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Quick Facts
CapitalGuatemala
Governmentconstitutional democratic republic
Currencyquetzal (GTQ), US dollar (USD), others allowed
Areatotal: 108,890 sq km
water: 460 sq km
land: 108,430 sq km
Population13,314,079 (July 2002 est.)
LanguageSpanish 60%, Amerindian languages 40% (23 officially recognized Amerindian languages, including Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, Mam, Garifuna, and Xinca)
ReligionRoman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous Mayan beliefs and Atheist.

Guatemala is a country in the Central America region of North America. It has borders to Mexico in the north/north-west, to Belize in the north-east, to Honduras in the south-east, to El Salvador in the south. It also has a Pacific coastline to the south-west, and a tiny piece of Caribbean coastline to the east.

Regions

  • Guatemala City
  • Western Highlands: Many modern Maya towns
  • Caribbean Coast: Hot and steamy
  • La Antigua Guatemala: Colonial Spanish capital of Central America, a World Heritage site, and the most popular amongst tourists
  • Cob�n: In Alta Verapaz
  • Escuintla
  • Flores: Island city capital of Pet�n
  • Guatemala City: Capital and largest city with many amenities
  • Huehuetenango
  • Puerto Barrios: Caribbean seaport
  • Quetzaltenango: Second largest city, in the western highlands
  • San Marcos: Fantastic small pueblo in the western highlands

Other destinations

  • Chichicastenango: Highland Maya town famous for its traditional market
  • Lake Atitl�n: Beautiful lake in the mountains surrounded by picturesque villages and volcanos, which is becoming more and more touristic
    • Panajachel, small tourist-oriented town that is good starting point for Lake Atitl�n
    • Santiago Atitl�n, small town on south side of Lake Atitl�n, famous for a shrine to Maxim�n
    • San Pedro La Laguna, small town on southwest side of Lake Atitl�n, offering low-cost living, great views, and a modest Spanish-language training industry (also known as Livingston: Caribbean coast town with Garifuna culture
    • Monterrico: The beach closest to Guatemala City and Antigua
    • Rio Dulce

    Maya ruins

    • Aguateca
    • Ceibal
    • Dos Pilas
    • El Mirador
    • El Peru
    • El Zotz
    • Gumarcaj: Also known as Utatl�n, near Santa Cruz del Quiche
    • Iximche
    • Mixco Viejo
    • Naranjo
    • Piedras Negras
    • Quirigu�: Impressive Classic Maya sculptures
    • Tikal: The Largest of Maya ruins, this ancient Maya site is probably worth the trip to Guatemala by itself.
    • Uaxactun
    • Yaxh�
    • Zaculeu: Near Huehuetenango

    Volcanoes

    • Volc�n Tacan� (4093m)
    • Volc�n Tajumulco (4220m)
    • Volc�n Santa Mar�a (3772m)
    • Volc�n Atitl�n (3537m)
    • Volc�n Acatenango (3976m)
    • Volc�n de Ipala (1650m)
    • Volc�n de Pacaya (2500m) - this is an active volcano about 30 minutes outside of Antigua. Highly recommended. Some days it will not be accessible as the volcano may be too active to observe safely. Bring a jacket since it will be windy and cold at the top (although the ground will feel warm) and wear long pants as the volcanic rock can easily give you a nice cut.

    Understand

    Guatemala has a rich and distinctive culture from the long mix of elements from Spain and the native Maya people. This diverse history and the natural beauty of the land has created a destination rich in interesting and scenic sites.

    When to go

    It is difficult to travel in the more remote areas during the rainy season between mid-May to mid-October and into mid-November in the north.

    The elaborate ceremonies in Antigua the week leading up to Easter are a highlight.

    The months of March and April are very hot especially in the low lying areas such as the pacific coastal plain.

    Get in

    By plane

    Guatemala's main airport, La Aurora International Airport, is near Guatemala City. International flights arrive mostly from other Central American countries and North America.
    Guatemala's secondary airport is situated in Flores, Pet�n. This small airport receives flights from a small number of close destinations including Belize, Mexico City and Guatemala City.

    By car

    From Mexico, or Honduras, El Salvador, via Pan-American Highway, also possible with more difficulty from Belize.

    The small, three-wheeled tuk-tuk is a common vehicle providing local taxi service. It can carry up to three passengers. You will need to negotiate your fare with the driver before you start, because they generally don't have meters. The tuk-tuk originates from India, and can be found in many developing countries. The name refers to the sound of the motorcycle engine powering the vehicle.

    By bus

    From Flores (5 hours) and Guatemala City (14 hours).
    El Salvador: San Salvador, Santa Ana
    Honduras: Copan, San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba, Tegucigalpa
    Nicaragua: Managua
    Costa Rica: San Jos�
    Panama: Panama City
    Mexico: Tapachula, Palenque, Chetumal, Tulum, Cancun, Mexico City

    It's hard to miss the colourfully-decorated busses that crowd the streets of major cities and highways of Guatemala. These are chicken busses, and are a common form of travel for Guatemalans and a travel adventure for tourists. They are much cheaper than tourist vans or taxis (example: a 10km drive from Antigua to the countryside costs Q2.75 as of December 2005). They are usually very crowded, with three people squeezed into seats designed to seat two North American children, and more people standing in the aisles. The bus itself is frequently a used North American school bus; the "Blue Bird" and "Ford" logos are clearly visible. In addition to the driver there is usually a conductor standing in the door. The conductor collects fares, and from time to time jumps out to direct the bus through a blind intersection or around a tight turn. On the highways, the chicken bus drivers are aggressive, not hesitating to overtake in the face of oncoming traffic.

    You can board a chicken bus almost anywhere along its route. If you put out your arm, it will stop. You board and find a space to sit or stand. The conductor will come back to you after the bus is underway, and collect your fare. You need to recognise where your stop is, and move to the door in time. You ask the bus to stop, more or less wherever you want to get off.

    By boat

    Puerto Barrios, from Punta Gorda, Belize

    Get around

    By car or bus, airplane to the Peten.

    Many regular intercity buses.

    Tourist Shuttles are 10 times more expensive than regular buses (including intercity buses).

    Guatemala City: Try the local trolley, Chiltepe Tours (www.chiltepe.com), departing at 10:00 and 13:00 hours from hotels in zone 10, visiting the historic downtown of Guatemala City, with one stop at the National Palace, and one at Museo Popol Vuh. Duration, approximately 3 hours.

    Be leery of ayudantes (the bus helpers hanging out of the front door yelling) charging foreigners extra. Listen to what others are paying and insist that you pay the same amount.

    Talk

    Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, and the most commonly spoken. Maya languages are still spoken, especially in towns in the western highlands, but most of the Maya people have at least a working knowledge of basic Spanish as well. By the Garifuna people in Livingston, Garifuna and English are the main languages (but Spanish is spoken as well).

    The most familiar form of Spanish spoken among good friends is the "tu/vos" form. It is considered rude and very informal if used with someone that you do not know. As a tourist, it is safer to stick with the "usted" form; you can't go wrong with that. However, don't be surprised if some homestay families and some language teachers jump right into using the "tu/vos" form. If they do, you may respond in kind.

    Buy

    The national currency is Quetzal(es). The rate of change is approximately 8 Quetzales for 1 US Dollar (September 2005). It is not common to use dollars in everyday life. You will most likely have difficulties in changing other currencies than US Dollars.

    It is common to bargain for the typical tourist purchases. If a store has fixed prices for these type of products, you will see a sign saying so (precios fijos).

    Things to buy in Guatemala

    • Ron Zacapa Centenario, Guatemalas prize-winning rum
    • Fabrics and Traditional textiles


    • Jade - large jade factory in Antigua, very expensive though

    Eat

    Typical food: Kaq Ik, Pepi�n, tortillas, frijoles negros (beans), caldo (watery soup), eggs, rice, and some meat.

    The type of food really depends on how much you want to spend and what type of place you want to spend it at. You can get almost any type of food at the main tourist locations (Antigua, Guatemala City, etc.). In the aldeas (small towns) your choices will obviously be limited to what has been listed above.

    Drink

    Guatemalans usually dress down when they go out.

    See Staying Healthy section below.

    All Coca-Cola and Pepsi type products are available plus many products from local soft drink manufacturers.

    A popular local beer is Gallo. Many beers found in America can also be found in the tourist areas.

    Sleep

    You will likely find cheap hostels in every town or village in Guatemala. There are also many high quality hotels for those seeking additonal comfort and amenities.

    • Real InterContinental Guatemala, La Antigua Guatemala has the highest number of Spanish schools and is also the most popular place for tourists. But if studying Spanish is your main concern, you might be better of elsewhere, because you can actually go around in Antigua for a whole day without hearing anything but English.

      Because of this, many language students head towards Lake Atitlan, where a wide range of language schools also offer Spanish language courses (some quite inexpensive). But as in Antigua the quality of the lessons might not be up to what expect, so ask around.

      Instead Try Quetzaltenango which is considered now -2005- as the educative tourist destination of Guatemala.

      Another option is to look among other less touristed cities and villages for other quality schools: http://www.123teachme.com/search.php?relCountryID=2

      Work

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      Stay safe

      Dangerous traffic. You will encounter nothing but 1 lane roads (1 lane each way) and drivers are cut from the Latin American mold - insane, in other words (at least for European/North Americans).
      High crime rate (especially in Guatemala City. Avoid zone 18 at all costs.).
      Human rights conditions are bad, but this is mostly of concern for locals.
      Always carry a bit of extra cash and be prepared to bribe a few police officers. Most European/North Americans find it immoral but its much easier to spend 50 Quetzales and avoid the headaches than to be harassed by the police. When you play in their country you have to play by their rules. Phrases such as "I'm sorry officer. Is there any way we can resolve this right now?" work well.
      Keep any important documents or items (passports, wallets, etc.) in your front pocket or close to your person.

      Stay healthy

      Be aware of potentially Malaria and Dengue fever in the tropical lowland.
      Be careful with the hygiene.
      Hepatitis A&B innoculation is recommended.
      Only drink purified water (agua pura).

      Respect

      Address people you don't know in a formal manner (Se�or, Se�ora, Usted).

      Contact

      Guatemalas international calling code is 502. There are no area codes. Phone numbers all have eight digits. On September 18, 2004, the phone system switched from seven to eight digits, and there is a scheme for adding specific digits to the front of seven-digit numbers (WTNG.info description (http://www.wtng.info/wtng-502-gt.html)). You may still see seven-digit phone numbers listed.

      The phone system isn't great, but it works. Tourists can call abroad from call centers, where you pay by the minute. Typically, the cost is around 8 quetzals for a 10 min call to North America.

      The post system is traditionally not reliable, but your post cards usually get through. A stamp for Europe is Q5. Internet access is not widely available, though you may find internet cafes in the tourist friendly areas - Antigua, Atitlan, etc. Some hotels may also offer computer banks with internet access.

      External links