Guatemala is a Central American country located south of Mexico and bordered by Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, with the Pacific ocean lying to the south of the country. Whilst Guatemala is the most densely populated Central American country, only 2% of its land is urbanised, the rest is rich in vibrant green forests, wildlife and volcanoes, with 27 located in southern Guatemala, 4 that are still active. Alongside Guatemala's breathtaking landscape, the impressive Mayan pyramids of Tikal and the stunning colonial architecture left behind from the Spanish conquest, draw curious visitors from all over the world. Whether you want to wander the cobbled streets of the old capital Antigua, explore mysterious Mayan temples, lose yourself in the tranquility of Largo de Atitlan, dive into the swimming hold of Semuc Champey, trek through the jungle, surf the swells or lounge in a hammock on the beach, Guatemala has it all.
**Please note that this post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through these links will reward Go Travel and Talk with a small commission (at no extra cost to you). These funds help keep the website going and will eventually go to supporting our Go Travel and Talk charities and social impact organisations.
Climate in Guatemala
Guatemala has two distinct seasons:
- The rainy season: Officially begins at the end of May and runs until October, but it is still possible to enjoy the country’s many beautiful attractions with minimal disruption, especially in the central areas that have clear skies, but heavy downpours in the afternoon/evening. In the more remote areas, the rains can affect travel due to poorly maintained roads.
- The dry season: Lasts from November to April. Please note that during this time, it can be very busy, especially when the festivals are on (e.g Semana Santa in Antigua).
The average temperature in Guatemala is around 22℃ (72℉), but this varies according to altitude. In the mountainous central region (Antigua, Guatemala City, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango) temperatures are average 18℃ (64℉) in the dry season, which is perfect for hiking and outdoor pursuits. Temperatures drop significantly in the evenings, so pack warm clothes. The dry season is also when all of the festivals are on and you won’t want to miss those (Semana Santa, Day of the Dead, Saint Thomas). To the northeast and on the Pacific coast, temperatures can reach up to 37℃ (99℉)
The best time to visit Guatemala is during the dry season (May to October), but prices can be inflated and some places can feel overrun with tourists. Accommodation gets booked up early, so I suggest planning ahead.
Currency in Guatemala
Guatemala has its own currency: the quetzal (Q / GTQ), which comes in denominations of notes (1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100) and coins (1Q and 5, 10, 25, 50 centavos). For larger transactions, the US dollar is also accepted. Always use the currency being asked for: most of the tourist attractions are priced in USD and food is priced in quetzal. Currency conversion will often be inflated for tourists.
At the time of writing the conversion rates from quetzal to Euros and USD are as follows:
€1 = Q8.80
$1 = Q7.70
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Use as small a notes or coins where possible.
Whilst there are ATMs (Cajero Automatico) in the major cities and towns across Guatemala, this is not true for the smaller places that are off the beaten track. Our advice is to always carry some cash and local currency on you. When using ATMs, use the ones inside a bank if you can, if this isn’t possible, check for tampering and be wary of who is around and behind you. Look out for:
- Banco de Guatemala (major bank in Guatemala)
- 5B (yellow ATMS): Maximum withdrawal is Q2,000 (€230 / $260) with a fee of Q45 (€5 / $6) per transaction
- BAC (red and white ATMs): Maximum withdrawal is Q3,000 (€340 / $390) with a fee of Q25 (€3 / $3) per transaction
- BI (Silver and black): Maximum withdrawal is Q2,000 (€230 / $260). NO FEES.
Credit cards are only accepted in major tourist cities (their charge is significant) and Visa is accepted across most of Guatemala but again, there is always a withdrawal charge. I used the Monzo card when I was travelling, which allowed me to withdraw £250 free of charge per month and no charge incurred when I paid for purchases, although this may change so please check their policy information. Another option (if you are from the UK) is the Starling Card. This card has minimal/no foreign transaction fees which means masses of savings! I would suggest taking two bank cards with you and store them separately, so if you lose one, you have a back up.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Tell your bank you are travelling abroad. This will prevent them from freezing your card.
You can change money at any of the major banks but make sure you have identification on you (passport.) At the borders, you will be approached by money changers, whilst they tend to offer better rates than the banks, watch out for counterfeit notes and do not accept notes that are damage as no stores will accept them.
Getting Around Guatemala
Guatemala has very thorough shuttle services. You can book shuttles to any backpacker destinations from any hostel and they are very reasonably priced (much cheaper than Costa Rica). E.g, from Guatemala City airport to Antigua it costs only $10 (€9).
Public buses in Guatemala are also known as ‘Chicken buses’ and they will bring you some of your fondest memories from this beautiful country. Chicken buses buses are old American school buses, painted in bright colours and individually decorated by their drivers/owners. They have no air conditioning or an allocated seat system, and whilst they are often overcrowded and uncomfortable, they are cheap, stop everywhere you need to go and offer a truly unique experience! Expect to pay around Q10 (€1 / $1.30) for one hour of travel. Read our blog on Chicken Buses for a valuable insight.
There is no need to pre-book your tickets, just turn up at the bus station and look for the sign on the bus. In some cases, there will not be a central bus station, especially in the smaller towns; it is a case of standing on the side of the road and waiting for the bus to show up. Always check with your accommodation what the situation is with onward travel. It is worth noting, that Chicken buses are slowly being replaced with mini vans due to increased incidents of chicken bus collisions. These minivans are called, ‘micro buses’ and still withhold the same processes of packing in as many people as possible!
For the routes between the major cities, there is the option of more luxurious buses, labelled as ‘Pullman’, ‘especial’ or ‘primera clase’. These are not so overcrowded and you will definitely get a seat to yourself and in most cases there is a toilet onboard (not always working) and a food service. Expect to pay a little more, but they are comfortable and work to a reliable timetabling system! You can pre-book your tickets for these buses with most coming in and out of Guatemala City bus station. Distances are not huge in Guatemala so you will unlikely be on a bus for more than 5 hours. Night buses are scarce and not recommended in Guatemala, especially for female solo travelers. We strongly advise doing your journeying during the day.
In the smaller towns, such as Antigua and Quetzaltenango, cycling is a great way to explore. You can hire bicycles by the hour or by the day
To explore Lake Atitlan, there are boat services that will take you from one side of the lake to the other and it is beautiful!
Internal and domestic flights in Guatemala are limited. You can fly between Guatemala City and Flores which takes around 45 minutes with the carrier TACA, operating out of Guatemala City’s La Aurora International airport (GUA) . However, most of these flights are on small planes that can be fairly expensive.
Travel Insurance for Guatemala
You can buy and claim online, even after you've left home. Travel insurance from WorldNomads.com is available to people from 140 countries and it is the only travel insurance we will ever use! It is designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities.
WorldNomads.com is backed by a suite of strong and specialist travel insurers who provide you with great cover, 24 hour emergency assistance and the highest levels of support. The WorldNomads.com prices are some of the most competitive online and if you need to change plans, you can buy more cover or claim online while you are still away. You can even buy a World Nomads policy if you're already travelling. They also offer travel safety advice and tips online through the World Nomads Travel Safety Hub and WorldNomads.com members can learn the local lingo through a series of iPod & iPhone Language Guides and can stay in touch with family and friends with an online travel journal. You can find out more about why travel insurance is important for your trip. If you have any questions about your travel insurance or travel safety in general, please contact WorldNomads.com directly.
Medical Advice for Guatemala
When you know where you want to go in Guatemala, go to your doctor’s surgery and ask to see the nurse to discuss travel vaccinations. They will go through your travel plans and suggest the appropriate vaccinations. In the UK, some of the vaccinations will be free of charge through your doctor’s surgery, and some will cost. To keep the cost down, you can visit a travel centre instead, where the injections are cheaper. When thinking about vaccinations for your trip, the following website can be really helpful: Fit for Travel. It is likely that you will need:
- Hepatitis A and B, tetanus
- Rabies, typhoid, Diphtheria
- Yellow Fever - this is an absolute must. You may need to show your certification in some places.
- Malaria tablets (location dependent)
What to pack for Guatemala
- Long sleeved tops and long walking trousers if you are hiking
- Dresses / shorts / light clothes for the beach
- Warm clothes for the evenings: jeans and jumpers.
- Quick dry towel
- Waterproof clothing / rain poncho - I suggest both!
- Walking shoes / walking boots / trainers / sandals
- Bug spray and sunscreen
- Battery pack / electronics
- First aid kit (inclusive of imodium, rehydration sachets)
- Life Straw. This is an amazing accessory to have when you are trekking and a cheap alternative to buying water along the way, it also saves on buying plastic bottles and for every purchase, a child in a developing country, receives clean drinking water for 1 school year!
- Packing cubes. Go for different colours to separate your clean and dirty clothes!
- Biodegradable soap (especially for hiking and washing in nature)
- Padlocks x3
- Money belt
- Travel Pillow
- Zip lock bags for traveling with leftover food items
Safety Considerations for Guatemala
As with all Central and South American countries, it is really important to remain alert and aware of your surroundings at all times:
- Always keep your valuables hidden or locked away.
- Always keep your valuables in your small backpack and wear it on your front.
- Always choose an ATM inside of a bank rather than on a street. Put your cash in your money belt, under your top straight away. If you feel nervous about withdrawing money, go with someone else.
- If you are travelling on buses, do not store your backpack overhead or in the back of the bus, keep it on you at all times. For extra security, put your passport, money and phone in a money belt around your waist, under your clothes.
- When travelling on buses, always padlock your big bag and put your rain/protective cover over it.
- Do not walk around at night on your own, always take a taxi, even if it is a short distance.
- Always ask your hostel about the area and for safety advice.
- Keep your bank cards separate, so if anything happens, you have a second source of money.
- Always have at least one photocopy of your passport, so if you lose it, you still have a copy.
- Bring another form of identification with you (driver’s license), stored separately.
- Always keep your drinks with you when out in the evenings, do not leave it unattended.
Budget for Guatemala
Guatemala is considerably cheaper than other Central and South American countries, but it depends on what you want to do and see. Food, transport and accommodation are inexpensive and very budget friendly. Backpackers could easily travel on $35 (€30) a day, but again, that is dependent on where you want to go, where you stay and what you want to do.