"Guatemala" means the land of many
trees. Indeed, it once was just that. Today, pine, oak,
and fur trees have been cleared and replaced with farmland,
in most states. The northern third of Guatemala, or
Peten, remains a vast, sparsely settled region of swamps,
hardwood forests, grassy plains, and jungle; wild boars,
jaguars, and monkeys, but is also arguably threatened.
A local logging program that has been in place for the
last 12 years has had fervent support from many U.S.
environmental agencies because it is thought to educate
rural community members on responsible forestry. The
program has had Guatemalan government support also,
probably based mostly on economic factors. Until now
there has been minimal concern for the Maya ruins, El
Mirador, in Peten. Richard Hansen, an archeologist from
UCLA, is now bringing attention to the issue of conserving
the ruins. Hansen is trying to gain financial support
for the development of a luxurious eco-lodge near El
Mirador, which would bring logging in the immediate
area to a halt. Hansen’s goal would be to preserve
the ruins, the forest, and employment for locals, via
tourism jobs. Whether this happens or not is still to
be determined. Meanwhile, Outside Magazine says that
95% of the people in Peten are against Hansen’s
efforts, and the country continues to run its sustainable
logging program and reap the financial rewards of its
timber through the global market.
A Brief History
Guatemala’s history is all about the
Maya. Mayan ruins “centers” were spread
across Peten until the 9th century A.D.
The Mayan, whose writing
system was the most advanced in the Americas during
their time, left their mark via hieroglyphic writing,
sculptures and a progression of pottery. The Mayan lasted
the longest and the left the most signs of their existence
of any culture in Central America. Their kingdom lasted
from 1000 to 300 B.C. One of the most impressive signs
of the Maya is their building development. Today, we
know that the Maya didn’t use wheels in the practical
sense, but carried such stones as limestone on their
backs, to create massive structures, such as the temple
pyramids in Tikal.
The Maya built elaborate
cities just about everywhere on most any kind of terrain.
In addition to buildings, Maya eventually mastered crop
engineering, turning swamps into flourishing fields
yielding corn, yams, ramon nuts, and forest fruits.
Other cultures that flourished
in other parts of Mesoamerica were the Toltec, Olmec,
and Mixtec. Today, the people of Guatemala include Ladinos,
Indians, Red Caribs, and Black Caribs, the history of
which is quite intricate.
An interesting history
fun fact…the currency of the Maya is thought to
have been cacao beans.
Areas of Guatemala
Guatemala City, aka, “la capita”
is “la central” to many travelers; a base
camp of sorts for seeing the many sites spread throughout
the country, including Indian villages. Visitors should
consider spending some time in Guatemala City to learn
about the government before exploring the rest of the
The Western Highlands are the most densely populated
of the areas of Guatemala, and is home to most of the
Indian population. Adventure enthusiasts seek out the
peaks of the Sierra Madre and Cuchumatanes. The area
is temperate, near tropical valleys, and lined with
volcanoes along the Pacific coast. It is here, 65 kilometers
west of Guatemala City, that Lake Atitlan lays, surrounded
by volcanoes. In the Western Highlands travelers can
venture up mountain roads, through villages along the
lakeshores, and into valleys abundant with trees, streams
and communities. These routes present visual gifts of
plateau vistas featuring corn and wheat plantations,
whitewashed adobe houses with red tiled roofs, and people
dressed in traditional clothing.
Costa Sur, a highlight of the Pacific Lowlands, sits
along the southern coast of Guatemala, with volcanic
black beaches along the Pacific Ocean. Rivers abound
in the Lowlands, more than 50 kilometers inland.
Temperatures are over
100 degrees Fahrenheit at any time of the year in the
Lowlands, which makes for a lush environment with elaborate
vegetation, huge trees, flowers, tropical birds and
vibrant colors. Cattle herds and sugar cane fields abound
The Lowlands offer important
archaeological sites, and displays of vestiges of pre-Columbian
The Caribbean Lowlands
Northeast of Guatemala City are the Caribbean Lowlands.
The long valley of the Motagua River runs through fields
of cattle and banana all the way to the Caribbean at
the border of Honduras.
The personality of the Caribbean Lowlands can be described
as…rain, rain, and more rain. Thanks to the rain,
these Lowlands boast green, hilly terrain, and the Coban
Canyons where dammed up lakes resides. Rivers that flow
above the surface in one area disappear under the earth’s
surface and then rise again. What a performance!
The “Garden of
the Eden” of the Alta Verapaz highlands are a
must visit. They are a gorgeous display of lush grounds
and abundant wildlife. The area is home to the white
nun, one of a dozen species of orchids found in the
forests there, and the quetzal, the national bird of
You must not visit
Guatemala without experiencing the culture, history,
and engineering marvels of the Maya. Tikal, located
above dense jungle northeast of Flores, is known as
the greatest of all classic Mayan cities.
The Mayan ruins in Tikal
were restored beginning in the 1950’s. It’s
a special treat now to be able to get to the ruins with
Even though it is known that the Guatemalan
government’s conservation efforts might be less
of a priority than their attention to foreign investment,
is has been a topic of concern at times in Guatemala.
There is an organization working full time towards protecting
the biological diversity in Guatemala. The organization
is called the Defensores de la Naturaleza, which owns
and protects the Reserva de la Biosfera de Sierra de
las Minas. Thankfully, there have been some National
Parks established over the years.
Maya Biosphere Reserve
was founded in 1990 and includes many protected areas,
including Tikal National Park and Rio Azul National
Parque Nacional Lachua
is located 418 kilometers by car from Guatemala City
and includes a subtropical rainforest with mahogany,
breadnut, and ceiba trees. Raccoons, coatis, peccary,
and macaws are among the species of wildlife found in
Parque Nacional Rio Dulce
is a park based around the river that flows into the
Caribbean. It covers 80 kilometers of land. Visitors
may have the opportunity to observe mollusks, tapirs,
alligators, manatees, spider monkeys, and turtles.
Other parks include the
Pacaya Volcano Park and Lake Atitlan Park.
Scuba Diving in
Guatemala’s lakes, as well as the oceans off the
coast, can be an unforgettable experience. Guatemalaweb
describes one excursion, “Lake Atitlan is a fantastic
place to have your first diving experience or if you
are a experienced diver you will also be impressed with
the lake’s great visibility and the light special
effects in the visited zone. For an unknown reason the
volcanic underwater realm in this area makes you feel
you are flying in another planet, this is truly an ancient
magical unique place in the world.”
Though rafting is a fairly new activity in Guatemala,
trips down river today are well organized by local guides.
You can take on several rivers throughout the country,
including the Usumacinta River, the longest river flowing
through “towering centenary trees tangled with
vines and alive with spider monkeys and darting macaws,”
as described by the Guatemala Guide by Paul Glassman.
This Class II-III river passes by Maya ruins.
If you’re a fisher, you can fish in the lakes
of Guatemala, but don’t expect too much sport.
Tarpon does enter the rivers inland from March to June,
in the Rio Dulce especially. On the contrary, the Caribbean
waters will offer more of a challenge. You can try your
reel at catching snook, tarpon, snappers, barracuda,
tuna, mullet, amberjack, oysters, crabs, shrimp, turtles,
and mussels. On the Pacific side, fisherman can find
yellow and black tuna, wahoo, snappers, bonito, crevalle
jacks, roosterfish, dorado (sailfish), and further off
shore…mahi mahi. Tropical Adventure’s Guatemala
outfitter, Sailfish Bay Lodge, proclaims, “Guatemala
has gained an international reputation as having one
of the highest concentrations of billfish, in particular
Pacific Sailfish - year round.”
You can sail on such bodies of waters as Lake Izabal
and Rio Dulce.
Biking is a fulfilling way to see some beautiful backcountry
while not disturbing the environment, and enjoying clean
air and getting some great exercise in the meantime.
Mayan Bike Tours says, “Leave the noise of cars
and other motorized vehicles behind you and enjoy an
adventurous ride with incredible views along paths wedged
between wide fields and volcano ridges. Or take a more
leisurely ride through local villages and coffee plantations.”
Mayan Bike Tours offers a 6-day mountain biking trip
through the Altiplano Circuit, at 3,000 meters.
Pacaya Volcano is the most popular volcano to climb.
Located south of Guatemala City, Pacaya is a hard and
precarious climb, and it is suggested that you hire
a guide to summit the mountain.
You can visit Mayan ritual sites, impressive rock formations,
and wildlife in Guatemala’s cave system. Mayan
Bike Tours offers cave tours in Rey San Marcos, where
religious rituals where held by the Kechi Mayan. There
are numerous other caves to explore, among them the
Lanquin Limestone Cave.
Trip to Guatemala
Entrance into Guatemala
Obstacles to entering Guatemala should be minimal today,
despite the countries’ history of placing obstacles
in the way of visitors, such as entry bribes, thievery,
and altered visas.
Visit Tropical Adventure’s Sailfish Bay Lodge,
located on a barrier island between the Chiquimulia
canal and the Pacific Ocean. The property is close now
named Puerto Iztapa, colonial Spain's first Central
America seaport. Visit http://www.tropical-adventure.com/cgi-bin/choose_location.cgi
to find out more about the Lodge and how to visit.
Guatemala is a very affordable place to travel. Meals
average $4 or less; lodging averages $5 per person for
a double room. You could budget $10 per day in Guatemala
if you put your mind to it. The currency is the quetzal
(named after the national bird).
Shoppers can find some great and unique gifts in Guatemala.
You can find hand woven clothing and Indian textiles,
heavy woolen blankets, jewelry, antiques, and pottery…for
cheap. Remember, bargaining is acceptable at markets,
but not in stores, which usually have fixed prices.
Taxes for goods and services
are about 10%. Hotel taxes add 10%, and the airport
exit tax is $20.
You should tip 10% in restaurants (based on good service,
of course). Give hotel porters a quetzal, and maids
just a few. You don’t need to give guides a tip…they
get enough commission.
The “dry” season in Guatemala lasts from
October through late April, normally. This “summer”
season offers up warm and sunny days in the highlands.
Nights are clear and cool. Bring layers and a sweater
for this season. April is the warmest of the months
in the highlands with 85 degree or higher temperatures
in the afternoon.
The rainy season starts
at the end of April. Be sure to bring a raincoat and
umbrella shortly after April. Nevertheless, you will
still have the chance to swim, walk and sightsee during
this time, so bring your swimsuit, hiking boots, or
comfortable shoes, sunscreen, and insect repellant.
Traveling with kids in Guatemala should be entered into
with a great deal of planning. Although kids may enjoy
the bus rides more than you, they will want to touch
and feel along the way, which should be replaced with
their own toys from home. Along with toys, you should
bring books, changing supplies, baby foods, and sunscreen.
Consider staying at a decent hotel, since you might
spend more time there than you think. Beware of sun
exposure and the children’s’ eating habits
while in Guatemala.
Although travel through Guatemala is usually safe, it’s
always good to take precautions. Here are some tips
on keeping safe in Guatemala:
- You should check
with your embassy to see about safety in hiking alone
in a particular area. The Guatemala Tourist Commission
can provide a pamphlet on safety in the country also.
- Use only authorized
- Leave valuables in
a safe in your hotel room.
- Lock your doors.
- Do not travel after
Some general courtesies to follow while in Guatemala
- Say “Buenos
Dias” (good day) or “Buenos Tardes”
(good night) in small towns.
- Greet the driver while
getting on and off a public bus.
- A light handshake
- Dress down.
- Use a moderate tone
of voice in public places.
- Ask for permission
to take photos of locals, if you think it might be
- Avoid taking photos
of religious rituals.
Overall, Guatemala offers
an affordable, accessible travel destination of unique
history and cultural and biological diversity.
To fish, boat, or sail
in Guatemala, click
here and visit Sailfish Bay Lodge to book your trip.
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