Guatemala... a first timer's guide
If you are considering exploring Latin America, find out what Guatemala has to offer first-time visitors in our guide.
Home to an enticing combination of charming colonial cities and spectacular Mayan ruins, Guatemala is a wonderful place to explore. Less visited than many other Latin American destinations, it is a great place to track down some living Mayan culture, as well as a number of impressive ruins.
We spoke to Cox & Kings' expert Arturo Tapia to find out everything a first-time visitor to Guatemala needs to know – from the best way to get hold of local currency to attractions that should not be missed.
Guatemala: An overview
Located in Central America, Guatemala has three main areas of interest for tourists. The first are its colonial cities – most notably the former capital, Antigua, whose architecture is a joy to explore. Then, you have its Mayan ruins, which are made all the more interesting by the fact that so many Mayan peoples live in Guatemala today – indeed, as they make up approximately 60% of the population you will have the opportunity to see this ancient culture living in the modern world.
Thirdly, there is the chance to enjoy its spectacular landscape, which includes dramatic volcanoes, aquamarine lakes and jungles that teem with wildlife. Typically, a good introductory itinerary will offer something of all these elements – but you can of course make alterations depending on your individual interests.
Currency in Guatemala
Of course, any first-time visitor to the country will need a good grounding in the basic practicalities of visiting, and it is these we will look at next. One of the primary things to be aware of is that you will not be able to obtain the local currency, the Quetzal, in the UK.
Arturo advised that the best thing to do is change your GBP into US dollars before you travel, then convert these into quetzals once you arrive.
Language, vaccinations and other practical tips
Arturo also offered an overview of other key practical points that you, as a first-time visitor to Guatemala, are bound to have in mind.
- Language: The main language spoken in Guatemala is Spanish, but Arturo highlighted that several Mayan languages are spoken too. In the main cities and hotels, you can expect people to speak a little English.
- Inoculations: When it comes to vaccinations, Arturo stressed that you should always consult your GP before travel, to get vaccination advice that is both relevant to your personal medical and inoculation history, as well as based on the current vaccination guidelines of the time.
- Flights: There are no direct flights between the UK and Guatemala, so typically services will include a stop in either Madrid or the United States, and will take approximately 13 to 14 hours.
- Internal travel: You will be greeted by a strong tourism infrastructure in Guatemala. Travel from one destination to the next is usually completed by road via coach or car, although occasionally internal flights are taken – Arturo commented that Flores is a common place to visit via plane.
- Cultural sensitivity: When asked about cultural customs that travellers ought to be aware of, Arturo said there is just one key area to look out for – you ought to avoid taking photos of local Mayan people. He explained that they do not like to be photographed by tourists without permission, and that it is important to respect their wishes by putting cameras away.
Guatemala's must-see destinations
The city of Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango market and the Mayan ruins at Tikal were all cited by Arturo as being perfect for first-time visitors. And indeed, visiting them all with offer you an excellent balance between the country's various types of attractions. Here is a short overview of what each spot has to offer.
A beautiful city, Antigua ranks among the best-preserved colonial cities in the world, making it a natural highlight of any tours of Guatemala. Once, it was the nation's capital, and today you will find a city peppered with pastel houses, grand old churches and bustling markets.
Indeed, Antigua is somewhere that positively bubbles with life, and it is wonderful to simply stroll around the colourful streets, soaking up the ambience. Its many fine museums, churches and cathedrals, such as Catedral de Santiago, make for excellent places to pop into for a little cultural enrichment.
This popular stop on Guatemalan itineraries can be visited on Thursdays and Sundays. Ranking among the country's largest markets, Chichicastenango market sells everything from vegetables to tourist fare, which typically constitutes handicraft creations such as pottery and textiles.
However, the charm of this market lies in the fact that it is by no means a tourist affair. Local people will walk for hours on end to shop here, with the stalls offering virtually everything they might need, including soap, clothing and toys, as well as food.
Guatemala is blessed with some truly remarkable natural beauty, and there are fewer better places to experience this than Lake Atitlan. This glorious lake has a background of verdant hills and dramatic volcanoes – a reminder that the lake itself was formed from volcanic activity tens of thousands of years ago.
However, natural beauty is not the only reason to come here. Indeed, the edge of the lake is sprinkled with fascinating Mayan villages, making this an excellent place to come to get a little closer to indigenous cultures. As well as seeing the villages, you can spot locals washing their clothing in the lake, as well as fishing in traditional boats.
For many travellers, one of the major draws to Guatemala is its profusion of Mayan ruins. The best-known of these are at Tikal; here, nestled in the heart of the jungle, you can see the remnants of a major site of Mayan civilisation. So important are these ruins, which span everything from palaces and temples to simpler dwellings, that Tikal National Park is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Arturo advised that there are plenty of other fascinating ruins in this area, if Mayan history interests you. At the Uaxactun ruins, for example, you can camp overnight, while the Yaxha ruins are an incredible sight at sunset.
Guatemala City may not be one of country's main tourist destinations, but Arturo suggested that if you're keen to go to some of the nation's museums, it is a good place to visit for a day.
Among the museums you might like to visit is Museo Miraflores, which is actually located just outside of town. Here, you can see a combination of archaeological artefacts and indigenous textiles. Another fascinating place to visit is the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, which is home to the biggest collection of ancient Mayan artefacts in the country. Browsing its displays, you can expect to see stone sculptures, thrones, jewellery and much more.
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