You will find here most of the practical information you need to prepare your trip :
By air : Aurora Airport, located in Zona 13 of Guatemala City, would be a good entry point if most of the airlines did not arrive in the evening and if the capital was not so dangerous. When leaving, there is an US$25 airport tax. See airport for more details. The other international airport is in Santa Elena, Peten, convenient for Tikal.
By land : Most backpackers arrive by land, either from Mexico (6 borders), Belize (1 border), Honduras (3 borders) or El Salvador (4 borders). In theory, with so many crossing points and efficient immigrations offices, there should not be any problem. In practice, some crossing are known to be more efficient than others. Check locally for the latest. There should be a Q10 exit tax from Guatemala. Bear also in mind that currencies from other bordering countries are very difficult to change away from the border.
By boat : Boat crossing is possible only from/to Belize nowadays, from Livingston or Puerto Barrios. This is a good option to avoid backtracking in Belize but there is unfortunately a US$10 exit tax for boat departure from Guatemala. The crossing at Bethel for Mexico also involves a river crossing, which could cost you either Q5 or Q150 ! Check Flores for more details...
Most visitors from most developed countries will get a free 90 days visa on arrival.
From the touristy point of view, Guatemala never completely dries up. The busiest time is December to Eastern and summer, when Spanish schools may increase their rates. Santa Semana, the biggest cultural celebration in the country, is the only time however when reserving ahead may be necessary, especially in Antigua which receives half a million visitors and double its rates ! As a whole, Guatemala does not suffer from the high season cost increase of some of its more expensive neighbors and it can be cheaply visited year-round.
From the weather point of view, Guatemala is sometimes called "the land of the eternal spring" as most interesting places are located at an height between 1300 and 1800m and remains pleasantly cool, with an average temperature of 20C. However, it can go as high as 37C in the low-lying areas (Peten in particular), where sticky weather is common, and be quite freezing and damp in the highlands. The rainy season ("winter") last from May to Oct but the rain usually take place in the late afternoon only so there is no reason not to visit. Peten's most remote jungles areas will however be tricky & unpleasant to explore until January or February (but few people venture so far).
Guatemala may not be the biggest country in the area but it is the one that requires the most time. You should be given a three months visa and quite a few visitors actually use those, exit the country and come back ! Indeed, between a few weeks studying Spanish, a few weeks exploring and possibly a few weeks working as a volunteer, time in Guatemala is going fast !
It would actually be a pity to spend less than three weeks exploring. Five to eight weeks are recommended. Take your time to experience Guatemala !
Guatemala's currency, the quetzal, is relatively stable and was worth about Q7.65 at the time of my visit. See the banknotes
As for all the countries in the area, currencies other than US$ are very tricky to change, with the exception of Pounds Sterling at the few branches of Lloyds Bank (but rather poor rate). Neighboring currencies should be changed at the borders.
The easiest Travelers Cheques to change are 'American Express' but the others are usually also OK in at least one bank of each big city. Visa cards are however much more handy than Mastercards for ATM withdrawals. Check at home the cost of such withdrawals to avoid surprises...
Guatemala is on average the cheapest country in the area and you could very well survive with US$8-10 a day, even without staying in dormitories !
Guesthouses are very reasonably priced (usually less than US$3 per person for a room without shower), a set dinner in a basic & local restaurant should cost around $1.5 and transportation by 'chicken' bus usually cost less than $0.5 per hour.
However, beer is among the most expensive in the area at around $1.5 for one litter or $1 for 33cl. Big bottle of waters (1.5L) are ridiculously expensive at $0.55 but cheaper alternatives fortunately exist (see travel tips) for as little as $0.13 per liter. Locally produced ice-creams are expensive while very-locally produced ones may not be safe.
Like in the other neighboring countries, imported goods are more expensive (or much more expensive) than at home and shopping in the supermarkets is a very frustrating experience as most goods are imported : you won't save much there !
See Passplanet's Cost Table for more details.
As a whole, Guatemala is a rather healthy country to visit and common sense is the only requirement.
Although I met a few backpackers who were drinking the local tap water, this is certainly not recommended in Guatemala ! In the same idea, do not eat any raw or uncooked food, incl vegetables. The nice tacos sold by the side of the roads and full of fresh greeneries could send you to bed for a day or two.
The food in Guatemala is usually prepared for lunch. Dining in the smallest places, you may get re-heated (and therefore more problematic) food. Avoid in particular the mashed beans of such places. Whatever you do, it is likely that you experience some kind of turista within your first few weeks. This should not last long and reinforce your organism for the rest of the journey... In case of vomiting or diarrhea, head to the drugstore and ask for Ancalmo's "Suero Oral" (or equivalent) : those 6gr sachets to dilute into water will bring your energy back into minutes !
Most of the country being above 1300m, mosquitoes and malaria are not widespread and prophylaxis can be avoided as long as you stay in the highlands. You will however need to start the treatment (usually Nivaquine) one or two weeks before going down : the North (Peten) and the East are exposed, especially during the rainy season inside the jungle. Avoiding the bites is always the best idea, at night but also during the day since outbreaks of dengue fewer have been reported (no specific treatment but not fatal).
Keeping a safe distance from the dogs or the bats is also a great idea since there are cases of rabies. The ten rabies shots necessary in case of bite are not a great way to enjoy your trip...
Being up to date with your inoculations (polio, tetanus, typhoid, diphtheria) is of course essential and adding hepatitis A and B is recommended.
The safety issues : where you have tourists, you have problems ! And unfortunately, the locals do not always make the distinction between the rich tourists and the backpackers. The most dangerous places therefore coincide with the highlights of Guatemala : the volcanoes by Antigua and Tikal. The 'chances' that something happen to you remains low but you will hear a few horror stories. Those located & sporadic serious problems (murders and rapes did happen), the few buses robbed (tourist buses usually) and the numerous assaults on visitors are a serious threat to Guatemala's tourism industry. Hopefully, there seem to be a reaction from the authorities : Tikal was full of armed police guys ! But then, difficult to check behind each tree...
The 'extranjero' special prices : it is very frequent for foreigners to be charged much more than national people (up to six times), themselves sometimes charged a bit more than local people. This is probably because you leave far less rubbish on the spot than they do...
The cheating on travelers : this seems to be a national sport ! Whether on buses or at the market, it is a bit tricky to know the right local price. Asking other passengers or a few shops will help. Personally, I did not feel being robbed too much but this annoyance was reported by a few backpackers so...
Being too tall for the chicken buses : 1m70 is a maximum to travel in relative comfort ! Of course, you could rely on luxury buses but where will be the fun ?
Only beans, rice and chicken ! Or western "expensive" restaurants ! It is a bit caricatural but getting cheap & good local food is sometimes a bit tricky. Snacks also lack variety or are rather expensive.
The price of goods at the supermarkets. On average, it will be as expensive or even more expensive than in your own country. Cooking your food yourself therefore does not work out much cheaper than going to a little local 'comedor'. It could even be more expensive...
Some cases of sexual harassments and offensive hands in the largest cities. As usual, any provocative way of dressing would make things worse...
Some crazy bus schedules : for some destinations, you will have no choice but to leave at 2 or 3 in the morning ! As some of the roads are narrow with a deep ravine on one side (which also means beautiful scenery), you may wish to hitch your way during the day instead.
The barking dogs (and a few biting as well, something that is certainly much more worrying) and very early roosters : bring earplugs if you want to sleep well !
The dusty roads are not a cause of concern if you are inside a bus (although all the windows will usually be closed) but certainly one if walking by the road. Regularly, you have to stop, close your eyes and hold your breath, until the cloud of fume disappear. Then you can walk again... until the next vehicle !
The 'Quetzal' kids : too often, the kids you will pass by will smile at you then ask for money. The 'hola !' has been a bit too naturally replaced by a 'one quetzal !' The answer to this should be 'por que ?'. If you really wish to give kids money, then do it while having your shoes polished (funny as well with sandals)...
The unreliable transport info : any written schedule should be treated cautiously and you should always double check with a few people. Then, show up 30mn in advance to avoid bad surprises...
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