Guatemala Travel Guide
The best reason to visit Guatemala, Tikal's gorgeous Maya site embedded in the jungle. Photo by Mike Vondran.
America Map Guatemala
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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
Teaching Spanish language is big business here, with 60 reliable
schools, many in Antigua.
• 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
• 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.
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.
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights:
1 week for a look at Antigua, Panajachel and Chichicastenango.
Better: 2 weeks+, visiting key towns and taking a flight to Flores/
Arch de Santa Catalina in Antigua city. Photo by MrPanyGoff.
***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
Guided tours up nearby, smokin' Pacaya Volcano are in demand by fit visitors.
Lake Atitlan's volcanoes seen from Panajachel's port by Chensiyuan.
***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 foreigner-friendly (particularly backpackers) and 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.
Tomas Pagan/Catholic church meets the Sunday market in Chichicastenango. Photo by Gabridelca.
***Chichicastenango, is Guatemala's third most popular tourist destination, a fascinating 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 technicolor 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
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.
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's brilliantly atmospheric Maya pyramid group seen from a plane by Dennis Jarvis.
***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!
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
*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
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. This Pacific beach village
has 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.
San Andres Xecul church photographed by Chensiyuan.
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.
Welcome to Latin America! Bicycles can be carried on most bus roofs.
Bikes and motorbikes can be rented in tourist locations like Antigua,
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
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.
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,
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.
Flores town seen by plane, main access point for Tikal ancient site. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.
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 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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
The favoured local craft is multicolored, 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
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.
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!
110v, 2 (parallel) flat pin sockets like Mexico and USA.
This is one of those Latin America countries where pick pocketing 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.
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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