Guatemala is a country in the Central America region of North America. It has borders to Mexico in the north/northwest, to Belize in the northeast, to Honduras in the southeast, to El Salvador in the south. It has a Pacific coastline to the southwest, and a tiny piece of Caribbean coastline to the east.
Tourism in Guatemala
Antigua Guatemala is a growing tourist destination in Guatemala as it is close to Guatemala City but is much calmer and safer, with more tourist oriented activities. It is possible to take buses from Antigua to many parts of Guatemala, many travel agencies offer shuttles to the main touristic places: Monterrico beach, Atitlan Lake, Coban, Tikal or even Copan in Honduras, though the transportation is more central in Guatemala City.
- El Mirador — massive early Maya site, perhaps the cradle of Maya civilization. Still being uncovered and studied; less developed for visitors than the other largest Maya sites.
- Tikal — long considered the largest of Maya ruins (although the ongoing investigations of El Mirador may challenge this claim), this huge and impressive ancient Maya site is probably worth the trip to Guatemala by itself. Stay in the park or in nearby Flores the night before in order to organise a early morning trip to Tikal, to see the sun rise over the ruins. Tours are easily organised from the surrounding areas.
- Aguateca — some of the best-preserved Mayan ruins in Guatemala where you are more likely to encounter archaeologists at work than tourists with cameras
- El Peru (Waká) — a three day trek/boat trip from Flores and identified as the source of many looted Maya artifacts
- Nakúm — an impressive Classic Maya site
The following nationalities do not need a visa to visit Guatemala: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Denmark, El Salvador, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, San Marino, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United States, United Kingdom, Vatican City, Venezuela.
Valid passports are required of everyone except citizens of Central American countries.
Travel By plane to Guatemala
Guatemala’s main airport, La Aurora International Airport (GUA), is near Guatemala City. International flights arrive mostly from other Central American countries and North America. The airport is currently undergoing modernizing reconstruction. It is now a glass-and-concrete edifice with modern shops and duty-frees that you might expect in any large city. Food options are still limited, however, although construction is not complete.
Guatemala’s secondary airport is situated in Flores, Petén. This small airport receives flights from a small number of close destinations including Belize, Mexico City and Guatemala City.
It is sometimes cheaper to fly into Cancun and take buses through Belize or to fly into Mexico City and then take a low-cost airlines flight on Aviacsa  for around $100 USD to Tapachula which is the Mexico/Guatemala border. Now Interjet is flying for $120 from Cancun and Mexico City to Guatemala City as well. Spirit Airlines offers great ticket prices from a number of US destinations (normally connecting through Miami/Ft. Lauderdale) – recently priced at $166 one-way to Guatemala City.
By bus to Guatemala
It’s hard to miss the colorfully-decorated buses that crowd the streets of major cities and highways of Guatemala. These are chicken buses, or camionetas in Spanish, and are a common form of travel for Guatemalans and a travel adventure for tourists. They are much cheaper than tourist vans or taxis and are usually very crowded, with three people squeezed into seats barely big enough for two children, and more people standing in the aisles.
The buses are often used North American school buses with the “Blue Bird” and “Ford” logos clearly visible. In addition to the driver there is usually a conductor standing in the door. The conductor collects fares, and from time to time jumps out to direct the bus through a blind intersection or around a tight turn. On the highways, the chicken bus drivers are aggressive, not hesitating to overtake in the face of oncoming traffic. Riding these buses on the steep highways of the Western Highlands is especially harrowing, but may be the most quintessential Guatemalan experience there is.
Bus conductors may sometimes charge out of country tourists more than the going rate. If you look to see what other travelers are paying you can usually avoid this problem, however, they often charge you the same as everyone else. Sending a message to the Guatemala tourism department, Inguat, will let them know of this problem.
You can board a chicken bus almost anywhere along its route. If you put out your arm, it will stop. You board and find a space to sit or stand. The conductor will come back to you after the bus is underway, and collect your fare. You need to recognize where your stop is, and move to the door in time. You ask the bus to stop, more or less wherever you want to get off.
Guatemala has a lot of volcanoes, many of them over 3,000 metres high.
- Volcán de Pacaya (2500m) – this is an active volcano about 30 minutes outside of Antigua. Some days it will not be accessible as the volcano may be too active to observe safely. Bring a jacket since it will be windy and cold at the top (although the ground will feel warm) and wear long pants as the volcanic rock can easily give you a nice cut. Tour guides can be organised from Antigua. Up until its most recent significant eruption in late May of 2010, you were able to walk right up to see real lava and even roast hot dogs and marshmellows over it. Although trips are still common and travel agencies still boast this possibility with pictures of tourist doing so in the past, this is no longer the case.
The local currency is the Quetzal which is named after the national bird, which has ancient and mythic connotations even today. One US dollar is equivalent to 7.61 Quetzales. US dollars are widely accepted and can be exchanged in most small towns. ATMs can be found in the major towns but do not expect to find them in every tourist spot. It is fairly easy to find your self in a town without an ATM or a place to change money.
Do not expect to be able to easily exchange travelers checks to Guatemala. You might find a few places willing to accept checks issued by American Express but all other types are universally turned down. Amazingly even major banks in Guatemala City do not accept VISA travelers checks.
The national currency is Quetzal(es). The rate of change is approximately 7.61 Quetzales for 1 US Dollar and 10.88 for 1 €uro (May 2011). It is common to use dollars in tourist areas. You will most likely have difficulties in changing other currencies than US Dollars, but euros are becoming increasingly common.
Shopping in Guatemala
It is common to bargain for most purchases in the open air market. Though you may be able to bargain in other places, be aware that chain-owned shops have fixed prices (you are no more likely to bargain in a Guatemalan Radio Shack than an American one).
These are some characteristically Guatemalan things you might consider buying here:
- Ron Zacapa Centenario — Guatemala’s prize-winning rum
- Fabrics and traditional textiles — Traditional Mayan blouses are known as huipiles (whi-peel) and skirts as cortes. Be aware that these are almost always entirely handmade and prices for a high-end huipil may be as high as Q1000.
- Jade — there is large jade working factory in Antigua, but it is course a very stone.
- Coffee — touted as one of the best-tasting varieties in the world
- Cardamom — Guatemala is the largest exporter in the world and Coban is the main centre of this trade.