Guatemala: Everything You Should Know Before You Go

There is nothing like the rush of stepping off a plane into an unknown country. It’s a little scary and a lot of fun but more than anything, it can be addicting. International travel by U.S. citizens reached a record high in 2015 as more and more people are choosing to spend their money on experiences rather than stuff. In honor of this shift, we’re providing you with an inside look at some of the world’s top destinations. Our Travel Series provides you with a go-to guide of where to stay, what to eat, what to do, and any helpful insider tips that will help make your trip that much better.

Why you should go to Guatemala

Colonial Antigua

Colonial Antigua | Evie Carrick/Health and Fitness Cheat Sheet

What makes Guatemala such a standout destination is the mix of Mayan heritage and colonial charm. The country is buzzing with life and vibrancy. Look around and you’ll see volcanoes framing quaint cobblestone streets and brightly colored colonial-style buildings. The Mayan culture is present in brightly colored handicrafts and traditional foods. If you like adventure you don’t have to go far to find it. With not even 2% of its landmass urbanized, Guatemala has some of Central America’s most amazing natural scenery with impressive national parks, caves, volcanoes, and jungle.

Where to stay

tortilla

Handmade tortillas in Guatemala | Evie Carrick/Health and Fitness Cheat Sheet

Whether you’re on a budget or not, the Yellow House Hostel in Antigua is the place to be. Rooms are quaint and affordable, but what sells the property is its central location and rooftop lounge. Try to book a room adjacent to the rooftop terrace and take advantage of the traditional breakfast.

If you spend time on Lake Atitlán (and you should), you must stay at La Casa del Mundo. This one-of-a-kind hotel is perched on the side of a cliff and is only accessible by boat or foot. The communal-style dinners are the perfect place to make new friends and the party can continue to the hot tub overhanging the lake. For adventurers heading to Tikal, the Ecolodge El Sombrero is located just 31 km from the ruins with a private lakeside beach area and bike hire available.

What to eat

In staying true to their Mayan roots, corn continues to be a staple in Guatemala. Handmade corn tortillas complete any dish and are often served alongside black beans, rice, cheese, and various meats. On the streets you’ll see ladies pounding out tortillas and if you’re lucky, smearing them with avocado and a little salt making a perfect midday snack. In Antigua try Pepián, a meat and vegetable stew that the city is known for. If you’re a coffee lover, you’re in luck. Guatemala’s famed coffee doesn’t disappoint. 

What to do

Wooden masks

Carved masks | Evie Carrick/Health and Fitness Cheat Sheet

Far north sits Tikal, a towering temple in the middle of thick jungle. To get there it’s easiest to fly to Flores, but if you’ve got the time, land travel is possible and cheaper. Make time for a few nights in Antigua where you can experience Guatemala’s colonial charm, do a coffee plantation tour, and hike one of the four nearby volcanoes.

If you’re looking for something to do on a Thursday or Sunday, don’t think twice about booking a day trip to Chichicastenango, the mother of all markets. You’ll have your fill of street food and vendors selling everything from woven wall hangings to carved wooden masks. Lake Atitlán is accessible from Guatemala City and Antigua and should be granted a few days out of your travel itinerary. Often called the most beautiful lake in the world, you’ll want to explore its many villages by boat

Insider tips

  • Many of the towns on Lake Atitlán do not have ATMs, so stock up on cash before you go.
  • If you want a truly local (and somewhat terrifying experience) take a chicken bus. These wildly decorated school buses transport locals and goods from town to town. Hop aboard and consider yourself lucky if you’re sharing a school bus sized seat with two or three others.
  • A 10% tip at restaurants is typically expected, but watch out, in tourist cities like Antigua it may be automatically added.