Also known as the “Land of Trees,” it’s the most populated country in Central America. It has the youngest population, in Latin America, since more than half of the people are under the age of 19. Guatemala is located just south of Mexico, west of Belize and north of Honduras and El Salvador. This is a country rich in Mayan culture and history as noted through the vast ruins scattered throughout the country and the practices of the modern day Guatemalans.
The landscape of this country is unique, from the narrow coastal shores that give way to dense tropical rainforests and the impressive mountain peaks of the Sierra Madre. The highest point in Central America is located in Guatemala. Rising to 4.2 miles, it is the impressive and active Volcan Tajumulco.
Guatemala City is the capital. Here you will find museums full of ancient Mayan artifacts as well as modern museums showcasing the work of the Guatemalan people. The people are friendly and love to share their heritage with visitors. From the lakes, oceans, rivers and rainforests, this country is perfect for the adventurous at heart.
Best Time to Travel - Weather
The weather varies according to elevation. At sea level to 1,000 meters, expect hot, humid tropical weather. From 1,000-2,000 averagetemperatures fall between 71-54 degrees Fahrenheit. Elevations above 2,000 meters tend to be cool, and freezing temps are common after nightfall. Guatemala has two seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. Rainy season lasts from November-May. Rains usually occur in the afternoons and may last from a few short hours to several days. Most visitors prefer to visit during the dry season. The advantage is avoiding most of the rain. However, this is also the peak travel season, so many tourist attractions are packed and expensive. Additionally, the weather can be very hot and uncomfortably humid.
The best time to travel to Guatemala is during November-February. It is the rainy season, however, during these months, rains only last a few short hours in the afternoon. Most days are clear, sunny and a little cool, excellent conditions for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. Because of the volcanic activity, Guatemala is known for violent earthquakes. A quick study on earthquake preparedness is recommended before traveling there. During the months of June-November, hurricane and typhoon season is in full swing. Watch weather reports prior to your departure, to ensure your vacation will be smooth and storm free.
Food and Drinks
The staples of Guatemalan cuisine include meats, cheeses, rice, beans and tortillas. During your visit, try the elote, a corncob covered with mayonnaise and cheese and sprinkled with lime and chili powder. The kak’ik, a traditional Mayan turkey soup is rich and spicy and should not be missed. Guatemalan breakfasts include eggs and meats with plantains. Fruits such as papaya and mangoes are popular accouterments. Another delicious national dish is the chicken pepian; roasted, spiced chicken covered in a pumpkin sauce. A visit to this country would not be complete without indulging in a hot cup of coffee, some of the best in the world. Try their lemon infused carbonated soda water, a refreshing treat, especially in the heat. If you are searching for alcoholic beverages, Gallo “rooster” beer is plentiful and guaro is popular. It’s made from distilled sugar cane and may be mixed with juice or club soda or taken in a shot. The locals enjoy both methods and may be found in restaurants and small bars.
Tikal: also called “place of Voices” is one of the most visited places in all of Central America. Over 3,000 Mayan ruins dating as far back as 600 B.C. are here. It’s located within a secluded and dense rainforest, full of exotic birds, monkeys and other indigenous wildlife. The temples are well preserved. Wear comfortable shoes, as some of the pathways are rocky and uneven.
Volcan Pacaya: plan on spending a whole day hiking this active volcano. The summit allows for breathtaking views of mountains, lakes and small towns below.
Rio Dulce: this is a quiet part of the country, where small towns and homes dot the landscape. Take a boat ride down the river from one of the locals and enjoy the exotic herons and other birds along the shoreline. Take in the small swamps, with thick green trees bent over the river, forming a lovely tree canopy. A small alcove filled with beautiful flowered lily pads is a treat for the nature buff. Once yourboat ride is complete, stop in and try some of the local fish at any of the small restaurants. It’s some of the best in the country.
Semuc Champey: this is not to be missed for the adventurous adrenaline junkies! If you love water activities, this is the place to go. Natural pools and waterfalls full of clear water are refreshing on a hot day. Try out the rope swing! You can tube down a river and scuba dive in the many natural pools surrounding this natural place of beauty.
Chichicastenango (Chi-Chi): this town, located about three hours from Guatemala City, contains one of the largest marketplaces in Central America. Small merchants gather here, displaying fine, handmade textiles and fabrics. Hand carved wooden Mayan art, bracelets and pottery are the perfect mementos available for purchase to mark your time in this country. Visit the Chi-Chi cemetery, just a five-minute walk from the center of town. It’s known for the colorful mausoleums and the perfect patterns engineered by the Mayans.
The currency is the quetzal. It’s helpful to have some local currency if you wish to purchase goods from small local merchants or you’d like to shop in the outdoor marketplaces. ATM’s are located in the major cities but you will have a hard time finding one in the remote places, so plan accordingly. Visa and MasterCard are accepted credit cards at hotels and most restaurants. American Express is not accepted here. Also, if you plan on exchanging paper money at their local banks, be sure the money is in good condition. They will not accept ripped, torn or damaged paper currency. Also, do not attempt to exchange bills worth more than $100.
This is a tropical place, meaning it’s hot and humid. Wear protective sunscreen, hat and glasses. Be sure to drink plenty of bottled water. The natural unfiltered water may make you ill. If you plan on venturing into the jungle, mosquito repellant is a must. Mosquitos may spread tropical diseases such as yellow fever. Although vaccinations are not required, check with your local disease control agency before travelling. At the very least, you should have an up to date tetanus booster, not more than ten years old. Also, inquire about vaccines for Hepatitis A, typhoid, and yellow fever. Medical care here is sparse. There are hospitals in the larger cities but some lack adequate supplies and medicines. Make sure you take what you need with you when visiting.
Avoid public transportation if possible. The public buses, called “chickens” are often crowded. They are not regularly serviced, so safety is not the same as in the States and other developed countries. These buses are sometimes targets for bandits, especially in rural areas or along the highways. Safety is a must, so be vigilant. If you are staying in a hotel, let the concierge call a taxi for you. They are safe and reliable. Keep important papers and valuables locked in hotel safes an only carry what you aren’t afraid to loose. Check with your national government security agency for travel alerts. Avoid dangerous places on the list, especially at night.
Spanish is the national language, although you will hear other Mayan (Amerindian) languages spoken, especially Quiche and Xinca. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are the two major religions. The locals on Sundays and Holy Days attend Church services and all are welcomed.