Never mind the politics. Once you look beyond the homemade problems of Guatemala, you can see a vibrant people in an astonishing scenery. Volcano country, in the west, is better than anywhere else in Central America. Old Mayan civilizations (Tikal, Copan) are another important reason for tourists to visit. But don’t rush: enjoy your time here and relax Guatemaltico style.
Yes, the outside image of Guatemala is determined by political chaos and lots of refugees. What they are trying to escape is extreme poverty, corruption and drug violence, three elements that are inextricably linked.
They unfortunately come together in the nation’s capital, Guatemala City. A metropolis with a stunning 2,5 million inhabitants, divided in around twenty zones. Some of them are no-go-areas, some of them are relaxed and vibrant, all of them are poor. As such it is a microcosm of the entire country.
Then again, safety is usually only an issue where drug gangs are active, in this case mainly in the capital. The rest of the country is relatively safe. And despite not having lots of dinero, Guatemalticos are rich in enjoying life.
And why not? The nature is stunning, ranging from large rain forests to the volcanos in the west. Beaches can be superb, the weather is moderately warm in the highlands. So basically, as long as you ignore the capital you can have a peaceful and beautiful trip here. And yes, you should visit Guatemala City as well: it gives you a more complete impression of society, and there are definitely beautiful areas to explore.
- Hiking: this could also be called ‘volcanoes’, because having views of lava flying around and getting panorama pictures of volcanic lakes is what hiking in Guatemala is all about. Xela, Panajachel and Antigua are excellent basecamps for doing hiking. The most important hikes:
- Santa Maria: towering over Xela, this is a tough hike to a height of over 3,700 metres
- Pacaya: easy tour from Antigua for great views of an active volcano. Most guides take marshmellows to roast in the cooling lava
- Acatenango: another tour easiest to do from Antigua, and a heavy one. Lots of tour companies make an overnight stay there. Otherwise: get up early for the steep climb, and views of the still active Fuego volcano
- San Pedro La Laguna: solid hike from, surprise, San Pedro village with good views over the lake as well of course
- Tajumulco: the highest of them all. Hikes can be done from Xela. Theoretically in one day, but most companies have one night of sleep on the mountain in a tent included
- Lake Atitlan: three-day hike from Xela to San Pedro. The sunrise views of Lake Atitlan on day three are priceless
- Xela: the second city of Guatemala is not only a good base for hiking. It has a moderate climate in the valley, and a very relaxed feel. The Parque America (or Parque Central) has the real colonial feel, with gorgeous buildings surrounding it. Lovely place to rest for a couple of days in between hikes
- San Pedro: hippies paradise. Dirt cheap, though also very touristic. The streets have no names here, which makes for some funny improvising. This village, on the south side of Lake Atitlan, is a haven for people that just want to switch off for a couple of weeks or more
- Antigua: surrounded by volcanoes, this colonial city is a tourist favourite. The grid-like street structure is full of bars, restaurants and a couple of buildings destroyed by earthquakes. A gentle place, tourist-friendly, but Xela definitely is more Guatemalan. Good base for hiking as well
- Guatemala City: it’s not the easiest place to stay, but it is a true Central American experience. Dirty and chaotic, even this city has its good sides. Zone 1 (city centre) has a good shopping street, a central square with the royal palace that can be visited and close to it the central market, always a fun thing to do. Zone 4 is full of street art, bars and restaurants, zone 10 and 13 are full of museums and markets. Those zones are safe at night as well. Don’t EVER travel in a red bus though, and stay in the hotel in other zones in late evening
- There is only so much you can visit in two to three weeks. So on the to-do/to-visit-list:
- Tikal: this Mayan city in the jungle is a decent trip away from Guatemala City. It’s easier to approach from Belize
- Copan: officially in Honduras, but mainly visited from Guatemala, this is another historical Mayan site
- El Mirador: a true hidden gem, far away in the jungle and not connected to proper roads. The easiest (but also expensive) way is to fly here with a small plane. Most people will have to hike for several days through the dense jungle though to get to this archeological site, that is still being discovered and excavated
- Rio Dulce: one of the main attractions for tourists is the boat ride across the Rio Dulce through luscious jungle
- Semuc Champey: very touristy, but for a reason. These stepped waterfalls are just glorious in the sun
Food and drinks
Guatemalans will probably kill me, but the food is very similar to Mexico. Lots of beans, tortillas, tacos here as well, and solid meat. International influence has done its work here, in tourist places you can get your pizza and pasta everywhere as well. Drinkwise the cerveza is holy here as well.
- Weather: in the western highlands, the nights can actually get pretty cold. At daytime though, temperatures reach for 25 degrees and more, which makes this a very nice climate. The further to the east you go, the more humid it gets. This is jungle land, where conditions can get very demanding
- Safety: as said, most violence is drug-related. So avoid some parts of Guatemala City, especially at night. Robbery (of hikers or of rental cars) is getting more infrequent luckily, but can still happen. When you are part of a tour, there is no need to worry during a hike usually. Be extremely careful with local transport in Guatemala City: the red buses are AN ABSOLUTE NO-GO! Metro buses though are new, crowded and generally safe
- Gay travel: Antigua actually is relatively gay-friendly, as it has a lot of foreign visitors. Gay bars are non-existent though, and showing your affection is unusual for locals (though not impossible for foreigners) here. Dating apps are your best bet, and usually safe as long as you make your first date in a public space
- Customs: when you enter Guatemala on a land border, you get a stamp for around 1€. You can move around for three months in four Central American countries (also Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua) before you have to leave. Check in advance whether you need a visum, though Guatemala has treaties with most countries for that