Friday, April 19, 2013

Planning Your Own Trip to Guatemala

I had an incredible time in Guatemala, and I highly recommend visiting this beautiful country. If you’re interested in traveling here, I have created a suggested itinerary, based on my experience. I have also answered a couple questions you might have and included some travel tips. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions!

Suggested Itinerary for 11 - 15 Nights
(Please see specific posts regarding each location for more details, including transportation, accommodations, food, and activities):
  • After arriving in Guatemala City via airplane, take an overnight bus to Flores. Explore the Mayan ruins at Tikal National Park. Spend the night in Flores.
  • Take a shuttle to Lanquin and spend two nights. Tour the Kan’ Ba Caves and swim in the Semuc Champey pools. If you want to tube the river, stay an extra night.
  • Take a shuttle to Quetzaltenango and spend two nights (or skip if you have no inclination to hike). Hike to the summit of Volcan Santa Maria. If you want a less challenging hike, easier trails are available, too. Stay for a third night if you want to soak in the Fuentes Georginas hot springs. (If your shuttle arrives early enough, you may be able to do this on your first day.)
  • Take a shuttle to San Marcos la Laguna or San Pedro la Laguna (both are towns on lake Atitlan). Choose where you would like to spend your evenings, as the last water taxi is at 5:00pm. Spend three nights, taking days trips to Panajachel and Santiago for their markets. Stay another night, timing your visit to include a Thursday or a Sunday, if you want to visit the Chichi market, too. You can stay longer, visiting other lakeside towns, hiking the surrounding area, and/or kayaking.
  • Take a shuttle to Antigua and spend two nights. Explore the city and market. Spend another night or two if you’d like to hike the nearby volcano or join a guided bike tour through the countryside.
Please remember that these suggestions are based on my own personal experiences and perspectives. If you are more of a city person, then you might enjoy more days in Antigua and less at the lake. If hiking is your thing, you might want to book a three day hike to some secluded Mayan ruins. Guatemala is full of so many adventures and experiences - create your own best journey!

Do you need to speak Spanish to visit Guatemala?
I can happily tell you - absolutely not! I barely speak any Spanish, just a few frequently used words and phrases. And I survived just fine. If I didn’t understand, I often looked around me for translation from the other tourists (communicating is most often needed with travel). Do not expect the hotel staff or drivers to speak English, though; sometimes their knowledge of English is not much better than my abilities with Spanish. Fortunately, it works out, though, as long as you don’t need to communicate extensively or anything complicated. Don’t be surprised if there is miscommunication; it happens sometimes. I usually like to point to written words whenever possible to help clarify. Remember, you are in their country, and they are doing you a kindness by speaking your language. (And for many of them, English is their third language.) Be grateful you’re able to visit this great country at all and how warmly you are welcomed! This being said, would speaking Spanish help? Of course! If you can, try to learn some basics via a course, a computer program such as Rosetta Stone, or a phrasebook prior to visiting. Unfortunately, unless you speak Spanish well, you will miss out on one of the wonderful experiences when traveling - speaking with the locals. I do wish I could have had conversations with them.

Chicken Bus or Tourist Shuttle?
Traveling around Guatemala, you have the option of taking a shuttle or a chicken bus. The chicken bus is the local transportation. Guatemalans cram onto the bus, often carrying large bundles bound for the market (including chickens, of course). It’s an old school bus painted with colorful designs and a name splashed across the side. It is cheaper than a shuttle, but you will need to figure out where the bus stops are located, how to flag down a bus on the highway, where to get off, and possibly where to change buses. The shuttle is a 15-passenger van that often picks you up from your hotel and drops you off at the doorstep of your destination (or somewhere nearby). It usually needs to be arranged and paid for in advance, and it’s more expensive. I traveled via shuttle because of the convenience and the price difference wasn’t too much for me. (And, if we’re being honest, I was completed intimidated by figuring out the buses, especially with my severely limited Spanish.) If you choose to travel via shuttle, arrange for your shuttle the day before, if possible. The agencies aren’t always open in the morning, shuttles usually leave early, and sometimes there’s only one shuttle each day. Also, if your hotel doesn’t offer what you’re looking for, it might be worth shopping around - there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of shuttle operators. Keep in mind, if you go somewhere off the tourist trail, a local bus might be the only option.

Travel Tips
  • Lock bags/purses on an overnight bus with a small luggage lock. (I met a woman who had her ipad stolen from her bag while she slept.)
  • Carry a small tissue pack for the bathrooms because they often don’t have toilet paper at rest stops.
  • I’ve noticed all women wear long skirts or pants and a t-shirt, traditional shirt with sleeves, or a tank top covered with an embroidered shawl. Not wanting to disrespect their culture and conservative dress, I refrained from wearing short shorts and revealing tank tops. You might want to keep this in mind when you pack, if you care about respecting local custom and dress. (This isn’t as much of an issue in cities like Antigua.)
  • Guatemala has the same electrical outlets as America, but many of them are only two prong. If you have any three-prong cords, you might want to purchase a two-prong to three-prong adapter.
  • Guatemalans have an aversion to appearing unknowledgeable because one of the biggest insults in their culture is stupidity. In order to avoid the possibility of this judgement, Guatemalans will pretend they know things when they don’t. So, if you ask a question, you will always receive an answer; it just might not be the correct answer. They will share incorrect information, rather than admitting they don’t know. Twice, I have asked for directions and have been pointed in exactly the opposite direction. A good strategy is to ask someone who also looks like a traveler, or to check with someone else before you get too far. The children will like to help you find a place, but they also like a tip when you’ve reached your destination.
  • If you are planning to spend any time in the jungle, it’s a good idea to have bug spray available. Mosquitos lurk in the shadowy areas, and they’re everywhere at dusk.
  • Money: I’m told that the exchange rate is highest in the airport. Exchange in a bank or use an ATM. If you need money straight from the airport, a taxi will accept American dollars and give you change. Also, the ATM gives you cash in the form of Q100 bills, which are quite large for many purchases, and it can be difficult to get change. If you bring the bills to a bank, they will exchange them for smaller bills for no fee.
  • Avoid stomach problems: When eating fruit, choose options that require peeling, such as a banana or mango. When eating at a restaurant, only eat raw vegetables, such as a salad, if the restaurant uses purified water for cleaning. Cooked vegetables should be fine. Also watch out for ice and frozen drinks that may be made with water that hasn’t been purified. If eating street food, choose your vendor carefully.
  • Souvenir/gift ideas: chocolate, coffee, handicrafts

Helpful Websites

If you need to spend a night in Guatemala City, this hostel looks good:
Quetzalroo Hostel
6ta Avenida 7 - 84 zona 10, Guatemala City 10110 , Guatemala
phone: (502) 5746-0830
Private rooms with shared facilities - US$34.99 per room/night
Includes complimentary return transfers between the airport/bus depot and the hostel, internet access, and continental breakfast.

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