Discover one of the hidden gems of Central America with our comprehensive guide to Guatemala: 10 Things to Know Before You Go…and start packing your bags!
Long obscured off the mainstream visitor’s trail thanks to its 36-year long civil unrest, Guatemala is slowly but fervently trying to assert itself on the Central American tourist map. Considering the fact this small nation is loaded with enticing attractions and boasts a formidable indigenous culture, we’d happily wager a bet that it won’t take before it starts appearing atop numerous ‘hot new places to visit’ lists. If you’ve been lucky enough to have visited Guatemala, you’d certainly understand the appeal.
Imposing volcanoes, an obscene amount of forests, gorgeous lakes, awe-inspiring Maya ruins, an abundance of wildlife and one of the most interesting, multi-cultural societies in all of Central America. When it comes to comprehensive travel experiences, few nations can deliver the goods like Guatemala.
Tickled your fancy yet?
Here’s our look at Guatemala – 10 Things to Know Before You Go…
1. The civil war may well be over– but the country is still (quietly) recovering
During the brutal military regime’s persecution of indigenous Maya inhabitants, a long-running local joke was that “When a President runs into a local in the morning, he doesn’t say ‘Hello!’ he says ‘Oh, I see you have survived!’ Warped sense of humour aside, the joke perfectly embodies the events and suffering of the indigenous inhabitants during the civil war of 1960-1996.
The Maya population was absolutely ravaged, as was the whole country in general, yet the beautiful thing is that, nowadays, you’ll actually be hard-pressed to notice any signs of this immensely painful part of Guatemala’s history. Some visitors to the country are unaware the civil war ever occurred, and just as many leave still blissfully unenlightened. For tourists, Guatemala is an absolute haven. People are warm, welcoming, and immensely proud and, despite its woes, Guatemala is still consistently ranked as one of the top 10 world’s happiest countries (all of which are in Central America!) Yet just because it’s not visible, don’t assume the suffering has ended. The indigenous portion of the population, which makes up almost half the 15.5 million inhabitants, is still the most marginalised of all. Just because you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Sensitivity to their plight is still of the utmost importance when visiting Guatemala.
2. Guatemala is a culturally enriched destination
The country’s indigenous population hails from 20 diverse Maya indigenous groups, making this one of the multi-ethnic corners in Central America. Moreover, the sheer percentage of indigenous inhabitants makes Guatemala quite the anomaly in the region. This enticing cultural abundance provides a total feast for the visitor, who will no doubt notice differences in clothing and customs as he or she travels through different provinces. If you’re after a culturally meaningful journey, you really couldn’t pick a more interesting Central American country to visit.
3. Best time to travel to Guatemala
Many erroneously assume that due to its latitude, Guatemala is inherently tropical. But due to its wide-ranging topography, the country boasts 7 climatic regions, and you can easily experience weather extremes depending on where you go. Generally speaking, the best months to visit Guatemala are those between November and April, the driest of the year. Rain season can still be very enjoyable, however, as rainfalls usually occur only in the afternoon and the added lusciousness of the wilderness is an absolute delight to witness. The highlands enjoy warm temps during the day and refreshingly cool temps at night, whilst in the lowlands, in places like Tikal for example, heat and high humidity is pretty much constant all year long.
The busiest periods are around Christmas time, and the week of Easter. For travel during these times, bookings of flights and accommodation should be made well in advance. Although you may be tempted to skip the busy tourist season, it’s worth noting that Guatemala hosts some of the most colourful cultural celebrations during religious holidays, so visiting during these times is immensely rewarding. Besides, the country just doesn’t see the crowds that nearby countries, like Mexico and Costa Rica and Panama, might receive. Overcrowding is still a very relative term in Guatemala: this is still one of Latin America’s least visited nations, although numbers are on the increase.
4. What to pack for a visit to Guatemala
Conservative and practical clothing is essential when visiting Guatemala, as that will take care of both the ‘comfort’ and ‘cultural propriety’ in one swift swoop. Capri pants and Bermuda shorts are fine, and sleeveless tops for women are acceptable, as long as you bring a light cotton shawl (or sarong) to cover your shoulders on visits to religious sites. Flat comfortable walking shoes are a must, as paths can be uneven and cobblestoned. Pack a light cardigan/sweater for journeys at high altitude and don’t forget a hat and sunscreen! When it comes to currency, note that USD notes are the all-time favourite currency BUT they must be new and show no signs wear and tear. Stack a few $1 bills in your purse for easy and appreciated tips.
5. Guatemala boasts 3 UNESCO heritage-listed sites
Modern day Guatemala was at the very core of the Maya empire, and it is here that you’ll find an array of amazing archaeological sites to visit. Moreover, the country also boasts an eclectic colonial history and incredible natural wonders. UNESCO managed to epitomize the best of Guatemala when it awarded the country its three top honours: for the stupendous colonial city of Antigua and the archaeological ruins at Quirigua and Tikal.
The last is found within the homonymous national park, part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a colossal two million hectare wilderness haven which boasts mind-boggling biodiversity. Tikal is one of a rare few UNESCO heritage-listed sights which combine splendid historical and natural treasures. Besides UNESCO-listed sights, however, you’ll also find a bevy of natural attractions in Guatemala, from pristine virgin forests to startling lakes, waterfalls, and vertiginous volcanoes, among a wealth of architectural and historical wonders.
6. Guatemala is a treasure trove of exotic wildlife
Wildlife-rich Guatemala is an animal lover’s mecca, with a profusion of creatures found in its forests, wetlands, highlands, rivers, coastlines and lakes. Big named attractions include tapirs, lemurs, several species of monkeys, jaguars (albeit elusive), macaws, crocodiles, toucans, foxes, coatimundi, iguanas and a nearly infinite array of birds. This is, in fact, one of the world’s top birding destinations. The most rewarding wildlife viewing destinations in the country are the Tikal National Park, and the volcanic (and spectacular) Lake Atitlan region.
Luckily, the government recognizes the importance of preserving not just the wilderness of Guatemala, but also its wildlife, and eco-tourism – particularly that aimed at wildlife lovers – is set to become a close contender to that of Costa Rica. There are many exceptional wildlife refuges in the most revered areas, and visits by tourists are not just offered but also encouraged.
7. Best souvenirs to buy in Guatemala
Souvenir shopping is one of the most fun things to do on vacation, and even those who proclaim to ‘detest shopping’ soon fall in love with Guatemala’s array of local arts and crafts. How could they not? Fun aside, souvenirs are always wonderful keepsakes to remind one of one’s exceptional journey in a very unique country. And when it comes to unique…Guatemala sparkles supreme.
Coffee and jade (of different colours) are arguably the most popular exported products, closely followed by colourful woven fabrics, which make for amazing cushion covers, table runners, scarves, and blankets. These are cheaper here than in neighbouring countries, so stock up even if Guatemala is your first stop on a multi-country journey. You’ll also find leather bags and purses made locally which showcase woven textile trims, and these are particularly gorgeous if you want just a hint of Guatemalanness (not sure if that’s a word, but it should be). Foodies ought to be on the lookout for spicy hot chocolate drink powder, or chocolate-anything, really. If you come from Australia, you’ll be happy to know that you can bring back chocolate from Guatemala, as long as it’s properly sealed and declared at customs. When it comes to jade, it really pays to know what you’re doing, as markets are often flooded with fake products. Spend more in a reputable jeweller and do your homework if you want to come home with a precious stone.
8. Best places for shopping in Guatemala
The Chichicastenango markets (or just Chichi to locals) just 2 hours’ drive from Guatemala City, is the kind of place that can make your head spin in absolute shopping delight. Hundreds of vendors from every corner of the country descend on the largest indigenous market in all of Central America, and the sheer quantity of goodies on offer is simply breathtaking. Literally everything that is made in the country is found here, and this is also one of the most affordable places for souvenir shopping.
If you ever need a reason to end your Central America tour in Guatemala City, this is definitely it. Visit early in the morning, bring a smile and a load of small USD bills, and you’ll be in retail heaven. Antigua is another very good shopping destination, with many quality jewellers and artisans opening workshops in the city. Boutiques in high-end hotels are also a fail-safe shopping option for good quality gear. If you don’t have time to visit authentic highland villages, know that Guatemala City has quite a few excellent shopping haunts of its own, such as In Nola, which carries an extensive array of premium fabrics and pottery at very reasonable prices. Yes you will pay more, but at least you won’t have to barter or doubt whether you’re buying true-blue products.
9. Follow your nose…and sniff out Guatemala’s gastronomic delights
Food, glorious food. Guatemala has lots of it to appease the taste of even the fussiest eater. Alongside traditional Maya ingredients, as well as boatloads of European and neighbouring influences, Guatemala’s cuisine has also been wonderfully infected with Caribbean and African fever. The resulting cultural mish-mush has spawned a wonderfully varied cuisine, where staples kike tortillas and black beans are ubiquitous, as are unique additions of cheese, enchiladas, pizza and deep fried chicken. If you love Mexican food, then you’ll be ecstatic to know that Guatemala serves up some of the most authentic Mexican food outside of home turf, at ridiculously cheap prices to boot.
Some of the more traditional Guatemalan dishes to try are kak’ik (a Mayan soup made with turkey, coriander and chilli), chiles rellenos (sweet peppers stuffed with rice, meat, cheese and herbs) and chicken pepian, the unofficial ‘national dish’ of the country, a mouth-watering dish of chicken and spicy pumpkin smothered in sesame sauce. Street food stalls serve up the most authentic dishes, although you’ll still find plenty of gorgeous restaurants (the kind with four walls and tablecloths) in all the major tourist areas.
10. Guatemala is a world-leader in coffee production
When you think of coffee, you may automatically think of only Colombia and Brazil, but in fact, Guatemala is the world’s second largest producer of the black liquid gold. The immensely fertile volcanic soil and the country’s mild climate combine to produce some of the highest-grade coffee in the world, so Guatemala is not just tops for coffee production, but also for best quality. The most famous coffee growing regions are the basin of Lake Atitlan and around Antigua, where the coffee is said to be so flavoursome it almost tastes like a natural mocha.
Ironically enough, however, had you travelled to Guatemala even just 5 years ago, you would have been served copious cups of super sweet, instant coffee. Almost a travesty, one would say. But as is the case with most developing countries, production doesn’t always equate with consumption. The best of the best is always set for export. Things are changing, however, and in Guatemala’s most popular cities, you’ll find some lovely coffee shops where pretty wicked baristas put their skills to work with the best local produce. Read this great Guatemala coffee guide to find out more details about the different regions where coffee is grown, and the qualities which define them.
Ready to discover what all the fuss is about? We have a collection of unforgettable adventures which will take you right to the heart of Guatemala’s most enticing destinations, and can tailor-make a tour to include all the best shopping, feasting, and sightseeing. Call us today and come visit one of the least known but most enticing countries in all of Latin America.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”