Introduction to Guatemala

Guatemala is called “land of the eternal spring” with the average temperature 22°C (72°F) across the country. The name Guatemala means land of the trees in the Maya-Toltec language.

Where to go in Guatemala? Guatemala’s Mayan ruins are one of the highlights of a trip.

Would you like to find oud more? Read the sections below!

Country local name: Republica de Guatemala
Government type: constitutional democratic republic
Capital: Guatemala City
Time zone: UTC/GMT -6 hours
Independence: 15 September 1821 (from Spain)
National holiday: Independence Day, 15 September (1821)
Population: 14,647,083 (July 2014 est.)
Ethnic groups: Mestizo (mixed Amerindian-Spanish - in local Spanish called Ladino) and European 59.4%, K'iche 9.1%, Kaqchikel 8.4%, Mam 7.9%, Q'eqchi 6.3%, other Mayan 8.6%, indigenous non-Mayan 0.2%, other 0.1% (2001 census)
Languages: Spanish (official) 60%, Amerindian languages 40%
Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous Mayan beliefs. It should be underlined that Guatemala is the least Catholic Latin American country. It’s estimated that approaching forty percent of the population now belong to one of several dozen Protestant churches.
Terrain: mostly mountains with narrow coastal plains and rolling limestone plateau
Elevation extremes: lowest point: Pacific Ocean 0 m
highest point: Volcano Tajumulco 4,211 m
Natural resources: petroleum, nickel, rare woods, fish, chicle, hydropower
Agriculture – products: sugarcane, corn, bananas, coffee, beans, cardamom; cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens
Industries: sugar, textiles and clothing, furniture, chemicals, petroleum, metals, rubber, tourism
Exports: coffee, sugar, petroleum, apparel, bananas, fruits and vegetables, cardamom
Shopping hours:  typical hours are 8am to noon and 2pm to 6pm Monday to Saturday
Major infectious diseases: degree of risk: high
Food or waterborne diseases: bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever
Vectorborne disease: dengue fever and malaria (2013)
Climate: tropical; hot, humid in lowlands; cooler in highlands
Natural hazards: numerous volcanoes in mountains, with occasional violent earthquakes; Caribbean coast extremely susceptible to hurricanes and other tropical storms


Guatemala is called “land of the eternal spring” with the average temperature 22°C (72°F) across the country. Guatemala has two seasons: the dry season (from November to April) and the wet season (from May to October) with the worst of the rain falling in September and October. But the temperature is mostly determined by the altitude, cooler at higher elevations and warmer at lower elevations.
The most popular season for visiting Guatemal is the dry season in the mountainous regions, such as Guatemala City, Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango and Cobán where many festivals take place, for example Semana Santa, Day of the Dead, the Burning of the Devil and the Saint Thomas festival in Chichicastenango.

The Guatemalan menu is dominated by tortillas, meat, eggs and beans, only on the Caribbean coast a difference can be found – with domination of seafood, coconut and plantain.

Traditional and popular food like tacos, burritos, guacamole (avocado mashed with onion and spices) can be found everywhere. Popular snacks include: tostada, enchilada (fried tortillas topped with guacamole or cheese or minced meat), tamal (cornmeal package steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper, can be filled with chicken or other meat) and chuchito (the smaller version of tamal, which includes a bit of tomato and a pinch of hot chili). Pupusa is also very common - a tortilla hat is usually filled with leftovers: cheese, porked meat or beans.
Beans (frijoles) can be served volteados (boiled up and mashed) or parados (boiled up whole, served in their own juice).
You can also try some traditional local dishes, for example kak’ik (turkey broth with coriander and mint) in Coban or suban’ick (chicken and pork dish) in Chimaltenango.

Tropical fruits are everywhere, but you should try the zapote and the pitaya.

Also try some desserts: mole de platano (plantain served in a sweet, spiced cocoa-flavored sauce), torrejas (sweet bread soaked in egg and honey), buñuelos (similar to profiteroles served with hot cinnamon syrup).

If you want to drink something local, try atol (a warm, sweet and energizing drink made with maize or rice and sugar), rosa de Jamaica, the horchata and the tamarindo.

Popular beers: Gallo (a medium-strength lager-style beer), Brahva (with a slightly spicy finish) and Moza (a dark brew with a slight caramel flavor).

Popular spirits: rum (ron) and aguardiente.


·  The name Guatemala means land of the trees in the Maya-Toltec language.
·  In the local language, terms that are specific to Guatemala are often called guatemaltequismos or chapinismos.
·  Traida - this ancient Spanish word for girlfriend is still used in Guatemala.


¡A la gran puchica! (¡a la gran!) – expresses shock. Oh my God,
¡Cómo no chón! (¡que de a sombrero!) – an expression that is used to give an affirmative answer, form of sarcasm.
De plano / de plano que sí – is a way of saying, yes, of course, definitely.
¡Muchá! – expression used to say: “Hi guys!” (plural)
¿Qué mosca te picó? - What’s bugging/bothering you?
¿Qué onda vos? - What’s Up, Dude?
Andar a mostaza - to be very drunk

·    Guatemalans are quite formal in social situations and have a reputation as some of the most civil and polite people in Latin America.
·    In Guatemala there are two distinct cultures using body language differently: the Ladinos of European descent and the Mayans. Ladino Guatemalans tend to use a lot less personal space and use more body contact than Americans. The Mayan community is more reserved and conservative in their emotional displays and in communication.
·    Titles are very important for Guatemalans.You should address people using their titles (Doctor, Profesor, Ingeniero, Arquitecto, Abogado) and those without professional titles: Señor (Mr.), Señora (Mrs.) or Señorita (Miss) and his or her surname.
·    If you’re introduced to someone, a gentle handshake and a “con mucho gusto” (“pleased to meet you”) is appropriate.
·    When you enter the public place it’s normal to introduce yourself with a polite greeting of “buenos días/tardes” (good morning/afternoon or evening).
·    La Mano Caliente (“the hot hand”) also called “the fig gesture” (thumb-tip protruding from between the fingers of a closed fist) "O.K." sign (thumb and forefinger forming a circle) are considered highly offensive and obscene in Guatemala. If a person were to use la mano caliente to a military or police officer, the offender could expect to spend time in jail or do hard labor in the army.”
·    Raising of the voice is seen as rude or aggressive and should be avoided.
·    Guatemalan businesspeople tend to be rather formal and conservative. Social conversation before business is the custom
·    Male guests sit to the right of the host and women to the left.
·    Punctuality is appreciated.
·    White flowers are reserved for funerals.

Guatemala’s Mayan ruins are one of the highlights of a trip.

Tikal is a must-see! The Maya ruins of Tikal are often described as one of the greatest and most important pieces of ancient Mayan architecture in all of Central America. This breathtaking archeological site (also the UNESCO World Heritage Site) contains more than 3000 structures including temples and palaces which are hidden deep within the rainforest. It’s best to go in the early morning.

Other impressive sites include: El Mirador, Uaxactún, Ixlú, Yaxhá, Aguateca and Quiriguá. For example in Yaxhá you can watch the sunset from the top one of the excavated temples!

Often visited on a trip to Tikal, the little charming town of Flores is located on an island in the middle of Lake Peten and is reached by bridge from Santa Elena. This is a perfect place to enjoy sunset over the lake. You can make this journey using the famous Guatemalan chicken bus! The so-called chicken buses are former US school buses used in Guatemala for local transportation.

Lake Atitlan is one of the world's most ancient lakes, located in the Western Highlands of Guatemala and surrounded by three volcanoes: Tolimán, Atitlán and San Pedro. The lake, described by Aldous Huxley as ‘the most beautiful lake in the world,’is unmissable! You can visit by shuttle boat between the villages surrounding the lake.

Chichicastenango, or just ‘Chichi’, is most famous for its colourful market, held on Thursdays and Sundays. A visit to the market should not be missed, as it provides a wonderful insight into the local culture. The market is considered the best for tourists, as the native Mayans come from all over to sell (in areas off the main square) everything from fruit and vegetables to live chickens, turkeys, flowers and even kittens.

Monterrico, situated on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, is a coastal village which has remote black volcanic sand beaches and a laid-back atmosphere. This relaxed village is a part of a wildlife reserve where you can watch turtles laying their eggs ashore.
Monterrico is the best spot for a weekend break at the beach if you're staying in Antigua or Guatemala City.

Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala, is one of the best-preserved colonial towns in Central America with its colonial buildings, one-story pastel-collared houses and a huge central square which holds lively festivals. It offers direct views of two nearby volcanos.

Volcan Pacaya, which is situated just outside of Antigua last erupted in 2010 however it is still one of the most hiked volcanoes in the country.

Guatemala City (or Guate as it's referred to locally) is often the starting point for visits to the rest of Guatemala due to its its location, facilities and the International Airport "La Aurora". The capital is the hub of the country, home to the best museums and galleries, it’s worth seeing the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

San Pedro, the lakeside village, is the main backpacker destination, where you can easily relax, party, learn Spanish (as there are many language schools) and hike up volcanos. Up the hill you can meet locals (native pedranos) around the market zone.

Xela, also known as Quetzaltenango, is surrounded by three towering volcanoes and is a popular base for hiking. You can also visit the surrounding Mayan villages.

And last but not least, make sure that you don’t miss Semuc Champey – a cascading series of beautiful turquoise pools in the jungle! Better to go on a tour so they can show you secret areas or take you to the nearby caves.

Read our stories from our trips to NEPAL and PERU combined with volunteering experience, which we made in 2016 and 2017 >>

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