Guatemala has been my second home for nearly two decades, and the country still captivates me: the landscape with its volcanoes and coffee trees, the lakes and rivers and tropical beaches, Mayan ruins peeking out above the treetops.
Mayan traditions are still alive and well. And the weather’s almost always fine in the Land of Eternal Spring. However, there's information travelers to Guatemala should know before visiting if you really want to enjoy all it has to offer.
Get your shots before you leave
If you come in from a country where yellow fever is endemic, you’ll need to be vaccinated against this mosquito-borne disease. It’s also recommended that you’re up to date with your typhoid, hepatitis A and B, rabies, flu and TDaP (tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough) shots. It’s best to visit a travel clinic at least a month before your trip if you need to get vaccinated so there’s enough time to give you full protection. Some vaccines, like hepatitis B and rabies, require follow-up doses.
Bring your own bug spray if you like it DEET free
Most of the things you may have forgotten at home are available in Guatemala, but some items are more difficult to find or very expensive. Bug spray is easy to find but usually contains DEET. The locally produced DEET-free repellents aren’t very effective, so you’ll want to bring a good brand from home. The mosquito-borne diseases of malaria, zika, dengue fever and chikungunya are all endemic in parts of Guatemala.
Don't go without sunscreen
Sunburn is a real risk if you spend time outside. Some of the larger stores and pharmacies sell chemical sunscreens, but these generally don’t have an SPF higher than 25. The stronger stuff and natural mineral sunscreens are normally only available in a handful of specialty health stores, with limited options and much higher prices. Pack enough of your favorite sunscreen and remember to use it.
Your preferred feminine hygiene products might be hard to find
In terms of feminine hygiene products, most shops stock pads only. Some larger stores and pharmacies stock tampons with applicators. You might find the kind without an applicator, as well as menstrual cups, in specialty health stores, but the price will reflect the fact that they’re imported.
Pack lightweight clothing
Because Guatemala’s weather is mainly warm and humid, light clothing that dries quickly is more useful than jeans, which are heavy, too warm for the climate and take forever to dry. For cooler days, a light sweater or jacket is generally sufficient. If you need more clothes than you brought or just a wardrobe revamp, most towns have a paca, a place where you can buy secondhand clothing for as little as Q5 (less than US$1).
When in doubt, cover up
Guatemalans tend to be religious: practicing Catholic, evangelical or, to a smaller extent, traditional Mayan belief systems. That deep-rooted faith also means that they are generally more socially conservative, especially in Maya-dominated communities.
Men don’t go shirtless unless they’re at the beach. Women prefer knee-length shorts and oversized T-shirts to bathing suits. In the large cities and Ladino-dominated areas, people are more open to shorts, shorter skirts and tank tops. In the Maya-dominated communities, however, the women usually wear traditional clothing in public, and their cortes – a garment worn as a skirt – always fall below the knee.
If you’re not sure whether your clothing is appropriate, it’s best to cover up: put on a shirt and don’t wear anything shorter than mid-thigh. If you visit a church or other spiritual site, it’s respectful to cover your shoulders and arms.
Avoid illegal drugs
Some bars and hostels turn a blind eye to the use of marijuana and other illegal drugs. However, police raids on bars and hostels aren’t uncommon, and if you’re found with any illegal substances in your possession, you will be arrested.
Don’t drink the water
Tap water in Guatemala is not safe to drink. To reduce your risk of getting parasites, stick to purified water: bottled water is readily available everywhere. Hostels and restaurants will usually let you refill your water bottle, sometimes for a small fee. You may also want to skip the raw salad unless you’re sure that purified water was used for washing produce.
If you do contract parasites, a trip to the pharmacy is often all you need to get the right treatment.
Guatemalans can get personal but don’t mean harm
It’s not unusual in Guatemalan culture to call people by some physical attribute. Being called guapo or guapa (attractive one) can feel uncomfortable at worst, but being called gordo or gorda (fat one) may sting. If you don’t like the nickname you’ve been given, try not to act offended; the trick is to let it slide and to tell the person your name instead.
You may also find that Guatemalans like to ask personal questions: how old you are, how many children you have, where you are going. If you answer in the negative as to whether you have a spouse, this may even lead to questions about the status of your virginity, no matter your age. If you feel uncomfortable, remain polite, maybe make a joke and change the subject.
Politeness goes a long way – most of the time
Guatemalans appreciate politeness. A friendly buenas (good morning/afternoon/evening) or hola (hello) creates a good first impression. Por favor or simply porfa (please) and gracias (thank you) show that you were raised right. If you learn to say thank you in the Mayan dialect spoken at your destination, it’s guaranteed to elicit a smile. Ask locals how to say thank you in their language, repeat the phrase back to them and then use it for as long as you’re in that town.
One area where being too polite will do you no good, though, is standing in line. People will patiently wait in line in a more formal setting, such as at the clinic or a government office. At the market or in a neighborhood tienda (corner store)? If you don’t speak up, somebody may very well step in front of you as if it’s the most normal thing in the world – and in Guatemala, it is.
If you’re a woman, avoid drinking on your own
The culture of machismo is rife in Guatemala. Local women generally don’t frequent bars and cantinas on their own because of the risk of sexual harassment and violence. Even in pairs, women may face harassment. If you want to go out drinking, it’s best to do it in a mixed group: the presence of men in your group will deter those who won’t take no for an answer.
The travel experience might be different for women visitors
Because of machismo, women travelers may encounter micro-aggressions like being talked over or ignored in favor of the men in their group. They’re also held to a higher standard than male travelers when it comes to dress or how they behave in bars and at parties. Sexual harassment and violence are real risks, and the conviction rate for offenders is low.
However, as a woman traveler, you may find real solidarity with other women. Local women tend to be protective of female tourists traveling on their own. If a situation makes you feel uncomfortable, try to move closer to groups of other women. Who knows: you might make connections you never dreamed of and have an unforgettable Guatemalan experience.
The LGBTQI+ scene is small
Same-sex relationships are legal in Guatemala but frowned upon. The LGBTIQ+ scene in the country is small and mostly confined to the largest cities and tourist areas. While violence against LGBTIQ+ tourists is rare, local activists have been attacked. Take your cues from your surroundings and watch how the local community behaves towards transgender people or public displays of affection between same-sex couples, for instance. If you’re unsure, err on the side of caution.
Always hike with a local guide
Some tourists who come to Guatemala climb volcanoes on their own with no issues. However, hiking alone is not a good idea because of the risk of getting robbed, injured or lost. Use local guides and follow their instructions: if they say they’re not going any farther, turn around with them. Guides know what the risks are, and the risks are very real.Guatemala has seen several high-profile deaths of hikers in recent years. Rescue teams are normally made up of volunteers using donated gear. When they have to risk their lives to rescue you, the decent thing to do is to reimburse them for their trouble.
To stay safe, don't take unnecessary chances
Is Guatemala safe? As a tourist, you’re unlikely to run into serious trouble. That said, listen to local advice about areas to avoid, always be aware of your surroundings and never leave your belongings or your drinks unattended.
Guatemala has a reputation for corruption and poor enforcement of laws. You may hear of travelers who bribed officials and got away with it. You may also hear of travelers who weren’t so lucky, so just don’t do it.
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