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Guatemala - translated as "Land of Trees" - is a relatively small country in Central America, Anyone who has ever been here will be able to confirm how beautiful and diverse this country is with its warm-hearted inhabitants and incredible landscape.
Vacations in Guatemala are something for you if you are enthusiastic about Central America, especially the ancient Mayan culture, or want to explore the rainforest and the breathtaking volcanoes while trekking. When well-prepared and in compliance with the local safety recommendations, you can spend exciting and enriching vacations between temples, the stunning coast of either the Caribbean Sea or the Pacific, and the jungle. Here you can find out what you definitely have to see in Guatemala.
The Republic of Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America. Bordering countries are Honduras, Belize, Mexico, and El Salvador. 16,913,503 inhabitants live in a total area of 42,042 square miles. In order to communicate in Guatemala, you need knowledge of the national language, Spanish. The currency is the quetzal, with the conversion rate to the dollar being approximately 1:8. ($1 USD is roughly 8 quetzals).
A good half of Guatemala's area is used for agriculture, the rest is divided into forests and nature reserves. The forests in the north are composed of rainforest areas, in the south and inland upland areas are dominated by pine savannas. There are mangrove forests on both coasts – Guatemala borders the Pacific Ocean in the southwest and the Gulf of Honduras in the east – and cloud forests on the mountain slopes.
To get to Guatemala, you take the plane directly near Guatemala City at Aurora Airport. Within the country, the "camionetas" are the means of transport of choice: the colorful intercity buses are inexpensive, are considered safe and the transport network is well developed. If you need a taxi, you should book a licensed vehicle. This can be recognized by the "A" on the license plate.
To enter Guatemala you need a valid (temporary) passport; a visa is not required if you stay in the country for a maximum of 90 days as a tourist. When entering by land via one of the neighboring countries, you must make sure to get an entry stamp in your passport in order to avoid complications when leaving the country.
Our pirate tip: Away from the tourist hotspots, Guatemala is not entirely safe for tourists. As a backpacker, you should always join a larger group whenever possible and never go it alone. Hiking tours on the volcanoes and in the national parks should always be accompanied by an official guide.
In Guatemala there are different regions where tourism has established itself:
The northern, largest federal state consists mainly of rainforest and is home to a Mayan site that is also interesting for tourists. In this original rainforest area you will find the biosphere reserve Reserva de la Biósfera Maya and various national parks, which are home to a wide variety of animal species: from jaguars to pumas to toucan, you can see everything here. Other highlights are the more than 200 archaeological sites and, above all, the ancient Mayan city of Tikal.
As with metropolitan Guatemala City and the old capital of Antigua Guatemala, it is home to several volcanoes. The area is considered the cultural center of the country. With Lake Atitlán, located in a caldera (a volcanic crater), the Sololá region has a natural monument worth seeing.
With its dark volcanic sand beaches, the coast is an insider tip and a magnet for bathers. The area has not yet been developed by mass tourism, so you can spend a relaxed beach vacation here away from the hustle and bustle.
Not far from the coastline, which is relatively short in Guatemalan territory, is Lake Izabal – the country's largest lake – another destination for tourists looking for relaxation.
By the way: Guatemala is also an excellent travel destination to brush up on your Spanish skills. A large number of local language schools offer language courses for tourists.
On vacation in Guatemala you should not miss out on some historical and scenic highlights:
Tikal: The ruins of the Mayan civilization are worth seeing in the rainforest. The temple site - translated its name means "place of voices" - is located in the middle of the jungle, the buildings date from the 4th century BC. In addition to the archaeological sites, you will encounter lush nature and wild animals such as the curious howler monkeys. You can find accommodation a few kilometers away in the island town of Flores. Pirate tip: Be sure to book a sunrise tour for Tikal! Getting up early is worth it!
National Museum of Archeology and Ethnology: The world famous museum is located in Guatemala City. The permanent exhibition presents you with a comprehensive overview of the history and culture of the Maya with over 25,000 exhibits.
Antigua Guatemala: The old capital was destroyed in 1773 by a devastating earthquake. Today the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the main attraction for tourists: some of the ruins of the historic buildings can be seen in the middle of the city, around which a cityscape with beautiful streets and squares in Spanish architecture has emerged. The city is the starting point for tours to the volcanoes in the surrounding area: Fuego, Pacaya and Acatenango.
The rainy season in Guatemala runs from May to October. With the rain comes weather-related restrictions on travel comfort - such as impassable roads, landslides and the like. The best travel time is therefore the period from November to April. Then the average temperatures are around 77 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and around 55 degrees at night. However, this period is also the tourist high season. You should therefore take care of accommodation in good time. In the rainforest areas, the climate is hot and humid.
In the tourist resorts there are hotels of different price ranges as well as backpacker hostels. However, as an American, you have to remember that hotel descriptions are written from a country-specific perspective. It is also not uncommon to pay for accommodation in advance.
Our pirate tip: Under no circumstances should you be persuaded to transport luggage for third parties. Draconian penalties for drug offenses also hit unsuspecting helpful foreigners.
Tradition and modernity meet in Guatemalan everyday life. American influences are omnipresent in the cities; in addition, there is the culture of the indigenous population. Guatemalans are considered to be positive and open-minded people who approach tourists with openness. The traditional homemade gifts with wood and clay works and masks are worth seeing and of national importance.
Popular national dishes often include beans, rice, and poultry. Tortillas are served with meals. Of particular great quality are the fresh fruit in the country and specialties such as Guacamole in Guatemalan style. As a drink, the local beer is ubiquitous.