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Guatemala Travel Guide
Latin America

 

colourful people a chichicastenango, guatemala

Guatemala Tours | Central America Map | Guatemala Map

Why holiday in Guatemala?

Not unlike Mexico 30 years ago, Guatemala is one of the most colourful countries in Latin America, possibly second only to Peru in all the Americas.

Guatemala offers superb, jungle encrusted Maya pyramid complexes, gorgeous smoking volcanic landscapes, wildlife crammed rainforests, magnificent colonial towns, and colourful ethnic people with curious customs.
It's also good value, relatively undeveloped and - if you go in the right season - has a climate of 'Eternal Spring' in highland areas.
Teaching Spanish language is big business here, with 60 reliable schools, many in Antigua.

 

Downsides

- Although civil war ceased in 1996 Guatemala still suffers a desperate rich/poor imbalance, with 3% of the population owning 70% of the usable land. The indigenous Maya people are particularly hard up.
- Petty crime is commonplace and violent crime occasional, with Guatemala City being the focus of the country's ills. Spend as little time as possible there.
- Guatemala's infrastructure is stuffed; roads are rough and regular buses uncomfortable and unsafe, though entertaining. Better 'Pullman' buses run on major routes.
- Local cuisine is dull, as is the beer, though major tourist areas tend to offer more options.

 

Weather

Best: November-May
Worst: June- October (rains, though usually just a late afternoon downpour)
n.b. climate here depends very much on your target destinations/altitude. Lowland, jungle (e.g. Tikal) and Caribbean areas will be generally hot and sticky while highlands (e.g. Antigua, Atitlan and Chichicastenango) will tend towards warm days and cool/cold nights.

 

Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights:
1 week for a look at Antigua, Panajachel and Chichicastenango.
Better: 2 weeks+, visiting key towns and taking a flight to Flores/ Tikal.

 

 

Main attractions

***Antigua, the old capital, is just what appalling Guatemala City should be - elegant, peaceful, interesting and scenically situated between three volcanoes. This World Heritage site has cobbled streets, flowers, evocative ruins and fine, varied, drinking and dining establishments.
It's popular with foreign families and Spanish language students as well as tourists.

The country's old capital, properly known as Antigua Guatemala, is one of central America's prettiest and most tranquil cities, thanks to various earthquakes - the last major one being in 1773 - that prompted the government to abandon the place and relocate to the current capital, hideous, chaotic, unsafe Guatemala City.

With all the hustlers, politicians and madmen safely ensconced in the new city, determined Antigua residents, the church and Spanish colonial authorities got on with reviving and rebuilding their space - so successfully that it is now a World Heritage site, though many damaged buildings are still in disrepair.

The city is, naturally, popular with gringos as a calm, well-serviced, cosmopolitan alternative to the deranged capital, and only an hour away. It is also favoured by Spanish language students and has a variety of good schools available.

Nowhere in this country is completely free from crime so walking the cobbled streets at night should be done with care and walks in the surrounding countryside - such as a hike up Volcan Pacaya - with a guide.

Guided tours up nearby, smokin' Pacaya Volcano are in demand by fit visitors.

 

***Lake Atitlan, huge, clear and beautifully framed by three volcanoes; this is where Maya traditions are at their ancient best in spite of a river of gringos silting up the neighbourhood over the years.
The bizarre local god, Maximon/Ry Laj Man/San Simon, in all his wooden, smoking, drinking glory can be visited hereabouts.

The largest and most sophisticated of the lake's 13 towns is Panajachel - aka Gringotenango, not a pretty sight, but what a location!

Next best stop is Santiago Atitlan, across the lake, a more traditional town with terrific Friday and Sunday markets.
San Pedro la Laguna is a kind of alternative hippie retirement home with plentiful inexpensive accommodation, thermal baths, hikes up the nearby volcano and ganja blowing in the wind.

 

***Chichicastenango, is Guatemala's third most popular tourist destination, a lovely town of narrow, cobbled streets beautifully situated amid a cluster of mountains, this is the premier traditional Maya town in the country, with adobe houses and (some) vividly dressed locals, it's famed for two things:
- the huge and technicolour indigenous markets on Sundays and Thursdays.
- the weird and wonderful Pagan/Catholic crossbreed religion exemplified by the peculiar Pagan rites that take place in and around the Santo Tomas church.
If you wish to go for walks outside the town, take a guide - there have been robberies.

Apart from colourfully embroidered clothes and evocative streets, the mixed Pagan/Christian beliefs of the Maya people are more apparent here than in other towns, with curious rituals openly celebrated, particularly in and around the church of Santo Tomas. The church steps are home to chanting shamans and burning incense, while inside offerings of food, drink, flowers are liberally scattered around.

Market day is the tourist's favourite occasion, when highland traders pack the streets and tour guides attempt to herd their charges through the chaos without losing their wallets. Markets occur on Sundays and Thursdays, but Sunday's (picture at top) is the busiest and also the day on which religious groups hold processions.

 

***Tikal, one of the most impressive Maya pyramid groups anywhere, tall, magnificent and embedded in 370 sq kms of jungle.
Day trips are possible from quiet Flores but VERY different from the Tikal dusk/dawn experience when you'll be surrounded by fewer tourists but a forest of roaring monkeys (howlers), screeching parakeets, fluttering bats and all sorts of scary Indiana Jonesness, so stay overnight and go buggy!

 

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal's centre court.
Foto © Daniel Loncarevic

 

Peeking over one million hectares of jungle reserve the stately Tikal pyramids have an earthy, dark and mysterious atmosphere like no other pyramid group except perhaps Palenque in Mexico. The only sounds will be of deep jungle, particularly the appalling roar of the howler monkeys, the squawking of parakeets or the shrieking of tour groups, while the primo sight is of a toucan hurtling like a guided missile across the central plaza.

However, to really experience this magical location you will need to stay nearby, preferably in one of the hotels within walking distance of the site, in order to bypass the seething hordes of daytime arrivistes.

Many visitors stay in the small conurbation of Flores, one and a half hours drive from Tikal. This is composed of three towns beside the lake of Petén Itza - Flores, Santa Elena and San Benito, with the first, Flores, offering reasonably attractive, old world surroundings, while the other two are noisome, recent and disorganized.

Halfway to Tikal but still on the lake shore El Remate is developing into a pleasant little base for Tikal trips.

From Flores travel to other less well-known, more distant Maya ruins are also possible, El Mirador, El Zotz and Rio Azul - still in Guatemala - and a much longer drive can take you across the border in Mexico, en route for Palenque.

 

*** Petén rainforest, comprising almost one third of Guatemala, is not only alive with wild things - jaguars, tapirs, monkeys, toucans, macaws and a zillion insectoids - but also scattered with creepy, overgrown Maya ruins, including the premier Tikal.
Controversially Petén has also been opened up to settlers who are busy slashing and burning it as fast as they can.

 

**Quetzaltenango (Xela). A not very attractive highland city, but surrounded by attractions - stunning countryside, little traditional villages, volcanoes, hot springs, pagan shrines and activities galore. Good for Spanish language schools too.

 

*Livingston. On the Caribbean coast, this town is home to black Carib people and has a very different atmosphere to other towns, particularly in the areas of music and cuisine. Nearby beaches are hardly worth the trip though (unless you take a boat ride) and the waterfalls 5km away will need a guide for safety.

Boat trips up the jungle clad gorges of the Rio Dulce, however, are impressive, and include water trails around the wildlife reserve of Biotopo Chocon Machacas where you will see plenty of birds and a manatee if you're lucky.

 

**Monterrico a Pacific beach village with a fair beach, well battered by surf, a wet nature reserve (Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii) riddled with turtles, caiman, iguana and all sorts of feathered friends. 2 hour guided tours on offer.
Best of all Sept-January every Saturday at sunset sees baby turtles racing to the sea. Tourists buy a turtle and race it against the others into the surf. Winner gets dinner. And no, not turtle stew.

 

Guatemala City, yuk, only go when you need transport connections, though there are a couple of OK museums, the Palacio Nacional and the central market is lively. Antigua is only an hour away.

 

 

Activities

Cycling and motorcycling: popular and with plenty of local support, though don't forget much of Guatemala is mountainous, roads are in poor shape and many vehicle drivers verge on the lunatic. Welome to Latin America! Bicycles can be carried on most bus roofs.
Bikes and motorbikes can be rented in tourist locations like Antigua, Flores, Panajachel.

Hikers can lose themselves in the lowland rainforest of Petén, stumbling over toucans and undiscovered Maya pyramids or head for the highlands around Lake Atitlan for easy, spectacular, less sweaty walks.
Alternatively high altitude freaks will enjoy scrambling up volcanoes such as Pacaya or San Pedro. Guides are useful in low and high cases and can be recruited locally.
Horse riding is available, mostly around Lake Atitlan.

White Water Rafting: one day to one week expeditions. June-Oct on Rivers Esclavos, Motagua and Naranjo and all year on Rio Cahabon.

Kayaking: good in Sept/Oct on Lanquin, Sauce, and Esclavos Rivers, and all year on Rio Cahabon.

Caving: in Verapaces area, Lanquin and Poptun have well known cave complexes. Candeleria is the new cave wave, with Gruta Rey Marcos and Chicoy.

Climbing: many good climbs in the Cuchumatanes range or Tajumulco Volcano for a real challenge.

Beach bumming: on the Pacific coast there are a couple of OK beaches, Balneario Chulamar (5km east of Puerto San José) and Balneario Likin (17km east of Puerto San José) or for the Caribbean side see right, Livingston #7.

Fishing: the number one deep sea fishing port is Iztapa on the Pacific coast, and world records have been set here in the hunt for marlin, sharks and other big fry.

 

Vocanoes

Guatemala Volcano and Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan and one of its volcanoes

 

Central America is the most volcanically active part of all the Americas, a chain of volcanoes that cause explosive havoc on a regular basis.

Guatemala is situated at the nexus of three tectonic plates so the country is particularly unstable. Thus regular earthquakes, such as those in 1773 that flattened Antigua, and further biggies in 1917 and 1976 that damaged Guatemala City. Disturbed tectonic plates also create volcanic eruptions, volcanoes and great, complex cave systems.

The most attractive results of all this activity are Lake Atitlan, which is a caldera - a collapsed volcanic cone (pictured above), and the ring of fire surrounding Antigua.

Climbing volcanoes is popular and yields spectacular views but guides are needed as some cones are ready to blow and others have occasional bandits cruising in search of rich, solitary tourists.

Some hiker's favourite climbs are: Agua and Pacaya near Antigua, San Pedro near Lake Atitlan and Santa Maria near Quetzaltenango. Pacaya and a part of Santa Maria (Santiaguito) are still active if you like a smoking gun.

 

Transport

With no rail service and flights to Flores/Tikal being the only real need for a compulsively disorganized airline, solo travellers in Guatemala will spend considerable time on buses.

There are three types, a) posh/1st class/Pullman b) chicken buses, as seen above c) minibuses.

Pullman buses are not frequent, expensive and only run on major tourist routes, but are generally comfortable, fast and safe.
Chicken buses are local buses that stop to pick up everyone and everything, including chickens. They are very cheap and entertaining, with no shortage of sights to see and friends to make, but could well be cramped, uncomfortable and driven by a lunatic. Big baggage will be stored on the roof and should be safe as, theoretically, only the driver's mate can go up there.
Minibuses will be operated by tour companies and may include a guide. They take tourists from/to their hotels and are consequently convenient, quick and safe, though dull and the most expensive of all three bus types.

Guatemala is a country with a petty crime problem, no more so than at bus stations and on chicken buses, so keep valuables well hidden from pickpockets and check what happens to your luggage.

Beware offers of drink and food from strangers, drugged produce is not unknown in this part of the world.

If you think you may fall asleep on the bus ensure that things are VERY secure before you doze off. Avoid night buses. The bugcrew has been robbed of valuables in this very situation!

 

Main festivals:
The week before Easter (Semana Santa), a very lively time with processions, music and dance, especially impressive and colourful in Antigua or Santiago Atitlan.
late July, Rabin Ajau Indian folk festival, music and dance, esp. good in Coban.
Oct 28, San Simon/Maximon's birthday party, near Antigua in San Andres Iztapa. Wild.
Nov 1, Day of the Dead Kite Flying near Antigua, at the cemeteries of Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango. Thousands of kites connect the living with the dead.
Dec 7, Quema del Diablo, Burning the Devil, music, mad fireworks and more, especially bizarre in Chichicastenango, followed by...
Dec 14-21, Chichicastenango fiesta, colours in extremis.

 

Accommodation:
At the top end tourists will find stunning colonial hotels in the $100pn zone while budget travellers will be checking out hospedajes/ pensiones/ posadas/ huespedes for not more than $10 per night, double room.
Camping is possible other than in the biggest cities; tourist zones like Tikal and Panajachel are OK.

 

Health:
Malaria and Dengue Fever:
Both of these exist in lowland areas, not in the highlands, so Tikal is the place you might encounter Mrs Anopheles M. Don't panic! See our Malaria page.

 

Photos:
Some of the most photogenic people - the Mayas - dislike having their picture taken, while others will ask for a small tip. Ask for permission and respect their wishes.

 

Food:
Traditional foods lean towards eggs, beans and tortillas(thin corn pancakes), dull but filling, though long-term tourist hangouts like Antigua and Panajachel have developed a wide range of pricey but interesting international offerings.
Comedors are basic eating places - like cafés - while restaurants are for the posh folk and priced to match.
Lunch is the main meal of the day and 'comidas corridas' (set menus) are bargains.
Beware eating off street stalls, particularly if you are newly arrived and have not yet acquired defensive bacteria. Stay with the cooked or peeled foods for a few days while your body adjusts to the microenvironment.
p.s. Avoid 'exotic' dishes like turtle or monkey unless you really want to contribute to the extinction of a species for a cheap thrill.

 

 

Shopping:
The favoured local craft is multicoloured, woven or embroidered textiles, along the lines of Maya women's traditional handmade clothing, zinging with flowers and parrots and arguably the best woven cloth in Latin America.
Jade is another common souvenir.
Antigua is the most expensive place to acquire such items; Panajachel and Chichicastenango prices will be better. Styles may differ markedly between regions.
Try to buy directly from Maya people in a market to ensure they derive the maximum benefit from your trade.
Bargaining is expected so don't be surprised if the first price you are quoted seems high.

 

Money:
Guatemala is a good value destination and $ cash is the currency of choice, though the local quetzal is useful for small change situations.
Smaller establishments will require cash but larger ones accept credit cards (esp.Visa) and cheques.
There are ATMs in most towns but don't bank on them working!

 

Tipping:
10% in restaurants and small change elsewhere.
DON'T give money (or goods) away for nothing unless you wish to create/perpetuate a begging culture.

 

Electricity:
110v, 2 (parallel) flat pin sockets like Mexico and USA.

 

Safety:
This is one of those Latin America countries where pickpocketing and bag snatching is rife, so don't tempt the locals. That means no flash jewellery, watches and bags, especially around markets, buses and bus stations.
See Travel Safety page.

Also don't lightly explore live volcanoes. Hikers were injured by Volcan Pacaya a few years ago.

The unpleasant capital - Guatemala City - is particularly prone to crime, including violence and car-jacking, so avoid the place if you can, and no strolling the streets at night anywhere!
Police are no help and as bent as a Swiss road.

 

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