Guatemala: the heart of two empires


A country interspersed by mountains including some active volcanoes, highland plains, and sub-tropical forests, Guatemala is rich in both biodiversity and a rich history. Making up the heart of the ancient Mayan Empire as well as being a central location for Spanish colonial settlements, it is a hotspot for those who enjoy archaeological sites. Its long Pacific coast also provides lovely black sand beaches. Although the country has a high rate of crime, sensible precautions can make for an enjoyable and inexpensive vacation.


Getting in, out, and about Guatemala


US passport holders can get into Guatemala and stay for up to 90 days without a visa. When you enter the country, you’re asked the length of your stay, which is what gets stamped on your passport. It is possible to double the length of your stay while you are there, but you have to apply for this with the Guatemalan Immigration Agency. If you overstay the date stamped on your passport, you can face a fine for each day you stay past, which amounts to approximately $1.30 USD a day.


Guatemala is part of the Central America-4 Border Control Agreement, which establishes free travel across the borders of Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala if you have a stamped US passport in one of those countries, a similar arrangement to the Schengen Agreement in Europe.


If you leave Guatemala through an airport, you must pay an exit fee and an airport security fee. These are typically included in the price of your plane ticket. At present, the exit fee is approximately $30 USD, and the security fee is approximately $2.60 USD.


The exit fee only applies to air travel out of the country. There are no fees for exiting the Guatemala by car or bus. However, the US State Department does not recommend travel around the border areas around Guatemala because of an extremely high instance of armed highway robbery and kidnappings. In fact driving anywhere in Guatemala puts you at risk for possible holdups and car-jackings. Tourist groups out on an excursion can receive a security escort through the Guatemalan Tourist Assistance Office (called PROATUR).


If you do drive in Guatemala, even in areas with heavy tourism, be aware of Good Samaritan scams that involve sticking a nail into a tire at a rest stop or parking lot. When the tire goes flat later on down the road, a few people will show up to “help” you change the tire. Either through distraction or brandishing weapons, they will then help themselves to your things. Avoid keeping valuables in your car, and check your tires before leaving anywhere to help mitigate this risk.


Another common method of highway robbery is by use of motorcycles. The most common method used to involve a motorcycle with two riders pulling up and robbing someone while stopped at a stoplight. The Guatemalan government has since made it illegal to carry a passenger on a motorcycle. However, the use of multiple motorcyclists also occurs. Most of these thefts are non-violent and can be weathered safely through nonresistance. Travelers who travel lightly and avoid carrying valuables on them can also limit the damage should such an incident occur. Keep a copy of your stamped passport on you at all times, but keep the original in a hotel safe or some other secure place. Don’t carry credit cards or large amounts of cash if possible.


Guatemala does have a high instance of crime including violent crime. For travelers this includes mostly theft and pick-pocketing as crimes specifically targeted at them; however, sexual assaults, murders, and kidnappings can also occur, with the most common in the case of the latter being what are known as express kidnappings. These usually involve detainment until the victims can empty their bank accounts through ATM's.


You can minimize your risk for being an attractive target in numerous ways. Here are some suggestions:

  • Avoid wearing expensive clothing and jewelry or brandishing expensive electronic equipment such as cell phones or cameras.
  • Avoid looking like a tourist if possible. Ditch the fanny pack because it makes you a mark.
  • Travel in groups as much as possible and avoid unfamiliar areas at night.
  • Be wary and suspicious of random people who approach you.
  • Be aware of your surroundings at all times and avoid being crowded or other potential chaotic situations where you might become distracted.
  • Make a pickpocket’s life difficult by carrying your important stuff, money and documents in security belt pouches worn inside your clothes.
  • Only accept drinks that you have seen poured yourself, and keep them in sight and under your control at all times thereafter.
  • Only use ATM's that are indoors and attached to banks with armed security guards.
  • Only use official taxis that you have yourself (or through a concierge) called to have dispatched. Don’t use public buses at night because they are common targets for robbery. Avoid inter-city travel at night.
  • Avoid certain neighborhoods in Guatemala City, primarily Zones 3, 6, 18, and 21. Avoid Zone 1 at night and don’t get a hotel in that area.
  • Popular trekking destinations are also targeted for robberies, so check with your local concierge about safety before embarking on a particular trail.


Aside from being up to date on your standard vaccines, the Center for Disease Control recommends additional vaccinations against Hepatitis A and typhoid. Depending on what your activities may include, you might also consider vaccinations against rabies, Hepatitis B, or malaria. You are not at risk from getting yellow fever in Guatemala; however, if you are traveling to Guatemala from an area which is a high risk area for this disease, you may be required to have proof of a yellow fever vaccination before being allowed into Guatemala.


Tap water is not safe to drink in Guatemala, although filtered water is. Avoid ice cubes because they are often made with tap water.

Highlights of a Guatemalan vacation

Although Guatemala possesses numerous attractions, here are a few of the must-see sites and activities:

  • Antigua, situated close to the capital, Guatemala City, boasts a beautiful cathedral and numerous other examples of Spanish Colonial style architecture. The central square, Plaza Mayor, features lush gardens. The town’s close proximity to three active volcanoes makes it a prime destination for hikers as well.
  • Flores: This island town in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá is the perfect embarkation point if you wish to explore the highest concentration of Mayan ruins in the area. Tikal National Forest is nearby and features some of the largest Mayan ruins available in the continent. The Petén region in Guatemala can be a dangerous area, so it is advisable to fly into Flores from another city in Guatemala, such as Antigua, rather than drive.
  • Montericco: This beach is located near Antigua and Guatemala City. Its beaches are made up of black volcanic sand. If you like to swim, don’t venture out too far, because the ocean floor drops off to depths between 20 to 40 feet. This makes for a strong undertow and vicious riptides that can take even the strongest swimmers.
  • Rio Dulce: The emerald waters of this river provide great opportunities for boat tours as well as numerous other land and water activities. The Finca Paraiso, a hot springs waterfall, is like going to a spa in the heart of the jungle. The Castillo De San Felipe is a Spanish fort that used to guard the river-ways against piracy.
  • Chichicastenango market: This is possibly the largest open-air market that features Mayan made crafts in North America. Every Thursday and Sunday are the prime market days.

The traveler’s tongue


Over twenty languages are spoken throughout Guatemala including many indigenous languages, but the official language of the country is Spanish. Although in some extremely rural parts of the country, the residents don’t speak Spanish and speak only their own indigenous tongue, everywhere else, Spanish is widely spoken. In some of the more prominent tourist areas, such as the city of Antigua, the residents speak English. However, you can practice your Spanish here as well, since English is a second language.


Money matters in Guatemala


Budget travelers will be delighted to find that in terms of housing and food, Guatemala is one of the most inexpensive places in all of the Americas. Hostels and budget hotels range from $5 USD a night per person to up to $30 USD. Frequently the cost is no more expensive for a room with a double bed than it is for a single person, so traveling in pairs actually gives you more value. If you prefer a more luxurious accommodation, mid-range hotels go from $35 to $50 USD.


Meals can range from $2 to $10 for a meal at a place that caters to tourists. Consequently, for budget travelers, spending approximately $60 to $70 USD a day per person is a reasonable expectation to enjoy a relatively comfortable vacation. Even if you prefer to experience the more high end side of a vacation in Guatemala, you can easily keep that under $100 USD a day per person without having to settle for lower quality.


The unit of currency in Guatemala is the quetzal (plural is quetzals), which is named for the national bird. US dollars are highly prized and readily accepted in tourist areas as well. ATM's proliferate throughout the country and can be the preferred method of managing your money. However, try to use only ATM's that are enclosed and have security guards posted because ATM users are frequent targets for robberies and express kidnappings.


Your credit cards will be mostly useless in Guatemala, since only the most high-end places accept them. Traveler’s checks issued by American Express are accepted but not widely, nor are any traveler’s checks from any other company accepted at all.


Tipping around 10-15% is considered appropriate in Guatemalan restaurants, and many places will add in a 10% gratuity automatically. Haggling in open air shops is not only acceptable but expected, but in chain stores it is futile since they use set prices on their goods.

About the Author

C.W. Garay is an alumnus from the University of North Texas, where he received both his BA in psychology and an MA in English, specializing in creative writing, fiction. When not traveling he resides in Denton, TX, rated as the number one small town in which to live in the US according to Business Insider’s 2013 survey. In addition to writing articles on traveling, he also writes fiction under a pseudonym. He can be reached via email at