Guatemala travel guide
2 minute guide
WHAT WE RATE & WHAT WE DON'T
OUR BEST & WORST OF GUATEMALA HOLIDAYS
Guatemalan food is simple yet heavy. While Mexico has the taco, Guatemala has the tamal – a heavy maize dough wrapped in a banana leaf. Tamales can have many fillings, including chicken, pork, beef, olives or roasted peppers. Sweet tamales contain chocolate, nuts and dried fruit. In the Garifuna villages of the Caribbean coast, African flavours seep in, with tapado – coconut fish soup – a delicious specialty.
There is plenty to excite young explorers in Guatemala: indigenous villages, kayaking on lakes and rivers, listening out for howler monkeys in the jungle, and seeing the epic ruins at Tikal – along with a perpetual backdrop of still-smoking volcanoes. Combine with a few days in neighbouring Belize for the perfect Caribbean beach break – a relaxing end to a family adventure.
Guatemala has taken great steps in recent years to improve its human rights record, with attempts made to prosecute those who committed violent crimes, including rape and murder, during its brutal, 36-year civil war. But there is still a long way to go, as former high ranking officials have literally got away with murder, and those who campaign against it are risking their lives to do so.
The villages around Lake Atitlán are some of the best places to experience modern Mayan life – and one of the most immersive ways to do so is with a homestay. Rooms are clean and simple with shared bathrooms – but the cultural experience is five star, as you share tasty meals cooked by your host family and learn about daily routines. Ask your tour leader for a few words in the local language to help break the ice.
La Ruta Maya
Guatemala sits squarely on the so-called Ruta Maya. The archaeological site of Tikal shows the power of the Mayan civilisation. A sprawling city that stretched through many kilometres of jungle, much of which is still being excavated, there are five temples to climb for panoramic views over the site. Less well known is Iximché, capital of an ancient kingdom, with pyramids, temples and evidence of human sacrifice.
Make the most of Central America’s tightly clustered borders and cross over into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for more Mayan exploration as well as a dip in a cenote. Travel overland to Belize, where you can relax on paradise cays, snorkel or scuba, and discover a Mayan “underworld” in the incredible ATM cave. A longer tour can even take you all the way along the isthmus to the Panama Canal.
If guilt-free shopping is your Holy Grail, then leave plenty of space in your suitcase in Guatemala. Across the country, women’s cooperatives produce stunning traditional textiles – from blouses and scarves to pillowcases and bags – and the profits are ploughed back into the communities. One of the best places to source handwoven textiles is in San Juan La Laguna, on Lake Atitlán.
Possibly the most beautiful spot in all of Guatemala, the colonial capital Antigua was almost destroyed during a volcanic eruption in 1773. Happily, its multicoloured, tile-roofed buildings have been beautifully restored, and this UNESCO site is a great place to lose yourself for a couple of days as you explore markets, meet Mayan women in traditional dress, visit ornate churches and enjoy the fresh, highland air.
Ignoring the warnings
You’re unlikely to get into any trouble on your Guatemala vacation – as long as you travel sensibly. Guatemala was in the throes of civil war until 1996, and while today the Mayan villages and glassy lakes present a picture of peace, Guatemala City’s shocking crime rate tells another story. Drugs and gangs still blight the capital, and walking around the city alone, or at night, is not advised.
While the 90m-deep sinkhole that appeared in the capital in 2010 may have given many people the heebie-jeebies, the real risks here are on a far more human scale. This is, sadly, one of the world’s most violent cities, and while we always try and keep a sense of perspective, we’re not convinced it’s worth the risk of spending time here. The largely gang related crime has created no go zones, made the city unsafe after dark, and put public transport out of bounds. Sorry.
For generations of backpackers, “chicken buses” – old US school buses revamped and painted in gaudy colours – were the way to travel around Central America. However, safety standards are pretty appalling and accidents are common. Worse still, rising crime means the buses can be hijacked, resulting in violent muggings and worse – especially in the capital. The buses may be fun and characteristic – but we sadly don’t recommend them anymore.
Central America has a wealth of wonderful wildlife – which doesn’t include lions, hippos or zebras. Unfortunately, all of these creatures – and more – can be seen in Guatemala’s zoos, horrifically depressing places with – in our opinion – zero conservation or educational value. Stick to the jungles for the howler and spider monkeys, and superb bird watching – including resplendent quetzals, toucans and dozens of species of hummingbird.
FOOD, SHOPPING & PEOPLE
TRAVEL LIKE A LOCAL ON YOUR GUATEMALA HOLIDAY
Eating & drinking in Guatemala
PEOPLE & LANGUAGE
“Guatemalteco/a” – “Guatemalan” (m/f) in Spanish