The Best Things To Know Before Visiting Guatemala

Are you visiting Guatemala soon? Great! In fact, I must admit I am a little jealous.

You see, I have been to Guatemala three times already and I’d love to go again. I fell in love with its peaceful atmosphere; the colorful cities and the even more colorful fabrics; the smiles of the people – especially children; its flavors and even smells – in particular, that of tortillas being cooked virtually 24/7 throughout the country.

Since I know the country so well, I thought I’d share my knowledge. If it is your first time visiting Guatemala, you’ll find my list of things to know before your trip and my tips incredibly useful. Ready? Here we go.

Everything You Need To Know Before Visiting Guatemala

Is it Safe to Visit Guatemala?

You may associate Guatemala with civil unrest and drug cartels, but that’s only a part of the whole picture. Guatemala is, on the whole, mostly safe for travelers and the more serious things that do occur here shouldn’t stop you from traveling to this amazing country.

All you need to do is be aware of the kind of crime that does happen, and how to keep yourself safe. Certain activities in Guatemala come with a higher risk of crime; for example, robbery is not unheard of while hiking on remote trails or on walking tracks throughout the country, so it’s best to go with a group or a tour guide.

If you are put in a situation where someone does try to rob you, the best advice is to just hand your stuff over. You could perhaps consider carrying a fake wallet with a little bit of cash in it.

It’s also a good idea to travel during daylight hours; avoid night buses unless you’re using a “first class” bus. Opt at all times to catch a taxi back to your hotel rather than walk the dark streets at night.

In general: be careful around ATMs; watch out for card-skimming at shops, bars, and hotels; don’t flaunt expensive jewelry, valuables or large amounts of money; and simply pay attention to your surroundings and you should be completely fine.

Beware of Pickpockets!

One particular tip when visiting Guatemala is to be aware of pickpockets. This can be an issue throughout the country, often taking place on public transport, in busy market places or anywhere with large crowds. One example is Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala’s biggest.

Pickpockets here are skilled and can take belongings from your pockets without you noticing—and even if they’re buttoned shut. The solution, really, is to have nothing in your pockets in the first place, opting for a discreet money belt worn under clothing instead.

Is Visiting Guatemala Safe For Solo Female Travelers?

Guatemala is overall safe for female travelers to visit—perhaps surprisingly so. Solo female travelers do visit Guatemala and have a trouble-free time. Obviously, you should make sure you are safe by doing things like avoiding going out alone at night, letting somebody know your itinerary, and having your mobile phone fully charged at all times (making sure to purchase a local sim card, too).

Travel to Guatemala

The Street Food (and Food in General) is Delicious!

Foodies take note: Guatemalan gastronomy is typically very tasty and refreshingly diverse. Eating in this Central American nation is never difficult—that’s because you’re never too far away from delicious food. It could be a restaurant, or a roadside vendor: either way, it’s going to be good.

Guatemalan food is based on maize, beans, potatoes, avocados, and chilis, with a mix of Mayan and Spanish elements coming together to create the country’s cuisine. The staple is a tortilla, served alongside black beans and a variety of fillings. Breakfast, for example, is usually tortilla with eggs, beans, fried plantains, and coffee.

coffee in Guatemala

Coffee in Guatemala is Amazing

Speaking of coffee: it really is amazing. Not many people know that Guatemala is one of the biggest coffee-producing countries in the world, ranking 10th as of 2019. But in terms of the high-grade coffee it produces, Guatemala actually comes second in the world (after Brazil).

Guatemalan coffee is strong and full-bodied, with a rich, delicious flavor—this is down to the fertile environment it is grown in. So while you’re here, you should definitely enjoy as much coffee as you can. You can even head to a coffee plantation for a tour, and to sample it straight from the source.

Is Tap Water in Guatemala Safe to Drink?

Less good is Guatemala’s tap water. This is not safe to drink, anywhere in the country. It’s best to drink bottled water only, which can be picked up from restaurants, grocery stores, and hotels. For this reason, ice cubes in drinks are also best avoided unless you know that the bar you’re drinking at is using pure water for ice. You can also travel with a filter bottle such as this one.

There Are Many Indigenous Groups and Languages in Guatemala

Guatemala may be a Spanish-speaking former Spanish colony, but there’s much more to the country’s cultural and linguistic makeup than this. With an estimated population of 7.2 million, over half of everyone living here is Ladino—a mix of indigenous and European heritage.

Indigenous people—here long before Spanish conquistadores arrived—make up one of the largest percentages out of any Latin American country (just under 45%). Mayans are the largest ethno-linguistic group, which include K’iche’, Q’eqchi, Kaqchikel and Mam people—all of whom speak one of 21 Mayan languages (particularly in the rural areas).

There are also two non-Mayan Amerindian languages spoken in Guatemala. But in general, 93% of the population speak Spanish as either their first or second language.

Learning Spanish in Guatemala

With that in mind, you’re going to want to have some Spanish phrases up your sleeve when visiting Guatemala. You could even opt to take a Spanish language class or two when you’re here—and there are plenty of places to choose from to do just that.

Learning Spanish in Guatemala will open up the country so much more. It means you’ll be able to chat to locals, help you save money when haggling, know what bus to catch, or simply be able to read a menu.

One place you could choose to study Spanish here is at a homestay, where your hosts will be more than happy to help you and let you practise on them. But as for an official school, one option is Antigüeña Spanish Academy, in Antiga. Open since 1985, this school has plenty of glowing reviews and is well-loved.

Guatemala Children

Guatemalans are Really Friendly People

One thing is for sure: Guatemalan people are super friendly. No matter if you’re stuck or lost and need help with directions, or if you just get chatting to a food vendor while grabbing lunch, it’s clear that Guatemalans are welcoming to outside visitors.

So don’t be scared to ask for help if you ever need it! In fact, this national trait of friendliness and hospitality is possibly a reason enough in itself to visit the country.

There Are Many Different Landscapes

Guatemala is a fairly compact country. With an area of 108,889 square kilometres, it borders Mexico to the north and west, as well as Belize and Honduras, with El Salvador in the southeast. It has two very different coasts: one on the Pacific Ocean to the south, and the other on the sparkling Caribbean Sea in northeast.

All of Guatemala’s big urban centers are situated in its highlands and along the Pacific coastal regions. Throughout the country there are dramatic landscapes to soak up, contrasting between cool, dry mountain peaks, rainforests, and hot, humid lowlands. Generally there are three regions: the highlands, the Pacific Coast and the Peten region.

Guatemala is so ecologically diverse that it can be divided into 14 ecoregions, with five different ecosystems to discover. For example, there are 252 wetlands boasting lagoons, lakes, rivers and swamps; there’s the UNESCO-recognized Tikal National Park; and there’s also the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Needless to say, nature-lovers will be in paradise.

Guatemala volcanoes

And Many Many Volcanoes

With all those diverse landscapes are included volcanoes. There are 37, in fact, many of which are active: Pacaya, Santiaguito, Fuego, and Tacana. These have shaped the landscape, and have helped to create the lush, fertile landscape of Guatemala.

Some of the volcanoes are home to coffee plantations and other agricultural areas; many of Guatemala’s volcanoes can be trekked and explored on foot with guides. Making up the backbone of Guatemala’s highlands, some volcanoes are more active than others; for example, Pacaya was erupting with ash clouds and lava flows as recently March 2021!

Make sure to read my post Everything You Need To Know To Hike Pacaya Volcano.

What is the Weather Like in Guatemala?

Guatemala is located 1,723 kilometres north of the equator. But if you were thinking that Guatemala was simply hot and humid all over, think again. With the highlands, lowlands, and two very different coastal areas, the weather (and weather systems) vary depending on the region.

For example, temperatures can be fairly cool in highland areas, even during summer when it’s quite wet and muddy in higher elevations; and hurricane season can affect the country, particularly the Caribbean Coast, in October.

What is the Best Time to Visit Guatemala?

Shoulder season is October and November. Temperatures are milder, days are clear in the highlands, and there’s less rain—but there is that risk of hurricanes, particularly in October. Low season, between April and September, is the best time for visiting Guatemala on a budget. This time of year, crowds and prices are at their lowest.

High season in Guatemala for travel runs between December and April, and from June to July. Christmas, New Year, and Easter increase hotel rates significantly, so if you want to travel to Guatemala during these times, you should book well in advance.

chicken buses

Top Tips for Getting Around Guatemala

Getting around Guatemala may not always be straightforward, but it’s definitely a fun and interesting experience. You’ll mainly be using the so-called chicken buses. These brightly colored old school buses constitute an iconic way to get around the country.

Chicken buses are super cheap, but they are slow—they’ll stop for anybody (there are no official stops) and have no regard for capacity. So the ride may be bumpy and quite cramped, but it’s something you’ll remember!

Another way to get around is by using the Pullman buses. These run along major highways and have actual numbered seats and are much more comfortable than a chicken bus. Minibuses can also be used; these shuttle people between major tourist destinations and are usually booked via your hotel or a travel agent.

Check out my post Everything You Must Know About Chicken Buses.

What are the Visa Requirements For Guatemala?

In general, you’ll need a visa to travel to Guatemala. You’ll get a 90-day visa to travel across not only Guatemala, but also El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

You’ll have to ensure that your passport is valid for at least six months past your arrival date.

San Pedro Atitlan

Currency in Guatemala

The official currency of Guatemala is the Quetzal (Q). It’s a fairly stable currency; after all, Guatemala makes up Central America’s largest economy. As of April 2021, 1 Euro is equal to Q9.2; 1 USD is equal to Q7.7.

Though the US dollar is accepted in many places throughout Guatemala, it is best to carry Quetzales at all times.

Do You Have to Haggle in Guatemala?

When it comes to picking up souvenirs or pretty much anything else at one of Guatemala’s famed markets, you should know that haggling is the name of the game. In fact, haggling is something of a national pastime and is part of the culture here.

As a general rule, when you’re told the price, offer an amount that’s around 50% of the original and go from there. It’s best to pay around 70-75% of the original price. If you get involved in haggling and you feel like you’re being treated unfairly, just walk away.

Note that you don’t haggle in shops and restaurants—only with taxi drivers and at markets!

Lake Atitlan

How to Get a SIM card in Guatemala

One of the most important things that independent travelers in Guatemala should do is pick up is a local SIM card. It means your phone can work in the country, which is a very basic but very important aspect of traveling anywhere in the world.

If you’re wondering how to get a SIM card in Guatemala, there are several places you can pick them up. You can pick them up in convenience stores and official network provider shops— even at pharmacies.

The three main providers are Tigo, Movistar, and Claro. It’s also possible to get a SIM card as soon as you arrive at the airport so you’ve got your connection straight away. SIM cards in Guatemala are cheap and can be topped up at convenience stores.

Yoga is a Thing Around Lake Atitlan

When you are done exploring, trekking, and haggling, and you just want to zen out, simply head to Lake Atitlan. Situated in the highlands of the Sierra Madre range, this turquoise lake plays host to multiple yoga studios and retreats. Here, you’ll be able to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the mountains, while also enjoying daily yoga and meditation. You’ll also get to eat healthy food and be a part of a friendly community.

Further Readings

Check out my other posts:

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Discover what you need to know before visiting Guatemala - via @clautavani

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