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Guatemala Travel Guide

Guatemala - Chicken Bus

This country ranks as one of my favorites in the world – I went for three weeks and stayed for nearly three months!

Cities in Guatemalan

Antigua
Xela

General Guatemala Travel Tips

You’ll hear a lot about the dangers in Guatemala – and they are both founded and not founded. I never encountered violence in the two and half months I traveled the country. What I did find though is an incredibly warm population; the indigenous Mayan culture is alive and full and there are a lot of incredibly beautiful natural and Mayan sites.

Vegetarian Friendly?: Traveling as a vegetarian in Guatemala is, well, boring on occasion. Rice and beans will be a staple of your diet (if you’re a strict vegetarian be aware that some refried beans are off-limits). It can be tough at times to find quick veggie food so bring your granola bars. Meals are often complimented with plantains and avocado and they will nearly always substitute scrambled eggs for the meat in any dish if you ask!

Internet Accessibility:  *** out of *****. You can find internet everywhere in Guatemala and it is decent to good. You can upload photos and information and could run a virtual business from nearly any Guatemalan city. Internet cafes are around and if you do a little bit of homework then you can ensure that most of your accommodation offers WIFI access.

Learning Spanish: Guatemala may very well be the cheapest country in Central and South America to study Spanish – the country is well set up for this task. You have three main options: Xela, San Pedro, and Antigua. Xela is by far the best option, there is very little English spoken around the city and it’s incredibly conducive to total immersion – you’ll find slower progress if you take classes in either of the other touristy spots.

Transportation: The transportation is the most dangerous aspect of traveling here because the drivers hug corners and drive far faster than is safe. ALWAYS keep your purse/daypack on your lap – never put it above you in the buses. Your bigger pack may have to go above or below the bus but it’s worth always asking if you can take it on with you – sometimes they let you and you can relax a bit more knowing that your pack is safe. And don’t fall asleep. Basically know that you will likely get robbed if it’s easy to do so.

Need more general tips? Check out our Round the World FAQ Resource!

Travel Books You Should Read Before You Go!

Check out my recommended books, music, and movies to inspire and learn about Guatemala – why not grab one and read it on the plane?!

Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of The Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings (Kindle Edition): If you read one serious, non-fiction book on the Central America travel book list, make it this one. The book really is the definitive guide to Mayan history and beliefs and reading this before you leave, or while on the road will propel you that much deeper into the numerous Mayan temples you’ll visit while traveling Central America.

Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico by Ronald Wright: Descend into the Mayan culture throughout Mexico, Belize and Guatemala in this travel narrative that dives deep into the regional culture, ancient Mayan beliefs about time, as well as a look at modern Mayan culture.
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If you can’t read any of the recommended books before you leave then be sure to read up on the history of Guatemalaonline before you travel there; it really does make the whole experience better if you know a bit first!

My Favorite Travel Experiences in Guatemala

Check out all of my Guatemala travel experiences, or read the most popular ones below:

Life Cycle of a Semana Santa Carpet (Easter’s Holy Week)
Antigua, Authenticity and a Town I Just Shouldn’t Like
Red Hot Lava and Climbing Pacaya Volcano
Cultural Experiences on the Guatemalan Chicken Bus
Sweet Life on the Rio Dulce

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Travel in Antigua, Guatemala

Semana Santa carpets in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua is a hub in Guatemala–it’s a mere 45 minutes from Guatemala City and has connections to every other Guatemalan city and all nearby countries. You should never have to stay in Guate City, even for your flight, because Antigua is so close – it’s a much safer option than Guate City.

This town is touristy, but I love it. It has gorgeous architecture and is a nice pit stop if you get burned out at any point – good food, lots of English, a bit pricier than other Guatemalan citites, but is still reasonable.

Activities Around Antigua

  • Pacaya Volcano: This is the top-billed activity in Antigua, and for just reason – it’s pretty cool. It can be dangerous though and make sure to ask around – the trip isn’t worth it if it’s not a “lava week.”
    **My Pacaya Volcano post and tips on what to bring!
  • Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm: Just a 15 minute chicken bus ride out of town this is a great way to spend a morning. They have some really unique macadamia nut pancakes, so go for breakfast and go hungry!
    **My visit to Valhalla’s Macadamia Farm…with pancake pictures!
  • Finca Filidelphia Coffee Plantation: This is one of the pricier options but well worth it if you’ve never toured a coffee plantation. The two hour tour takes you from coffee cheerier to darkly roasted coffee and costs US $18 – a complimentary coffee or expresso at the end! It’s completely walkable from Antigua (about 15 minutes) so don’t pay for the transport in town!
    **My visit to the Coffee Plantation and a plantation tour!

Hostels

  • Yellow House Hostel (Casa Amarilla): 1a Caliente Poniente between Ave del Desengano y 7A. By far this should be your first choice. The place is impeccably clean, breakfast is a big buffet, and it’s cheaper than some of the other “top” picks you hear about (Cheaper than both Black Cat and Jungle Party). It’s walkable to the bars but not a party hostel in the least. Also has a hostel kitchen and cable in the cheap private rooms.
  • Jungle Party: Much more of a party vibe here. The music is on too loud all day long so it’s hard to sleep in past 7:30. Breakfasts are decent, moderately clean bathrooms. The place was in the middle of remodeling while I was there (April 2010). It’s a bit overpriced (they nickel and dime you on taxes and tips, and this and that added to your stay), you can’t use the hostel kitchen or bring in food, and no privates – this is decent though if you’re looking to party.
  • Black Cat Hostel: Lots of bed bug rumors.

Restaurants

  • Toku Baru: Around the corner from Rainbow Cafe (also good). Long term travelers in Antigua camp-out for lunch at this tiny little restaurant. It’s just two tables but serves fantastic falafel, shorma, and other Israeli favorites.
  • La Luna Miel: I could wax poetic about the fresh spinach salads here. They “do” crepes, but I come for the fresh cold salads, an anomaly in Guatemala.
  • Bagel Barn: Free wifi and a variety of fun toppings on your bagels. A good choice for breakfast and the coffee is pretty good to boot!

Bars

  • Reilly’s Irish Pub and Riki’s: Institutions at this point they are good fun – your hostel will know where they’re at because they are no big secret.
  • El Mono Loco: So gringo-fied it hurts but, for some odd reason there are normally far more locals than tourists at this huge sports bar.

Check out all of my Guatemala travel experiences.

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Travel in Xela, Guatemala (Quetzaltenango)

Markets in Xela, Guatemala

Xela (Quetzaltenango) is the center of volunteer activity and Spanish language learning in Guatemala – it’s less than five hours north of Antigua/Guatemala City and there is very little English spoken throughout the city. It’s the perfect spot for incredibly reasonably priced Spanish language lessons, home-stays, and most schools also have volunteer opportunities and great trekking.

This town is far enough north that it’s not fully on the backpacker route – there is little partying to be had, although if you’re a part of a school they will organize fun evenings out dancing. Shuttles leave from the Lake Atitlan cities as well as Antigua, but the chicken buses are much cheaper and will get you there too.

Most travelers come to Xela to either volunteer or learn Spanish – or both. Literally, that’s what you do here – it’s a big city so it’s best to have a purpose for visiting or you might not enjoy all of your time here as much as other cities.

Money Warning: Do not use the ATM machines in the Parque Central! They are well-known to be rigged and will clone your card information. Use the inside, guarded ATMs if possible.

Activities in Xela (Quetzaltenango)

  • Learning Spanish: There are dozens of Spanish Language schools to pick from, I used and loved Pop Wuj – they have one-on-one lessons, home-stay if you want it, and several volunteer programs in place. Medical students will particularly benefit from their specialized program. Individual is the best way to go and you’ll progress quickly in Xela because so little Spanish is spoken.
    **My personal experience learning Spanish in Xela with Pop Wuj
  • Volunteering: I volunteered through my Spanish language school – that’s perhaps the easiest way if you’re already there taking classes. Nearly every language school has an affiliated volunteer program. Additionally, if you’re just wanting to volunteer, sans the classes, ask the schools. I know that Pop Wuj allows non-students to participate in their bi-weekly stove building volunteer project outside of Xela. There are also plenty of medical volunteer opportunities, teaching English, and other options. Do some online research but it’s actually easiest to show up in Xela and ask once you’re there – they have programs starting weekly, and often the very next day!
  • Hiking: The altitude in Xela and surrounding countryside make this spot amazing for day and weekend trips outside of the city. Again, many schools will organize these trips for you, but if not, then use Quetzaltrekkers – reliable and good food and they participate in social good.
  • Football Game: Xela is in a huge rivalry with Guate City over their football teams and these weekly games (during the season) are a blast. Ask around for the next game and once you’re there enjoy the fiercely patriotic fanaticism on Xelaju football enthusiasts.
    **My experience at a Xela football game
  • Movie Nights: Your Spanish language school will host these on a weekly basis. Otherwise (or in addition!) head to the Blue Angel Video Cafe: 7a Calle Zona 1, this is a hot spot for meeting other language students and backpackers and they regularly show movies.
  • Social Activities: Most of the activities in Xela are organized by the schools – if you’re a part of a language school there will be a calendar of daily and weekly activities to meet others and have a good time.

Hostels and Home-Stays

Many Xela hostels have serious bed-bug problems so be aware and check your mattress!

  • Hostel Don Diego: I stayed here rather than a home-stay because I needed wifi to work. It’s near the Parque Central, but a solid 15 minute from Pop Wuj, my Spanish language school. Cheap private rooms, decent internet access, but they do nickel and dime you on using the kitchen, wifi, and other generally free hostel amenities. Generally a good choice.
  • Home-Stays: Ask questions and outline your expectations to your language school before you do a home-stay! Some home-stays have you eating nightly with the family and they interact a lot with you, others organize separate meals and are more hands-off with the language students. Home-stays can be an amazing way to force you into learning Spanish faster – just know which kind you’re expecting and tell your school :)

Restaurants

  • Guiseppe’s Pizza: 15 Av. 3-68 Zona 1.  The pizza and Italian food here is pretty legitimate and tasty. Pricey, comparatively, but worth a visit if you’re looking for some non-local food.
  • Casa Babylon: Corner of 13a Av & 5a Calle Town Center. A full Westernized menu with Israeli food, pizzas, and salads. I frequented for the free wifi.
  • Local Eats: Ladies selling fruit by the bag wander the city around lunch time (and all day really) so this is a great way to snack. Also, check out the food stalls near the Casa de la Cultura. Small comedor’s abound so ask a local for their favorite for a meal under $2.

Xela Pages is a great resource for more information. Also check out all of my Guatemala travel experiences.

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