Updated: Dec 15, 2021
If you are reading this article you may be feeling called to visit Guatemala. If you read until the end, you might feel inspired to make your way here soon.
Guatemala is a relatively small country in comparison to its biggest neighbour: Mexico; but it’s still worth planning your trip to maximise your time here.
My Love story with Guatemala
I came to Guatemala for the 1st time 4 years ago when I was backpacking alone. I instantly fell in love with its mountainous landscape and friendly population. I promised myself I would come back and I have now been living here on and off for just over a year. I am more in love with this land than ever, which is why I feel inspired to write this article.
I will write about the following topics in the hope it will answer some of your questions, as these are the most common topics travelers ask me about:
Culture & Food
Weather & Seasons
Places you can visit
Culture & Food
The culture in Guatemala differs depending on the area of the country, but the Mayan culture predominates overall - with 22 of the 25 'main ethnicities' present being of Mayan origin and the 3 others being 'Ladina' (a mix of mestizo or hispanicized peoples) 'Garifuna' (the descendants of the African people who were brought in as slaves by the Colons) and 'Xinka' (descendants of people who may have come from the Andes by boat).
In certain areas, the presence of Mayan culture is visible with the majority of women and some older men wearing the “traje tipico” - the traditional attire.
In the cities this custom is less common, but the ultra colourful ‘chicken buses’ and the fruit vendors everywhere brighten up the streets of Guatemalan towns.
The live marimbas in many city plazas and street artists contribute to the folkloric ambiance too.
In my opinion the markets are the best place to take part in local daily life. If you decide to check out a market, bring change (5, 10 and 20Q notes are best) and paper or tissue bags so you can fill up on exotic fruit, spices, herbs and ripe avocados for a few Quetzales, the local currency(in Dec 2021 Q10 = £1 = $1.32).
On that note, it is important to be aware that despite Guatemala's relatively high GDP, more than 75% of Guatemalans live below the poverty line due to the extreme unequal wealth distribution.
As a visitor, I believe we have a responsibility to contribute to the local economy in a conscious way. We can chose to buy from the street vendors, who tend to offer great and affordable products - from street food to jewellery and hand made souvenirs. And whenever you want a more comfortable 'dining' experience you can opt for simple Guatemalan restaurants - comedores over the chain restaurants that are present in the bigger towns.
The food you can find in the street is mostly good, filling and between 5 and 30 Quetzales ($0.65 and $3.88) - like the popular ‘Atol’, a corn drink that can be savoury or sweet. You can also find: corn on the cob, fresh fruit, Dobladas, Pupusas, Enchiladas (different to the ones in Mexico), Paches, Tamales, Chuchitos and many other simple dishes.
In restaurants, depending on where you are you can find: Kak ik, Fiambre, Pepian, Tapado and many others elaborate dishes.
If like me, you don't eat meat, you may find it a little harder to find food but don't worry there is always something - just make sure you say 'sin carne porfavor' (without meat please) when you order.
There is naturally a lot more to Guatemalan culture but I’ll leave it for you to discover when you visit.
Weather & Seasons
Guatemala is in the tropics so instead of having 4 seasons it has two: Wet and Dry.
The Wet season or Winter is from May to October and the Dry season or Summer is from November to April. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rain during the dry season but it is less likely to rain all day every day like it sometimes does during the rainy season.
In terms of temperature, it varies depending on the season but also on altitude. In sea level areas like the Caribbean and the Pacific, it can get very hot (+35°); At higher altitude (Guatemala City is at 1500m, Antigua 1600m and Lake Atitlan 1562m) the temperature rarely rises above 27° most of the year and it rarely drops below 12° from what I have heard and experienced.
The only time you would need winter clothes is if you decide to partake in mountain or volcano hikes. Fortunately you can rent clothes from travel agencies; this is a great option if like me you don’t own thermals, but it does mean you may end up with a 90s style oversized jacket.
Places you can visit
I was planning on including a thorough description of all the wonderful places I have visited in Guatemala, but then I realised it would turn this article into a book, so instead I have decided to write separate brief blogs you can access by clicking on the names below:
*I am yet to write all the individual articles so please keep an eye out for when I do :)
Antigua and volcano climbing
Lake Atitlan and its many towns
Flores and its Mayan ruins
Guatemala is 108,889km2 which meant very little to me when I found out so I decided to use google maps to find some more 'tangible' figures.
To travel from West to East in the widest part of the country (from the border with Mexico to the Caribbean coast) would take about 12 hours on an uninterrupted journey.
To travel from North to South (from the northern border with Mexico to the Pacific coast) would take approximately 13 hours if the journey was straightforward.
An important element to consider is that certain roads are great while others aren't which means that google maps may be slightly or even considerably inaccurate.
Another detail is that strikes and road blocks are not uncommon so there is always a possibility that you'll find yourself in a still queue for hours; but don't let this discourage you! Bring water, a good book and practice patience (snacks are not allowed on many buses). You may discover new levels of gratitude when you finally make it to your destination.
Guatemala City Airport 'La Aurora' → Guatemala City Centre (Zona 1) : taxis are a good option and you should not pay more than 100Q.
While in Guatemala City and in Antigua Uber is a practical option especially in the later hours.
While in smaller towns Tuc tucs are a great option and cost between 5 and 10Q a ride.
When travelling from one small town to another 'colectivos' are a cheap and fun though not very comfortable experience.
To travel around Guatemala there are a few options:
The most economic option are chicken buses. The downside is that depending on where you are going they may not be direct and you may need to change buses. If you choose this option make sure to find out where you need to change and keep an ear out for the stop announcements.
When going to different parts of the country there are different bus companies (In Peten : Maya de Oro / in Coban : Monja Blanca / in Izabal : Litegua) This is a more comfortable and still relatively economic option ideal for long journeys in my opinion. Price depends on your destination.
Shuttles are a slightly more expensive but very convenient option. They tend to cost a little more than local buses but have the considerable advantage of picking you up and dropping you where you are going.
Lastly, Uber and taxi drivers also offer long journey services, for a lot less than it might cost in the US or in Europe, so if you feel like travelling extra comfortably it is worth asking for a quote.
I wish it weren't necessary to write a section on this, but the question around safety here is one of the most recurrent, so I will oblige and share my thoughts on this topic.
The first thing I want to say is that Latin America is NOT what you see on the screen. Or at least, not only that. Yes, there is crime and violence, but so is there everywhere in the world sadly.
I personally chose not to listen to local or international news, so I am not aware of all the atrocities happening, however I grew up in Mexico and travelled throughout Central America alone for a year, And have now lived on this side of the world for 3 years, so I can talk from my personal experience.
As a female traveller, I found that although Guatemalan culture is quite reserved, Guatemalans in touristic areas are for the most part open minded and therefore tolerant to foreign travelers. In my experience, locals tend to be happy to see tourists and gravitate towards being welcoming and helpful.
From what I have witnessed, men are not necessarily discreet about their opinion on foreign women’s appearance (whistling and catcalling is quite common), but they rarely approach women unless they are offering a product or service, which is comforting as a solo female traveller.
In terms of petty theft, I have not been a victim nor witnessed it myself but I have heard of it happening unfortunately. Keeping your belongings close to you reduces the risk naturally.
Finally, I'd say they bigger safety risks are at nighttime like anywhere else in the world I have been to. Avoid coming 'home' late at night alone or use a taxi or uber where possible.
Throughout the article I have provided the usual cost of things as a reference, but please keep in mind that depending on the price of gasoline and other variables, these prices may change.
Overall, Guatemala is an affordable country but this largely depends on how you choose to travel. For example, a night in a dormitory in a hostel can be as cheap as 50Q ($7) while some Air B&Bs cost $100+ for just one night. Similarly, a feast in the street may cost a tenth of what a fancy dinner may cost.
Finally, although haggling is acceptable and even expected, it is important to consider that despite the national economy's continued struggles, things still have a cost and locals need to make a living, so if you are not happy with the cost of things I recommend walking away rather than arguing over 5Q.
Stomach problems: One of the things many foreign tourists seem to be affected by is their stomach. To limit your risk of getting sick, wash your hands before eating, drink filtered or bottled water only, wash the food you buy before eating it - rinsing it with water or vinegar seems to do the job and when eating in the street, opt for cooked foods rather than raw foods. Eat lime and spicy foods to keep your digestive fire strong. And if you still end up getting parasites check out my blog on how to get rid of them yourself before taking antibiotics - it worked for me within 3 days so it may well work for you too.
Money: Markets and street vendors don't tend to accept card payments so it is best to carry cash with you at all times. There are cash withdrawal machines in most towns but not in villages so I recommend withdrawing when you can - withdrawals are limited to 2000Q ($260) but that should last you a little while if you opt for the local options of things.
Cost of things: As you may expect, tourists are often given a different price than locals. I'm ok with paying a little more for certain things as I have a bigger budget than locals but if you are unsure of whether a price is fair or not you can walk to another stand and see if the price matches to be sure.
Thank you for reading and thank you for your interest in Guatemala. It truly is a beautiful place in the world and the people here are grateful for the conscious tourists who want to learn about the local culture and contribute to the local economy.
As always please feel free to contact me personally if you have any questions I may be able to help you with.
Love and blessings to All