Guatemala is a small country, lush and mountainous, that is graced with beautiful scenery, a rich indigenous culture, colonial history and important archaeological ruins. The country lies at the heart of the Mayan culture in Central America with remarkable Mayan sites scattered throughout the land, none more so than the magnificent ruins of the ancient city of Tikal, set deep within the jungle.
The Mayan villages of the highlands are spread amid the breathtaking scenery of smoking volcanoes and spectacular lakes, where ancient customs and traditions persist despite five centuries of European domination. Their culture is expressed through vibrant weekly markets, bright traditional clothing, fabulous handicrafts, different languages and colourful religious festivals. Lake Atitlán, a beautiful deep lake ringed by volcanoes and Mayan villages, is a remarkable place combining astounding scenery with traditional culture.
Guatemalan society is split between the traditional and the modern, each following their own path in a country sprinkled with remnants of a colonial past. Nowhere is the Spanish legacy more evident than in the charming city of Antigua with its cobbled streets, plazas and elegant fountains, and towering volcanoes as a backdrop. Interrelations between the Spanish and the native population produced a mixed population, the Ladinos, who have embraced their European heritage and are typically city folk.
A rough past provides a troublesome background to the country and its people. Inequalities between the Spanish-speaking Indians and indigenous cultures, and rich and poor, have been a source of tension and discord throughout the years. The violence caused by political differences has left thousands dead, while the devastation caused by earthquakes has left people homeless and in need of world aid. Despite this travellers are drawn to the intriguing mix of cultures and history set amid dramatic scenery, with extremely considerate people to show them the sights that Guatemalans are justifiably proud of.
The official currency is the Quetzal (GTQ) divided into 100
centavos. In 2001 the US Dollar became the second official currency
alongside the Quetzal and both are accepted. Travellers cheques and
major credit cards are accepted, though some more than others. It
is recommended to take travellers cheques in US dollars. Cash
exchange is easier, but more risky. Visitors are not advised to
exchange money at the informal booths on the street. There are ATMs
in the towns and cities, which accept American Express and Visa.
MasterCard and Diners Club have a more limited acceptance.
|GTQ 1 =||US$ 0.12||Â£ 0.08||C$ 0.13||A$ 0.12||R 1.05||EUR 0.10||NZ$ 0.16|
Note: These currency exchange rates are not updated daily and should be used as a guideline only.
There are a number of health risks associated with travel to Guatemala and travellers are advised to take the latest medical advice at least three weeks prior to departure. Malaria is prevalent in the low-lying areas outside Guatemala City and dengue fever is endemic. Visitors should be careful what they eat and stick to bottled water. Guatemalan hospitals are unlikely to give medical treatment unless the patient has medical insurance or can pay up front. Good travel insurance is therefore essential. State-funded hospitals are best avoided. Travellers should only use private clinics where possible. A yellow fever certificate is required from travellers entering the country from infected areas.
It is strongly recommended that all foreign passengers to Guatemala hold return or onward tickets, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. Note that the period of stay for visa-exempt nationals is 90 days; however, 90-day extensions can be organised through the Immigration Office. For nationals requiring a visa, the consulate issuing the visa will advise visitors about the amount of deposit to be paid at the port of entry in Guatemala, which will be refunded if the visitor leaves Guatemala within one year. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Note: Passport and visa requirements are liable to change at short notice. Travellers are advised to check their entry requirements with their embassy or consulate.
Guatemala Tourist Commission: +502 331 1333 or www.visitguatemala.com
Foreign Embassies in Guatemala
Antigua in Guatemala is one of the oldest and prettiest colonial cities in Latin America, situated in a valley between three volcanoes. The setting is beautiful but hazardous, the town having experienced 16 earthquakes, frequent floods and a number of fires. It was the country's capital until 1776 when, after sustaining severe damage in a series of devastating earthquakes, the capital was moved to the present day Guatemala City, 30 miles (48km) away.
In colonial times Antigua was considered to be one of the most splendid cities of the Spanish Empire and was the principal city in Central America. Today it remains an enchanting place with remnants of a prosperous past. It is a delight to wander down the quaint traffic-free cobbled streets, past single storey multi-coloured buildings and mansions, magnificent churches, monasteries and convents. Plazas, inner courtyards and fountains are pretty reminders of the Spanish legacy. The town has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a popular destination for visitors. Buildings of interest include the Iglesia de San Francisco, La Merced and the Las Capuchinas.
Antigua becomes extremely busy during the Easter celebrations of Semana Santa, when people from all over the region flock to see the colourful street processions. The rest of the time it has a relaxed and convivial atmosphere with a strong indigenous culture, prevalent in the Sunday market. It is also a popular place to learn Spanish at one of the many language schools, and most students are able to stay with a local family as part of the learning experience. For the more adventurous the three volcano peaks offer superb hiking opportunities and views, and many tour operators in town offer trips to the surrounding countryside, as well as excursions to the only active volcano in the region, VolcÃ¡n Pacaya. Villages nearby, like San Antonio Aguascalientes, offer visitors a closer look at indigenous life and are centres for beautiful hand-woven textiles.
This shimmering volcanic lake surrounded by forested slopes and three distinctive volcanoes has been hailed by some as the most beautiful lake in the world. Not only is Lake AtitlÃ¡n scenically spectacular, the lake and hillside settlements are also rich in Mayan culture.
Deeply cultural, some of these villages are the only ones in the country where traditional costume is still worn, each village sporting its own distinctive style and colour of densely embroidered dress. The people are also famous for their artisan crafts, and textiles are admired for their design and colour, distinguishing one village from the other. The colours are all blended in a flurry on market days when villagers from around the lake gather to sell their products. The Friday market at SololÃ¡ is one of the best in the highlands.
Around the lake are the main tourism centres of Panajachel and San Pedro La Laguna with lots of accommodation, small restaurants and craft shops. Santiago AtitlÃ¡n is the biggest and most important cultural village along the shore with an interesting local deity. There are good hikes around the lake as well as various water sports and excellent swimming.
The largest city in Guatemala and Central America, Guatemala City is a bustling metropolis of around three million people. However, it has a feeling more of a small town, with the city loosely divided into 20 'zonas'.
Ornate buildings dating back several hundred years give the city a period feel, with many antique churches and government buildings like the Palacio Nacional worth seeing from the inside and out. This gives Guatemala City an attractive look to make up for its lack of natural beauty.
Guatemala City is also the most modern city in the country, playing a role as the administrative, economic, and cultural capital of Guatemala, with a variety of restaurants, shops, art galleries, theatres, museums, hotels and other attractions to keep visitors entertained. The hotels and nightlife in Zona Viva and Cuatro Grados Norte are particularly popular with visitors.
Despite its vibrant arts scene and attractive facade, many travellers avoid Guatemala City due to the high crime rate, opting to head for Antigua or Monterrico instead. However, travelling to Guatemala City is relatively easy because most lines of transport connect there, so a convenient city break in Guatemala City can add a lot to a holiday in Guatemala.
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