Guatemala: Travel/Tourist Information Guide

One of several Spanish colonial church ruins in the old capitalSanta Catalina archway welcoming visitors to Antigua GuatemalaThe clear turquoise pools of Semuc Champey natural monumentParque Central fountain in Guatemala CityLake Atitlán's three volcanoes: Volcán Tolimán, Volcán San Pedro, Volcán AtitlánTwo boatmen on Lake Atitlán and a misty view of Volcán TolimánTikal Temple I, or the Temple of the Great JaguarQuetzaltenango highlands farm fields

The Republic of Guatemala is a country in Central America. It is bordered to the north and west by Mexico, by El Salvador to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, the Caribbean Sea to the east, Honduras to the east and southeast, and Belize to the northeast. The capital of Guatemala is Guatemala City, also its biggest and most densely populated city. Population is estimated to be 16 million, which makes it the most populous nation in Central America. Guatemala is a biodiversity hotspot, with an abundance of unique ecosystems and endemic species. The country is roughly equivalent to the size of Ohio.

Guatemala is divided into 22 departamentos (departments): Alta Verapaz, Chimaltenango, Baja Verapaz, Chiquimula, El Progreso, Guatemala, El Quiche, Huehuetenango, Escuintla, Izabal, Jalapa, Petén, Jutiapa, Retalhuleu, Sacatepéquez, Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, Totonicapán, Santa Rosa, Sololá, Zacapa, and Suchitepéquez. The departments are subdivided into 335 municipios (municipalities). Three types of terrain divide the country into three regions: the highlands which are mostly mountainous with hilly valleys and patches of desert and sand dune, the lowlands in Petén department which is north of the country, and the Pacific coastline to the south. All major cities can be found in the highlands and the Pacific coastal region, while Petén is remote and sparsely populated. The highest point in the country is Volcán Tajumulco at 4,220 m (13,485 ft), and the lowest point is the Pacific Ocean at 0 m.

Guatemala has a total of 37 volcanoes, out of which 4 are active: Fuego, Pacaya, Santiaguito, and Tacaná. The highlands are located on the Motagua Fault line which is connected to the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. This region in particular is geologically active, and has caused some of the major destructive earthquakes in history, including a magnitude 7.5 earthquake in 1976, killing over 25,000 people. Guatemala is home to 14 diverse eco-regions including mangrove forests and ocean littorals. The country has 252 wetlands, 100 rivers, 61 lagoons, 5 lakes, and 4 swamps. There are 1,246 known species of fauna and 8,681 species of vascular plants. The Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén department is the second largest forest in Central America. Tikal National Park in Petén is the first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Climate varies between the regions. The lowlands are hot, humid, and tropical, while the highlands are milder, cooler and drier. There are two distinct seasons: wet and dry. The dry season is from November to April, while the rainy season is from May to October. Average temperatures vary from 22°C/72°F to 28°F/82°F. The hottest month is April and the coldest month is January. The best time to visit Guatemala City is during the dry season anytime from November to April, which is ideal for traveling and outdoor activities. Guatemala’s location between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea unfortunately make it susceptible to strong hurricanes.

In the Nahuatl language, “Guatemala” means “place of many trees”, and “many trees” in the Mayan K’iche’ language. According to historical records, the Tlaxcalteca soldiers who accompanied Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado during the Spanish conquest of Guatemala, gave this name to the territory.

Around 41% of the population is mestizo, followed by 40% Amerindian or indigenous Mayan population, 18.5% criollo, or whites of European descent, and less than 1% indigenous non-Mayan. Smaller communities of migrants are also present. The official language of Guatemala is Spanish, spoken by 93% of the population, including indigenous peoples with their own native language. The country is linguistically diverse. There are 21 Mayan languages spoken throughout the country especially in the rural areas. Other Amerindian languages like Xinca and Garifuna are also spoken. It is common for indigenous peoples to speak their own native language including Spanish and other indigenous languages. The dominant religion in the country is Roman Catholic. More than half of the population claim to be Catholic, followed by almost 30% of Protestants or evangelical Christians, 11.6% with no religious affiliation, and 2% affiliated with other groups. Even though Catholicism is prevalent, traditional Mayan religion is still practiced via the process of inculturation, in which some indigenous religious practices are incorporated into Catholic ceremonies.

Guatemalan culture is generally a fusion of Spanish and indigenous Mayan influences. Music is an important part of Guatemalan culture, and historical music is widely represented from the Mayan period, colonial-era, independent and republican areas, to modern times. The marimba is the country’s national instrument.

Guatemalan cuisine is mostly influenced by Mayan cuisine and heavily features beans, corns, and chilies. But unlike Mexican food, Guatemalan food is a lot less spicy since chilies are served in a separate dish and added as desired, rather than mixed into the dish itself. Common local fare includes tamales—steam-cooked cornmeal with a variety of fillings wrapped in banana leaves, frijoles negros—stewed black beans, and caldos—beef broth. To get a more authentic Guatemalan cultural experience, try dining in a comedore, or a small house-restaurant. It’s not an actual restaurant, but literally a small house, in which the family or owners have converted a portion into a makeshift dining area, where they serve homemade and cheap meals good for a group of hungry people. It’s one of the cheapest and unique ways to interact with locals and learn first-hand about Guatemalan culture.

A popular local drink is Atole de Etole, a warm corn drink. It’s best when drunk warm because it turns dense as it gets cold. Beer is usually served with salt and lemon. It’s a local custom to put salt on the lip of the beer bottle and squeeze out the lemon juice into the beer. Sometimes beer is mixed with vegetable juice, and locals call this concoction, michelada. Other popular drinks are tequila and locally-produced aged rum.

The official currency is the Guatemalan quetzal (GTQ). Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, but is considered one of the poorest nations in Latin America and faces many social issues. The tourism industry is one of the main drivers of the Guatemalan economy. Guatemala is popular as an eco-tourism destination, for its abundance of pre-Hispanic archeological sites, and colonial cities like Antigua Guatemala, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are many Mayan archeological sites across the country and most of them can be found in Petén department. The frequently visited ones are Iximche in Chimaltenango department, Quiriguá in Izabal, and Tikal and Yaxhá in Petén department.

When in Guatemala, drinking purified water is recommended instead of tap water. Dengue fever is endemic in Guatemala, and the only way to prevent it is by always applying insect repellant. It is recommended to have your Hepatitis A and B vaccinations and buy some anti-malaria medicine before traveling to Guatemala.

Some areas in Guatemala are known for drug trafficking activity like some parts of Petén. Avoid the most dangerous neighborhoods in Guatemala City such as Zones 3, 6, 18, and 21. Zona 1 can be dangerous after dark. It is not recommended to ride buses at night in Guatemala City, especially chicken buses, since buses are notorious for robberies. Pickpocketing is common in markets and other public places like tourist spots, so always be on alert and take as little with you as possible. If bringing expensive stuff like cameras and mobile gadgets, make sure to keep them secured in your bag. Robberies also occur along nature trails, and while hiking or climbing hills and mountains. Never travel or go out alone and especially at night. Traveling in groups during daylight hours decreases the risk. Women should be extra cautious around men even if men present themselves as respectable hotel employees or the police. There have been incidences of brutal sexual assaults on tourists. Never take photos of children without the permission of their parents. Locals are very wary of children being photographed by strangers because kidnapping of children for ransom, selling for adoption on the black market, or for human trafficking happens quite a lot.

Getting around Guatemala

The primary means of transportation in the city is the bus rapid transit (BRT), a bus-based mass transit system called the Transmetro. With this system, inter-city buses bringing in passengers from other parts of the country drop them off at different stations at the outskirts of the city, while privately-owned municipal buses transport them to their respective destinations within the city. Bus terminals are located at Centra Sur in Zona 12, which services south-bound passengers, and Centra Norte in Zona 17, which services north-bound passengers. Many first class private bus companies also have their own terminals in Zona 1 and other parts of the city.

Camionetas or chicken buses are the common means of transportation for the locals. One can’t miss these colorfully decorated secondhand buses previously used as school buses in North America. They’re cheaper and always crowded, with usually three people squeezed into narrow seats and passengers standing on the aisle when all the seats are full. In camionetas, a conductor stands by the door to help passengers hop on and off and to collect fares. You can get on a camioneta by simply flagging one down the side of the road. To get off, you need to know where your stop is and when you’re near, move closer to the door and tell the driver where to stop. Camioneta bus drivers are notoriously aggressive drivers who don’t hesitate to veer away from their lanes to overtake other vehicles and face oncoming traffic. While it seems like an adventurous ride for tourists and foreigners, it isn’t highly recommended because of the frequent instances of robbery by thieves blending in as ordinary passengers.

Around central and north-western Guatemala, travel by public van is common and chicken buses are non-existent because they’re not fit for the unkempt roads and general lack of infrastructure. Van fare is more expensive than public bus fare since the vans are privately-owned and in good condition. Like public buses, public vans can pick you up and drop you off at designated bus stops or anywhere you want. There are also tourist-oriented van rides, but these are priced slightly higher than the public vans.

Taxis and rental cars are also available.