Things to Know About Guatemala!
I am a female, travelling solo around Guatemala. It is simple and safe. I spent 9 weeks in many different areas from October 2016-January 2017, moving around on chicken buses, collectivos, taxis, tuk tuks, shuttles, lanchas and coaches. I do a lot of research and reading about where I am and where I'm going and I have to say, I am disillusioned with what information is available.
It's easy to get around! There are always shuttles going between the tourist areas. Hotels and hostels are plentiful, as are tourist agencies. They all seem to be connected and have basically the same information. There aren't hordes of tourists here so it's easy to book trips and tours. I panicked when I couldn't find information about shuttles between Guatemala Ciudad and Rio Dulce, Rio Dulce to Lanquin and Lanquin to Flores. When I found a travel agency in Antigua that could sell me tickets for all three, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I bought my tickets on the spot but found out as I travelled that they were readily available along the way. Lesson learned? Don't panic. There will be transport, there will be hotels, there will be tours.
The quetzal is the country currency but the U.S. dollar is widely accepted, in fact prices are often given in U.S. dollars. I found the prices only slightly cheaper than in Canada and this surprised me. I thought I was coming to a bargain place, like in Asia, but no, not even close.
I am finding that guide books can be misleading. Of course they are only a few people's opinions, based on their personal experiences and not always current. There are tons more hotels than those featured in the books and on the hotel booking sites. For sure during Semana Santa, a reservation is required but the rest of the year - I would say not. I would suggest having one night booked but leaving the rest of the nights open in case the hotel isn't to your liking. As a solo traveller, I thought I needed to know where I was staying, so I booked all my lodging in advance. When I had to slightly change my plans a month later, the prices had dramatically increased so, the sooner one books, the cheaper the rates.
I like using 'what to do in....' websites but again, the reviews and suggestions are people's opinions, based on their moods, requirements and experiences. They are not always written from an open point of view. New travellers have different perspectives than more experienced travellers and this is usually reflected in the review. I like to use the sites only to make a list of what to see and do. I don't read the reviews, I make my decision after I've read about the site itself on its own website, not on other people's viewpoints.
I also read and heard from non travellers that maybe Central America isn't safe. Well, I haven't had one second of trouble, nor have I ever felt afraid. I think being safe is about having common sense. Don't go to the rubby parts of town! You wouldn't do it where you live so why do it while travelling? If it's late at night, don't go out alone. Would you do that at home? Keep your important documents: cash and passport in a money belt that you wear UNDER your clothes, tucked into your underwear. Have a Pac-safe locked to some place permanent in your hotel room so you can keep your documents safely locked up when you're staying somewhere a few days so you don't have to carry them.
Food is typico - not really what I'm used to eating. Tortillas are served during all three meals. I find them soooo bland - why not add a bit of sugar or salt? The only way I ate them was with a little jam! Eggs and refried beans make up breakfast. Meat usually means chicken and is often available at roadside and sidewalk stalls. Women barbecue with wood and the food is super fresh. There are vegetables in the markets but I'm not sure who eats them. Unless eating in a 'fancier' restaurant, salads aren't even on the menu! Often spaghetti and rice will be served with tortillas at a meal! Carbs, carbs, carbs! Apples are popular but are expensive because they are imported. Coffee is generally instant but beans are plentiful (I always travel with a French press). Cereal will probably be Corn Flakes and bread is white.
Clothing is culturally traditional so differs from region to region. Women wear long skirts with matching blouses. Each province has its own colours and patterns. I saw few men in traditional dress. Most wear blue jeans and button short sleeved shirts or t-shirts.
Guatemala is well known for its Spanish schools. I studied in 3 different areas of the country: Antigua - Antiguena Spanish School. Sheny Garcia was my teacher and she was excellent! Communicativa in San Pedro La Laguna and Sol Latino in Quetzaltelango where Magdelena was my teacher. I would definetly recommend all three with homestays. They are cheap, you don't have to cook or clean and hopefully you have an opportunity to experience typical family life.
The people are really friendly and helpful but it is a good idea to know some Spanish. Many tribal languages are also spoken and I found this confusing at first. I wondered why I couldn't understand what I was hearing and how was I ever going to learn? Then I realized that they weren't speaking Spanish at all!
I have loved my time in Guatemala! There is a lot to see and do, the Spanish schools are excellent, local transport is easy and cheap, and the weather is very comfortable. I would definitely recommend a visit to this great country!