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Guatemala - Antigua - k.a. photo

Guatemala - Chichicatenango - colorful crypts - p.a. photo

Even while we were still on the bus, I could feel that El Salvador would be quite different from Guatemala. The people are friendly and courteous, and always ready to help. They smile and look happy, with none of the glum expressions we saw so often in Guatemala. Despite the stories in the news, we never felt in any danger. Wherever we went, we only ever encountered pleasant people.

Two gangs rule the country (MS-13 and Calle 18) which are constantly at war with one another, and innocent civilians are often the victims of their frequent street battles. Once you join a gang, you can never leave, and just to make sure of that they give you a facial tattoo, which might be enlarged if you do particularly well. According to Bruno it’s more dangerous for him to meet a gang member than it would be for us. They can tell he’s a local, so they’d steal his valuables, or beat him up, or knife him, but they’d be friendly with us. One traveler told us how he met a gang member in a ghetto on the outskirts of the city, where instead of robbing him, he invited him to meet his family. There he was treated as a guest of honor, and at the end of the meal they called a taxi for him and paid his fare back.

It’s a strange world.

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Prices here aren’t much different to those in Central Europe, and teachers and doctors receive a higher salary than in Hungary. The difference is, in El Salvador someone is murdered every hour.
We visited many rural villages, and I believe that if visitors obey the rules of the game, and don’t flaunt their valuables, then it’s possible to walk the streets without fear, even at night. (2016)


Practicals

Transport

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Guatemala - Antigua - bus station - p.a. photo

Guatemala City - Metrobus - k.a. photo

Guatemala City - white taxis in front of the Railway Museum (Museo del Ferrocarril FEGUA) - k.a. photo

Guatemala City - public bus - k.a. photo

Guatemala - San Juan La Laguna - tricycle motor rickshaw taxi (tuk tuk) - k.a. photo

Guatemala - transport - k.a. photo

Accomodation

“Never in my life, before or since, have I ever ended up in such a unique situation as in the Guatemalan village of Rokjá Pomtilá. This village, deep in the Guatemalan rainforest, is inhabited exclusively by indigenous people who speak the Mayan language. There is neither electricity nor running water in the entire village, and the nearest town is five hours drive away by bus, which departs just once a day.

I stayed in the home of a family with eight children, and together we harvested cocoa, kneaded dough for tortillas, and played one-touch soccer with a deflated football, on a patch of grass between the shed and the papaya trees. Latin America is an increasingly popular destination for community or homestay tourism, in which tourists does not stay in cocooned in a hostel or hotel, where they are likely to only meet other tourists, and are more likely to find out what’s going on in Düsseldorf or Seattle than next door, but rather with a local family. They sleep in their homes, eat what they eat, and at the end they pay their money directly to the local family.”

Food

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Guatemala - Hilachas (shredded beef) with potato and rice - c.g. photo

Guatemala - a hearty meal (asados) - b.w. photo

Guatemala - Cobán - local dish - d.e. photo

Shopping

“The locals can generally think only in quetzals, the prices are set in it, and it’s the currency in which everyone expects to be paid, so you really do have to change money. This can be done at a currency exchange office, but it isn’t a pleasant experience. We got absolutely nowhere with Euros, and found only a single bank where it was possible to exchange them.

It’s only possible to enter a bank with an original, valid passport, and not all banks exchange money. Once you get inside you have to sit down and wait until your number is called, then a bank employee will calculate how much your euros or dollars are worth. Then you have to go and stand in another line, this time at the cashier’s desk, where you can at last collect your money.

There are other currency exchange options, in hotels, shops, travel agencies and so on, but they offer very poor exchange rates, and they won’t accept banknotes with tears or creases in them. They examine each bill with a magnifying glass, and sometimes even a banknote which has been folded in half is refused… A lot of our $20 and $50 bills were rejected.” (M.M., 2019)

Guatemala - souvenirs - tipico

Guatemala - Chichicastenango - fruit market - p.a. photo

Guatemala - handicrafts - i.l. photo

Guatemala - San Agustín Lanquín (Languin) - convenience store - k.a. photo

Guatemala City - Fresh fruit - a package of peeled fresh pineapple or mango for less than one USD - k.a. photo

Public safety

“There’s a part of Guatemala City which tourists should never enter, even by day. I learned this quickly since many locals, often without prompting, approached me to warn me not to go there. I looked into their eyes and understood that they told me this because they sincerely didn’t want this clueless Gringo to end up robbed or killed in their otherwise charming city. Besides, I did everything I could to lessen the risk: my money and bank card were placed in my pants' secret pocket. I then got a fake wallet with $37 (enough for a thief to buy some drugs) and a fake bank card with very little money on it and put them in my front pocket. If I were robbed, I would obviously hand this wallet over.

Despite all the dangers, however, there was only one occasion in Guatemala where I felt my ‘life was in danger’. I was in Tikal, on the top of the fifth and steepest of the Mayan pyramids. Someone at the heritage preservation office had decided, in their wisdom, to build onto this pyramid a wooden walkway with a handrail, so even someone with a fear of heights could easily get to the top, so long as they don’t look down. It’s when you reach the top and have to look back down that the problems start. I was petrified, hair standing on end, and came back down practically on all fours.

There was only one other time in Guatemala when I was terrified. I was on a night bus, and this Native American guy got on who looked about three times meaner and tougher than that famous Hollywood bad guy, Danny Trejo. I was sure that by the time we’d reached our destination, he’d have murdered everyone on the bus. In fact, of course, he was a totally regular guy, a local farmer on his way to visit his younger brother – an IT engineer – in the capital. We ended up chatting half the night.


Guatemala - police car - anti-narcotics squad - s.p. photo

Guatemala City - Palace of the National Civil Police (Palacio de la Policía Nacional Civil) - k.a. photo

Health

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Guatemala City - Historical center - a less historic, but rather shameless peeing - k.a. photo

Others

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Guatemala - haircut for men and boys - p.a. photo

Guatemala - San Agustín Lanquín (Languin) - crowded countryside public bus (camioneta) - k.a. photo

Guatemala City - Illiterate people pay persons to typewrite their official plaints - k.a. photo

Background

Guatemala - national flag - Elter photo

Destination in brief

Guatemala in brief

Guatemala is a Central American country. Neighbors: Mexico (north), Belize (northeast), Honduras, and El Salvador (south).
Guatemala has both a Pacific Ocean and Caribbean coast.

Size: 108,888 km² (42,042 mi²)

Population (in 2020): 17.7 million ) – 42% mestizo (white and Amerindian mix), 40% Indigenous, 18% white
Standing at an average of just 140.3 centimeters (4 feet 6 inches) Guatemala’s women are the tiniest in the world.

Languages: While Spanish (colonial heritage) is the official language, there are many other languages spoken in Guatemala. The 21 indigenous Mayan communities each boast their own language, and many are still widely used today.

Religion: 50% Roman Catholics, 37% Protestant Christian. 11% of the country’s population has no particular religion.

Capital city: Guatemala City

Average monthly salary: about 470 USD (2020)

Official currency: Quetzal (GTQ)
Most frequent surname: Lopez

Public safety: not that good, but Guatemala is such a great tourist destination that it is worth taking some risks. It is not as bad as Honduras or El Salvador though. Most crimes are the result of drug gang conflicts, but tourists do get robbed sometimes. Caution is a priority.

Optimal timing for a tourist visit: February-May. June-September is rainy, which is a problem when visiting jungle areas and the must-see Maya ruins of Tikal. Nights can be rather cold in December and January.
Guatemala is not a beach holiday destination. Access to the short Caribbean coast is too complicated, and the Pacific coast doesn’t have a proper infrastructure for a beach holiday either. There are some beautiful beaches, but visitors mostly concentrate on cultural and natural attractions anyway, which are all located in the inner part of the country.

Most famous tourist attractions: Maya ruins of Tikal, the beautiful small town of Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Chichicastenango Market, Quetzaltenango, Pacaya volcano, Rio Dulce
If someone wants to see authentic Central America, Guatemala is undoubtedly the right destination to visit. It is the best place to admire and experience the locals’ exotic everyday life, the colorful traditional cultures, textiles, clothes, markets and villages of the indigenous people – it all feels like traveling back to pre-colonial times.

Guatemala is cheaper than Costa Rica, but the tourist infrastructure is not as sophisticated and the sights are not as diverse.


Geography

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Guatemala - Lago Atitlan - p.a. photo

Guatemala - the eruption of Fuego volcano at night watched from Antigua - p.a. photo

Guatemala - Pacaya Volcano - k.a. photo

Guatemala - Semuk Champey - lookout point on the cascades - k.a. photo

History

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Guatemala City - Metropolitan Cathedral - List of the executed vitims of the dictatorship (1982) - k.a. photo

Guatemala City - Palacio Nacional - bronze sculpture with a rose in the center, symbolizing peace in Guatemala - k.a. photo

Nowadays

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Guatemala - Mayan girls - laptop - p.a. photo

Guatemala City - modern suburb - k.a. photo

Guatemala - the city of Livingston - Garifuna people - Afro-Guatemalans (2% of the population) - p.a. photo

People

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Guatemala - bride - p.a. photo

Guatemalas - elder ladies - i.g. photo

Guatemala - mother with her baby - y.m. photo

Guatemala - Tikal - happy digger - y.m. photo

Tourist etiquette

“An ancient Mayan belief in the malign power of mirrors has something to do with their continued distrust towards cameras (the Guatemalans were more relaxed about photography than the locals in Chiapas, but they weren’t exactly enthusiastic either.) Cameras also have mirrors, or at least analogue cameras do, and when the Mayans first encountered these devices, they were convinced that the white men carrying these mirrored boxes were shamans, and wicked ones at that. Given the long history between Europeans and Native Americans, in which the latter have always been on the losing side, it’s hardly a surprise that the came to this conclusion.”

Gastronomy

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Guatemala - Chichicastenango - cooking corn tortillas - a.p. photo

Guatemala - ceviche - k.a. photo

Attractions

Tikal

I once visited Tikal, about ten years ago, and I was curious to go back and see if it was still as incredible as it seemed the first time. Well, nothing has changed. Or rather, one thing has: The descendants of those Mayans who built the pyramids have won the right to honor their ancestors’ gods and spirits on site, so that in front of the ancient temples of Tikal stand modern altars, where the Mayans of today can go to express their culture. So far, human sacrifice has not made a comeback."

Guatemala - Tikal National Park - Grand Plaza - o.l. photo

Guatemala - Tikal - f.e. photo

Guatemala - Tikal - i.g. photo

Antigua, Guatemala

Guatemala - Antigua - Iglesia del Camino - Elter photo




Guatemala - Antigua - Elter photo

Guatemala - Antigua - i.g. photo

Guatemala - Antigua - c.h. photo

Guatemala - Antigua - n.c. photo

Guatemala - Antigua - Iglesia de la Merced - Elter photo

Guatemala - Antigua - c.z. photo

 Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán)

Guatemala - Lake Atitlan

Guatemala - Lake Atitlan

Guatemala - Lake Atitlan - m.z. photo

Chichicastenango

Guatemala - Chichicastenango - steps of the Church of St. Thomas

Quetzaltenango

Guatemala City

Guatemala City - Palacio Nacional - k.a. photo

Guatemala City - Palacio Nacional - patio - k.a. photo

Guatemala City - Metropolitan Cathedral - k.a. photo

Guatemala City - Historic Center - Paseo de la Sexta, a walking street - k.a. photo

Guatemala City - Historic Center - k.a. photo

Guatemala City - Central post office - k.a. photo

Semuc Champey

Guatemala - Alta Verapaz - Semuc Champey - k.a. photo

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