- Rainforests and ruins, mountains and monkeys
- Country life
- Tikal treks and jungle jaunts
Guatemala is a naturalist’s daydream, where virgin rainforest gives way to volcanic uplands, and kaleidoscopically feathered birds sharing tree-space with chattering monkeys.
Like its neighbour Belize, Guatemala enjoys a balmy tropical climate and is rich in rainforest, woven around some of the most impressive ruins in the world. South of its sprawling, supercharged capital, Guatemala City, are the Pacific coast and the beautiful colonial city of Antigua. Heading north over the highlands of Sierra Madre, a sliver of Caribbean coastline crowns the east of the country, and to the north, the dense forest of the El Petén region conceals vast lakes and the ancient Mayan site of Tikal, one of the archaeological wonders of the world.
Why not learn Spanish in situ? Folk flock to Antigua to learn the lingo here as it’s not only a picturesque place to study but because this Guatemalan city is super-friendly and relaxed with lots of cafés and bars for you to practice your new phrases in. Intensive courses at the Spanish School in Antigua include 20 lessons a week, and are from about $290 for a fortnight. Go to www.studylanguages.org for more information.
- Taxis – of varying degrees of legitimacy – are easily found in Guatemala, although buses are more commonly used for shuttling around the countryside. Look out for three-wheeled tuk tuks in Guatemala City; their small size makes them adept at zipping around town. Agree a fare beforehand if you can.
- Tipping culture
- 10 per cent is usual in bars and restaurants where no service charge has been added. Taxi drivers won’t expect anything unless they’ve been bag-luggingly helpful. Private drivers, guides and hotel staff will be pleased with a few dollars, depending on their level of service.
- Packing tips
- Guatemala’s rainforests didn’t grow themselves – there are frequent downpours, so waterproofs are essential kit for jungle trekking. The tropical climate attracts biting insects, so be prepared to fend them off with repellent and coils. Binoculars will help with bird- and monkey-spotting.
- Recommended reads
- Francisco Goldman’s ambitious first novel The Long Night of the White Chickens combines the depth and thoughtfulness of a travelogue with the energy and pace of a detective thriller. Miguel Ángel Asturias’ magic realist tale The President earned him a Nobel Prize.
- Guatemalan dishes tend to blend Mexican and European flavours, producing dishes such as chilaquiles (tortilla filled with meat and accompanied by red and green sauces), chiles rellenos (sweet peppers filled with meat), frijoles (black beans), guacamole, and chicken pepian (chicken in a spicy sesame and pumpkin sauce). On Saturdays, it’s traditional to eat tamales (meat-stuffed corn dough), a far cry from their Mexican equivalent.
- Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ). The US dollar (around GTQ8) is also legal tender.
- Time zone
- GMT -6 hours
- Dialling codes
- Country code for Guatemala: +502.
- Do go/don't go
- The dry season between November and April is both the balmiest and busiest. Between May and October, the frequent rains can make road travel problematic, but it’s often the best time to secure good value accommodation and avoid the tourist hordes.