Guatemala Travel Tips
Guatemala is one of the more intriguing travel destinations in Central America. This tiny nation boasts a wealth of cultural attractions and natural beauty, including mysterious Mayan ruins and lush jungles as well as quaint colonial towns tucked away in the country's rolling highlands. Add in the incredibly low prices for everything from handicrafts to food and hotels, and it's easy to see why tourists continue to flock to Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Tikal and many other captivating sites around Guatemala.
Guatemala is a beautiful destination, but its status as a third world country should not be forgotten. Petty theft and armed robbery are the most serious threats to travelers. Be aware of your surroundings, and use common sense to avoid most problems. Keep your valuables in a secure place, such as a hotel safe, whenever possible and avoid traveling after dark. Maintaining a low profile and sticking with groups is the surest way to have a safe trip, although there's never any guarantee of this no matter what country you are visiting.
Guatemala has a tropical climate with alternating wet and dry seasons. Given Guatemala's proximity to the equator, temperatures tend to vary with elevation rather than with seasons. You'll find warmer conditions on the coast and in the jungles, compared with the chilly air in the highlands. Winter is the rainy season, which lasts from May to October. Summer, the dry season, runs from November through April. The main tourist season lasts from December to March, when the weather is relatively dry. Book your hotel and transportation arrangements in advance if you plan to travel during this time of the year. Wet conditions in the Guatemalan winter mean there will be less crowds, but this also limits your ability to get around the country, as many of the roads washed out or mired in mud.
Guatemala's currency is the quetzal. As of early 2010, there was a favorable exchange rate of around 8 quetzals for every U.S. dollar. All cities and towns have ATMs and bank branches. You may not be able to find these amenities in smaller villages, so plan accordingly.
Food – Dining out is relatively inexpensive in Guatemala. In cheap eateries called comedores, you can get a two-course meal for around 30 GTQ, with a meal in a “tourist” restaurant costing about 85 GTQ. Pre-made plates of food (usually chicken or beef, rice, and tortillas) are often sold on the buses during stops for about 20 GTQ. If you want a fancier meal at a mid-range restaurant, expect to pay at least 85 GTQ per person. National brand beers cost about 12 GTQ a bottle and 23 GTQ per liter from the store. Overall, if you stay away from Western food and tourist restaurants, you can eat really cheap here! If you plan on cooking your own groceries, expect to pay at least 120 GTQ per week.
Activities – Most of the activities in Guatemala are centered around historical or natural attractions. The entrance to Semuc Champey is 50 GTQ, and a private tour will cost you at least 300 GTQ. The National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is 60 GTQ. These are typical prices for attractions in the country. The entrance fee to Tikal is 150 GTQ per person.
Suggested daily budget – 225-260 GTQ / $30-35 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Antigua is a party town for Guatemala City dwellers on the weekends. Midweek is quieter, so plan your stay according to what you’re looking for.
Places to Visit
Guatemala features some extraordinary tourist attractions that are not to be missed while touring the country. Antigua is one of the most popular colonial cities in Central America, known for its picturesque setting beneath looming volcanoes in the Guatemalan highlands. Throngs of travelers come here to explore the old monasteries and cafes dotting the cobbled streets and Spanish-style plazas of this charming town. Nature lovers will enjoy a visit to Lake Atitlán, a shimmering body of water formed in the crater of an enormous volcano thousands of years ago. Green hills and traditional Maya villages surround the perimeter of the lake. Tour boats and water taxis abound, making it easy to glide around the lake to different villages and hiking trails. The mountain town of Chichicastenango is another destination with traditional allure and one of the largest marketplaces in all of Central America. Open every Thursday and Sunday, this sprawling market's craft vendors hawk their wares to hordes of locals and tourists. If you're looking for affordable souvenirs, this is the place to get them. Last but not least is the ancient Maya city of Tikal. Located in the dense jungles of Guatemala, this complex is one of the best-known collections of Mayan ruins in the world. Temples and pyramids built more than a thousand years ago rise up through the rain forest canopy, creating a truly unforgettable experience for those who make the trek to this site.
The majority of flights go through La Aurora International Airport outside of Guatemala City. A couple of regional airlines also provide service to Flores Airport near Tikal. As of February 2010, airlines flying to Guatemala include American, Continental, Delta, Iberia, Mexicana, Taca and United. Tourists can travel around town and between cities via bus and special shuttles. Hotels and travel agencies can help you arrange a private shuttle for your trip. One of the most reliable shuttle operators is Atitrans, with service to many of Guatemala's premier destinations. Aside from hiring a private shuttle, you can purchase tickets for an express bus, which costs more than a regular bus but is much more comfortable and tourist-friendly. You also can ride chicken-buses for extremely low prices. These buses often are crowded with locals and rickety at best, so this may not be the best option unless you are looking for a really authentic experience.