Guatemala Expat Country Guide
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
As a tourist destination, Guatemala is still very much “off the beaten track”. It’s far more likely that someone you know might have visited Mexico or Costa Rica but in many ways this is a good thing.
Guatemala is still oozing with unique wildlife, incredible natural sites (including a number of active volcanoes) and is also home to some of the most impressive Mayan ruins and colonial towns in the Americas. Even the country’s name means “place of many trees”.
So while Guatemala is certainly not as well-developed as many other Central American countries, it does offer unrivalled experience for those adventurous travellers and expats willing to make the effort.
Let’s get started…
It is tempting to assume that everywhere in Central America benefits from a warm and humid tropical climate, but in Guatemala this isn’t the whole story. Thanks to Guatemala’s fascinating geology the climate here is far more diverse than you might initially imagine.
Broadly speaking the country is bisected by two mountain ranges, creating a backbone of higher-altitude land at the centre (the “highlands”) with the land dropping in altitude towards the coastline. In addition, borders with both the Pacific and Caribbean oceans can create further climatic variation.
In general three climatic zones are recognised. First is the cool zone, in the central mountainous region, where nights can get surprisingly chilly while daytimes are normally pleasantly warm and sunny. It is here that the majority of Guatemala’s major cities sit. As a result, far from sweating away in the oppressive tropical heat, much of Guatemala is therefore a very liveable temperature right around the year.
North of the mountains one will find the “temperate” zone, largely demarcated by the rural area of Petan. It is here that one will find the majority of the Mayan ruins in the country. The area is still sparsely populated and makes for an exciting and comfortable place to hike and explore.
Lastly, south of the mountain chain one meets the Pacific coastline, which conforms to the classic “tropical” weather system of hot and humid weather, interrupted occasionally by major storms and hurricanes.
With an average annual temperature across the country of around 22’C it is little wonder that Guatemala is sometimes known affectionately as the land of the “eternal spring”. Many expats are pleasantly surprised by just how manageable the weather is in much of the country.
That said, situated so close to the equator Guatemala experiences the typical seasonal variations experienced in most Central American countries. That is to say that rather than experiencing the four seasons of winter, spring, summer and autumn, instead there are two primary seasons. These are the dry season and the wet season.
The dry season typically runs from November to April, and represents the best of time of year to visit. This is because the weather is far more reliable and predictable, and that one is far less likely to be caught in a flash thunderstorm.
These storms become ever more common in the wet season, which normally runs from May to October. Here torrential downpours can happen on a regular basis, making accessing more rural areas problematic. Localized flooding is not uncommon during the wet season and some roads become impassable. That said, don’t assume that it rains all day in the wet season; blue skies still occur regularly, it’s just that you might have to modify your plans to avoid the worst of the rain when it comes.
While Guatemala has undoubtedly suffered from serious deforestation on an industrial scale in the past, it is still considered something of a biodiversity hotspot, with thousands of plants and animals in evidence, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Like much of Central and South America, the biggest historical influence on the country has been invasion by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. This has led to Spanish becoming the national language and has led to a strong culture of Roman Catholicism, with numerous churches to be found here.
Nestling alongside the Spanish culture are the native Amerindian peoples, many who can trace their lineage back to the Mayans. These two cultures have cross-pollinated after the generations to produce a fascinating mixture of languages and cultures.
For example, over 40% of the Guatemalan people are Mestizo – with mixed Spanish/Amerindian heritage. A similar number are purely of Spanish decent. The remainder is made up from a range of immigrants and native tribes.
While Guatemala is considered Central America’s largest economy, it is still a painfully poor country, with much of the population surviving in poverty. The offshoot of this poor economic outlook is that facilities may not be up to international standards, save for perhaps Guatemala City, the capital.
This extreme poverty also has a number of other downsides for visitors. Possibly most worryingly crime rates in Guatemala are considerable. Kidnapping, robberies and hold-ups are sadly commonplace, especially in the centre of Guatemala City.
As a result Guatemala cannot be considered a “low risk” destination, and visitors are advised to take suitable precautions to avoid becoming a victim of crime. That said, most trips are without issues, and outside of Guatemala City the incidence of such situations is far less. Indeed today tourism is becoming an ever more important part of the economy, with over 2 million visitors arriving each year.
As might be expected from such a culturally divided population, a number of languages proliferate. Spanish is the only official language, and is spoken by roughly 60% of the population. Almost as many people speak one of 21 traditional Mayan languages, though these are not formally recognized by the government.
English use is highly patchy. In many rural areas one will need to speak at least basic Spanish in order to stand a chance of being able to communicate. Within Guatemala City the prevalence of English is better.
However it is in Antigua Guatemala, the beautifully-preserved medieval town, where English is most frequently experienced. This town can be considered the central hub of activity for expats and travellers looking to avoid the crime of the capital, and as a result English is spoken all over.
Indeed, it has been suggested that it is entirely possible to spend a day in Antigua and hear nothing but English spoken.
The most common source of transportation in Guatemala is bus; however there are a number of different types of bus visitors should be aware of.
At the very bottom end of the market, and offering ludicrously cheap fares, are the local buses. Known as “camionetas” but usually simply referred to as “chicken buses” (due to their prevalence in poor rural areas) these are typically retired US school buses that have been painted a patchwork of gaudy colours.
Cheap they may be, but not without reason. Firstly they maintain a questionable safety record, with tragic accidents occurring with worrying regularity. Secondly the low cost of access also means they can be crammed so full of locals as to make travel thoroughly uncomfortable. Lastly chicken buses are a prime target for criminals, many of whom are armed. Some have even begun to use explosives to extort cash and valuables from bus drivers and passengers alike. For all these reasons such buses are best avoided for all but the most battle-hardened (or budget-constrained) travellers.
The next rung up are the so-called “Pullmans” – in essence rather more like executive coaches. While they vary considerably in quality, the higher-end of the market may offer air conditioning, reclining seats and more. Combine this with the lower incidence of crowding and crime and the small surcharge you will pay to board seems well worthwhile.
Lastly in Guatemala one will encounter shuttle buses. These are used almost exclusively by tourists and offer one of the most practical forms of “public” transport in the country. These small minibuses offer a door-to-door service, picking you up from your residence and transporting you in comfort to your chosen destination.
There are a number of alternative options, depending on situation. For one, taxis in Guatemala are reasonably easy to find. While those taxis in Guatemala City are metered, in the rest of the country it is necessary to negotiate the fare before entering the vehicle.
In the most remote areas, both buses and taxis may be thin on the ground. Under such circumstances it may be necessary to make use of a “Picop” – a privately-owned pickup truck. If you can stomach the speed with which these vehicles transport you, and the relative lack of comfort they offer, bouncing around in the fresh air can be surprisingly exhilarating.
Lastly it is possible to hire car in Guatemala, which may be your only option to reach the remotest areas. That said, a combination of seemingly suicidal Guatemalan drivers and high crime rates means that special care must be taken when driving yourself around the country.
Firstly when hiring a car ensure you go to great pains to carefully inspect every element. Ensure that even tiny insignificant dents or scratches are carefully noted on the paperwork and keep a copy for your records. Stories abound of tourists being charged for repair work that was required before they drove out of the lot.
Secondly, you should be aware that car jackings and unofficial road blocks are not uncommon in Guatemala. This means that driving after dark should never be considered. Furthermore, when parking your car ensure that it is in a highly secure location. A number of car parks with guards ca be found around Guatemala and these are normally the safest places to stow your vehicle overnight.
Lastly be aware that many drivers in Guatemala take considerable and unnecessary risks on the road. Overtaking on blind corners is almost a national sport and anything from mopeds to farm animals may be encountered at any time. In other words, no matter how open the road appears you should drive with the utmost care with a view to accident avoidance.
Should you decide to take the plunge then visitors from the UK and USA can drive using their own home driving license for up to 90 days. That said, even under such circumstances it can be wise to apply for an International Driving Permit simply because police officers will be more familiar with these documents, helping to avoid any issues if you are stopped.
While road surfaces in major cities are normally quite good, they can be little more than dirt tracks in more rural areas. Also take into account the potential for sudden and torrential downpours at almost any time. As a result it is safest to request a four-wheel drive vehicle rather than a small city car for your time in the country.
Whilst Guatemala City offers a number of international-grade hospitals, the reality is that many of the health establishments in Guatemala leave plenty to be desired in terms of equipment, cleanliness and waiting times.
In terms of funding any medical care you may require there are a number of options. In truth healthcare in Guatemala is very reasonably priced in comparison to Western standards. For this reason some people opt to simply pay out of pocket for any care they require.
Such a strategy is, of course, not without its risks. Should more expensive procedures or repatriation be required then you may find yourself struggling to raise the necessary funds. For this reason most visitors and expats alike opt to rely on expatriate health insurance. This not only removes any worry about paying for medical care but can also facilitate treatment in the many private hospitals to be found in Guatemala.
Note that even routine care may be declined by hospitals in Guatemala unless the administrators feel confident that they will get paid. As a result it is wise in Guatemala to keep a photocopy of your health insurance certificate with you at all times, lest it becomes the difference between receiving care or not.
Interestingly, Guatemala does not use prescriptions, and most drugs can be bought over the counter at pharmacists. Simply explain the situation you’re experiencing and request the medications you seek. Assuming they are in stock you can simply pay and be on your way. Even better, medications often cost a tiny fraction of what they would in the USA or UK.
While this sounds immeasurably easier than the situation in many other countries it is important to mention that many established brands may not be available in Guatemala. If you are taking any medications on a regular basis it is wise therefore to carry out your research to find generic equivalents which will likely be far more easily accessible during your visit.
An ambulance may be summoned at any time by dialling 112 from any landline.
As a hat-tip to the plethora of wildlife to found within Guatemala’s borders, the currency is known as the “Quetzal”. Named after the iridescent green bird of the same name, with its luxurious long tail feathers which were once used by the Mayans to adorn their bodies, each Quetzal is further divided into one hundred Centavos.
If you’ve never heard of the Guatemalan currency then rest assured you most certainly aren’t alone. The reality is that there is very little international trade in this currency. This means that trying to exchange your currency before arrival is likely to be difficult at best. Even in situations where a bank can provide you with Quetzals the rate is likely to be less than impressive.
Instead, it is advisable to bring with you US Dollars. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it is simplicity itself to exchange your Dollars for Quetzals at any bank in Guatemala. Secondly, a large number of businesses are perfectly happy to accept Dollars themselves, meaning that you need not worry learning a new currency at all. Be aware, however, that once again you might not get the best exchange rates.
ATMs are perhaps not as commonplace in Guatemala as in many other countries. Credit and debit card fraud is also rife, and many tourists have been mugged over the years while withdrawing cash. The best solution is to only use ATMs within banks, where the building is generally protected by one or more armed guards. Also, stock up on cash while in the larger cities, as you may struggle to locate an ATM in more rural areas.
Some businesses accept credit and debit cards, with Visa being the most commonly-accepted brand. That said, due to the problems of fraud, you should be mindful not to allow the card out of your site. To prevent your card being blocked while you are away it is also advisable to inform your bank where you will be going.
Note that it is very difficult to cash traveller’s checks in Guatemala so you should not rely on them as your only source of funds while in the country.
Sadly, state-funded education in Guatemala is generally agreed to be woefully inadequate. Whilst in theory the government provides a minimum of six years of free and mandatory education, in reality most young Guatemalans complete an average of just 4 years of schooling. This is further complicated by the way in which most of the better schools are focused around Guatemala City, while many poor rural areas are barely serviced at all. As a result, 75% of the adult population is considered illiterate.
Interestingly, due to the range of languages used in Guatemala, not all schools even teach in Spanish; some establishments provide lessons in one of the many surviving Mayan languages.
All these factors combine to mean that most expats resort to the private international schools to be found here. Lessons are more commonly taught in English, educational standards are far superior and students can study for internationally-recognised qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate.
Food & Drink
While Guatemala has no official national dish, classic recipes make use of typical Central American food stuffs; namely maize, rice, beans and tortillas. These ingredients may well be supplemented with fresh meat (chicken and beef being popular), chillies, eggs or plantains.
Most Guatemalan meals can therefore be considered reasonably plain, involving small numbers of ingredients and are typically not spicy like Mexican fare. Possibly the most appealing meal enjoyed by visitors are “caldos” – rich meat stews full of flavour and character.
In terms of beverages, Guatemala has some rather more interesting offerings. Freshly-grown fruit is regularly turned into a delicious cocktail of juices, while a unique beverage known as “atole de elote” is made from warm corn.
Guatemala is also duly famous for the quality of its coffee, which is exported around the world. Visitors with Western taste buds may need to experiment with a range of possible preparations as the native Guatemalans normally serve it quite weak and very heavily sweetened which isn’t always to everyone’s tastes.
Tap water in Guatemala is generally not considered safe to drink. This generally doesn’t represent too many problems as bottled water is cheap and freely available even in the smallest towns.
One unique cultural trait of Guatemala are the so-called “comedores”. Here local people essentially open a small restaurant in their homes. There is no menu and only one or two dishes may be on offer, but the food is normally reasonably-priced and delicious. Just as importantly, this intimate setting gives a perfect opportunity meet local Guatemalans and learn about their culture.
As previously mentioned, Guatemala is far from the safest country in the world, and it would be fair to say that it poses an above-average risk. That said, the Foreign Office reports that the majority of visits are without incidence.
In order to remain safe, begin by considering the varying levels of crime that abound here, especially in the centre of Guatemala City. To this end try to avoid going out after nightfall, especially on your own. Keep valuables hidden wherever possible and be vigilant about anyone you don’t know approaching you, even in daylight.
Besides the factors mentioned previously, such as flash floods in the wet season and thefts from public buses, the other consideration relates to more natural risks. Guatemala possesses a number of active volcanoes which have erupted a number of times in recent years. While these bubbling cauldrons of lava represent popular tourist sites, visitors should keep abreast of local news while nearby. In such a way you can avoid such areas if volcanic activity seems likely.
Note also that Guatemala is home to both malaria and Dengue Fever, so visitors should be certain of taking precautions against being bitten by mosquitoes – the vector for both diseases. A few considerations should entail wearing long sleeves and trousers, sleeping under a mosquito net in affected areas and considering the use of an insect repellent containing Deet.
Places to Visit
What with the past Mayan civilization, the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the surrounding jungle and mountains, Guatemala isn’t somewhere you’ll easily get bored. World-class experiences seem to await you around every corner and no single guide could hope to cover everything worth seeing.
That said, here are a few of our favourite sites that no visitors to Guatemala should return home without experiencing…
Situated in northern Guatemala, this extensive Mayan city is one of the best-preserved to be found anywhere in the Americas. First discovered by a gum-tapper, the extensive architectural complex and surrounding virgin rainforest now represent one of Guatemala’s most valuable UNESCO World Heritage sites and a major draw for tourists. The national park now covers 57,600 hectares and is notable both for its wildlife and historical importance.
Only discovered in 1926, this pre-Columbian Mayan settlement juts above the surrounding trees. Believed to date back to 6BC, some of the buildings reach up to 55 metres in height. Archaeologists are still exploring the area and trying to make sense of it, and there is plenty more work to be done. It is notable because unlike Tikal, the location of El Mirador is incredibly remote, and accessing it can be problematic. For the adventurous tourist this means far fewer other visitors, allowing one to soak up the atmosphere of what life must have been like for the Mayan population.
One of the best-preserved colonial towns in Central America, even today Antigua Guatemala is famed for its stunning Baroque architecture. Once the capital of Guatemala, the town oozes character and charm, as well as historical interest. Explore on foot, visiting the many religious and governmental buildings still standing here. Antigua also serves as a major jumping-off point for many other sites in the locality.
Far from a typical lake, Atitlan is a dead volcano. Since its last (and final) eruption, the mouth has slowly filled up the rainwater, and the surrounding cone has become a haven for plant and animal life. Now considered Central America’s deepest lake, reaching 340 metres in places, German explorer Alexander van Humboldt called it “the most beautiful lake in the world”. It’s perfect for hiking, birdwatching or even taking a boat ride across its 50 square miles of surface area.
Over 2,500 metres in height, Pacaya is considered Guatemala’s most active volcano. Ash and rubble is regularly expelled, and the volcano can be seen steaming away like an angry dragon from miles around. Take a guide and explore the surrounding countryside, or for the ultimate luxury consider joining one of the small planes that flies overhead for an “up close and personal” view of this gargantuan natural wonder.
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