A passport valid for at least 6 months after the dates of travel is required to enter Guatemala. No visas are required for citizens of the United States, the UK, and the European Union at the time of this writing. Please remember that you are responsible for making sure you have the proper documentation to travel. You will have to pay a $30 international departure tax in cash when you leave Guatemala, so please be sure to have enough cash on hand to pay this tax.
For more information, visit the Department of State´s website and choose Guatemala: http://travel.state.gov/travel/
Guatemala has a subtropical climate with a dry and a wet season. The dry season runs roughly from November through May. During the wet season, you can certainly expect some rain, though frequently this is in the form of periodic showers or downpours rather than non-stop rain. Throughout the year temperatures remain relatively constant, with an average in the upper 70s to mid 80s during the day and upper 60s to lower 70s at night. Inland lowland temperatures in the rainforest (for example near Tikal) can go into the 90s. In the highlands, temperatures will always be a bit cooler, and at night it can be quite cool, dropping into the 50s.
For more detailed information including up to date weather forecasts in all the major cities in Guatemala, please visit the following website: http://www.accuweather.com/en/gt/guatemala-weather
Laundry Service: You will be able to get laundry done at most hotels in Guatemala, at reasonable rates.
Other essential gear:
Other very good gear to have:
Medical Kit Suggestions
Photo and Video Equipment
You will receive local contact information, including 24 hour emergency contact numbers, with your Final Itinerary.
U.S. Embassy Contact Information in Guatemala
Address: Avenida Reforma 7-01, Zona 10, Guatemala Ciudad, Guatemala
Embassy business hours: 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Mo-Thu and 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Fridays
Telephone: (502) 2326-4000
Emergency after-hours telephone: (502) 2331-2354
Fax: (502) 2331-3804
Internet website: http://guatemala.usembassy.gov
Vaya Adventures Contact Information
Phone: (510) 548-8487
Outside office hours: (510) 809-6261
Bringing your smartphone
If you plan to bring a smartphone to use for making calls while traveling, you should contact your carrier prior to travel to let them know and find out if they have any traveler plans that provide discounted roaming rates in the countries you will be visiting. Without some type of discounted plan, roaming fees can be very high, and the phone settings (specifically whether you have the phone set up just for Wi-Fi or also for roaming) can make a huge difference in the costs you will incur. Your specific carrier should be able to give you detailed information about how to avoid costly roaming rates and how to adjust the settings on your particular smartphone.
The international area code for Guatemala is 502. It is not necessary to dial 011 when calling a location in Guatemala from outside the country (as is required for Belize and most other Latin American countries). There are no local area codes in Guatemala, so you can just dial any number in the country directly. It is possible to buy phonecards in Guatemala to be able to make local calls. You can also make calls from the Telgua offices (the national phone company) in any larger cities or tourist towns. Calls from the hotels are probably the easiest way, but can be quite expensive.
The cost of making international calls from your hotel can be very high, often $5 a minute or more. You will get much better rates at the local telephone calling centers (“centro de llamadas” or “cabinas para llamadas internacionales”), which you will be able to find in the larger towns and tourist centers. You can make collect calls back to the U.S. from almost any phone by dialing an international operator. Again, these rates will probably be very high. If you are bringing a laptop or even just a Wi-Fi enabled smartphone, probably the easiest way to call back to the U.S. is via Skype. You should set up your account prior to traveling and be sure you have some credit on it; you can then make calls through any Wi-Fi network. If you don’t have a computer or smartphone with Wi-Fi, probably the best option is to ask at your hotel or in a store where the closest calling center is if you plan to make many international calls. If you speak some Spanish, another good option if you plan to make a lot of international calls is to buy an international pre-paid calling card (rates are generally very low). These can be purchased in many convenience stores or magazine kiosks and then used at payphones to call internationally (though instructions will usually only be in Spanish).
Fax machines are generally available at hotels and businesses. Ask at the front desk if you need to send or receive a fax.
There are internet cafes in the larger population centers in Guatemala and at some hotels. Rates are typically in the range of $3 for 15 minutes.
The most common ailment to affect travelers to any destination in South or Central America is traveler’s diarrhea. The best way to avoid it is to be careful about what you eat. Some basic rules:
For additional information about health issues in specific places, including recommended vaccinations and inoculations, you can visit www.tripprep.com, a non-governmental site that contains health related information on other nations. You can also visit the website of the Center for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov. Please keep in mind that the CDC errs on the side of caution and that there are varying opinions on the need for specific vaccinations and inoculations. You should consult a travel clinic and travel health specialist prior to traveling if you have any specific questions.
To minimize mosquito and other insect bites, you should use a Deet based insect repellant, and be sure to wear full length pants and shirts (generally cotton) and socks whenever in an area with biting insects. This can make the difference between having an enjoyable walk in the woods or on the beach and being very uncomfortable due to the insects.
Malaria does exist in Guatemala. However, travelers do not generally take malaria medication, unless they are planning to travel to extremely remote parts of the country, which rarely is the case on our trips. It is generally recommended to be up to date with hepatitis, typhoid, tetanus, and polio vaccinations. You should follow the advice of a health professional if you have any questions or concerns. Information is available from your travel health provider and on the above websites.
We strongly recommend that all of our travelers purchase travel insurance. Travel insurance can help cover many things, including baggage loss, missed connections, trip interruption, and medical emergency (including medical evacuation costs), resulting from a wide variety of circumstances, including illness or extreme weather that results in the cancellation of your trip. It can also help protect you in the event of loss of non-refundable trip deposits and payments that result from cancellation or trip interruption. Families traveling together, in particular, can benefit from traveler’s insurance, due to the high investment in the trip and the increased risk of one person’s illness resulting in the entire trip being cancelled. There are many companies that provide trip insurance. We offer insurance through Allianz, and their most popular plan is the Classic Plan. You can view details of this plan by clicking on this link: Allianz Classic Plan, or by visiting the Allianz website at www.allianztravelinsurance.com.
In restaurants, a 10% tip is customary. Cabs do not generally expect tips, but rounding off fares upward is fairly typical.
Guides/drivers: If you have a private guide for a full day, an average tip would be somewhere in the range of $10-$15 per day, per person. It can be less, it can be more, but this is a typical range. If you go on a shorter trip of a half day, the tip would basically be proportional to what proportion of the day you spent with the guide. If half a day, $5-$8 per person would be a typical range. If there are additional people involved, drivers, crew of a boat, etc., you may want to give them something as well. About 1/3 of what you give the guide himself would be an appropriate benchmark for each of these individuals. For families with children, we suggest giving 50% of the normal per person amount for each child. This is completely at your discretion and you should give what you feel comfortable giving.
For drivers who do airport transfers or other short rides, you shouldn’t feel the need to tip every single time you are getting out of a vehicle. It’s not the case that drivers are expecting a tip every time they take you somewhere. If you have a driver in a city who takes you to and from the airport and you have the chance to give him or her a few dollars (maybe $2 per ride) at the end of the last ride, that’s great and will be appreciated.
If you stay at a place where all meals are included, you may also want to leave some type of tip at the end for the service staff (they often have some type of tipping jar or other way to give a tip to the waiters and other staff). Approximately $5 per person per day is a suggested amount. These types of tips are totally discretionary.
Please note that you can give tips in dollars, but they generally prefer to get tips in local currency, so you might want to plan ahead in terms of how much local currency you will bring to certain locations. Our suggestion would be to get a few hundred dollars in local currency at the airport ATM when you arrive and then take that with you to spend during the trip in other locations, either on tips, meals, or items to bring back home with you.
The Art of Mesoamerica, by Mary Ellen Miller. If you are more inclined to the history of art and architecture and the visual side of things, and are interested in the wider history of Mesoamerican culture (of which the Maya were a major part), this is an excellent book. Concise, highly informative and scholarly, yet very readable.
Time Among the Maya (Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico), by Ronald Wright. A combination of travel journalism and archeology where the author discusses his travels among the modern Maya. Probably one of the most widely read books on the region. It’s a very good read, covering a lot of the challenging and difficult issues of the region’s history. It’s important to keep in mind when reading it, however, that Guatemala is no longer experiencing the kind of civil strife that was taking place when the author wrote the book in 1989.
The Lords of Tikal, by Peter Harrison. A scholarly handbook about Tikal and what it was all about, with great illustrations.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas in the late 1400s, the region of what is now Central America was home to various distinct tribes of indigenous peoples. They were descendants of the people who crossed the Bering Land Bridge that connected Asia to the North American continent during the last ice age, approximately 15-20,000 years ago. By 2,500 B.C., the Nahuatl tribe, who were ancestors of the Maya, had settled across the habitable areas of Mesoamerica, concentrating themselves near lakes and rivers. During what is called the Pre-Classic Period (1500 B.C. to 300 A.D.) of the Maya, increasingly sophisticated techniques in farming and irrigation were developed. With the development of large scale farming, the existence of a reliable food supply allowed for the development of several different classes of citizens, including bureaucrats and artists, and the first civilizations began to emerge and expand. The entire Mayan civilization included Guatemala, Belize, southern Mexico (including the entire Yucatan), and some parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
The Maya originated as a cohesive society as early as 2000 BC, but most of the larger Mayan cities, astronomical facilities, and works of art were created during the Classic Period (300-900 AD). This is the period when Tikal, the most significant excavated Mayan city in Guatemala, was constructed.
The Life of the Maya
The Maya were arguably the most advanced of the pre-Columbian civilizations, using a complicated hieroglyphic system for writing, and developing an advanced numerical system that incorporated the concept of zero. They established a calendar system based on astronomical observation that was extraordinarily accurate, and maintained records of their beliefs and stories in books made of paper and filled with hieroglyphic writing. Unfortunately, only four of these books survived the Spanish book burnings of the 1500s, when Spanish friars tried to wipe out any memory of what they considered a heretical Mayan belief system.
The Maya believed that the world on earth, the heavens, and the underworld (“Xibalba”) were all one unified structure. Many natural places were considered sacred, and mountains, caves, and bodies of water often had special religious significance. There are many caves throughout the region where ritual artifacts from Mayan ceremonies can be found. Caves were considered a gateway between the earth and the underworld of Xibalba. The Maya created beautiful architectural monuments and had great sculptural ability, which you can observe in any of the numerous stelae at the larger Mayan sites. Over the course of Mayan civilization, several different city states emerged under ruling dynasties.
Tikal in Guatemala and Caracol in Belize were two of the most powerful and well established of these city states. Among the many dozens of others were Copan, Palenque, and Chichen Itza. The civilization was in some ways structured similarly to the Greek city-states, unified by a common belief system and language, but at the same time broken down into warring centers of power. Some of the cities of the Maya achieved populations in the tens of thousands, making them some of the largest urban areas in the world for their time. Trade flourished between the different dominant cities, which competed for wealth and influence throughout the region.
There is evidence of human presence at Tikal as early as 800 B.C., though the majority of the structures were built from 550 A.D. to 900 A.D. During the 1,700 years of its existence, Tikal became one of the most important Mayan centers, with a population of from 10 to 40,000 inhabitants. The central part of the Mayan city occupied about 10 square miles and had over 400 structures. One of the other interesting things about a visit to Tikal is the wide variety of wildlife that makes its home in and around the ruins, including many monkeys and many species of tropical birds. (It’s a good idea to bring binoculars with you to help observe birds and wildlife.)
Mayan Ruins at Tikal
The “Collapse” of the Maya
The history of the decline of the Mayan civilization is not particularly well understood, with the most popular theories being long lasting drought or excessive resource depletion due to population growth. Due to the calendar systems the Maya used, which have exact corresponding dates in the modern calendar systems, it is known that many of the different city-states started to decline after 900 A.D. The stelae carved by the Maya were dated, so that archeologists can tell at which point the last stelae were created at many of the different sites. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, many of the Mayan cities had been completely deserted for hundreds of years. As a result, the Mayan civilization never had a major confrontation with the Spanish conquistadores, unlike the Aztecs in central Mexico and the Incas in South America. One of the great challenges of Mesoamerican archeology is to try to piece together what happened to the Maya based on the artifacts and structures they left behind. Contemplating the history of these extraordinary people is also what makes the region a fascinating place to visit.
The decline of Mayan civilization in the area of the Peten (which included Tikal and Caracol) during the Post-Classic period (A.D. 900-1523) meant a rapid depopulation of the Maya heartland and a subsequent migration to the Yucatan and the Guatemalan highlands (in western Guatemala). Here the refugees irrigated and terraced the fertile hills and lived quietly in densely-populated valley settlements. The highlands settlements were then invaded from the north by the Tilted-Maya, a secular, aggressive, militaristic medley of Maya-related tribes, who established themselves as the ruling elite and split into a series of competing empires. The most powerful of the newcomers were the Quiche tribe, who held sway over a large part of the Guatemalan highlands until the Spanish arrived at the beginning of the 1500s.
The Spanish Arrive
The Spaniards arrived during one of the many periods of internal strife in the region of Guatemala. Cortes had led his men to victory over the Aztecs in Mexico in 1521. In 1523, one of Cortes’ young lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado, led a force south into Guatemala. He entered along the Pacific coast with a party of 420 (plus 200 soldiers from enemy tribes), and marched south to engage the Quiche tribes. As happened many times in the confrontations between the heavily armored Spanish and the indigenous tribes, a vastly-outnumbered Spanish force prevailed, in this case destroying a reputedly 30,000-strong Quiche army. Alvarado himself sealed the battle–and ultimately the conquest of Guatemala–by meeting the Maya leader Tecun Uman in single combat and slaying him.
The Spanish established themselves in Guatemala, making different attempts at a capital city that failed due to earthquakes, floods, and indigenous rebellion. In 1541, the city of Antigua was established, and many beautiful colonial buildings were constructed in what became the Spanish capital for the Audiencia of Guatemala, which extended through much of Central America from Chiapas in southern Mexico through Costa Rica. However, since no gold or other valuable minerals were found in the area, the Audiencia was largely neglected by the Spanish. Their interest was much more focused on the mineral rich areas of central Mexico and Peru, where vast gold and silver mines had been discovered and were being exploited.
In 1773, Antigua was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake, and the capital was once again moved, this time to what has become modern Guatemala City, the largest metropolitan area in Central America. During the colonial period, there was continuing unrest and turmoil related to the onerous taxation imposed by the Spanish colonial authorities, and several attempts at independence were made by the disgruntled “criollos” (people locally born but of Spanish-blood, who were treated as second class citizens because they were not born in Spain).
Guatemalan Independence from Spain
On 15 September 1821, twelve prominent criollo statesmen signed an Act of Independence of Central America. Mexican leader Agustin de Iturbide promptly sent troops to force Guatemala to join his new Mexican Empire, which lasted barely another year. Independence was again declared on 24 June 1823 and the country joined in a loose confederation of Central American states, who modeled their constitution on that of the United States, abolished slavery and advocated sweeping liberal reforms. The federation was riven by internal strife, and on 21 March 1847, Rafael Carrera finally declared Guatemala an independent nation.
The Plight of the Maya
Unfortunately for the Maya, independence from Spain really only meant a worsening of their already poor condition, as their lands were appropriated by plantation owners and they subsisted in slave-like conditions as workers on tobacco and sugar cane plantations. Eventually, coffee plantations would come to dominate in modern times, but the plight of the Maya would remain largely the same. The country’s history since independence has been a tumultuous one of conflict between the establishment land-owners and the military on the right, and militant indigenous movements on the left. There has been little compromise and a very small middle ground. However, in 1996 a truce was declared between the military and the leftist guerillas, and since then a period of relative peace has prevailed in Guatemala. The country held its first democratic elections in 40 years in 1999. The country certainly has a long way to go in addressing its inequities, but the good news is that peace has finally taken hold after many years of unrest.
The market in Solola, near Lake Atitlan
Guatemala is about the size of the state of Tennessee. It has a population of about 11 million people, about 45% of whom are of purely indigenous blood. About 45% are mestizos (mixed indigenous and European blood), while about 5% are of purely European blood. About 2% are black, and the remaining 3% are of various other ethnic origins (prominent among them Lebanese and Syrian).
Spanish is spoken as a first language by about 60% of the population, while one of 20 indigenous dialects are spoken as a first language by about 40% of the population. The country is approximately 75% Roman Catholic and about 25% Protestant and evangelical Christian, though many Guatemalans practice a more complex combination of pre-Columbian belief systems and Christianity.