Spanning a mountainous slice of Central America immediately south of Mexico, Guatemala is loaded with incredible natural, historical and cultural appeal. As the birthplace and heartland of the ancient Maya, the country is, defined by the legacy of this early civilization.
Continue reading to find out more about...
Their rainforest cities were abandoned centuries ago, but Maya people continue to thrive in the Guatemalan highlands, where traditions and religious rituals endure to form the richest and most distinctive indigenous identity in the hemisphere.
Guatemala today is very much a synthesis of Maya and colonial traditions, fused with the influences of twenty-first-century Latin and North American culture. It is still a developing nation, a young democracy with a turbulent and bloody history that’s beset by deep-rooted inequalities.
And yet, despite alarming levels of poverty and unemployment, most Guatemalans are extraordinarily courteous and helpful to travellers, and only too eager to help you catch the right bus or practise your Spanish.
It’s this genuine and profound hospitality combined with the country’s outstanding cultural legacy and astonishing natural beauty that makes Guatemala travel so compelling.
Guatemala travel facts
- Language: Spanish (majority of population).
- Official unit of currency: quetzal (GTQ)
- Population: 17.3 million in 2018, with a growth rate of 1.75 percent per annum (one of the highest in the western hemisphere). Ethnically, the population is almost equally divided between indigenous Maya and ladinos (who are mainly of mixed race), although there are tiny numbers of black Garífuna (about eight thousand in all), ethnic Chinese and non-Maya Xinca.
- Tourist numbers: 826,000 in 2000; 2.11 million in 2017.
- Politics: The Republic of Guatemala (capital Guatemala City) is a democratic republic, headed by a president who is head of both state and government. It shares land borders with Mexico, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador and comprises of 108,890 square kilometers.
- UNESCO World Heritage sites: Guatemala has three: the city of Antigua, the Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua and Tikal National Park.
Where to go in Guatemala
To travel Guatemala is to experience a country of wonderful contrasts. Take in the colonial beauty of UNESCO-listed Antigua and marvel at the difference to busy, modern Guatemala City.
Get out of the cities and back to nature, along with an insight into Maya culture, in the beautiful and captivating western highlands. Lago de Atitlán is unmissable – think Lake Como with soaring volcanoes – while the Cuchumatanes mountain range offers some excellent walking trails.
East of Guatemala City you’ll find the Oriente and Izabal, where you can cruise down the idyllic Río Dulce and explore its spectacular gorge. It’s also the region to head to for Guatemala’s best beaches. The Pacific coast is not as impressive with its black-sand coast and dangerous undertow, but it’s worth a visit for the lovely seaside town of Monterrico.
Head north to Petén to explore ancient Maya temples and palaces, including Tikal, possibly the most impressive Maya site in all of Latin America.
Indulge in some serious relaxation in the natural bathing pools of Semuc Champey in the Cobán and the Verapaces region, surrounded by lush rainforest.
Best time to travel to Guatemala
Guatemala enjoys a warm climate all year round, with temperatures peaking at an average of 32 degrees on the Caribbean coast in April and May. This makes deciding on when to travel to Guatemala a lot easier.
Humidity is determined by altitude: you won’t get hot and bothered in many of the traveller hot spots thanks to their location, including Antigua, Guatemala City and Lago de Atitlán.
There is a rainy season, which runs from May to October, with the worst of the rain falling in September and October. The rain is usually limited to late afternoon downpours, so it needn’t hamper your visit.
Peak season is between December and March and again between July and August, seen as the best time to visit Guatemala in terms of weather, but best to avoid if you want cheaper accommodation.
Here’s the full lowdown on the best time to travel to Guatemala.
How to get to Guatemala
There are two international airports in Guatemala. La Aurora International Airport is the biggest and will land you in the capital, Guatemala City. Most flights are routed via US hub cities Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York. There are no direct flights from the UK or Ireland, Australasia or South Africa, with most travellers heading via the States.
If you visit Guatemala as part of a bigger Central America trip, a land or boat crossing is a great way to experience more of the region. You’ll find regular bus services from Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, while a daily boat runs from Belize.
Here’s a bit more about getting to Guatemala, along with a run-down of our favourite tour operators.
How to get around Guatemala
Buses are the most common way to travel around Guatemala. Some comfortable coaches run the main routes, while pricey shuttle buses take passengers between the main tourist centres. But for an essential Guatemalan experience, a chicken bus or microbus is the order of the day. Be warned: they are bumpy, busy and fume-filled, but also cheap, convenient and often the only way to get to an off-the-beaten-track destination.
If you can’t face the bus, taxis are available in all the main towns and their rates are pretty low — just make sure you negotiate the fare beforehand. Thai-style tuk-tuks have popped up in a lot of places, if you’re after a cheaper alternative.
There are no passenger trains in Guatemala, and the only internal flight runs from Guatemala City to Flores, gateway to Tikal.
Take a look at our full travel guide to getting around Guatemala.
7 best places to visit in Guatemala
- Explore the centro histórico in Guatemala City
It may be gritty and run-down, but a trip to the capital’s Zona 1 is a rite of passage when you’re in Guatemala City. It houses some impressive, albeit crumbling, nineteenth-century architecture and Parque Central, an imposing plaza that is prime for people watching. The centre is slowly regenerating: walk along pedestrianised streets and stop in some of the new cafes and bars that have sprung up amongst the chaos.
- Trek up Volcán de Pacaya
A day-trip from Antigua or Guatemala City, a hike to the top of active volcano Pacaya is an unforgettable experience. One of Central America’s most active volcanoes, Pacaya regularly spits out clouds of rock and ash. Watch the eruptions at night, when brilliant orange lava lights up the sky.
- Kick back in Antigua
There’s a reason Antigua has become Guatemala’s foremost tourist destination. Wander the beautiful streets, admire the colonial churches and grand houses or relax in one of the many cafes, bars or top-notch restaurants. OK, it could be perceived as a little bourgeois compared to the rest of the country, but aesthetically, it’s like nowhere else in the world. Relax and enjoy.
- Take in Maya ruins and wildlife at Tikal
It’s been lauded as the most impressive of all Maya sites, and a visit to Tikal won’t disappoint. Five 60m tall temples dominate the ruins with thousands of other structures around them, many still hidden under mounds of earth and entwined with tree roots. Around the site you’ll find the Parque Nacional Tikal, a protected part of the Reserva de la Biósfera Maya rainforest. Head there are dawn or dusk for the best wildlife spotting opportunities and listen out for the distinct roar of the howler monkeys.
- Bathe in the pools at Semuc Champey
The prime attraction in Cobán and the Verapaces, the sublime turquoise pools of Semuc Champey are at the foot of a plunging, jungle-clad river valley. Bring your swimsuit, because this will be the most beautiful bathing spot you’ve ever encountered.
- Kayak the Río Dulce gorge
The incomparable Río Dulce gorge is worth taking your time over. Forgo the fast public boat in favour of a slower cruise or, even better, kayak from one of the nearby hotels and explore it at your leisure. If you’re lucky (and an early riser), you might even spot some manatees on a morning paddle.
- Shop ‘til you drop in Chichicastenango
Pick up something to help remember your trip to Guatemala at Chichicastenango, a vast twice-weekly market in El Quiché at the heart of the western highlands. It’s on the touristy side, but local people still come here to trade their wares. If you’re after some traditional weaving, be prepared to hunt and haggle for the best quality. For a less touristy market, pay nearby Sololá a visit instead.
Itineraries for Guatemala
Whether you’ve got two weeks or a few months to travel around Guatemala, carefully crafted itineraries will help you make the most of your trip.
If you’ve got at least a month and want a taste of the cities, Maya culture, natural sites and ancient temples, the Grand Tour is for you. It’s the classic route that aims to give you a flavour of everything that Guatemala has to offer.
Short on time? Don’t try to see it all. Ancient Maya is a jam-packed trip around Petén, Guatemala’s Maya heartland and home to hundreds of ancient sites.
Or you could focus your energy on one diverse region with our Western highlands route, which includes stops at the famous Chichicastenango market and Fuentes Georginas hot springs. Take a look at all our Guatemala itineraries in more detail.
Accommodation in Guatemala
Budget travellers, rejoice: cheap accommodation in Guatemala is plentiful. You should be able to bag a double room for US$15 in any town (Guatemala City will set you back a bit more). Hostels are often run by expats and offer everything even the most discerning backpacker could desire. If you’ve got some cash to splash, it’ll stretch to luxury hotels with impressive colonial decor.
Our guide to accommodation in Guatemala will give you the full lowdown, as well as an option to book hotels and hostels.
Food and drink in Guatemala
You certainly won’t go hungry in Guatemala. The cuisine is a mix of Maya, Latin American and Western traditions, and it’s filling and good value. You’ll find more choice in the touristy spots, where there are plenty of vegetarian options too.
If you’re travelling on a shoestring, or just want a more authentic Guatemalan experience, dine in a comedor — simple eateries that serve big portions of food at inexpensive prices — or head to a street food stall.
Stomach rumbling? Read more about food and drink in Guatemala.
Things to do in Guatemala
Watch a fútbol game
Guatemalans have a furious appetite for spectator sports and fútbol (soccer) tops the bill. If you get the chance to see a major game it’s a thrilling experience, if only to watch the crowd. The two big local teams, both from Guatemala City, are Municipal and Communications.
Guatemala has great hiking, particularly volcano climbing, which is hard work but almost always worth the effort. There are 37 volcanic peaks; the tallest is Tajumulco in the far west, which at 4220m is a serious undertaking. Pacaya is a fairly easy climb and a dramatic sight. For your personal safety, it’s best to hike in an organised tour group.
There’s excellent ocean and freshwater fishing in Guatemala. The Pacific coast offers exceptional sport-fishing, with some of the best waters in the world for sailfish, as well as dorado, mahi mahi and some blue marlin, jack crevalle, yellow and black tuna, snapper and bonito. The Caribbean side offers excellent opportunities for snook and tarpon. In Petén, the rivers and lakes are packed with sport fish, including snook, tarpon and peacock bass.
Guatemala’s dramatic highland landscape and tumbling rivers provide some excellent opportunities for whitewater rafting. As well as being a thrilling experience, rafting gives you the chance to see some very remote areas and also visit some of the country’s most inaccessible Maya sites.
Caving and tubing
Caving is popular, especially in the area north of Cobán where you can explore great caverns and tube down underground rivers. The northern Alta Verapaz region is the place to head.
There are terrific mountain bike trails throughout the highlands, with several professional operators organizing trips. Maya Mountain Bike Tours and Old Town Outfitters, both in Antigua, have excellent bikes and tours, staring at about US$35 for a half-day escorted ride. Further west, Atitlán Tours organizes excellent mountain-bike excursions around the crater of Lago de Atitlán.
Two of the best areas for kayakers are the Río Dulce region with its stunning gorge and jungle tributaries, and the sublime shoreline around Lago de Atitlán. Hotels in both these places offer kayaks for rent or contact Los Elementos in Santa Cruz La Laguna for expert advice and guided paddles.
The seas off Guatemala have little to offer compared with the splendours of the neighbouring Belizean or Honduran coastal waters. Nevertheless, there are some diving possibilities, including Lago de Atitlán.
There is some surfing in Guatemala, but with a strong undertow along much of the Pacific coast, conditions are not ideal. However, there is a growing surf scene at Paredón, near Sipacate, and Iztapa.
If shopping is your thing, visit as many markets as possible, particularly in the highland villages, where the colour and spectacular settings are like nowhere else in Central America.
The large markets of Chichicastenango, Sololá and San Francisco el Alto are all well worth a visit, but equally fascinating are the tiny weekly gatherings in remote villages like San Juan Atitán and Chajul, where the atmosphere is hushed and unhurried.
Guatemalan crafts are known locally as artesanías, and are very much a part of Maya culture. The best place to buy them is in their place of origin, where prices are reasonable and their creators get a greater share of the profit. The most impressive craft has to be textile weaving — each Maya village has its own traditional designs, woven in fantastic patterns and with superbly vivid colours.
Living and working in Guatemala
Plenty of travellers get seduced by Guatemala’s natural beauty, inexpensive cost of living and the hospitality of its citizens. Many choose to put down roots for a while to study Spanish. Similarly there are myriad opportunities for voluntary workers, and dozens of excellent projects, though little in the way of paid work.
Most schools offer a weekly deal that includes four or five hours one-on-one tuition a day, plus full board with a local family. This all-inclusive package works out at between US$120 and US$310 a week (most are in the US$140–180 bracket) depending on the school and location.
The most popular places to study are Antigua, Quetzaltenango and Lago de Atitlán. Beautiful Antigua is undoubtedly an excellent place to base yourself, though the major drawback is that there are so many other students and tourists here that you’ll probably end up spending your evenings speaking English. Quetzaltenango has a different atmosphere, with a stronger Guatemalan character and far fewer tourists, while Lago de Atitlán is popular with younger travellers and has very cheap rates.
Volunteer and paid work
There are dozens of excellent organizations offering voluntary work placements in Guatemala. Medical and health specialists are always desperately needed, though there are always openings in other areas, from work helping to improve the lives of street children to environmental projects and wildlife conservation. Generally, the longer the length of time you can commit to, and the higher your level of Spanish, the more in demand you’ll be. The best place to start a search is on the web (or in Guatemala itself).
As for paid work, teaching English is your best bet, particularly if you have a recognized qualification like TEFL. There are always a few vacancies for staff in the gringo bars of Antigua, and in backpackers’ hostels.
Festivals in Guatemala
Traditional fiestas are a highlight of a trip to Guatemala and offer a real insight into the culture. Every town and village, however small, devotes at least one day a year to celebration. The main day is normally prescribed by the local saint’s day, though the celebrations often extend a week or two around that date. With a bit of planning you should be able to witness at least one fiesta – most of them are well worth going out of your way for. All share an astonishing energy and an unbounded enthusiasm for drink, dance and fireworks.
In Guatemala’s Maya villages, traditional dances form a pivotal part in the fiesta celebrations. They are all heavily imbued with history and symbolism. The most common dance is the Baile de la Conquista, which re-enacts the victory of the Spanish over the Maya, whilst bringing a touch of ridicule.
Guatemalan music combines many different influences. For fiestas, bands are always shipped in, complete with a crackling PA system and a strutting lead singer.
Traditional Guatemalan music is dominated by the marimba, a type of wooden xylophone that originated in Africa. Marimba orchestras play at every occasion and in the remotest of villages you sometimes hear them practicing well into the night, particularly around market day. Mainstream music reflects modern Latin American sounds, much of it originating in Miami, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Travel advice for Guatemala
Before you travel to Guatemala, it’s worth making sure you have up-to-date travel advice. Our guide to Guatemala travel essentials will bring you up to speed on the climate, time difference, recommended vaccinations, location of embassies and consulates, tips on travelling with children and lots more.
Travel visa requirements for Guatemala
Citizens from most western countries (including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and most, but not all, EU states) need only a valid passport to enter Guatemala for up to ninety days.
Passport holders from other countries (including some Eastern European nations) qualify for a Guatemalan visa, but have to get one from a Guatemalan embassy or consulate.
Citizens from most developing world nations, including much of Asia and Africa, need to apply for a visa well in advance.
If you’re wondering whether you’ll need a visa, phone an embassy for the latest entry requirements; Guatemala has embassies in all the region’s capitals.
Although there’s no charge to enter or leave the country, border officials at land crossings commonly ask for a small fee (typically US$2.50), which is destined straight for their back pockets. You might try avoiding such payments by asking for un recibo (a receipt); but prepare yourself for a delay at the border.
Top image © SL-Photography/Shutterstock