We spent 21 days in Guatemala and really enjoyed it, but we found some things about travelling there a bit frustrating.
Rio Dulce was slightly unplanned, and had we known we’d like it so much we would have knocked some nights off Antigua – as nice as it was, we stayed there far too long overall. The rest of the trip was nice enough, but with the distances involved we would have spent longer everywhere had our friend not had limited time. Late Atitlan especially could be enjoyed over a whole week, there is so much to do.
No visa is required for the majority of nationalities. You are issued with a CA-4 stamp which covers Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. This gives you 90 days for all 4 countries – it doesn’t reset when you cross a border.
We had to pay a small fee when entering from Belize, I think it was 20Q or the equivalent amount in USD.
All costs for 2 people over 21 days
Accommodation – £309.82
Eating Out – £346.11
Transport – £216.70
Attractions – £85.29
Groceries – £71.16
Alcohol – £31.03
Coffee/Drinks/Snacks – £27.57
Misc – £17.27
Laundry – £13.03
Shopping – £5.31
Total – £1,123.30
Per Day – £53.49
As I mention below, Guatemala costs more than we imagined. Also our friend was visiting us for a few weeks so we did splash out a bit for food which was well worth it. We also had tons of toiletries etc to replace and surprise surprise – that was all expensive in Guatemala.
£1 = 11.48 Quetzals
Dorm bed – 45Q – 125Q (£3.90 – £10.89)
Double room – 140Q – 325Q (£12.20 – £28.31)
Menu del Dia (set menu) at a local restaurant – 20-25Q (£1.74 – £2.18)
Average meal at tourist restaurant – 25-50Q (£2.18 – £4.36)
Big bottle of water – 6-15Q (£0.52 – £1.31)
Can of beer from supermarket – 5Q – 12Q (£0.44 – £1.05)
Beer from a bar – 11Q – 25Q (£0.96 – £2.18)
Chicken bus ride – usually under 10Q (£0.87)
Shuttle between 2 tourist destinations – 70Q – 150Q (£6.10 – £13.07)
We were surprised at how much Guatemala cost. It’s not expensive but it is also far from being ‘the cheapest country in Central America’ as it often claimed. Compared to Belize, yes but we found every other country to be generally cheaper aside from Costa Rica.
You can survive on relatively little if you eat local food all the time (if you can put up with the monotony), don’t drink alcohol and always take local transport but as I explain in the next few sections this is easier said than done.
I talked about the overcharging of tourists by small shops, in Antigua at least, previously.
Food & Drink
Guatemala was our first taste of the classic, famously bland Central American diet consisting mostly of rice and beans. Most budget meals include those 2 ingredients, plus tortillas, with grilled chicken being the overwhelming favourite meat though chorizo is common too.
It’s not bad food, and certainly the first few times it is quite tasty. But it gets old fast. So there’s no surprise people head for the tourist restaurants, which are a lot more expensive.
Fried chicken is unbelievably popular. KFC exists but has few restaurants, instead there is Pollo Campero, a local chain. The chicken is tasty but very greasy, again not something you’ll want to eat often.
Breakfasts are much the same – beans, grilled plantain, eggs and tortillas.
Drinking will cost you in Guatemala. A large can of tasteless Brahma is as little as 5Q in the supermarket but you will never pay that price in a small tienda, despite the supposed price being printed on the can. The national brand of beer is Gallo, but this always costs far more than Brahma.
In bars, in Antigua at least, you will be paying between 10 and 25Q for a beer.
Spirits however from the supermarkets can be quite good value. We especially liked the Jamaica liqueur which comes in small bottles and only cost 7Q.
Guatemala is not a huge country, so looking on the map it seems like you could get around fairly quickly. Wrong. Whatever method you use to get around, it will take a long, long time. Te roads are narrow and often not in great condition. Buses stop every 5 minutes for passengers and have very little urgency once they get going. None of this is new to us after a year of travel but it surprised us just how slow things were.
The main choice of transport by backpackers is the shuttles (minibuses) available for booking just about anywhere. These range from quite affordable to grossly, disgustingly overpriced – Antigua to Guatamala City springs to mind. It’s a journey of just over 45 minutes yet you can pay anywhere from 65 to 100Q. The chicken buses running this route have a bad safety reputation so everyone (including us) is scared into paying the shuttle monopoly. If we went again we’d just do the chicken bus – as long as you watch your belongings the risk on these buses is quite low.
The shuttles for longer distances are better value – you can get halfway across the country for the same price as Antigua to GC, and also are worth it to save your sanity. Chicken buses are fine for a few hours but if you have to take multiple ones throughout a whole day? There is no legroom for tall people like us and you are always squashed in like sardines. It’s an experience taking them, but rarely a pleasant one.
Pullman buses run between Guatemala City and Santa Elena (for Flores). You can buy these tickets yourself or they are included in a package which includes a shuttle to the departure point. Litegua and Fuente Del Norte were some we used. The buses are far more comfortable than chicken buses but a long way from luxury – they are falling to bits.
I believe the only internal flight you can take is between Guatemala City and Flores, so there is no way around the slow travel in much of Guatemala. If money is no object, this would be a good place to splash out on a private driver.
Guatemala was our first encounter with the ‘mega hostels’ that we’ve seen all throughout central and South America. They may well exist in Asia too but the difference there is that there is little reason to stay in a hostel there as accommodation is so much cheaper.
These hostels aren’t necessarily huge, but they do everything in house. They have a restaurant, bar, travel services, laundry etc. The only problem is that you pay far more for all of these things than you do outside the walls – yet they seem to be exceedingly popular. I don’t know if some backpackers in Guatemala aren’t comfortable with dealing with locals or what, but it all seems a bit like hand holding to us and a tiny bit lame.
There are also very strict no outside food and drinks policies at a lot of these places, yet what they serve is far more expensive than it should be. And they encourage people to use their travel services by insinuating that outside they may get ripped off – whereas the vast majority of the time the tours are identical.
It also means that a single foreign owned business is getting all of the custom, and the local businesses around suffer.
These mega hostels often have informal connections with each other, and provide booking services, such as Tropicana in Antigua, Los Amigos in Flores and Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin. This means huge swathes of people just move between these places not bothering to see if there are better alternatives (there usually are).
I’m not saying all these places are bad to stay in – the dorms are usually good value (since they make their money elsewhere) but something about the backpacking culture in Guatemala irked me a bit. Give us a simple good value hostel with no bar and plentiful social areas any day! Sorry about the rant!
All this probably sounds like we hated Guatemala right? That couldn’t be further from the truth. The travel, food and accommodation might be a giant pain in the arse at times, but it’s all worth it to see what the country has to offer. Antigua was beautiful, Lake Atitilan was serene, Tikal was one of the best temple complexes we’ve visited and Semuc Champney was out of this world.
Away from the ‘big 4’ there is still more that we would have liked to have seen – Livingston, up the river from Rio Dulce for example. Also Xela, the second biggest city and a great places to learn Spanish. And El Mirador, the lost city in the jungle which requires a 5 day hike to access.
It’s a great country, and probably the most attraction filled in Central America. We highly recommend it.