As the heartland of Central America, Guatemala offers travellers a remarkable range of impressive historical, natural and cultural sights. The Maya ruins are undoubtedly the highlight of these attractions, most notably Tikal, a designated archaeological UNESCO World Heritage Site which is so remarkable as to defy belief. Maya communities continue to thrive in the lush Guatemalan rainforests where their traditional cultural and religious practices have combined with colonial traditions and modern Latin and North American influences to form a fascinatingly rich hybrid culture. Sacred Pagan temples are located alongside extravagant colonial architecture and traditional markets co-exist alongside massive state-of-the art shopping complexes. Despite its small size, Guatemala is a surprisingly geographically diverse country. From the verdant jungle-clad lowland areas to the highlands dotted with towering mountains and an abundance of volcanoes, there is plenty to keep nature enthusiasts blissfully engaged. With its warm and welcoming locals, its ancient cultural heritage and its breathtaking natural attractions, Guatemala never ceases to amaze.
Banking and Currency
Quetzal (GTQ; symbol Q), named after the national bird of paradise. Notes are in denominations of Q200, 100, 50, 20, 10, 5 and 1. Coins are in denominations of Q1, and 50, 25, 10, 5 and 1 centavos. US dollars are widely used.Currency restriction:
The import and export of local currency is prohibited. The import and export of foreign currency is unlimited.
The Quetzal is extremely difficult to obtain outside Guatemala or exchange after leaving Guatemala, and visitors are strongly advised to exchange local currency before departure. It may be difficult to negotiate notes which are torn. Unused local currency can be exchanged at the bank at the airport.
Bank opening times vary, but generally banks are open from Monday-Friday 09h00-19h00; and on Saturday from 09h00-13h00.
American Express and Visa credit cards are accepted, whilst Diners Club and MasterCard have a more limited acceptance. ATMs are common throughout the country, although care should be taken as there are frequent scams and robberies. It is best to use ATMs inside banks and shopping centres.
Travellers cheques are generally accepted by most banks and good hotels, although visitors may experience occasional problems. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller's cheques in US Dollars.
Travel, Transport and Getting Around
Guatemala’s domestic flight network is fairly limited, the main route being Guatemala City to Flores. Avianca (www.avianca.com) and TACA Regional (www.taca.com) run daily flights. Except for high seasons such as Semana Santa it isn’t necessary to book these too far in advance. A travel tax of Q5 per person is applied to internal flights and payable at the check-in desks.
Travelling by car is a good way to access more remote areas but driving conditions are not for the faint-hearted. International and local car hire firms have offices in Guatemala City. Four-wheel drive vehicles are advised. Vehicles are drive o the right side of the road. Seat belts must be worn at all times. Speed limits vary depending on the condition of the road but they are rarely enforced. There is an extensive road network and the main highway network has had a major make-over and is now in good quality but many of the more rural roads can be poorly maintained. A national licence is valid for one to three months, but an International Driving Permit is recommended.
The majority of travel within Guatemala is by road and major highways connect the main cities. Most travel is by bus and the most popular are the colourful, ex-US school buses called camionetas, but known by visitors as chicken buses. They are cheap and efficient, but the driving conditions can be erratic, schedules somewhat flexible and conditions hot and cramped for longer journeys. Ex-Greyhound buses known as Pullmans operate longer journeys between main cities, and provide a better level of comfort. Private shuttle minibuses operate on the main tourist routes.
Taxis in Guatemala City are metered, and it is preferable to call one from a hotel. In other areas, be sure to negotiate the fare before setting off. Three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxis have become common, especially smaller towns.
Cycling is common and it is possible to rent mountain bikes in places such as Antigua, Panajachel and Quetzaltenango.
Regular boats operate between Puerto Barrios and Livingston. There are also frequent services along the Rio Dulce, as well as on the bigger lakes, in particular between villages on Lake Atitlán.
Food, Drink and Cuisine Advice
The tap water in Guatemala is not safe to drink and water used for drinking, brushing teeth or making ice should first be boiled or otherwise sterilised. Bottled water is recommended. Milk may be unpasteurised and should be boiled. Powdered or tinned milk is advised. Avoid dairy products which are likely to have been made from unboiled milk. Only eat well-cooked meat and fish. Vegetables should be cooked and fruit peeled.
Guatemala’s cuisine tends to have distinctive regional variations, and many of the dishes have descended from Mayan ancestry combined with Spanish and Mexican influences. Like its neighbours corn tortillas, beans and rice, served alongside meat and fish are staples in most dishes, although soups and stews also feature highly in the local diet. All dishes tend to include some meat, but fish and seafood are found in coastal regions and many dishes are spicy, usually made with fiery chillies. Guatemalan’s eat three meals a day, with lunch being the main meal.
There are restaurants and cafes serving a wide selection of cooking styles including American, Argentinian, Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese, Mexican and Spanish. There are many fast-food chains and continental-style cafes. Food usually varies in price rather than quality and some of the cheap eateries are amongst the best.
A 10% tip is normal in restaurants where service has not been included.
Climate and Weather
Guatemala’s weather is eternally comfortable: neither too hot nor too cold. Its seasons tend to be divided into the dry season and the wet season, although the temperature,which averages 22°C (72°F) across the country, varies more according to altitude than by season. November through to April is the dry season and in the mountainous central region (Guatemala City, Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Cobán and the highlands) it is an ideal climate for outdoor pursuits with average temperatures of 18°C (64°F). It also coincides with the festivals of Semana Santa, Day of the Dead, the Burning of the Devil and the Saint Thomas festival in Chichicastenango.
The rainy season runs from May to October which can hinder travel in more remote areas where roads are not well maintained, with Petén receiving the most amount of rainfall. In higher climes, near the centre of the country, the rainy season, running from May to September, is characterised by clear skies after abundant rainfall in the afternoons and evenings. This means that travel during this time can be extremely pleasant, with less crowds and cooler temperatures. Temperatures can fall sharply at night.
The coastal regions and the northeast are hot throughout the year with an average temperature of 20°C (68°F) sometimes rising to as much as 37°C (99°F), although the Pacific coast has more unpredictable weather and rain is possible year round.
The busiest time of the year for tourism is between December and May when the dry season and festivals mean that much of the accommodation can be booked long in advance (especially in Antigua during Semana Santa). This is also a popular time for language learning and many North Americans come to study in the schools in towns such as Antigua and Xela.
Clothing and Dress Recommendations
Lightweight clothing is recommended with a jacket or light woollens for the evening. A waterproof jacket during rainy season is advisable as are hiking boots for outdoor activities.
The internet is widely available and Wi-Fi is common in tourist areas. Internet cafes can be found in even the smallest towns. Connection speeds to vary but in the main cities is usually fast and reliable.
Electricity and Plug Standards
Electrical sockets (outlets) in Guatemala are very similar to the electrical outlets found in the United States and Canada, and if your appliance has a North American plug, it's possible that you won't need any adapter at all in order to plug in there. However, there are two potentially very important physical differences that may need to be addressed with an adapter: grounding and/or polarization. If your plug has one or both, and the socket doesn't, then the plug may not physically be able to fit into the socket without an adapter.
In the case of a North American appliance plug, grounding is accomplished by the third, round pin beneath and below the two vertical blades on the plug. Polarization is accomplished by the left vertical blade being taller than the right, so that the plug can't be inserted upside down. U.S. and Canadian sockets are required to be both grounded and polarized. But in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Japan and other areas which use U.S. style sockets, grounding and polarization often are not required, and in fact, the majority of sockets in many of these areas do not accept the taller blade and/or the third grounding pin. This will prevent a North American appliance plug from being able to plug into these sockets, if the plug is either grounded or polarized.
Electrical sockets (outlets) in Guatemala usually supply electricity at between 110 and 120 volts AC. If you're plugging in a U.S. or Canadian 120 volt appliance, or an appliance that is compatible with multiple voltages, then an adapter is all you need.If your appliance is not compatible with 220-240 electrical output, a voltage converter will be necessar