Mini Guide to Guatemala
With over 17 million people, Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America. While the first human settlements date back to 18,000 BC, the region is nowadays famous for the history of Mayan Civilization and its ancient ruins.
Despite being one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Guatemala’s tourism is booming thanks to its rich history and incredible biodiversity.
Most travelers will fly into Guatemala City’s international airport La Aurora International Airport or arrive by bus from surrounding countries.
While there are some domestic flight companies to get around the country, the main form of transportation is by bus. They range from first-class companies to the ubiquitous “chicken buses”, which manage to cram people, luggage, and animals into small spaces.
Although it’s possible to rent cars, travelers should be aware of blatant damage scams. So, make sure to check your vehicle thoroughly before signing papers.
Like many other Latin countries, Spanish is the official language in Guatemala. It is spoken by 93 percent of the population. In rural areas, 21 Mayan languages two non-Mayan languages are still spoken by locals.
Travelers who stick to the popular tourist trails won’t have any difficulties with just English. However, those willing to go off the beaten track should learn basic Spanish.
Main Cities and Towns
La Antigua Guatemala
Commonly known as Antigua, the city used to be the old capital of the Spanish colony before the 1773 earthquake destroyed most of it. Due to its impressive Spanish-Baroque architecture, the city received the UNESCO Heritage Site status in 1979.
Antigua’s main charm is the colonial-era buildings, cathedrals, and monuments. On a clear day, it’s worth climbing the nearby Cerro de la Cruz hill for incredible views of the city. If you are looking for a deep cultural experience, visit the vibrant market near the central bus stop.
Located in the north, Flores is the capital of Guatemala’s Petén region. It serves as the main base for travelers willing to visit Tikal, which is just one hour away.
Travelers can walk around the entire island in 15 minutes and marvel at the historic buildings, churches, and charming cobblestone streets. It’s also possible to explore the other towns on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá, rent canoes and kayaks, or just swim in its calm waters.
Panajachel is a widely popular destination located at the shores of Lake Atitlán. Legend has it that famous figures such as Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Ingrid Bergman stayed at the Casa Cakchiquel hotel, which nowadays functions as a cultural center with a museum a photo gallery.
There’s a nature reserve nearby, where travelers see butterflies, monkeys, birds, and a waterfall. For those looking for Mayan textiles and jewelry, head to Calle Santander for some shopping.
Interesting Sites and Natural Wonders
Located in the Guatemalan Highlands, Lake Atitlán sits between three volcanoes at an altitude of 1,562 meters. It’s one of the country’s most famous natural destinations with several welcoming towns along its shoreline.
Apart from the many water activities like jet skiing and kayaking, travelers can hike around the region, go horseback riding, or even visit a nearby coffee plantation. Make sure not to miss out on the Indian’s Nose hike for amazing views of the lake.
Dating back to 400 BCE, Tikal was one of the largest Mayan cities during the Classic Era (200-900 AD). The ancient city covers an area of 16 square kilometers and boasts roughly 3,000 structures.
Due to its remote location and expertly restored buildings, the site is a popular destination for tourists. In fact, it’s possible to climb to the top of the pyramids and enjoy the panoramic views. Moreover, some lucky travelers might even spot howler monkeys, coatimundis, and toucans.
Semuc Champey is one of Guatemala’s hidden gems. After a 30-minute ride from the town of Lanquin, travelers will find an impressive series of turquoise limestone pools stretching over 300 meters.
While swimming in the refreshing waters is the main activity, travelers can climb to the nearby viewpoint for breathtaking views, go river tubing, or explore the many caves surrounding the area.
Acatenango is probably the hardest volcano to hike in Guatemala, but also the most rewarding. Hiking the volcano can take over two days. On the hike, travelers will walk through four different ecosystems: cloud forest, farmland, high alpine forest, and volcanic zone.
However, what makes it mind-blowing is the fact that Acatenango is part of the La Horqueta complex, which includes the active Fuego Volcano. As such, hikers can see a series of eruptions throughout the trek, which is particularly impressive during the night.
Safety and Health
Despite all its attractions, Guatemala can be a tricky country to traverse. Travelers should avoid neighborhoods that are known to be dangerous and regions where drug trafficking is rife.
In terms of health, it’s important to take Hepatitis type A and B vaccination. Also, make sure to protect against mosquitoes as Dengue fever is endemic all over the country and Malaria is present in rural areas.
Being part of the Motagua Fault, the country has also been plagued by earthquakes.
Guatemala’s weather tends to be pleasant throughout the year with an average of 22°C. You’ll find colder temperatures in the highlands and humid weather along the coast.
The dry season runs from November to April, while the rainy season from May to October. However, due to its location, the country suffers from destructive hurricanes during the month of October.
Food and Drinks
People in Guatemala start their days with beans, eggs, avocados, bread, and amazing coffee. Traditional dishes include:
- Pepián: A stew made with chicken, beef, or pork.
- Kak’ik: A Mayan turkey soup; and papusas, corn tortillas.
They drink a lot of:
- Atole de elote, a warm corn drink;
- Plenty of Gallo, a type of local beer, and;
- Hot chocolate, which was considered the “food of the gods” by the Mayans.
Coban Folklore Festival
Taking place every year at the end of July, the Folklore Festival showcases music, parades, and indigenous traditions.
Locally it’s called “Rabin Ajau” (the king’s daughter), which is akin to a Mayan beauty queen competition. Girls from all over the country attend wearing traditional blouses and skirts for the chance to be crowned the Mayan princess.
Feast of St. Thomas
The Feast of St. Thomas is a celebration of Chichicastenango’s patron saint. This celebration happens on the third week of December.
Apart from the fireworks, parades, and traditional dances, what makes the festival special is the Palo volador (dance of the flying pole). It’s a Mayan ritual for fertility and rain, where two men climb a 100-meter pole with ropes tied to their waist, and jump off, spinning to the ground.
People and Culture
Despite its reputation for being dangerous and the stark inequality, Guatemala is slowly moving forward. Travelers will see that Mayan culture is still very much present and permeates all areas of society.
While it’s interesting to learn about the country’s colonial past, one should delve into the indigenous traditions to fully appreciate the culture. Enjoy Guatemala’s arts, intricate textiles, and vibrant music.