8 Tips to Surviving (and Thriving) in Guatemala

By Cassidy Brewin, Christianson Grantee

For the past seven months I’ve been living and working in Guatemala with the support of an InterExchange Christianson Grant. As an Agriculture Research Fellow, I’m helping Semilla Nueva alleviate chronic malnutrition, which affects about 50% of the population.

Through my time here, I’ve learned the ins and outs of navigating this beautiful country and the best places to explore. Here are my top 8 recommendations for surviving and thriving in Guatemala.

Budget Travel Time

Budget Travel Time

Guatemala is a relatively small country (just a little smaller than the total area of Tennessee), however, traveling anywhere in the country will often take longer than you think.

Going from Guatemala City to La Antigua (the old capital and colonial town) will take, on average, about an hour despite Antigua only being 20 miles away. Always schedule extra time to get anywhere and save yourself the headache of missing a connecting bus or meeting.

Talk to Locals

Talk to Locals

Sometimes travelers tend to stick to the comfortable when traveling abroad. By "comfortable" I mean only talking and spending time with other travelers and staying on the tourist path.

Some of my most impactful moments in Guatemala have been time spent with local Guatemalans. Don’t let stereotypes and misconceptions of Guatemala being dangerous cloud your ideas and actions. Also, you’ll probably find some great, off-the-beaten track activities and sights from locals!

Get Outside

Get Outside

Guatemala has some of the best hiking and landscape in Central America -- take advantage of it! There are several amazing local tour groups that leave out of Guatemala City and La Antigua to climb volcanoes and explore cenotes (natural water pits, which form from the collapse of limestone bedrock) and ancient ruins like Tikal.

Local groups are an authentic way to explore the country. Plus, it’s a great way to make local friends!

Take the Chicken Bus

Take the Chicken Bus

Public buses, most commonly referred to as chicken buses, run throughout Guatemala and can take you almost anywhere. People may advise against them due to safety risks and lack of punctuality, but if you have the time, chicken buses can be an exciting and cheap way to travel.

On one of my first chicken bus rides, I sat between a woman transporting actual chickens and an elderly farmer while the bus driver blasted reggaetón music for the entire four-hour ride. Definitely memorable!

Try Pepián

Try Pepián

Guatemala isn’t known for its cuisine, but if you stop in to any a comedor (an inexpensive, casual place to eat) you’ll find lots of tasty options. My favorite is Pepián, a spiced chicken soup with camote (similar to sweet potatoes), onions, and other vegetables. It’s best served with rice and tortillas!

Ask for Agua Pura

Ask for Agua Pura

Don’t drink the tap water. Always ask for agua pura when ordering at a restaurant. Most places will have a garafundo or an eco-filter for drinking water. A bottle of water from a convenience store is five Guatemalan Quetzal, which is about US 67 cents.

Go to Guatemala City

Go to Guatemala City

A lot of people skip Guatemala City, but spend a few days here. I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how vibrant and welcoming it can be! My recommendation: spend time in Zone 4, a newer, artistic area with lots of great shops, restaurants, and events.

Visit Lake Atitlán

Visit Lake Atitlán

Lake Atitlán is one of the many natural wonders of Guatemala. It is said to be the heart of the Mayan World, and because of this, there is a high concentration of indigenous people around the lake.

Around the lake, women’s cooperatives demonstrate the process of creating woven textiles, paintings, wood carving, and beadwork. Learning and seeing these women honing and executing their craft is incredible, plus buying gifts from them makes sure the women are paid fairly for their work.

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