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10 Helpful Guatemala Travel Tips for First-Timers

10 Helpful Guatemala Travel Tips for First-Timers

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Are you visiting Guatemala for the first time? Check out these amazing Guatemala travel tips for first-timers that will save you stress!
This list of Guatemala travel tips was written by family travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links, which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.

I just got back from an epic trip to Guatemala on a small group tour with Travel on Purpose. It was my first time visiting Central America and I figured it would be helpful to go with a pro.

I learned a LOT of tips from my trip that I figured I’d share with you before I forget.

Keep scrolling for the top things I wish I had known before visiting Guatemala!

Helpful Guatemala Travel Tips for First-Timers

Planning a Trip to Guatemala

Planning a trip to Guatemala for the first time can be super exciting but also a bit overwhelming.

You might have heard different stories and be wondering, “Is Guatemala a dangerous country?” Well, like many places around the world, Guatemala has perfectly safe areas and others that are best avoided. The key to a great trip is knowing how to prepare and what to expect.

One of the best travel tips for Guatemala is to start by thinking about how much time you have for your trip and what you really want to do. Guatemala is a place of stunning landscapes, ancient ruins, and vibrant markets.

Image of Marcie Cheung at Tikal National Park in Guatemala
I’m so glad we planned a few days to explore Tikal! Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

Do you want to explore the mysteries of the Mayan temples? Or maybe you’re dreaming of paddling across the serene waters of Lake Atitlán? Once you know what excites you most, you can start building your adventure.

Another big tip for first-timers is to plan your Guatemala itinerary in advance. This doesn’t mean you need every minute scheduled, but having a good idea of where you want to go and how long you’ll spend there helps a lot.

This way, you can make sure you have enough time to see the things that matter most to you. Plus, knowing a bit about where you’re going helps you pack the right stuff and prepare for the trip.

How Long Do You Need in Guatemala?

When I first thought about traveling to Guatemala, I wasn’t sure how much time I needed to really see the place. After going there, I can tell you that I spent 10 days exploring, and it felt just right.

We visited the beautiful city of Antigua, took in the breathtaking views of Lake Atitlan, and marveled at the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal.

But if you’re not planning on visiting Tikal, you could still have a fantastic experience in Guatemala in just 7 days.

How to Get to Guatemala

Traveling to Guatemala for the first time was an adventure I’ll never forget. One of the first things you need to know is how to get there.

I took a red-eye flight straight into Guatemala City. Surprisingly, the airport there is pretty small, which worked in my favor. Landing at 6 a.m., I breezed through customs and immigration without any hassle or long lines.

Image of Marcie Cheung at Guatemala City airport
Here’s a glamorous selfie from when I arrived at Guatemala City airport. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

However, a heads-up from my experience – some of my friends who landed at night weren’t as lucky and ended up waiting over an hour to get through. Timing, it seems, can make a big difference.

If you’re looking to save money while planning your trip to Guatemala, consider booking your flight well in advance and be flexible with your travel dates. Flights in the early morning or late at night can often be cheaper than peak-hour flights.

Also, comparing prices across different airlines and using flight comparison tools can help you snag the best deal.

Getting Around Guatemala Without a Car

Getting around Guatemala without a car seemed daunting at first, especially since I was used to hopping in my car back home for just about anything.

But during my first trip to this beautiful country, I learned it’s totally doable and can actually save you a ton of money.

I was part of a group tour, which meant we had a private driver to take us to all the major spots on our itinerary. This was super convenient for the longer distances.

However, when we had free time in Antigua, the game changed. We really got a taste of the local way of getting around. Antigua is such a walkable city, with its cobblestone streets and vibrant markets, so we walked a lot.

But for those times when we were feeling a bit tired or needed to get somewhere quickly, we hired a tuk-tuk. These little motorized rickshaws are everywhere and they’re super affordable. Riding in a tuk-tuk is an adventure itself and lets you see the city from a different perspective.

Image of a chicken bus in Guatemala
We saw SO manu fun chicken buses all across Guatemala. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

We also learned about the famous chicken buses. We didn’t get to ride one, but I saw them zipping around Antigua. They’re these brightly painted buses that are a cheap and popular way for locals to get around.

I heard they can be pretty crowded and lively, but they’re definitely a budget-friendly option and offer a real slice of Guatemalan life.

Taxis and Ride Shares in Guatemala

When I first landed in Guatemala, I wasn’t sure how I’d get from the airport to our hotel in Guatemala City.

To my surprise, using ride shares like Uber turned out to be a great choice. I opened the app right after landing, and it was just as easy to use as back home. Plus, the ride was super affordable, which was a nice bonus after a long flight.

We didn’t try taking taxis, but I noticed they were pretty much everywhere, especially around the airport and in the city. From what I saw, taxis seemed like a reliable option too.

However, I was happy with the convenience and cost of using Uber, so we stuck with that for most of our city travels. It felt safe, and it was easy to track our trips and costs, which helped us manage our travel budget better.

Book Popular Guatemala Activities in Advance

Visiting Guatemala for the first time opened my eyes to a world of stunning attractions and exciting things to do.

One of the main reasons why I booked the Travel on Purpose tour was because our guide reserved some of the most popular Guatemala attractions in advance.

We participated in hands-on workshops with local artisans, and let me tell you, it was super cool! We got to learn traditional crafts right from the experts, creating memories and souvenirs that were both meaningful and unique.

Image of Marcie Cheung making body scrub with a young adult at Eden in Guatemala
This body scrub workshop at Eden was pretty special! Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

I’m incredibly glad we booked these workshops months ahead of our trip. It ensured we had a spot in these small, intimate experiences that really showed us the heart of Guatemala’s rich culture.

In addition to the artisan workshops, we did a walking tour of Antigua. Walking through the cobblestone streets, surrounded by colorful buildings and the breathtaking backdrop of volcanoes, was like stepping into a postcard. It was the perfect way to get to know the city’s history and hidden gems.

We even made reservations at some of the top restaurants in advance. Dining in Antigua offered us a taste of the delicious local cuisine, from traditional dishes to innovative meals that blended local ingredients in new ways.

Learn a Little Spanish

Some locals speak English because of the number of tourists who visit Guatemala. However, many people only speak Spanish.

Learning a few key phrases can go a long way. It will make everything much easier and show that you respect the local language and are making an effort.

Here are some phrases to start with before you travel to Guatemala:

  • Hola: Hello
  • Adiós: Goodbye
  • Por Favor: Please
  • Gracias: Thank You
  • Cuánto Cuesta?: How Much?

Money in Guatemala

When I first planned my trip to Guatemala, figuring out money was a big part of the preparation. Guatemala uses the Quetzal, which is their national currency.

Guatemala money, Quetzales paper banknotes, Creative currency business, banking and finance
I suggest grabbing some Quetzales from an ATM once you get to Guatemala.

Knowing the exchange rates really helped me budget my trip. At the time, 1 USD was equal to 7.8 Quetzals, 1 CAD was 5.75 Quetzals, 1 GBP was 9.91 Quetzals, and 1 EUR was 8.48 Quetzals. It made me feel like a math whiz, calculating how much things cost!

Having this info helped me understand how much I was spending and made sure I had enough quetzals for all the fun things I wanted to do in Guatemala.

Remember that a currency’s value is constantly fluctuating, so this can vary from day to day.

Dining in Guatemala Tips

During my first trip to Guatemala, I was super excited to dive into the traditional Guatemalan food and learn more about Guatemalan culture. And let me tell you, I was not disappointed!

The food here is amazing, and one thing you’ll notice is that avocados are a big deal. They’re in so many dishes and always taste incredibly fresh.

Image of a bowl of pepian stew
I got to try pepian at a local coffee farm and it was super tasty! Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

One of my favorite meals was something called “Pepian.” It’s this hearty stew with meat, vegetables, and a rich, spicy sauce. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted before, and it showed me how special and unique Guatemalan cuisine is.

Another dish that blew my mind was guacamole. Sure, I’ve had guacamole back home, but tasting it in Guatemala, where the avocados are picked right from the tree, was a whole new experience. It was so fresh and flavorful, served with crispy tortilla chips, making it the perfect snack any time of the day.

Eating out in Guatemala also gave me a peek into the local culture. People here take pride in their food, and there’s a sense of community and family that comes alive around meal times. Sharing a meal felt like an invitation into Guatemalan life, and I was here for it!

So, if you’re visiting Guatemala for the first time, my advice is to try as many traditional dishes as you can. From the rich flavors of Pepian to the fresh, creamy taste of local guacamole, there’s so much to discover.

Dining in Guatemala isn’t just about eating; it’s about experiencing the heart and soul of Guatemalan culture. And trust me, you’ll want to savor every bite.

Safety and Awareness in Guatemala

When I first told my friends I was planning a trip to Guatemala, the first question many of them asked was, “Is it safe to travel to Guatemala?” I had the same concerns and did a lot of research to make sure I would be okay.

What I learned is that, like any place, there are dangers in Guatemala, but there are also ways to stay safe and have an amazing trip. I didn’t feel more unsafe in Guatemala than I did when visiting Rome or Paris.

The key to making my visit to Guatemala safe was staying aware of my surroundings and following local advice.

For example, I made sure not to flash expensive jewelry or gadgets around, especially in crowded places where pickpockets might be. I also learned it’s best to avoid walking alone at night in areas that are not well-lit or that I didn’t know well.

I used trusted transportation options, like official taxis or ride-sharing apps, instead of just hopping into any car. And when exploring new places, I sometimes joined group tours or asked my hotel for advice on safe routes and areas to visit.

Another important tip was to always keep a copy of my important documents, like my passport, in a separate place from the originals. That way, if anything got lost or stolen, I wouldn’t be left without identification.

So, is Guatemala safe for travelers? My experience showed me that if you’re careful, aware of your surroundings, and follow safety tips, you can have a safe and enjoyable trip.

Guatemala is a beautiful country with so much to offer, and I’m really glad I didn’t let my fears stop me from experiencing it.

First-Timer’s Tips for Visiting Guatemala FAQs

Is Guatemala worth visiting?

Yes, Guatemala is definitely worth visiting! You’ll fall in love with its stunning landscapes, ancient Mayan ruins, and vibrant culture. You can explore beautiful lakes, volcanoes, and colorful markets here.

When is the best time of year to visit Guatemala?

The best time to visit Guatemala is during its dry season, from November to April. During these months, the weather is more pleasant, making it easier to explore the country’s natural and historical sites.

Where are the best places to stay in Guatemala?

In Guatemala, the best places to stay range from charming hotels in Antigua, cozy lodges by Lake Atitlán, to eco-friendly resorts in the Petén region near Tikal. You’ll find accommodations that suit every taste and budget.

What should I know before going to Guatemala?

Before going to Guatemala, you should know it’s important to respect the local culture and environment. Learning a few phrases in Spanish can also help you connect better with locals. It’s also good to be prepared for different weather conditions, as the climate can vary depending on where you are in the country.

Is it okay to travel to Guatemala right now?

Our group was totally fine in March 2024. It’s always best to check current travel advisories and conditions before planning your trip to Guatemala to ensure it’s safe to travel. The situation can change, so it’s important to have the latest information.

Should I bring quetzals to Guatemala?

While you can order some ahead of time from certain banks (like Bank of America), it’s also really easy to get some from ATMs once you arrive. That’s what I did.

How do tourists get around in Antigua?

In Antigua, tourists often get around by walking because it’s a small and walkable city. For longer distances, you can use tuk-tuks (small motorized rickshaws), taxis, or shuttles that connect to other popular destinations.

What are the must-see attractions in Guatemala?

The must-see attractions in Guatemala include the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, the stunning Lake Atitlán surrounded by volcanoes, and the vibrant market of Chichicastenango.

Is there tipping in Guatemala?

Yes, tipping is customary in Guatemala, especially in restaurants, where 10% is standard if a service charge isn’t already included in the bill. We tended to tip 15%-20%, like we would in the U.S. It’s also appreciated when tipping tour guides and drivers.

Where is Guatemala?

Guatemala is located in Central America, bordered by Mexico to the north and west, Belize to the northeast, and Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast. It has a coastline along both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Are US dollars accepted in Guatemala?

US dollars are widely accepted in Guatemala, especially in tourist areas. However, it’s good to have local currency (quetzals) for smaller purchases or in places less frequented by tourists.

What are some things tourists should be careful about in Guatemala?

Tourists in Guatemala should be careful about their personal belongings, as pickpocketing can happen in crowded places. It’s also important to be cautious when traveling at night and to use authorized transportation services. Drinking bottled water and protecting yourself from mosquitoes are other practical tips to stay healthy and safe.

What’s the drinking age in Guatemala?

The drinking age in Guatemala is 18 years old.

When in hurricane season?

Hurricane season in Guatemala usually runs from May to November. The rainy season in Guatemala typically runs from May to October.

Should I eat street food in Guatemala?

I didn’t want to risk getting stomach issues, so I didn’t. Personally, I’d suggest that you stick to restaurants and cafes.

When did Antigua become a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Antigua became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Guatemala Travel Tips for First-Timers Wrap-Up

I hope this helps you as you plan your perfect trip to Guatemala! I forgot to mention that I do recommend travel insurance for Guatemala (just like all tourist destinations) because you just never know.

Looking for more Guatemala travel resources? Check out 23 Best Places to Visit in Guatemala for the First Time, 25 Things to Do in Antigua, Guatemala for First-Timers, 24 Things to Know Before Visiting Tikal National Park in Guatemala, 5 Best Hotels in Antigua Guatemala Worth Booking, and 39 Incredible Things to Do in Lake Atitlan Guatemala!

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