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Guatemala

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Travel Guide Central America Guatemala

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Introduction

Verkaueferin am Strand

Verkaueferin am Strand

© All Rights Reserved Tikenjah

Situated at the northern end of Central America and owning stretches of coast on both the Caribbean and the Pacific, Guatemala is a land of great natural beauty, marked by highland lakes, exotic wildlife and some of the highest volcanoes in Central America. Its Mayan ruins, especially those at Tikal, are breathtaking remains of one of the world’s most ancient civilizations.

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Brief History

The first evidence of human settlers in Guatemala goes back to at least 12,000 BC. There is evidence that may put this date as early as 18,000 BC, such as obsidian arrow heads found in various parts of the country

Guatemala is the centre of the Mayan World. This ancient civilization was the most advanced in pre-Colombian America. The knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, agriculture, and architecture was superior. The Mayan civilization dominated the region for nearly 2,000 years before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century. During that time, Guatemala experienced a remarkable cultural development that few places in the continent had. In 1821, Guatemala and Central America declared their independence from Spain, but it wasn’t until the 21st. of March 1847, that the Republic was officially proclaimed, separating itself from the rest 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. From 1898 to 1920, Guatemala was ruled by the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera.

From 1985, Guatemala has begun a new process in its history, directed to peace and democracy. The nation has been stable since 1996 and has been in a state of continuous development and economic growth. Since the peace accords, Guatemala has witnessed successive democratic elections, most recently in 2007.

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People and Culture

The indigenous culture in Guatemala is considered the strongest in Central America, particularly in the central and western highlands of Guatemala. The largest of the indigenous groups are the Maya, with 21 different groups making up over half the countries population.

Unique among many indigenous peoples in Central America, the Maya maintained a hold onto many aspects of their identity throughout Spanish colonial rule and as such many of their customs, textiles, social structure and beliefs are still in practice. Each region may have it's own language, and history, often with different villages in the same region having their own unique customs, traditions and beliefs. Similarly, the most striking symbol of Mayan identity is the traditional dress, though today it is mostly only women and girls who do so. Predominantly, the huipil, a short tunic often tucked into a long skirt, is a means of identifying history of the wearer, with each village often having it's own intricately designed patterns and colour schemes.

Many Mayan communities suffered terribly during the war that gripped Guatemala for over 35 years, with traditions and religious beliefs playing a very complex role in their persecution. Therefore, many visitors to communities away from large tourist areas may find the Maya to be very reserved, especially when it comes to their traditional customs. However, patience and honesty can often reward you in the most unexpected ways.

Most Mayan families rely on farming as the primary source of food and/or income, with corn and black beans being the dominant crops that form the staple part of their diet. A primary tool within the corn harvest is the machete, which is often carried everywhere by Mayan men. At first this can be an alarming sight but is soon experienced as being a normal part of daily life.

As within many cultures, photography is a sensitive issue. In areas where tourism is common place permission from whomever you are photographing may not be such an issue unless it is a child, in more remote areas always seek permission before taking a photograph.

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Geography

Guatemala borders Honduras and El Salvador to the (south)east, Mexico to the north and northwest and Belize to the north/northeast. It also borders both the Caribbean Sea as well as the Pacific Ocean. Guatemala is a mountainous country, except for the souther coastal area and the vast northern lowlands of Petén department. Two mountain chains enter Guatemala from west to east, dividing the country into three major regions: the highlands, where the mountains are located; the Pacific coast, south of the mountains; and the Petén region, north of the mountains. Volcan Tajumulco is the highest mountain in the country and of all of Central America, at 4,220 metres above sea level. Guatemala enjoys a rich biodiversity, with lakes, rivers, swamps, rainforests and mangrove areas all adding to the abudant flora and fauna. The rivers are short and shallow in the Pacific drainage basin, larger and deeper in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico drainage basins, which include the Polochic and Dulce Rivers, which drain into Lake Izabal, the Motagua River, the Sarstún that forms the boundary with Belize, and the Usumacinta River, which forms the boundary between Petén and Chiapas, Mexico.

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Regions

  • Central Highlands - Guatemala City
  • Western Highlands
  • Caribbean Coast
  • Petén - Ancient Mayan ruins in a hut jungle setting in the country's north.
  • Pacific Highlands

Guatamala consists of 22 administrative "departments" (departamentos): Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, Chimaltenango, Chiquimula, El Progreso, Escuintla, Guatemala, Huehuetenango, Izabal, Jalapa, Jutiapa, Peten, Quetzaltenango, Quiche, Retalhuleu, Sacatepequez, San Marcos, Santa Rosa, Solola, Suchitepequez, Totonicapan,

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Cities

Guatemala City

In Guatemala City, be sure to check out the central market, the plaza, the cathedral and the palace. They are all in the same block pretty much. At the central market make sure you catch a glimpse of "Frog Man." A Guatemalan beat box legend. Makes for great entertainment!

Flores

Flores is a small island town (colonial of course). Plan to spend a few days here if you can. It is breathtaking and has some cool bars. It is also the jumping point to Tikal.

Antigua

Antigua is a small colonial town just outside Guatemala City, which was once the Guatemalan capital. It is placed on the Unesco World Heritage List. Right up your alley if you like your alleys to be lined with colonial architecture. Look out for Guatemala's unique squat, Baroque-embellished churches.

Quetzaltenango

Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela, is a picturesque town attracting more long term travelers who are serious about learning Spanish in one of it's many language schools, or volunteering with one of the many NGOs based in the town. Quetzaltenango is also a great place to organize some fantastic volcano hikes, or day trips to sites of interest in the surrounding region.

Other Cities

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Sights and Activities

Tikal

Tikal is a provincial park that boasts the presence of Mayan temples, jaguars, monkeys and all sorts of small interesting creatures. The combination of these ancient Mayan temples with dense jungle and beautiful wildlife (especially birds and butterflies) makes this one of the nicest Mayan sites anywhere in Central America.

Lakes and volcanoes

Volcan Pacaya - 11

Volcan Pacaya - 11

© All Rights Reserved dontrobus

Lago Atitlan, framed by volcanoes and dubbed 'the most beautiful lake in the world', is a must. Semuc Champey is a spectacular staircase of turquoise pools suspended on a natural limestone bridge in the Alta Verapaz. Pacaya is the most accessible of three active volcanoes and has a geological museum and a geothermal generation plant. You can bathe in hot springs in Rio Dulce, or take a boat down its gorge from Lago de Izabel to the Caribbean coast. A strenuous 8-hour hike will give you a front seat to Santiaguito, an active volcano that erupts ash and rocks every few hours.

Archaeological treasures

These are mostly found in Petén, but their sheer quantity and scale is astonishing. The most famous is Tikal, where temples and pyramids rise out of tropical forest alive with birds and monkeys. Other sites include Yaxha, Ceibal, Uaxactan, Aguateca, Copan (Honduras) and remote El Mirador and Nakbe, accessible only by mule or helicopter.

Wildlife

Guatemala boasts a tremendous array of animals and birds in some of Central America's best preserved rain forests: jaguar, ocelot, tapir, spider and howler monkeys, toucans, hummingbirds, parakeets and vultures, to name a few. Peten has the best of Guatemala's nature reserves. If you are after the elusive and majestic Quetzal (Guatemala's national bird) the cloud forests of Alta Verapaz are a good place to start.

Shopping

The vibrant weekly markets are unmissable. Buy a huge range of Mayan textiles, crafts, hammocks, clothes, jewelry, home furnishings, ceramics and folk art in the highlands, local handicrafts and carved woodwork in El Remate in Peten, antiques and art in Antigua. The best markets are in Chichicastenango, Panajachel, Santiago, Antigua, Guatemala City. Bargaining is part of the fun.

Adventure Activities

Go hiking, mountain biking or horse riding in the western highlands, best with a guide. Try deep sea fishing off the Pacific coast, kayaking or altitude diving in Lake Atitlan. Take a canopy tour outside Tikal.

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Events and Festivals

Below is a list of national and major festivals in the country:

  • New Year's day is celebrated to the max in much of the country, including festivities, fireworks and lots of parties and drinking
  • Semana Santa (Easter Week) - with costumed religious processions, and brilliantly colorful carpets, or "alfombras", made of dyed sawdust and flower petals.
  • La Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil) - On December 7, on the eve of the Festival of the Immaculate Conception, Guatemalans dump trash and other rubbish gathered throughout the year and light it on fire, in a sort of cleansing ritual.
  • Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) - Though Day of the Dead is celebrated all over Guatemala, the liveliest festivities take place in the highlands town of Todos Santos Cuchumatan
  • Festival of Saint Thomas - Every December, the Festival of Saint Thomas in Chichicastenango is one of the most colorful events in the country and thousands of Guatemala's highlands Mayan Indians celebrate with music, firecrackers, and traditional Mayan maypole dancing.
  • Guatemala Christmas Week - Christas in Guatemala is a great blend of indigenous cultures and Catholic traditions, with many towns holding religious processions on the nine days leading to Christmas Day.
  • On Saint Paul's day, 25th January, the town of Rabinal in Baja Verapaz comes alive with a huge procession of the saints as well as a wonderful traditional dance competition where teams from all over the region come to show off their costumes and dancing. Additionally, the UNESCO listed Rabinal Achi theatre dance is performed on this day, one of the few pre-colonial Mayan texts that survived and has continued to be performed for generations.

Being a predominantly Catholic country, most villages and towns will be associated with a saint or two, and so will throw a large fiesta on the said saint's name day. When traveling around, it is worthwhile finding out what saint the town has adopted and on which day the name day falls.

Mayan fiestas are usually full of colour, marimba music, dancing and often home-made pyrotechnics. Drinking has also become a large part of many fiestas and as the celebrations goes on, men especially often become totally inebriated, and with this the risks that come with large drunken groups the world over.

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Weather

From November to April Guatemala has the dry season, which is a good time to enjoy Central America. That said, rivers, waterfalls and nature in general is much more beautiful during rainy season from May to October. Although much of the country has high temperatures of around 30 °C during the day and around 20 °C at night, there are some regional differences which mainly have to do with the altitude. The Pacific coastline in general is warmer, while more inland temperatures can drop below zero at night.

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Getting there

Plane

La Aurora International Airport (GUA) near Guatemala City is where most international flights depart and arrive. Grupo TACA has flights to Cancun, Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Miami, New York, San José in Costa Rica San Pedro Sula in Honduras San Salvador, Tegucigalpa and Washington. Several other destinations are mostly within Central America or the United States, but Iberia has direct flights to and from Madrid.

By Train

There is no scheduled passenger train to and from Guatemala although there is a line to Mexico and one to El Salvador used by freight trains and chartered for tours as well.

By Car

The Pan-American Highway runs through Guatemala from Mexico in the north and El Salvador in the south and even access from Belize via Flores is possible.

By Bus

Tica Bus is a major operator in Central America, with connections to and from Guatemala from all neighbouring countries, including direct services from El Salvador. There are also buses to and from Mexico and Honduras, less so from Belize.
Travel times from Guatemala City are around 6 hours to San Salvador in El Salvador and San Pedro Sula in Honduras. There is only one land connection to Belize, just west of San Ignacio, on the road to Tikal/Flores. Another big operator is King Quality, which travels on the San José de Costa Rica - Tapachula (Mexico) route, with buses between the capitals of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

By Boat

There are ferries between Livingston and Puerto Barrios in Guatemala to several places in southern Belize, like Punta Gorda. Services from Puerto Barrios tend to be more frequent, with daily connections in both directions. Services from Livingston are mostly twice a week to/from Punta Gorda, on Tuesdays and Fridays for about $17.
Requeña’s Charter Service & Watertaxi operates a watertaxi, “Mariestela”, between Punta Gorda and Puerto Barrios. It departs Punta Gorda daily at 9:00am from the Municipal pier near the Customs & Immigration Office. It departs Puerto Barrios daily at 2:00pm from the pier near the Shell gas station. It takes about 1 to 1.5 hours and costs BZ$40.00 each way (about US$20). Check the Belizenet Requena website.
Other options include the Pichilingo, departing Puerto Barrios daily at 10:00am and departing Punta Gorda daily at 2:00pm. Duration is about 1 hour and costs BZ$50.00 each way (about US$25). Or take the Marisol departing Puerto Barrios daily at 1:00pm and Punta Gorda daily at 4:00pm. Same duration and costs. For up to date information check the following website.
There's also a boat from Lívingston to Omoa in Honduras, which usually goes daily.

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Getting around

By Plane

Transportes Aereos Guatemaltecos has several domestic flights, from Guatemala City to Flores and charters to a few other destinations, like Zacapa and Puerto Barios.

By Car

Both international and local agencies have cars for rent in Guatemala City, but it is not really recommended. Roads are not always in a good conditions and two thirds of the roads are not passable after very heavy rains. To add, there is possible danger of car jackings or robbery along roads, especially at night.

By Bus

The bus companies which use tourist buses called pullman are the most comfortable means of transportation. For a cheap, daring, adventurous trip take the chicken buses or polleros. These are the refurbished old school buses brought down from the United States. They get packed to the brim with passengers and the rides can be bumpy. But they are the only access to some places that have curvy two-lane mountainous roads. There are smaller buses or vans that are more comfortable but also work as local buses and have many stops before your final destination. Most are safe, cheap and honest and the Guatemalans help travellers get to their next spots safely. Both the larger chicken buses and smaller vans will originate from a central bus station (in larger towns) or the town/village square. Finding the correct one is easy as they will have their destination displayed in large colourful letters on the front, and the ayudantes (assistants - like a conductor) will be shouting the destination repetitively.

Litegua has connections between Guatemala City, Rio Dulce, Morales, Puerto Barrios and many other towns and cities. Schedules for buses and boats in Guatemala are listed at thebusschedule.com.

In the Guatemala city there are yellow taxis with meters, and there are other taxis without meters. Be sure to ask the driver before getting in what the price will be, if you don't agree then you can bargain down or refuse the ride if you think it is a bad price.

By Boat

Livingston and some national parks are only accessible by boat and river trips, such as the Rio Dulce, can be great experiences, especially if you combine tours and public transport. It's also possible to hop on regular passenger services on jungle rivers in the north and on Lake Atitlán.

Between October and May cruises depart from Santo Tomas de Castilla to nearby destinations in Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, before returning to their original departure sites. Most cruises also offer onshore excursions like touring the towns along the coast of Guatemala, a trip to the city of Antigua, visiting the Mayan ruins at Tikal and so forth.

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Red Tape

Citizens of the US, Canada, EU countries, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan among a few other countries do not need visas for touristic visits to Guatemala. On entry into Guatemala you will normally be given a visa valid for a 90-day stay. Citizens of some Eastern European countries are among those who do need visas to visit Guatemala.

Note that since 2006 a 90-day stay actually means a stay within the Centro America 4 (CA4) region, including Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. You can extend the stay with another 90 days, after which you have to leave the region, for example to Belize, Mexico or Costa Rica.

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Money

See also Money Matters

The quetzal (code: GTQ) is the currency of Guatemala. It is divided into 100 centavos.

Coins include 1 centavo, 5, 10, 25, 50 centavos, 1 quetzal.
Banknotes come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 quetzales.

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Work

If you want to volunteer your time and skills within Guatemala, Entre Mundos, based in Quetzaltenango, is a good place to start. They basically act as a go between for NGOs & charities and eager volunteers.

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Language

Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases

Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, although it is not used everywhere among the country's indigenous population, even as a second language. Alltogehter, Guatemala has 23 languages, though not all of them are regarded as national languages.

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Eat

Almost every town square will have a variety of street vendors offering a variety of food and drink. Look for the busiest ones (usually the cleanest) and you'll be rewarded with some very tasty and cheap delights. Mini-tacos, tamale (a starchy cake with a savory filling wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed), atole (a thick drink made from corn, can be sweet or sour), as well as fried beans and tortillas are a few examples to look out for.

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Health

See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Guatemala. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Guatemala) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Guatemala. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, tuberculosis, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Malaria is prevalent in the country and it is recommended to take malaria pills and take other normal anti-mosquito precautions as well. Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

Despite its great attraction, Guatemalan tourism has been adversely affected by frequent violent attacks on travellers to its country. It is therefore recommended that visitors limit their sightseeing to the major destinations and travel with a reputable tour group if you are going on an organised trip. Travelling independently is no problem though, but try to travel during daylight hours only and avoid night buses.

If you do decide to head off into more remote regions, you will be rewarded with a very intimate experience with Guatemala and it's people and lands. Sensible precautions will see you have a safe, adventurous trip, and seeking advice from locals is the best way to keep up to date with the regions security situation.

In Guatemala City and much less so in a few other popular tourist spots, there tend to be a lot of pickpockets, so make sure you aren't packing any documents and other important stuff while you're sightseeing and surely don't flash your money, jewelry and other valuable stuff around.

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Keep connected

Internet

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 a smartphone such as iPhone, Google Android, 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.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

Guatemala's emergency phone numbers include 110 (police), 120 (ambulance) and 123 (fire). Guatemala's international calling code is 502. There are no area codes. Phone numbers all have eight digits.

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, and slightly more to Europe. Cell phones are quite cheap and calling overseas 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. Telefónica has good coverage with their PCMCIA EV-DO cards.

Post

El Correo is the national postal company in Guatemala. It offers a wide range of services, including sending cards and packages both domestically as well as internationally. Most Guatemalan towns have a post office, although your best bet is to send mail from a large city. Service at El Correo is improving, thanks to consultation and assistance from Canada Post. Most post offices open from 8:30am to 5:30pm. Airmail letters to North America and Europe cost from Q6.50 and take a week or two to arrive. High-end hotels can usually send your mail for you, too. Expect packages you send through the Guatemalan mail system to take a very long time to arrive. They usually get there in the end, but it's worth paying extra for recorded delivery (correo registrado). Many stores can ship your purchases for you, for a cost. Valuable items are best sent with private express services. Couriers operating in Guatemala include DHL, UPS, and FedEx. Delivery within two to three business days for a 1-kg package starts at about Q500.

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Quick Facts

Guatemala flag

Map of Guatemala

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Capital
Guatemala City
Population
13,300,000
Government
Constitutional Democratic Republic
Languages
Spanish, Amerindian languages
Religions
Christianity (Catholic, Protestant), indigenous Mayan beliefs
Currency
Quetzal (GTQ)
Calling Code
+502
Nationality
Guatemalan
Local name
Guatemala

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Guatemala Travel Helpers

  • Marivi

    I can help you answering any question about Guatemala because I had live all my life in this beautiful country and I can recommend you the places, restaurants, hotels, etc. that best suits your necessity.

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  • i c e

    I'm 19. I just drove the panamerican highway With my family, to panama and back and spent good time in each country. If you would like any help or reliable info just ask!! Love this part of the world!! Speak Spanish! Been all over the world!

    Glad to help in any way!!

    Josh

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    I can answer all questions about traveling to Guatemala. I have ten years of experience working in tourism and have plenty of knowledge about this.

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  • Eefs

    I spent a glorious month travelling Guatamala-by far the bast experience of my trip around Central America. Breathtaking

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  • CanadaKid

    Antigua, Quetzaltenango, Chichicastenango, Panajachel, Lago de Atitlan, Tikal, Language School advice.

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