Guatemala – nicknamed ‘the Land of Eternal Spring’ due to its year-round good weather – is fast becoming a highlight of the Central American region. Given the centuries of oppression under the Spanish conquistadors and the tempestuous politics that characterised the 20th Century (including a US backed coup and a civil war that only ended in 1996) this is testament to the exquisite diversity of attractions it offers.
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Small but geographically diverse, Guatemala’s cool mountainous highlands graduate into tropical lowlands. There are long stretches of volcanic black sand and a small surf scene along the Pacific Ocean; and a mini coastline kissing the Caribbean to the north east. The spectacular scenery envelops active volcanoes for trekking, ancient Mayan ruins to explore, lush rainforest with abundant wildlife, limestone rivers and caves like Semuc Champey, and the stunning Lake Atitlán.
Culturally rich, there is an indigenous population of over 40%, much higher than anywhere else in the region. You will encounter this in numerous native dialects and forms of traditional dress, the fusion of Mayan and Catholic religious ceremonies, and artisan handicrafts at technicolour town markets and fiestas. Despite devastating earthquakes much stately colonial architecture remains, including the UNESCO World Heritage listed 16th Century city of Antigua.
Four borders connect Guatemala with Mexico, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras – making it the ideal location to visit during a tour of Central America. The landmass covers 108,000 square kilometres, being similar in size to Iceland. In 2015 it was home to 16.3 million people; the most populous city being the capital Guatemala City (locally known as Guate) with 1.1 million people.
Peak times to visit are Christmas to Easter and July/August and booking ahead for accommodation is advisable. Language schools might be busier and more expensive then. Guatemala remains an unpredictable place and tourists should take a cautious and vigilant approach to travel, as even in much visited areas foreigners can be targets for armed robberies and muggings. Travelling at night is inadvisable, and do take great care if travelling unaccompanied or by public bus.
Responsible photography is especially relevant here – always remember to ask permission before photographing local people as this has caused problems in the past.
Ethical Travel Issues and advice
During the 36 year civil war 200,000 people died or went missing. The UN has estimated that 93% of this genocide was perpetrated by the security forces repressing left wing resistance. Many people ran away to illegal settlements in the forest and along rivers. These places have few government services and sometimes offer home or village stays to adventurous tourists. Be sensitive and aware when talking about the past that people anywhere may have been displaced or have traumatic memories.
Drugs like cocaine and marijuana are cheap and readily available. The production of these are expensive for the environment where virgin jungle maybe destroyed for secret farms or runways for export. The drugs trade encourages gangs and gun violence and buying these has an expensive social cost that may not be immediately evident.
Within the Mayan cosmology beautiful natural landscape features might be deemed sacred sites for worship. When visiting mountain tops and volcanic crater lakes if you are lucky enough to come across a ceremony keep a respectful distance, don’t interrupt to ask questions and don’t take photos. Take any rubbish you have with you.
Handwoven ethnic souvenirs are fine to be worn in country, as long as it is by the same gender it was originally intended for i.e. men should not wear the poncho style huipiles.
Guatemala is home to many endangered exotic animals including: jaguars, armadillos, crocodiles, parrots, harpy eagles, howler monkeys, boa constrictors and tree frogs. It can be frustrating to quietly trek hours through the jungle to only meet mosquitos and then exciting be faced with one of these in a restaurant or on the street. Don’t pet them or have your photo taken with them and complain to a person in authority like a manager if you can.
Don’t buy animal souvenirs.
In Peten and the North East green chameleons have been eaten to the point of local extinction, so try to avoid this local ‘delicacy’.
It is common for hotels to have large water containers for you to refill at to avoid making more plastic rubbish.
The cloud forest of Guatemala has diminished from over 20,000 square miles to about 3% of that. Don’t buy mahogany products as the trees are extremely slow growing, swathes of jungle are destroyed to reach them as they grow alone and since 2003 they have featured on the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species.
The weather across the country throughout the year averages a temperate 22 degrees.
1600m + (parts of Quetzantenango, Huehuetenango and El Quiche in the North and West) Cooler, damp.
1300 – 1600m (such as Lake Atitlan, Antigua and Coban) fresh, mild, little humidity.
Low Lying (Peten, Pacific and Caribbean coasts) Humid, warm, close. Rising to as much as 37 degrees. Especially unpredictable on Pacific coast.
This runs from May to October, with the most rain in the last two months of September and October. Most of the rain falls in the afternoon and leaves the atmosphere feeling fresh. Travel to remote villages on unpaved roads maybe slow or interrupted.
This runs from November to April. The best time for mountain climbing and outdoor pursuits, and visiting remote temples in the jungle.
Lightweight clothes, something warmer for the evening, waterproofs or folding umbrella, flat shoes for women (the city streets are cobbled or very uneven), hiking shoes if you want to do outdoor activities.
About 30% of Guatemalas landmass is protected areas but how protected these are outside of the statute books is questionable. Sometimes locals are employed to steward buffer zones but there is some corruption and overall nowhere near enough support. Deforestation for agriculture is causing dustbowls around El Progresso, and despite being illegal deforestation beside rivers continues to cause erosion and upset thirsty wildlife. A rhetoric of protection runs counter to a policy of expansion into districts like Peten with lower population.
The air quality in Guatemala City, high up in a slight bowl can be chokingly bad. The water in Lake Atitlan has seen toxic algae bloom from chemical run off that threatens to make the lake unsuitable for human use.
It is common curtesy to greet people with buenos dias/beunos trades (good morning/good afternoon). When you meet someone new a handshake and con mucho gusto (pleased to meet you) is appropriate.
Guatemalans like to dress smartly, especially in the city. Clothing is viewed reasonably liberally but it is advisable to keep shoulders and chests covered and for shorts to reach the knee for men. Women should avoid shorts in highland areas and note that not wearing a bra is seen as provocative. Vests are seen as underwear and if worn its best to carry a scarf to cover up if you meet locals or visit a church. Bikinis at the beach are ok but local women will usually wear a t-shirt over their swimsuits. The more respectfully and modestly dressed you are, the more respectfully you will be treated.
Tipping 10% is normal, in local places it is not expected but given that 75% of people live below the poverty line it is appreciated. Haggling for souvenirs (with a smile!) to a reduced price of around 20% is normal, but again it is worth remembering the desperate situation with 50% of children malnourished. It is not normal to haggle for food items.
Guatemala has fertile volcanic soil and grows many cash crops. Many flavoursome fruits and vegetables can be found in the markets. In tourist areas there is great diversity in the restaurants, including Chinese, Indian, Thai, Israeli and Western dishes, and a lot of choice for vegetarians. Locals usually go for comida tipica in cafe style commodores that don’t have a menu. This is a large, cheap plate of scrambled eggs, refried beans and tortillas, with possible additions including plantain, sour cream, local soft cheese like feta.
Street foods and Specialities to look out for:
Eloites Sweet corn BBQ’d
Tamales Cornmeal steamed around chicken, potato, and other fillings
Rellenos Meat or vegetable in an egg batter
Pupusas Corn meal pancakes stuffed with meat or cheese
Tostadas Tacos with guacamole, beetroots, cabbage, cheese
Ceviche Raw fish marinated in lime
Here are a couple of basic phrases:
Christianity has combined with Mayan practises with an animist shamanic leaning to create very colourful and evocative religious practises. You might notice alcohol being offered to the earth mother whilst people say their rosary. Notorious celebrations happen around Semana Santa and the Day of the Dead. Although some practises have been forgotten there has been some renewed interest in traditional shamanism from educated city youths as part of a maya cultural revival. Overall though it is still labelled backwards and superstitious.
Pentecostal protestantism is gaining many converts from Catholicism, up to 40% of the country. It is spreading from US based missions and appeals to devotees by preaching that it is possible to directly communicate with God. This is pretty radical where mediation through a priest or shaman has always been emphasised before. There are very small Jewish and Muslim communities in Guatemala City.