Guatemala Guide: What to Do, Where to Go, How Much it Costs

I'll confess, Guatemala was not the first on my list of travel destinations. But the visa for an Indian national to Costa Rica was two hundred along with a twenty thousand dollar "deposit", and to Belize it was a closely inflated one hundred and fifty, so Guatemala with its mysterious Mayan ruins, verdant rain forests and twenty five dollar visa fee beckoned.

I traveled at the end of June and my trip overlapped the 4th of July break.

I chose well. As the rainy season runs from May through October, it was not peak tourist season. The weather was nice, staying between the low seventies and mid eighties, with the occasional late afternoon thunder storm. Humidity, especially in the El Petén province, is very high.

With Mexico to its north and west, Belize to its east and El Salvador and Honduras to its south east, Guatemala has some of the richest biodiversity on the planet. It's a region rich in volcanic mountains, wetlands and lush rainforests.

With ten days to travel the country, I ended up hitting only a few of its popular destinations, like Guatemala City, Antigua, the Lake Atitlán region and Tikal.

Guatemala City like many developing world capitals is an eyesore and can quite easily be missed. I did not take my own advice however, and spent part of a day visiting the capital. The city is divided into many zones with the La Aurora International Airport in Zone 13 and the city centre with most prominent sights in Zone 1. To get to Zone 1 from the airport, you can take a taxi which will set you back about twenty five to thirty dollars (depending on your desperation and Spanish language skills) or take the # 83 bus outside the airport, at 1/500th the taxi cost at 0.35 Quetzales (the local currency, Quetzal, is named after Guatemala's national bird and 1 Canadian dollar yields around 7.7 Quetzales).

The bus is a nice option because it does a long tour of the city and you can see parts that you might have otherwise missed on an antiseptic taxi ride. In the city centre, as is the architectural set up with most Central and South American cities, there's a large park called Parque Central framed by a couple of official buildings on two sides and a Spanish-era church on the third. Of course, it was teeming with human and animal life, and there were many there who encouraged me to part with my money in one way or another.

Single women travellers like myself will do well not to take offence at lewd remarks and/or gestures that might be made in the universal human language. The city's other main attractions are two museums, Museo Ixchel and Museo Popl Vuh, which can be found in Zone 10. Both museums are renowned for their collection of Guatemalan textiles and pre-Hispanic art among other objects. I failed to visit the museum, choosing instead to wander the streets around Parque Central and watch the procession of jeeps and cars fitted with blaring loudspeakers for the Presidential elections' campaign. One of the contestants is the former dictator Rios Montt, who was responsible for brutal killings of mostly indigenous people in the 80s. Another successful and flourishing democracy.

After less than a day in Guatemala City, I beat a hasty retreat westwards to Antigua, the old capital; it is about 40 miles from Guate and is accessible from the airport by shuttles, private taxis or for the more stout of heart, local buses also known as chicken buses (so called because one may ride with humans and livestock alike).

Popular with tourists and students of Spanish alike, this old town with its charming cobbled streets, brightly coloured homes and views of imposing volcanoes is attractive by any world standard.

Moreover, if the chaos of Guatemala City weighs on your mind, as it did on mine, stop by the Deluka spa on 6a Av. Norte where one can get a facial, 60-minute massage and a pedicure for sixty dollars.

Being as popular as it is, there is no shortage of decent accommodation in Antigua. If you don't make reservations in advance, all you have to do is walk on 6a Av. Norte and 5a Av. Norte near the city's centre and you will find accommodations from basic to more luxurious.

Be sure to ask to see the room and ask if the quoted rate includes hot water as this amenity is sometimes extra (I learned this under the trickle of a cold shower stream).

I stayed at a budget hotel called Posada de Don Diego owned and run by a young Guatemalan couple and their very handsome golden retriever. My private room with a private bath with hot water was fifteen dollars a night.

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