Guatemala travel guide
Guatemala humbly has it all: from colonial towns to Mayan ruins, great mountain lakes to vibrant religious festivals, sandy beaches to exotic jungles. Often visitors to the country find they leave enlightened; civilisations they believed long gone are found thriving, Tomb Raider landscapes they thought fantasy are shown to be real.
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.
Although Guatemala boasts some truly stunning cities – most notably Antigua, an upmarket colonial town surrounded by smouldering volcanoes – Guatemala’s real joy is its nature. The great Lake Atitlan in the highlands is a place of rare beauty and offers various adventure activities ranging from scuba diving to fishing.
On the other side of the country, the vast and remote region of Peten houses the country’s thickest jungle, home to long-abandoned Mayan ruins that few get to see. Elsewhere, gargantuan lakes, lava-oozing volcanoes, black sandy beaches, natural hot springs and roaring rivers combine to form the most geographically diverse destination in Central America.
Though consistently beautiful, Guatemala is a nation of contrasts; a place where Catholic churches exist alongside Mayan temples, where rugged highlands give way to tropical jungles, and where the legacy of its ancient civilisations is as evident as its modern, Latin American culture.
Despite stories of high crime rates and volatile politics, most visitors encounter nothing but warmth and hospitality from its people, as well as epic landscapes that make them wonder why they didn’t visit sooner.
108,889 sq km (42,042 sq miles).
16,672,956 (UN estimate 2016).
137 per sq km.
Constitutional Democratic Republic.
President Jimmy Morales since 2015.
President Jimmy Morales since 2015.
Last updated: 19 January 2018
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.
Guatemala has been in a state of political crisis since late August 2017. Demonstrations in Guatemala City and other major towns are possible. You should remain cautious and avoid any demonstrations.
When travelling in the country, you should follow the advice of the local authorities (PROATUR) and monitor local media.
UK health authorities have classified Guatemala as having a risk of Zika virus transmission. For more information and advice, visit the National Travel Health Network and Centre website
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. Some are at high altitude with sub-zero temperatures at night. Six tourists died of exposure on Acetanango in January 2017. Warm clothing and waterproofs are essential. Local tour organisers tend to underestimate the risks.
Before climbing 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 may be disruptions to traffic and public transport. You should avoid all demonstrations.
Although there’s no recent history of terrorism in Guatemala, attacks can’t be ruled out.
16,691 British nationals visited Guatemala in 2016. Most visits are trouble free.
You can contact the emergency services by calling 120 (police) or 122/123 (ambulance and fire).
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission.
Safety and security
Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America; there were around 5,718 violent deaths in 2015. Although the majority of serious crime involves local gangs, incidents are usually indiscriminate and can occur in tourist areas. Despite the high levels of crime most visits to Guatemala are trouble-free and unaffected by crime.
On 22 April 2017, a violent armed attack involving a group of tourists, including five British nationals, was reported at La Laguna, Pasaco, in the department of Jutiapa.
Car-jacking and armed hold-ups are common on the main road ‘Carretera Salvador’ leading from Guatemala City to the border with El Salvador. The crossroads at Fraijanes, San Jose Pinula and Las Luces are also focal points for express kidnappings.
Such attacks, including sexual assault can take place anywhere and at any time of the day. Attacks usually involve firearms and motorcycle riders. There is a low arrest and conviction rate. Victims have been killed and injured resisting attack.
No parts of Guatemala City are free from crime; this includes Zone 10 (Zona Viva) - popular with tourists and foreign residents. Take care in Zone 1 (historical centre) where the cheaper hotels are situated and several bus routes terminate.
For shorter trips within towns and cities the safest option is to take a radio or hotel taxis. When arriving at the airport you can buy pre-paid taxi vouchers from the INGUAT Tourist Office in the arrivals terminal.
Take care around ATM machines, petrol station forecourts, the airport, bus stations and shopping centres. Check ATMs for evidence of tampering, but be aware that affected machines may not be easy to spot. It’s safer to change money in hotels, at banks or at foreign exchange offices. Don’t withdraw too much money at once, and avoid withdrawing money at night.
Avoid displaying valuable items like laptops, cameras and mobile phones. Don’t wear jewellery and only carry minimal amounts of cash. Use a hotel safe if possible.
Avoid travelling around on your own or at night, especially at border crossings or areas where there are few other people around. When travelling to remote areas it may be safer to travel with others or take part in a tour with a reputable company.
Be wary of bogus police officers. There have been reports of visitors becoming victims of theft, extortion or sexual assault by people dressed in police uniforms.
Foreign visitors and residents can be targeted by scam artists. The scams come in many forms, and can pose great financial loss. Be cautious if you are asked to transfer funds to family or friends in Guatemala. Try and get in contact with your family member or friend to check that they have made this request.
You can get up-to-date security information through INGUAT (a telephone information service is available in English), the Guatemalan Tourist Institute. INGUAT’s tourist assistance service, PROATUR offer an escort service for tourists groups or individuals travelling locally in the region. You can contact them on (502) 2290 2810. You may also dial 1500 in Guatemala.
There have been armed attacks on tourists travelling by road to/from major tourist sites like Antigua, Tikal, Petén and Lake Atitlan. Boat services between towns on the shore of Lake Atitlan may be a safer alternative.
PROATUR issues advice on which routes to take when travelling in and around Sololá, Panajachel and Lake Atitlan. Avoid the Godinez by-pass via Patzun between Guatemala City and Panajachel. Use the Pan American Highway to Sololá instead. You should also avoid the road between Cocales (Suchitepequez) and San Lucas Toliman (Atitlan) if possible.
Be careful when accepting lifts.
Pay particular attention to your security in the border areas with Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. It is often better to cross borders in the morning as they often close in the early evening and you will have time to reach your destination before dark.
Take particular care in the Belize/Guatemala border area because of the ongoing dispute between the two countries. Only use the officially recognised border crossings.
You can use your UK driving licence to drive in Guatemala for visits under 3 months, but an International Driving Permit is recommended. Driving standards are variable. You should drive carefully and expect the unexpected. Adequate car insurance is essential. If you are involved in an accident, contact the National Police by calling 120 or the fire brigade by dialling 122 or 123 and wait for them to arrive.
It is generally safer to travel on main roads. There is a greater risk of attack on quieter routes. Travel in convoy if possible. In more isolated locations, roads are unpaved and you may need a four-wheel drive vehicle.
It is illegal in the Department of Guatemala to have more than one person riding a motorcycle. Motorcyclists throughout the country must wear an orange vest and helmet with the registration number. Those violating the law face a fine of Q1,000 (around £100).
Speed limits are strictly enforced and there are heavy penalties for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These can include fines, confiscation of driving licences and imprisonment. For more information you can visit Departamento de Transito PNC and Law to Enforce Transit Security (in Spanish)
Public buses and coach services
For security reasons you should avoid travel on public buses (repainted US school buses). There has been an increase in armed attacks by local gangs on bus drivers and conductors, often resulting in serious injury or death. Since July 2010 these attacks have included the use of explosives. There have been reports of violent muggings, including rape and assault against foreigners on these buses.
Private inter-city coach services are generally safer, but have been attacked during daylight hours on well-used, main roads.
Guatemala City Council no longer allows some inter-city buses to enter the city centre. Passengers are dropped at various points on the outskirts.
Guatemala has been in a state of political crisis since late August 2017. There are risks of demonstrations and although most demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent. You should avoid all demonstrations. Guatemalan legislation prohibits political activities by foreigners. If you take part in demonstrations you may be detained and/or asked to leave the country.
Incidents of political violence, strikes and large demonstrations can occur, often with little or no notice.
The use of roadblocks and blocking public facilities, including the international airport, can happen at any time.
Although there’s no recent history of terrorism in Guatemala, attacks can’t be ruled out.
There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
Find out more about the global threat from terrorism, how to minimise your risk and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack.
Local laws and customs
There are severe penalties for drug trafficking (10-20 years) and drug use (8-15 years). Guatemalan prisons are overcrowded, violent and unclean.
Don’t take photographs without permission, especially of children. This is particularly important in more remote areas such as Quiché, Petén, San Marcos and Chiquimula provinces. There have been lynchings related to accusations and fears of child kidnapping for adoption or theft of vital organs. Foreigners have been caught up in the violence. You may be asked to pay a small amount of money to take photographs of both children and adults.
Homosexuality is not illegal, although there are currently no provisions in Guatemalan legislation guaranteeing freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. There is no recognition of same-sex marriages in Guatemala. In Guatemala City, local people are largely tolerant of different lifestyles and small displays of affection between same sex couples are accepted. Outside Guatemala City attitudes are more conservative and same-sex couples should avoid public displays of affection. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.
In most parts of the country you can carry a photocopy of your passport for identification purposes. In San Pedro La Laguna, Sololá, local authorities may not accept a copy of your passport as identification, and may fine or detain you if you can’t produce your original passport or a certified copy when asked. You should ensure that your passport has sufficient validity and a plentiful supply of unused pages before you travel.
The information on this page covers the most common types of travel and reflects the UK government’s understanding of the rules currently in place. Unless otherwise stated, this information is for travellers using a full ‘British Citizen’ passport.
The authorities in the country or territory you’re travelling to are responsible for setting and enforcing the rules for entry. If you’re unclear about any aspect of the entry requirements, or you need further reassurance, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
You should also consider checking with your transport provider or travel company to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements.
British citizens don’t need a visa to visit Guatemala for up to 90 days. For further information on entry requirements for tourists and for those planning to work in Guatemala, contact the Guatemalan Embassy in London.
If you wish to extend your visa, you must submit an application to the Migration Directorate in Guatemala City. For further information, contact the General Directorate of Migration in Guatemala City.
If you overstay your visa then you should expect to pay a fine before leaving the country. This fine can only be paid at the Migration Directorate in Guatemala City. Fines can’t be paid at the airport or land borders.
Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry into Guatemala.
Yellow fever certificate requirements
Check whether you need a yellow fever certificate by visiting the National Travel Health Network and Centre’s TravelHealthPro website.
UK Emergency Travel Documents
UK Emergency Travel Documents (ETDs) are accepted for entry to and exit from Guatemala. ETDs must have a minimum period of 6 months validity from the date you enter Guatemala.
If you’re travelling via the United States of America on an ETD, you’ll need to get a USA visa. For more information, please contact the USA Embassy in Guatemala.
Central America Border Control Agreement
Guatemala is part of the Central America Border Control Agreement (CA-4). Under the terms of this agreement, British tourists can travel within any of the CA-4 countries (Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala) for a period of up to 90 days without completing entry and exit formalities at border immigration checkpoints. This period begins at the first point of entry of any of the CA-4 countries. Fines are applied for travellers who exceed this 90-day limit, although a request for an extension can be made for up to 30 days by paying a fee before the 90 days limit expires. If you are expelled from any of the four countries you are also excluded from the entire CA-4 region.
If you are planning on travelling to Nicaragua, before you travel please check information on entry requirements with your travel company, the Nicaraguan Immigration authorities or by contacting your nearest Nicaraguan Embassy. Please also check our travel advice for Nicaragua.
There is a US$30 (or Quetzal equivalent) airport departure tax, which is normally included in the price of the ticket.
When crossing into Guatemala by land border, there have been numerous reports of customs/immigration officials charging an “entry fee”. This is illegal. By asking for an official receipt for your money you may find that the “fee” is dropped.
Visit your health professional at least 4 to 6 weeks before your trip to check whether you need any vaccinations or other preventive measures. Country specific information and advice is published by the National Travel Health Network and Centre on the TravelHealthPro website and by NHS (Scotland) on the fitfortravel website. Useful information and advice about healthcare abroad is also available on the NHS Choices website.
UK health authorities have classified Guatemala as having a risk of Zika virus transmission. For more information and advice, visit the National Travel Health Network and Centre website.
Hospitals in Guatemala are reluctant to give medical treatment unless they can be satisfied that you have medical insurance. It’s therefore essential that you carry evidence of your insurance cover at all times. Make sure you get confirmation from the hospital administration that your insurance coverage is accepted. In some hospitals the administration may ask you to pay upfront and you may have to claim on your insurance later. State-funded hospitals are on the whole under-staffed, under-funded, ill-equipped, and often unhygienic. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.
Water isn’t generally safe to drink unless filtered, but bottled water is cheap and widely available.
Cases of Chikungunya virus have been confirmed in Guatemala. Dengue fever is common to Latin America and the Caribbean and can occur throughout the year. You should take steps to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.
The water in Lake Atitlan is not safe for drinking, or for swimming in certain areas. Check with local authorities before swimming in the lake, and seek medical advice if you fall ill during or immediately after a trip there.
In the 2013 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic the UNAIDS/WHO Working Group estimated that around 53,000 adults aged 15 or over in Guatemala were living with HIV; the prevalence was estimated at around 0.7% of the adult population compared to the prevalence percentage in adults in the UK of around 0.2%. Exercise precautions to avoid exposure to HIV and AIDS.
If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 122 and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment.
The rainy season in Guatemala normally runs from June to November, coinciding with the hurricane season in the Caribbean. You should monitor local and international weather updates from the World Meteorological Organisation and the National Hurricane Centre. For more general information see our Tropical Cyclones page.
Heavy rains cause frequent flooding, landslides and collapsed roads and bridges throughout the country Monitor local media and consult your tour operator and PROATUR as travel routes are likely to face disruption.
The possibility of eruptions always exists.
Take care if you are near any active volcano. Monitor local media and seek advice from your tour operator in case of possible travel disruption.
Four of Guatemala’s volcanoes are currently active and the local authorities issue alerts in response to increased volcanic activity.
There have been several armed attacks on tourists climbing mountains. It is safer to go with others and hire a guide or take part in a tour with a reputable company. Contact the local tourist authority PROATUR for the latest information. Fuego and Santiaguito volcanoes are showing increased activity including lava and ash eruptions. Seek local advice before attempting a climb. You should avoid climbing volcanoes at night.
Take care when climbing the Tajumulco volcano. There have been incidents of unrest among local communities involved in land disputes. Contact PROATUR for the latest information before climbing the volcano.
Volcano climbs are rewarding but need careful preparation. Several of Guatemala’s volcanoes are 4,000 metres high where temperatures drop to below freezing at night. Warm clothing and waterproofs are essential. Local tour organisers tend to underestimate the risks: six tourists died of exposure on Acatenango in January 2017. There’s no mountain rescue service.
For further information visit the websites of the Humanitarian Early Warning System - Volcanoes Watch and/or the Guatemalan disasters agency CONRED (in Spanish).
Guatemala is subject to frequent minor earth tremors and occasional earthquakes.
On 8 September 2017 there was an earthquake of magnitude 8.2 on the Richter scale off the coast of Chiapas, Mexico which caused severe damage in western Guatemala. If you’re in the area, you should follow the advice of the local authorities.
Make sure you know what action to take if an earthquake strikes. Read the hotel earthquake instructions. During an earthquake, you should drop to the ground and take cover under sturdy furniture, in a doorway or next to an inside wall, away from windows or objects which may fall. Cover your head with a pillow or your arms and wait for the earthquake to stop, before moving to a safe area outside.
Debit cards are sometimes rejected by ATMs. Credit cards and travellers’ cheques are more reliable. It is safer to change money in hotels, at banks or at foreign exchanges offices. Credit and debit cards have been cloned after being used in ATMs. Check ATMs for evidence of tampering, although affected machines may not be easy to spot.
If credit cards are lost or stolen there may be difficulties obtaining a replacement as the UK Royal Mail is refusing to accept deliveries to Guatemala. You should use international courier companies to ensure delivery. Check with courier companies about any restrictions and their policy.
You can’t exchange sterling in Guatemala.
Travel advice help and support
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. If you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad, contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London on 020 7008 1500 (24 hours).
Foreign travel checklist
Read our foreign travel checklist to help you plan for your trip abroad and stay safe while you’re there.
The FCO travel advice helps you make your own decisions about foreign travel. Your safety is our main concern, but we can’t provide tailored advice for individual trips. If you’re concerned about whether or not it’s safe for you to travel, you should read the travel advice for the country or territory you’re travelling to, together with information from other sources you’ve identified, before making your own decision on whether to travel. Only you can decide whether it’s safe for you to travel.
When we judge the level of risk to British nationals in a particular place has become unacceptably high, we’ll state on the travel advice page for that country or territory that we advise against all or all but essential travel. Read more about how the FCO assesses and categorises risk in foreign travel advice.
Our crisis overseas page suggests additional things you can do before and during foreign travel to help you stay safe.
Refunds and cancellations
If you wish to cancel or change a holiday that you’ve booked, you should contact your travel company. The question of refunds and cancellations is a matter for you and your travel company. Travel companies make their own decisions about whether or not to offer customers a refund. Many of them use our travel advice to help them reach these decisions, but we do not instruct travel companies on when they can or can’t offer a refund to their customers.
For more information about your rights if you wish to cancel a holiday, visit the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website. For help resolving problems with a flight booking, visit the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. For questions about travel insurance, contact your insurance provider and if you’re not happy with their response, you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Registering your travel details with us
We’re no longer asking people to register with us before travel. Our foreign travel checklist and crisis overseas page suggest things you can do before and during foreign travel to plan your trip and stay safe.
Previous versions of FCO travel advice
If you’re a British national and you have a question about travelling abroad that isn’t covered in our foreign travel advice or elsewhere on GOV.UK, you can submit an enquiry. We’re not able to provide tailored advice for specific trips.