Guatemala, ya'll
March 27, 2008 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Travelfilter: Going to Guatemala for 5 weeks. Need tips.

Hello all. I will be staying in the Lago de Atitlán area from May 16 to June 21 this summer. I am going with a school program, but we are to be split up and placed into individual homestay and service work situations. I do not yet know exactly where in the area I will be placed. Our orientation meeting is not for a few more weeks, but I am nervous about preparations.
What do I need to remember to take? I know it will be rainy season- how do I best prepare for it?
Are there unsafe areas I need to be sure to avoid? (I am a 25 year old female).
How easy is it to get around?
Which travel book(s) should I buy?
I know these are all very general questions, and I've looked at various websites and previous questions, but everything is so brief and not terribly descriptive.
Any and all advice/suggestions/recommendations are welcome.
posted by greta simone to Travel & Transportation around Guatemala (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would recommend posting these to the Thorn Tree forum, they've been very helpful to me when in the past. Go to your local library and check out a Lonely Planet or a Rough Guide, these are standard travel books packed with lots of info about the country and all activities you can do in your region.
posted by ddaavviidd at 9:55 AM on March 27, 2008

I spent a couple of weeks in Nicaragua with some friends, travelling around the SW coast. You'll have a great time, especially if you speak a little spanish and aren't shy. Obviously don't have any Guatemala specific advice, but some tips that might help:

Go with minimal clothes/stuff -- take one or two pairs of pants, three or four shirts, comfortable close-toed shoes, swimsuit, pair of sandals, shorts, etc. I imagine there will be ample opportunity to wash/rinse your clothes in a lavador wherever you're staying and being able to pack all you have into a medium-sized backpack is a great convenience.

Take sunscreen and bug spray and use both. I imagine Guatemala has similar malarial risks to Nicaragua, depending on where you are, so get some quinine before you go as well.

You'll stick out from the locals, of course, but you'll blend in better if you where pants and a sleeved shirt most of the time. I had one pair of jeans that I used the whole time, with a couple of light cotton buttoned shirts. Very comfortable overall. Nylon will dry out faster though.

It was incredibly easy (and often very interesting) to get around in Nic -- lots of old school buses that run the major routes. I imagine Guatemala is similar, but I'm sure you'll get someone chiming in with more experience. Have a great time!
posted by Pantengliopoli at 10:21 AM on March 27, 2008

Especially during that time of the year bug spray will indeed be very useful. I haven't been to Guatemala during the rainy season, but assuming it's like ours here in Mexico you can plan on big storms that blow in pretty much every afternoon or evening and just dump for an hour or so. I imagine that in rural areas that could flood some roads or turn them muddy and maybe difficult to pass. Of course even while it's pouring, it'll still be quite hot in many parts of the country. So a light shell of a jacket is ideal. Atitlán is about 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) of elevation -- which I expect should keep temperatures reasonable.

Unclear how much time you'll be free to travel, but if you get the chance it's well worth a trip to the northeastern Petén region -- home to Tikal, which I highly recommend. Conventional wisdom is you should stay overnight in the park itself in order to watch the sun rise over the stunning pyramids and hear the jungle come to life. Howler monkeys, etc. Me, I stayed in nearby Flores, which was a lovely, comfortable town.

Assuming you're coming from the United States, you can expect that U.S. dollars are widely accepted. I used a combination of dollars and Quetzales taken out from ATMs -- which were available in a decent-size place like Flores, but non-existent in the countryside. Depending on the size of your town around the lake, you might do well to stock up on Quetzales when you fly in to Guatemala City or in another real city.

I think it's relatively safe, just use good judgement as you would traveling anywhere (especially in Central America). Might be a good idea to avoid travel by land through rural areas after dark.

Country-specific risks include being careful about your interactions with children in some parts of the country (Petén is one such part, I believe), where villagers can sometimes suspect outsiders (including Guatemalans) of intending to steal children to offer up for international adoption. For about the last decade, full one in every 100 Guatemalan-born kids ends up being raised in the United States by adoptive parents. Most of these adoptions are legit, but there are some irregularities in the system and in some Mayan villages there have been incidents of mob violence against people rumored to have been plotting to nab infants.

Also this month, four Belgians and their guides were briefly kidnapped in the country's far east by farmers pressing to have their land claims legitimized and their leader released from jail. The tourists were taking a riverboat tour of some popular caves in a well-touristed area when a bunch of guys stormed their boat with machetes and took them captive for about a day. Knowing a little about this farmers' group, I don't think their lives were ever really in danger -- but still.

The U.S. Embassy there has information about safety as well as incidents involving foreigners.

I fear I may be appearing to overemphasize the (IMHO low) security risks here. Let me say for the record that I loved my time there last month, met nothing but kind, wonderful people, and felt perfectly safe. I look forward to my next trip, which will certainly be to Atitlán and Antigua.
posted by donpedro at 12:23 PM on March 27, 2008

Lake Atitlan is high enough for malaria to be a non-issue. When I was there several years ago, we only worried about mosquitos when we were in lowland areas.

Also due to the altitude, it will likely be a bit cooler than you expect. I went in December, and the weather was quite pleasant. There can be nasty strong winds across the lake in the afternoon, but all the local boatmen will know about that, of course. You'll likely do all your cross-lake travel in the mornings, sometimes early mornings.

There are enough tourists in the area that you won't stick out too badly. I'm 6'5" and fair-skinned, so I did, indeed, stick out, but it wasn't like I was the first white face anyone had seen.

It sounds like you've seen the previous threads, but just in case... I imagine not much has changed. There was a hurricane and flooding a few years ago, and I don't know about the long-term effects of that.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:30 PM on March 27, 2008

For what it's worth, hurricane season is officially from June 1 to Nov. 30.
posted by donpedro at 12:45 PM on March 27, 2008

While you are in Guatemala city, eat at Arrin Cuan, particularly the one in the centro histórico, not the one in the zona viva.
posted by micayetoca at 4:12 AM on March 28, 2008

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