Much of the country maintains a warm climate year round, though it is largely determined by altitude, and there are regional variations (see Volcanoes). The rainy season runs roughly from May to October, with the worst of the rain falling in September and October.
Guatemala is one of the cheapest countries in the Americas for travellers, though there are plenty of opportunities for a modest (or serious) splurge if you feel like it. The extremely frugal may be able to get by on around US$140 a week in most parts of the country, or below US$120 in a budget travellers’ hub like San Pedro La Laguna. However, if you’re after a little more comfort (travelling by shuttle bus and staying in rooms with an en-suite bathroom) you can expect to spend around US$200 per head per week, if you’re travelling as a couple, while solo travellers should reckon on perhaps US$260 a week. For US$75 per day you can expect to live quite well. Things are more expensive in regions where the local economy is tourist driven (Antigua in particular). A sales tax (IVA) of twelve percent is usually included in the price you’re quoted in most places, except smart hotels. Similarly, the ten percent Inguat accommodation tax is often excluded in luxury places, but rarely elsewhere.
Personal safety is a serious issue in Guatemala. While the vast majority of the 1.8 million tourists who come every year experience no problems at all, general crime levels are high, and it’s not unknown for criminals to target visitors, including tourist shuttle buses. There is little pattern to these attacks, but some areas can be considered much safer than others. Warnings have been posted in the Guide where incidents have occurred. It’s wise to register with your embassy on arrival, try to keep informed of events, and avoid travelling at night. Officially, you should carry your passport (or a photocopy) at all times.
It’s important to try to minimize the chance of becoming a victim. Petty theft and pickpocketing are likely to be your biggest worry. Theft is most common in Guatemala City’s Zona 1 and its bus stations, but you should also take extra care when visiting markets popular with tourists (like Chichicastenango) and during fiestas. Avoid wearing flashy jewellery and keep your money well hidden. When travelling, there is actually little or no danger to your pack when it’s on top of a bus as it’s the conductor’s responsibility alone to go up on the roof and collect luggage.
Muggings and violent crime are of particular concern in Guatemala City. There’s little danger in the daylight hours but don’t amble around at night; use a taxi. There have also been a few cases of armed robbery in Antigua and on the trails around Lago de Atitlán. The Pacaya and San Pedro volcanoes are now well-guarded and considered safe, though there have been robberies on other volcanoes, including Agua.
Reporting a crime to the police can be a long process, it’s best to contact ASISTUR first to smooth the process. Most insurance companies will only pay up if you can produce a police statement.
Drugs including marijuana and cocaine are readily available in Guatemala. Be aware that drug offences can be dealt with severely and even the possession of some weed could land you in jail. If you do get into a problem with drugs, it may be worth enquiring with the first policeman if there is a “fine” (multa) to pay, to save expensive arbitration later. At the first possible opportunity, get in touch with your embassy in Guatemala City and negotiate through them; they will understand the situation better than you.
Guatemala’s police force has a poor reputation. Corruption is rampant and inefficiency the norm, so don’t expect that much help if you experience any trouble. That said, they don’t have a reputation for intimidating tourists. If for any reason you do find yourself in trouble with the law, be as polite as possible. Tourist police forces have been set up in Antigua, Panajachel and Tikal, and English-speaking officers should be available to help you out in these places.
The sheer number of armed security guards on the streets and posted outside restaurants and stores is somewhat alarming at first, but after a few days you get used to their presence, even if it is disconcerting to see an 18-year-old with a gun outside McDonald’s.
Power (110–120 volts) and plug connections (two flat prongs) are the same as North America. Anything from Britain or Europe will need a transformer and a plug adapter. Cuts in the supply and fluctuations in the current are fairly common.
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.
It’s possible to extend your visit for a further ninety days, up to a maximum of 180 days. To do this, go to the immigration office (migración) in Guatemala City at 6 Av 3–11, Zona 4 (t 2411 2411; Mon–Fri 8am–4pm). You’ll need to present your passport, photocopies of each page of your passport (there’s a machine in the office), a photocopy of a valid credit card (front and back), and pay the extension fee (US$15); your extension is usually issued the following day. After 180 days you have to leave Guatemala for 72 hours.
In 2006 a so-called CA–4 Central American visa system was set up to facilitate visa-free travel in the four countries of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. When you entered the region you were issued with a ninety-day visa. However, at the time of research CA-4 appeared to be dead. But to be sure, if your Guatemala visa is coming to an end, extend it by travelling to either Mexico or Belize, which are outside the CA-4, or get an extension in Guatemala City.
For a full list of Guatemalan embassies consult w minex.gob.gt (Spanish only), and click on “directorios”, and the link to embajadas.
8 A St, King’s Park, Belize City t 223 3150, e firstname.lastname@example.org.
130 Albert St, Suite 1010, Ottawa ON K1P 5G4 t 613 233 7188, e embaguate-canada.com.
Joachim-Karnatz-Allee 47, Ecke Paulstrasse, 10557 Berlin t 030 206 4363, w botschaft-guatemala.de.
Colonia Lomas del Guijaro, c/Londres, Bloque B, casa 0440 Tegucigalpa t 2232 5018, e email@example.com. Consulate: 23 Av & 11 Ca, S.O., Colonia Trejo, San Pedro Sula, t 2556 9550.
38 Kowa Building, 9th floor, Room 905, 4-12-24, Nishi-Azabu, Tokyo 106–0031 t 380 01830, e firstname.lastname@example.org.
Embassy: Av Explanada 1025, Lomas de Chapultepec 11000, Mexico D.F. t 55 5540 7520, e email@example.com; Consulates: 1 C Sur Poniente 26, Comitán, Chiapas t 963 100 6816; 5 Av Norte 5, Tapachula, Chiapas t 962 626 1252.
Java Straat 44, 2585 AP The Hague t 302 0253, e firstname.lastname@example.org.
13 Fawcett St, London SW10 9HN t 020 7351 3042, e email@example.com.
2220 R St NW, Washington, DC 20008 t 202 745 4952, e firstname.lastname@example.org. Consulates located in many cities, including Chicago, Houston, LA, Miami, New York, San Diego and San Francisco.
Homosexuality is legal for consenting adults aged 18 or over. However, though Guatemalan society is not as overtly macho as many Latin American countries, it’s wise to be discreet and avoid too much affection in public. There’s a small, almost entirely male scene in Guatemala City.
A comprehensive travel insurance policy is essential for visitors to Guatemala. Medical insurance (you want coverage of US$2,000,000) should include provision for repatriation by air ambulance, and your policy should also cover you for illness or injury, and against theft.
Contact a specialist travel insurance company, or consider the travel insurance deal we offer. A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Many of them exclude so-called dangerous sports (this can mean scuba diving, whitewater rafting, windsurfing and kayaking) unless an extra premium is paid. Try to ascertain if your medical coverage will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number.
When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit – typically under US$750/£500 – will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement (una afirmación) from the police.
Web services are very well established in Guatemala. Wi-fi is very common in all the main tourist centres, where most hotels, hostels and cafés provide access. You’ll find cybercafés everywhere too, even in small towns and villages. Connection speeds are generally fairly swift in the main urban centres but can be painfully pedestrian in more remote areas. Rates vary, starting at US$0.80 per hour.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Guatemala, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.
Almost every town has at least one laundry; most will wash and dry a load for you for about US$3–4. Self-service laundries are rare. Many hotels and pensiones also offer laundry facilities; the budget places often have a pila (sink) where you can wash your own clothes.
Postal services are quite reliable, though many locals use courier companies to send important packages and documents overseas. The best way to ensure speedy delivery is to use the main post office (correos) in a provincial capital. Generally, an airmail letter to the US takes about a week, to Europe from ten days to two weeks. Receiving mail is not generally a worry as long as you have a reliable address – many language schools and tour operators will hold mail for you. The Poste Restante (Lista de Correos) system is no longer operational.
Bear in mind it’s very expensive to send anything heavy home. You may want to use a specialized shipping agency instead: see the Antigua and Panajachel “Directory” for recommended companies.
Courier companies (DHL, Federal Express, etc) are establishing more and more offices throughout the region; even small towns now have them.
Rough Guide’s Guatemala and Belize map (at a scale of 1:500,000), also covers a sizeable part of western Honduras and most of northern El Salvador. International Travel Maps and Books (ITMB) also publishes a reasonable Guatemala map (1:470,000). Both are printed on waterproof, tear-resistant paper.
Locally produced alternatives include an offering by Inguat (US$2) using a scale of 1:1,000,000. Virtually all car rental outlets will provide you with a free map, though most are pretty ropey.
The Instituto Geográfico Militar produces the only large-scale maps of the country. At a scale of 1:50,000, these maps are accurately contoured, although many other aspects are now very out of date. You can consult and purchase them at the institute’s offices, Av de las Américas 5–76, Zona 13, Guatemala City (Mon–Fri 9am–5pm; t 2332 2611, w ign.gob.gt). Most can be bought for around US$6.
Guatemala’s currency, the quetzal (Q), has been very stable for over a decade. But because fluctuations can and do take place, we have quoted all prices in US dollars. (At press time, the rate was Q7.80 to US$1, Q12.3 to £1 and Q10.41 to €1.) The US dollar is by far the most widely accepted foreign currency in Guatemala; that said, it is not a semi-official one, and you can’t get by with a fistful of greenbacks and no quetzals. Euros and other foreign currencies are tricky to cash; try foreign-owned hotels or stores.
Debit and credit cards are very useful for withdrawing currency from bank ATMs but are not widely accepted elsewhere, so don’t count on paying with them except in upmarket hotels and restaurants (let your bank know in advance that you’ll be using it abroad). Beware expensive surcharges (ten percent is sometimes added) if you do want to pay by a card in many stores.
Cashpoints (ATMs) are very widespread, even in small towns. Charges of US$2–3 per withdrawal are widespread, but those using the 5B network, including Banrural, did not charge at the time of research. It’s important to note that most Central American ATMs do not accept five-digit PIN numbers; contact your bank at home in advance if you have one. You’ll probably never have to use them, but it’s wise to have a back-up of a few travellers’ cheques (American Express is by far the most widely accepted brand, and in US dollars) or US dollar bills in case the ATM network fails or your card gets gobbled by a machine.
Note that all currency exchange counters at Guatemala City airport were offering appalling rates (see Museo Miraflores). At the main land-border crossings there are usually banks and a swarm of moneychangers who generally give fair rates for cash.
Guatemalan opening hours are subject to considerable variation, but in general most offices, shops, post offices and museums are open between 8/9am and 5/6pm, though some take an hour or so break for lunch. Banking hours are extremely convenient, with many staying open until 7pm from Monday to Friday, but closing at 1pm on Saturdays.
Archeological sites are open every day, usually from 8am to 5pm, though Tikal is open longer hours. Principal public holidays, when almost all businesses close down, are listed below, but each village or town will also have its own fiestas or saints’ days when many places will be shut.
There are no area codes in Guatemala. To call a number from abroad simply dial the international access code, followed by the country code (t
502) and the number (all are eight digit).
The cheapest way to make an international phone call is usually from an internet café. Prices start at around US$0.15 per minute to the US or US$0.25 to Europe via web-phone facilities. Local calls are cheap, and can be made from either a communications office or a phone booth (buy a Ladatel phonecard).
Many North American and European mobile phones, if unlocked, will work in Guatemala. To avoid roaming charges all you’ll need is a local SIM card (Tigo and Claro are the most popular networks and have excellent coverage). Phones can also be bought locally from as little as US$20 (including around US$15 of calling credit). Keep an eye out for the “doble” and “triple” offer days, when you can get two to three times the top-up credit you pay for.
In indigenous areas and the countryside you should avoid taking pictures of children unless you get permission from their parents. Sadly children are stolen from their families every year in Guatemala, and rumours persist that Westerners steal babies for adoption. There’s less of an issue in urban areas, where the population is better educated, but even here be sensitive.
Otherwise Guatemala is an exceptionally rewarding destination for photographers with outstanding scenic and human interest. It’s polite to ask before taking portraits, but if you’re in a marketplace using a zoom it’s easy to get shots of people without being too intrusive.
Memory cards for digital cameras are quite widely available; print film and video tapes are getting rarer, but can be bought in most towns. Many internet cafés have card readers and will be able to burn your pictures to a CD for around US$2.
Guatemala is on the equivalent of Central Standard Time in North America, six hours behind GMT. Daylight saving is not used. There is little seasonal change – it gets light around 6am, with sunset at around 5.30pm in December, or 6.30pm in June.
Information about Guatemala is easy to come by inside the country, but less available in Europe or North America. In the US, you can call Inguat, Guatemala’s tourist information authority, on the toll-free number t 1 888 464 8281, while Guatemalan embassy staff in Europe and Canada can often help out too. The material produced by Inguat is colourful, though much of it is of limited practical use. Often specialist travel agents are excellent sources of information.
Staff at Inguat, at 7 Av 1–17, Zona 4, Guatemala City (t 2421 2800, w visitguatemala.com), are always helpful and English-speakers are available. The organization has smaller branches in Antigua, Flores, Panajachel and Quetzaltenango, and at the airports in Flores and Guatemala City. All branches should have hotel listings and dozens of brochures and leaflets. Generally the main office and the Antigua outpost are the most reliable. Inguat also helps maintain a telephone assistance line for tourists in Guatemala, t 1500.
If you’re in the UK, the Guatemalan Maya Centre, 94A Wandsworth Bridge Rd, London SW6 2TF (t 020 7371 5291, w maya.org.uk), is one of the finest Guatemalan resource centres in the world. It’s open by appointment only, and well worth a visit, with over 2500 books on Guatemala, videos, periodicals and an incredible textile collection.
Dedicated to Guatemala’s former colonial capital, with cultural events and listings.
Concentrates on the Atitlán region, with interesting features plus some hotel and restaurant listings.
Informative site dedicated to the Copán region in Honduras.
Academic reports from Mayanists, maps, and articles about flora and fauna.
Website of the Foundation for Human Rights in Guatemala, offering comprehensive coverage of the current human rights situation, plus news reports.
Website of the Washington-based Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, which publishes regular reports plus urgent action notices.
Good place to begin a search for a Spanish school, with a list of professional schools and plenty of tips.
Everything from ATM locations to Maya ceremonies, though some of the practical information is out of date.
News, features and comment about Guatemala in English.
The Guatemala page on the Latin American Network Information Center’s website is a fine place to begin a search; here you’ll find a comprehensive set of links to websites for everything from nonprofits and language schools to magazines and museums, as well as various academic and tourism resources.
London-based Guatemalan Maya Centre’s site has good articles and links.
Strong on art and history of the ancient Maya, plus some wide-ranging cultural essays.
All the latest reports about the ancient Maya.
Superb photojournalism from an independent reporter.
Useful practical travel information based on first-hand experience and good cultural content.
Content from the popular Antigua-based tourism and travel magazine.
Concentrates on the Quetzaltenango area, with comprehensive language-school and business listings, plus popular discussion boards.
Dedicated to Guatemala’s second city, with good cultural information and practical content.
Guatemalans are extremely helpful and eager to help disabled travellers. Nevertheless, visitors with disabilities are faced with many obstacles. Wheelchair users will have to negotiate their way over cobbled streets, cracked (or nonexistent) pavements and potholed roads in cities, towns and villages. Getting around Guatemala by public transport can be exhausting for anyone, but trying to clamber aboard a packed chicken bus with a wheelchair or walking sticks, even with a friend to help, presents a whole set of other challenges. Plenty of disabled travellers do successfully make their way around the country though. Most of the main sites are connected by tourist shuttle minibuses, which pick you up from your hotel, and have a driver whose job it is to assist passengers with their luggage. Many Guatemalan hotels are low rise (and larger, upmarket places often have lifts and ramps), so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an accessible room. You’ll only find disabled toilets in the most expensive hotels.
Most visitors enjoy Guatemala without experiencing any health problems. However, it’s always easier to become ill in a country with a different climate, food and germs – still more so in a poor country with lower standards of sanitation than you might be used to.
It’s vital to get the best health advice you can before you set off. Consult the websites mentioned for health precautions and disease prevention advice. Pay a visit to your doctor or a travel clinic as far in advance of travel as possible, and if you’re pregnant or likely to become so, mention this at the outset. Many clinics also sell the latest travel health products, including water filters and medical kits. Finally you’ll definitely need health insurance.
Once you’re there, what you eat and drink is crucial. In addition to the hazards mentioned under “Intestinal troubles” below, contaminated food and water can transmit the hepatitis A virus, which can lay a victim low for several months with exhaustion, fever and diarrhoea, and can even cause liver damage.
There are no obligatory inoculations for Guatemala (unless you’re arriving from a “high-risk” area of yellow fever – northern South America and equatorial Africa). Nevertheless, there are several you should have anyway. Make sure you’re up to date with tetanus and typhoid vaccinations and consider having hepatitis A and tuberculosis (TB) jabs. Long-term travellers or anyone spending time in rural areas should think about having the combined hepatitis A and B and the rabies vaccines (though for a caveat on that).
Malaria is a danger in some parts of the country (particularly in the rural lowlands). It’s not a problem in the big cities, or anywhere over 1500m – which includes Antigua, Guatemala City, Chichicastenango, Lago de Atitlán, Quetzaltenango and virtually all of the western highlands. However, if you plan to visit any lowland areas, including Petén, Alta Verapaz and the Pacific or Caribbean coasts, you should consider taking a course of tablets.
The recommended prophylactic is chloroquine (inexpensive, available without prescription and safe in pregnancy); you’ll need to begin taking the pills a week before you enter an area where there’s a risk of malaria and continue for four weeks after you return. Malarone is an alternative drug, which you need start only two days before you go, though it’s not suitable for pregnant women or babies.
Whichever anti-malarial you choose, you should still take precautions to avoid getting bitten by insects: always sleep in screened rooms or under nets in lowland areas; burn mosquito coils; cover up arms and legs, especially around dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active; and apply insect repellent (with 25–50 percent DEET; but not to children under 2).
Also prevalent in some lowland areas (usually occurring in epidemic outbreaks in urban areas), dengue fever is a viral infection transmitted by mosquitoes, which are active during the day. Fever, aches and joint pain (its old name was “break-bone fever”) are often followed by a rash. Though most people make a full recovery after a few days, children are particularly at risk. There is no vaccine or specific treatment, so you need to pay great attention to avoiding bites.
Despite all the dire warnings given here, a bout of diarrhoea is the medical problem you’re most likely to encounter. Its main cause is simply the change of diet: the food in the region contains a whole new set of bacteria, and perhaps rather more of them than you’re used to. If you’re struck down, take it easy for a day or two, drink lots of bottled water and eat only the blandest of foods – papaya is good for soothing the stomach and is crammed with vitamins. Only if the symptoms last more than four or five days do you need to worry. Finally, if you’re taking oral contraception or any other orally administered drugs, bear in mind that severe diarrhoea can reduce their efficacy.
Cholera is an acute bacterial infection, recognizable by watery diarrhoea and vomiting. However, risk of infection is extremely low in Guatemala (and symptoms are rapidly relieved by prompt medical attention and clean water). If you’re spending any time in rural areas you also run the risk of picking up various parasitic infections: protozoa – amoeba and giardia – and intestinal worms; these are quite common around Lago de Atitlán. These sound hideous, but once detected they’re easily treated with antibiotics. If you suspect you may have an infestation, take a stool sample to a good pathology lab and go to a doctor or pharmacist with the test results.
More serious is amoebic dysentery, which is endemic in many parts of the region. The symptoms are similar to a bad dose of diarrhoea but include bleeding too. On the whole, a course of flagyl (metronidazole) will cure it.
Taking steps to avoid getting bitten by insects, particularly mosquitoes, is always good practice. Ticks, which you’re likely to pick up if you’re walking or riding in areas with domestic livestock (and sometimes in forests), need careful removal with tweezers. Head or body lice can be picked up from people or bedding, and are best treated with medicated shampoo; very occasionally, they may spread typhus, characterized by fever, muscle aches, headaches and eventually a measles-like rash. If you think you have it, seek treatment from a doctor.
Scorpions are common; mostly nocturnal, they hide during the heat of the day – often in thatched roofs. If you’re camping, or sleeping under a thatched roof, shake your shoes out before putting them on and try not to wander round barefoot. Their sting is painful (rarely fatal) and can become infected, so you should seek medical treatment if the pain seems significantly worse than a bee sting. You’re less likely to be bitten by a spider, but seek medical treatment if the pain persists or increases.
You’re unlikely to see a snake, and most are harmless in any case. Wearing boots and long trousers will go a long way towards preventing a bite – tread heavily and they will usually slither away. If you do get bitten, remember what the snake looked like (kill it if you can), immobilize the bitten limb and seek medical help immediately; antivenins are available in most main hospitals.
Swimming and snorkelling might bring you into contact with potentially dangerous or venomous sea creatures. If you are stung by a jellyfish, clean the wound with vinegar or iodine.
Finally, rabies is present, but rare in Guatemala. The best advice is to give dogs a wide berth and not to play with animals at all. Treat any bite as suspect: wash any wound immediately with soap or detergent and apply alcohol or iodine if possible. Act immediately to get treatment – rabies can be fatal once symptoms appear. There is a vaccine, but it is expensive, serves only to shorten the course of treatment you need anyway and is effective for no more than three months.
Two other common causes of illness are altitude and the sun. The best advice in both cases is to take it easy; allow yourself time to acclimatize before you race up a volcano, and build up exposure to the sun gradually. If going to altitudes above 2700m, you may develop symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), such as breathlessness, headaches, dizziness, nausea and appetite loss. More extreme cases might cause vomiting, disorientation, loss of balance and coughing up of pink frothy phlegm. The simple cure – a slow descent – almost always brings immediate recovery.
Tolerance to the sun, too, takes a while to build up. Use a strong sunscreen and, if you’re walking during the day, wear a hat and try to keep in the shade. Avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of water or fruit juice. The most serious result of overheating is heatstroke, which can be potentially fatal. Lowering the body temperature (by taking a tepid shower, for example) is the first step in treatment.
For minor medical problems, head for a farmacia – look for the green cross – there’s one in every town and most villages. Pharmacists are knowledgeable and helpful, and many speak some English. They can also sell drugs over the counter that are only available on prescription at home. Every capital city has doctors and dentists, many trained in the US, who speak good English. Your embassy will always have a list of recommended doctors.
Health insurance is essential and for anything serious you should go to the best private hospital you can reach. If you suspect something is amiss with your insides, it might be worth heading straight for the local pathology lab before seeing a doctor. Many rural communities have a health centre (centro de salud or puesto de salud), where health care is free, although there may only be a nurse or health worker available and you can’t rely on finding anyone who speaks English. Should you need an injection or transfusion, make sure that the equipment is sterile (it might be worth bringing a sterile kit from home) and ensure any blood you receive is screened.
There are some decent English-language publications available in Guatemala, mainly geared towards the tourist market. It’s easy to keep up to date with current affairs online by using internet cafés or wi-fi.
Guatemala has a number of daily newspapers. The best of the dailies is the forthright El Periódico (elperiodico.com.gt), which has some excellent columnists and investigative journalism. Siglo 21 (w s21.com.gt) is also a good read. Guatemala’s most popular paper is the Prensa Libre (w prensalibre.com), which features comprehensive national and quite reasonable international coverage. In the Quetzaltenango area, check out the local paper Quetzalteco (w elquetzalteco.com.gt). As for the periodicals, La Crónica (w lacronica.com) concentrates on current Guatemalan political affairs and business news with a smattering of foreign coverage.
In theory, the nation’s newspapers are not subject to restrictions, though pressures and threats are still exerted by criminal gangs and those in authority. Being a campaigning journalist in Guatemala is a dangerous profession, and every year there are several contract killings.
There are several free English-language publications, which can be picked up in hotels and restaurants where tourists congregate. Revue (w revuemag.com) is a glossy colour magazine with articles about Guatemalan culture and history plus hundreds of advertisements. Based in Antigua, La Cuadra (w lacuadraonline.com) adopts an irreverent, satirical tone and has discursive features about everything from politics to art. In the Quetzaltenango area, Xela Who? (w xelawho.com) concentrates on cultural life in the second city, with bar and restaurant reviews and culture and transport information. For coverage of development issues and Guatemalan society pick up a copy of Entremundos (w entremundos.org), which is widely available in Quetzaltenango.
For really in-depth reporting and analysis, the Central America Report (w www.latinnews.com) is superb, with coverage of all the main political issues, and investigations. Head to the website w guatemala-times.com for news about Guatemala in English.
As for foreign publications, Newsweek, Time and some US newspapers are available in quality bookstores around the country.
Guatemala has an abundance of radio stations, though variety is not their strong point. Most transmit a turgid stream of Latin pop and cheesy merengue, which you’re sure to hear plenty of on the buses. Try Atmosfera (96.5FM) for rock, Radio Infinita (100.1FM) which is eclectic by nature and strong on indie and electronica, or La Marca on (94.1FM) for reggaeton. Radio Punto (90.5FM) has news and discussions.
Television stations are also in plentiful supply. Most of them broadcast Mexican and US shows (which are subtitled or dubbed into Spanish). Many hotel rooms have cable TV, which often includes (English-language) CNN and sometimes the National Geographic channel.
Sadly the BBC World Service is no longer broadcast in Central America. For Voice of America frequencies consult w voa.gov.
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/buenas 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.
It can be exceptionally rewarding to travel with children in Guatemala. Most locals, particularly in indigenous areas, have large families so your kids will always have some company. By bringing your children along to Guatemala, you’ll take a big step toward dismantling the culture barrier and families can expect an extra warm welcome. Hotels, well used to putting up big Guatemalan families, are usually extremely accommodating.
Obviously, you’ll have to take a few extra precautions with your children’s health, paying particular care to hygiene and religiously applying sunscreen. Dealing with the sticky tropical heat of Petén is likely to be one of the biggest difficulties, but elsewhere humidity is much less of a problem. As young children are rarely enthralled by either modern highland or ancient Maya culture, you may want to plan some excursions: the giant Xocomíl water park and Parque Xetulul theme park and Auto Safari Chapín make great days out for kids. The Museo de los Niños and Aurora zoo in Guatemala City are a lot of fun too. Take extra care if you head for the Pacific beaches, as every year several children (and adults) drown in the strong undertow.
For babies, you’ll find baby milk and disposable nappies (diapers) are widely available in supermarkets and pharmacies; take an extra stock if you’re visiting really remote areas. Every town in the country has at least a couple of pharmacies, and medication for children is available. Breast-feeding in public is fine.