Moon Guatemala (Moon Handbooks) - Al Argueta (2015)
Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport.
Most international travelers to Guatemala arrive by plane. U.S. carriers have stepped up their presence in Guatemala in recent years and are expected to continue this trend, particularly in light of ever-increasing visitor arrivals and a growing population of Guatemalans living abroad.
As for airfares, the price of an average plane ticket from the United States to Guatemala varies widely depending on route and season, but ranges from about $350 to $850 round-trip. Still, deals can be had if you know where to look and are willing to give up comforts like advance seat selection and ticket changeability. Internet sites offer discounted tickets and air ticket consolidators are worth checking out; a particularly useful tool for comparison shopping is www.kayak.com.
Guatemala has an open-skies agreement with the United States, meaning that any carrier from either country can fly to any point in the other. Guatemala once had an official flag-carrier, Aviateca, but Colombian-owned Avianca has since absorbed it. Avianca operates the majority of flights into and out of Guatemala, flying nonstop from a handful of gateway cities in the United States as well as via its hubs in San Salvador and Bogotá. The U.S. carriers also have a strong presence here. Several Latin American carriers, some of them noteworthy, operate here as well. The only European airline serving Guatemala at this time is Iberia, the Spanish flag-carrier.
Most international travelers flying to Guatemala arrive via Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport (GUA). La Aurora could not be more conveniently located for Guatemala City residents, lying in the heart of the city just minutes from the business and hotel district. A recent renovation and expansion brought the once-obsolete La Aurora into the 21st century. The spacious glass-and-steel north and central terminals are vast improvements over La Aurora’s former facilities and feature a number of good restaurants and duty-free shops. There’s even a club lounge for United and Copa Airlines (Star Alliance) passengers. The flight departure check-in lobby, with a high, angular ceiling is actually part of the original construction dating back to the 1960s. It was given an updated look and restored to full functionality.
It can be a bit chaotic when exiting La Aurora, as families of arriving Guatemalans tend to load up cars (and sometimes entire buses) to welcome a returning loved one. The same is true for departing family members. Making your way out of the terminal (before merging with the crowds outside), you’ll see an INGUAT tourist information kiosk. The English-speaking agents can provide maps and answer basic questions about ground transportation. Taxis and shuttle buses also operate out of kiosks found in the arrival area. A taxi to Zona 10 or Zona 14 costs about $9; trips to Carretera a El Salvador or elsewhere beyond the city limits cost more. Most of the Zona 10 hotels have courtesy shuttles to and from the airport. A shuttle bus to Antigua costs between $12 and $15. Likewise, car rentals can be booked from kiosks inside the airport terminal, located just after clearing customs.
Flores/Tikal, officially known as Mundo Maya International Airport (FRS), serves the northern department of Petén and the ruins of Tikal. It now has air-conditioning and is a much-improved facility. Flights arrive several times daily from Guatemala City, Cancún, and Belize City. The flight to Flores from the Guatemalan capital takes about 50 minutes. Most travelers arriving here head straight for the ruins of Tikal, about an hour away via numerous minivans, or to the city of Flores, just five minutes away by taxi. A colectivo van to Tikal costs about $4. A taxi to Flores costs about $3. Arrival procedures are fairly straightforward thanks to the airport’s smaller size.
FLIGHTS TO GUATEMALA CITY
The majority of nonstop flights come from a handful of North American hubs including Atlanta, Washington DC, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York (JFK), and New York/Newark. San Salvador and Panama City are becoming increasingly important as connecting points for flights from South America on Avianca and Copa Airlines, respectively. Madrid holds the distinction of being the sole European city with direct service to Guatemala City via a nonstop flight four times per week on Spanish flag-carrier Iberia.
Among U.S. carriers, American Airlines (tel. 800/433-7300 U.S., www.aa.com) flies nonstop three or four times daily to Guatemala City from Miami (depending on season) and daily nonstop from Dallas/Ft. Worth. It code shares with British Airways on flights from the U.K. and has excellent European connections of its own.
United Airlines (tel. 800/231-0856 U.S., www.united.com) has between two and four nonstops daily to Guatemala City from Houston Intercontinental (IAH), a nonstop flight from New York/Newark (EWR) operating anywhere from one to six times weekly, and twice-weekly nonstop service from Washington DC (IAD). First-class passengers and United Club members enjoy access to the Copa Club lounge, located next to gate 14.
Delta Air Lines (tel. 800/221-1212 U.S., www.delta.com) flies nonstop up to three times daily from Atlanta, twelve flights weekly from Los Angeles, and Saturday-only from New York’s JFK to Guatemala City. Discount carrier Spirit Airlines (tel. 800/772-7117 U.S., www.spiritair.com) flies daily nonstop to Guatemala City from Fort Lauderdale.
As this book went to press, Southwest Airlines (www.southwest.com) was set to begin service to neighboring Belize and Costa Rica from Houston’s Hobby Airport (HOU), aided by the construction of a new $156 million international terminal for flights to Mexico and Central America. Service to Guatemala seems likely as part of the airline’s regional expansion and may be a reality by the time you read this.
Among foreign carriers, Copa Airlines (tel. 800/359-2672 U.S., www.copaair.com), the Panamanian flag-carrier, flies nonstop four times daily to Guatemala City from its hub in Panama City, with excellent connections to/from South America, the Caribbean, and Europe. The latter feed into KLM’s daily Amsterdam-Panama City service and operate as a codeshare. There are additional flights between Guatemala and Panama stopping in Managua and San José. The airline operates a Copa Club lounge in conjunction with United at La Aurora airport and at Panama City’s Tocumen airport.
The only nonstop service to Guatemala from Europe is on Iberia (www.iberia.com) four times per week (Mon., Tues., Thurs., Sat.) from its hub in Madrid with excellent connections to the rest of the continent. The return flight to Madrid stops in San Salvador, as nonstop flights to Europe from Guatemala City’s short, high-altitude runway are a logistical impossibility.
Mexican flag carrier Mexicana went the way of the dodo bird in 2010, but competing carriers AeroMexico and Interjet have stepped in to fill the void in the Mexico City-Guatemala City market. AeroMexico (tel. 2278-9488, www.aeromexico.com) flies the route three times daily. Interjet (www.interjet.com) operates 11 weekly flights between Mexico City and Guatemala City.
Discount Mexican carrier Volaris (www.volaris.com) began twice-weekly service to Guatemala City from both Guadalajara and Cancún in June 2015. It has a decent route network for onward connections to the U.S. West Coast and Europe.
Avianca (tel. 800/400-8222 U.S., www.avianca.com) flies nonstop to Guatemala City from Miami and Los Angeles. Other nonstops include flights from Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. There are numerous daily flights from Guatemala City to Avianca’s hub in San Salvador as well as to San José, Costa Rica, with onward connections to/from South America. A new daily flight to Avianca’s hub in Bogotá provides additional South American connecting flight opportunities.
In January 2014, Salvadoran discount carrier VECA Airlines (www.vecaairlines.com/en/sv) began offering flights between Guatemala City and San Salvador for about $100 each way. Plans call for service to Panama and Costa Rica via its hub in San Salvador (SAL).
FLIGHTS TO FLORES/TIKAL
Flights to Flores/Tikal arrive from Guatemala City and Belize City. Avianca (tel. 800/400-8222 U.S., www.avianca.com) operates two daily flights between Guatemala City and Flores using 68-passenger ATR-72 aircraft. TAG (800/528-8216 toll-free U.S. or 2332-1897 Guatemala) also has two daily flights to Flores from Guatemala City. The flights are operated with a 15-seat turboprop.
Tropic Air (tel. 800/422-3435, www.tropicair.com), a Belizean airline, flies to Flores/Tikal from Belize City daily.
Cruise ships dock at Puerto Quetzal, on the Pacific Coast, and Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla, on the Caribbean side. Cruise lines offer a variety of activities for those wishing to disembark and explore Guatemalan shores, including visits to local resorts and beaches near Santo Tomás and inland trips to Antigua, Tikal, and Lake Atitlán or deep-sea fishing in the Pacific waters. For those wishing not to travel inland, there is not much to see and do in the immediate vicinity of either port of call, although the pier is usually packed with vendors selling everything from bags of Guatemalan coffee to colorful textiles and clothing. A land-based activity close to a port of call worth mentioning is hiking in the Cerro San Gil forest preserve near Santo Tomás de Castilla.
Ferry and water-taxi services connect the Guatemalan town of Lívingston with Punta Gorda, Belize (1.5 hours, $25), and Omoa, Honduras (1.25 hours, $16), both offered by Exotic Travel on Tuesdays and Fridays. A $10 departure tax applies when leaving Guatemala by sea.
If traveling to Guatemala on your own boat, you will most likely arrive on the Caribbean side and will need to check in with immigration officials in Lívingston before sailing up the Río Dulce, the most popular route with boaters.
The most popular route into Guatemala by river is via the Usumacinta River, which divides Mexico and Guatemala. Boats travel from the Mexican town of Frontera Corozal to La Técnica and Bethel, in Guatemala’s northern Petén department. This is the route of choice for travelers wanting to combine visits to the Mexican sites of Palenque and Yaxchilán with trips to the various Petén ruins. Yaxchilán lies on the Mexican bank of the Usumacinta and is highly recommended. Buses from Palenque to the Mexican border are available via Transportes Montebello and Autotransportes Rio Chancala. Buses leave for the Petén departmental capital of Flores at 4am and 11am ($4, five hours). Buses leave Bethel for Flores at 5am, noon, 2pm, and 4pm, cost $4, and take four hours to make the trip. Package trips encompassing bus and boat transportation are available from various travel agencies in Palenque and Flores for travel in either direction for about $35.
Many travelers enter Guatemala by bus, as part of larger explorations encompassing neighboring countries. If traveling by car or bus, try to make the border crossing as early in the day as possible, as there are few serviceable hotels and restaurants in border towns and they are notorious for their seedy atmosphere. Onward bus service tends to wind down further into the day, so try to get a move on while you can.
DRIVING FROM THE UNITED STATES
Many folks make the overland trip to Guatemala. The country’s location in the northernmost reaches of Central America keeps border crossings to a minimum. The advent of the Internet has made it easy to find information for planning your road trip.
Most people cross into Mexico from the United States via Brownsville and then take the route through Mexico along the Pacific Coast. You can also travel via Mexico City or along the Atlantic side, but the Mexican capital’s traffic and the inferior roads on the Atlantic side make the route less desirable. You’ll need a tourist visa ($25) or a transmigrante visa to travel through Mexico, but many experienced road-trippers discourage getting the transmigrante visa, deeming it unnecessary and more difficult to process. For Mexican vehicle insurance, some travelers have recommended Sanborn’s Insurance (www.sanbornsinsurance.com). More detailed information for planning the drive to Guatemala is available in the Gringo’s Guide to Driving Through Mexico and Central America (www.drivemeloco.com).
The main border crossings on the Pacific flatlands are Ciudad Hidalgo/Tecún Umán and Talismán/El Carmen, near Tapachula, Mexico. On the Pan-American Highway, the border crossing is at Ciudad Cuauhtémoc/La Mesilla between Comitán, Mexico, and Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Many travelers recommend this last route as the best entry point into Guatemala from Mexico when traveling in your own vehicle. All of these border towns have frequent bus service to nearby cities within both countries.
The Belize border crossing into Guatemala is at Benque Viejo del Carmen/Melchor de Mencos. There is twice-daily bus service from Belize City to Flores via Linea Dorada (www.lineadorada.com.gt). The trip lasts 4-5 hours and costs $15. San Juan Travel (tel. 7926-0041 or 5461-6010) also has a daily bus covering the route.
The main border crossings are at El Florido (between Copán Ruinas, Honduras, and Chiquimula, Guatemala), Agua Caliente (between Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras, and Esquipulas, Guatemala), and Corinto (between Omoa, Honduras, and Puerto Barrios, Guatemala). There are shuttle minibuses running between Copán, Guatemala City, and Antigua, as well as first-class bus service to Guatemala City from the main Honduran cities. Hedman Alas (www.hedmanalas.com) has daily service to Guatemala City via the El Florido border from Copán, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, and La Ceiba.
FROM EL SALVADOR
El Salvador’s numerous borders with Guatemala are at Las Chinamas/Valle Nuevo (Highway CA-8), La Hachadura/Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado on Pacific Coast Highway (CA-2), San Cristóbal/San Cristóbal on the Pan-American Highway (CA-1), and Anguiatu/Anguiatu (Highway CA-10). Several bus lines operate service between Guatemala City and San Salvador, mostly via Las Chinamas, including Pullmantur (www.pullmantur.com).
TO AND FROM POINTS SOUTH
Tica Bus (www.ticabus.com) connects Guatemala City to San Salvador, Managua, San José, and Panama City, taking several days to make the trip and stopping in the listed capitals along the way. A one-way ticket from Guatemala City to San José, Costa Rica, costs about $50.
The only scheduled domestic service within Guatemala is between Guatemala City and Flores, although ongoing improvements to local infrastructure at many smaller airports may mean a small network of local flights may soon be up and running. Some of the flights to and from Flores operate using smaller aircraft, though the largest bird on this route nowadays is the 50-seat ATR-72. Airfares for this domestic service have are surprisingly expensive, particularly when taking into account the short distance involved in flying within Guatemala.
All of the domestic carriers flying out of Guatemala City operate from their private hangars, located on the east side of the runway, opposite the main terminal building. The only airline operating its domestic service from the main terminal at La Aurora airport is Avianca.
New domestic airports with passenger terminals are either complete or nearing completion in Quetzaltenango and Puerto San José. Plans call for terminals at the Pacific Coast leisure destination of Retalhuleu and the existing paved runway at Puerto Barrios. Cobán has a functional airstrip, though there is no scheduled service. Flights from Guatemala City to the above destinations may become a reality once the terminals are complete and investors make inroads into a market with certain potential. During the late 1990s, TACA (now Avianca) subsidiary Inter operated domestic air service between Guatemala City and Cobán, Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, and Puerto Barrios.
Smaller planes cover the route between Flores and Guatemala City.
BUSES AND SHUTTLE BUSES
Most travelers get around Guatemala by bus or shuttle bus. The majority of inter- and intracity buses are “chicken buses,” as travelers have dubbed them, recycled U.S. school buses painted in lively colors. Cargo and carry-on baggage often consists of live animals, hence the name. Please be aware that robberies, including pickpocketing and armed hijacking, are increasingly common on these inexpensive public buses serving the interior. Chicken buses are also poorly maintained and frequently involved in traffic accidents in which the bus plunges into a ravine or makes a blind pass into a head-on collision. For the intrepid, the chicken bus is still an easy way to see Guatemala and get to virtually any part of the country cheaply.
Tourist shuttle buses plying the main tourist routes, though more expensive, have become increasingly popular for safety reasons and are highly recommended. Additionally, shuttle buses sometimes offer door-to-door service. Recommended shuttle buses are Atitrans, Turansa, and Grayline Tours.
Also reliable are first-class buses that run between Guatemala City and major cities such as Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, Puerto Barrios, Cobán, and Flores. Prices are comparable to shuttle buses, but service is aboard large luxury coaches, often with restrooms and onboard food service.
PICKUPS AND MINIVANS
Another common form of getting around, particularly in remote rural areas with infrequent bus service is via (roughly) scheduled service aboard pickup trucks. Minivans have also replaced cumbersome chicken buses in many rural areas with poor roads.
“Chicken buses” go all over Guatemala.
Rental cars are plentiful in Guatemala and can be rented in Guatemala City, Panajachel, Antigua, Quetzaltenango, Cobán, and Flores. Some local agencies are also available. There’s nothing like the freedom of having your own wheels when exploring new surroundings. Renting a car allows you to go wherever Guatemala’s roads will take you. With that in mind, it’s probably best to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The only exception is if you plan to stick to urban areas such as Guatemala City and Antigua or along the Pan-American Highway. A compact car will run you about $300 a week, while a four-wheel-drive vehicle can cost as much as $400-600 a week. You might find better deals online. It sometimes pays to reserve something through an online booking service and then call around locally to get the best rates and comparison shop. Most cars in Guatemala are stick shift, with automatic transmission often costing a bit more.
The following U.S. car-rental agencies are represented in Guatemala and have kiosks at Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport:
✵ Alamo (tel. 5219-7469 Guatemala City or 800/462-5266 toll-free U.S., www.alamo.com)
✵ Avis (tel. 2331-0017 Guatemala City or 800/331-1212 toll-free U.S., www.avis.com)
✵ Budget (tel. 2332-7744 Guatemala City or 800/472-3325 toll-free U.S., www.budget.com or www.budgetguatemala.com.gt)
✵ Dollar (tel. 2331-7185 Guatemala City or 800/800-4000 toll-free U.S., www.dollar.com)
✵ Hertz (tel. 2470-3800 Guatemala City or 800/654-3001 toll-free U.S., www.hertz.com)
✵ Thrifty (tel. 2379-8747 Guatemala City or 800/847-4389 toll-free U.S., www.thrifty.com)
If your credit card company doesn’t offer adequate insurance coverage, make sure to purchase additional insurance. Coverage provided by credit cards such as Visa and American Express usually doesn’t apply if you go “off-road,” which you likely will. Coverage varies from one company to the next, but usually excludes personal liability (damage to property or other vehicles) and theft. If you stick to the basic coverage offered by the car rental agency, your credit card will have to cover outrageous deductibles, often in the vicinity of $750-1,500. Purchasing full coverage from the rental agency can run $25 a day and really adds to the final bill, but some find it a small price to pay for peace of mind.
Before leaving the car rental lot, make sure to check the car over, paying attention to every minute detail. Rental agents will go over the car with you and document any scratches, dings, and dents. They’ll inspect it again when you return the vehicle. Any new damage (or previously undocumented damage) might cost you dearly.
Never leave a vehicle parked on the street overnight and never leave personal belongings inside an unattended vehicle.
Taxicabs are available in almost any town or city. In smaller towns, the best way to find a taxi is in the central square, or parque central. In Guatemala City, taxis are available at the Zona 10 hotels, shopping malls, or (as a last resort) can be hailed from street corners. It’s always best to call a cab, as certain city zones get more taxi traffic and not all companies are reliable. Highly recommended is Taxis Amarillo Express (tel. 1766); you must call for a cab and will need an exact address for pickup. They are one of the only companies to use taxi meters. As a final word of caution, the U.S. Embassy discourages travelers from hailing cabs off the street in Guatemala City.
In smaller towns and villages, you’ll also find the Asian-style tuk-tuks, or motorized rickshaws powered by a motorcycle engine. These offer a lower-cost alternative to standard taxicabs and are great if you’re traveling without luggage over short distances.
If you need to get around for days at a time, it might be worth renting a taxi by the day or week. This is particularly the case in Guatemala City, where there are many neighborhoods tucked into the varied terrain and certainly some places you’ll wish to avoid. Many taxi drivers are willing to negotiate a daily or hourly rate, somewhere in the vicinity of $10 an hour or $75 a day. You can often get a really good deal if you negotiate for multiple days. Most Guatemalan taxi drivers are friendly and helpful, making great sources of conversation to gauge opinions on issues of daily life for the average Guatemalan. It seems almost everyone has a friend or a friend of a friend who is a taxi driver, and they may be able to recommend someone to you.
Though hitchhiking in its traditional form is not widely practiced in Guatemala, a local adaptation exists in remote rural areas where there is limited or nonexistent bus service. People with pickup trucks will often give you a ride in the back of their trucks. The fee is usually nominal, if anything at all.
In some areas, getting around by boat is the most practical option. This is particularly the case on the shores of Lake Atitlán, where regular ferry service and small motorboats make their way across the lake from Panajachel to the outlying villages. Boat service is also a major form of transportation in coastal areas, particularly in Izabal department along the Río Dulce, on Lake Izabal, and in coastal areas such as Lívingston and Puerto Barrios. On the Pacific side, motorboats traverse the Canal de Chiquimulilla, which separates the Pacific seaboard from the Guatemalan mainland along much of the coast.
Roads in Guatemala are surprisingly good in some places, particularly on well-trodden paths like the Pan-American Highway. They are much better, overall, than the roads in neighboring Belize and Costa Rica. Roads in and around tourist areas are generally well marked, some courtesy of the Guatemala state tourism agency, INGUAT (Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo). If while driving, you come across a large tree branch in the middle of the road, be prepared to stop. This is Guatemalans’ way of officially signaling that danger lies ahead, usually in the form of a car stopped near the side of the road. Whether it be by bus or by car, do not travel on rural highways in Guatemala after dark.
Guatemala’s roads can be extremely scenic.
Guatemala has several main highways. The Pan-American Highway (CA-1), also known as the Interamericana, runs from the Mexican border at La Mesilla through much of the Western Highlands, to Guatemala City and east to El Salvador at the San Cristóbal border. This is the road taken (at least for much of the journey) from Guatemala City to many of the main travel destinations, including La Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Quetzaltenango, and Huehuetenango. CA-1 has been expanded to four lanes from Guatemala City all the way to the Cuatro Caminos junction near Quetzaltenango.
The Pacific Coast Highway (CA-2) crosses the Pacific slope from the Mexican border at Tecún Umán all the way to Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado and El Salvador. A new, wider Pacific highway is in the planning stages.
Highway CA-9 runs from the Pacific Coast to Guatemala City, encompassing the country’s only toll road: a good, fast autopista, or freeway. From Guatemala City, the highway heads east to Puerto Barrios and is being widened to four lanes from the capital to El Rancho Junction. CA-14 branches north from El Rancho into the departments of Baja and Alta Verapaz.
Continuing east along CA-9, the next junction is at Río Hondo, where CA-10 branches southeast to Zacapa and Chiquimula before linking up to eastbound CA-11 for Copán, Honduras. Back on the main branch of CA-9, CA-13 is the designation given to the road branching off at La Ruidosa Junction, just before Puerto Barrios, heading north to Río Dulce and continuing to Petén. It arrives in Flores and then branches eastward to the Belize border at Melchor de Mencos.
A road crossing the country from Izabal department west all the way to Huehuetenango, called the Franja Transversal del Norte, was under construction at the time of researching. Also in the works is an Anillo Departamental allowing traffic between CA-1 and eastbound Highway CA-9 to bypass traffic-congested Guatemala City altogether.
There is a relative absence of package tours from the United States to Guatemala, particularly as compared to Belize and Costa Rica. Still, there are a few good companies to recommend for travelers who want to visit Guatemala on a package tour or need the services of an established tour operator. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but the following come highly recommended for the quality of service and established experience.
Based in Austin, Texas, API-Cultural Embrace (tel. 512/469-9089, www.culturalembracebyapi.com) offers volunteer and group travel opportunities to Guatemala with a focus on the Antigua area. Among the projects on offer are work with local orphanages, wildlife conservation, construction and renovation, environmental, wildlife conservation, medical and health, and community development. Included in service trips are 6-10 hours per week of language instruction and visits to area attractions such as Pacaya Volcano.
Bird-watchers will want to contact German-owned Cayaya Birding (tel. 5308-5160, www.cayaya-birding.com) for information on Guatemala’s birding hot spots and to arrange trip details, including full itineraries. Knut Eisermann, an ornithologist living in Guatemala since 1997, runs the company.
Highly recommended is Clark Tours (tel. 800/707-5275 U.S., www.saca.com/guat/intro.html), represented in the United States by Massachusetts-based SACA Tours. The company, established by an American living in Guatemala, has been around for 80 years. You will probably come across the company’s large, luxurious tour buses more than once during your travels in Guatemala. Clark Tours has a variety of established itineraries and can also tailor custom itineraries to suit the needs of the most discriminating travelers. Clark Tours is also the local representative for American Express Travel Services and has offices in many Guatemala City luxury hotels, including the Barceló, Westin Camino Real, and Holiday Inn.
Based in Guatemala, Do Guatemala (14 Avenida A 3-06 Zona 1, 3rd floor, Quetzaltenango, tel. 4699-3614 or 7761-1369, www.do-guatemala.com) offers volunteer and language study programs in Antigua and Quetzaltenango. Programs focus on education, children, the elderly, medical projects, environment, and construction. There are set group travel dates (usually during the busy summer high season) with an extensive 13-day itinerary that covers most of Guatemala’s highlights.
GEORGE’S TRAVEL CLUB OF GUATEMALA
George’s Travel Club of Guatemala (tel. 202/436-9983 U.S., 502/5175-9974 Guatemala, www.georges-travelclub.com) is an Antigua-based travel company owned by a U.S. expat. Well-thought-out travel itineraries include luxurious accommodations, four-wheel-drive road trips, sea fishing, kayaking, volcano climbs, and exploring Mayan ruins.
Rated one of the top eco-outfitters in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, Maya Expeditions (13 Avenida 14-70, Zona 10, tel. 2366-9950, www.mayaexpeditions.com) is a Guatemala-based adventure-travel outfitter that comes highly recommended for its adventurous itineraries, particularly white-water rafting. Company founder Tammy Ridenour, a Colorado native, started the company in 1987 and is credited with pioneering ecotourism in Guatemala. Among the company’s various offerings, which also include archaeological and cultural tourism, is a trip retracing the steps of the wildly popular Survivor Guatemala television series.
NO LIMIT EXPEDITIONS
Based in La Antigua Guatemala, No Limit Expeditions (tel. 720/295-4880, www.nolimitx.com) runs recommended adventure four-wheel-drive expeditions to far-flung locales deep in the rainforests of northern Guatemala and Belize aboard Land Rovers. Accommodations include comfortable jungle camps and luxury ecolodges. The “Ruins and Rainforests” expedition includes some of the greatest Mayan cities (Tikal, Uaxactún, Caracol, Yaxhá) and seldom-visited locales such as the murals at San Bartolo. They also run expeditions to El Mirador and the Mayan Highlands.
Visas and Officialdom
Citizens of the United States traveling to Guatemala will need a U.S. passport valid for at least six months beyond their intended length of stay and ticket documents for onward or return travel. Stays of up to 90 days are permitted without a visa. The United States now requires passports as the sole travel document for all travelers returning to the United States by air.
Requirements for other countries, including Australia, Canada, the European Union, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland, include a passport valid for at least three months beyond the intended length of stay and ticket documents for onward or return travel. Entry is limited to 30 days. Extensions are allowed by going through the local Migración (Immigration) office.
Foreigners are required to carry their passport (or a clear photocopy) with them at all times. If you are driving a rental car and happen to be stopped, the police officer will ask for your passport in addition to your driver’s license.
In June 2006, Guatemala entered into an agreement with El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua known as the CA-4 Border Control Agreement. Under its terms, citizens of these four countries may travel freely across each other’s land borders without completing entry and exit formalities at Immigration checkpoints. United States citizens and other eligible foreign nationals who legally enter any of the four member countries may also travel within the CA-4 without obtaining additional visas or tourist entry permits for the other three countries. Immigration officials at the first port of entry determine the length of stay, up to a maximum of 90 days. Foreign tourists who wish to remain in the four-country region beyond the length of stay initially granted for their visit will need to request a one-time extension from local Immigration authorities or travel to a country outside the CA-4 region and then reenter.
For visa extensions, head to the Departamento de Extranjería (7a Avenida 1-17 Zona 4, INGUAT Building, Guatemala City, tel. 2361-8476, 8am-2pm Mon.-Fri.). You’ll need to show evidence of financial solvency as well as an onward ticket.
Foreign travelers to Guatemala may import the following items duty-free: personal effects, including clothing, jewelry, medicine, photography and video equipment, sports equipment, a personal computer, a wheelchair if the traveler has disabilities, 500 grams of tobacco, and three liters of alcoholic beverages. INGUAT can provide assistance to professional photographers and videographers needing to bring in large amounts of equipment.
PARKS AND PROTECTED AREAS
Guatemala has more than 90 protected areas encompassing about 28 percent of the country’s total land area. Among the different types of protected areas are biosphere reserves, national parks, biotopes, natural monuments, wildlife refuges, and private nature reserves. Several of these are encompassed within larger areas, as is the case with the national parks and biotopes making up the larger Maya Biosphere Reserve. Most of Guatemala’s protected areas, including the biosphere reserves, have been created since 1990. All of Guatemala’s volcanoes are protected areas. There are also laws in effect to protect endangered wildlife species; among these are Guatemala’s big cats and parrots.
The National Protected Areas Council (CONAP) is the entity charged with administering Guatemala’s protected areas. It was created in 1990, along with the National Environmental Commission (CONAMA), which oversees broader environmental matters and was replaced in 2000 by the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN). CONAP has been historically underfunded and understaffed, leaving few resources with which to protect vast areas of land from invasion. Private conservation groups have stepped in to assist CONAP in its mandate, and there are now several parks coadministered or primarily administered by private organizations. A specially trained police force began operating in Guatemala’s protected areas in 2005, particularly in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, aided by M-16s and AK-47s to combat well-armed timber and wildlife poachers. All the parks have at least rudimentary ranger stations. In an ongoing effort to attract more park visitation, many have excellent facilities for guest accommodations and well-marked trails.
Privately managed by conservation group Defensores de la Naturaleza, Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve is a vast, 236,000-hectare mountain park encompassing a diverse variety of ecosystems, including cloud forests harboring several species of endemic conifers, as well as tropical moist and rainforests. The peaks of Sierra de las Minas surpass 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) in elevation and are home to healthy populations of quetzals and jaguars, among other exotic animals. Sixty-two permanent streams have their source in the upper slopes of the biosphere reserve, making it an important watershed supplying the Motagua and Polochic Rivers. Together with the adjacent Bocas del Polochic Wildlife Refuge, the parks account for 80 percent of Guatemala’s biodiversity.
The 1.6-million-hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve is composed of Tikal National Park, Laguna del Tigre National Park, Mirador-Dos Lagunas-Rio Azul National Park, Sierra del Lacandón National Park, Biotopo El Zotz-San Miguel La Palotada, Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo Natural Monument, and multiple-use and buffer zones. This large swath of land encompasses roughly a third of the Petén department and is Guatemala’s last hope for preserving a sizable part of the Petén forests. Contiguous with large parks in neighboring Mexico and Belize, it is part of the largest protected tropical forest in Mesoamerica. The various parks are protected, on paper at least, from all human activity, though a sizable multiple-use zone exists in large areas of the park, permitting sustainable extraction of forest products such as xate palm and chicle, oil drilling (present before the park’s creation), and community forestry concessions. Standing between the core zones and the deforestation characterizing much of the rest of Petén is an ever-shrinking buffer zone increasingly porous to the advance of the agricultural frontier. The individual parks making up the biosphere reserve are covered here in their respective sections.
Guatemala’s impressive Maya Biosphere Reserve
Safety in the Maya Biosphere Reserve
Potential travelers to Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve are urged to contact one of the conservation groups managing the individual parks before planning a visit, so as to ascertain current safety conditions. As conservationists and archaeologists working in the field can attest, there are too many illegal activities perpetrated by heavily armed men, and far too many stories of run-ins with them, to be out running around in these parts oblivious to the potential dangers. That said, some well-established parks such as Tikal and Yaxhá can be considered generally safe, along with some well-established ecotourism circuits in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including the Scarlet Macaw Trail, trips to El Zotz-San Miguel La Palotada, and treks to El Mirador.
Tikal National Park, the oldest and best known of Guatemala’s national parks, was created in 1956 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It encompasses 357 square kilometers of primary tropical forest and protects a vast array of wildlife, as well as harboring the remains of one of the Mayan civilization’s greatest cities. Tikal is understandably high on the list of priorities for any visitor to Guatemala and shouldn’t be missed.
Laguna del Tigre National Park is a vast park on the northwestern corner of Petén encompassing important wetlands, the largest in Central America. It also contains the only remaining populations of scarlet macaws in Guatemala, which are being protected via ongoing conservation efforts at a biological research station. Oil drilling, present before the park’s creation, continues inside the reserve, despite protests from environmental groups and its having been declared a violation of the park’s intended use. Also going on inside the park are the clandestine activities of loggers, wildlife poachers, drug traffickers, and smugglers of illegal immigrants across the border to Mexico. Archaeologists working in these parts enter under the escort of heavily armed guards. Visitors to this park should limit their activities to those centered around the Scarlet Macaw Biological Research Station, as the current lawless conditions prevent my recommending more in-depth explorations of this wild frontier.
Sierra del Lacandón National Park is a densely forested, rugged mountain park said to harbor one of the largest populations of jaguars in all of Central America as well as an incredible degree of biodiversity. Hidden in the forests are the remains of several Mayan sites, the most important of which is Piedras Negras, deep inside the park along the Usumacinta River, which marks the western border with Mexico. The park is privately administered by Fundación Defensores de la Naturaleza. In June 2006, together with The Nature Conservancy, it completed the purchase of 31,000 hectares (77,000 acres) of privately owned land in the core zone of Sierra del Lacandón. There are a number of ranger stations inside the park, the most prominent of which is at Piedras Negras.
A large park in the northern section of the Maya Biosphere Reserve near the Mexican border, Mirador-Dos Lagunas-Río Azul National Park protects vast expanses of tropical forests and the remains of several Mayan cities. Among the most impressive ruins are those at El Mirador, including El Tigre temple, which is 18 stories high with a base the size of three football fields. Other sites inside the park include Río Azul and Nakbé, visible from the top of El Mirador’s massive temples. Access to the park is by foot, a full day’s walk from the village of Carmelita, or helicopter.
Laguna Lachuá National Park consists of a circular lagoon in the Ixcán jungle west of Cobán surrounded by 14,500 hectares of tropical forest and several miles of hiking trails. The karst limestone nature of this placid pool makes it a very attractive turquoise. A high concentration of mahogany trees in the surrounding forests has made it vulnerable to clandestine logging.
One of Guatemala’s oldest protected areas encompassing the watershed of its namesake river connecting Lake Izabal with the Caribbean Sea, Río Dulce National Park covers 7,200 hectares along its 30-kilometer-long course. In many places, the banks of the river are shrouded in dense tropical forest punctuated at one point by a large canyon with high rock faces.
Television reality-show aficionados might recall Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo Natural Monument as the setting for Survivor Guatemala, filmed here during the summer of 2005. The park encompasses the ruins of three Mayan cities set amid dense tropical forest adjacent to Tikal National Park. Also in the park is Yaxhá Lagoon, with its healthy numbers of crocodiles.
The site of Semuc Champey Natural Monument is high in the Alta Verapaz mountains, where the Río Cahabón flows into a giant cave before reemerging a few hundred feet downstream. Atop the churning turmoil is a natural bridge holding a splendid series of turquoise limestone pools surrounded by tropical forest. It is probably Guatemala’s finest swimming hole.
Guatemala’s biotopes are administered by CECON (Avenida La Reforma 0-63 Zona 10, Guatemala City, tel. 2361-5450 or 2331-0904), the Center for Conservation Studies of Guatemala’s San Carlos University (USAC). The biotopes are the brainchild of former USAC Dean Mario Dary Rivera, who was murdered when the establishment of the Quetzal Biotope in Alta Verapaz conflicted with local lumber interests. The biotopes were created with the protection and study of a particular animal species in mind. Biotopes protect sea turtles on the Pacific Coast, manatees in the Izabal region, and bats in the Petén forests, among others.
Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera, also known as the Biotopo del Quetzal (Quetzal Biotope), is a cloud forest preserve conveniently situated along the road to Cobán near the village of Purulhá, in Baja Verapaz department. It covers 1,022 hectares with ranges in elevation up to 2,300 meters (7,500 feet). In the early morning, it is easily one of the best places to see Guatemala’s national bird, the resplendent quetzal. The cloud forest vegetation consists largely of conifers, broadleaf trees, orchids, mosses, ferns, and bromeliads. There is an excellent network of nature trails, some of which lead to waterfalls and excellent views of the surrounding areas. Other amenities include information and visitor centers, a store, a cafeteria, showers, and cooking facilities. A variety of accommodations are found nearby.
On Guatemala’s Pacific Coast, Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii was designated for the protection of Guatemala’s endangered sea turtles, which come to lay their eggs on its black-sand beaches. Between May and September, local residents are actively involved in collecting eggs for hatching at a local nursery in exchange for being allowed to keep part of the booty. After incubation, the hatchlings are released with the help of tourists, who jump at the opportunity to hold one of the tiny hatchlings in hand before sending them on their journey across the sand and into the sea. Monterrico is a popular beach with Guatemalans and foreigners alike. Nearby Hawaii is substantially quieter. The park also protects important mangrove forests and marshes in addition to several species of plants and animals. There is also an iguana-breeding program at the site.
Biotopo Chocón Machacas, within Río Dulce National Park, encompasses 7,600 hectares and was created with the protection of the manatee in mind, though studies suggest very few of these creatures remain anywhere in Guatemala. The park is in an area known as El Golfete and features old-growth forests, flooded forests, mangrove swamps, canals, and lagoons. In addition to manatees, the park also harbors important populations of crocodiles, otters, and jungle cats.
Also in Petén, on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá, Biotopo Cerro Cahuí covers 650 hectares and consists of a small hill varying in altitude 200-300 meters (650-985 feet). The preserve was created to protect the Petén ocellated turkey and consists mostly of secondary-growth forest. There are several lookouts with excellent views of the lake along the park’s well-marked trails. It is a popular spot for bird-watching, with a good range of nearby accommodations.
Guatemala’s terrain, featuring mountains, volcanoes, and vast forested flatlands, is a hiker’s dream. Adding to the allure of hiking in Guatemala is the opportunity to interact with locals along the way. Many hiking circuits in Guatemala, particularly in the Verapaz cloud forests and the plateaus of the Western Highlands region, are operated via local community tourism initiatives. In addition to providing the opportunity to see the environment and culture through the eyes of local inhabitants, hiring the services of community guides also provides locals with a much-needed source of income and instills a sense of pride in their home. It also speaks loudly to the value (both economic and moral) of conserving precious ecosystems when tourists come from faraway lands to enjoy them.
Among the most popular hikes are the summits of several of Guatemala’s 33 volcanoes (some active), including Agua, Acatenango, Pacaya, San Pedro, Santa María, and Tajumulco.
hiking on Acatenango Volcano
Many tourism circuits operated by local community tourism initiatives include adequate visitors centers, and there are often campsites. The same is true for the government-run system of parks and protected areas.
Road biking is a fairly popular sport in Guatemala, particularly in the highlands, where mountain roads offer unique challenges to strength and endurance. The country even has its own version of the Tour de France, known as La Vuelta Ciclística a Guatemala (The Biking Circuit of Guatemala). The event takes place yearly sometime in August.
More popular with visitors, mountain biking is increasingly popular in the hills around Antigua and Lake Atitlán thanks in part to a number of excellent local outfitters.
Rock climbing is a relatively new phenomenon in Guatemala, though there are now at least two outfitters specializing in this activity. The rock faces fronting Lake Amatitlán, near Guatemala City, and an area known as “La Muela” (The Molar, also known as “Cerro Quemado”), near Quetzaltenango, are the prime climbing spots. Difficulty ratings of the various routes range from 5.8 to 5.13. It’s also possible to rappel inside a waterfall, also known as canyoning, in Jalapa and other areas.
While Guatemala is not as well known for its beaches as some of its Central American neighbors, it nonetheless boasts some nice stretches on both the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts. On the Pacific, the wild black-sand beaches found along the coast near the Manchón Guamuchal wetlands are one of the region’s best-kept secrets. The closest beach to Guatemala City is Puerto San José, reached in about 90 minutes by a four-lane highway, though it’s certainly not the most pleasant of the country’s beaches. Just west of San José is Chulamar, with at least one recommended resort hotel.
Farther east, there are also some lovely stretches between Iztapa and Monterrico. The 25-kilometer road connecting both towns is experiencing a modest construction boom of stylish resort hotels, with land speculators quickly snapping up the remaining parcels of oceanfront property. East of Monterrico, Hawaii also has pretty stretches of nearly deserted beaches, though there are increasing numbers of Guatemala’s elite building vacation homes here.
On the Caribbean Coast, Guatemala has some fairly decent white-sand beaches on the Punta de Manabique promontory. Along the coastline between Lívingston and the Belize border, the nicest beaches are at palm-fringed Playa Blanca. For talcum-powder white-sand beaches lapped by turquoise waters, head off the coast to the Belize Barrier Reef, where you’ll find the Zapotillo cayes.
The Pacific Ocean waters off the port of Iztapa are hailed as the “Sailfish Capital of the World,” with world records for single-day catch-and-release firmly supporting these claims. Apparently, a unique pattern of swirling ocean currents between Mexico and El Salvador creates an eddy unusually rich in pelagic fish, such as herring and mackerel, right on Guatemala’s doorstep. Sailfish and marlin gather to feed on this bait, along with large concentrations of dorado, yellowfin tuna, and wahoo. The result is some of the world’s best sailfishing.
Numerous outfitters have set up shop in Iztapa offering sailfishing year-round, though the most active season is between November and May because of the colder weather prevalent in the North American region from which most anglers hail.
Thanks to grand plans for recreational options to be offered on behalf of now-departed Pan American Airways, Lake Atitlán saw the introduction of largemouth bass in the late 1950s. The lake’s extreme depths make catching the larger fish said to inhabit the deeper waters quite a challenge, which only adds to the allure of fishing these waters. Your best bet for catching “the big one” is during the annual spring spawning season, between March and May.
White-Water Rafting and Kayaking
Guatemala has a number of white-water rivers with rapids ranging from Class II-VI (Class VI being unpassable waterfalls). The most popular river for rafting and kayaking is the Río Cahabón, found in the region of Las Verapaces. It features some of Central America’s finest stretches of white water complemented by jungles, caves, hot springs, and waterfalls.
For more sedate kayaking on ocean kayaks, Lakes Petén Itzá and Atitlán are good bets.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
It’s possible to scuba dive off the Caribbean Coast near Punta de Manabique, though you’re probably better off heading just a bit farther north to the exquisite Zapotillo cayes, part of the Belize Barrier Reef. Several outfitters arrange trips from Lívingston. Scuba diving is also a popular activity in Lake Atitlán, where you might even be able to feel the heat emanating from underwater lava flows in this still-active volcanic region. Another peculiarity of diving here is that the lake is at a rather high altitude just over 1,500 meters (5,000 feet), adding another variable to the mix.
An emerging surfing scene is centered around the Pacific Coast village of Sipacate, which enjoys excellent breaks. Iztapa also reportedly has good breaks, as does Monterrico. A useful website for checking out Guatemala’s surf scene is www.surfinguatemala.com.
Boaters will find marinas on both Guatemalan coasts. On the Pacific, a new marina was built with partial backing from Dutch interests near the aging port facilities of Champerico. Farther east, the Marina Pez Vela caters to sportfishing boats and is adjacent to the Puerto Quetzal Cruise Ship Terminal. It has restaurants and good tourism infrastructure. On the Caribbean Coast, you’ll find many boats traveling up the Río Dulce from the Caribbean Coast and docking at any of a number of marinas in the river’s namesake town.
Guatemala has some excellent golf courses, mostly around Guatemala City, housed in private clubs open to foreign visitors. Some afford excellent views of the city, and all enjoy spectacular locations in the mountains flanking the urban area. Antigua Guatemala also has a phenomenal golf course with volcano views.
Guatemalans love their soccer, known as fútbol. It is by far the most widely played sport in the country, with every town or village having at least something that resembles a soccer field. Almost everywhere you go, you’ll find games being played on Sunday afternoons. As for professional soccer playing, the two most popular teams in the country’s four-team national soccer league, denoted by the colors of their jerseys, are the Rojos (Municipales) and Cremas (Comunicaciones). The two usually end up going head to head at the end of the season for the championship title.
Games can be seen at Guatemala City’s Estadio Mateo Flores, but be advised that the crowds can get quite rowdy. In 1996, things got so out of hand that a stampede ensued when stands collapsed, killing 100 people. The soccer stadium has been remodeled in the aftermath. If you’ve always wanted to see a Latin American soccer match, you might want to check it out. Guatemala also has a few star players in U.S. Major League Soccer and on some European teams.
International games played by the national squad are a big event, as Guatemala has never been to a World Cup. Guatemala is part of CONCACAF, the Caribbean, North, and Central American Confederation. CONCACAF gets four slots for the World Cup, three of which usually end up going to the United States, Mexico, and Costa Rica. In 2004-2005, the national squad (also known as la bicolor) got closer than it’s ever been, advancing into the Final Round of the World Cup qualifiers tied in points with Costa Rica after beating Honduras 1-0. Postgame celebrations spilled into the streets and lasted into the wee hours of the morning. Unfortunately, the high hopes ended in bitter disappointment. Things got off to a great start with a 5-1 routing of Trinidad and Tobago, but Guatemala then lost 2-0 to the United States and never fully recovered.
Known locally as béisbol, games can be seen at Parque Minerva’s ballpark. The game has become increasingly popular in recent years, and you’ll often see league games going on at area ballparks, usually on Saturday mornings.
Options for accommodations in Guatemala vary from the backpacker’s basic $3-a-night room in cheap, blue-light hotels or hostels to ultraswanky boutique hotels and five-star international chain hotels and resorts. It’s possible to tour the country entirely on either end of the budget spectrum. There are certainly plenty of options in between, as well as the more recent development of attractive ecolodges in areas adjacent to pristine natural areas. Camping is also another fairly common alternative, particularly at the national parks, though RV hookups are still virtually nonexistent. The government levies a 12 percent sales tax in addition to a 10 percent tax that goes to INGUAT (Guatemala Tourist Commission), bringing the total to a whopping 22 percent. Most of the budget and many of the midrange hotels include these taxes in the prices they’ll quote you, but this is not the case in higher-end accommodations.
In popular tourist areas, you’ll often be approached by comisionistas offering to find you a place to stay. These people work with local hotels and are paid commissions for each person they bring to a particular property. Usually, the places they work with aren’t the best deals in town since they have to pay these people, an expense that simply gets added to the room rates. Also, more reputable hotels with good clientele and favorable word of mouth are rarely the kinds of places that would need the services of these freelancers.
HOSPEDAJES, HOSTELS, AND CHEAP HOTELS
Guatemala is a major stop along the Central American backpacking circuit, so it’s no surprise that there are a plethora of low-budget hotels to choose from. Many of these are hospedajes or pensiones with very basic rooms run by local families. The rooms at the most basic places may all be on a shared-bath (baño compartido) basis. This is particularly the case in some of the very remote mountain villages in the Western Highlands region. The next-highest level in comfort consists of rooms with private bath (baño privado). A recent trend in areas with heavy tourist presence is the establishment of excellent hostales (hostels), where several travelers share dormitory-type bedrooms and bathrooms. Antigua, Copán, Guatemala City, Flores, and Cobán, to name a few, have some excellent hostels.
The key thing to look for when scoping out hotels with bargain-basement prices is cleanliness. All of the hotels recommended in this guidebook pass the cleanliness standard, as there are some budget hotels that are truly filthy. I’m all about making my dollar go as far as possible, but I draw the line here. If you do end up staying in a hotel room of questionable cleanliness, break out the sleeping bag. It’s always a good idea to pack one along if you’re traveling on a budget. Rooms in the highlands tend to suffer from mold problems, so keep this in mind if you’re allergic. For rooms in tropical areas, make sure there is a fan, preferably a ceiling fan, as this will make for a much more restful night’s sleep.
Another consideration in budget hotels is the quality of the mattresses. Definitely check this out, as the quality of beds varies widely. In some tropical areas, beds might consist of a thin mattress atop a concrete block. This peculiar arrangement has been called to attention in hotel descriptions where applicable.
The cheapest of the cheap hotels may not offer hot water or may not have it on during the whole day. Always inquire about this. In many budget hotels, the hot water comes from an electric hot-water heater attached to the showerhead. These can often look scary, with wires jutting out all over the place. It’s a good idea to check out your water-heater situation before taking a room. Be very careful not to touch the showerhead while in the shower, unless, of course, you enjoy being mildly electrocuted. As a final note, bring flip-flops or some other type of shower shoe to avoid catching a nasty fungus in shared bathrooms.
There are a number of good-value, moderately priced hotels throughout Guatemala charging somewhere in the vicinity of $25-50 per night. Spending $50-100 a night in Guatemala gets you a very nice spread indeed. Despite its newfound popularity, you can still get some very good travel deals in Guatemala. You’ll certainly get more bang for your buck than in Belize or Costa Rica, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how much longer this will last. In the $25-50 range, you’ll be surprised at what you’ll find. Many rooms in this category come with a private bathroom and almost all moderately priced rooms have cable TV (with channels in English), so you can catch up on the news back home or keep up with your favorite sports team while on the road. Decent mattresses and air-conditioning are also available in some of the better-value accommodations in this category.
Spending $50-100 on a hotel room in Guatemala City will land you in the chic Zona Viva district very close to the airport and near the best restaurants and nightlife venues. In Antigua, you can book a decent boutique property or even stay in a resort. Ditto for the coasts, Petén, and Lake Atitlán.
HIGH-END HOTELS AND RESORTS
Guatemala City boasts the presence of many luxury chains, including Crowne Plaza, Westin, and InterContinental, among others. You’ll also find luxury hotels in Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and the vicinity of Tikal and Flores, in Petén. Antigua has some of the nicest boutique hotels anywhere in the world, and plenty of them. Rates at Guatemala’s nicer hotels can range $100-900 a night. Many Guatemala City luxury hotels cater to business travelers and deals might be available for weekend stays. These are usually advertised on their websites. Near Retalhuleu, the Hostales del IRTRA seem like a bit of a misnomer, as the complex is less like a hostel and more like a large resort complex with some truly luxurious suites with all the look and feel of a Four Seasons. There are plans in the works for a convention center and golf resort.
This category has gained relevance only in recent years as the Pacific Coast’s long-neglected beaches have become the target of tourism development. Most of the Pacific Coast’s resorts are along the Iztapa-Monterrico corridor or in either of these towns, including brand-new Cayman Suites and Dos Mundos Pacific Resort. West of Puerto San José, Chulamar features the sprawling Soleil Pacífico, a sizable all-inclusive resort fronting black-sand beaches. It’s popular on weekends, but you may have the place all to yourself during the week if a cruise ship isn’t docked at nearby Puerto Quetzal.
On the Caribbean Coast near Puerto Barrios, Amatique Bay Resort is a sizable complex fronting an artificial white-sand beach with its own marina and three restaurants. Across the bay near Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla and its new cruise-ship terminal, Green Bay Hotel also fronts an artificial beach along a lagoon and provides easy access to nearby nature preserves.
Another recent trend is the development of ecolodges springing up seemingly everywhere. These vary from somewhat simple community-run ecolodges to downright stylish, with Francis Ford Coppola’s La Lancha (on Lake Petén Itzá) at the forefront of the latter category. Most ecolodges are found in Petén department and in the regions of Izabal and Las Verapaces.
WHAT TO EAT
Guatemalan food may at first seem a bit odd to gringo palates, though the freshness and pungency of local ingredients, including a bounty of tropical fruits and vegetables, soon have many people enticed by the local flavors. Guatemalan dishes are based largely on corn, a staple crop with Guatemala’s indigenous population. Corn is ground and made into a dough, which in turn is used to make tortillas, cooked over an open fire on a comal. Tortillas are a staple with Indians and ladinos alike, and the average Guatemalan family consumes several dozen tortillas per week. In the countryside, tortillas with a dash of lemon and salt, along with beans, form the basis of meals in many low-income households. Even in the cities, tortillas are bought from the local tortillería or, in many cases, delivered fresh daily. Unlike revenge, tortillas are not a dish best served cold. Guatemalans like them piping hot, and they usually arrive in a basket wrapped in traditional cloth to keep them warm. Many restaurants will have a tortillería at the front of the restaurant, where you can watch the tortillas being made, attesting to their freshness.
Other Guatemalan dishes include tamales, made from corn meal, pork or turkey, tomato sauce, and olives wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled. Traditionally, Guatemalans will eat a tamal at midnight on Christmas Eve. Chuchitos are a delicious combination of cornmeal with turkey and tomato sauce wrapped in a cornhusk. Paches are similar to tamales, but they are made from potato-based dough instead of corn. Guatemalans are no strangers to tacos, though the local version is a corn tortilla filled with pork or chicken, rolled up, fried, and covered with tomato sauce and traditional cheese bits. Tostadas are flat, fried corn tortillas topped with tomato sauce or bean paste, shredded parsley, and cheese bits.
Among Guatemala’s dishes are also a variety of spicy stews found regionally. Found in the northern region of Las Verapaces, kakik is a turkey stew requiring 24 ingredients. Served along the Caribbean Coast of Izabal, tapado is a seafood stew made with plantains and coconut milk. Spicy meat dishes include pollo en jocón (chicken in a tomatillo-cilantro sauce) and pollo en pepián (chicken in a tomato-pumpkin seed sauce).
In addition to three meals a day, Guatemalans are also big fans of the refacción, a midafternoon snack consisting of a light sandwich or pastry and coffee. The prominence of bakeries and cake shops throughout the country attests to the popularity of this extra half-meal. Not all Guatemalans can afford to eat three square meals a day—a large part of the population subsists on less than $2 daily. In many places, meat is a luxury few can afford. Dinner is usually late for North American tastes and is usually eaten sometime around 8pm.
Besides traditional food, heavy European influences on Guatemalan culture throughout the years have resulted in a wide array of culinary tastes. You’ll see plenty of evidence of this in Guatemala City and Antigua, where there are numerous options for dining in addition to some very interesting fusions of Guatemalan and international flavors. In food and culture, Guatemalans love to emulate the consumption patterns of their North American neighbors. You’ll see plenty of fast-food franchises, mostly in Guatemala City, but also with surprising frequency in other urban areas. Guatemala City also has its fair share of U.S. casual dining franchises the likes of T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, and Applebee’s. But, since you didn’t come all this way to eat the same food you’d have back home, you’ll need a few tips on where to eat locally.
WHERE TO EAT
You can expect to find table service and menus in restaurantes. Comedores are much simpler eateries, sometimes with a menu but other times with a set dish for the day. The best comedores are easy to spot: They’ll have the greatest number of locals eating there. You’ll find Guatemalans often eat at streetside stalls serving greasy tacos, fried chicken, and the like. These places are often referred to in jest as shucos (dirties) and are best avoided by international travelers unless you have a very strong stomach or have developed resistance to intestinal critters through continued exposure to food of questionable cleanliness south of the border.
ORDERING AND PAYING
The menu is known as la carta or el menú. To request the check, order la cuenta or ask, “¿cuánto le debo?” (“How much do I owe you?”). Tips are not required at simple eateries and may already be included on your bill in many midrange restaurants. Check to see. If not, a standard tip in Guatemala is 10 percent.
Corner stores known as tiendas carrying basic food items are common in cities and towns throughout the country. Larger grocery stores are found in Guatemala City and some of the larger cities. Major grocery chains include Paiz (recently acquired by WalMart) and La Torre. Every town and village has a mercado (market), where folks go to buy fruits and vegetables as well as meats. Try to avoid the butcher section if you don’t take well to displays of raw flesh covered with flies. Inquire about the price per pound of any required items instead of just picking up an odd-numbered assortment and then asking how much it is, because that’s the best way to get ripped off.
Although Guatemala produces some of the world’s finest coffee, most of it is set aside for export. Still, you can find an excellent cup of java in Antigua, Guatemala City, Cobán, and other tourist places, though the coffee served at many less expensive restaurants is not usually the greatest. There’s almost always at least one decent place in town for coffee.
With the wide variety of fruits available in Guatemala’s myriad vegetation zones, fruit smoothies (often made with milk and called licuados) are common beverages. At simpler smoothie stands, you should always be careful to make sure the water used in making your drink is purified. Also, try to get fruit smoothies made from produce that requires peeling, rather than from fruits that are found on or close to the ground. Good, safe bets are pineapple or cantaloupe (or, even better, these mixed together). Strawberries sold locally are notorious for carrying amoebas and other parasites, so unless you plan on disinfecting them yourself or are in a place where you have assurance that this has been done, stick to fruits with peels. Orange juice served in Guatemala is often freshly squeezed and delicious, a delightful surprise for North American palates that have become all too accustomed to the taste of juice made from concentrate.
Sodas and carbonated beverages are widely available, as you’ll guess from the ubiquitous advertising on town walls. Although plastic soda bottles and cans have become more widely available in recent years, you’ll still see plenty of glass bottles in use. If you plan on buying a soda and taking the glass bottle with you, you’ll have to fork over a few extra bills for the glass deposit. Otherwise, you can have it put in a sandwich bag with a straw, which is a bit unnerving for first-time visitors but perfectly normal and hygienic.
Guatemala’s eastern region produces Zacapa Centenario, a highly acclaimed rum that has won numerous international awards. It makes a great gift for folks back home. If you’re not heading to the eastern lowlands of Zacapa or don’t want to lug your purchase around the country during the rest of your travels, keep in mind the Guatemala City airport has a Zacapa Centenario Duty Free shop where you can buy a bottle or two on your way out of the country. In the Mayan highland towns and villages, the liquor of choice is aguardiente, locally made moonshine also known as guaro. Popular brands include Quezalteca Especial and Venado. Rompopo and caldo de frutas are two types of alcoholic beverages made in the town of Salcajá, near Quetzaltenango. The first is essentially a spiked eggnog and the latter is made from fermented fruits.
Cervecería Centroamericana produces most of Guatemala’s beers from its brewery in Guatemala City, including Gallo, a lager that is Guatemala’s national brew. You can find it in the United States under the name Famosa, as Ernest and Julio Gallo Wines holds the rights to the use of the Gallo name in North America. Gallo means rooster in Spanish, and the beer is easily identifiable by the stylized rooster on its label. Other beers brewed by Cervecería Centroamericana include Dorada Draft, smooth export pilsner Monte Carlo, and dark beer Moza. Brewed by Cervecería Nacional and available only in and around Quetzaltenango, Cabro is another good beer. Cervecería Centroamericana once enjoyed uncontested dominion of the Guatemalan beer market but has seen competition in recent years with the arrival of competing brands, most notably Brazilian Brahva.
Conduct and Customs
You’ll find most Guatemalans are warm and friendly. In many instances, they will be very curious about you as a foreigner, particularly in areas that are still getting accustomed to a growing presence of gringo travelers. Urban and rural settings have varying degrees of formality, though politeness and good manners are appreciated by Guatemalans from all walks of life and will get you far.
DRESS AND APPEARANCE
Guatemala is in many ways a rather formal and conservative country, probably owing to its legacy of colonialism and its status as the main base of regional power for the Spanish colonial aristocracy. It’s a very class-conscious society, with good grooming, neat dress, and cleanliness expected. In many instances, the way you look is the way you’ll be treated. You’ll notice this the first time you go to a Guatemala City shopping mall (especially on weekends) and see well-dressed urbanites going for a cup of coffee or heading out to see a movie. Sneakers and shorts are considered much too casual for many events foreigners would find perfectly acceptable. This is starting to change, however, and you’ll also see younger Guatemalans wearing shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops typical of the Abercrombie & Fitch look that is also wildly popular with Guatemalan youth from wealthy families. If you plan on going out to dance clubs, be sure to bring a good pair of shoes, as you won’t make it past the front door wearing sneakers. Dress is much more relaxed at the beach or in the countryside.
For business travelers, suits are still very much the norm for men. Professional women tend to wear conservative dresses or two-piece suits. The less affluent will pay careful attention to dress as neatly as possible, especially for trips to the capital or other urban centers.
Backpackers, known as mochileros, often get a bum rap as an unkempt group who contribute very little to the economy and only cause trouble for hotel owners and tourist service operators. This is generally manifested as a form of marked distrust, though this is usually not the case in places that cater to these types of travelers as their main clientele, such as budget hostels.
The formality of Guatemalan culture also extends to etiquette. Guatemalans take titles seriously (including doctor or doctora for doctors and licenciado(a) for an attorney or holder of a bachelor’s degree). Whenever possible, they should be used when addressing the individual in person or via correspondence. Women usually greet men and each other with air kisses. Men will greet friends with a handshake different from the standard business handshake. Grips tend to be firm. When meeting someone for the first time, it’s customary to say, “mucho gusto” (a shortened version of “nice to meet you”). Simply saying “hola” is considered too casual. Other greetings include “buenos días” (good morning), “buenas tardes” (good afternoon), and “buenas noches” (good evening). Particularly in rural areas, people will greet each other with one of these as they pass each other along the trail, road, or street. In urban settings, you’ll often hear one of these greetings when someone walks into a place of business, such as a doctor’s office, for example. Another formality is the use of “buen provecho” when walking into a restaurant where people are eating and “muchas gracias” upon getting up from the table after a meal.
It’s never a good idea to photograph Mayan people without their permission, as they consider it highly offensive and it intrudes upon their spiritual beliefs. The old photographers’ rule contending that it’s easier to apologize (for taking a candid photo) than to ask permission doesn’t really apply in Guatemala. This is especially true concerning photographs of children, and you should be careful not to show them undue interest and attention, as persistent rumors of foreigners involved in child-snatching of Guatemalan children for organ transplant abroad have led to mob incidents on at least two occasions, with two people killed and one seriously injured. (The last incident was in 2000 in the village of Todos Santos.) In both cases, the foreigners were trying to photograph a child. This scenario is most plausible in the highlands, though not exclusively so.
It can be understandably difficult at times to refrain from taking photographs because Mayan children (and Mayan people in general) are especially photogenic and can provide some wonderful opportunities for portraiture or candid shots. On the up side, the situation forces you to interact with the locals and get to know them. You’ll soon find that many are willing to let you photograph them (often for the promise of sending them a photo) and your photographs will be better because of the rapport you’ve established with the subject.
As of February 2009, it is no longer possible to smoke in public places in Guatemala, including bars, restaurants, office buildings, and airports. Some foreigners (especially European travelers) may not yet know about this law; you may have to kindly but firmly point this out, or ask the property manager do so on your behalf.
Confianza and Saving Face
One of the main traits of Guatemalan behavior is what is known as being en confianza. Attaining this level in your interpersonal relationships means having a high level of openness, trust, and comfort with those you are en confianza (in confidence) with. Once you have reached this level in your relationship with someone, you will most likely be visiting their home and sharing a few meals. Confianza is just as important for making friends as it is for doing business and overall success in Guatemalan society. You can erode your confianza by displaying character flaws such as losing your temper in public or dressing inappropriately, but Guatemalans will never confront you directly. Instead they will do what is known as “saving face.” There may be a perceptible chill in their demeanor toward you.
Another player in the Guatemalan social lingo is the concept of pena, directly linked to the concept of saving face. To have pena is to feel badly, as in the case of imposing on your host or needing to say something unpleasant or accusatory. North Americans are very direct and to the point, which is not at all how Guatemalans are. They will go to great lengths to avoid the pena of having to tell you something or ask something of you they are not comfortable with.
North Americans (or those who have spent extended periods of time there) often find this idiosyncrasy quite frustrating. Former Vice President Rafael Espada, who spent several years as a prominent surgeon in Houston prior to being elected to office, highlighted this characteristic during an interview with Prensa Libre following his first year back in Guatemala. He said this face-saving mechanism, whereby people will tell you what they think you want to hear, was one of his biggest frustrations. Espada said it was hard to get things done when people have given you assurances that the wheels are set in motion, when often they haven’t even started what you asked them to do in the first place.
Guatemalans tend to use the vos form of tu (you), a derivative of the archaic vosotros now used only in Spain. This is particularly the case with two men of the same age or similar social standing. It shouldn’t be used to address a person of perceived lesser social stature, as it’s somewhat demeaning when used in this way, though upper-class Guatemalans tend to do it anyway. Stick to the formal usted unless the person switches to the informal tu or vos.
Personal Space and Privacy
Guatemalans might be a bit “touchy feely” by North American standards. It’s not uncommon to see two heterosexual male friends walking with their arms around each other. This is more common with school-age children, however. Guatemalans generally greet each other with hugs and kisses (or air kisses if it’s a stranger of the opposite gender). They may also grab your arm when trying to emphasize a point.
North Americans’ love of privacy might at times seem strange to Guatemalans. This is something to keep in mind if you are staying with a host family. What might seem like a normal degree of privacy to you may seem like seclusion and isolation, on your part, to them. Most host families who have had a number of North American visitors have grown accustomed to this.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR STUDY AND VOLUNTEER WORK
Guatemala is a popular place for Spanish-language study, particularly Antigua and Quetzaltenango. Here are a few basic things to look out for when deciding where to study Spanish in Guatemala. First of all, you’ll want to decide what sort of environment you’re looking for to choose a location. Antigua and Quetzaltenango offer some fine institutions in addition to the chance to combine your language instruction with time spent in interesting urban locales. Both towns have a lively nightlife scene and a fairly substantial presence of foreign travelers. This might be a pro or a con, depending on how you look at it. If you’re looking to make new friends and traveling companions after your courses are finished, then this will certainly suit you. But if you’re looking for a total language-immersion experience, you might find yourself speaking English outside of classroom time more often than not.
There are a few highland towns and villages with language schools that offer good instruction with (for now) a relatively small foreign presence. These include the language schools in Nebaj, Cobán, and remote areas of Huehuetenango. For the altruistic, Quetzaltenango offers the chance for language instruction in an environment oozing with fellow travelers, volunteers, and NGO workers plugged into a variety of projects hoping to make life better for people in Guatemala’s impoverished Western Highlands.
Virtually all of Guatemala’s language schools offer one-on-one instruction, and your choice of an instructor is particularly important to your progress. You should never feel locked into a deal with a particular instructor. If you find that you and the instructor just aren’t jiving, don’t hesitate to ask for a new one. All of the recommended schools get their strength from the quality of their individual instructors, so finding one that’s right for you shouldn’t be too difficult if you know where to look.
In terms of cost, you’ll find it fairly accessible. The bulk of Guatemala’s schools charge somewhere between $150 and $250 per week, including at least 20 hours of instruction per week and room and board with a local host family. Some schools, particularly in Antigua and Quetzaltenango, provide the option of staying in on- or off-campus housing or apartments.
As a final note, Guatemalan Spanish is relatively clear of the accents found in Caribbean, Mexican, and even Costa Rican Spanish. Guatemalans also tend to speak more slowly than Caribbean Spanish speakers. It’s actually a very melodic Spanish, and you’ll soon recognize its singsong sound. In terms of value for the money you spend and variety of locales in which to learn, you really can’t beat Spanish-language instruction in Guatemala.
The country is also the focus of many relief and development projects on the part of NGOs, some of which are almost always looking for volunteers. Many of these are linked to local language schools. Areas with a particularly heavy concentration of NGOs include Quetzaltenango, the Ixil Triangle, and Petén.
Foreign Study Programs
For college students seeking a study-abroad opportunity, The University of Arizona (www.studyabroad.arizona.edu), in partnership with the Center for Mesoamerican Research (CIRMA), offers semester- and yearlong programs in Antigua focusing on intensive Spanish-language instruction in addition to Central American history, politics, and culture. Likewise, the University of Texas at Austin (www.utexas.edu) offers a semester abroad at its Casa Herrera facility in the heart of Antigua Guatemala. Topics include pre-Columbian art, archaeology, history, and culture.
Guatemala makes a great place for Spanish-language study.
TRAVELING WITH CHILDREN
Guatemalans love children, and traveling with them will often be all that you need to break the ice with locals. Guatemala’s cultural and natural wealth can also form the basis for a very educational trip allowing children to see and experience what they might only read about in textbooks and classrooms.
Guatemala has also been a popular place for U.S. citizens to adopt Guatemalan children. The U.S. government discouraged adoptions from Guatemala because of deficient legal parameters ensuring the protection of adopting parents and adopted children in line with international standards. Adoptions in Guatemala are suspended at this time. However, legislation has been passed to be in compliance with the tenets of the Hague convention governing international adoption.
Latin Americans are very family oriented, and Guatemalans are no exception. There is plenty to see and do in Guatemala for families traveling with children of all ages. The following is a list of kid- and family-friendly attractions throughout the country.
Among the city’s museums, none is more kid friendly than the Museo de los Niños (Children’s Museum), in Zona 13 near the airport. There are a number of interactive displays as well as opportunities for play. Just across the street, you’ll find the city’s excellent La Aurora Zoo, harboring a good collection of animals from Guatemala and around the world. Cages are being gradually phased out.
On the lake’s beautiful shores, there are plenty of places to stay for families traveling with children. Among the best are the family-sized villas at San Buenaventura de Atitlán, equipped with a kitchen and several rooms. Nearby, kids (and outdoor-loving parents) will enjoy the Reserva Natural Atitlán, where they can see monkeys and coatimundis along the nature trails leading to waterfalls. There are also a butterfly farm and private lake beach in addition to an excellent visitors center.
The Pacific Coast is extremely family friendly, primarily thanks to the presence of the twin theme parks of Xocomil and Xetulul, near Retalhuleu. Xocomil is a water park on par with the finest in the United States, and Xetulul includes re-creations of famous Spanish, French, Italian, and Guatemalan landmarks along with an exhilarating roller coaster and assorted other rides. After the parks close, the fun continues across the street at the excellent accommodations of Hostales del IRTRA, with numerous swimming pools, restaurants, and activities. Also in this area is the new Dino Park, with animatronic dinosaurs straight out of Jurassic Park. For some seaside fun, head to Monterrico, where (in season) you can participate in a race involving newly hatched sea turtles making their maiden voyage across the sandy beach to their ocean home. Kids will also get a kick out of the Auto-Safari Chapín, in Taxisco about 90 minutes from Guatemala City. It’s a drive-through safari experience, in which you can see several of kids’ favorite animals, including lions, zebras, and parrots.
Kids enjoy Hostal Palajunoj, one of the Hostales del IRTRA.
Children will certainly be impressed by the Mayan ruins at Tikal, along with the abundant wildlife found along the various nature trails crisscrossing the park or swinging from the trees. At the entrance to Tikal, older kids and adults will enjoy the Tikal Canopy Tour, allowing them to zip across the forest canopy along metallic cables while strapped to a harness. If you want to see more of the forest canopy on slightly less adrenaline-inducing conditions, head to Parque Natural Ixpanpajul, where there are plenty of outdoor activities, including walks along hanging bridges connecting forested jungle canyons.
ACCESS FOR TRAVELERS WITH DISABILITIES
Guatemala is a somewhat challenging country for people with disabilities, as there is little in the way of public infrastructure specifically catering to the needs of travelers with disabilities. Antigua might be a bit cumbersome for travelers in wheelchairs because of its cobblestone streets but nonetheless it has ramps for wheelchair access on every street corner. There are a few exceptions to the general lack of access for those with disabilities. Guatemala City’s new public transportation system, the Transmetro, was said to offer wheelchair access as part of its innovative infrastructure. The international airport now also features several elevators as part of its recent renovation. Modern Guatemala City hotels housed in high-rise buildings also have these amenities. For intercity travel, the best option for travelers with disabilities is to take shuttle buses.
WOMEN TRAVELING ALONE
As elsewhere in Latin America, men in Guatemala tend to be chauvinistic, particularly the country’s ladinos. Women traveling alone might find themselves the object of unwanted attention. Guatemalan women are accustomed to fairly constant harassment by men on the street, including catcalls, whistling, and horn honking, which they tend to ignore. This is usually the best tactic, though it’s somewhat difficult to put into practice. Take a deep breath and count to 10. Your best bet as a preventive measure in this regard is to dress demurely, particularly in urban areas. After dark, take a cab, but try to find someone to share it with.
GAY AND LESBIAN TRAVELERS
The prevalence of machismo (male-dominated culture) can make things difficult, if not downright dangerous, for gay and lesbian couples choosing to express mutual affection publicly. Gay travelers and residents will want to keep a low profile while in public areas in Guatemala so as not to attract unwanted attention. Homosexuality is still not widely accepted in Guatemala, and many commonly used slurs and epithets apply directly to gays. Still, things may be starting to change, as Guatemalans are quick to emulate the cultural standards they see on international TV, specifically the greater acceptance of gay men and lesbians portrayed in the U.S. media. Acceptance of homosexuality, in this way, appears directly linked to socioeconomic status—or at least access to cable television. Some openly gay Guatemalans live with their partners and are open about their relationships with friends and family, though financial and social independence figure prominently into this decision.
Religious beliefs and prejudices vary and affect how gay men and lesbian women are treated in any society. It all depends on the individual. I’ve witnessed innkeepers issue disparaging remarks about gay guests behind their backs, but I’ve also run into uncommon acceptance of homosexuality from cabdrivers gushing about their gay clients.
As in many international cities, there’s a growing gay-rights movement in Guatemala City, and there are a number of gay bars and nightclubs, mostly in Zona 1. As with most venues, things are constantly changing, so log on to www.gayguatemala.com for the latest.
Health and Safety
Guatemala’s status as a poor, developing nation translates into a variety of health and safety risks for the foreign traveler. Many of these are directly related to poor hygiene. When it comes to safety and law enforcement, the Policía Nacional Civíl (created by the 1996 peace accords) has not lived up to its expectations as an efficient, incorruptible, and professional police force. On a positive note, the Tourism Police have demonstrated proficiency in helping travelers as well as making areas somewhat safer with patrols and group escorts. Private initiatives, as they almost always do in Guatemala, have stepped in to fill the gaps, also providing some measure of protection for foreign visitors.
Travelers might want to consider buying traveler’s insurance before heading to Guatemala. Several different types of insurance with varying degrees of coverage are available in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The Guatemala Tourist Commission (INGUAT) also provides assistance to travelers in need via its Programa de Asistencia al Turista. They can be reached by dialing 1500.
BEFORE YOU GO
Officially, no vaccinations are required for entry into Guatemala, though it’s a good idea to be up to date on rabies, typhoid, measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), yellow fever, and tetanus shots. A hepatitis vaccine is now widely available and probably also a good idea. If you plan on taking preventive medications against malaria, you’ll need to start them a few weeks before potential exposure to the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains an international travelers’ hotline, which can be reached at 888/232-3228, and a travel health home page found at www.cdc.gov/travel.
As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is certainly the case for travel in Guatemala, as there are certain measures you can take to avoid succumbing to many of the most common ailments. Washing hands frequently and drinking only bottled water will help keep you free of stomach ailments as will consuming only cooked foods or peeled fruits such as bananas and oranges. Lettuce and strawberries are two common culprits, often leading to severe gastrointestinal distress. Likewise, stay away from ice cubes unless you have complete assurance that they come from purified water. By law, all ice cubes served in Guatemalan restaurants must come from purified water, a good idea in theory but certainly not always the case. I’ve often had my doubts even about supposedly purified ice cubes in restaurants after falling ill. When in doubt, leave the ice out. Be careful not only with what you eat, but where you eat. Stay away from street stalls selling cheap food, referred to jokingly by locals as shucos (literally, “dirties”). While Guatemalan stomachs have developed immunity through the years to nasty food-borne bugs, the average gringo traveler’s has not.
FOOD- OR WATER-BORNE DISEASES
Despite these precautions, many travelers to Guatemala might find themselves experiencing a classic case of “the runs” as their digestive tracts adjust to new flora. This usually lasts only a day or two. If the problem persists, it may be a sign of more serious issues. In some cases, it may be food poisoning, which can occur just as easily back home. If this is the case, drink plenty of water and get some rest. You’ll probably end up just having to ride it out for a few days and may want to take an anti-diarrhea medicine such as Pepto Bismol or Lomotil.
In addition to diarrhea, symptoms of this often-acquired malady include nausea, vomiting, bloating, and weakness. The usual culprit is E. coli bacteria from contaminated food or water. It’s important to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and clear fluids and keep your strength up by eating bland foods such as crackers or steamed rice. As with food poisoning, you may want to take some over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medication.
Characterized by many of the same symptoms as described above, along with the possibility of bloody stools and generally prolonged malaise, dysentery comes in two flavors: bacillic (bacterial) and amoebic (parasitic). The onset of bacillic dysentery is usually sudden, characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Treatment is via antibiotics, to which it responds well. Amoebic dysentery, on the other hand, has an incubation period and symptoms may not show up for several days. It’s also harder to get rid of. It is usually treated with a weeklong course of Flagyl (Metronidazole), an extremely potent drug that will wipe out all intestinal flora—good and bad. It also has some marked side effects, such as a bitter taste in the mouth, irritability, and dizziness. You should avoid alcohol while taking this drug, as the combination can make you violently ill.
As with all gastrointestinal issues, it’s very important to stay hydrated. Also, see a doctor to get an exact diagnosis. Because of the prevalence of gastrointestinal diseases among Guatemalans, most cities have at least one clinic that can take a stool sample and diagnose the exact nature of the problem.
Not entirely unheard of in Guatemala, cholera can be an issue in poorer neighborhoods lacking adequate sanitation, which are usually not visited by foreign travelers. Today’s cholera strains are not nearly as deadly as those of the past, though there have been outbreaks in Guatemala in years past. It’s best to avoid raw fish and ceviche, a marinated raw-seafood salad popular throughout Latin America.
Mosquitoes are the main carriers of insect-borne illnesses common throughout tropical areas around the world. The best approach to avoiding malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes in the first place. Mosquitoes are most abundant during the rainy season, so take special care to protect against mosquito bites during this time of year. Some travelers favor liberal application of bug spray with DEET as the active ingredient, which seems to be the most effective at keeping the critters at bay. Plant-based bug sprays seem to be less effective. It’s also possible to buy clothing treated with permethrin, a bug-repellent chemical. It’s also possible to buy it separately and treat your clothing with it. Treated garments are scentless in addition to being highly insect repellent. You can find these products in camping and outdoor stores.
Malaria is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito and is prevalent in the Caribbean lowlands and Petén jungles, though not in the highlands. Anopheles mosquitoes tend to bite at night. Flulike symptoms of malaria include high fever, chills, headaches, muscle pain, and fatigue. It can be fatal if left untreated.
Some travelers also opt to take antimalarial drugs, available locally without a prescription (and quite cheaply). The most widely used is chloroquine, known by its brand name Aralen. Although chloroquine-resistant strains of malaria are found in other parts of the world, including South America, this is not the case in Guatemala. You’ll need to start taking the drug (500 mg) a week before arriving in malarial zones, weekly while there, and continue to take it once a week for at least four weeks after you’ve left the malarial zone. Other travelers opt to take two 500 mg doses with them to use if and only if the disease strikes.
Some people experience marked side effects while taking chloroquine, including nausea, headaches, fever, rashes, and nightmares. A newer antimalarial drug, malarone, was approved by the FDA in 2000, supposedly with fewer side effects than traditional drugs and which does not need to be taken for as long. It is not yet widely available in Guatemala.
Dengue is also transmitted by mosquitoes and prevalent in lowland areas, though it is far less common than malaria and only rarely fatal. Although there is no treatment, most people recover from its debilitating symptoms, which include a fever that can last 5-7 days, headache, severe joint pain, and skin rashes. The disease may last up to another week after the fever has lifted. Tylenol can help reduce the fever and counteract the headaches. Dengue is transmitted by a mosquito that bites during the daytime, the Aëdes aegypti. A far less common, though potentially fatal, form of dengue is hemorrhagic dengue. It needs to be treated within a few days of the appearance of symptoms, which are a carbon copy of regular dengue symptoms until severe hemorrhaging sets in, making medical treatment well advised at the first sign of dengue.
Chikungunya is another mosquito-borne illness that has more recently come over to the Americas from Africa. The culprit is also the Aëdes aegypti mosquito. Symptoms are similar to those of dengue and include fever lasting up to a week, body aches, and/or severe joint pain and stiffness that can last weeks, months, or even years. A rash, headache, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting are also possible symptoms. There is currently no treatment for the disease other than bed rest and painkillers to numb the discomfort. Travelers to Guatemala’s Pacific Coast, in particular, should be wary of mosquitoes due to chikungunya’s prevalence in this region. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
BITES AND STINGS
Sand Fleas and Sand Flies
Among the more annoying bichos (bugs) are sand fleas, which are virtually imperceptible but can leave a trail of welts on feet and ankles. The best way to avoid bites is by washing off after walking on sandy areas. Annoying and also extremely painful are the bites of sand flies known as tábanos inhabiting coastal areas, mostly on the Caribbean Coast. They look like a cross between a bee and housefly. You may not feel them on you until it’s too late, as they have a knack for landing gently on their victims. Tábano infestations are worst during the dry months, when breezes off the ocean are greatly reduced. If traveling to remote beaches, go prepared with pants, long sleeves, bandana, hat, and bug spray. It may seem silly going to the beach with pants and long sleeves, but it sure beats the very unpleasant experience of being bitten and pursued by these persistent critters (I speak from experience).
Lowland Guatemala is home to some of the world’s deadliest snakes, including the aggressive fer-de-lance, a pit viper also known as barba amarilla for the yellow coloring under its mouth. It’s easily distinguishable by its diamond-shaped head and intricate diamond patterns on its skin. It is fairly common in Petén, Izabal, and the Verapaces. Bites are usually fatal unless the victim receives medical attention within a few hours. Other poisonous snakes include rattlesnakes, the red, black, and yellow-banded coral snake, and the eyelash viper, which you should be particularly wary of, as it tends to blend in to vegetation, especially palm trees.
Wear high boots and long pants for hiking in the jungle. Always watch where you step and be particularly careful of woodpiles and rocks. Snakes tend to hang out near jungle watering holes and gaps created by fallen trees. For extended trips into the jungle, it’s a good idea to go with a guide. Let guides lead the way, as their eyes are keenly attuned to the presence of snakes and they are usually armed with a machete.
AIDS is a growing concern in Guatemala, particularly because of the widespread use of prostitutes in a society ruled by machismo. Certainly not making things any better is the economic need of infected prostitutes who continue working after being infected. If you plan on sleeping with a stranger or friend met in your travels, be sure to use a condom, available almost anywhere and known as preservativos or condones.
Doctors and Hospitals
Medical services in Guatemala City are generally top-notch, particularly in many private hospitals. Outside the capital, there are several private hospitals providing quality medical care in urban areas. Public facilities such as the Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social (IGSS) should be avoided, as they are set up to cater to low-income people with no other alternative and are notoriously understaffed and underfunded. Rural areas are extremely lacking in health care, which has resulted in the presence of Cuban doctors in parts of the highlands who have arrived to help bridge the health-care gap.
In many cases pharmacists sometimes serve as de facto doctors, as prescriptions are not necessary for medications in Guatemala. Patients will often describe symptoms and take something on the pharmacist’s recommendations. Still, it’s always best to see a doctor. Many drugs can be found more cheaply in Guatemala, as they are produced locally by a handful of pharmaceutical companies.
In almost every town, at least one pharmacy will be open all night thanks to a system known as farmacia de turno (on-call pharmacy), in which the local pharmacies stay open on a rotating basis. Local newspapers publish a listing of these pharmacies and sometimes the outlets themselves have a neon sign stating as such.
Crime has been a problem throughout Guatemala in the aftermath of the civil war, though statistics show most foreign travelers enjoy their visit to the country without any problems. As many veteran travelers to Guatemala like to point out, you’re still safer here than in many large U.S. cities.
Among Guatemala’s urban areas, Guatemala City has by far the greatest prevalence of crime. Much of this consisted of groups perpetrating robberies against arriving passengers heading into the city from La Aurora International Airport. Private vehicles, taxis, and shuttle buses have been targeted indiscriminately. Authorities were investigating suspected groups while simultaneously opening security checkpoints and police kiosks to provide greater police presence along this route. It remains to be seen whether large-scale infrastructural improvements involving roads adjacent to the airport (as part of the airport renovation project) will make things safer for arriving passengers.
A related issue is that of highway holdups on rural roads, a very unpleasant topic that I must nonetheless cover here. Sometimes, groups will use bends in the road and speed bumps to their advantage, stopping vehicles as they slow down and robbing passengers of valuables. In the most spectacular cases of highway banditry, pickup trucks carrying armed men will pursue a vehicle and then pass it. Another car might come alongside the victim’s vehicle while the car in front shoots at it in an attempt to make the driver stop the car. In addition to taking the passengers’ possessions, perpetrators occasionally drag the car’s occupants out of the vehicle, tie them up, and steal the car.
Guatemalans who sniff out an impending carjacking have been known to speed up as would-be perpetrators signal them to slow down, not without significant risk of being harmed by the bullets that are often landed on the car by frustrated assailants. If you are stopped and robbed, it’s best to remain calm and give them what they want. Opposing a robbery will only make things worse, as the thieves will see this as an invitation to use greater force (I speak from a personal experience in Mexico). It’s hard to predict where robberies may occur, though certain areas do seem more prone to this type of crime than others. Among these areas are RN-11, along the southeastern side of Lake Atitlán, the road to El Salvador outside the Guatemala City area (Salvadorans are a favorite target), and some rural Petén roads.
For more on this topic, read the U.S. government’s Consular Information Sheet, found online at www.travel.state.gov. Another useful site is that concerning recent incidents of crime against foreigners in Guatemala, available at http://guatemala.usembassy.gov/recent_incidents.html. It will give you an idea of what can happen, but try not to let it alarm you.
Gang violence is also a growing concern. The groups, known as maras, operate in parts of Guatemala City not usually frequented by international travelers as well as in some urban areas throughout the country.
Kidnappings reached an all-time high after the civil war, usually involving prominent citizens held for ransom and sometimes returned to their families, depending on whether or not the ransom money was collected. They seem to have subsided in more recent years and rarely, if ever, involve foreigners.
During your trip to Guatemala, there are a number of commonsense measures you can take to avoid becoming the victim of street crime. Don’t walk around wearing flashy jewelry and carry only the amount of cash you need for the day in a concealed place. Use safety-deposit boxes for important documents such as passports. In crowded cities, carry your backpack in front of you and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Always keep an eye on your luggage at the airport, bus terminals, and hotels. At night, take a cab and don’t go walking out and about after dark. At the beach, be sure not to bring too many things that might tempt thieves while you’re in the water. Also, be careful not to walk along isolated stretches of beach, particularly around the Caribbean city of Lívingston. It’s never a good idea to climb volcanic summits without a guide, particularly those around Antigua and Lake Atitlán, as these are especially prone to robberies.
That being said, there are still many areas of the country that are beautiful for backcountry hiking and remain crime-free, particularly the Western Highlands region of the Ixil Triangle, where you can explore freely. Before embarking on a backcountry hike or volcano climb, always inform someone who is not going with you of your plans and when you plan to return.
The Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) was created after the civil war with help from Chilean and Spanish security forces but has not been the efficient security force it was hoped it would be. In addition to widespread allegations of corruption, it is perceived as being grossly inefficient. Corrupt agents are suspected of involvement with drug trafficking and the highway holdups, as many robberies occur shortly after travelers are stopped at police checkpoints and perpetrators are often described as wearing police uniforms. Despite these conditions, if you are stopped by police it is best not to offer a bribe, as straight cops will not hesitate to throw you in jail. It’s best to go through the usual mechanisms and pay the fine (if applicable). After being stopped, be particularly mindful of your surroundings and especially on the lookout for vehicles that might be following you a little too closely.
The Guatemalan military sometimes jointly patrols areas with police forces because of the latter’s demonstrated inability to provide a security presence that dissuades criminal activity. In contrast, Tourism Police (Politur) are generally helpful and have been dispatched to patrol tourist areas. They have been particularly effective at curbing robberies in areas where criminal activity was once getting out of hand, including Tikal National Park and areas in the vicinity of Antigua.
Guatemala’s well-armed police at Tikal National Park
Guatemala is a major transshipment point for cocaine coming into the United States from South America, as evidenced by the many clandestine landing strips found in isolated areas of Petén department. Marijuana is grown in remote lowland areas of Guatemala and poppy (the basis for heroin) is grown in the Western Highlands, particularly in the department of San Marcos.
High-ranking military officials have been implicated in drug smuggling, working with local cartels linked to Colombia’s powerful Cali cartel. United States drug officials have begun referring to Guatemala as la bodega (the warehouse), as it houses a large share of the cocaine continuing north to Mexico, from where it makes its final entry into the United States. Among the local cartels, the most prominent are based in the eastern lowlands near Zacapa (not an area frequented by foreign tourists), Izabal department, and the southern part of Petén department near Sayaxché. Some travelers have reported run-ins with local drug traffickers on private lands, but you’re unlikely to be harmed as long as you adopt a live-and-let-live attitude.
Cocaine consumption is an increasing problem among affluent Guatemalans, particularly in Guatemala City night clubs. Drug use is strictly forbidden by law, and you will be thrown in jail without hesitation for violations. If you are arriving in Guatemala by air from elsewhere in Latin America, drug-sniffing dogs will probably be on hand to greet your flight, and you may be questioned by authorities after clearing immigration procedures.
Information and Services
Prices throughout this guide are quoted in U.S. dollars unless otherwise noted. Guatemala’s currency is the quetzal, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar and denoted by Q. The exchange rate was about Q7.68 to US$1, and it has remained at about the same rate for several years now. Bills come in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 quetzales, though the new polymer Q1, Q5, and Q200 bills are now in circulation. The Q500 bills might surface soon. Coins come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, 50 centavos (Q0.01, Q0.05, Q0.10, Q0.25, Q.50) and Q1, though other than the one-quetzal coin they are more of a nuisance than anything else. Often, if your change is a few centavos, the merchant will keep it.
In smaller towns and villages, you might have trouble breaking Q100 (or larger) notes, so bring smaller bills with you if possible.
Travelers have the option of getting around with cash U.S. dollars (which you will need to at least partially exchange for local currency), travelers checks (American Express being the most widely recognized and accepted), wire transfers (most expensive option), Visa or MasterCard cash advances (watch those interest rates), or through ATMs linked to international networks (recommended).
Banks in Guatemala tend to keep long hours, typically 9am-6pm Monday-Friday and 9am-1pm on Saturday. Changing money and travelers checks at banks is relatively painless and routine, though you’ll probably be asked to show your passport or at least a photocopy of it for identification. You’ll also notice that banks, like convenience stores and other businesses, are heavily guarded by armed security.
In border areas, you’ll typically be approached by money changers offering slightly better rates than local banks. It’s perfectly safe to change your money with them, though it’s probably a good idea to exchange only what you might need for the first day or two in the new country. Try not to pull out a wad of bills for all to see.
This is still the safest way to carry money during your travels, though you’ll be able to exchange them only in urban areas and tourist destinations with full-service banks. There’s also a bit more bureaucracy involved in exchanging travelers checks, and you might be asked to show your original purchase receipt. American Express is by far the most widely accepted type of travelers check. The local American Express representative is Clark Tours (7a Avenida 14-76, Plaza Clark, Zona 9, Guatemala City, tel. 2412-4700, www.clarktours.com).
Because of the widespread phenomenon of remittances sent home by Guatemalan nationals living abroad, several companies have set up shop all over Guatemala. This may be your best bet if you happen to run short of cash during your travels. Many local banks and businesses are Western Union affiliates. For a list of these affiliates in Guatemala, visit the website at www.westernunion.com. You can also send money via American Express MoneyGram. Keep in mind these companies make their money off exorbitant fees charged for their services in addition to a poor exchange rate for the money, which you’ll end up getting in local currency.
Credit Cards and ATMs
Credit cards have become more and more commonplace in Guatemala, though they are still accepted mainly in urban centers, major tourist attractions, and luxury hotels or expensive restaurants and shops. Some smaller merchants may charge a fee, usually 7 to 10 percent of the transaction amount, the justification being that they are charged this amount by the credit card companies and can’t afford to absorb the cost because of their smaller sales volume. Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted.
ATMs in Guatemala are hooked up to international networks and most travelers have no problems accessing their bank accounts in this way. It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on transactions online while you’re on the road if you’re able to and report any inconsistencies immediately. You will never be required to enter your pin number on a pad to enter an ATM kiosk, a common scam to steal card and PIN numbers that has fooled some travelers. Always be aware of your surroundings and try not to visit the ATM at night or unaccompanied.
You can search for Visa ATM locations in Guatemala online at http://visa.via.infonow.net/ and MasterCard ATMs at www.mastercard.com/atm. A useful listing of Banco Industrial Visa ATMs throughout Guatemala can be found at www.bi.com.gt. This will give you an idea of the availability of ATMs along your planned travel route.
COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA
Guatemala’s postal service, known as El Correo, was privatized a few years back and placed in the very capable hands of a Canadian company, making it much more reliable than it once was. It’s also fairly inexpensive, though a letter to the United States might take three weeks to arrive at its destination. International couriers such as FedEx, UPS, and DHL also have a sizable presence here, along with several local companies used largely by Guatemalan expats living in the United States. The latter are substantially more affordable.
Guatemala’s country code is 502. There are no separate area or city codes. All phone numbers, save a few emergency numbers, are eight digits long. There are also a few toll-free numbers belonging to airlines and services that begin with 1-801. The national telephone service was privatized in 1999 and is now known as Telgua. A number of other phone companies, including Spanish Telefónica also operate here, providing some welcome competition. Each of the local phone companies has its own dialing codes for calling the United States from a land line, which will save you money. Most travelers, however, end up using any of the numerous phone centers in major tourist cities, from where you can call fairly cheaply to anywhere in the world. (These are covered in the appropriate geographical sections and are almost always housed in the same places offering Internet services.) Telgua also has call centers in major cities.
The most convenient and cheapest way to call home (and be able to call hotels and make reservations while on the road) is to have a cell phone. The most popular phone network is Tigo (www.tigo.com.gt), which likewise has the widest coverage and charges by the second, saving you money in the long run. Rates for domestic calls are about $0.16 a minute and you can call the United States for about $0.12 a minute. You can buy a phone locally, with the cheapest somewhere around $45, or bring one with you and use it in Guatemala if it’s an unlocked phone. If you’re an iPhone enthusiast, or if your cell phone uses the latest 4G technology, you’ll be happy to know that both Movistar (www.movistar.com.gt) and Claro (www.claro.com.gt) sell iPhones locally. All three carriers have 4G networks with various plans to suit your needs, and with prices comparable to those in the United States. These companies also offer videophone service for phones equipped with this feature.
Internet access is widely available in most cities and tourist destinations throughout the country. You’ll have no trouble finding places to check your email or surf the web. Hourly rates are usually in the $1-2 range. Many hotels and restaurants offer free wireless Internet.
Guatemala City Embassies and Consulates
Most embassies and consulates tend to be open only during weekday mornings.
✵ Austria: 6a Avenida 20-25, Edificio Plaza, Zona 10, tel. 2364-3460
✵ Belize: Avenida La Reforma 8-50, Edificio El Reformador, Suite 803, Zona 9, tel. 2334-5531
✵ Canada: 13 Calle 8-44, 6th Floor, Edificio Edyma Plaza, Zona 10, tel. 2333-6102
✵ Colombia: 5a Avenida 5-55, Edificio Europlaza, Torre I, Zona 14, tel. 2385-3432
✵ Costa Rica: 1a Avenida 15-52 Zona 10, tel. 2363-1345
✵ Cuba: 13 Calle 5-72 Zona 10, tel. 2333-7627
✵ El Salvador: 5a Avenida 8-15 Zona 9, tel. 2360-7660
✵ France: Edificio Marbella, 11th Floor, 16 Calle 4-53 Zona 10, tel. 2337-3639
✵ Germany: Edificio Plaza Marítima, 20 Calle 6-20 Zona 10, tel. 2364-6700
✵ Honduras: 19 Avenida “A” 20-19 Zona 10, tel. 2366-5640
✵ Israel: 13 Avenida 14-07 Zona 10, Colonia Oakland, tel. 2363-5665
✵ Italy: 5a Avenida 8-59 Zona 14, tel. 2337-4851
✵ Mexico: 15 Calle 3-20 Zona 10, tel. 2333-7254
✵ Netherlands: 16 Calle 0-55, 13th Floor, Torre Internacional, Zona 10, tel. 2367-4761
✵ Nicaragua: 10a Avenida 14-72 Zona 10, tel. 2368-0785
✵ Panama: 10a Avenida 18-53 Zona 14, tel. 2368-2805
✵ Spain: 6a Calle 6-48 Zona 9, tel. 2379-3530
✵ Sweden: 8a Avenida 15-07 Zona 10, tel. 2333-6536
✵ Switzerland: Torre Internacional, 16 Calle 0-65 Zona 10, tel. 2367-5520
✵ United Kingdom: Torre Internacional, 16 Calle 0-65, 11th Floor, Zona 10, tel. 2367-5520
✵ United States: Avenida La Reforma 7-01 Zona 10, tel. 2331-1541
Newspapers and Magazines
Prensa Libre is Guatemala’s most widely circulated newspaper and is highly respected. You can find the online version at www.prensalibre.com.gt. Other excellent newspapers include Siglo XXI (www.sigloxxi.com) and elPeriódico (www.elperiodico.com.gt). All of these are tabloid, rather than broadsheet, in format. A tabloid in the sense of being filled with plenty of yellow journalism, scandal, and not much else of use is Nuestro Diario, which nonetheless seems to be somewhat popular in the country’s interior. Guatemala’s respectable newspapers are an excellent source of information and make a great way to practice reading Spanish. They have a long tradition of investigative reporting and have done a wonderful job of uncovering numerous scandals Guatemala’s corrupt politicians would probably get away with (at least without public knowledge) were it not for the work of these intrepid journalists. Journalism can still be a dangerous occupation in Guatemala, though press freedom has come a long way since the dark times of the civil war.
Published in Antigua, the monthly Revue magazine has tons of helpful tips and contact information for hotels, restaurants, and businesses in Guatemala as well as parts of Honduras and El Salvador. There are also well-written stories on topics of interest to locals and visitors alike. It’s available in tourist shops, hotels, and restaurants free of charge.
Guatemala has a handful of local channels, though cable TV with channels beamed in from the United States is also widely available. The country also has its own cable network, Guatevisión, with a morning show and some entertaining programs covering recreational options throughout the country.
MAPS AND TOURIST INFORMATION
Recently introduced, Mapas de Guatemala (www.mapasdeguatemala.com) makes an excellent series of beautifully illustrated full-color maps of Guatemala’s main tourist regions, which also include helpful information on local businesses. The free maps are available at INGUAT as well as tourist gift shops and restaurants throughout the country. If you need a good map before leaving for Guatemala, ITMB Publishing (530 W. Broadway, Vancouver, BC, Canada, 604/879-3621, www.itmb.com) publishes an excellent International Travel Map of Guatemala ($10.95), which is weatherproof and can be found at well-known bookstores in the United States.
The Guatemala Tourist Commission (INGUAT) provides tourist information from its offices in major tourist areas and the country’s two international airports. It is also in charge of promoting Guatemala internationally, and you may see ads for Guatemala in travel magazines from time to time. Unfortunately, it’s not the catchiest advertising, and chances are you missed it.
INGUAT does a fairly good job with its mandate and has been instrumental in the organization of community-based tourism providers. It also participates in international tourism fairs promoting Guatemala, provides logistical support for travel journalists covering the country for international publications, keeps tabs on hotel pricing standards, and is credited with wooing airlines to begin service to Guatemala.
INGUAT’s central office is in Guatemala City’s Zona 4 at 7a Avenida 1-17 and its website is www.visitguatemala.com.
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
Guatemala is six hours behind GMT and in the same time zone as U.S. Central Standard Time. Hours of daylight do not vary greatly between seasons, but daylight savings time is sometimes observed, depending on the whims of individual governments. It was observed in the summer of 2006 and has not been observed since.
Nearly all outlets are 110 volts, 60 cycles with outlets for plugs consisting of parallel flat blades just like the ones found in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Power outages and electrical surges are common in rural areas, especially during unusually arid dry seasons or very wet rainy seasons in thunderstorms. Be extra careful with sensitive equipment such as laptop computers.
Like the American and European influences on its culture, Guatemala uses a sometimes confusing mixture of weights and measures from both the metric and old English systems. Fruits and vegetables are weighed by the pound, but folks weigh themselves in kilos; gas is dispensed in gallons but distances are computed in kilometers, and so on and so forth.
Another commonly used distance measurement is the vara, equivalent to 0.84 meters or a little less than a yard. For measuring land areas, the manzana equals about 0.7 hectare or 1.7 acres and the caballería covers a little more than 45 hectares or 111.5 acres. The quintal is widely used for weighing coffee and is the equivalent of 46 kilos.