20 Oct 7 Things Not to Do in Guatemala
Here’s a list of my “Don’ts” for Guatemala.
Guatemala is an easy place to love. With incredible landscapes ranging from foggy forests, lakes and volcanoes to verdant jungles; this country has more than enough to inspire. Along with a warm-hearted, friendly population, a fascinating almost 4,000 year legacy of Mayan history awaits. But like all countries, Guatemala has its things to avoid.
1. DON’T USE HUSTLERS AT THE BORDER TO CHANGE MONEY OR COMPLETE PAPERWORK
It’s tempting as a border approaches to want to ask for help. Often the signs are unclear, if there are signs at all, and it feels extremely important to get it right, staying vigilant of one’s belongings throughout the ordeal. However, the folks poised at the border to help you make the transition often have an agenda of their own. Taking advantage of bewildered border-crossers is what they do. Whether overcharging, running scams or worse, these people aren’t to be trusted. Remain calm, but firm, that no help is required. Speak only to official border guards and save yourself some hassle. Our Guatemalan border crossings went smoothly both exiting Mexico and entering Belize.
TIP: DRIVING NEAR BORDERS, ON BOTH SIDES, IS OFTEN DANGEROUS. DON’T DRIVE AT NIGHT AND PLAN BORDER CROSSINGS FOR THE MORNING.
2. SKIP GUATEMALA CITY
Guatemala City, the country’s capital, has been considered dangerous by many. If nothing more, petty theft is rampant. We chose to skip it, as even “touristy” districts of the city have seen increases in assault and robbery. If flying, there are airports around Lake Atitlan, as well as near Tikal. Since we were overlanding, we took route 5 through Verapaz, avoiding the city.
Maybe you have friends or contacts there, maybe you love a big city and don’t mind it being a bit riskier – you do you! Fo us, the best decision was to skip it, but that doesn’t mean you’ll want to do the same.
TIP: WE LOVED THE ROUTE FROM THE LAKE ATITLAN AREA THROUGH THE VERAPAZ REGION TO REACH THE WORLD RENOWNED MAYAN TEMPLES IN TIKAL, LOCATED IN PETEN. WE USED ROUTE 5, PASSING THROUGH CHISEC AND LA LIBERTAD.
3. AVOID THE MIDDLE MAN IN COMMERCE
Currently, one of Guatemala’s social problems stems from vendors price-gouging the farmers, fishermen, and creators of artisanal goods. By having a store where the items can be sold, they make as much a 3 times the profit as the person who actually produces, catches or grows the product.
We love going to the source, meeting the people who’s daily lives conssit of creating or seeking out the things we’re purchasing. Buying directly from markets where fishermen, farmers and workers can sell their own goods and profit from their hard work is an excellent option to get to know a place more deeply.
Of course, this isn’t always sustainable – it depends on how much time you have, how much you are able to and want to deviate from the path that your on and whether smaller communities and markets ar of interest to you. For us, nothing is more interesting or fulfilling than to find the smallest nooks and crannies of a place and really take our time to settle in there … so needless to say, we love it.
TIP: ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING MARKETS IN GUATEMALA CAN BE FOUND IN CHICHICASTENENGO. WE HIGHLY RECOMMEND PUTTING THIS DESTINATION ON YOUR TRAVEL ITINERARY FOR THE CULTURAL EXPERIENCE. IN THE MARKET, BE SURE TO TRY BLUE CORN TORTILLAS (CALLED BLACK CORN) AND HOT CHOCOLATE RICE MILK.
4. DON’T FEAR THE POLICE
Guatemala has a wonderful police department dedicated to tourists, called Politur. We encountered them in many areas of Guatemala. They were kind, helpful and went out of their way to direct and assist us without ever asking for anything in return. Unlike Mexico, where the police often pull you over to ask for bribes, Guatemala’s police deserve some major credit.
We had a personal police escort when we lost our way near Playa Tilapita. We pulled over and asked Politur for directions as some of the signs weren’t clear. “Follow me,” he said. We felt a little nervous, considering the experiences we’d had with less than honest police in Mexico, but were pleasantly surprised by the police’s honesty, friendliness and helpful attitude.
TIP: POLITUR ONLY OPERATES IN AREAS FREQUENTED BY TOURISTS. IF YOU GET OFF THE BEATEN PATH, YOU MAY NOT FIND THEM AROUND.
5. DON’T ASSUME THERE IS A BANK ON EVERY CORNER (OR IN EVERY TOWN)
Banks are only in cities and larger towns, and while ATMs are readily accessible, they are old, meaning they don’t read many of the newer bank cards, including ones with a chip, or flat ones. We ran into this issue, as our ATM card has a chip. We weren’t able to withdraw money at all. A friend who traveled with us had no problem with his older card. Lucky for us, we traveled with cash and were pleasantly surprised by how many medium-sized towns had a Banco Azteca (also called Elektra) which exchanges dollars, euros, or pesos. Had we not traveled with cash, we might have had a real problem!
TIP: PESOS ARE HARDER TO CHANGE THAN DOLLARS IF NO BANCO AZTECA IS AVAILABLE.
6. DON’T EXPECT GOOD COFFEE (DESPITE THE REGION BEING ONE OF THE BEST IN THE WORLD FOR IT)
It’s strange, but true. Despite being one of the greatest regions in the world for coffee, it is almost entirely exported. The exportation of coffee is an immensely profitable business, so most local people drink instant coffee. Gourmet coffee houses are around, but will be advertised as such and cater to foreigners for the most part.
As coffee-obsessed individuals, we brought our own italian coffee maker and purchased coffee when we found places selling local coffee so we could make our own morning brew. But, that really only works if you’re overlanding or backpacking and willing to bring your preferred method of coffee brewing with you, as well as a way to make it … like a white gas mini stove or, in our case, a dual fuel coleman stove… or on your campfire.
TIP: ONE EXCEPTION WE ENCOUNTERED WAS ON THE SECLUDED ISLAND BEACH OF TILAPITA, AT HOTEL PACIFICO MAR TILAPA
7. DON’T DRIVE AT NIGHT
This is a good rule of thumb in most places. It’s a precaution I always try to take when traveling, start early and end early, especially when overlanding. There is less risk for crime during daylight hours. Besides that, dangerous road conditions like potholes, free-roaming animals, and unclear signs only become more dangerous after dark.
TIP: IN MOST PARTS OF LATIN AMERICA IT’S A GOOD IDEA TO PARK THE VEHICLE INSIDE A GARAGE OR WITHIN EYESIGHT, PARTICULARLY AT NIGHT.