The unit of currency is the Quetzal, plural Quetzales. When we were there (November 2010) the exchange rate was roughly 10 Quetzales to £1, making quick calculations about costs very easy for us. However taking sterling isn’t a good idea as few places will change it. Indeed, one of our local guides asked if we would do him the favour of changing some pounds he’d been given as a tip by previous British clients into Quetzales as he hadn’t been able to do so (we were happy to oblige, simply withdrawing some Quetzales at an ATM and bringing the sterling home with us).
It’s better instead to take US dollars. They are easy to exchange, and many places that cater to tourists will accept them as an alternative to Quetzales, although at a rough and ready exchange rate. In Antigua we changed money in a bank on the Playa Union, in Panajachel we used the exchange facility in one of the small shops on Calle Santander, and in both places we got a very similar exchange rate (and with the bonus of no commission in the shop). ATMs are also reasonably plentiful in the towns, but don’t count on finding one in smaller places.
Guatemala is a land of volcanoes, at least in the south, where the Guatemalan Highlands form part of the Ring of Fire along the Pacific Rim. Some are extinct, some dormant but some very definitely active. In May of this year Pacaya erupted, killing at least two people, injuring more than 50, and covering parts of Guatemala City in ash up to 7cm (2.7in) deep. Although we didn’t experience anything that dramatic (thankfully) we did see Fuego, near Antigua, puffing away quite vigorously at times – this photo was taken from the road to the north of the city.
Fondest memory: When not posing a threat, Guatemala’s volcanoes are beautiful additions to the landscape. You will see three of them encircling the old city of Antigua, offering tantalising glimpses from almost any street corner (see photo two), and another three standing guard over Lake Atitlàn (photo three). Antigua’s threesome are Acatenango, Agua (“water”) and Fuego (“fire”), while Atitlàn is home to the volcano of the same name as well as San Pedro and Toliman.
If you’re interested in reading more about Guatemala’s volcanoes check out the Goto-Guatemala website for much more information about them, or see the good map here.
We quickly developed a taste for the local beers. One, Gallo, is a light easy-drinking lager that went down very well with spicy food and in the hotter weather. But we liked Moza, made by the same brewery, even more – a dark beer (“cerveza oscura”) with bags of flavour but not too intense for lunch-time drinking. It gets rave reviews on some websites too, so it seems we are not alone!
We sadly never got around however to trying the local “beer cocktail”, Michelada which is a mix of tomato juice, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, salt, pepper and lime juice with beer – a sort of beer-based Bloody Mary, it seems. I saw it on several menus in Antigua, planned to try it sooner or later, then suddenly found we’d moved on to the north of the country and it was no longer, it seemed on offer (or at least not in Tikal’s Jungle Lodge, where we stayed). Something to go back for ...
The colourful costumes and lively street scenes are not only a source of fascination but will also inspire you to want to take innumerable photos – or at least they did me. Bear in mind though that not everyone wants to be photographed just because of their interesting outfit – after all what fascinates us is just normal to them. Your options are:
1. ask nicely and if refused walk away
2. ask nicely and offer a small tip, or if your subject is selling handicrafts, make a small purchase in return for the photo
3. photograph from behind, as the costumes can look just as good that way (see the photo in my “Carrying the baby” Local Customs tip for an example)
4. use a good zoom and look for opportunities to take candid shots
I admit I did all three, and for option 4 I found the best chances came when people were absorbed in another activity, usually commercial – either selling their crafts to tourists, or haggling over prices in local markets.
The photos here reflect these different approaches. Photo one was taken in Santiago Atitlàn and is an “option 2” shot – the lady posed for us and we bought a key ring from her. Photo two is clearly an “option 3” shot, and photos three to five were all taken furtively with a zoom!
As we only had two weeks available in which to see something of both Guatemala and Belize we decided to pre-book accommodation and transfers rather than spend valuable holiday time making arrangements on the ground. OK it can cost more that way, but at least we would know for sure what our costs were going to be (apart from the inevitable shopping and even more inevitable drinking!)
Through UK-based Journey Latin America we were able to access the services of tour agency STP in Guatemala, and we were so pleased with everything they did for us. If we return to the country we will certainly use them again, and will book directly with them.
In fact I would say that STP were probably the best local tour company we've dealt with during many years of travelling. All their representatives were polite, friendly, informative and couldn't do enough to help. They had helpfully changed our Lake Atitlàn hotel after some problems with the one we had booked (refurbishments after a hurricane had affected the service and other clients hadn't been happy) and we were very satisfied with the alternative they found us, the better-located Posada de Don Rodrigo in Panajachel. Transfers with Jorge, Xavier and Miguel were all efficient and enjoyable, and Xavier even took us on an unscheduled whistle-stop tour of Guatemala City en route to the airport for our Flores flight, while Miguel turned our half-day tour of Tikal into the best part of a day, taking us to several places where we were the only visitors.
Overall the STP reps definitely helped to make our visit to Guatemala even more of a pleasure than it might have been, and I can’t recommend them too highly. Please have a look at their website below if you are considering a trip to Guatemala.
Miguel Asturias won the Nobel Laureate in 1967. His novels, such as El Presidente, will prepare your imagination for Guatemala.
See what I mean in the brief excerpt below:
Fondest memory: "The imagination reels. There are reliefs, pyramids, temples in the extinguished city. The damp murmur of the arroyos, voices, crepitations of the intertangling vines, the sound of flapping wings, trickle into the immense sea of silence. Everything palpitates, breathes, exhausting itself in green above the vast roof of Peten."
Miguel Angel Asturias, The Mirror of Lida Sal: Tales Based on Mayan Myths & Guatemalan Legends, p. 13-14.
Exploring rural dirt roads (wait for a pickup) that branch off from the highways and seeing where they go.
Fondest memory: Guatemala has a lot of newly settled territory where government services, schools, clinics and administrators barely keep up with the many small settlements, farms and ranches. Small gifts are helpful.
Before you clamber up a pyramid-
Before you get too far up-
Take a good look down and soberly consider your ability to get back down.
You can see here that the width of the step is maybe 10 cm (about 4 inches)
Your view looking up from the bottom is deceiving and you'll discover the view is dizz-ing-ly different when looking down from the top.
The Maya bound prisoners of war and tossed them from the summit of the pyramid to their deaths-
This photo is from IXIMCHE which is on the Pan American Highway about 20 kilometers east of Solola/Panajachel/Lago Atitlan. See the travelogue on my GUATEMALA home page.
UNLESS PROHIBITED, as it is here, Guatemala's male citizens may use almost any available wall for relief ***.
THE BILLBOARD above for Belmont cigarettes is typical of the advertising campaigns that blanket the roads nation-wide with light skinned and scantily clad women with marketing messages aimed at Westernized Ladino men.
THE UPPER of the two painted notices (apparently more effective than the prohibition on urinating) prohibits drivers (other than Luciano's) from parking their trucks and buses here.
*** I have heard claims that in Mexico this custom is a right written into the Constitution (!) Non-citizens may not have the same freedom as citizens.
Guatemala is slightly smaller than the US state of Tennessee. The 2002 population estimate is 13.3 million people. The indigeous population is 43% of the total.
The Flag contains the coat of arms with a green and red quetzal bird and a scroll. That bird is a national symbol and can be more easily found in the Petén region to the north.
I called travel agencies I saw on-line and decided that the one who responded quickest whenever I had a question would be the one I would choose. After I emailed, I got a quick response from Alejandro Tez of Turansa Tours. His email was clear and I asked questions and he answered within 24 hours. My next test was to see if they answered their phone calls, and I did get to talk with him. And my tours in Guatemala were all well-arranged and very professionally handled.
The vouchers are sent by email but the originals were given to me once I was picked up from my hotel during my first tour. I also make sure that the agency has a 24 hour hotline and Turansa did have a 24 hr phone at (502) 5651-2284. They do have a nice website at www.turansa.com
I even got to meet Alejandro Tez himself when I went to Antigua since the driver had to go to the office first (5a Calle Oriente #10-A Tels (502) 7832-2928, 7832-4691. It was nice to see an office where people seemed to know each other well and they smile.
There are of course other tour agencies in Guatemala and my hotel offered tours at the lobby. But I noticed that there was always nobody there when I arrived late at 10PM and even when I was back from my tours at about 6 PM. So, I always like to pre-arrange everything for tours before I arrive in a place that I am not familiar with.
Turansa did accept my payment by credit card through their secure website. The other agencies who emailed me wanted me to fax my credit card details I think which I was not comfortable with. I paid about 3,628 Quetzals (I think divide by 7-8 for US dollars – about $432) for both my tour to Tikal (with plane) and then the Antigua whole day tour. In the Antigua tour, I was the only tourists and so I had the whole van for myself (driven by Wilfrido) and the guide (Leo) also did a great job.
UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE!
In 2012, there was talk of the end of the world!
(which did not happen of course,
otherwise you would not be reading this)
So I made a little video of my short trip to Tikal, haha
Hope you like it:
JUMPING NORMAN IN TIKAL, GUATEMALA!
Without a doubt my favorite thing about Guatemala is Panajachel (or rather, San Marcos....see below). It is really like another world when you arrive. The city itself is a fairly busy city with people always moving around, buses roaring past and Mayan women following you trying to sell something. However, even though so much (all) is guatemalan in every aspect, there is something particular about Panajachel. Beyond Panajachel is San Marcos, a small town about 20 min ride from Pana. This place is my most favorite of the entire area. It is so quite and so peaceful, you would think that you were in paradise.
Fondest memory: The posada I stayed in while in San Marcos creates the greatest memories I have of that place. I stayed there a few times and it was amazing everytime. I guess I would say my fondest memory was when Steve and I sent there for the weekend just to 'get away from it all.' (I was living,at the time, in Guatemala in a small town called Mazatenango-not recommended for visiting...). I had so much fun there, and in the evening, after an amazing dinner, we went a layed on the docks. There are these trees that kinda loom over the docks, and at night there are fire flies in them. That night there must have been a billion. It looked like christmas lights that were twinkling all over through the trees, it truely was breathtaking. (then we managed to catch one....).
I must add that the people of San Marcos are as precious as the place itself. There are always small boys playing around the dock, willing to take you to a posada (of which there are 3) or just talk to you. They speak Spanish and their Mayan language, which they love to teach to passers-by. I had many good laughs trying to learn and remember what they taught me, and theyt hought it was great.
Spread across a verdant and mountainous chunk of land, Guatemala is endowed with simply staggering natural, historical and cultural interest. Though the giant Maya temples and rainforest cities have been long abandoned, ancient traditions remain very much alive throughout the Guatemalan highlands. Uniquely in Central America, at least half the country's population is still Native American, and this rural indigenous culture is far stronger than anywhere else in the region. Countering this is a powerful ladino society, characteristically urban and commercial in its outlook. All over the country you'll come across remnants of Guatemala's colonial past, nowhere more so than in the graceful former capital, Antigua.
It's this outstanding cultural legacy, combined with Guatemala's mesmeric natural beauty, that makes the country so compelling for the traveller. The Maya temples of Tikal would be magnificent in any arena but set inside the pristine jungle of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, with attendant toucans and howler monkeys, they are bewitching. Similarly, the genteel cobbled streets and plazas of colonial Antigua gain an extra dimension from their proximity to the looming volcanoes that encircle the town. This architectural wealth is scattered to a lesser degree throughout the country – almost every large village or town boasts a giant whitewashed colonial church and a classic Spanish-style plaza. Though most of the really dramatic Maya ruins lie deep in the jungles of Petén, interesting sites are scattered throughout the land, along the Pacific coast and in the foothills of the highlands.
The diversity of the Guatemalan landscape is astonishing. Perhaps most obviously arresting is the chain of volcanoes (some still smoking) that divides the flat, steamy Pacific coast from the cool air and pine trees of the largely indigenous western highlands, with their green, sweeping valleys, tiny cornfields, gurgling streams and sleepy traditional villages. Further east towards the Caribbean, the scenery and the people have more of a tropical feel and at Lívingston, life beside the mangrove and coconut trees swings to reggae rhythms and punta rock.
The rainforests of Petén, among the best preserved in Latin America, harbour a tremendous array of wildlife, including jaguars, tapirs, spiders, howler monkeys, jabiru storks and scarlet macaws. Further south, you may be lucky and catch a glimpse of the elusive quetzal in the cloudforests close to Cobán or see manatee in the Río Dulce. On the Pacific coast three types of sea turtle nest in the volcanic sand beaches of Monterrico.
All of this exists against the nagging background of Guatemala's turbulent and bloody history. Over the years, the huge gulf between the rich and the poor, between indigenous and ladino culture and the political left and right has produced bitter conflict. With the signing of the 1996 peace accords between the government and the ex-guerrillas, the armed confrontation has ceased and things have calmed down considerably, though many of the country's deep-rooted inequalities remain. At the heart of the problem is the red-hot issue of land reform – it's estimated that close to seventy percent of the cultivable land is still owned by less than five percent of the population. There is also a chronic lack of faith in the corrupt and inept justice system, which has led to a wave of public lynchings of suspected criminals across the country. At the same time the economy was destabilized badly by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and is still chronically weak. Guatemala remains heavily dependent on the export of coffee, sugar and bananas and has very little industry except the foreign-owned maquila factories which produce goods for export and typically pay their assembly-line workers under US$5 for a twelve-hour day. Poverty levels are some of the worst in the hemisphere and there's general discontent with the high cost of living.
Despite these structural inequalities, you'll find that most Guatemalans are extraordinarily courteous, and eager to help a lost foreigner catch the right bus or find the local post office. Guatemalans tend to be less extrovert than other Central Americans and are quite formal in social situations. Many will automatically assume you are wealthy, since very few Guatemalans ever get to visit another country. Though you may hear complaints about rising prices, endemic corruption and the lack of decent jobs, this is not to say that Guatemalans are not patriotic and sensitive to criticisms from outsiders.
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