50 things you need to know before traveling to Guatemala

Guatemala may not be one of the most trendy destinations in the world, but maybe it should be. It is an excellent destination for those looking for adventure trips and under-the-radar destinations. In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know before traveling to Guatemala, including travel costs, safety, and the best attractions.

This list of 50 travel tips will help make your trip to Guatemala memorable. It will help you take advantage of the best the country has to offer, including the food, the people, and of course, the attractions and monuments.

Guatemala and its people

#1 Located in Central America, Guatemala is a relatively small country bathed by the Pacific Ocean to the South/West and the Caribbean Sea to the East. It borders Mexico (to the north), Belize to the northeast, Honduras to the east, and El Salvador to the southeast.

#2 Despite its small size, Guatemala has around 18 M inhabitants, making it the most populous country in Central America (Mexico is part of North America). A large part of the population is concentrated in the metropolitan area of the Capital, Guatemala City.

#3 Guatemala’s population is made up mainly of “ladinos” or mestizos (about 56%) and Mayas (about 41%). There are also other ethnicities, but they have residual percentages.

With about 8 million indigenous inhabitants, Guatemala is the second country in the Americas with the highest number of indigenous people (behind Mexico) and also the second in percentage, behind Bolivia.

Guatemala travel tips
Murals in San Juan La Laguna in Atitlan Lake in Guatemala

How to interact with the locals?

#4 Guatemala was a Spanish colony until 1821, so the official language is Spanish. Thus, it is very useful to speak the best possible Spanish. It helps a lot, and people like foreigners to speak their language. As we speak Portuguese and it’s relatively similar, we could easily communicate.

In some tourism-related services, there are also people who speak English, but don’t assume that everyone speaks or has an obligation to do so.

#5 In general (but as always, with a few exceptions), we found Guatemalans to be very friendly and attentive. It was perfectly normal for them to come and chat with us, asking where we were from (mainly due to the pronunciation) or if we needed help.

Even in the more touristy areas, people were always friendly, and the vendors weren’t pushy. In fact, they often gave us valuable information without asking for anything in return.

Things I need to know before traveling to Guatemala
Children and teens playing in Peten lake | 50 things I need to know before visiting Guatemala

Geography

#6 We can divide Guatemala into three very different geographical regions. The northern zone is mainly made up of plains and includes the Caribbean coast. This is where Flores, Tikal, and Rio Dulce are located.

In the center of the country, we have the mountainous and volcanic region, where Antigua, the Capital, Lake Atitlan, and the Volcanoes are located. Some of Guatemala’s cities are located here and at very high altitudes. Finally, to the south, we have the narrow Pacific coast, with its black sand beaches.

what to know before traveling in Guatemala
The scenery in Lake Atilán, surrounded by volcanoes

#7 Volcanoes are without a doubt the most striking geological and geographic feature of Guatemala. With 37 officially recognized volcanoes, the landscape of central Guatemala is wonderful as we are constantly observing these magnificent giants.

It’s the volcanoes that make Lake Atitlan one of the most beautiful in the world and Antigua such a unique city. Of the 37 volcanoes, three are in constant activity. These are Pacaya, Fuego and Santiaguito.

The most impressive is undoubtedly the Fuego which explodes 5 to 9 times an hour and can be seen in all its splendor from the top of Acatenango.

what to know before traveling to Guatemala
Impressive Fuego Volcano erupting in Guatemala

#8 Despite being frightening and sometimes destructive, Guatemala’s volcanoes also bring immense adventure tourism and benefits to agriculture, thus being fundamental to the country’s economy.

The composition of the soil surrounding volcanoes is particularly rich, significantly increasing soil fertility. That’s why Guatemala is one of the most significant fruits and vegetable producers in Central America and a great place to eat fresh, local food.

what to know before visiting Guatemala
Tropical forest in Tikal, Guatemala

Weather in Guatemala

#9 The climate in Guatemala is tropical and generally warm throughout the year, with temperatures dropping (considerably) with altitude. The hottest months are April, May, and June, while the coolest are December and January.

There is a rainy season and a dry season. The dry season runs from November to April, while the wet season runs from May to October.

what to know before going to Guatemala
Tropical forest and lakes in Semuc Champey in Guatemala

Best time to travel to Guatemala

#10 Given that Guatemala is never really cold (except on the mountain tops), and it is not a place for mass destinations, the most important factor to take into account is the rain and hours of sunshine.

So in our opinion, the best time to visit Guatemala is between December and April, with the high point being the months of January and February. That said, we went in late October and November and got fabulous weather, almost no rain, ideal temperatures in the mountains, and warm in the plains.

On the other hand, the worst time to go will probably be in the summer, as temperatures will be high in the lowlands, and there is a greater probability of rain across the country.

Everything you need to know when traveling to Guatemala
Beach in Peten Lake, close to Flores, Guatemala

Guatemalan culture and history

#11 At its height, the Mayan civilization stretched across a large territory in Mesoamerica, stretching from southern Mexico to El Salvador and Honduras. However, its historical core was mainly in the territory where we have Guatemala today.

So the culture of Guatemala is very influenced by the Mayan culture, traditions, and even religion. Thus, it is another fascinating reason to visit Guatemala because, in addition to the ruins, it is possible to perceive some distinctive characteristics of this country.

#12 The region where we currently have Guatemala was conquered in the 16th century by the Spaniards, later becoming part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Travel tips Guatemala
Real Palácio de los Capitanes Generales in Antígua

#13 Guatemala became independent from Spain and Mexico in 1821, then joined the Central American Republic for a few years until 1941. Only after its dissolution did Guatemala become definitively independent.

The 20th century was quite troubled for Guatemala with a civil war that lasted 36 years, from 1964 to 1996. Only after 1996 did Guatemala obtain internal and external peace and, with it, a period of economic growth.

#14 Despite not being in an active conflict, Guatemala and Belize do not have their relationship normalized. In fact, Guatemala still does not officially recognize Belize, claiming part or even all of Belize’s territory.

Despite this troubled relationship, the border between Guatemala and Belize is open and simple to cross. We crossed the border without any problems in 2022, and we strongly advise you to take the opportunity to visit both countries on the same trip.

50 fun facts about Guatemala
Nuestra Señora de La Merced in Antigua Guatemala

#15 In general, Guatemalan people are very traditional and religious. More than 90% of the population is Christian (Catholic and Protestantism), but there are some cases of syncretism between native religions (mainly Mayan) and Christianity.

Thus, Guatemalans are pretty conservative, and this can be seen above all in the way they dress and act. It is infrequent to see Guatemalans in very revealing clothes.

What to wear in Guatemala?

#16 On the other hand, tourists dress however they want and are not bothered by it.

Although we see recommendations on other sites to be modest in clothes, the reality is that we saw a lot of tourists with revealing clothes and never saw any problem in that regard.

Still, we suggest you wear clothes that are appropriate for where you are – walking around in a bikini or bare-chested in the middle of the city is terrible anywhere in the world.

#17 So, take light and comfortable clothes that you like to wear. Walking shoes too, as you will probably need to walk a lot.

If you are thinking of going up to the volcanoes or visiting some of the cities and towns that are at an altitude, please note that you will need warm clothes. The nights are very cool in this region.

What to take to Guatemala
Church in San Juan la Laguna in Atitlan, Guatemala

Is Guatemala safe?

#18 All of Central America has a bad safety reputation, and Guatemala is no exception. However, the areas we visited (they are all very touristy) were calm. We walked the streets, went everywhere we wanted, without feeling at risk.

In these areas, just pay attention to your surroundings, take the usual precautions around the world and you should be fine. That said, there are things to keep in mind.

50 tips about traveling to Guatemala
Colorful street in San Juan La Laguna em Atitlán, Guatemala

#19 To assess the general risk of a country, we usually use travelsafe. This site evaluates and compares every country giving an idea of the risks we may take.

The level of crime (violent and non-violent) in Guatemala is relatively high when compared to Portugal and Europe, and at night special attention is needed.

In fact, we always avoided walking at night as the risk is much higher. We were also advised not to use the famous “chicken buses” (coletivos) in Guatemala as it is risky for tourists. There are quite a few cases of robberies.

Guatemala travel information
The famous “chicken buses” (coletivos) in Guatemala

Tourism in Guatemala

Tourism and Travelers

#20 Tourism is a key sector in Guatemala’s economy. Before COVID, Guatemala received more than 2M visitors per year, which corresponded to more than 1B USD in revenues. After Covid, these numbers are naturally much lower, but it is expected that they will return to normal after 2022.

#21 We expected to see a lot of tourists from the United States and a few Europeans, but that was not the case. With the exception of Antigua, which is an expat hub and very popular with Americans, the vast majority of tourists we saw were European.

Guatemala is an adventure tourism destination, which is why you see mainly young people, backpackers, many long-term travelers, or those doing a Gap year.

#22 There are only 3 UNESCO heritage sites in Guatemala. The city of Antigua Guatemala, and the Ruins of Quiriguá in Izabal are considered cultural heritage. In contrast, the famous ruins of Tikal are mixed heritage, due to their natural and cultural characteristics.

Tourism in Guatemala
Arch of Santa Catalina in Antigua, Guatemala

What to visit in Guatemala

#23 The best-known destination and the one that attracts tourists to Guatemala is the Mayan ruins of Tikal in the province of Petén.

Tikal is a fabulous place as it mixes Mayan ruins with a dense and almost impenetrable jungle. In our opinion, it is one of the most impressive Mayan ruins, both for the size of the city and for all its surroundings. And the pyramids are truly impressive.

The visit experience is much more interesting than in other ruins as it is still allowed to climb some structures (2022), making the visit more interactive and fun. Plus, the views from the top are breathtaking.

Tikal, one of the must-visit places in Guatemala
Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala

#24 Still in the region, we must mention the El Mirador ruins. Lesser known than Tikal, and without access, going to El Mirador is an adventure. To get there we have to do a 5-day hike – 2 to go, 2 to come back and one to visit the ruins.

Unlike Tikal, which is very popular and so it’s best to go early, El Mirador is usually empty, and therefore, the experience is entirely different. Furthermore, the structures of El Mirador (El Tigre, La Danta and Los Monos) are as or more impressive than those of Tikal. La Danta is the tallest known structure in the Mayan world, standing 75 meters tall.

What do i need to know about guatemala
Templo II in Tikal, Guatemala

#25 Flores is the city that serves as a base to visit Tikal and El Mirador, but we advise you to save one day to visit it as it is a very beautiful and pleasant place.

The center of Flores is on a tiny island in Lake Petén Itza that is connected to the rest of Guatemala by road. The center is very beautiful, and it is very well organized and preserved. From there, it is possible to go to several beaches on the lake, take boat trips, and visit the museum, among other things.

where to go in Guatemala
Flores located in the lake Petén Itza in Guatemala

#26 Lake Atitlan is another must-see destination in Guatemala. Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful mountain lakes in the world, it is surrounded by volcanoes and mountains that create a majestic setting.

The lake has several towns and villages on its shores, each with unique characteristics. One of the activities to do is to visit them and notice the differences. Panajachel is the largest and most popular, but San Pedro and San Marcos are also very interesting.

Finally, if you like more physical activities, we recommend a Kayak or SUP ride. It is not necessary to join a tour, just rent them and have some fun.

Things to do in Guatemala
SUPing in Atitlán, one of the most fun activities in Guatemala

#27 Antigua is the central hub for expats and tourists in Guatemala, and you can easily see why. The city is really unique, as it was practically abandoned and then reinhabited, seeming to have stopped in time.

Despite having cars and a lot of movement, the buildings are old, it is full of ruins, and there is practically no modern construction. The roads are made of stone, where vehicles have difficulty going at more than 20 or 30km/h.

Needless to say, we loved Antigua and all of its eccentricity. There are many colonial cities in the Americas, but we don’t know of any so special. Furthermore, Antigua is also the base to one of the most spectacular activities we’ve ever done.

Guatemala tourism
Plaza Mayor in Antigua Guatemala

#28 The climb to Acatenango was not even in our plans, but when we discovered it, we had to do it.

The Acatenango is the third-highest volcano in Latin America and an impressive natural monument. Climbing it is a unique experience. Not only for the climb itself but above all, for the view of the Fuego Volcano.

#29 El Fuego is an active volcano in constant eruption. On average, every 15 minutes, it erupts. Some are more explosive than others, but they are always spectacular.

If you’ve always wanted to see an erupting volcano, Fuego is probably your best opportunity, as in addition to being accessible, it’s also an almost guaranteed event. The explosions are enormous and at night, you can see the lava flying and then flowing down the mountain. It is majestic and frightening at the same time.

In this article, you can see everything you need to know to climb Acatenango. It’s really worth it.

Fuego volcano erupting at night
Fuego volcane erupting

#29 A lesser-known destination but very popular with backpackers is the natural pools of Semuc Champey, near Lanquín.

Semuc Champey means “river that hides in the mountains,” which is an accurate description of this wonderful place. The Cahabón River sinks for a few hundred meters underground. At the same time, the water that flows from the mountains form several lakes and waterfalls above. This water end up flowing into the Cahabón in a final waterfall.

The lagoons are beautiful, with transparent turquoise blue with small waterfalls between them. The place is reminiscent of the lakes and waterfalls of Plitvice in Croatia, but with the advantage that you can swim and there are far fewer people. What’s more, the water is warm, which makes everything even better.

Guatemala travel tips
Beautiful lakes of Semuc Champey in Guatemala

#30 So far, we have completely ignored the country’s Capital, Guatemala City, and the reasons are simple. First, because we didn’t go there and therefore we can’t recommend or provide great tips.

Then because from the information we collected the city is not particularly beautiful or exciting, and you will probably spend your time better elsewhere. Finally, Guatemala City is notoriously dangerous. Much of the crime that occurs in the country occur in the capital.

So, our tip is: don’t waste time in Guatemala City, the best of Guatemala is elsewhere.

#31 Finally, there are a few more destinations that seem fascinating, but we didn’t visit due to lack of time, namely:

  • Chichicastenango Market – famous indigenous market. Known for being the largest in the country and one of the largest in the world. It only takes place on Thursdays and Sundays, so plan ahead (it was our mistake).
  • Pacific Beaches – These are primarily volcanic sand beaches and are popular with surfers. In terms of beauty and water, they are not like the beaches of the Caribbean and Mexico.
  • Rio Dulce – a natural area that is said to be very beautiful.
  • Quetzaltenango – the second city in the country and a good destination for those who want to get off the beaten track.
Everything you need to know before visiting to Guatemala
Swimming is possible in the lakes of Semuc Champey in Guatemala

Eat and Drink in Guatemala

#32 Traditional Guatemalan food is very much based on indigenous Mayan food, with a strong Spanish and Mexican influence.

Many of the typical dishes are similar to Mexican ones, namely those of Yucatan. Sometimes they have different names, other times, even the name is the same.

#33 Just like in Mexico, corn, beans, and chili are the basic ingredients of almost all Guatemalan cuisine, as they are the traditional Mayan ingredients.

A key difference from typical Mexican food is that Guatemalan food is typically not spicy.

50 things about travelling in Guatemala
The different kinds of corn in Guatemala

#34 The corn tortilla is used in most dishes in Guatemala (and also in Mexico), especially when we think about street food. It also serves to accompany main dishes, and in practice, it is rare to have a meal that does not have some tortillas on the side.

There is an immense variety of tortilla-based dishes. They can be hot, cold, folded, fried, etc. In addition, the number of ingredients with which the tortilla can be filled or topped is almost endless. It depends mainly on our creativity, but often includes meat, avocado, tomato, all kinds of sauces, cheese, cream, corn, other vegetables, etc..

What to eat in Guatemala and other things you need to know before going to Guatemala
Handmade tortillas with different coloured corn

#35 One of the most typical dishes in Guatemala (and all of Mesoamerica) is Tamale. Made from corn dough, it is baked in banana or corn leaves which gives them some flavor and aroma. It is often stuffed with cheese, fruit, tomatoes, peppers, chiles, or meats, or any other ingredient. It is a very flexible dish.

This is a dish with a long history as it is estimated that its origin dates from 8000 to 5000 years BC. That reason alone is enough to be a dish not to be missed when visiting Guatemala. Still, it’s not at all our favorite dish in the region. We found the flavor too neutral and the corn too mushy or even gooey.

Tamale - one of he must try dishes in Guatemala
Tamale cooked in a corn leaf husk

#36 Although officially Guatemala does not have a national dish, Pepián is the closest thing to it. It is a kind of stew that was born from the fusion of Spanish and indigenous cuisines, using both new and old-world ingredients.

Despite having a rich and deep flavor due to the use of many ingredients and spices, it is not spicy. The most prevalent version is served with chicken, but it can be made with any meat. Naturally, it is usually served with tortillas but also with rice.

Dish of Pepian
The unofficial dish of Guatemala – Pepián

#37 Coffee and Chocolate are two of the best-known products in Guatemala. Take the opportunity to try the various chocolate and/or coffee drinks, as this is one of the best producers of these ingredients.

Cacao was essential for the Mayans, and therefore it is also very important in Guatemala.

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TOP TIP

The best hot chocolate we drank in our lives was in Panajachel at “La casa del Chocolate Artesanal”

hot chocolate - Everything you need to known before visiting to Guatemala
The best hot chocolate ever in “La casa del Chocolate Artesanal”, Panajachel, Guatemala

#38 In many countries, breakfast habits are very different from American and European ones. So it often turns out to be the most tricky meal to set.

We don’t have the typical European cafes, nor do Guatemalans have breakfast similar to ours. However, in almost all tourist places, there are complete breakfast menus at very affordable prices.

These breakfasts include coffee, beans, bread or tortillas, cheese, eggs (made in many different ways), fried plantains, and sometimes bacon and even avocado.

breakfast in Guatemala
Generous and inexpensive breakfast in Guatemala

Money and costs of traveling in Guatemala

#39 The official currency of Guatemala is the Quetzal, and its exchange rate is around 1 Euro for 8-9 Quetzals. It’s a variable exchange rate, but it doesn’t tend to fluctuate much over time. However, you should check the exchange rate before you go.

Some places accept USD (we’ve never seen euros, but it’s possible that they could also work out in an emergency), however, we strongly advise against doing so. The exchange will always be highly unfavorable.

#40 We suggest you always carry cash (Quetzales) as many stores do not accept cards or charge an extra fee for using the card.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to find boxes (cajeros) in most tourist places. Expect to always to pay a withdrawal fee, so always withdraw the maximum amount possible to minimize these costs.

Everything you need to known before going to Guatemala
Painted mural with the national bird – the quetzal

How much does it cost to travel in Guatemala

#41 This is always one of the most difficult questions to give a concrete answer as it depends a lot on the type of tourist you are and the activities you are looking for.

That said, we will share our overheads. Keep in mind that we are backpackers and that we had a relatively quick trip (makes costs higher) and did some tour activities, including the Acatenango climb and the visit to Tikal.

Thus, backpacking as a couple, we spent 1085 Euros in 12 days, which is an average of around 90 Euros per couple and 45 per person per day. Here we include all the expenses we had, with the exception of travel insurance (as it is annual) and travel in and out of the country.

In general, we consider Guatemala to be a very cheap country to travel in, and incredibly very cheap when compared to other countries in the region that we have already visited, including Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, and even Mexico. It’s not as cheap as Southeast Asia, but it’s one of the cheapest places we’ve ever visited.

In fact, all kinds of expenses are affordable, including tours and shuttle trips. It’s even cheaper if we consider that some experiences are the best there are. Tikal is the most spectacular Mesoamerican ruins we know of, and Acatenango is an unforgettable adventure.

Costs o traveling in Guatemala
Templo del Gran Jaguar in Tikal, Guatemala

Tipping in Guatemala

#42 With the exception of restaurants, tipping is generally not required or part of the culture in Guatemala.

What happens in restaurants is that many add a 10% service charge to the total bill. When they don’t, it’s at the discretion of each person. Since they are usually very cheap, it is not a huge cost, and it is a way to help the locals, especially when the service is good.

There is also another situation in which tipping is customary and even advisable, which is tour guides, especially when they provide a good service. On our trip, we were lucky to have very good guides, so we always owe them a tip.

How to travel in Guatemala
Making tortillas in a cooking class in Guatemala

How to travel in Guatemala?

#43 During our trip to Guatemala, we almost exclusively used shuttle buses. Despite not being our favorite way to travel at all (it’s actually our least favorite), the truth is that the way tourism is organized in the country it is the easiest way for backpackers.

Shuttles can be booked at the accommodation directly, which is very convenient. Or in the many shops in the city centers. We advise you to check some prices before buying because they vary considerably.

In addition to being convenient to book, these take you directly to the city centers or even to your accommodation, depending on the destination and the shuttle.

Thus, for a tourist, it turns out to be ideal, not least because they are not very expensive, especially when compared to Mexico and Belize.

50 things you need to know before traveling to Guatemala
Lake Atitlan with a volcano in the backdrop | things you need to know before traveling to Guatemala

#44 An even cheaper alternative to shuttles are the chicken buses. Despite the curious and even appealing name, the chicken buses are simply the local coletivos (shared cabs) used mainly by locals throughout Latin America.

These are often old US school buses painted in bold, eye-catching colors. It is also customary to have loud music and lots of lights. Riding these buses is an experience in itself and can be a lot of fun. They are also extremely cheap.

However, we have to mention we have been warned several times in Guatemala that it is not advisable for tourists to use these buses as they end up attracting crime. Therefore, although we used it in Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama (for example), we did not use it in Guatemala.

Note: we are not saying that if you take one, you will be robbed, just that the risk exists and is higher than in other countries.

Guatemala travel tips
Taxi boats in Atitlán

#45 On the other hand, both chicken buses, and other buses have a severe problem for us. As the routes were not created with tourists in mind, in most cases, we need to make 2 or 3 (or even more) bus changes to reach the destination.

It ends up taking a long time and being very tiring.

best things about Guatemala
The collective that takes us to Semuc Champey

#46 We don’t drive in Guatemala, so we can’t directly advise on that or on renting a car.

However, we can mention that, as in all of Latin America, the locals are not particularly good drivers and are very impatient. This is not particularly serious, and if you have experience driving in Africa, Asia, or Latin America you shouldn’t have any significant problems.

#47 On the other hand, the roads are tricky. It’s not that they are especially bad, in fact, they are much better than we expected, as they don’t have many potholes. Especially the main ones.

The problem is that there are practically no highways, there is a lot of traffic around the capital, there are lots of speed bumps to force you to reduce speed. Plus, in the mountainous area it is impossible to reach a destination quickly because it is always curve and counter-curve.

In short, expect to spend a lot of time commuting, usually half a day or even a whole day. Even if it doesn’t look too far on the map.

50 facts about Guatemala
Mountain road to Semuc Champey in Guatemala

Other things I need to know before traveling to Guatemala

Do I need an adapter for Guatemala?

#48 Electricity inputs in Guatemala are type A and B with voltage 120V and frequency 60Hz. These are the US, Japan, and China electricity outlets. Therefore, you will need an adapter if you come from Portugal, Europe, or Brazil.

If you need an adapter, we recommend this universal adapter.

Things I need to know before travelling to Guatemala
Villages in the shores of Atitlán lake

How is the internet in Guatemala?

#49 We advise you to buy a prepaid data SIM card as soon as you arrive in Guatemala. They’re cheap, easy to pick up at almost any store and have a good network. Only in remote areas should you have more problems with the connection.

We bought one from Claro, and it worked perfectly.

Accommodations usually have WIFI in public areas and rooms, but we always advise you to confirm before booking. Finally, we advise against relying exclusively on public WIFI as they often do not work.

Sunset in Peten Lake
Lago Petén Itza in Flores

Do I need a visa to enter Guatemala?

#50 Most nationalities do not need an entry visa, nor do they have to pay anything upon entry for trips of less than 90 days, however, a passport valid for more than six months beyond the end of the trip is required.

As mentioned above, we entered and left Guatemala by land, and in both cases, the border crossings were straightforward, and even quick. We have no information on how it will work at the Guatemala City airport, but it will probably be just as simple.

Pyramid in Tikal
Mayan temple in Tikal

Bonus – Guatemala Travel Guide

Our recommended travel guide for Guatemala is Lonely Planet Guatemala 7.

Alternatively, if you are thinking of traveling around Guatemala, Belize and Yucatan, we highly recommend this guide which includes all three regions.