their own path in a country sprinkled with remnants of a colonial past. Nowhere is the Spanish legacy more evident than in the charming city of Antigua.
Antigua's cobbled streets, plazas, elegant fountains, and towering volcanoes as a backdrop. Interrelations between the Spanish and the native population produced a mixed population, the Ladinos, who have embraced their European heritage and are typically city folk.
A rough past provides a troublesome background to the country and its people. Inequalities between the Spanish-speaking Indians and indigenous cultures, as well as between rich and poor, have been a source of tension and discord throughout the years.
The violence caused by political differences has left thousands dead, while the devastation caused by earthquakes has left people homeless and in need of world aid. Despite this, travellers are drawn to the intriguing mix of cultures and history set amid dramatic scenery, and they generally find the locals friendly, considerate, and proud of their country.
Guatemala seamlessly blends together ancient, colonial, and modern eras, from the classical Spanish-Baroque architecture in Antigua, exemplified by such pieces as the famous fountain, Fuente de Pescado, to the legendary structural wonders of the Mayan temple complex Tikal.
Each step along Guatemala's quaint cobbled streets and jungle trails leads further into the distant past. As with many of its Central American neighbours, Guatemala has held onto local customs and cultures while developing its urban hubs to meet modern tourist standards.
Travellers can party in Guatemala City's business district during warm evenings, then spend a Sunday at the markets in Chichicastenango, a meeting place for traditional artisans and hub for local produce. Chichicastenango is bound to entice all travellers with the sensory delicacies of Guatemala's verdant forests, farms, and plantations.
Adventurous travellers can hike up Volcan San Pedro, just behind the famous picturesque resort village of San Pedro La Laguna. Visitors should note that a local guide is considered essential to conquering the dormant volcano's peak.
While the adrenaline junkies are relishing Guatemala's many summits, other travellers can enjoy a spate of urban sightseeing. The country is also home to a wealth of ancient artefacts and numerous historical sites so history buffs will be in their element.
The country has a strong tourism industry and travellers looking for an in-depth and immersive experience into authentic Central American culture should lace up their boots and pack their bags, for they need look no further than Guatemala.
The ruins of Las Capuchinas, the biggest and most remarkable of Antigua's convents, are the best preserved and most beautiful in the city. The convent was founded in 1736 by Spanish nuns and is now a museum dedicated to religious life in colonial times. The nuns who lived here followed a strict daily routine that revolved around fasting and praying. Their tiny cells can be found in the walls of the round tower, which has good views from the top. There are also fountains, gardens, and several lovely courtyards within the compound.
Set deep in the jungle of the Parque Nacional, Tikal is home to one of the most important remnants of Mayan culture: the City of Voices. Declared both a Cultural and Natural Heritage to Humanity by UNESCO, it was first occupied around 800 BC and became one of the Mayan political hubs. Its most striking features are the steep-sided towering temples rising up to heights of 230ft (70m). Scattered around the area are countless other structures, many still partially buried in the ground or engulfed by the verdant rainforest. The Great Plaza with its five temples served as the heart of religious and ceremonial activity.
The Volcan San Pedro is located behind San Pedro La Laguna and offers one of the most spectacular views in the world. The hike is strenuous and is around six hours round trip, depending on fitness levels. The rewards are well worth the effort, though. The starting sections include a rough trail, after which it is all jungle trekking. It is advisable to hire a local guide, as there is no signage and this is one of the wildest areas in the country, and a truly adventurous hiking experience.
Santiago Atitlan is a quiet but strong community surrounded by forested slopes and three distinctive volcanoes at what many people have dubbed the most beautiful lake in the world: Lake Atitlan. Not only is Lake Atitlan scenically spectacular, the lake and hillside settlements are also rich in Mayan culture. Some of the villages in the area are the only ones in the country where people still wear traditional clothing in day-to-day life, with each village sporting its own distinctive style and colour of densely embroidered dress. Around the lake are the main tourism centres of Panajachel and San Pedro La Laguna, which have lots of accommodation, small restaurants, and craft shops.
Antigua is reminiscent of an old colonial city in Latin America, with the Spanish-Baroque buildings set in a valley between three volcanoes. Plazas, inner courtyards and fountains are well-preserved remnants of the Spanish legacy in the Americas, and the town is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Buildings of interest include the Iglesia de San Francisco, La Merced, and the Las Capuchinas ruins. Adventurous travellers should visit the nearby volcano peaks, which offer superb hiking opportunities and views. Villages such as San Antonio Aguascalientes offer visitors a closer look at indigenous life and are centres for beautiful hand-woven textiles.
The holiday resort town of Panajachel in the highlands has a large population of long-term hippie expats and a distinctly Western character. The relaxed ambience accompanies breathtaking views of three volcanoes that sit near the lake. There are many hotels, small restaurants, and lively nightspots, with a mosaic of sensory delights awaiting tourists. Travellers can visit the photo museum in the Casa Cakchiquel, a historic hotel that has housed legends such as Che Guevara and Ingrid Bergman. The Church of St Francis, built in the 16th century, has survived several earthquakes, and still provides sanctuary to the locals.
The holiday destination of San Pedro La Laguna has a relaxed bohemian feel and it comes as no surprise that it is one of the most popular places for a summer holiday in Guatemala. The village revolves around the Catholic Church and the market place, with narrow cobbled streets leading up the hill, away from the ferry docks. Coffee plantations surround San Pedro La Laguna, and picturesque paths lead to the lake, where boulders and small stretches of beach provide peaceful sunbathing and swimming spots. There are also thermal pools in the village offering superb views of the nearby volcanoes.
Due to its elevation, Guatemala City has a subtropical highland climate. This, combined with the windiness of the area, results in the city having moderate temperatures for most of the year. May is the warmest month, with temperatures averaging around 69°F (21°C), and temperatures drop only slightly to an average of 65°F (19°C) from October through to January. The rainy season in Guatemala City is between May and October, with the heaviest rains in September. December through February tends to be the most popular time for tourists to visit Guatemala City.
Guatemala's climate is lovely year round and is generally hot throughout the county, making travel possible at any time. The rainy season is usually from May to November, with average temperatures of 72°F (22°C). Climate varies more due to altitude than season.
It's easier to explore Guatemala's mountains, rainforests and volcanoes in the dry season, which runs from November to April. There are some regional variations, with the highlands, including Guatemala City and Antigua, experiencing less rainfall than the coast, and slightly colder temperatures at night.
The official currency is the Guatemalan quetzal (GTQ), which is divided into 100 centavos. Cash exchange is easy, but visitors are advised to exchange money in hotels, at banks or at foreign offices rather than the informal booths on the street. It's only possible to exchange US dollars in Guatemala.
There are ATMs in the towns and cities but they aren't always reliable. Credit and debit cards have been cloned after use at ATMs, so visitors should check ATMs for evidence of tampering. Compromised machines may not be easy to spot, though. Credit cards are widely accepted.
The official language is Spanish, but English is understood in hotels and tourist destinations. In addition, there are many indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala as well.
Electrical current is 120 volts, 60Hz. A variety of plugs are in use including the flat two-pin (Type A).
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Guatemala. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Guatemala. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days for British passport holders endorsed British Citizen. Those holding passports with other endorsements should confirm entry requirements before travel.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport or replacing document that is valid for the period of intended stay in Guatemala. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport valid for the period of intended stay in Guatemala. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport valid for the period of intended stay in Guatemala. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport valid for the period of intended stay in Guatemala. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport valid for the period of intended stay in Guatemala. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
It is strongly recommended that all foreign passengers to Guatemala hold return or onward tickets, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. Travellers should note that the period of stay for visa-exempt nationals is 90 days; however, 90-day extensions can be organised through the Immigration Office. For nationals requiring a visa, the consulate issuing the visa will advise visitors about the amount of deposit to be paid at the port of entry in Guatemala, which will be refunded when the visitor leaves Guatemala. It is highly recommended that travellers' passport have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Travellers visiting Guatemala should take precautions against malaria, which occurs in the low-lying areas outside Guatemala City. They should also take insect-bite protection measures for dengue fever and Zika virus. A yellow fever certificate is required from travellers entering the country from infected areas; hepatitis A and B, and typhoid vaccinations are recommended, as is an MMR (Measles, mumps and rubella) update.
Visitors should stick to bottled water, or boil all water before drinking if bottled water is unavailable. Good travel insurance is necessary and visitors should use private clinics where possible. All medication should be accompanied with a signed and dated letter from a doctor explaining what the medication is and why it is needed.
Generally a 10 percent tip is recommended for good service in Guatemala. It is customary to tip waiters if a service charge hasn't been added to the bill and tipping extra for excellent service is also customary. Taxi drivers are not usually tipped. Hotel staff and tour guides expect to be tipped for their services and can be more favourable in their service when receiving generous tips.
Visitors should take sensible precautions after dark in Guatemala City, and should note that pickpocketing and petty theft are common in tourist areas and market places. They should also avoid cheaper buses when travelling on tourist routes from Guatemala City to Antigua, and from Antigua to Panajachel, as robberies have been known to take place.
The rainy season between April and November usually brings about heavy rain and flooding, mudslides, and hurricanes. Guatemala has active volcanoes, so it's important to keep track of any volcanic activity.
It is very common to greet most people, especially in the countryside. Clothing need not be too conservative. However, modesty is advised for female travellers in order to avoid unwanted attention.
Visitors should ask permission before taking photographs, particularly of children, as locals are suspicious of foreigners approaching kids for pictures due to incidences of kidnapping, particularly in remote areas where tourists have been attacked. A small tip might be required.
Military clothing is illegal, so travellers should avoid camouflage-patterned clothing. Public displays of affection between same sex couples should be avoided, particularly outside of Guatemala City.
Business etiquette in Guatemala is similar to the rest of Latin America. Due to the warm, humid climate, men often wear lightweight suits. Women usually wear a dress or a skirt with a blouse. Foreigners should always be punctual for meetings, as Guatemalan business people are very punctual.
Foreigners should use professional titles such as such as doctor, professor, ingeniero (engineer) or abogado (lawyer), or should otherwise address colleagues as assenor (Mr), senora (Mrs), and senorita (Miss), followed by their last names.
Speaking softly is considered polite. Business cards may be exchanged although there is no ritual around it. Business hours are generally 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with an hour taken over lunch; business lunches or breakfasts are preferred over business dinners.
The international access code for Guatemala is +502. The outgoing code depends on what network is used to dial out on, which is followed by the relevant country code (e.g. +44 for the United Kingdom). WiFi connections are available in the cities and main tourist areas, and many hotels, hostels and language schools will offer reasonable internet rates. Travellers can purchase local SIM cards for unlocked phones.
Travellers to Guatemala over 18 do not have to pay duty on 80 cigarettes and two bottles of liquor or spirits.
Guatemalan Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 745 4953 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Guatemalan Embassy, London, United Kingdom (responsible for Ireland): +44 207 2211 525, or email@example.com
Guatemalan Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 233 7188 or www.canada.minex.gob.gt
Embassy of Guatemala, Canberra, Australia: +61 26189 1311
Guatemalan Honorary Consulate, Cape Town, South Africa: +27 21 418 2020 (Johannesburg: +27 11 804 5080)
United States Embassy, Guatemala City: +502 2326 4000.
British Embassy, Guatemala City: +502 2380 7300.
Canadian Embassy, Guatemala City: +502 2363 4348.
Australian Embassy, Guatemala City, Guatemala: +502 2328 0300
South African Consulate, Mexico City (responsible for Guatemala): + 521 55 1100 4970
Irish Consulate, Guatemala City, Guatemala: +502 535 35349
New Zealand Consulate, Mexico City (responsible for Guatemala): +52 55 5283 9460
The main gateway to the country is La Aurora International Airport, which is located on the edge of the city centre. Public transit in Guatemala City is problematic, and may be frustrating for visitors. A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the Transmetro, serves the city. Operating hours are between 4.30am and 10pm during the week, and 4.30am and 9pm over the weekend.
Visitors arriving in Guatemala City by bus from other cities will be dropped off at one of the BRT stations on the periphery of the city. These intercity buses have either first or second-class options, with the latter being renowned for being extremely uncomfortable and overcrowded.
Both the local and inter-city buses tend to be the popular stomping ground for armed robbers and muggers; visitors are advised to always be aware of their surroundings and to avoid the use of the bus system at after dark.
Taxis are available and can easily be hailed at inter-city bus terminals. In other parts of the city it is best to phone ahead and book one in advance. Taxi Amarillo (yellow) cabs are metered and trustworthy. Uber and Lyft operate in the city.
A quaint traditional hill village with cobbled streets and red-tiled roofs, Chichicastenango has been one of the largest centres of Mayan trade since pre-Hispanic times and thousands of people gather in a spectacle of colour and festivity every week. Chichi, as it is called, is renowned mainly for its Sunday and Thursday markets, Sunday being the busiest. The markets attract tourists, commercial traders and Mayan weavers from all over the highland area. It is also an important centre of culture and religion, and the locals have combined traditional Mayan religious rites with Catholicism.
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