Guatemala is a country in the Central America region of North America. It has borders to Mexico in the north/northwest, to Belize in the northeast, to Honduras in the southeast, to El Salvador in the south. It has a Pacific coastline to the southwest, and a tiny piece of Caribbean coastline to the east.
Guatemala has a rich and distinctive culture from the long mix of elements from Spain and the native Maya people. This diverse history and the natural beauty of the land has created a destination rich in interesting and scenic sites.
The first evidence of human settlers in Guatemala goes back to at least 12,000 BC. Sites dating back to 6500 BC have been found in Quiché in the Central Highlands and Sipacate, Escuintla on the central Pacific coast. Archaeologists divide the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica into the Pre-Classic period (2000 BC to 250 AD). El Mirador was by far the most populated city in pre-Columbian America. Both the El Tigre and Monos pyramids encompass a volume greater than 250,000 cubic meters. Mirador was the first politically organized state in America.
The Classic period of Mesoamerican civilization corresponds to the height of the Maya civilization, and is represented by countless sites throughout Guatemala, although the largest concentration is in Petén. This period is characterized by heavy city-building, the development of independent city-states, and contact with other Mesoamerican cultures. This lasted until around 900 AD, when the Classic Maya civilization collapsed. The Maya abandoned many of the cities of the central lowlands or were killed off by a drought-induced famine. The Post-Classic period is represented by regional kingdoms such as the Itzá and Ko'woj in the lakes area in Petén, and the Mam, Ki'ch'es, Kack'chiquel, Tz'utuh'il, Pokom'chí, Kek'chi and Chortí in the Highlands. These cities preserved many aspects of Mayan culture, but would never equal the size or power of the Classic cities.
After arriving in what was named the New World, the Spanish mounted several expeditions to Guatemala, beginning in 1519. Before long, Spanish contact resulted in an epidemic that devastated native populations. During the colonial period, Guatemala was an Audiencia and a Captaincy General of Spain, and a part of New Spain (Mexico). It extended from the modern Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas to Costa Rica. This region was not as rich in minerals (gold and silver) as Mexico and Peru, and was therefore not considered to be as important. Its main products were sugarcane, cocoa, blue añil dye, red dye from cochineal insects, and precious woods used in artwork for churches and palaces in Spain.
On September 15, 1821, the Captaincy-general of Guatemala (formed by Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras) officially proclaimed its independence from Spain and its incorporation into the Mexican Empire, which was dissolved two years later. The Guatemalan provinces formed the United Provinces of Central America. Guatemala's "Liberal Revolution" came in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios, who worked to modernize the country, improve trade, and introduce new crops and manufacturing. During this era coffee became an important crop for Guatemala. Barrios had ambitions of reuniting Central America and took the country to war in an unsuccessful attempt to attain this, losing his life on the battlefield in 1885 against forces in El Salvador. From 1898 to 1920, Guatemala was ruled by the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera, whose access to the presidency was helped by the United Fruit Company.
On July 4, 1944, Dictator Jorge Ubico Castañeda was forced to resign his office in response to a wave of protests and a general strike, and from then until the end of a murderous civil war in 1996, Guatemala was subject to a series of coups with massive attendant civil rights abuses. State-sponsored murders of students, human rights activists and the ethnic Mayan peoples, gained Guatemala a terrible reputation around the world. In 1999, U.S. president Bill Clinton stated that the United States was wrong to have provided support to Guatemalan military forces that took part in the brutal civilian killings.
Since the peace accords in 1996, Guatemala has witnessed successive democratic elections, most recently in 2007 when The National Unity of Hope and its president candidate Álvaro Colom won the presidency as well as the majority of the seats in congress.
It is difficult to travel in the more remote areas during the rainy season between mid-May and mid-October (into mid-November in the north).
The months of March and April are very hot especially in the low lying areas such as the Pacific coastal plain.
The following nationalities do not need a visa to visit Guatemala: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Denmark, El Salvador, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Spain, San Marino, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United States, United Kingdom, Vatican City, Venezuela.
Valid passports are required of everyone except citizens of Central American countries.
Guatemala's main airport, La Aurora International Airport (GUA), is near Guatemala City. International flights arrive mostly from other Central American countries and North America. The airport is currently undergoing modernizing reconstruction. It is now a glass-and-concrete edifice with modern shops and duty-frees that you might expect in any large city. Food options are still limited, however, although construction is not complete.
Guatemala's secondary airport is situated in Flores, Petén. This small airport receives flights from a small number of close destinations including Belize, Mexico City and Guatemala City.
It is sometimes cheaper to fly into Cancun and take buses through Belize or to fly into Mexico City and then take a low-cost airlines flight on Aviacsa for around $100 USD to Tapachula which is the Mexico/Guatemala border. Now Interjet is flying for $120 from Cancun and Mexico City to Guatemala City as well. Spirit Airlines offers great ticket prices from a number of US destinations (normally connecting through Miami/Ft. Lauderdale) - recently priced at $166 one-way to Guatemala City.
From Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador access is via the Pan-American Highway. Road access is also possible with more difficulty from Belize.
From further afield, it is possible to reach Guatemala from Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
Tica Bus is a bus company that has newer buses and mainly travels between Central American countries with limited stops.
There are several ferries to and from Puerto Barrios and Livingston, and Punta Gorda, Belize.
It's hard to miss the colorfully-decorated buses that crowd the streets of major cities and highways of Guatemala. These are chicken buses, or camionetas in Spanish, and are a common form of travel for Guatemalans and a travel adventure for tourists. They are much cheaper than tourist vans or taxis and are usually very crowded, with three people squeezed into seats barely big enough for two children, and more people standing in the aisles.
The buses are often used North American school buses with the "Blue Bird" and "Ford" logos clearly visible. In addition to the driver there is usually a conductor standing in the door. The conductor collects fares, and from time to time jumps out to direct the bus through a blind intersection or around a tight turn. On the highways, the chicken bus drivers are aggressive, not hesitating to overtake in the face of oncoming traffic. Riding these buses on the steep highways of the Western Highlands is especially harrowing, but may be the most quintessential Guatemalan experience there is.
Bus conductors may sometimes charge out of country tourists more than the going rate. If you look to see what other travelers are paying you can usually avoid this problem, however, they often charge you the same as everyone else. Sending a message to the Guatemala tourism department, Inguat , will let them know of this problem.
You can board a chicken bus almost anywhere along its route. If you put out your arm, it will stop. You board and find a space to sit or stand. The conductor will come back to you after the bus is underway, and collect your fare. You need to recognize where your stop is, and move to the door in time. You ask the bus to stop, more or less wherever you want to get off.
Regular domestic flights operate between Guatemala City and Flores.
Guatemala City has a local trolley service aimed at tourists.
There is a rail network, but aside from the occasional steam charter aimed at tourist groups, no trains, freight or passenger, have run since 2007.
Maya ruins are the key attractions in the country and the most notable are El Mirador, perhaps the cradle of Maya civilisation, and Tikal.
Guatemala has a lot of volcanoes, many of them over 3,000 metres high.
Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, and the most commonly spoken. Over twenty indigenous languages are still spoken throughout, but many of the Maya people have at least a working knowledge of basic Spanish as well, except in the more remote areas. For the Garifuna people in Livingston, Garifuna and English are the main languages (but Spanish is spoken as well).
The most familiar form of Spanish spoken among good friends is the "tú" and "vos" form, but varies between regions. It is considered rude and very informal if used with someone that you do not know. As a tourist, it is safer to stick with the "usted" form. However, don't be surprised if some homestay families and some language teachers jump right into using the "tú" or "vos" form. If they do, you may respond in kind.
Guatemala is rich in natural beauty and travel opportunities, it's a country that offers so much to those willing to step off the beaten track for a little while.
Antigua Guatemala is often regarded as the travellers hub, a crumbling, picture-perfect central american town ringed by volcanoes. From here you can take a hike up Volcano Pacaya, take a bus to the bustling market of Chichicastenango, or simply sip some coffee in a street-side cafe and watch the world go by.
Lake Atitlan (or Lago de Atitlán) is another frequent stop on any visitors itinerary. A volcano-rimmed lake with plenty of backpacker hostels and Mayan villages that dot the shores.
Flores in Guatemala's wild north is a tourist friendly island in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá. From here you can take a bus ride to one of best preserved Mayan ruins in the world, Tikal. Howler monkeys and dense jungle make walking around the ruins an adventure in itself.
The local currency is the Quetzal which is named after the national bird, which has ancient and mythic connotations even today. One US dollar is equivalent to 8.1 Quetzales. US dollars are widely accepted and can be exchanged in most small towns. ATMs can be found in the major towns but do not expect to find them in every tourist spot. It is fairly easy to find your self in a town without an ATM or a place to change money.
Do not expect to be able to easily exchange travelers checks to Guatemala. You might find a few places willing to accept checks issued by American Express but all other types are universally turned down. Amazingly even major banks in Guatemala City do not accept VISA travelers checks.
The national currency is Quetzal(es). The rate of change is approximately 8.34 Quetzales for 1 US Dollar and 11.78 for 1 €uro (January 2010). It is common to use dollars in tourist areas. You will most likely have difficulties in changing other currencies than US Dollars, but euros are becoming increasingly common.
It is common to bargain for most purchases in the open air market. Though you may be able to bargain in other places, be aware that chain-owned shops have fixed prices (you are no more likely to bargain in a Guatemalan Radio Shack than an American one).
These are some characteristically Guatemalan things you might consider buying here:
A typical breakfast is Frijoles, eggs and bread with coffee of course.
The type of food really depends on how much you want to spend and what type of place you want to spend it at. You can get almost any type of food at the main tourist locations. In the aldeas (small towns) your choices are mostly limited to those items listed above. Guatemalan food differs from Mexican food in that it is a lot less spicy, and chillies are generally served in a separate dish from the main course to be added as desired, rather than included in the food.
Popular Guatemalan beers are Gallo (lager, by far the most popular with Guatemalans), Victoria, Brahva (a light pilsner style), Moza (dark bock), Cabro, Monte Carlo (premium), and Dorada. Don't be surprised if you get salt and lemon with your beer. It's a custom to put some salt on the toes of the bottle, and screw out the lemon in the beer. Sometimes it is mixed with V8 vegetable juice, and the concoction is called michelada.
Guatemala produces a number of rums, including the superb Ron Zacapa Centenario which is aged up to 30 years.
Tequila is a very popular drink in Guatemala.
Guatemalans usually dress down when they go out.
If you order a bottled drink, you will normally get a tissue to clean the bottle. Coca-Cola and Pepsi-type products are available, plus many from local soft drink manufacturers.
You will likely find cheap hotels in every town or village in Guatemala. In the main tourist areas, there are also many high quality hotels.
Guatemala is a great place to learn Spanish. The prices are low, and Guatemalan Spanish is considered pleasing. Antigua has the highest number of Spanish schools and is also the most popular place for tourists. But if studying Spanish is your main concern, you might be better off elsewhere, because you can actually go around in Antigua for a whole day without hearing anything but English.
Because of this, many language students head towards Quetzaltenango in the Western Highlands, where a wide range of language schools also offer Spanish language courses (some quite inexpensive).
Another alternative is San Pedro la Laguna, seated by Lake Atitlan.
There are various volunteering opportunities.
Guatemala has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. Travelers should take some extra precautions when in Guatemala. If mugged, carjacked, or approached by armed individuals, cooperate. Do not make any sudden movements, and give them whatever belongings or money they are demanding. Tourists have been shot and killed for resisting muggers. Do not go to areas known to be hotbeds of drug trafficking activity (ie: some parts of the Peten), and do not go to the most dangerous neighborhoods in Guatemala City (ie: zones 3, 6, 18, and 21). Be careful in Zone 1 in Guatemala City, especially after dark, and do not stay in hostels there. Using the slightly more expensive hotels in Zone 10 or Zone 13 (near the airport) is a much better idea. Do not use buses in Guatemala City, as they are frequently robbed by gangs. Instead, radio-dispatched taxis (ie: Taxi Amarillo) are a safer way to get around the city. Another note is that when travelling by chicken bus beware of anyone sitting next to you...my daughter had her purse slashed by a young man sitting next to her. She had a funny feeling, moved her purse, we saw the slash, the young man moved to the front of the bus. He was not able to steal anything but the purse is ruined. Do not confront the person he or she has a knife or blade. Pacsafe bolsa here we come. Do remember while most people here are wonderful, honest, helpful people those 1 or 2 can ruin your day.
Although some say that travelers should always carry a bit of extra cash and be prepared to bribe a few police officers, most tourists will have no reason to give bribes to anyone. The most likely situations in which you might have to bribe police would be if you're driving a car or riding a motorcycle and are stopped for fictitious violations of traffic rules. Most European/North Americans find it immoral but it is much easier to spend 50 Quetzales and avoid the headaches than to be harassed by the police. Phrases such as "I'm sorry officer. Is there any way we can resolve this right now?" work well. Do not offer bribes directly to an officer because it is illegal and you could actually end up in more trouble.
Never take photos of children without permission. Some Guatemalans are extremely wary of this, and will assume you are a kidnapper (even if children aren't theirs). Guatemala has had many problems with children being sold or kidnapped and put up for adoption on the black market. Of course, this doesn't include a few children mixed in with many adults at a distance. This occurs mainly on the more remote Guatemalan villages. In the major cities people are somewhat more open towards picture taking, but don't overdo it.
It is dangerous to travel between cities after dark. Doing so significantly increases your risk of being in a car accident or being the victim of an armed robbery.
Pickpocketing is common in markets, so never keep anything in your back pocket and take as little with you as possible.
One of the best things about Guatemala is the abundance of natural beauty and numerous treks. Some of these are notorious for robberies (ex. Volcan de Agua, trails around Lago de Atitlan, Volcan de Pacaya). Always ask around about the situation before embarking blindly. Inguat, locals, and fellow travelers are safe bets for information. Traveling in groups during daylight sometimes decreases the risk, but not always.
Traffic can be dangerous. You will encounter many 1 lane roads (1 lane each way) and drivers are apt to swerve back and forth, avoiding potholes and bumps along the way. There are also various multiple lane highways. Traffic in Guatemala City and surrounding metropolitan areas during rush hour is very slow, but general driving everywhere is usually very fast (average speeds of up to 60 mph in some city roads).
Drink only purified water (Agua Pura Ecológica is recommended by most of hospitals and hotels).
CDC states that malaria risk exists in rural areas at altitudes lower than 1,500 metres, with no risk in Antigua or Lake Atitlán. Preventative anti-malarial medication can and should be purchased ahead of visiting malaria-endemic areas.
Dengue fever is endemic throughout Guatemala.
Hepatitis A&B vaccinations are recommended.
Address people you don't know in a formal manner (Señor, Señora, Usted), and greet people in the following way:
You'll encounter this in more suburban, rural areas. Native Guatemalans are raised to greet strangers formally.
Guatemala's international calling code is 502. There are no area codes. Phone numbers all have eight digits. On September 18, 2004, the phone system switched from seven to eight digits, and there is a scheme for adding specific digits to the front of seven-digit numbers (WTNG.info description ).
The phone system isn't great, but it works. Tourists can call abroad from call centers, where you pay by the minute. It is also easy to purchase a calling card to use at public pay phones. The phones there do not accept money, so to use a public phone on the street you must purchase a telephone card. Typically, the cost is around 8 quetzals for a 10 min call to North America. Cell phones are quite cheap and calling to the US through one can get as low as $0.08 a min. If you are planning to stay for a while and plan to use the phone, you should consider buying a cheap prepaid phone. Wireless nation-wide internet access for laptops is also available as a service from some companies. Telefonica has good coverage with their PCMCIA EV-DO cards.
The post system is traditionally not reliable, but your post cards usually get through. A stamp for Europe is Q5. There are; however, many other alternative companies to the federal mail system that are reliable, though frequently somewhat pricey.
Internet access is widely available. Even most of the more remote areas have some type of internet access available. Many larger areas also have WiFi. All of the Camperos chicken/pizza restaurants (which are numerous) offer free WiFi, as well as many other restaurants and cafes. Some hotels may also offer computer banks with internet access. Just ask and you eventually will find some sort of free access.
If you have an internet capable mobile phone such as iPhone, Google Android, Nokia N95 etc or USB dongle for your laptop, you just need a local SIM card (roughly Q25) and can start enjoying the prepaid access plans, which generally come in lots of an hour, a day, or a week.
Anecdotal: when I passed through Guatemala in May 2010 I bought a TIGO Guatemala SIM and automatically received an SMS within a day or two offering me 30 days of free internet access without any need to do anything, which was variable in its reliability but very useful all the same. With a program such as PDANet you can create a mini Wifi network that follows you around as you travel. I asked around and apparently the normal way to activate the internet after putting in the right configuration settings I was supposed to send the SMS message "WAP" to the shortocde 805, but I didn't need to do this. The APN (access point name) was internet.tigo.gt
Here is a table for the settings and activation options for various providers, including approximate costs.
|Provider||Configuration details||Activation instructions||Costs|
|TIGO Guatemala|| APN: internet.tigo.gt
user: any (or blank) pass: any (or blank)
|SMS "WAP" to 805||~ Q12 a day|
|Claro||fill me in!||fill me in!||?|
|Movistar||fill me in!||fill me in||?|