Guatemala is not the easiest country to negotiate for travelers with a disability. Although many sidewalks in Antigua have ramps and cute little inlaid tiles depicting a wheelchair, the streets are cobblestone, so the ramps are anything but smooth and the streets worse.
Many hotels in Guatemala are old converted houses with rooms around a courtyard; such rooms are wheelchair accessible, but the bathrooms may not be. The most expensive hotels have facilities such as ramps, elevators and accessible toilets. Transportation is the biggest hurdle for travelers with limited mobility: travelers in a wheelchair may consider renting a car and driver as the buses will prove especially challenging due to lack of space.
Antigua-based Transitions (www.transitionsfoundation.org) is an organization aiming to increase awareness and access for people with disabilities in Guatemala.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Haggling is pretty much a national pastime in Guatemala. Treat it as a game, and if you feel you’re getting ripped off, just walk away. Don't haggle in small stores and restaurants; always haggle in markets and with taxi drivers.
Dangers & Annoyances
Guatemala is a mostly safe destination but crime can happen.
- The most frequently reported type of nasty incident involves robbery on walking trails.
- The days of robbers targeting tourist buses out on the open highway seem to be thankfully in the past, although some tourists in rental cars have been targeted.
- The crime you're most likely to become a victim of involves pickpocketing, bag-snatching, bag-slitting and the like in crowded streets, markets, bus stations and on buses, but also in empty, dark city streets.
- There are dedicated tourist police in Guatemala City and Antigua. Elsewhere, Proatur offers 24-hour assistance to tourists and is a good initial point of contact if you get into difficulty.
- A not uncommon scenario is for someone to spray ketchup or some other sticky liquid on your clothes. An accomplice then appears to help you clean up the mess and robs you in the process. Other methods of distraction, such as dropping a purse or coins, or someone appearing to faint, are also used by pickpockets and bag snatchers.
- At bus stations, a 'priest' dashes up and on establishing that you speak English, tells you that he needs money as his wife has urgent medical needs and he can't even afford the bus ticket home.
- ATM card cloning happens in Guatemala. Card reading devices attach to the ATM (often inside the slot where you insert your card) and once they have your data, proceed to drain your account. The only way to avoid it is to use ATMs that cannot be tampered with easily (inside supermarkets or shopping malls). The ATMs most prone to tampering are the ones in the little unlocked room at the front of a bank. You should never have to enter your PIN number to gain access to an ATM room.
- In Livingston, you might be approached by someone asking for donations to fund a Garifuna school or orphanage, that exists only in the story the scammer is spinning you.
- It's best to travel and arrive in daylight hours. If that's not possible, travel at night using 1st-class buses and catch a taxi to your hotel once you arrive.
- Only carry the money, cards, checks and valuables that you need. Leave the rest in a sealed, signed envelope in your hotel's safe, and obtain a receipt for the envelope.
- Don't flaunt jewelry, cameras, smart phones or valuable-looking watches. Keep your wallet or purse out of view.
- On buses keep your important valuables with you, and keep a tight hold on them.
- Try to use ATMs in secure environments such as inside banks, shops or hotels, and be aware that card skimming is a reality here.
- Hiking in large groups and/or with a police escort reduces the risk of robbery.
- Resisting or trying to flee from robbers usually makes the situation worse – hand over what's asked for.
- Hiking on active volcanoes obviously has an element of risk. Get the latest story before you head out. In the wet season, hike in the morning before rain and possible thunderstorms set in.
- Be careful, especially in rural areas, when talking to small children: always ask permission to take photographs, and generally try not to put yourself in any situation that might be misinterpreted.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots. Bear in mind that these sites are updated occasionally and are obliged to err on the side of caution – the vast majority of travelers visit Guatemala and don't experience any of the reported problems.
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (https://travel.gc.ca/travelling)
- New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK Foreign Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- US State Department (http://travel.state.gov)
Electrical current is 115V to 125V, 60Hz, and plugs are two flat prongs, all the same as in the US and Canada.
Embassies & Consulates
Emergency & Important Numbers
Guatemala has no regional, area or city codes; just dial the eight-digit number from anywhere in the country.
|Guatemala country code||502|
|International access code||00|
|Proatur (24hr tourist information & assistance)||1500|
Entry & Exit Formalities
To enter Guatemala, you need a valid passport.
On entry you should simply have to fill out straightforward immigration and customs forms. In the normal course of things you should not have to pay a cent.
However, immigration officials at land border sometimes request unofficial fees from travelers. To determine whether these are legitimate, you can ask for un recibo (a receipt). You may find that the fee is dropped. When in doubt, try to observe what, if anything, other travelers are paying before it's your turn (Q10 is the standard, nonstandard fee).
Normally customs officers won't look seriously in your luggage and may not look at all. Guatemala restricts import/export of pretty much the same things as everybody else (weapons, drugs, large amounts of cash, etc).
Many nationalities do not require tourist visas and will be given a 90-day stay upon entry, though citizens of some countries do need visas.
Citizens of the US, Canada, EU countries, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan are among those who do not need a visa for tourist visits to Guatemala. On entry into Guatemala you will normally be given a 90-day stay. (The number '90' will be written in the stamp in your passport.)
Citizens of some Eastern European countries are among those who do need visas to visit Guatemala. Inquire at a Guatemalan embassy well in advance of travel.
Guatemala is part of the Centro America 4 (CA-4) trading agreement with Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. Upon entry to the CA-4 region, travelers are given a 90-day stay for the entire region. You can get this extended once, for an additional 90 days, for around Q120. Do this at the Departamento de Extranjería in Guatemala City. Along with the fee you currently need two passport photos, photocopies of of your passport and the front/back of a valid credit card. Extensions are usually issued in 24 hours.
Travelers may find it easier to leave the CA-4 region (Belize and Mexico are the most obvious, easiest options), after which you can return to the region to start all over again. Some foreigners have been repeating this cycle for years.
Visa regulations are subject to change – it's always worth checking with a Guatemalan embassy before you go.
- Dress General standards of modesty in dress have relaxed somewhat. Coastal dwellers tend to show a lot more skin than highland types, but not all locals appreciate this type of attire.
- Entering a room In public places such as a restaurant or waiting room, make a general greeting to everyone – buenos días or buenas tardes will do.
- Greetings When meeting someone personally, men shake hands with men, women air-kiss women, and men and women may air-kiss or shake – wait to see if the woman offers her hand.
- Maya women Many Maya women avoid contact with foreign men. As a general rule, male travelers in need of information should ask another man.
- Photos Understandably, the Maya can be very sensitive about being photographed. Always ask for permission before taking pictures.
Few places in Latin America are outwardly gay-friendly and Guatemala is no different. Technically, homosexuality is legal for persons over 18 years, but the reality can be another story, with harassment and violence against gays too often poisoning the plot. Don't even consider testing the tolerance for homosexual public displays of affection here.
Though Antigua and Guatemala City have palatable – if subdued – scenes, affection and action are still kept largely behind closed doors. Keep your eye out for Pride events in these cities, as well as Quetzaltenango. Mostly, though, LGBT travelers in Guatemala will find themselves keeping it low-key and pushing the twin beds together.
The best information site, Gay Guatemala (www.gayguatemala.com), is in Spanish.
Getting travel insurance to cover theft, loss and medical problems is strongly recommended. Some policies specifically exclude dangerous activities, which can include scuba diving, motorcycling and even trekking.
You may prefer a policy that pays doctors or hospitals directly, rather than you having to pay on the spot and claim later. If you have to claim later, ensure you keep all documentation.
Check that the policy covers ambulances or an emergency flight home.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
Wi-fi is becoming readily available across the country, but can only really be counted on in large and/or tourist towns. Most (but not all) hostels and hotels offer wi-fi, as do many restaurants. If you have trouble finding a signal, try a Pollo Campero fast-food restaurant – they're in pretty much every town of any size and all offer free, unsecured access.
Internet cafes typically charge between Q5 and Q10 an hour – they're less common than they used to be but most towns still have one.
You may find that police officers in Guatemala are, at times, somewhat unhelpful. Generally speaking, the less you have to do with the law, the better.
Whatever you do, don't get involved in any way with illegal drugs – even if the locals seem to do so freely. As a foreigner you are at a distinct disadvantage and you may be set up by others. Drug laws in Guatemala are strict, and though enforcement may be uneven, penalties are severe. If you do get caught doing something you shouldn't, your best line of defense is to apologize, stay calm and proceed from there.
While many commentators claim that corruption is rife in Guatemala, don't take this to mean you can buy your way out of any situation. If it does seem that you can 'make everything go away' by handing over some cash, proceed cautiously and tactfully.
Reporting a Crime
Reporting a crime is always a toss-up in Guatemala. If you're the victim of something really serious, of course you should take it to the police – the phrase you're looking for here is 'Yo quisiera denunciar un crimen' (I'd like to report a crime). If you've been robbed, get a statement filed so you can show your insurance company.
If it's a minor thing, on the other hand, you might want to decide whether or not it's really worth your while reporting it to the police.
Outside of those areas (and normal office hours) your best bet is to call Proatur, which operates a 24-hour nationwide toll-free hotline in English and Spanish. It can give you information and assistance, help deal with the police and even arrange a lawyer if need be.
Banks change cash but casas de cambio (currency-exchange offices) are usually quicker and may offer better rates. ATMs widely available. Credit cards accepted in many hostels and most midrange and above hotels and restaurants.
Guatemala's currency, the quetzal (ket-sahl, abbreviated to Q), has been fairly stable at around Q7.5 = US$1 for years. The quetzal is divided into 100 centavos.
You'll find ATMs (cash machines, cajeros automáticos) for Visa/Plus System cards in all but the smallest towns, and there are MasterCard/Cirrus ATMs in many places, too, so one of these cards is the best basis for your supply of cash in Guatemala. The 5B network is widespread and particularly useful, as it works with both Visa and MasterCard cards.
Be aware that card skimming is a problem in Guatemala. Avoid ATMs that are left unguarded at night (ie those in the small room out front of the bank) and look for one that is in a secure environment (such as those inside supermarkets or shopping malls). Failing that, keep your hand covered when entering your PIN and check your balance online.
Cash is king in Guatemala, although carrying too much of it makes getting robbed a bigger pain than it would otherwise be. Some towns suffer from change shortages: always try to carry a stash of small bills. Keep a small supply of low-denomination US dollars (which are accepted pretty much anywhere, at various rates of exchange) as an emergency fund.
While everybody accepts dollars, you will almost always get a better deal by paying in quetzals.
Currencies other than the US dollar are virtually useless, although a small handful of places now change cash euros.
Many banks give cash advances on Visa cards, and some on MasterCard. You can pay for many purchases with these cards or with American Express (Amex) cards – particularly in higher-end hotels and restaurants. Paying with credit card can attract service charges of up to 5% – be sure to ask if there is a recargo (transaction fee).
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
A 10% tip is expected in restaurants (often automatically added to your bill in tourist towns such as Antigua). In small comedores (basic, cheap eateries) tipping is optional, but follow local practice and leave some spare change.
- Homestays Better to buy a gift than give cash.
- Hotels Q10 per bag.
- Restaurants 10% maximum (if not already included).
- Taxis Not customary.
- Trekking & tour guides Q50 per person per day (extremely optional).
If you're not packing plastic, a combination of Amex US-dollar traveler's checks and some cash US dollars is the way to go. Take some of these as a backup even if you do have a card. Many banks change US-dollar traveler's checks, and tend to give the best rates. Amex is easily the most recognized traveler's check brand. Few businesses will accept traveler's checks as payment or change them for cash.
Hours provided are general guidelines, but there are many variations. Restaurant times, in particular, can vary by up to two hours either way.
The Ley Seca (dry law) stipulates that bars and discotecas must close by 1am, except on nights before public holidays; it is rigidly followed in large cities and universally mocked in smaller towns.
Banks 9am–5pm Monday to Friday, 9am–1pm Saturday
Cafes & Restaurants 7am–9pm
Government offices 8am–4pm Monday to Friday
Shops 8am–noon and 2pm–6pm Monday to Saturday
Most internet cafes have card readers (lectores de tarjeta), so you can upload your digital photos. For tips on taking professional-grade travel pics, hunt down a copy of Lonely Planet’s Travel Photography.
Photography is a sensitive subject in Guatemala. Always ask permission before taking portraits, especially of Maya women and children. Don't be surprised if your request is denied. Children often request payment (usually Q1) in return for posing.
- In certain places, such as the church of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, photography is forbidden.
- Maya ceremonies (should you be so lucky to witness one) are off-limits for photography unless you are given explicit permission to take pictures.
- If local people make any sign of being offended, put your camera away and apologize immediately, both out of decency and for your own safety.
- Never take photos of army installations, men with guns or other sensitive military subjects.
The privatised Guatemalan postal service is currently suspended, due to a years-long contract dispute with the government. For the time being, the only option for sending or receiving mail/packages is through an international courier. FedEx, UPS and DHL all operate in Guatemala.
Guatemalan public holidays include the following:
New Year's Day (Año Nuevo) January 1
Easter (Semana Santa; Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday inclusive) March/April
Labor Day (Día del Trabajo) May 1
Army Day (Día del Ejército) June 30
Assumption Day (Día de la Asunción) August 15
Independence Day (Día de la Independencia) September 15
Revolution Day (Día de la Revolución) October 20
All Saints' Day (Día de Todos los Santos) November 1
Christmas Eve afternoon (Víspera Navidad) December 24
Christmas Day (Navidad) December 25
New Year's Eve afternoon (Víspera de Año Nuevo) December 31
- Smoking Forbidden in any enclosed space in Guatemala. Many businesses prohibit smoking anywhere on the premises (even in open-air patios). There are, of course, exceptions.
Taxes & Refunds
All purchases are subject to a 10% sales tax that is already included in the price. There is no tax-refund scheme for travelers.
Guatemala has no area or city codes. Calling within Guatemala, just dial the eight-digit local number. Calling from other countries, dial the international access code (00 in most countries), then the Guatemala country code (502), then the eight-digit local number. The international access code from Guatemala is 00.
Roaming is expensive in Guatemala. Most travelers buy a local SIM card (if you have an unlocked phone) or a local prepaid phone on arrival. ID is required to buy both. 4G is increasingly available.
There are three cell companies in the country. Tigo (www.tigo.com.gt) and Claro (www.claro.com.gt) have the best coverage; Movistar (www.movistar.com.gt) tends to be cheaper but has poor coverage outside major towns.
Telgua public phones are common, and require a phone card (tarjeta telefónica de Telgua), bought from shops, kiosks and the like. Card sales points may advertise the fact with red signs saying 'Ladatel de Venta Aquí.' The cards come in denominations of Q20, Q30 and Q50: you slot them into a Telgua phone, dial your number, and the display will tell you how much time you have left.
Guatemala runs on North American Central Standard Time (GMT/UTC minus six hours). The 24-hour clock is often used, so 1pm may be written as 13 or 1300.
- You cannot throw anything into Guatemalan toilets, including toilet paper, because of poor sewage drains. Bathrooms are equipped with some sort of receptacle (usually a small wastebasket) for soiled paper.
- Toilet paper is not always provided, so always carry some. If you don't have any and need some, asking a restaurant worker for un rollo de papel (a roll of paper), accompanied by a panicked facial expression, usually produces fast results.
- Public toilets are rare. Use the ones at cafes, restaurants, your hotel and archaeological sites. Buses rarely have toilets on board and if they do, don't count on them working.
Guatemala's national tourism institute, INGUAT (El Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo; www.visitguatemala.com), has information offices in major tourist areas. A few towns have departmental, municipal or private-enterprise tourist information offices. Proatur, a joint private-government initiative, operates a useful 24-hour toll-free advice and assistance hotline.
Travel with Children
Young children are highly regarded in Guatemala and can often break down barriers and open doors to local hospitality.
However, Guatemala is so culturally dense, with such an emphasis on history and archaeology, it's easy to overwhelm kids. That said, the ruins at Tikal should inspire all ages – if scrambling over ruins that aren't just home to an ancient civilization but also featured in several Star Wars movies isn't enough, there are also plenty of howler and spider monkeys to spot.
To keep kids entertained, try to make a point of breaking up the trip with visits to places such as Guatemala City's Museo de los Niños and Museo de Historia Natural, Autosafari Chapín, and Retalhuleu's Xocomil water park and Xetulul theme park. Most Spanish schools are open to kids, too, and many older children will enjoy activities such as zip lining, kayaking and horseback riding.
For general information on traveling with children, have a look at Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
- Facilities such as safety seats in hired cars are rare, but nearly every restaurant can rustle up something resembling a high chair.
- If you are particular about specific brands of diapers and creams, bring what you can with you and stock up in supermarkets.
- If your child has to have some particular tinned or packaged food, bring supplies with you.
- Fresh milk is rare and may not be pasteurized – again, supermarkets are your best bet. Packet UHT milk and milk powder are much more common.
- Public breastfeeding is not common among urban, non-indigenous women and, when done, is done discreetly.
Volunteer programs abound in Guatemala, but not all are created equal. If you're interested in giving something back, remember that the best schemes should be designed with their beneficiaries in mind, not just to make their participants feel good about themselves, and volunteers shouldn't join programs to do something they're not qualified for back home.
Most volunteer posts require basic or better Spanish skills and a minimum time commitment. Depending on the organization, you may have to pay for room and board for the duration of your stay. Before making a commitment, read the fine print and ask lots of questions.
Short-term placements in orphanages have been a staple of Guatemalan volunteering for years. Unicef and other child-protection organizations have pointed out the damage that can be done to children's welfare by such programs, and no reputable scheme should allow volunteers such access to children.
Lonely Planet strongly encourages those considering volunteering to do research and make informed, responsible choices. One source of information on trusted volunteer opportunities is Quetzaltenango-based EntreMundos, which works with a large variety of local NGOs that welcome skilled volunteers.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures Metric system for weights and distances; some food items such as meat, sugar and coffee sold in pounds; gasoline sold by the galón (US gallon).
Women should encounter no special problems traveling in Guatemala. The primary thing you can do to make it easy for yourself while traveling here is to dress modestly. Modesty in dress is highly regarded, and if you practice it, you will usually be treated with respect.
Shorts should really be worn only at the beach, not in town, and especially not in the highlands. Skirts should be at or below the knee. Going braless is considered provocative. Many local women swim with T-shirts over their swimsuits.
Women traveling alone can expect plenty of attention from talkative men. Often they're just curious and not out for a foreign conquest. It is, of course, up to you how to respond, but there's no need to be intimidated. Consider the situation and circumstances, and stay confident. Try to sit next to women or children on the bus. Local women rarely initiate conversations, but usually have lots of interesting things to say once the ball is rolling.
While there's no need to be paranoid, the possibility of rape and assault does exist. Use your normal traveler's caution – avoid walking alone in isolated places or through city streets late at night, and skip hitchhiking.
Some travelers find work in bars, restaurants and places to stay in Antigua, Panajachel or Quetzaltenango, but wages are usually barely above survival pay. If you're looking to crew a yacht, there's always work being offered around the Río Dulce area, sometimes for short trips, sometimes to the US and further afield. Check noticeboards and online forums for details.