Guatemala is an appealing country for first-time backpackers as well as seasoned travelers.
We could sum up a lot of reasons for visiting Guatemala or engage in some Guatemala backpacking. The country has a lot of natural beauty and culture to discover, but there are also a few things to consider before visiting this Central American destination.
Every country is different and the same counts for beautiful Guatemala. If you don’t have the luxury of time or you just like to travel with a group, then we recommend this tour by G Adventures.
Locals have a lot of habits and customs that might feel weird to someone who just arrived. That’s why you should know some interesting facts before visiting Guatemala. These are the things to know when traveling to Guatemala.
1) ATM’s don’t love your credit card – Visiting Guatemala
Getting money out of an ATM machine can really be a pain in the ass. In larger cities, which are mostly more touristy, your chances of being a winner at the ATM machine increase but nothing is certain until you hold that cash in your hand.
On our first ‘over the ocean’ trip in 2012, our VISA card got skimmed. But this can happen anywhere.
Now, we are using Travel Cards: Revolut and N26, which allow us to top up an amount of money which is available within 3 working days. Most ATMs accept these travel cards. It is also possible to pay with them in stores without transfer costs. We keep the VISA card as a last resort.
2) Toilet paper goes in the bin, not in the toilet
On your first trip to a country which doesn’t have the best plumbing system in the world, it can come as a surprise that you’re not allowed to throw your toilet paper in the toilet.
Instead, you just put it in the bin provided next to the toilet. At first, this can be a bit weird but you’ll get used to it pretty fast. And it is a good habit to keep when you’re traveling to other countries in Central- and South America as well.
3) Do not drink the tap water – Visiting Guatemala
As is the case in many a country, the tap water in Guatemala isn’t drinkable. Locals often do drink the water from the tap but it is certainly not recommended. You can buy bottled and purified water in almost every store. Avoiding ice cubes in drinks can be smart, as you do not know if the ice cubes are made of drinkable water or not.
4) Guatemalans can be Mayan as well as modern
There is a mix of cultures living in Guatemala, as you will notice when visiting Guatemala. The indigenous people have a Mayan heritage and their clothing is often still in the tradition of their ancestors. Walking around in Guatemala, you will see people wearing what we call modern or more western clothes as well as the traditional, colorful garments of the Mayan.
5) Guatemalan backpacker hostels are often cozy and modern
If you are not familiar with staying in hostels, it might come as a surprise to you that many hostels offer similar or even better deals than a lot of hotels do, which is also the case in Guatemala.
This is obviously perfect for budget travelers who want to visit Guatemala! There is a wide range of hostels you can choose from, varying in price and facilities.
Mostly the cheapest option is to sleep in a dormitory where you share your room with other travelers. But if you like your privacy, most hostels also offer cozy and clean private rooms.
If you want to find good deals, you can use Hostelworld. Check reviews of other travelers on Tripadvisor. Or if you have the time, use our tips to bargain the best hostel price when you go hostel shopping.
6) There is a great LGBT bar in Antigua – LGBT visiting Guatemala
While traveling we love to dive into the LGBT scene, if there is one! We are constantly on a quest of finding a place where we can just for 100 % be ourselves.
It is not that easy to find an LGBT bar in Guatemala, nevertheless, we have found a great one in Antigua! The place to be for LGBT and friends is called: FRIDAS ATICO.
We were received with open arms and felt right at home. And above all, this is not only a bar but also a restaurant where they serve amazing food! It’s been around for 22 years now and the party continues! Read more about lesbian travel in Guatemala here!
7) You can buy laminitas to exterminate mosquitoes
Despite carrying diseases like malaria or dengue fever, mosquitos are just incredibly irritating. And we can promise you’ll meet a few mosquitos when backpacking Guatemala.
Of course, you can wear clothing that covers you up head to toe and spray bug repellent on every uncovered inch of your delicious body. Sometimes it just won’t do.
A mosquito net can keep these unwanted guest away while sleeping. Another method to get rid of these little vampires is old school insecticides. Maybe not everyone is a fan but most of the time it is very effective. Also in Guatemala, you can buy a plug-in (electricity plug) and little blue plates of insecticides called “laminitas.” One blue laminata a night is enough to sleep tight!
8) Spanish is not the only language
While backpacking in Guatemala, you will see a lot of indigenous people. They are descendants of a variety of Maya groups living all across the country.
Although Spanish is the main language in Guatemala now, a lot of its original residents still speak their mother tongue; a Mayan language, like Q’eqchi or K’iche. No worries if you don’t understand any of it! A basic knowledge of Spanish can help you overcome a lot of predicaments encountered on the road.
9) Not every green salsa is Guacamole
Of course, you know that not every green salsa is Guacamole. Still, it can be useful to remember this when getting excited while trying new food. Guatemala has its good deal of delicious dishes, don’t forget that they like to spice up their platters! Before getting generous with the sauces accompanying your dish, it can’t hurt to ask: “pica mucho?” (Is it hot?)
10) A scam a day keeps the doctor away… or not?
And yes, last but not least, also in Guatemala they love to scam tourists. As there is a wide range of scams to choose from, the most commonly used are:
- Giving you a bad rate if you want to exchange money from one currency to another. Borders are the worst place to change your money!
- Letting you pay too much when using a taxi. It is always smart to discuss the price of a ride before getting into the cab and before the start of the ride. (And ask in your hotel/ hostel what the ride should cost)
- Overcharging when you buy souvenirs. Of course, this also depends on your bargaining skills and on what you think is appropriate to pay for their handicrafts.
- Making you believe their story when they try to sell you something. Sometimes the story is true, but don’t forget that it is also possible that it might just be a very good storyteller who is selling you this or that.
Anyway, these scams aren’t different from anywhere else in the world and most of the time they are pretty harmless, except for your wallet. Read about how we were scammed by a registered doctor in Antigua while backpacking Guatemala.
Visiting Guatemala – What you should know
The first time we set foot on Guatemalan land was in 2012, while we were visiting Guatemala and we fell in love with all its beauty and friendly inhabitants.
We didn’t speak a word of Spanish than and took a week of classes in Antigua. For us, it helped a lot to be able to have a basic conversation in Spanish. People react positively when they notice you are making an effort and it even helped us getting better deals.
At the end of 2017, we traveled back to the country that stole our heart. We are happy to see that not much has changed. Although, there is one big difference; the cost of living. Prices rose high in comparison to 5 years ago. Everything has gotten more expensive; food, accommodation, transport, and excursions. But it is still cheaper than traveling in a lot of other countries.
So, these were the things to know when traveling to Guatemala!
Guatemala, you will always be special to us!