In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a little bit obsessed with Guatemala. The people, the culture, the fact that they play music at 3am on random street corners… I left a bit of my heart in this nation, and I challenge you to go there and say otherwise.
A lot of people have never heard of Guatemala, and some who have think it’s part of Mexico. But if you know it, you’ll either have already visited, or be dying to go (or have already visited and be dying to return!). I’m yet to find someone who’s been to Guatemala and didn’t absolutely love it. I spent seven weeks in Guatemala last summer and you’ll find me expressing my adoration for the country at least three times a day. I get asked what is Guatemala known for all the time, and I always say that I think it’s got the strongest identity out of anywhere I have been. It’s certainly not an extension of Mexico.
Guatemala is sunshine, it’s crazy bus rides, it’s fruit markets as far as the eye can see. It’s mezcal, it’s the song ‘La Bamba’ on loop, it’s Sunday church services that erupt into Latin music. Guatemalan people are the friendliest I’ve ever met, and Guatemalan landscapes among the most beautiful. It’s such a gem that it shocks me that the herds haven’t flocked to it yet. But then again, this makes it all the more special.
Travel in Guatemala is a magical experience that should be done by every keen globetrotter. Staying a little longer and keen to volunteer in Guatemala? There are lots of ways that this is possible too, from teaching English to building in communities. There are so many ways to enjoy this beautiful country, so take your time on your Guatemala itinerary to really get the essence of it.
So what is Guatemala known for?
Image by threelayercake via Flickr
If you don’t like avocados, go to Guatemala and try one, then get back to me. If you do – great news. A huge one costs the equivalent of 30 cents / 20p in the markets. Avocados in the UK have this annoying habit of being under ripe for about 2 weeks after purchasing, ripe for about half an hour and then disgustingly rotten straight after. Not Guatemalan avocados. Buy one from the market and enjoy it there and then. They will most likely have been picked within a mile radius anyway.
I had the best guacamole ever in Guatemala (and I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico), and I credit that completely to the avocados there. If I was a poet (I’m certainly not), I’d write a Guatemalan avocado ode. They’re just amazing.
Crazy Bus Rides
Image via Flickr by Laurent de Walick
Heard of chicken buses? They’re these gaudy vehicles that have been shipped down from the US (they’ve actually failed some sort of test in the US, but try not to think about them when you’re boarding one). They’ve been painted in outrageously bright colours – just because you’re in Guatemala and that’s what they do here – and pimped out with a funky sound system.
You haven’t experienced Guatemala until you’ve been squashed like a sardine in one of these buses. Fact. They’re uncomfortable, they’re cheap as chips, there’s always loud music blaring and they’re so much fun.
Volcanoes are everywhere in this Central American country; and climbing one is definitely one of the best things to do in Guatemala. In both Antigua and Xela, you’ll always be in view of one of these looming formations on the horizon. You can hike up a lot of them; my personal favourite was Acatenango, where I camped on the side, watched the opposite volcano spew hot ash, and ascended up to the summit at 4am to see the sunrise.
For a somewhat different climbing experience consider a day hike to Pacaya, an active volcano which you can toast marshmallows on, or conquer Tajumulco, the tallest volcano in Central America!
I know this is a sweeping statement, but I do truly believe that Guatemala contains the most beautiful lake in the world. Lake Atitlan is quite literally breath-taking – fringed by volcanoes (told you there were a lot of them), dotted with picturesque Mayan villages and filled with clear blue water, which is broken only by the odd passing boat. Walking around it, my heart beat a bit faster and I had to quite often stop to take in the view and just remember that this is why I travel. To witness places like this.
Cheerful Political Protests
Image by Hans Birger Nilsen via Flickr
In all seriousness, the political situation in Guatemala is pretty corrupt. But the Guatemalan people know how to protest in a persuasive yet optimistic way. I was in Xela while there was a huge campaign for the president to resign. Everyone at home thought it sounded pretty dangerous. It was actually the best protest I’ve ever witnessed – people old and young united, chanting, singing and doing all they could to campaign for a better future.
The president eventually resigned, but unfortunately the political issues in Guatemala are ongoing. This poses no threat to the traveller there, but does sadly greatly affect general life for Guatemalans. However, I have every faith that they’ll carry on with their cheerful, optimistic protests and keep unifying for a better future.
Image by auntjojo via Flickr
Go to a Guatemalan market and you’ll see colourful fabrics as far as the eye can see. Not to mention the Trajes (traditional outfits) that the local woman wear. These generally consist of a brightly coloured shirt and skirt and can be all sorts of different colours. By Lake Atitlan, they were all a lovely deep shade of blue.
At markets such as Chichicastenango, one of Latin America’s most famous which should definitely be on your Guatemala itinerary, you can purchase all sorts of blankets and clothes. I challenge you to go to a Guatemalan market and not buy something fabric with 8 different colours on it…
Photo by Olle Svensson via Flickr
That latte you get in Starbucks? It may very well be Guatemalan coffee. Coffee is its biggest export, and it’s actually the first place I managed to drink a cup of coffee without a shot of caramel (guilty…). Coffee from the source is absolutely delicious, so make sure you have a cup (or five a day) while you’re there. There’s loads of opportunities to go on a coffee tour and find out all about the making of it too. You’ll learn some great trivia for your next coffee morning!
Photo by Marina Kuperman Villatoro via Flickr
Note for all you gluten free-ers – tortillas in Guatemala are made of corn, not wheat! Once I discovered this, I endeavoured to eat as many tortillas as humanely possible. Turns out, there isn’t really a limit to this in Guatemala.
They’re everywhere – you’ll get them as a side in most restaurants, people cook them on the street, locals are always offering them in their home. It’s the done thing to wrap all of your food – whether that be beans, plantain or egg – in one of these tortillas and eat it with your hands. They’re super cheap too; you can buy a street food meal containing a tortilla and various fillings for the equivalent of about 70 cents/ 50p.
Photo by Mike Murga via Flickr
Tikal is a magical Mayan kingdom in Northern Guatemala. The beautiful ruins are fascinating, making you feel like Indiana Jones. Tikal is one of the most extensive collections of ruins found in Latin America and dates back to around 600 BC. It’s one of Guatemala’s most popular tourist destinations; with visitors trekking through the jungle to discover majestic ruins rising from the earth, listening out for howler monkeys along the way.
Extra Tikal Tips!:
- Santa Elena is cheaper than Flores to stay in
- There’s also a little village between Flores and Tikal called El Remante. It’s right on the lake, and super chillin’!
- You can go camping in Tikal by staying in hammocks at the Tikal complex’s campground. This helps you get to the ruins before the crowds the next day – and of course, spend a magical night in the jungle.
Photo by Ralf Steinberger via Flickr
I give you Maximon, a Mayan saint with a booze problem and cigarette addiction. Mayans around the Guatemalan highlands worship an effigy of the saint (although I’m pretty sure this is due to fear rather than respect) who moves from house to house every year. You’re meant to leave him an offering – in the form of fags, booze or cold hard cash – and if you don’t he may well seduce your husband or wife, as he once did to all the local men – which is the reason why he is now a symbol of fear and thus a saint.
I don’t smoke, had no rum on me and was reluctant to leave him my 100 quetzal note, so I made a quick beeline for the door. I was single then and I’m still single now. Coincidence?
That’s what Guatemala is known for…
I’ve travelled all over Central America, and found Guatemala to be the most beautiful country I’ve visited, not just in the region but probably in the world. It’s got a unique culture and heritage, with unmatchable landscapes and fantastic character. Despite a lot of people having never heard of the nation,once you’ve visited you won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.
Your Guatemala Essentials
When you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, there’s a few great items that you’ll be lost without. If you don’t know any Spanish, be sure to pack a Spanish phrasebook so you can interact with the locals. A lonely planet Guatemala travel guide or their Central America on a shoestring book is highly recommended. If you’re going to be reading lots of books, I always recommend purchasing a kindle to make lugging around that backpack a little easier.
You can’t drink tap water in Guatemala, but with a water to go bottle you can. If you take some collapsible tupperware, you can transport leftover avocado and frijoles (beans), yum! A padlock will help you keep your belongings secure and a money belt should make you feel more at ease when you’re carrying your valuables around.
Guatemala has stolen a bit of my heart. And you know what, because of the volcanoes, the lakes, the amazing people, the markets and the food, I’m happy to leave a part of my heart in the country, knowing I’ll be back to pick it up one day.
Have I convinced you to visit Guatemala yet? Here’s a great Guatemala travel guide to help you start planning your trip!
Have you been to Guatemala? What is Guatemala known for to you – do you have anything you could add to this list?
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112 thoughts on “What is Guatemala known for? Ten things the country does best”
Excelent article. I am Guatemalan and reading you gave me goose bumbs. If some day you want to come back contact me and you are welcome to stay in my home in the higlands of the country.
Thanks so much for your lovely comment! I would love to some day! 🙂
Me gusta mucho como comentas de mi país Guatemala lo único que no me gusta es tu proposición de decirle a la gente que se puede quedar a dormir en el área arqueológica de Tikal la es ilegal, tu hablas de un mejor cambio para mi país que eso nos deseas pero al dar ese tipo de tips,lo que haces es que sigamos mal, sabías que tenemos la serpiente más venenosa en Centroamérica, el hospital más cercano está a una hora, no hay señal de teléfono ni radio para llamar, sabías que una persona murió este año, y que pudo haber sido por creerse un explorador o un experto, creo que si tienes respeto por mi País ese tipo de Tips que das donde alientas a hacer algo ilegal lo deberías de quitar de tu blog
Hello and thanks for your comment. Firstly sorry I can’t reply to you in Spanish – my Spanish is good enough to understand but not good enough to write back unfortunately – I’m working on it!
Thanks for bringing the above to my attention. I have removed this part from the article after a few comments. I’ll be completely honest, the information was from an unnamed collaborator and I didn’t give the text provided enough thought as I should have. This post was written before my blog was as well known and I didn’t give my posts as much attention to detail as I do now. That’s no excuse, just a reason why I didn’t manage to pick up on how dangerous it is when I was writing the post.
I absolutely adore and respect Guatemala and I feel so privileged to have had a chance to spend some time in the country. I can’t wait to return soon!
Have a beautiful day 🙂
yeees! I love Guatemala! your right the best avocado and coffee in the world, fresh fruit and vegetables everywhere in colors and shapes I’ve never seen in other place.
Great people, fun and friendly. Fantastic food (loved the thick tortillas and Tamales) and very cheap to travel or live in.
If you travel there spend a day in the city and visit the museums and Zona 1 with beautiful colonial architecture,
also the black sand beaches in the south Pacific or the white gold sand in the Caribbean side (loved Livingston and all the african Caribbean people culture ). Don’t forget to buy some spices, cardamom, vanilla, mayan chocolate and Cacao it’s sooo inexpensive there.
if a fan of Star wars you HAVE to travel to Tikal / Yavin 4 it was so exciting.
I found it safe to travel even in the city, the people is very polite and extremely friendly
they will help you with anything even if you don’t speak a word of Spanish, they help you and treat you like family everywhere you go!
Visit Guatemala if you haven’t you’ll fall in love, I want to go back and spend there my retirement.
Thanks for such a lovely comment! I’m aching to go back to Guatemala, and I haven’t actually done any of the things you’ve suggested so I’m going to note them down for my return! 🙂 Hopefully I’ll be back within the next year!
It’s awesome that you wrote such an honest and beautiful article about my homeland. Thank you so much and I’m glad you enjoyed your stay. Besides the delicious tortillas, did you find a favorite meal?
I’m glad you enjoyed it Nancy! 🙂 It was a while ago now so I can’t remember everything that I had, but I did love everything with frijoles in! What is your favourite meal from your country?
Claire! I loved this post so much! First of all, I 100% agree with everything you said! As someone who is currently living in Guatemala from the U.S., I love that you posted all of these things because they’re definitely things that stand out to those who aren’t natives!
One of my personal favorite meals is “hilachas.” “Tortitas de carne molida” is also on my list. Did you notice that most meals are served with rice?
They sound good Nancy! Yes I did notice that! 🙂
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