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Guatemala
Guatemala
01.09.14

Bursting with beauty, color and culture, Guatemala is a gold mine for travelers. We’ve compiled these tips to help you explore this remarkable country, from how to shop and bargain to how to dress and what food to try.

Getting Around in Antigua

The colonial marvel of Antigua is easy to navigate on foot—most tourist destinations are located within 8 sq. blocks. You can buy a map at a local shop or from Inguat, the official Guatemala tourism office (2a. Calle Oriente #11). To make it easy, streets are numbered rather than named. Streets oriented east to west are designated as calles (streets), while those oriented north to south are known as avenidas (avenues).

If you need a ride, flag down a roving tuk-tuk (three-wheeled covered motorcycle) or look for a taxi along main routes and at Parque Central (Central Park). After 11 p.m., it’s best to catch a cab at the park if you’re heading away from the well-lit center. Always negotiate fares in advance, wherever you’re going.

Guatemalan Gastronomy

A wealth of wonderful edibles grow in Guatemalan soil. Be sure to visit local markets, cafés and restaurants, and go on a plantation tour to sample the following specialties in their freshest form:

  • Avocadoes: Antigua is the avocado capital of the country. Residents are nicknamed panzas verdes (green bellies) for the large amount of avocadoes they consume.
  • Cardamom: Guatemala is the world’s largest exporter of cardamom, a spice in the ginger family commonly used to flavor Arabian coffee.
  • Coffee: Guatemala’s largest export has eight regional varieties and more than 90,000 producers. Antigua prides itself on having the best coffee in the world. Tour a plantation to see how coffee is grown and produced.
  • Chocolate: Cocoa beans have been cultivated in Guatemala since Mayan times and were once valued as luxuries.
  • Macadamia nuts: Visit a local nut farm like Valhalla to taste delicious concoctions such as macadamia pancakes. Located outside Antigua, this nonprofit organic farm assists indigenous communities.

Specialty Souvenirs

A bounty of artisanal products make Guatemala a shopper’s paradise. The techniques used to make them and the patterns used to decorate them are handed down through multiple generations. Look for these specialties:

  • Basketwares: Artistry in the form of woven natural fibers dates back to Mayan times.
  • Ceramics: Available in glazed, painted and molded form. Antigua is the chief producer of molded ceramics, while Pastores and San Miguel Dueñas primarily generate painted ceramics shaped like fruit and vegetables.
  • Jade: Sacred to the ancient Maya, this gemstone is still prized in Guatemala. It’s commonly used in jewelry and reproductions of Mayan burial masks.
  • Leather: Look for bags, belts, satchels, suitcases and wallets.
  • Silver: Antigua and Santa María de Jesús are the key places for silversmithing—another craft handed down from the Maya.
  • Wooden crafts: Seek out furniture, kitchen utensils, candy boxes, religious figurines, masks, toys and musical instruments. Highland towns like Chichicastenango (Chichi), Quiché and Totonicapán specialize in creating wooden masks. Guatemala’s national instrument is the marimba (a wooden xylophone), which is produced in Huehuetenango and Quetzaltenango.
  • Woven textiles: The indigenous costumes of Guatemala are legendary, each design unique to a specific village. You can also find a dazzling array of colors in the form of carpets, wall hangings, bed covers, tablecloths, bags and fabric dolls.
  • Wrought iron: Good examples include colonial-style lamps, furniture, candlesticks and home décor. You’ll see the most elaborate forms in Antigua.

Negotiating a Price

Prepare to bargain when you shop at markets and street stalls. Start by asking around to gauge the average price of the item you want. While vendors may request double that price, you should begin negotiations at 50% below the average price. Knowing some Spanish (especially numbers) and having a grasp of both the quetzal (the local currency) and the current exchange rate will help. Don’t break down negotiations over a few quetzales, but don’t be afraid to walk away. Above all, be respectful—although negotiating may be just another travel adventure to you, this is how the vendors earn their living. Bring smaller bills (with larger ones tucked in a money belt) and a calculator if quick math isn’t your forte. Antigua generally has the highest prices.

What’s the Buzz?

Guatemala’s warm, humid climate and its location on the equator makes it a popular destination for mosquitoes—especially in the early mornings and evenings. Fortunately, most cities and tourist towns lie in the cool temperate zones at higher elevation, which have fewer mosquitoes. In fact, the buzzing bugs are rare in Antigua and practically non-existent in busy Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango (8,000 feet above sea level). Lowland areas (less than 4,920 feet) have the most activity. When you book a place to stay, be sure it has well-screened windows or air conditioning when possible. When climbing or hiking, use a tried-and-true insect repellent or cover up with long pants (convertible pants are ideal), long sleeves and socks. Consider a shawl for outdoor dining in places like Lake Atitlan.

Know Your Zone

Guatemala has three climate zones: tropical, temperate and cool. Pack according to which zone(s) you’ll visit. The country is generally casual—shorts, a skirt and one pair of pants with a few T-shirts and a cardigan mixed in will serve you well in most areas. Antigua and the smaller villages are very conservative, so don’t wear tank tops, strapless dresses, short shorts or mini skirts when visiting. If you’re planning to hike the popular Pacaya volcano, pack layers; the higher elevations can be cool and windy. Take a light jacket or rainproof windbreaker and be sure to wear comfortable hiking boots or walking shoes to navigate the loose, volcanic rock. You’ll also need good shoes to explore ruins such as Tikal. Take a poncho for afternoon showers, especially during the rainy season (May through October). Sandals are great for the more humid lowlands.

Spanish Schools

Guatemala has excellent language immersion programs all around the country. The colonial city of Antigua offers some of the best and most affordable programs in Latin America. Take half-day classes or full-day courses with one-on-one instruction or in a classroom setting, for a week, a month or longer. A basic understanding of the language will make it much more enjoyable to explore the vast number of cafés, restaurants, markets, churches and squares. You can also opt to stay with a Guatemalan family in a village if you’d rather be more remote. It’s a great way to learn Spanish while discovering the culture.

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