You’ll find the most important tips and tricks here to help you get to know Guatemala a little bit better and have an unforgettable time when you’re there.
Today, I’m taking you on a journey to a more remote destination. Or, more precisely, the Republic of Guatemala, which is south of the Yucatan Peninsula in Central America. I expect you’ve all heard the name but I can imagine that not many people know where to start with this destination. I reckon it’s about time, then, that I sort that out and dedicate an article to this hidden gem of a destination. I can tell you now that you’ll be surprised at how diverse Guatemala is.
Before I introduce you to the most interesting regions in the country, I would like to give you a quick crash course so you have the necessary knowledge in the back of your mind when you go to Guatemala. You can use the borders to define where Guatemala roughly is on the map. It borders Mexico to the north, Belize to the northeast, Honduras to the southeast and El Salvador to the south. We’ve finished with the small geography lesson, so now I’ll tell you all about the most important basics so you can get your bearings when you’re in Guatemala.
Knowledge of Spanish is essential if you go to Guatemala. As this country has remained relatively untouched by mass tourism, the residents haven’t yet adapted to foreign guests. Only very few locals speak broken English here. This means that you need at least basic Spanish to get by even in tourist information and when you’re shopping.
Guatemala’s landscape is diverse and so is its climate. In the north of the country, which is full of tropical rainforests, it is hot and humid. On the other hand, in the highlands, where the most attractive cities for tourists are, the temperatures are more moderate. The nights are relatively cool. It’s completely different again on the coast. Even fans struggle to cool the sweltering heat. Wherever you are, it’s essential that you have a bottle of water with you at all times so you don’t become dehydrated.
Best time to travel
Even if different regions have completely different climates, I can recommend certain times to travel. The best months to visit this country are between February and May and also October and November. From June to September it’s the rainy season in Guatemala. This doesn’t mean that you can’t travel here during this time but you have to prepare yourself for a few unpleasant days.
Before I tell you which traditional dishes you’re likely to find on the table in Guatemala, write down this rule of thumb: cook it, peel it or forget it.
“Cook it, peel it or forget it”
Fruits and fish and meat dishes should be freshly prepared and cooked or baked. I also advise against drinking tap water and ice cubes as you’ll probably end up with digestive problems. You should either boil water or use water purification tablets, which you can get from pharmacies. These enable you to drink the water without any problem. Anyway, moving on to something a little more pleasant, you can look forward to delicious chicken and rice dishes when you’re in Guatemala. Pureed beans are also very popular in Guatemala despite their appearance. If you’re served tortillas, though, don’t get too excited – they either don’t taste of anything or taste a bit musty.
In terms of health, prevention is definitely key before you travel to Guatemala. A tropical diseases doctor can tell you how you can vaccinate yourself against malaria. In any case, you should pack different anti-mosquito equipment and long-sleeved clothes for sundown. The little beasts are everywhere. Once you get home from your trip, you should also look for parasites to make sure that you’re definitely safe.
Guatemala can be an unforgettable adventure. However, you need to stick to some rules and preventative measures. The exotic country has a high crime rate, higher, in fact, than in other Latin American countries. According to the Foreign Office, this is not only because of the prevailing street crime but also because of violent clashes between drug cartels and state security forces. Added to this, there are often cases of blood feuds between different families. Do not travel around at night and make a certified copy of all your travel documents. Check the current conditions and necessary precautions on the Departement of Foreign Affairs website before you travel.
The most beautiful places in Guatemala
With these tips and tricks in your backpack, you can now start your journey to Guatemala. As I said already, the country is characterised by a variety of landscapes. I would like to introduce you to four, which you definitely shouldn’t leave out on your trip.
El Petén, the biggest state in the country, takes up almost a third of Guatemala’s total land area. However, this area only has a small population and is covered in rainforest. This doesn’t mean that countless tourists get lost here though! Lots of different animals like jaguars, pumas and toucans lived here when the area was almost all just rainforest. However, with the development of more and more settlements, a big part of the rainforest was cleared and a savannah landscape developed.
But, don’t worry! With the help of the biosphere reserve, Reserva de la Biosfera Maya, as well as the creation of different national parks, parts of the rainforest have been saved as well as its animals. So, you can look forward to an exciting discovery tour through the rainforest and take in original Guatemala. You can experience some of the past of this country by visiting one or more of its 200 archaeological sites. You should definitely visit the ancient Maya town of Tikal and admire the old pyramids and ruins.
The highlands are in the middle of Guatemala and are home to some important cities like the current capital, Guatemala City, and the former capital, Antigua Guatemala. Several earthquakes in the country have led to lots of Guatemalans fleeing other cities for Guatemala City. As a consequence, the city is the country’s biggest city and also its economic centre. But the high population density doesn’t detract from the city’s history. In fact, it’s completely the opposite. The past is all around you in Guatemala City.
Countless buildings and ruins, like the ruins of Kaminaljuyu, bring the past back to life and museums also evoke this time. The Palacio Nacional is one of the most beautiful examples of architecture in the city as it unites the two styles of Spanish and Gothic architecture. This type of architecture lends the city a really special charm. The Torre del Reformador is the landmark of the city. You can also find cultural offerings in the countless museums. The city’s backdrop is a mixture of beautiful, natural rainforest and volcanoes, which really makes the city look perfect and rounds off your visit nicely.
The Pacific Coast
From Guatemala City, it’s not far to the natural and almost undisturbed Pacific Coast with its beautiful beaches. Although Guatemala is a popular travel destination for tourists, the beaches are pretty much undeveloped. There are hardly any hotels here but you occasionally come across beach huts covered with reeds. Why has mass tourism not reached here yet and developed into a real source of income, I hear you ask? This could be because the Pacific is very lively and is too dangerous even for surfers with its strong waves let alone for a relaxed dip in the sea. Another reason could be that the dark volcanic sand absorbs so much heat that you can’t even lie on a towel on the beaches here. Only the reed-covered cottages give a little shade so you can relax in a hammock here.
A special highlight on Guatemala’s beaches are the turtle hatcheries. On the dark, volcanic sand, turtles lay thousands of eggs every day, which are exposed to the danger of seabirds and the risk of poaching. For a small amount of money, tourists can sponsor the small turtles and release some of them into the water. In order to facilitate the release of the turtles, it’s seen as a sort of race – if your turtle reaches the sea first, you’ve won. In this way, more than 30,000 sea turtles are saved every year – a great idea, don’t you think?
Lago de Izabal
You’ll find the Lago de Izabal or Lake Izabal in every travel guide. It’s a popular hotspot for tourists. With an area of 590 square metres, it is the biggest lake in Guatemala but its most special feature is its proximity to the Caribbean Sea. More precisely, the Lago de Izabal is directly linked to the open sea by the Rio Dulce. This means that it has always been at the centre of trade and shipping. But this doesn’t just have its advantages. British pirates used to repeatedly attack the Spanish colonialists so they had to build the Castillo San Felipe de Lara in the 16th century for protection.
Today, the lake invites you to bathe, swim and sail as well as observe the numerous fishes and West Indian manatees, who also make use of the lake’s proximity to the Caribbean. In addition, various nature reserves have been created around the lake where you can admire the wonderful landscape to your heart’s content.
If you’re now curious to visit this diverse country, you should quickly refresh your Spanish skills and start planning your holiday!
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