In Guatemala, travelers who are lovers of nature, history, Mayan ruins and/or hiking lovers will be pleased. This country, well known for being a backpacker’s paradise, became a budget travel hot spot, thanks to a very affordable cost of living. Guatemala, “the land of trees” in the Mayan language, will satisfy everyone, from the adrenaline-crazed adventurers to the most relaxed, slow-paced tourists.
Lodging & Accommodations
On the main tourist circuit, a bed in a hostel dorm costs $10-15 / night. Luxury hotels (4 stars and more) are not only rare… they are also very expensive. Many inns and smaller hotels will offer very decent lodging (+3 stars) for $40-60 / night.
Black beans are a staple food of Guatemala. If you stick to comedores and similar small restaurants, they will soon become part of your travel diet. In these establishments, a meal that includes meat, tortilla, beans and often some rice costs $5-10. A meal for two in a fancier restaurant should go around $30.
Bottled water is a must, since local water is not guaranteed to be safe for drinking, according to Western standards. At less than $1 / liter, it shouldn’t be too much of a budget-breaker. Local beers (500 ml can) go for about $1-2.
Local & Long-Distance Transport
Taxis – and rickshaws, these tiny vehicle pulled by a motorcycle – are easy to find and cheap in most bigger cities. Public transportation is not the safest option for tourists in Guatemala; it’s probably better to avoid it, whenever possible.
As in many countries in Latin America, coach bus transportation is THE way to move around the country. It’s usually a good bet to invest in a luxury coach (primera clase – 1st class), for safety reasons, but also for a little extra comfort. Many bus companies connect the major cities of the country and the tickets are very affordable.
Chicken buses (colorfully painted recycled school buses) are not the safest option for tourist, as they are often attacked by armed groups. The mechanical state of these vehicles is also uncertain. Sadly, chicken buses are often implicated in accidents, often with fatalities.
Between the 1st class buses and the chicken buses are the segunda clase buses. This is an interesting alternative to the luxury coaches for shorter distances. Less frequented by tourists, 2nd class buses are usually former, worn-out 1st class buses.
In all cases, make sure you bring a warm vest or sweater for all bus rides. No matter what category, the air conditioning will almost always be in full effect during most of the itinerary! Outside the Flores-Guatemala City line, known to be safe in 1st class buses at all times, it is safer to travel by day when possible.
If You Like…
Ruins & History: don’t miss the ruins at Tikal.
Located in the northern part of the country, this site is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1979. If you’re an early bird, you can book a late night excursion that will have you climb to the top of one of the pyramids to see the sun rise over the forest. Die-hard Star Wars fans will also recognize this landscape from a Millenium Falcon landing scene in A New Hope (the 1st installment of the series). Most excursion depart from Flores, the closest city, usually the gateway to Tikal.
Hiking & the Spanish language: destination Antigua, the former capital.
This colonial city is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list for its architecture. Antigua is the gateway for most day trip hiking excursions on the (active) Pacaya volcano. The city is also famous for its numerous language schools where tourists come to learn Spanish.
Markets, Haggling & Shopping: Don’t miss the Chichicastenango open-air market!
Every Thursday and Sunday. From local arts and crafts to textiles, but also vegetables, tools… you can find almost anything! Over 90% of the city’s population is of Mayan origins and speaks K’iche, the most spoken Mayan language in Guatemala. Find the market around the St. Thomas (Santo Tomás) church.
Religious Rites & Spirituality
Religious holidays are no joke in Guatemala. The Semana santa (the Holy Week ending on Easter Sunday) is the occasion for numerous parades and celebrations in the streets of the country’s cities, especially in Antigua. Artists draw some elaborate designs with colored sand in the streets of the old capital. These same drawings, later on, will be trampled by the walkers of the various religious processions. The Day of the Deads (Dia de los muertos) is also widely celebrated. This holiday has its own dish, the fiambre (a cold salad), unique to this celebration. After paying homage to their deceased loved ones at the cemetery, families gather for a festive meal, in loving memory of the disappeared.
The beaches of Guatemala are not especially famous. But if you really need to spend a day at the sea, head towards Monterrico, on the Pacific Coast, south of the capital. With a little luck, you could be there in time for the nesting or hatching seasons of sea turtles (July to December).
The Outdoors: Go spend some time around Atitlan Lake.
The surroundings of the lake are breathtaking: volcanoes, all around. Most will arrive in the area in Panajachel, but please, don’t hesitate to cross the Atitlan Lake with one of the numerous water taxi to discover the other villages nested between the volcanoes and the lake (ex. San Juan, San Marcos, San Pedro…). Many hiking excursions exist to explore the different volcanoes around, notably the San Pedro volcano.
High Season: December through May
Low Season: April through November
Population: 15.2 million inhabitants
Capital: Guatemala City (or Ciudad de Guatemala – 2 million inhabitants)
Currency: Quetzal (plural: Quetzales)