Rear View Mirror: Guatemala Travel Tips & Observations After Four Months in the Country


We spent a total of 140 days traveling in Guatemala during our Trans-Americas Journey road trip. We trekked through the jungle to El Mirador archaeological site, witnessed drunken horse racing in Todos Santos, returned to lovely Lake Atitlan again and again, got robbed while camping at a lake inside a volcano and fell in love (again) with Tikal. Here are our top Guatemala travel tips. Enjoy!

The word Guatemala means “land of forests” in one of the local Mayan dialects. Ironic, since deforestation is such a problem in Guatemala. We wonder what a Mayan word for “land of mudslides” is…

The impossibly technicolor quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala. It’s also the name of the country’s currency and a really great reason to start planning a visit to Guatemala right now.

Quetzal at Chelemha Cloud Forest Lodge

This male quetzal emerged from its nest inside a hollow tree trunk and posed for us on a nearby branch in the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

The awesome ceiba, sacred to the Mayans, is the national tree of Guatemala. The thing starts its live covered in enormous spikes and can grow more than 200 feet (70 meters) tall.

Guatemala is part of the Mundo Maya (along with southern Mexico, Belize and Honduras) and home to Uaxactun archaeological site just a few miles beyond Tikal. We’ve visited more than 60 Mayan archaeological sites since the Journey began and Uaxactun is our top spot for anyone interested in being part of authentic, less-crowded ceremonies marking the mysterious end of the Mayan long count calendar in 2012.

In the most recent Presidential election the wife of the then-sitting President  of Guatemala divorced him so she could, in her words, “marry the people.” This was widely seen as a blatant attempt to get around constitutional rules against family members of an outgoing President taking over the post. It took months, but Guatemala’s Supreme Court eventually saw it that way too and ruled that she had to abandon her campaign for the Presidency.

Postage to mail a postcard from Guatemala to the United States is a whopping 6.5Q (about US$0.84).

In October of 2011 Guatemala City introduced a few women-only buses.

Lake Atitlan and  San Pedro Volcano sunset, Guatemala

San Pedro volcano across Lake Atitlán.

We appreciate the no-nonsense language of our Lonely Planet guidebook to Guatemala in which the author wisely reminds readers that his guide (or any guide) “is not God talking.”

There’s a division of the Guatemalan Tourism Department called PROATUR and their sole job is to assist tourists with questions, problems and conflicts. We can tell you from first hand experience that this unique program gets results.

Antigua, Guatemala was settled by the Spanish as the capital of all of Central America. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site city just outside Guatemala City is famous for its Colonial charm and for its Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions and pomp. It’s the largest Easter celebration in The Americas and a must see for the religious or the just plain curious.

Colonial streets of Antigua with Agua Volcano

Colonial architecture lines a cobblestone street in Antigua with the Agua Volcano–one of three that ring the city– in the distance.

Guys reflexively put their thumbs inside the mouths of their beer bottles and pop them before drinking. As if your thumb is cleaner than the bottle???

It’s far from a foodie destination but for some reason you can get great pesto sauce in Guatemala. Go figure. Also, they do a mean fried chicken and we had some of the best ceviche we’ve ever had in the midst of Guatemala City.

Guatemalans use the ancient “libra” measurement which weighs the same as a pound and is actually the Latin word from which we get the “lb” abbreviation.

Topes are called tumulos in Guatemala and these speed bumps in the road are just as ubiquitous and annoying as they are in Mexico and the rest of Central America.

We thought the Mexicans were crazy for fireworks and noise makers but Guatemalan festivals out-boom anything we ever saw (or heard) in Mexico. Don’t believe us? Check out our video from the Festival of Santo Tomas in Chichicastenango.

dancers - Chichicastenango festival

Costumed dancers representing Spanish conquistadors strut their stuff during the annual Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Guatemalans have butchered Mexican food–perhaps even more so than we have in the United States. US fast food chains, on the other hand, are amply represented in the cities.

Spanish is the national language in Guatemala, but words that are common in Mexico are not used here and vice versa. As if our language skills weren’t struggling already…

Guatemala is so small and sparsely populated that there’s only one area code for the whole country. And everyone seems to have a cell phone.

The grounds of the Mayan sites in Guatemala are extremely well-kept. We watched busy, busy caretakers literally sweep the paths at Yaxha (where a season of Survivor was filmed, by the way) and even remote and rarely visited sites like Dos Pilas (which averages about 30 visitors per month) were totally tidy and free of jungle debris.

Tikal main plaza - Temple 1

Temple 1 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

In Guatemala City, motorcyclists are required wear helmets and reflective vests with their license plate number on them. It’s also illegal to carry a passenger on a motorcycle in an attempt to thwart a favored mode of transportation for thieves and assassins targeting people stuck in traffic.

Gas prices vary by up to 40 cents per gallon, so shop around.

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5 comments on “Rear View Mirror: Guatemala Travel Tips & Observations After Four Months in the Country

  1. That was so interesting!! My daughter and I still talk about Guatemalan speed bumps when we go over “speed bumps” here in America. Those Guatemalans don’t mess around with those speed bumps! (But I never saw anyone actually observe a stop sign there either!). I enjoyed seeing Guatemala through your eyes — it made me feel like my week there truly only scratched the surface!! I am sorry you got robbed — I guess it “goes with the territory to some degree” but still can’t be fun. It was sobering when our group was returning from Antigua to Guatemala City for our final night when the driver got out and locked us INTO the bus, so no one would force their way in! Love that country, love those people.
    Paula Kiger recently posted..Across Town and Around the World – Celebrating Astounding Women for International Women’s DayMy Profile

  2. Thank you for your wonderful blog! I enjoy Guatemala through every post vicariously! I plan on traveling back there in November, with lots of notes I have culled from your fabulous blog. There are lots of us out there that read you quietly without commenting … but we are out there, thoroughly enjoying your your experiences! Keep up the great work.
    Lynda

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