Thinking of traveling to Guatemala? Intrepid traveler and creator of Miles to Memories Shawn Coomer tells us how to stay safe, what to eat, what to pack and how to go beyond the guidebook in Guatemala.
1. Please tell us a bit about your experience in Guatemala. What brought you there and what kinds of experiences did you end up having?
I spent over two months in Guatemala as part of an 18-month family around the world trip. During that time, my wife, son and I traveled across the entire country and really learned to love it. The people are incredibly friendly and the culture is both fascinating and unique.
The main reason we decided to visit Guatemala was its reputation. We had heard from other families who had traveled there about just how wonderful it was. Not only was it a great place to take a child, but we soon learned just how wonderful of a place it was to both visit and live.
While traveling around the country was important, perhaps the best experience we had was settling down for a month in Quetzaltenango. During that month we rented an apartment, I studied Spanish at a local school. and we got to know the locals and really experienced a taste of Guatemalan life. It was fantastic!
2. What’s one of your favorite things to do in Guatemala you recommend that a person probably won’t find in their guidebook?
The Guatemalan guidebooks are full of great experiences like visiting Tikal or the market at Chichicastenango, but there is so much more. Perhaps my favorite off the beaten path experience in Guatemala was visiting the Church of the Black Christ in Esquipulas.
The Black Christ is one of the holiest figures in Catholicism. People make pilgrimages from all over the world to pray in its presence. While I am not Catholic, feeling and seeing the faith of the people visiting the statue was very powerful. In a way it is a great look into the local culture as most Guatemalans are Catholic.
In the end we traveled for hours out of our way to see the Black Christ and visit Esquipulas and it was worth it. While the town itself wasn’t anything special, the church is beautiful as are the people and their faith.
3. For those wanting to experience local Guatemalan culture, what’s a top experience recommendation?
Find a feria. Each town has its own fair at some point in the year so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one. Feria’s are a big deal in Guatemala and the locals love to party. Not only will you find games and rides, but the food is amazing and you will most likely not see another tourist.
We were lucky enough to spend Guatemalan Independence Day in Quetzaltenango. They happen to have their feria during that time and it is the largest in Guatemala. The party went on for a week with parades, concerts and of course the main fair which included rides and incredible food. It was amazing!
4. No trip to Guatemala would be complete without savoring the culinary culture. What’s your recommended food and drink pairing?
Guatemalan food isn’t the most sophisticated. For me, the best food in Guatemala is street food. Usually once the sun sets you will find street vendors on just about every corner. A good place to look is around churches as people tend to congregate there.
From fried chicken to tacos you can find almost any kind of food on the streets of Guatemala. In my opinion the best thing I had in Guatemala was pupusas. While pupusas originally came from El Salvador, the Guatemalans have made them their own. There were times when we would go to the central square of Quetzaltenango every night to eat one. Yum!
If you are looking for a drink, then Gallo beer is the best thing. Gallo is the local beer of Guatemala and is cheap, found everywhere and tastes decent. Even if you are not into beer, drinking a Gallo while eating a pupusa in the Central Parque is a very Guatemalan thing to do.
5. Where can one take in a spectacular view in the Guatemala?
The simplest place in Guatemala to get a great view is to climb a volcano. If you don’t have a lot of time in the country you can climb Volcan Pacaya which is near Guatemala city. For the most stunning view, go to Lago de Atitlan and climb one of the volcanoes there. The entire Lake Atitlan area is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen anywhere!
6. Tell us about one of your most memorable unexpected adventures in Guatemala.
In some ways when it comes to tourism, Guatemala is like the wild west. The tourist facilities outside of Antigua just aren’t there and the only foreigners traveling around are backpackers. This means that often times adventure can be found almost anywhere.
One time we set out on a four hour ride to a town called Lanquin. Lanquin is nearby what is described as a stunning natural pool complex called Semuc Chapney. During the drive to Lanquin it started to rain heavily and the mostly dirt roads were dangerous and almost washed out.
While we made it to Lanquin, the next day it continued to rain and the owner of our hotel said it was a very dangerous road and he didn’t recommend going. Since we had our son, we decided to turn back. It was another four hours of white knuckling on those horrible roads, but we made it to safety. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see Semuc Chapney. It was quite the adventure though.
7. What’s one must-pack item for those traveling to Guatemala?
I would say mosquito repellant. While the climate varies from the highlands to the coastal areas, mosquitoes are generally everywhere and there is some malaria. Other than that, maybe some Imodium as minor food poisoning is common. You can buy both of those things there.
8. What’s one thing that surprised you about Guatemala as a destination?
How safe it was. We had heard stories of the high crime rate in Guatemala and it certainly is jarring to see armed guards everywhere. That is just a way of life there. With that said, it isn’t more dangerous than some areas of the United States. If you use common sense and don’t go into bad areas at night, then things are fine. We never had a moment of feeling unsafe in over two months of travel in Guatemala.
9. What would you tell someone looking to travel to Guatemala but is nervous due to safety or cultural/language barriers?
Like I mentioned before, safety comes with common sense. Be sure not to bring fancy clothing or jewelry and don’t flaunt any expensive items. Outside of that make sure to stay in safe areas and don’t go anywhere at night that is abandoned or uncrowded. Antigua also has a tourist police force if that makes people feel more comfortable.
As for cultural/language barriers, they shouldn’t worry. You will always have barriers of some sort when traveling. The people of Guatemala are incredibly friendly. I have never felt as welcome anywhere as I have in Guatemala. While it is true that English speakers can be hard to find, people are willing to try to communicate.
10. While most have heard of Antigua, what’s one lesser-known destination in Guatemala you recommend that people may not have heard of?
While Lake Atitlan is somewhat well known, I highly recommend going there. The little towns along the shore are full of atmosphere and I could stare out at that lake with the volcanoes rising above it for days on end. It truly is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
If you want to get a taste of Guatemalan city life, Quetzaltenango or Xela as the locals call it is great as well. Xela is the country’s second largest city and spending a few days there provides a great look into Guatemalan city life without some of the dangers of the capital.
Featured image via Jessie Festa
About Shawn Coomer
Shawn Coomer has spent nearly a decade traveling around the world with his wife and son. Today he writes Miles to Memories and uses that first-hand knowledge and experience to teach others how to achieve their travel dreams for the least amount of money possible.