It’s just before dawn at one of the world’s most famous Mayan archaeological sites, and I’m about to be impressed. But not yet. Because first, I have to hike through the still-nighttime jungle ringing with the sounds of birds and insects, then climb past howler monkeys who I’m positive are scoffing at my inferior technique as I scale the ladder-stairs that lead to the top of Temple 4 at Tikal, the UNESCO World Heritage Site (and Star Wars movie location) in Guatemala’s northern El Petén district.
When dawn arrives, it reveals an electrifying green jungle punctuated by massive ancient stone structures bursting through the trees in all directions. This unforgettable moment at Tikal embodies Guatemala’s rich blend of nature, archaeology, and culture.
Guatemala is an up-and-coming travel destination, with magazines and newspapers touting its beauty, visitor numbers that rise by double-digit percentages each year, and government and community efforts to foster tourism. But only a decade out of civil war, it’s not entirely clear what the best way is for the average traveler to visit. After all, it’s not much of a beach destination, it’s not yet a place where most visitors drive themselves around, and it doesn’t have the tourist infrastructure of neighboring Mexico. However, the diversity of travel opportunities available makes the many natural and cultural wonders of the country accessible to almost all traveler types.
How you explore Guatemala should depend on your preferred travel style, budget, and language ability. There are ways to experience the country whether you’re an independent traveler, part of a tour group, a backpacker, a cruise passenger, a language student, or a volunteer.
Next>> Independent travel
Guatemala is an approachable and affordable place for independent travelers who want to create their own itineraries, choose their own accommodations, and maintain the flexibility of autonomous travel.
The range of accommodations in the more popular destinations is wide. In general, upscale hotels and eco-lodges often cost about as much as a mid-range chain hotel in a U.S. city, but offer much more in the way of unique and memorable experiences.
Though most visitors don’t drive themselves, getting between areas can be fairly simple. Shuttle service is among the most popular modes of transportation for visitors who want to forgo the adventures of the bus system. Shuttles can be booked through travel agencies, and most hotels partner with a shuttle service as well.
Finding the experts can enrich independent travel experiences in this country where much of the interesting history and information isn’t posted on walls or available in guidebook format. Travelers who don’t want to stick with a tour group for their whole trip have another option: to take advantage of the impressive brain trust of the country’s certified tour guides. There are over 1,000 such guides in the country, all of whom have extensive training and can talk knowledgably on all aspects of the country. Some guides have additional expertise on topics such as bird-watching or archaeology. To find guides before you arrive, call the Guide Association at 011-502-555-5058 or send queries via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Once you’re in the country, you can find a guide by visiting a Guatemala Institute of Tourism (INGUAT) office. INGUAT has offices in Antigua, Petén, Quetzaltenango, Panajachel, Guatemala City, and at the La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City. Most hotels are also associated with tour companies or freelance guides. Individuals and groups can hire guides for single days or extended periods. Official guides will always wear credentials around their necks.
Next>> Tour groups
Contrary to the stereotype, tours aren’t a one-size-fits-all option for travel in Guatemala. They don’t offer much in the way of independence, but they do group people with common interests and offer trips with a specific focus such as bird-watching, archaeology, or adventure.
Tours can also be a way of making what might otherwise seem like an overwhelming trip more approachable. Because everything is paid for in advance and tour guides handle accommodations, transportation, and dining decisions, tour participants forgo the planning hassles of independent travel.
The Guatemalan Association of Incoming Tour Operators (ASOPTUR) maintains a list of reputable companies that offer trips to the country. There are also major tour operators not listed that run trips to Guatemala. If you’ve taken a tour with a company you like, check to see if it offers Guatemala trips. Or, if you’re part of a special-interest travel group, check your organization to see if it has any relationships with particular tour companies.
Traveling in Guatemala as a backpacker requires a sense of adventure, and knowing some Spanish doesn’t hurt either. Basic accommodations are cheap; a night in a hostel often costs less than $5, while staying in a more private guesthouse generally runs under $10 per night. As a backpacker, important resources will include a guidebook whose suggestions match your budget, and other travelers who can offer firsthand advice.
Getting around can be cheap but challenging. Buses are an inexpensive way to get between destinations in Guatemala, but they require a lot of patience, some bravery, and a bit of specialized knowledge. “Chicken buses”—the recycled U.S. school buses that make up a major part of the transportation system—are the least expensive and most authentic option, but they’re not known for comfort or safety; and figuring out when and how to transfer can be confusing. A guidebook geared towards backpackers can demystify some of the finer points of bus travel. There are also larger, coach-style buses that cost only slightly more but offer a greater degree of comfort. Travel agents can help book coach buses as well as the type of shuttle service described in the independent travel section, though they will charge a booking fee.
Backpackers often spend some time in one of Guatemala’s language schools or volunteer programs. Both options give travelers new insights into the country; and really, isn’t that what backpacking is all about?
Next>> Cruise land excursions
Cruises put Guatemala in a larger geographical context, and visiting by shore excursion is an easy way to get a glimpse of the country without committing to a full vacation there. The country’s two ports, Puerto Quetzal on the Pacific and Santo Tomas de Castilla on the Caribbean coast host ships during the cruise ship season, which runs from fall to spring. Land excursions from both ports hit many of the best-known destinations, including Tikal, Lake Atitlan, and Antigua.
Puerto Quetzal is served by cruise lines including Crystal Cruises, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania, Princess, and Seabourn. Santo Tomas de Castilla is a port-of-call for Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, and Silversea.
Shore excursions are a highly managed way for visitors to glimpse the country. There are no accommodations to book, language skills aren’t particularly important, and activities are planned in advance. However, there’s usually only enough time for a short visit to a single destination, and travelers who want cultural immersion will be disappointed.
Next>> Language schools
Guatemala attracts foreigners looking to learn Spanish in an immersive environment, and with 105 registered language schools, it’s got a lot to offer. Antigua Guatemala, the cobblestone colonial city vibrant with Mayan culture, has the highest density of language schools. The INGUAT office in Antigua has a list of schools, and there are partial lists online as well. The abundance of schools in the city attracts an international crowd, and there are many restaurants, bars, and cafes that cater to the expat community. “For gringos, it’s the most comfortable place in Guatemala,” says Rebecca Grey, who recently lived in Antigua for eight months with her husband and two cats. Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango, also has a number of language schools.
With so many language schools, finding the right one can seem overwhelming. If you’d prefer to reserve a space in advance but want to avoid getting locked into a school you don’t like, don’t book your initial class for longer than a week. If you’re comfortable waiting until you arrive to find a school, you can visit them individually, talk to students, review credentials, and even meet with potential teachers. According to Grey, the riskiest times of year to not reserve a place in advance are during the popular Semana Santa, or Holy Week around Easter, and in summer.
Next>> Volunteer programs
Volunteering can be a good way to get beyond the usual distance that comes with being a traveler in a foreign land, and forge connections to the country and people. Volunteer opportunities in Guatemala span the spectrum, from archaeological work and rain forest wildlife projects to helping at orphanages and teaching English. VolunteerInternational.org, Volunteeradventures.com, and Volunteerabroad.com are good places to start researching.
Once you’ve arrived, language schools can be a good resource for finding volunteer programs. In Antigua, Grey suggests visiting the Rainbow Café (7a Ave Sur 8), where patrons can peruse fliers advertising volunteer opportunities. The cafe also hosts weekly talks about social and cultural issues in Guatemala.
A note on safety
Guatemala has a number of programs in place to make travel within the country safer and easier. The tourism police (POLITUR) are present in all major tourist destinations. Within Guatemala, there’s a tourist assistance hotline, which can be reached by dialing 1500. Visitors can also purchase an AsisturCard, which offers tourist, health, legal, and mechanical assistance. The card ranges in price from $1 for a day to $10 for 15 days, or $50 for a year. The card is available at all airports and land-entry points into the country, or by calling the tourist hotline. While traveling in Guatemala, it’s always wise to avoid wandering on your own in isolated areas or late at night, to stay aware, and to exercise common sense at all times.
There are many things to see in Guatemala, and many ways to travel. Though it’s up-and-coming, it’s not yet a mainstream destination, so recognizing your travel preferences before you book is an important part of creating a good trip.