Guatemala has been my second home for almost 20 years, and the landscape, with its volcanoes and coffee trees, lakes, rivers, and tropical beaches, and Mayan ruins peeking out from the treetops, still fascinates me. The Mayan way of life is still going strong. And in the Land of Eternal Spring, the weather is almost always nice. But if you want to get the most out of your trip to Guatemala, there are some things you should know before you go.
Before you leave, get your shots.
Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes, so if you come from a country where it is common, you will need to get a shot. You should also have your typhoid, hepatitis A and B, rabies, flu, and TDaP (tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough) shots up to date.
If you need to get vaccinated, it’s best to go to a travel clinic at least a month before your trip so that you can be fully protected. Some vaccines, like the ones for hepatitis B and rabies, need to be given again.
If you like, you can bring your own bug spray.
Most things you might have forgotten at home can be bought in Guatemala, but some things are harder to find or cost a lot. It’s easy to find bug spray, but most of them have DEET in them.
The DEET-free repellents made in the area aren’t very good, so you should bring a good brand from home. Malaria, Zika, Dengue fever, and Chikungunya are all diseases that are spread by mosquitoes and are common in some parts of Guatemala.
Don’t leave without sunscreen.
If you spend a lot of time outside, you could get a sunburn. Some of the larger stores and pharmacies sell chemical sunscreens, but most of them don’t have an SPF higher than 25.
Most of the time, the stronger stuff and natural mineral sunscreens are only sold in a few specialty health stores, where there are fewer options and the prices are much higher. Remember to bring enough of your favourite sunscreen and to use it.
It might be hard to find your favorite feminine hygiene products.
Most stores only have pads for women’s hygiene products. Some larger stores and pharmacies sell tampons with tools to help you put them on. You might be able to find the kind without an applicator and menstrual cups in specialty health stores, but the price will reflect the fact that they are imported.
Bring light clothing.
Since most of Guatemala’s weather is warm and humid, it’s better to bring light clothes that dry quickly than jeans, which are heavy, too warm for the weather, and take a long time to dry. Most of the time, a light sweater or jacket is enough for cooler days.
Most towns have a paca, a place where you can buy used clothes for as little as Q5 (less than US$1), if you need more clothes than you brought or just want to update your wardrobe.
Most Guatemalans are Catholic, evangelical, or, to a lesser extent, follow traditional Mayan beliefs. Because their faith is so strong, they tend to be more socially conservative, especially in places where the Maya are the majority.
Men only take off their shirts at the beach. Women don’t like bathing suits as much as they like knee-length shorts and big T-shirts. People are more open to shorts, shorter skirts, and tank tops in the big cities and areas where Ladinos live.
Avoid illegal drugs
Some bars and hostels don’t care if people use illegal drugs like marijuana or other drugs. But it’s not uncommon for police to raid bars and hostels, and if you’re caught with illegal drugs, you’ll be arrested.
Don’t drink tap water
You can’t drink the water from the tap in Guatemala. Stick to purified water to avoid getting parasites. Bottled water is easy to find everywhere. Usually, you can refill your water bottle at hostels and restaurants, sometimes for a small fee.
Guatemalans can be rude, but they don’t mean to hurt anyone.
In Guatemalan culture, it’s common to call someone by something about their appearance. Calling someone gordo or gorda may hurt more than calling them guapo or guapa, which means “handsome” or “pretty.”
If you don’t like the nickname you’ve been given, try not to act offended. The trick is to let it go and tell the person your name instead. You might also find that Guatemalans like to ask personal questions, like how old you are, how many children you have, and where you are going.
If you say “no” when asked if you have a spouse, you might be asked if you are still a virgin, no matter how old you are. If you feel uncomfortable, be polite, maybe make a joke, and change the subject.
Most of the time, being nice goes a long way.
Guatemalans appreciate politeness. A friendly buenas (good morning/afternoon/evening) or hola (hello) makes a good first impression. Please (por favour or porfa) and thank you (gracias) show that you were raised right.
If you learn how to say “thank you” in the local Mayan dialect, you’re sure to get a smile. Ask locals how to say “thank you” in their language, repeat it back to them, and then use it for as long as you are in that town.
If you’re a woman, don’t drink alone.
Machismo is a big part of the culture in Guatemala. Most local women don’t go to bars and cantinas by themselves because they might be sexually harassed or hurt.
Even when two women are together, they may be bothered. If you want to go out drinking, it’s best to do it with a mixed group. Having men in your group will stop people who won’t take no for an answer.
Women may have a different travel experience than men.
Because of machismo, women travellers may experience micro-aggressions like being talked over or ignored in favour of the men in their group. When it comes to how they dress and act in bars and parties, they are also held to a higher standard than male travellers.
Sexual harassment and violence are real dangers, and criminals rarely get caught. But as a woman traveller, you might find real support from other women. Local women tend to look out for female tourists who are travelling alone.
If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, try to move closer to groups of other women. Who knows? You could meet people you never thought you would and have an amazing time in Guatemala.
The LGBTQI+ scene is not very big.
In Guatemala, same-sex relationships are legal, but they are not very popular. The gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ+) scene in the country is small and mostly centred in the biggest cities and tourist areas.
Violence against LGBTIQ+ tourists is rare, but there have been attacks on local activists. Take your cues from the people around you and see how they treat transgender people or same-sex couples who show affection in public, for example. If you’re not sure, it’s best to be safe.
Always hike with a guide from the area
Some visitors to Guatemala are able to climb volcanoes on their own without any problems. But hiking alone is not a good idea because you could get hurt, lost, or robbed. Use local guides and do what they say. If they tell you they can’t go any further, turn around with them.
Guides are aware of the risks, which are very real. In recent years, several well-known hikers have died in Guatemala. Most rescue teams are made up of volunteers who use gear that has been given to them.