Culture and etiquette
Guatemalans have a deserved reputation as some of the most civil, polite people in Latin America. They’re nowhere near as upfront as many Ladinos and quite formal in social situations. Mastering an understanding of local social etiquette will greatly enhance your trip.
Whether you’re clambering aboard a packed public minibus in the country or attending a high-society dinner party in the capital, it’s normal to introduce yourself with a polite greeting of “buenos días/tardes” (good morning/afternoon or evening). Up in the highlands, if you’re walking a trail or passing through a small village, it’s usual to say hello to everyone you meet. It’s actually very common for locals, even senior officials, to say “a sus órdenes” (literally “at your orders”) as they help you out. If you’re introduced to someone, a gentle handshake and a “con mucho gusto” (“pleased to meet you”) is appropriate.
There’s no special dress code for women to consider when visiting Guatemala, though you might want to avoid seriously short skirts or tight tops to avert potential hassle. Generally in indigenous areas, most local women wear a calf-length skirt, but it’s fine for foreigners to wear trousers or knee-length short pants. By the coast or around a hotel pool, sunbathing in a swimsuit is perfectly acceptable, though it’s best to keep your bikini top on.
Guatemalan men very rarely wear shorts, except on the beach, but foreigners can do as they please without offence – except perhaps to a formal engagement.
You should bear in mind that while most Maya are proud that foreigners find their textiles attractive, clothing has a profound significance, related to their identity and history – it’s not wise for women travellers to wear men’s shirts or trousers, or for men to wear huipiles. Whether you’re male or female it’s best to dress fairly conservatively when entering a church; knee-length shorts and T-shirts are suitable.
Guatemala is, on the whole, a safe country for female travellers, and it’s an extremely popular destination for thousands of solo travellers, most of whom have an amazing experience. It’s best to dress fairly modestly and avoid getting yourself into situations where trouble might arise. In towns, particularly the capital, take a taxi home after dark. Trust your instincts. Most Guatemalan men do not adopt especially macho mannerisms, indeed most are softly spoken and quite deferential to foreign women. That said, if you do encounter hassle it’s best to remain firm, assertive and disinterested. As most local men are short in stature, it’s possible to adopt an authoritative stance if you’re tall. Some hustlers do hang around dance clubs and bars looking to pick up gringas, but most of these guys have a wife and kids at home.
Guatemala is the least Catholic Latin American country. It’s estimated that approaching forty percent of the population now belong to one of several dozen US-based Protestant churches – for more about this evangelical movement, see Contexts. Many of Guatemala’s Catholics also continue to practice ancient Maya religious customs in the indigenous villages of the highlands. There has been a resurgence of interest in Maya spiritualism among young, educated Guatemalans since the end of the civil war, and attending “shamanic colleges” has become fashionable. Guatemala City also has tiny Jewish and Muslim communities.
In smart restaurants a ten percent tip is appropriate, but in most places, especially the cheaper ones, tipping is the exception rather than the rule. Taxi drivers are not normally tipped.
The most common names are baños or servicios, and the signs are damas (women) and caballeros (men). Toilets are nearly always Western-style (the squat bog is very rare), with a bucket for your used paper. Standards vary greatly. Public toilets are rare; some are quite well looked after by an attendant who charges a fee to enter and sells toilet paper, others are filthy.
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