Top events in Guatemala

December
01

The mountain town of Chichicastenango becomes a swirl of colour and merriment during one of Guatemala’s most beautiful festivals in honour of...

December
07

In preparation of the holy weeks of Christmas Guatemalan people create huge bonfires of unwanted possessions in the streets to cleanse their...

January
15

The town of Esquipulas is home to the sacred Basílica of Esquipulas with its Icon of the Black Christ that dates back to 1594. Thousands of...

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
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Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

© 123rf.com / Thomas Pozzo Di Borgo

Guatemala Travel Guide

Key Facts
Area

108,889 sq km (42,042 sq miles).

Population

14.4 million (2013).

Population density

132 per sq km.

Capital

Guatemala City.

Government

Constitutional Democratic Republic. Gained independence from Spain in 1821.

Head of state

President Otto Perez Molina since 2012.

Head of government

President Otto Perez Molina since 2012.

Electricity

115-125 volts AC, 60Hz. There are some regional variations. Plugs are the flat two-pin American type.

Guatemala is a vibrant, colourful land characterised by its proud ethnic cultures, towering volcanic peaks, lush jungles, colonial architecture and staggering Mayan monuments. Guatemala humbly has it all: from the highlands to the coasts, the colonial towns to the devout festivals, the great mountain lakes to the exotic jungles. Visitors to the country find they leave changed, civilisations they once believed long gone in fact thriving, fantasy landscapes in fact a reality.

Antiquity is at the heart of Guatemala, and the country is home to many spectacular Mayan archaeological sites, most significantly the vast UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal, where great towers peep through the rainforest canopy and monkeys swing past the sprawling ancient plazas. The pine-forested hills of the highlands are home to many Mayan communities, whose indigenous beliefs, traditional dress, religious practices and craftsmanship, flourish. Indeed, Guatemala has around 21 different ethnic groups, speaking some 23 languages giving it a distinctive culture like nowhere else in the region.

Mayan mountain-top towns such as Quetzaltenango (or Xela) and Chichicastenango, with their colourful markets, spirited festivals and indigenous way of life are one of the country’s true highlights. Ringed by smouldering volcanoes, Antigua was once the country’s capital, the upmarket colonial town as beautiful as its surrounding landscape. It comes alive during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations when elaborate parades through the streets attract thousands from across the country and beyond.

Guatemala is a nature-lovers paradise. Indeed, even the local currency is adorned with exotic birds and animals. With a mild, inviting climate, Guatemala provides the perfect canvas for outdoor exploration. In the highlands, the great Lake Atitlan is one of the country’s jewels. Small villages and towns dot the shoreline, from the Mayan Panajachel to the bohemian San Pedro de la Laguna, and scuba diving, fishing and kayaking are perfect activities to enjoy on the serene waters of the lake. On the other side of the country, the vast and remote region of Peten is home to the country’s most dense jungle, in the midst of which were discovered the long-abandoned Mayan ruins including the formidable Tikal.

Gargantuan lakes, lava-oozing volcanoes, black sand Pacific beaches teeming with nesting sea turtles, natural hot springs and roaring rivers combine to form the most varied natural landscape in all of Central America. At Semuc Champey, turquoise pools cascade through the jungle, forming a bridge over a raging underground river and a maze of caves simply beg to be explored.

Guatemala’s tourist appeal is undeniable. Yet soaring crime rates and a volatile social and political make-up have plagued the country, most notably the capital Guatemala City for decades (although the lion’s share of violent crime tends to be gang-related, posing less of a danger to visitors). Despite Guatemala's often savage history, where Mayan, Spanish and civil wars have raged, visitors are greeted by sincere friendliness and hospitality. For Guatemala is essentially a country of contrasts; one where Catholic churches exits alongside Mayan traditions, where the rugged highlands give way to the undulating tropical jungles and where the legacy of its ancient civilisations is as evident as its modern, Latin culture.

Travel Advice

Last updated: 26 November 2014

The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. 'We' refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.

On 7 July an earthquake struck Guatemala, mainly affecting the Departments of San Marcos, Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, Totonicapan, Sololá, Retalhuleu and Suchitepequez. There was damage to infrastructure, property and to some transport routes.

On 10 July, the Guatemalan President declared a “State of Public Calamity” for 30 days to enable the local authorities to co-ordinate relief and reconstruction efforts. This measure has been extended by local authorities and is still in place. Travel disruption is likely in the worst affected areas. You should monitor the situation and follow the advice of local authorities.

The rainy season in Guatemala normally runs from June to November, coinciding with the hurricane season in the Caribbean.

Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. Take care in all parts of the country, including Guatemala City. You should carry personal ID when travelling (certified copies are fine).

Guatemala has active volcanoes, some prone to heightened activity. Before climbing any of the volcanoes, you should check and follow the advice of local authorities and monitor the situation.

Avoid travelling on public buses (repainted US school buses). Private inter-city coach services are safer, but not immune from attack.

Large demonstrations occur throughout Guatemala, often with little or no notice.

There is a low threat from terrorism.

29,234 British nationals visited Guatemala in 2013. Most visits are trouble free.

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