Guatemala is an appealing country for first-time backpackers as well as seasoned travelers and we’ve fell in love with it from the first time we set foot on its soil.
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 this beautiful little gem. The land and its inhabitants have a turbulent and violent history which had a tremendous effect on the way the Guatemalans live today. That’s why you should know these interesting facts about Guatemala before visiting.
These facts will show you the good, the bad and the ugly.
This article is not intended to scare you or to make you not want to visit the country. On the contrary, we encourage you to go! It is a gorgeous destination with lovely inhabitants. Being informed about Guatemala can only make you appreciate it more when you actually explore it.
You can drive like a mad man as long as the lord is with you
Some drivers will give you the idea that they are completely bananas! More then once we were on a bus, in a cab or even in a tuc-tuc where the chauffeur ignored happily every traffic rule ever written.
While speeding through some very nasty turns, you can see a golden cross with a motion-sick Jesus sweeping heavily from right to left. Who needs road etiquette when you are protected by the lord?
It is the home to many Mayan ruins
Mayan ruins can be found everywhere over the country. The ones you should definitely know about are Tikal, Yaxha and Uaxactun.
Tikal is far out the most popular site of them all. It is a Unesco world heritage site and it is used as a film location in Star Wars episode IV: a new hope. The downside of its popularity is that it can be packed with tourists.
Our most favourite Mayan ruin is Yaxha. Far less crowded than Tikal and gorgeous! Witnessing a jaw-dropping sunset from upon a temple while overlooking lake Yaxha is indescribable. We have dedicated a whole article about unraveling Mayan mysteries in the Guatemalan jungle at Yaxha ruins.
Uaxactun ruins are the oldest ruins they have uncovered. Be that as it may, they don’t attract that many tourists so you can walk without the hords of tourists.
Toilet paper goes in the bin, not in the toilet
On a 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 it. 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.
You will see a lot of dogs and cats on the streets
Walking around in Guatemala you will see a lot of dogs running around freely. It doesn’t have to be a problem. Most of them are pretty sweet or don’t pay you any attention at all. After being almost bitten in my ass by an aggressive Hooch I got a little more hesitant about passing dogs on the street. So I just try to ignore them and leave as much distance as possible between me and the dog when my instincts tell me too.
You will see a lot of, sometimes skinny and scruffy looking, cats running around the streets too.
In short, you will see a lot of stray animals and a lot of them will not look healthy nor happy.
There might be a void in education or a lack of respect for animals, but the biggest issue is there just isn’t enough money to spend on the care of animals.
The local currency is the Guatemalan Quetzal. In daily use they just say the short version: Quetzal.
At the same time, the Quetzal is the name of the national bird of Guatemala. This colourful creature with its amazing long-feathered tail is considered among the most beautiful birds in the world. Unfortunately, this pretty animal is endangered. Therefore birdlovers have a hard time spotting them in the cloud forests.
Read this article if you would like to know some more facts about the bird.
The tap water isn't drinkable
As is the case in many countries, 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. Some travelers go as far as avoiding ice cubes in their drinks but it is up to you to decide.
A lot of hostels have an eco filter to filter the tap water. The filtered water is included in your hostel stay and you can drink it all day long or even refill your water bottle with it when going out. This works like a charm, it is more environmentally friendly and it is free!
When you travel in countries where there is no drinkable tap water it is smart to take a purifying bottle or mechanism with you. This way you can easily filter water on the go and you and you don’t attribute to pollution with buying a lot of plastic water bottles. Read more about purifying water on the road.
We did use the tap water to brush our teeth and never encountered any disadvantages of that. Just make sure you don’t swallow it. I always thought of it as building up a bit of resistance but I don’t know if it works like that 😉
ATM’s don’t love your credit card
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.
ATM’s are not common everywhere you go
Also don’t expect to find ATM machines wherever you travel to. A lot of rural areas and off the beaten path destinations don’t have any. So you best be well-informed about your next stop. Take some cash with you if you plan on staying in a remote jungle town so you can pay for your stay, food and excursions there.
Credit card scams do happen
Credit card scams are very common in Guatemala. If you withdraw money from an ATM, there is always a chance of your card being skimmed.
It happened to us on our first ‘over the ocean’ trip. We didn’t even notice it until we got a call from VISA informing us of suspicious withdrawals on different locations. It initially gave us quite a scare but after some hassle including multiple phone calls, mails and filling in forms, they took care of everything and their insurance paid us back.
Always keep an alternative card safe so you can use that one in case yours gets compromised.
Withdrawing money inside a bank takes time
First of all, it is very normal that a tough looking guy holding a massive shotgun is guarding the entrance of the facility. It can feel intimidating in the beginning, but if you travel longer in central and south America you get kind of used to it after a while.
Secondly, don’t expect it to be a walk in the park to get your money. Sometimes we waited a long time in line just to get a straight “No!” Or a “no es possible” without further explanation.
In other cases, the clerk had to call a colleague to consult what to do. In most cases we had to hand over our ID and an extra proof of identification like a drivers license. Often a call to the bank manager was necessary and sometimes even a call to our bank seemed to be required, which was closed due to the time difference.
In short, say your chances are fifty- fifty.
And third, don’t expect to withdraw a lot of money at once. What we might consider a reasonably small amount of money to continue our trip is considered a high amount.
So you might best develop a money strategy that works best for you along the way.
Pro tip: a good alternative for paying
Now, we are using Travel Cards to pay for almost all our expenses.
We have two: Revolut and N26. These cards aren’t credit cards as you can not go in depth and you can not spend money which is not there. These cards allow us to top up an amount of money that is available within 1 to maximum 3 working days.
We only put small amounts of money on it. This way, if our card does get copied or whatever, there is never a huge amount for thieves to steal and it is much easier to budget our trip.
It is also possible to pay with them in stores without transfer costs. Most ATMs accept these travel cards as do most terminals in stores.
We now keep the VISA card as a last resort.
Learn more about these cards in this article: Battle of the travel cards.
Guatemala the land of many trees
There are some different theories out there that claim to know where the name Guatemala actually comes from. We can not know for sure, but the most common believe is that it means “land of many trees” or “in between the trees”
What we do know is that there is a lot of biodiversity in Guatemala. In other words, the land is blessed with a variety animals and plants, including trees. Sadly a lot of trees are being cut down for agriculture.
In the Petén area you can find the Maya Biosphere reserve. This is a very large and intact tropical rainforest which of course has “many trees” as well.
Bugs, bugs, bugs
A lot of Guatemala is covered with a lush vegetation. Hot weather and frequent showers of rain make it an excellent place for all kind of little critters to blossom.
Don’t let your fear or disgust of creepy crawlies make you miss some excellent jungle time! Some travelers don’t mind the occasional bug in their room but even after all the places we’ve been to, I still scream like a girl being chased in a horror movie when I encounter a spider or cockroach above my bed. I can’t help myself.
But sometimes you just have to get over yourself and move on.
What about those damn mosquitos?
Despite carrying diseases like malaria or dengue fever, mosquitos are just incredibly irritating. Of course, you can wear clothing that covers you up head to toe, but who wants to do that when it is 35 C degrees out there? And yes, you could spray bug repellent on every uncovered inch of your delicious body. Unfortunately it smells bad most of the time, and it doesn’t seem to mingle well with all the sweating going on. Nevertheless it is your best shot when you are not able to use a mosquito net.
That brings us to the next option. A mosquito net can keep these unwanted guests away while sleeping. Some hostels and lodges provide mosquito nets above the beds. We carried around our own and it turned out to be very useful. I wouldn’t go backpacking anywhere without it.
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. After some serious allergic reactions to mosquito bites and some really restless nights of mosquito hunting I just had enough! I went to the store and bought these little blue plates called “laminitas” (if I remember correctly) and a plug-in to use them. So, you would need to be sleeping somewhere with electricity.
Why we don't take malaria medication anymore
You have the option to take anti-malaria medication. We don’t do that anymore. Why?
- First, it is not that easy to determine if an area is a risk zone or not. There are maps available that help you out with that, but that is not the only problem.
- Second, you have to start taking your medication a week before you enter the risk zone. Which is often not easy to know if you do not travel on a tight schedule. We usually are more, go with the flow types.
- Third, you have to take that medication through your whole stay in that particular area.
- Fourth, you have to take that medicine also for a couple of weeks after you leave that area.
- And fifth, the anti-malaria medication often has a lot of nasty side-effects. Depending on which type of medication you take can vary from a higher risk of sunburn to nauseousness too scary delusions!
We now travel with a bit of the medication that can serve as an emergency remedy if we would get it. (And if you would show symptoms get yourself to a hospital ASAP)
We are not saying you shouldn’t take any malaria medication. The type of travel you do and areas you visit may be totally different from our route. Inform yourself well and do what you have to do.
Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite!
Oh yeah that’s right! Bed bugs!
Dreadful little bastards! These bloodsucking misfits make a bed their hunting area and you their nighttime buffet!
They don’t carry horrible diseases but they can be the reason you wake up in the morning finding yourself covered with a lot of itchy bumps. Normally, they just give this discomfort of the itch and well yeah, it is not attractive either.
Some people are allergic or get a light fever. You can inspect your bed before you sleep in it. They love to hide in the hem of the mattress.
Let’s just hope you don’t get to deal with them at all.
Guatemalans can dress Mayan as well as modern
The indigenous people are descendants of the Mayas and are very proud of their heritage. You can witness this in the most obvious way trough their clothing.
Women wear colourful garments like long skirts, embroidered blouses and shawls. Often using black as a base color with all kind of flashy emblems and patterns woven into the fabric.
It is the tradition of their ancestors and they intend to keep it that way.
Walking around in Guatemala, you will see people wearing what we call modern, more western, clothes as well.
A scam a day keeps the doctor away
And yes, also in Guatemala they do 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 in 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 of 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.
It is a religious and quite conservative country
The main religion in Guatemala is Roman Catholicism which was introduced (or forced upon them) at the time of the Spanish conquistadores. As a close second, a big part of Guatemalans live their life according to Protestantism believes.
In a lot of households the conservative gender roles still apply as the woman is the main caretaker for the children and the home and the man the main provider. However, you see a lot of women working as well. They often take their kids with them to work.
About active volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes
Guatemala has over 30 volcanoes of which some are dormant and 3 are active.
The highest volcano is called Tajamulco. It is located in the North and rises more than 4200 meters above sea level.
A lot of tour agencies offer you to hike up a volcano, spend the night there and watch the sun rise. I’ve heard fellow travelers describe this activity as difficult but very rewarding.
I’ve never tried it myself but I would like to do it in the future. (On a non-active volcano) You might think: “of course, you fool!” but hikes up Pacaya Volcano are very popular despite of it being an active volcano
The active volcanoes are Pacaya, Santiaguito and Fuego. This last one caused major disasters in 2018 erupting violently a couple of days in a row.
Earthquakes do happen on a regular basis as underneath the country two tectonic plates meet each other.
Check this map for up to date information.
Hurricanes do not often occur. It is most likely that the only discomfort you will encounter are huge amounts of rain which can lead to land slides. Roads can get not accessible or completely washed away
Trees or boulders can block the road due to one of the above reasons and so you might be in for a long traffic jam. You have to wait until the tree or rock is cut into smaller pieces so they can be removed. The organization can take as long as the actual getting rid of the debris.
Lake atitlan is the deepest and most beautiful lake in Central America
The most beautiful lake in the world is at the same time the deepest one in Central America with a depth reaching to 340 meters. If there is only 1 place you go to in Guatemala, make it this one!
I could marvel about its beauty all day. If you would like to read some more about this famous lake than check out our post: The towns of lake Atitlan.
Guatemalan backpacker hostels can be 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.
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, modern and clean private rooms.
Many backpackers come to explore this country every year and more and more hostels up their game and try to cater to their every need.
U can use our tips to bargain the best hostel price when you go hostel shopping.
Some basic knowledge of Spanish will make your life so much easier
Travelling through 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 official language in Guatemala now, a lot of its original residents still speak their mother tongue; a Mayan language, like Q’eqchi or K’iche. There are more than 20 different Mayan languages spoken.
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. Plus, people really like it if you make an effort to communicate with them in Spanish. It’s just fun as well to make a connection with the locals while traveling.
The number one export product is coffee
Yes! They have some very good coffee here!
A lot of locals work in the coffee industry and coffee is the primary product of export. Antigua is one of the regions that produces a lot of high quality coffee, mostly Arabica.
Guatemalans do like their coffee. Almost everyone drinks it.
It is also famous for its chocolate
The cacao tree was already worshiped in early Mayan times and the benefits of chocolate are still praised today. The Mayan even called it “food of the Gods”
Guatemalans love to consume their chocolate in the liquid form.
Guatemala City is the capital city of the country
Guatemala city is the capital of the country. We only passed through on our way to an other destination. Guatemalans often told us: “if you don’t need to be there, then just don’t go!”
It is a massive city that has some very nice colonial architecture, museums and a lot more to offer. Even so, it is not the safest place to walk around. The city is subdivided into different zones and some zones are safer than others.
Guatemala city is putting in efforts to get rid of its negative reputation but it still has a long way to go before becoming a travelers hotspot.
A trip almost always takes longer than planned
A good thing to remember before embarking on your next bus or shuttle is that the drive is probably going to take longer than estimated.
A lot of top destinations may not be that far apart from each other but road conditions aren’t always optimal.
Traffic jams occur often for all different kinds of reasons, like accidents, a tree on the road, landslides, roadblocks etc. Just never expect a 3 hour trip to be a 3 hour trip.
You have no influence on this so just sit back and try to make the best out of it.
The tradition of Maximon
Maximon is a deity like you have never encountered before. He is represented as a figure of a man. And he is very special to say the least. He is fully clothed and loves to smoke and drink! Also he loves money!
He is a saint that is worshiped in the Mayan culture and he lives in Santiago de Atitlan. Every year he moves to a different house. So every year a new family gets the honour of housing Maximon in their home.
Everyone is allowed to come see Maximon and people travel from all parts of the country to pay him a visit. They all want to ask him a favor. This can be whatever they desire like luck in love, wealth, a better health,… Of course you offer presents and or money to Maximon in return for his help.
We payed Maximon a visit ourselves and witnessed a sort of ceremony held for a Mayan woman. Maximon was seated in the middle of the room on a chair. Somebody who helped with the ceremony made sure the figure of Maximom was smoking non-stop.
A shaman performed the ceremony and there was a lot of alcohol involved. The woman was asking to cure her disease. While the room filled up with smoke the shaman started to take big gulps of alcohol and spat it out next to the woman. At the climax of his ceremony he spit her right in the face!
Well, I am not to judge this ancient tradition and belief. I hope for the woman it worked!
Read more about the tradition of Maximon
Guatemala knew 36 years of civil war
I already mentioned that Guatemala has a turbulent past. I’m not going to elaborate a history lesson here. Good to know is that around the 1500, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado invades the land and starts to take over everything, this of course, at the expense of the local inhabitants. (This also is the introduction of the Spanish language here)
Decades of submission under different rulers follow.
Being exploited for years and years working under barbarous circumstances results in a civil war that starts in 1960 and goes on for 36 years.
As a result of this violent past there still is a high crime rate today.
A lot of Guatemalans live in poverty
You will see a huge amount of people living in very poor conditions.
Especially in the rural areas, some people have nothing more than a shak made of some pallets and a thin roof.
It is not surprising that parents force their kids to beg on the streets.
Most backpackers follow the same route
There are a lot of people who visit this country and the reasons for that are obvious. To name a few; you can go volcano hiking, swim in crater lakes, explore the jungle, motorboat through canyons and even go swimming in the Pacific Ocean!
Most travelers want to see the same hot spots as you do. In other words, most backpackers follow the same route going North or South.
This means that you will often encounter the same people again thus there is a big chance that you will attend a lot of farewell parties with the same new-made friends. 🙂
The national beer is called Gallo
This golden coloured beer comes in a brown glass bottle. It has a golden/red emblem with a rooster pictured upon it. The cans are white with the same emblem.
We’ve tried it and must admit we didn’t like it that much.
But hey, who are we! Try it out to make up your own mind about it.
About firecrackers and bombing sounds
In the beginning of our trip we were often startled by loud explosive noises on the streets.
We soon learned that children love to play with firecrackers and loud bombing sounds are used to celebrate all kinds of special days.
Even with catholic celebrations of the church, they set of “bombas” to add to the festivities.
About tuc tucs, collectivoes and chicken buses
Tuc tucs are a very fun way of transportation. It is basically a scooter with a roof and some extra seats that you use to cross short distances within a city or village. A smart thing is to set the price before you get in so you reduce the chance of being overcharged.
One time we were driving through a quiet area and started to chit chat with our driver. After a while he asked if I would like to drive the tuc tuc for a while. Uh, yeah I did! He explained how the gear worked and off we went! 🙂
Shuttles & collectivoes
The shuttle buses are the easiest way to get from one place to another in Guatemala. If you book a tour at an agency it is a very good and reliable method to get from A to B. Your seat will be reserved and you will probably be surrounded by mainly other backpackers.
The collectivoes are also mini buses but they serve a certain route within a city or beyond. It is a very regularly used means of transport by the locals. You just wave your hand to get on the one you want and scream “baja”when you want to get off. Chances are it will be packed with other people which is a great occasion to practice your Spanish some more.
These revived old American school buses are most of the time a piece of art! You’ll be amazed by all the different colours and patterns they use to brighten up these otherwise dull looking buses.
Okay the seats are not the most comfortable and it can get crowded but it is the way a lot of locals get around so you should certainly experience a ride with on at least one of them.
We mostly used them for short trips. For longer trips we usually took a shuttle because it is more comfortable.
The food is excellent
The food is a mixture of traditional Mayan cuisine with the influences of the Spanish cuisine which makes for some excellent dishes.
We especially loved the crispy baked empanadas that you can buy almost on every street corner. These pastries can be filled with all sorts of yummy ingredients. The ones we had often were filled with potatoes. On top of these savoury empanadas you can choose to put salsa, guacamole, cilantro, tomatoes,… It’s just so tasty!
But there are so many tasty dishes to try like this turkey soup called Kak’ik and the traditional stew Pepian.
It is called the land of eternal spring
And I must admit, weather was pretty nice every time we visited. The climate is tropical all year round. In the highlands temperature drops as you elevate. Make sure to bring clothing for all kinds of weather.
In general; wet season is from May to October and dry season from November to April.
Water in the shower is heated with electricity
Countless showers in Guatemala have a heating system for the water that works on electricity.
The device that heats the water is placed right above your head, where the water falls out. It just looked really weird to us.
But we soon realized that being able to take a hot shower is a true luxury that we’ve became to appreciate more and more while traveling.
There is a great LGBT bar in Antigua
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. As there is most likely more than 1 LGBT bar in Guatemala, we only found 1! It is situated in Antigua and is called: FRIDAS ATICO. This is not only a bar but also a restaurant where they serve amazing food!
It’s been around for 20+ years now and the party continues!
Read more about how we experienced traveling as a lesbian couple in Guatemala here!
Conclusion interesting facts about Guatemala
The first time Inge set foot on Guatemalan land was in 2009. We traveled back together in 2012.
We didn’t speak a word of Spanish 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.
We havetraveled back multiple times since then and over the years not that much has changed.
Although, there is one big difference; the cost of living. Everything has gotten more expensive; food, accommodation, transport, and excursions.
Still, it is cheaper to travel here than in a lot of other countries.
So, these were the things to know when traveling to Guatemala. I hope this was useful.
If you want some inspiration for a route to follow, we have that for you too! This Guatemala itinerary takes you to all the top spots.
Read our complete backpacking guide for even more helpful information to get the best out of your adventure!