Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com
Guatemala, Responsible Travel, Travel Tips

Things To Know Before Traveling to Guatemala

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

Guatemala is a wonderfully beautiful country with beautiful and colourful colonial cities featuring detailed architecture, tropical jungles, active volcanoes, gorgeous lakes, impressive and fascinating Mayan Ruins and traditional indigenous villages. 

Guatemala is still considered a somewhat off-the-beaten-path destination in Central America and there just isn’t the same volume of information about travel there as there are for other countries in the region like Mexico or Costa Rica.

I spent two and a half weeks backpacking around the country in November 2016 and learned a lot of tips and interesting insights along the way and thought that it might be helpful to share these with others.

Here are some useful things to know before you travel to Guatemala based on my experiences and observations during my two weeks traveling around the country. I hope you enjoy reading and if you are planning a trip to Guatemala, I hope that these are helpful to you!

Don’t Drink the Tap Water

It is not safe to drink the water in Guatemala due to risk of bacterial infections. It’s always the worst when you get sick on your travels, so don’t risk it. I made a mistake and bought some fresh strawberries from the local market in Antigua when I arrived and ate quite a few of them, not really thinking where they came from. That evening, I suffered from the most intense stomach pains that I have ever experienced and was just curled up in my hostel bunk in a fetal position, waiting for it to pass. Thankfully, it didn’t last too long and it dawned on me that the strawberries were probably washed in the tap water, hence my reaction. 

Bring a reusable water bottle to fill up with purified agua, which is often available at hostels and hotels. 

There are so many fresh and yummy-looking tropical fruits at the markets and I know it’s tempting to eat them, but just don’t. Only eat fruits and vegetables that you know for sure were washed in purified water (like those being served at nicer restaurants). Never drink the tap water and don’t even use it to brush your teeth. You can buy bottles of water everywhere and many hotels and hostels offer free purified water as well, so there’s no excuse. If you’re at a restaurant and are not sure where the water came from, just order a soda or warm beverage. 

Earthquakes Do Happen

Although I didn’t experience an earthquake when I was in Guatemala (I was actually kind of hoping to feel a small tremor, obviously nothing too dangerous, because I think that would have been a unique and interesting experience!), they do happen quite frequently. 

One of the most destructive earthquakes in Guatemala’s history occurred in 1773 and it demolished many of the buildings in Antigua, which was formerly the capital city of Guatemala. You can still see the ruins of churches and convents from this earthquake throughout the city and it’s amazing to explore them. 

If you’re not from a country that experiences earthquakes, I would recommend reading up on some safety tips and what to do if one did happen (the most important thing is to get underneath something sturdy and cover your head). It’s always good to be prepared and knowledgeable! You can check out a list of the recent earthquakes that have happened in Guatemala here

Shared Shuttles are a Reliable Form of Transportation

It’s pretty easy to get around in Guatemala using shared shuttle vans. You can purchase tickets at pretty much every local travel agency and the shuttles service the more popular tourist destinations, like Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Flores, Semuc Champey, Coban, and others. If you are wanting to venture further off the beaten path to visit the countryside and smaller villages of the country, you will need to take the local transportation known as “chicken buses,” which have issues of being unreliable and unsafe on particular routes and they are also a much slower (but cheaper) way of getting around. 

I used shared shuttles to get from place to place as I traveled around the country and had no problems. They offer door-to-door service and picked me up at my hostel or B&B and then drove around picking up more people before traveling to the destination. They were almost always on time and reliable, the vans were large and the seating was comfortable, and the drivers were safe. 

I booked all of my shuttles through two of the country’s most well-known travel agencies – Adrenalina Tours and Atitrans – and had positive experiences with both. They both have offices in Antigua, on Lake Atitlan and Quetzaltenango (Xela). The shuttles are a great way to get around Guatemala and they’re reasonably priced and safe for tourists. 

Pre-Book and Plan Your Transport from the Guatemala City Airport

When you arrive to Guatemala, you will most likely land at the La Aurora International Airport which is located in Guatemala City (there is another much smaller airport in the town of Flores as well). 

If you land during the daytime, finding transport to Lake Atitlan or Antigua – the two places where most travelers will head first – will be pretty easy and straightforward. After exiting the terminal, there will be shared shuttles lined up waiting for passengers. They will leave when they have enough people and they are very reasonably priced. 

If your flight lands in the evening, night or early morning, you will need to pre-plan your transportation ahead of time and figure out the best way for getting to your destination. There are sometimes a few taxis waiting outside the terminal at these hours, but I personally wouldn’t rely too heavily on that as it may not always be the case.

My flight to Guatemala arrived at 11 PM. As a solo traveler, I was nervous about arriving to Guatemala City at that time of night and I had pre-booked a private shuttle van with Adrenalina Tours to take me to Antigua, which was my first stop on my journey. I simply emailed the company a few weeks before my departure date from home and they were very responsive and professional. I paid via PayPal, so everything was sorted out beforehand. When I stepped outside the terminal after landing, a friendly local man and his wife were waiting for me and holding a sign with my name on it. They drove me safely to Antigua and I had a very positive experience dealing with this travel company. The private shuttle wasn’t cheap (I paid about $65 Canadian for the one-way trip), but for me, it was worth the price. 

Pre-booking my transport gave me peace of mind and reassurance as a solo female traveler and it felt comforting to know that someone would be waiting for me and that I wouldn’t have to figure anything out. If you arriving at night, early morning or late evening, I would highly recommend doing this. 

Massages are Inexpensive at Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is the perfect setting for relaxation – there are stunning volcano and lake views, gorgeous lush jungle-covered mountains all around and a peaceful atmosphere. What better thing to do, than to go for a lovely massage!

You can find lots of places and individuals doing massages in the towns of San Pedro and San Marcos on the lake. I found that the prices were slightly cheaper in San Pedro compared to San Marcos, so that is where I got a massage. A 90-minute session ended up costing me a total of Q185 which works out to about $34 Canadian – a steal of a deal considering that I pay around $55 Canadian for a 45-minute massage at home in Canada! I booked my massage with a local expatriate woman named Angela Stone in San Pedro and she was fantastic! 

Don’t Get Scammed For a Boat Ride on Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is a beautiful volcanic lake in the country that is ringed by a bunch of small indigenous Mayan villages along the shorelines. Each village is unique and interesting and they all have something special and different to offer. 

The easiest way to get around on the lake and travel between villages is via small public boats called “lanchas.” Because you are a foreigner, the boat captain may attempt to take advantage of you by overcharging you (and tourists already pay a slightly higher fee to use the boats than the locals do). I was scammed once and it almost happened to me again on a second occasion. The first time, I had asked the captain what the price of the boat ride was after departing and he quoted me a price which I paid because I had no idea what it supposed to cost. Afterwards, I found out that I paid 5 quetzales more than I should have. The second time, I had done my research on how much the boats were supposed to cost between towns and handed the captain the exact amount. He immediately demanded that I owe him more and I just said “no” and kept walking. 

I recommend doing some online research or asking the locals and expats around the lake what the cost of a boat trip to your destination should cost and bring the exact amount of change with you. When you get off the boat, don’t ask the captain how much you owe. Just hand him your money for the exact fare and walk away. This gives him less of an opportunity to try and scam you. 

Wi-Fi is Widely Available

I had no trouble finding a decent or even excellent Wi-Fi signal pretty much everywhere that I traveled in Guatemala. Most accommodations will have Wi-Fi and many restaurants also offer it in the main tourist areas (Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Flores/Tikal), which I was pleasantly surprised by. 

Eat Guatemala’s Signature Dish Called “Pepian”

Pepian is the well-known national dish of Guatemala. It is a thick vegetable stew made from pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds along with other nuts and local spices and is served with rice and either meat or tofu. This traditional stew has its roots in the Kaqchiquel culture and is often served in Mayan religious ceremonies. 

I tried pepian for the first time when I was in Antigua and then again a few more times at Lake Atitlan. As a vegan, I ordered it with tofu instead of meat. The stew had a very unique and distinct flavour that I can’t describe or compare to anything else, but it was so delicious, rich and flavourful and I immediately fell in love with the taste! This dish is a must-eat when you’re in Guatemala. The pepian that I ate at the El Sabor Cruceno restaurant in Santa Cruz La Laguna on Lake Atitlan was my absolute favourite (and their were breathtaking and unparalleled views from the rooftop seating area overlooking the lake, volcanoes and lush mountainous landscapes).  

Take a Tour and Explore the Tikal Mayan Ruins

The ancient ruins of Tikal are among some of the most impressive in the Mayan world and are absolutely a must-visit in Guatemala. This massive ruins site is located in the jungle-covered Peten region in northern Guatemala. 

I visited Tikal on a day trip from the nearby town and island of Flores (I booked through a local travel agency in Flores called Sergio Crasborn and they were great). I am not usually the type of person who enjoys organized tours, but I thoroughly enjoyed the tour that I experienced. We were a small group of tourists and our local guide was very informative and knowledgeable about the plant-life, flowers, and insects in the jungle and the incredible history of these ruins and Mayan culture. The tour was fascinating and I learned so much about the background of the ruins and jungle life that I wouldn’t have been able to know through reading or just exploring on my own. 

The Tikal Ruins were amazing! They were situated deep in the jungle and we had to trek quite a ways on paths through the dense tropical vegetation in order to get from one structure or group of ruins to the next. It was incredible to be among such beautiful nature and to see so many exotic plants and flowers and animals, like howler monkeys swinging through the treetops and making terrifying dinosaur-sounding noises! The ruins themselves were so impressive and it was difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that humans actually constructed such massive stone structures. We got to climb to the top of Temple IV and watch the sunrise while listening to the howler monkeys and getting breathtaking views of the vast jungle landscape around us. Exploring all of the ruins, temples and pyramids was so interesting and the entire experience was incredibly worthwhile. 

You can get to Flores via an overnight bus from Guatemala City or a much shorter one-hour flight from Guatemala City and then take a tour from Flores to Tikal (it is a one and a half hour drive). I decided to bite the bullet and chose the more expensive flight, but it was worth it to me, as I only had two and a half weeks in the country and needed to maximize my time. You can choose to do a sunrise, early bird, day time or sunrise tour. Tikal is definitely a must-visit ruins site in Guatemala! 

Immerse Yourself in the Local Culture

Even though there is a well-defined traveler circuit in Guatemala and places that most people visit (Antigua, Semuc Champey, Flores/Tikal and Lake Atitlan), it is easy to get away from the busyness and explore the local areas and culture in the villages, towns and cities around Guatemala. 

For the villages around Lake Atitlan, most of the tourist services, accommodations and restaurants are situated close to the lakeshore but if you wander up the hills, you will find the local areas of these villages which are far more interesting to explore in my opinion. You will be able to experience the traditional side of Guatemala and get a glimpse of the local’s daily lives and traditions. I found it fascinating to simply sit in the park or wander the local markets and streets and just observe everything around me and take it in all with all of my senses. If you’re interested in the traditional Mayan culture and getting a little bit off the beaten path to experience it, then I highly suggest doing this too. 

Explore The Smaller Traditional Villages Around Lake Atitlan (And Spend At Least a Week There)

Lake Atitlan is one of the most gorgeous lakes that I have ever been to and it is ringed with a collection of small traditional Mayan villages. All of these villages and towns are unique and offer something different. 

Things to Know Before Traveling Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

The beautiful volcano views from San Marcos La Laguna on Lake Atitlan

I would recommend spending at least a week at the lake in order to be able to explore the various villages and experience them at a slower and more relaxed pace. I stayed 8 days at Lake Atitlan and was able to stay in San Marcos (3 nights), San Pedro (3 nights), Santa Cruz (1 night) and Panajachel (1 night) while visiting Santiago and San Juan on day trips. 

Getting around to the villages is easy and can be done by small public boats called “lanchas” which operate all day. I would recommend choosing from 1 to 3 villages to base yourself in during your stay and then taking day trips to some of the other villages around the lake. 

My favourite towns were San Marcos, Santa Cruz and San Juan. San Marcos was a smaller village that had a hippie vibe and a holistic and spiritual focus. The town consisted of narrow pathways meandering through the gorgeous lush vegetation. There were lots of massage places, meditation centres, yoga classes, and restaurants serving wholesome vegan meals. The views of the lake and volcanoes were the best from the docks at San Marcos and it was such an incredible place to watch the sunrises and sunsets! Santa Cruz was a tiny and very traditional village close to Panajachel along the north shore of the lake. The village itself was situated high on the lush mountainside up a steep road with crazy switchbacks, with the hotels and a hostel at the shoreline of the lake. This village was such a relaxing place to spend time and I loved the breathtaking natural landscapes surrounding it. The locals were super friendly and the town was charming and peaceful. Santa Cruz is also one of the most secluded villages on the lake and there is very little commercialization and influence from tourists. San Juan was another favourite village of mine. It was located a short tuk-tuk ride from San Pedro. This village felt very authentic and there were hardly any tourists there. The town is known for there colourful textiles and women’s weaving cooperatives. I loved visiting a few of these cooperatives and learning about how the textiles were made, while purchasing some beautiful scarves for myself and my family. 

Things to Know Before Traveling Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

One of the many charming treed pathways in San Marcos La Laguna

Panajachel and San Pedro are the two busiest towns on the lake and they are the most popular with tourists. I didn’t love the crowded atmospheres and commercialization there and much preferred the smaller and more authentic villages. If you want to get a glimpse of the local life and immerse yourself in the Mayan culture, I recommend exploring some of the smaller and more secluded and traditional villages like Santa Cruz, San Juan, San Pablo, Santiago, San Marcos, Santa Catarina, San Antonio Palopo, Tzununa, Jaibalito, and others. 

Things to Know Before Traveling Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

The lake and volcano views were breathtaking from San Marcos La Laguna!

Explore Inside the Churches and Convents in Antigua

Antigua is a beautiful colonial city that is filled with lots of colonial churches and old convents. You can explore inside many of them (most have a small admission fee to enter) and they are fascinating places to wander around and take photos. 

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

The La Merced Church in Antigua

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

Inside the Convent de las Capuchinas in Antigua

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

The El Carmen Church in Antigua

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

The courtyard inside the Convent de Santa Clara

My favourites to check out in Antigua were the Convent de las Capuchinas, Santa Clara Convent, San Francisco Catedral, La Merced, and La Recoleccion. The architecture of all the churches and convents was so unique, detailed and beautiful.

There Are Some Weird-Looking Bugs

Guatemala is a tropical country and I saw some weird-looking insects there, compared to what we have in Canada. 

At one of the bed and breakfasts that I stayed at, there was a huge spider with long legs sitting on the wall all the time, but apparently it was a friendly spider that killed mosquitoes, which helped me feel a little bit better about it but it still freaked me out that it was in my room! I also heard stories about the massive Guatemalan scorpions although thankfully, I never saw one. 

When you travel to Guatemala, be prepared to see some strange and exotic bugs. 

There Are Gorgeous Vibrant Flowers Growing Everywhere!

When you arrive to Antigua, you will notice beautiful and brightly coloured flowers and lush plants growing over the tops of walls along the streets and through the roofs of buildings. They are everywhere and it’s such an amazing thing to see!

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

Walls covered in beautiful flowers could be found throughout Antigua

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

This plant growing on top of this building was one of my favourites in Antigua!

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

I loved the colourful flowers and gorgeous plants everywhere!

I absolutely LOVED wandering the charming streets of Antigua while admiring and photographing all of this natural beauty around me. 

Children Playing Outside Versus Distracted by Electronics

There is a lot of poverty in Guatemala. Many children do not own electronics that are common in Canada, like iPhones or iPads. Coming from a culture where everyone is so absorbed in their technology, it was refreshing for me to see children actually playing outside in Guatemala, interacting with one another, smiling and laughing and making do with what little they had, instead of starring at screens. They especially seemed to enjoy setting off firecrackers in the streets at all hours of the day and night (I thought it was gun shots when I first heard it!). 

The Landscapes and Scenery are Spectacular 

Guatemala is filled with breathtakingly beautiful and varied natural landscapes. There are volcanoes, lush jungle-covered mountains, gorgeous lakes, beaches, and dense tropical jungles with vibrant green and thick vegetation. 

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

The lush green mountainous landscape around Antigua

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

Gorgeous volcano views while hiking Pacaya Volcano

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

Walking on hardened volcanic lava fields

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

More volcano views around the stunning Lake Atitlan

As I traveled throughout parts of the country, I was constantly in awe of my surroundings. It was just all so beautiful and very different from the scenery that I was used to seeing in my home country of Canada! I loved exploring the jungle around Flores and the Tikal Mayan Ruins, climbing an active volcano (Pacaya), and spending time relaxing at Lake Atitlan and admiring the incredible scenery. 

Guatemala is a perfect country to explore for nature lovers! 

Shop for Souvenirs at the Local Markets

There are bustling and vibrant local markets everywhere throughout Guatemala, in cities, small towns and villages and even on the roadsides. 

These markets are fantastic places to shop for authentic souvenirs to bring home with you and remember your travels by. They are filled with so many colours and you can find pretty much everything there – handmade jewelry, colourful textiles (scarves, table runners, blankets), handwoven bags, purses, and accessories, beaded items, wood carvings, and so much more. I loved wandering around the markets and supporting the local individuals selling their handmade products. 

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

Wandering the aisles at the well-known Chichicastenango Market

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

A sampling of some of the colourful products that can be found at the markets.

My favourite market that I visited was the well-known one in Chichicastenango, which is apparently the largest in all of Central America. Visiting the markets is a unique cultural experience and a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the local life.

You Will Think the Firecrackers are Gunshots

Local kids are constantly popping off firecrackers in the streets in Guatemala and this is normal. I remember the first time that I heard it though in Antigua, I was completely freaked out and my initial thought was that it was gunshots and I needed to get out of the area ASAP!

In every place that I visited in Guatemala, the loud noise of firecrackers could often be heard. I learned that it was just a normal part of life there and something that kids enjoy doing for fun. I still felt startled every time I heard it and I always had the thought at the back of my mind, “What if this time it is gunshots and not firecrackers?” 

The Weather in Most of Guatemala is Spring-Like

It might surprise you to learn that the climate throughout most of Guatemala is spring-like for much of the year, due to its high altitude, and it is said to be the “land of eternal spring.”

You might assume that because Guatemala is situated in Central America, that the country would experience tropical and hot temperatures, but that is only the case in the northern province of Peten. The comfortable weather was very pleasant and made it more enjoyable to be outdoors exploring without constantly sweating from sweltering temperatures (except in Flores – it was super humid and hot there because it’s in the middle of the jungle). During my visit in November, the temperatures were consistently between 18 and 25 degrees Celsius in Antigua and at Lake Atitlan, which was perfect! 

Be Prepared to Deal with Altitude Sickness

The elevation is some areas of Guatemala (like Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango and Xela) is very high and it can definitely affect your body if you’re not used to being at that level.

I got altitude sickness when I decided to embark on a very strenuous and steep uphill hike at Pacaya Volcano, near Antigua. About 15 minutes into the hike, I suddenly felt very dizzy, light-headed and extremely nauseous (like the puking kind). I actually thought that I was going to collapse and pass out and knew that I would if I kept going on the hike. Thankfully, there were horses available to ride up to the volcanic landscape and I chose that option.

I live in the Canadian Prairies in an area that is below sea level for elevation so I am thinking that altitude of Antigua and then going on a strenuous hike and gaining even more elevation on my second day in the country, was not a good idea. Altitude sickness is no joke and it sucks to experience. Make sure to research the altitude of your destination in Guatemala compared with the elevation of where you are coming from and read up on some tips to help you mitigate the effects. 

Before attempting to climb a volcano or mountain, I recommend spending a few days taking it easy and letting your body acclimatize to the high altitude. 

Bring Your Best Motion Sickness Remedy/Medication

Many of the roads in Guatemala are windy and have hairpin turns and steep switchbacks as they travel through the mountainous areas of the country. If you’re not used to this kind of landscape, I highly recommend bringing some sort of motion sickness remedy along with you. 

The highway from Guatemala City to Antigua had lots of sharp turns and curves around the mountains. Guatemalans tend to drive pretty fast and I found myself feeling very nauseous in my private shuttle from the airport to Antigua after first arriving to the country. I also felt nauseous on the road from Antigua to Pacaya Volcano. But the worst road of all that I experienced, was the one leading from San Marcos La Laguna at Lake Atitlan to the town of Chichicastenango! It was a bumpy ride on a cramped and hot shared shuttle as we drove through the mountains on twisty gravel roads. 

Needless to say, I was very glad that I had brought some motion sickness pills with me (I liked these natural ginger ones made by Gravol) and they were very helpful in calming my stomach. Before going to Guatemala, I had never experienced motion sickness before, so I wasn’t expecting to feel that way. Definitely plan on bringing something with you to help with motion sickness, especially if you already know you’re prone to this. 

Your Heart Will Break for The Many Stray Dogs and Cats

There are so many stray dogs and cats wandering around everywhere in Guatemala. The only place where I didn’t see them was in Antigua, which is a very polished and clean colonial city and is the number one tourist destination in the country.

There were a lot of animals roaming the streets in the villages around Lake Atitlan and pretty much everywhere else in the countryside. It wasn’t uncommon for dogs to wander into open-air restaurants and sit beside you waiting for some scraps off your plate or simply looking for some love and attention. This seemed to be normal and restaurant owners weren’t too concerned or bothered by it. 

As an animal lover, my heart broke from seeing all of these dogs and cats with no homes. Some of them were so skinny that their ribs were quite visible through their skin. I remember finding a tiny kitten sitting on a side street away from the busy market in Chichicastenango who was crying but he wouldn’t stop purring once I started petting him. I just wanted to scoop him up and take him home with me! In San Juan along Lake Atitlan, an adorable puppy followed me all around town after I had given him some attention and it was so hard to leave him there. In Flores, I found an almost newborn kitten laying in the middle of a back lane, who looked dead at first glance. Once I got closer, I realized that he was breathing but looked very sick and skinny. I sat beside him and gave him some pets but felt so sad that he was just forgotten and abandoned. 

Almost all of the hostels and B&Bs that I stayed at had either a cat, dog or both as a pet and that they had rescued from the street, which was awesome. Seeing the stray and unloved animals in Guatemala made me feel like crying on a few occasions. If you’re an animal lover like me, be prepared for your heart to break when you see these little creatures. 

Tuk Tuks are a Fun Alternative to Taxis

Tuk tuks are a type of three-wheeled taxi vehicle with small wheels and a roof, which resemble a motorcycle in the front, and with room for no more than three people on the padded bench behind the driver. You can find them zooming up and down the streets in cities, towns and villages. These little vehicles are a cheap, fast and fun way to get around for short journeys. 

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

This is what the tuk-tuks in Guatemala look like. They’re fun!

The first tuk tuk that I rode in was in San Pedro La Laguna, on Lake Atitlan. I also took a very bumpy ride from San Pedro to the neighbour town of San Juan La Laguna along a gravel road. It was a unique and fun experience and I recommend trying it out when you’re in Guatemala! 

You Will See Extreme Poverty

In 2014, the statistics show that just over 59 per cent of the Guatemalan population live below the poverty line

If you live in Westernized first-world country and come to Guatemala, you will undoubtedly witness some extreme poverty at some point along your travels. It is especially evident in the small villages around the countryside. On the shuttles that I took from Antigua to Pacaya Volcano, Antigua to Lake Atitlan and Lake Atitlan to Chichicastenango, we drove through some extremely impoverished towns and villages. The houses consisted of a corrugated metal roof and four walls made from either metal or wood slats. Everything appeared dirty and garbage littered the streets. It was eye-opening, shocking and tragic to see with my own eyes, as this was the first time that I had been exposed to the realities of these local people. 

Witnessing this level of poverty really helped me to remember how blessed my life is and continue to express gratitude to God for everything that He has provided me. 

Guatemala is a Conservative Country

I am not talking about conservative political views, but conservative in regards to the values of the locals. 

You will see the locals wearing traditional and very colourful clothing with the women wearing long skirts and short-sleeved tops and men wearing pants and long-sleeved shirts. While, unfortunately, you will still see tourists wearing spaghetti strap tank-tops and short shorts, I highly recommend respecting the local culture by dressing modestly and conservatively. Locals do not wear shorts unless they are going to the beach. For the women, make sure to pack some long capri pants (below the knee), long pants, jeans, short-sleeved (covering the shoulder) and long sleeved shirts to wear. 

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

What this woman is wearing is an example of the colourful outfits in Guatemala

There are Delicious Fresh Fruits Everywhere

There is no shortage of fresh fruits in Guatemala. You will see lots of exotic and vibrantly coloured fruits being sold in the markets and on the streets. Although they look scrumptious and you will be tempted to eat them all, remember to be careful when buying fruits. They are often washed using the tap water and you can get very sick from eating them, which is really unfortunate. I was bed ridden for an entire evening with intense stomach pains after foolishly eating a bag full of strawberries from the market in Antigua. 

Make sure the fruits and vegetables that you buy are either organic or wash them with a special solution to sanitize them before eating. 

There is Lots of History to Learn About

Guatemala has a fascinating and also tragic history. 

I suggest doing some reading about events like the Mayan genocide which occurred in the not-too-distant past and had/continue to has a significant impact on the country and its people. I also found it interesting to learn about the background and history behind the detailed Spanish colonial architecture of the churches, about the convents, history of earthquakes and volcanoes and natural disasters, the meaning behind the traditional and brightly coloured handwoven clothing worn by many of the locals, and about the ancient Mayan people and impressive ruins that they constructed. 

There is so much to learn about both before and during your travels to Guatemala! I recommend doing some reading before you leave so that you have a good background of understanding to bring context to the things you will see and experience during your time in the country.

Hot Water is a Luxury

Many locals in Guatemala live without hot water. It is considered to be a luxury and it’s not even a complete guarantee that your hostel, hotel or B&B will have it either. 

There were a few hostels that I stayed at where the water was consistently cool or lukewarm, but not hot. This definitely didn’t make showering very comfortable or enjoyable at all. Again, this made me realize how blessed I am to always have access to hot water living in Canada. 

Toilet Paper Goes in the Trash Can, Not The Toilet 

If you live in a Westernized country, you are probably used to throwing your used toilet paper in the toilet and flushing it down, when you are finished. Well, when you come to Guatemala, you will have to break that habit! 

In Guatemala, there is a small trash can next to the toilet where used paper is supposed to go. It doesn’t get flushed down the toilet because the plumbing just can’t handle it. This was a difficult habit for me to change and I messed up a few times before eventually being conscious about what I was doing. 

Another interesting thing I noticed is that you have to pay for toilet paper in most public washrooms. And they will only give you a small square which is often not nearly enough. 

Hardly Anyone Speaks English

Very few locals in Guatemala speak English and pretty much the only places where you can find English speakers are at some hostels/hotels/bed and breakfasts, travel agencies, restaurants and at the airport. 

Antigua is the most popular tourist destination in Guatemala and you will be able to find more English being spoken there than anywhere else in the country. Once you get into the smaller towns and indigenous villages around Lake Atitlan or further into the countryside, you will probably not encounter any English speakers. For most of the locals in these villages, Spanish is their second language and they primarily speak their native Maya language, which creates an even bigger language barrier. The silver lining to that though is that even if you speak a little bit of Spanish, you will likely be able to communicate with the locals as many of them are still learning Spanish themselves. Even if you don’t speak Spanish very well, the locals are very kind, understanding and patient and appreciate your effort. 

Knowing some basic Spanish vocabulary, verbs and key phrases will help you immensely when traveling throughout Guatemala. I highly recommend taking the time to learn some of the language before you go and bring a phrasebook with you or download a smartphone app to help you communicate on the go. 

Guatemala Has Crime

Although I had a very positive experience traveling solo throughout Guatemala and didn’t encounter any problems or feel unsafe or threatened (aside from being slightly uncomfortable with some cat-calling incidences in Panajachel and Flores), crime is still a big problem throughout the country. Like anywhere, there are places in Guatemala which are considered to be safer than other areas of the country for tourists – like Antigua, Flores, Lake Atitlan, Semuc Champey and Quetzaltenango (Xela), to name a few.

The most common crime to occur against tourists is petty theft that is often opportunistic in nature, not violent murders, sexual assaults or kidnappings. Crime can happen everywhere you go, so don’t let the media and government travel advisories scare you off from visiting the beautiful country of Guatemala. Here is a list of some things that you can do to help protect yourself and reduce the likelihood of something bad happening to you or becoming a victim of crime (these tips apply to any country you travel to, not just Guatemala). They basically all boil down to using common sense and practicing basic safety precautions.

  • Always remain aware of your surroundings. Keep an eye on who is around you and don’t put yourself into dicey situations – like walking alone in isolated places, for example. 
  • Don’t walk alone after dark. Although I did do this a few times and had no issues, it really depends on the situation, the place and how comfortable you personally feel about doing it. When I did walk back to my hostel alone, it was only a short ways and I never wandered the streets aimlessly or walked for long distances. It is a wise idea to take a taxi or tuk tuk back to your accommodation if you have been out after dark and they are always available. Late evening and nighttime is when most of the crime occurs.
  • Listen to your gut instinct. Have you ever been traveling and just had a weird feeling in your stomach that something was “off?” That was your instinct trying to tell you something. When you have this feeling, it’s important to listen to it and get out of a situation or place as soon as you have the opportunity to do so. 
  • Don’t flash your valuables and try to blend in. When you’re walking around the towns and villages of Guatemala, don’t be wearing expensive jewelry or have your DSLR camera hanging around your neck and out in the open. I always carried my camera in a small daypack and only pulled it out when I was taking photos and then hid it away. 
  • Dress appropriately. Guatemala is a conservative country and many locals still wear their traditional clothing. It would be disrespectful to their culture and traditions for you to dress provocatively with lots of skin showing. So ladies, cover up and dress modestly in order to gain the trust and respect of the locals. 
  • Carry an anti-theft backpack or purse. I genuinely love this backpack and crossbody purse from PacSafe and I use them on all of my travels. They both have lots of anti-theft features like slash proof mesh and straps to help prevent theft and I feel pretty safe using them to carry around my valuables.
  • Ask the locals or expats. A really good tip is to ask the locals or expats for advice when it comes to safety. If you aren’t sure whether a neighbourhood or area or attraction is safe to visit, ask someone who lives there or even the staff at your accommodation and they will give you an honest answer, because they are aware of the current situations. 

The Backpacker Trail is Well-Defined

Guatemala has a very well-defined backpacker trail to follow and it’s really easy to get around. If you visit these typical traveler destinations, you will probably find yourself running into at least one person who you’ve met somewhere else along your journey. Most people pretty much follow the same route, with some variations. 

The colonial city of Antigua is the most popular destinations for travelers because of its polished and charming beauty, fantastic restaurants, variety of attractions and things to do in and around the city and lots of tourist services. Lake Atitlan is the second most visited destination. This volcanic lake is ringed by a collection of small traditional Mayan villages around the shoreline which are all unique and interesting to visit.

Other popular destinations along the route include the small colonial town and island of Flores in the northern Peten region along with the Mayan Ruins of Tikal, Quetzaltenango (Xela) and Lanquin/Semuc Champey. 

ATMs Often Run Out of Cash or Simply Stop Working

Although I never actually experienced this one myself, I had read online and heard from people personally about how the ATMs can often run out of cash. This means that it’s important to always have more than enough cash with you and maybe take out a little bit extra when you are at the ATM, just in case. 

Another issue with the ATMs is that sometimes they just don’t work at all and won’t dispense any cash, even though they don’t say they are out of order. I experienced this a number of times throughout my two weeks. In Chichicastenango, I tried to take out cash from a few different ATM machines inside banks and none of them gave me any cash even after I went through the whole process and the machine said that it was dispensing cash! This same thing also happened to me in Panajachel and in Antigua. Thankfully in the last two places, I was finally able to find a machine that worked. 

If you go to an ATM and it doesn’t give you your money, make sure to keep the receipt, just in case your bank tries to charge you for the transaction afterwards. Another good practice to follow in order to minimize the risks of your card information being stolen or scammed, is to only use ATMs that are affiliated with banks and located inside a bank or a secure room outside of the bank. It’s generally not a good idea to use freestanding ATM machines on the streets or in convenience stores or anywhere where there isn’t a guard watching over it, as this makes it easier for thieves to attach a card skimmer to the machine and steal your information. 

Always Carry Small Change

As I have already mentioned, Guatemala is a poor country and more than half the population lives in poverty. As a result, it can be difficult to break larger bills (like Q100 or Q200), especially when you are shopping at local markets and small shops. Many Guatemalans only use smaller bills (like Q50, Q20 and smaller) so it’s important to always have these smaller amounts with you. Usually hostels/hotels and travel agencies will have change on hand to give you for these larger notes, so I recommend using them to pay at those types of places in order to get smaller change. 

Guatemala is also largely a cash-based country. Most shops and restaurants do not take debit or credit cards, only cash. Always make sure to have more than enough cash with you. 

Guatemalans are Kind, Warm and Welcoming People

I had such positive experiences traveling throughout Guatemala and the local people were a significant contributor. 

Upon arriving at the Guatemala City airport, I was greeted by my private driver and his wife from Adrenalina Tours with warm smiles, friendliness and generosity. Throughout my entire two weeks in the country, I continued to encounter many kind and generous locals. Everyone greeted one another and smiled while passing in the streets in some of the small traditional villages around Lake Atitlan; the hospitality that I experienced at local restaurants, hostels and bed and breakfasts was all so accommodating, friendly and inviting; and people were happy to help when I needed directions or clarification about something. 

Despite the fact that many locals live in poverty and rough living conditions, they continued to express cheerfulness and positivity and made foreigners feel welcome in their homes and businesses. It was incredible to witness and experience. I think that we can all learn a few lessons from these individuals! 

I feel blessed to have met and interacted with such wonderful human beings in Guatemala and I hope that you are able to experience the warmth and friendliness of the local people during your travels there as well.

Guatemala is Truly Magical

Guatemala is an absolutely gorgeous country with breathtaking natural scenery, warm and friendly locals, a vibrant and fascinating culture, interesting history, and so many amazing and unique things to see and do. There are lush tropical jungles, charming and authentic villages, traditional colonial towns and cities with lots of colour, volcanoes and mountains. Guatemala is the perfect place to explore for nature lovers, adventure seekers, history buffs and culture enthusiasts.

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

The Guatemalan flag waving proudly on top of a government building in Antigua

Guatemala is simply magical. You will probably fall in love and never want to leave.

Guatemala is a lesser-known hidden gem in Central America that features such unbelievable and awe-inspiring natural beauty, fascinating history, vibrant indigenous culture, bustling and colourful local markets, interesting and authentic Mayan villages and towns, detailed Spanish colonial architecture, beautiful churches and cathedrals, and colourful colonial cities. It is an incredible country to explore!

I hope that this post has helped you in your travel planning and that it inspires you to visit Guatemala for your next adventure! 

Planning Your Guatemalan Adventure?

First of all, check out the rest of my blog posts about Guatemala for a source of inspiration and help with your own research and planning. 

Here are some helpful links if you are currently planning your next travel adventure!

Compare prices and book your flights using Momondo. I love the user-friendly design of this website and how easy it is to filter your flights by price, duration, etc. It’s a great place to find the best flight deals! 

Use Hostelworld to book a private room or dorm bed at a budget-friendly hostel and browse through listings across the globe. Use Booking.com to find a huge inventory of independent hotels, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts, hostels and chain hotels around the world and for every budget. And if you’re looking for a more authentic and unique experience of staying in a local’s home at your destination, then book your stay using Airbnb (sign-up using my link and get a discount off your first stay). 

Pin It!

Things to Know Before Traveling to Guatemala | brittanymthiessen.com

Are you planning a trip to Guatemala? Do you have any questions about your trip? 

Let me know in the comments and I will do my best to help you out. 

To read more of my posts from my travels in Guatemala, click here.

Follow me on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram to read more about my adventures. 

Thanks for reading!

I’m Brittany, a small town girl living simply in the Canadian prairies. I love exploring off the beaten path and discovering hidden gems both locally in Manitoba and beyond; traveling independently; photography; eating plant-based and gluten-free foods; browsing local markets; and learning about cultures and ethnic cuisines. My other loves include cuddling with my cats, playing board games, drinking kombucha and matcha tea, spending time in nature, studying maps, eating Mexican food, and making fresh fruit smoothies.

On this website, I share my photography, in-depth travel guides, reflections on a variety of travel-related topics, reviews, and favourite simple and healthy recipes, while also documenting stories from my experiences, travel adventures, local wanderings and explorations.

Follow along using the social media buttons below and read more about me here

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like

  • I’m loving seeing your photos and experiences from Guatemala. It looks absolutely beautiful, and definitely incredibly different to anything I’ve experienced. I hate seeing stray dogs and kitties, it breaks my heart. When I went to Tunisia a few years ago, the hotel had loads of little kitty kennels about called “resto cats”. There were loads of strays around, so they welcomed them into the hotel, fed them, the tourists loved them, and I assume they kept on top of any rodents in return!

    • Thanks so much, Rosie! It truly is such a gorgeous country. I know how you feel, it’s so sad. Aw that is a really good idea! More hotels should do that. 🙂

  • Bianka Gomez

    Brittany, Thank you. My family is from Guatemala and I have been traveling there since I was a toddler. It has so many hidden adventures and beautiful/peaceful sites. We are all going in just a few weeks and traveling to most of the places you had a chance to see…I absolutely love it, its my favorite place in the world…I feel so connected to the country and I happily get lost in the central plaza in Antigua. Thank you!

  • Cassie Nataro

    Hi, I’m traveling to Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Mazatenango soon. I’m also vegan and I was wondering if you had any recommendations for restaurants while I’m there.

  • DVR

    The best guide I’ve read on Guatemala! Very practical tips