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.
115-125 volts AC, 60Hz. There are some regional variations. Plugs are the flat two-pin American type; if your plug has a third grounding pin, you'll probably need an adaptor.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
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 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.
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. These and 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 is 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) 2421 2810 and (502) 5555 2918. 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.
Incidents of political violence, strikes and large demonstrations can occur, often with little or no notice. Although most demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent. You should avoid all demonstrations.
The use of roadblocks and blocking public facilities, including the international airport, can happen at any time.
Guatemalan legislation prohibits political activities by foreigners. If you take part in demonstrations you may be detained and/or asked to leave the country.