Known as 'the land of eternal spring', Guatemala is blessed with balmy and stable temperatures year round. Most of the country enjoys warm or hot days with mild or cool evenings. The altitude determines local climate: the highlands (Guatemala City, Antigua, Atitlán) have a temperature range of 18-24C; temperatures in the lowlands (Peten) range from 22-34C, and it can be very humid.
December to March is the busiest time in terms of tourists. The rainy season starts in May and ends in November, but this mostly entails sunny mornings with rain late in the afternoon. However, June and July are often dry and clear and are also a popular time to visit. September and October are the wettest months.
Every town and village has at least one fiesta day or sometimes a week every year, usually dedicated to the local saint. In Ladino areas this could involve a fair, processions, marching bands and late-night salsa and merengue dancing. In the Maya highlands you'll see traditional dances and musicians with amazing costumes. The Caribbean fiestas are hedonistic carnivals as befits their different tradition. Huge quantities of alcohol are common to all, as is unbounded energy and enthusiasm.
The most important dates are:
January 1: New Year's Day, public holiday
January 12-15: Flores fiesta
1st Friday in Lent: Antigua fiesta
Semana Santa: Easter, or Holy Week, is huge throughout Guatemala, particularly in Antigua, and it's advisable to book travel and accommodation well in advance. Santiago de Atitlán is worth visiting at this time to see the cigar smoking saint Maximon paraded through the streets
May 1: Labour Day, marked in Guatemala City by marches and protests, public holiday
June: Corpus Christi celebrations
June 30: Army Day, anniversary of the 1871 revolution, public holiday
July 25: Santiago fiesta in Antigua and Santiago de Atitlán
August: Many fiestas in highland areas
August 15: Guatemala City fiesta
September 15: Independence Day, public holiday
October 2-6: Panajachel fiesta
October 12: Discovery of America, public holiday
October 20: Revolution Day, public holiday
November 1: All Saints Day, public holiday
November 26: Garifuna Day in Livingston
December 7: 'Burning of the Devil' sees men dressed up as devils chase around highland towns
December 13-21: Large Chichicastenango fiesta
December 25: Christmas Day, public holiday
December 31: New Year's Eve
Note: flight, boat, train and bus timetables change constantly, and airlines come and go, so please do not rely solely on this information for your travel planning. Check with relevant companies, or a flight search engine like Skyscanner, first.
There are few direct flights to Guatemala from Europe; most traffic is via the United States. For Antipodeans the choice is either to fly via the US or Mexico City. Usually visitors arrive by plane to Guatemala City's La Aurora International Airport (GUA).
A direct flight to Guatemala from Europe is only available from Madrid on Iberia. Otherwise your best bet is to connect via US hubs on a US airline (see below).
From the USA and Canada:
Continental Airlines has nonstop flights from Houston and Newark, American Airlines has nonstop flights from Miami and Dallas/Fort Worth, and Delta Air Lines has nonstop flights from Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Central American-owned Grupo Taca operates nonstop flights from Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, plus flights from Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Washington DC, New York, San Francisco and Toronto with a stopover in San Salvador.
From elsewhere in Latin America:
Grupo Taca has flights from various locations in Latin America to Guatemala City and Guatemala's only other international airport, Flores (FRS). Tropic Air operates flights to Flores from Belize City.
Some travellers will arrive overland. There are several routes through Mexico, the best being along the Carretera Interamericana (Pan-American Highway) through Oaxaca and San Cristóbal de las Casas to the border crossing at La Mesilla, and on to the western highlands and Huehuetenango. There are also several border crossings into Peten via Tenosique and El Naranjo, Frontera Corozal and Bethel. Alternatively, there are a number of entry and exit points south - the Carretera Interamericana exits towards Santa Ana in El Salvador and the point of entry into Honduras is via Esquipulas or Copan.
Guatemala has no passenger trains and only the rich few can afford cars, so nearly everybody travels by fume-filled, overcrowded and very colourful 'chicken buses'. Westerners tend to travel most by tourist shuttles and the odd internal flight, but it's worth taking a chicken bus at least once for an authentic experience of Guatemala.
This is by far the most common method of transport internally. Chicken buses, easily identified by gaily painted bodywork and noxious fumes, tend to leave when the bus is full. Travel can be slow and uncomfortable but never dull, with all ages clinging on as the driver hurtles round corners. Catch them at bus terminals or by hailing one along the road. The express buses are quicker and more punctual, with fewer stops. These vary hugely between companies, but they're your best bet for travelling longer distances along main routes e.g. Guatemala City to Río Dulce.
Shuttle buses are increasingly popular. These fast, non-stop services are geared to tourists and connect main tourist centres, conveniently collecting passengers from their hotels. They're more expensive than public buses. Most hotels and tour operators can also arrange private minibus transfers on request.
The most common internal flight is the 50-minute shuttle from Guatemala City to Flores and back again. You can book your flights through any travel agent in the country, or via your tour operator - Taca-owned Inter is the main carrier. You can also fly to several other destinations internally, but the distances aren't great and cancellations are frequent. Charter airlines fly to outlying airstrips given sufficient demand.
Driving around Guatemala is certainly possible, with relatively empty (although patchy) roads and friendly locals, but bear in mind it's expensive, and parking and security will be your biggest concerns. A good working knowledge of Spanish will help your cause. Petrol stations are scarce outside the main roads so it's worth stopping to fill up when you see one. See our car rental recommendations.
BY BIKE AND MOTOBIKE
Bikes are quite common in Guatemala, and cycling is a popular sport. Chicken buses will carry bikes on the roof, most towns have a repair shop, and it's a great way to see the country if you have the energy to climb through the highlands. You can rent bikes in Antigua and Panajachel. Motorbikes are less common and locating parts and mechanical expertise can be a problem. You can rent them in Guatemala City, Panajachel and Antigua.
Ferries operate between Puerto Barrios and Livingston on the Caribbean coast, and connect Puerto Barrios with Belize. Boats are useful in Peten along rivers, as well as on Lake Peten Itza between Flores and villages on the opposite shore. Unmissable boat trips include the Río Dulce gorge between Livingston and Río Dulce, and volcano-encircled Lake Atitlán.
Citizens of Europe, North America and Australasia only need a valid passport for a stay up to 3 months. Passport holders from a few countries, like South Africa, also need a tourist card available at the point of entry. Most African and Asian citizens need a visa.
There's no charge to enter the country, although some border officials have been known to ask for a fee of around 10Q. Asking for un recibo (receipt) usually prevents payment. To extend your 90-day visit, go to the immigration department in Inguat (tourist information) in Guatemala City, or simply cross the border and re-enter.
HEALTH & SAFETY
The vast majority of travellers leave Guatemala without experiencing any health problems at all. There are no obligatory inoculations unless you're arriving from a high-risk area, however it's recommended that you're up to date with your typhoid, hepatitis A, tetanus and polio vaccines. You could also consider diphtheria and tuberculosis jabs. Plan ahead for immunisations.
Malaria is a hazard in lowland areas (below 1,500m), so take your doctor's advice as to whether you require anti-malarial medication. Dengue fever can also occur in some lowland areas. Make sure you take precautions against being bitten by mosquitoes. Antihistamines are well worth bringing along if you're susceptible to bite allergies.
The most likely complaint is diarrhoea, usually from a change of diet rather than encountering anything too unhygienic. The best cure is to drink plenty of bottled water and eat bland food. If symptoms persist over a few days you should seek medical advice - the local consulate or tourist office of the town you're in can usually recommend someone reliable (who will expect to be paid in cash). Most antibiotics can be bought over the counter at a chemist (make a note of any medication which you're allergic to).