Guide: Guatemala

Indian-women-Guatemala-JNGX0171Guatemala is a fascinating country. The highlands are gorgeous and the vistas are absolutely breathtaking.

The people of Guatemala have endured years of internal struggle, but you would never realize it from the smiles on their faces as you drive through the miles of farmland.

There is little evidence of First World influence in Guatemala and, perhaps, this is what makes it so appealing.

Unfortunately, there are thousands of poor children in Guatemala. Take something to give to them, anything.

Buy a box of chocolates or take some used clothing. Pull over when you feel compelled and give these people one of your gifts.

The smiles that you will create are worth more than most any material possession you will ever receive.

Of course, you can’t give every child a gift. For those that you can give something, you have made a world of difference in the life of a special human being.

Immigration

Immigration is your first stop, you need an entry stamp which costs a few US dollars.

Most Central American border crossings are rather informal and trouble free for the normal traveler.

The problems and difficulties arise when you must clear your personal vehicle for passage into each respective country.

You can expect to see the majority of non-vehicle travelers whiz right by you while you’re patiently processing your monotonous paperwork.

Don’t get discouraged, and remember to wave to these other travelers as they board the bus with the chickens and pigs.

Aduana

Many travelers have reported that entering Guatemala is a pain in the @#!…well, point of contention, to put it nicely.

Fortunately, I had no problems entering Guatemala. The officials were actually very amiable and courteous.

They spoke more English than their Mexican counterparts and they were more helpful.

I may have happened to catch them on a good day.

The boss was sipping the Guatemalan drink of choice at his early morning break, and it wasn’t just coffee.

The atmosphere in the office was pleasant and casual.

Most travelers have reported that this is one of the most difficult border crossings in Central America.

Many have had to spend three hours or more just to get permission to enter Guatemala.

Be patient, provide the information required, pay the fees and eventually passage will be granted.

The officials want to see you passport, car registration, car title, and drivers license.

After looking over your papers and then looking through your car they will give you a green document called Certificado De Vehiculos Automotors For Carretera De Placa No Centroamericano.

The cost of this document is $6-10 US. Of course, there is also a form for Servicios Extraordinarios.

This document costs an additional $20+ US.

Agriculture

This is a quick 5 or 10 minute stop.

Show your fumigation papers to the semiofficial in the shack next to the Aduana.

I paid a $2 US processing fee; the fee most likely varies depending on the type of car you drive and whether the official is exceptionally hungry or thirsty.

The official records the information in a ledger and you are free to go.

Guatemala Border Crossing
To Guatemala City
Driving Time: 5 hours
Kilometers: 266 km

There are three main border crossing into Guatemala: Cuauhtemoc, Talisman, and Cuidad Hidalgo.

All three locations basically follow the same entry procedure.

The following directions are specifically for Cuauhtemoc.

Migracion, Aduana and Agriculture are located in three separate building that are next to each other.

For your next stop you need to drive about 5 minutes down the road. The fun is not over yet!

Military Checkpoint I

On your way out of town you will come across the military checkpoint, look for the green uniforms.

There is no building, the guards have a table set up outside next to the road. Park your vehicle and take your papers and identification to the guard. He will review your documents, ask you several questions and then record the information.

No charge, this one’s a freebie.

Military Checkpoint II

About 50K from the border there is a second checkpoint. Show the guards your paperwork and a friendly smile.

They will question you and then, hopefully, let you proceed without propina payment.

Military Checkpoints, In General

There are several additional military-police like checkpoints on the way to Antigua.

I was never solicited to pull over and therefore I didn’t.

Sometimes I received a stare or an intense look of interest. I always looked straight ahead and proceeded slowly past their building.

Surely if you voluntarily pull over the guards would gladly search your vehicle and therefore request a donation for their work.

My recommendation is to proceed with intelligence, caution and common sense. If you are solicited to pull over—always comply.

Remember, a radio is much quicker than a vehicle.

Road Conditions

The road conditions in Guatemala are very good, however, there are few signs or road markers.

Look carefully for the signs that do exist—if you miss one you may get lost. Also note the following differences for navigational purposes: CA 1 is the Interamerican Highway; CA 2 is the Ruta Pacifica and travels along the southern portion of the country.

Hwy 1 is a separate from CA 1 the Interamerican Highway.

Special Directions

The officials want to see you passport, car registration, car title, and drivers license.

After looking over your papers and then looking through your car they will give you a green document called Certificado De Vehiculos Automotors For Carretera De Placa No Centroamericano.

The cost of this document is $6 US. Of course, there is also a form for Servicios Extraordinarios.

This document costs an additional $6 US.

Guatemala Border to Antigua
Driving Time: 5 hours
Kilometers: 288
Miles: 179
Hwy: CA 1

After surviving the monotonous entry procedures for Guatemala the drive through the beautiful mountains and lowlands are refreshing.

Keep your eyes out for any signs, you want to follow the one or two signs that indicate Guatemala, this is for Guatemala City.

After several hours of driving you will see a sign for Antigua, turn right here and prepare yourself for a horrible road.

If you decide to skip Antigua, which would be a crime, you may continue straight along the same road toward Guatemala City which is about one hour further.

Antigua is exquisite. Similar to San Cristobal de Las Casas, this city is confusing when first entering by vehicle.

As you enter the city you will come to a fork in the road two blocks past the Texaco station, veer left at the fork.

Approximately 1 kilometer past the fork in the road is Casa de Santa Lucia, between 5 and 6 Calles Ponienta.

Santa Lucia is on the right side of the street, the entrance is a large black wooden door. If you go past the bank you have gone too far. Santa Lucia is one block before the bank.

The parking area is located in the rear, but you will need to knock and ask them to open the gates.

This is a very secure place, you want to take extra precautions in Guatemala with you vehicle—they frequently disappear.

Hotel & Eats

Casa de Santa Lucia is a nice place. There is a garden lounge great for mingling with other travelers.

Rooms are $60 US + $20 US for storage of your vehicle. The bank, one block away, is open until 10:00 p.m. and it is a convenient place to exchange your gringo dollars.

Turn right at the corner where the bank is located and walk 3 blocks to the center of town. There are several restaurants that offer delicious food—enjoy and relax.

Ummagumma Hotel
Where. 6a Av North 1A.
Cost. $12-$20 for dorms, singles and doubles
What Up. Great place to hang and meet other travelers, kitchen access, relax.
Web. www.ummagummahostel.blogspot.com
Tel. 7832 4413
Email. n/a

Casa Cristina
Where. Callejon Campo Seco 3A
Cost. $16-$20 for singles and doubles
What Up. Two stories of comfort in good locale.
Web. www.casa-cristina.com
Tel. 7832  0623
Email. n/a

Learned Lessons

Be patient at the border and allow 2 or 3 hours to complete the necessary paperwork.

If you are coming from San Cristobal de Las Casas allocate about 8 to 10 hours for the entire day.

Road Conditions

The road conditions in Guatemala are very good, however, there are few signs or road markers.

Look carefully for the signs that do exist—if you miss one you may get lost.

Also note the following differences for navigational purposes

Special Directions

Give yourself enough time to make it to Antigua from the Mexico-Guatemalan border.

Please don’t drive at night!

Violence is a way of life in Guatemala and there are very few towns between the border and Antigua. The countryside is sparsely populated and there are few foreigners driving through the country.

Antigua-Guatemala City
Driving Time: 1 hour
Kilometers: 52
Miles: 33
Hwy: CA 1

The drive from Antigua to Guatemala City is very easy, it’s Guatemala City that will give you a headache.

This is your true test of patience, the only thing that will get you through is diligence.

Unless you have specific business in Guatemala City, drive directly through it. In actuality you will drive around, backward, circular and then through.

The drive takes about 1 hour and once in Antigua you will find many places to store your vehicle inexpensively.

Guatemala City is the junction point for several routes leading to El Salvador or Honduras.

It is possible to completely avoid El Salvador or you can drive through El Salvador and then through a small portion of Honduras.

One thing to consider is that if you decide to bypass El Salvador you are eliminating one additional border crossing.

Special Directions

My recommendation is to find a nice relaxing hotel in Antigua and spend some quality time in this fantastic city.

Guatemala Border Exit

Regardless of whether you travel through El Salvador or Honduras your first procedure is to exit Guatemala. Leaving the country is much easier than entering the country.

Immigration

Immigration will request to see your passport and any other necessary documents. After the officials review your materials they will give you the exit stamp for $2 US.

Aduana

Aduana wants your vehicle papers, the green documents.

The inspector will check your identification and your signature.

He will then give you a stamped paper authorizing your exit from the country—kind of like a get-out-of-jail free card in Monopoly.

You must show the stamped paper to the nice military man that is patiently waiting to inspect every inch of your vehicle, good luck.

After you get the okay from the military, the money exchanger guy will open the gate to let you and your vehicle out of the country—which is his side job, exchanging money or opening the gate?

Learned Lessons

The military and the government inspectors seem to operate completely independent from each other. When things run smoothly with one agency, don’t expect the other agency to follow suite.

Special Directions

The exit procedures are straightforward, though you may get an attitude from the military inspector. He gives the final okay on exiting the country, thus treat him with respect.

To & Through El Salvador

For travelers going on to El Salvador there are several entry points; Las Chinamas, La Hachadura, San Cristobal, or Anguiatu. Ruta Pacifica, CA 2, will take travelers to the southern most entry point at La Hachadura.

The Interamerican Hwy, CA 1, branches just past Cuilapa into CA 1 and CA 8. CA 8 leads to the border crossing at Las Chinamas and CA 1 takes travelers to San Cristobal.

There is also an entry point in the north at Anguiatu near to the Honduran border. Once you enter El Salvador it’s a straight drive on CA 1 to Honduras.

You can easily drive through El Salvador in one day.

To Honduras

Those going on to Honduras have two options. You may cross the border at Agua Caliente or El Florido. Leaving Guatemala City locate CA 9.

Upon entering Guatemala City turn right on Puente Periferico and continue to Avenida Marti. Once you exit the city head for Esquipulas.

It is entirely possible to drive from the Guatemalan—Mexican border to the Honduran border at Esquipulas in one day.

However you do need to get an early start and keep driving without delay.

Guatemala City-Honduras Border

Entering Honduras at El Florido, To Copan Ruinas
Driving Time: 5 hours
Kilometers: 265
Miles: 164
Hwy: CA 9—CA 19—CA 18—CA 10—CA 11
Border Open 8 a.m.—6 p.m.

Upon leaving Guatemala City locate CA 9. It’s unimaginably easy to get lost around Guatemala City.

After entering Guatemala City turn right at Puente Periferico and continue to Avenida Marti. Once you exit the city head for Esquipulas.

At Quezaltepeque you can head north to Chiquimula and on to to El Florido or Copan.

The turn-off for El Florida is approximately 2 kilometers before Chiquimula. This is a dirt road that takes about 2 hours.

During the rainy season this road may be impassable. I drove it in the late afternoon during a torrential downpour and I barely made it through in four-wheel drive.

Once you get to the border you have another 20 minute drive to Copan.

There are very few signs on this route, so when in doubt, pull over and seek assistance.

Guatemalans are friendly and helpful people, don’t be afraid to ask for directions—it will save you time and effort. See the following section, Entering Honduras, for entry requirements.

Entering Honduras at Aqua Caliente
or Esquipulas

Driving Time: 4 hours
Kilometers: 227
Miles: 141
Hwy: CA 9—CA 19—CA 18
Border Open 8:00 a.m.—4:00 p.m.

Once on CA 9 head for Jalapa on CA 19.

Then on to Esquipulas, CA 18. Don’t rely on road signs or highway numbers.

If you need to pull over and ask use the next large city as a reference.

If you’re too late for the border at Agua Caliente, Esquipulas is a nice place to rest for the night.

Don’t forget that border entries may take several hours, therefore it’s best to start early in the morning.

Hotel & Eats

Hotel Cristo Negro, an excellent place to stay the night and a short distance from the Honduran border, is located just past Esquipulas.

If you have some free time, check out the Cathedral and the surrounding area in Esquipulas.

During the evening the gates are closed at the Hotel Cristo Negro, thus if you arrive late just bang on the gates and they will open them.

Learned Lessons
On my trip I missed the juncture for Esquipulas and therefore I had to drive to Zacapa and back down to Chiquimula for the turnoff leading to Copan.

When you get lost or turned around you can usually find an alternate route not too far out of the way.

Always keep your map within view and remember to check it frequently.

Special Directions

Follow the signs very closely and keep an eye peeled for the military.

Always be polite, serious, and respectful to the police and military—you are a visitor in their country.

Enjoying Guatemala
Guatemala’s many Mayan ruins and colonial buildings are its most impressive architectural attributes.

One of the most intriguing cultural aspects is the infinite and exotic variety of the handmade, traditional clothing of Guatemala’s Maya population.

The design of the women’s colorfully embroidered tunics, capes and skirts dates back to pre-colonial days.

Certain details of garment and design identify the wearer’s group and village, and can also have multiple religious or magical meanings.

Music and traditional dance also feature in many Mayan religious festivals.

Spanish is the most commonly spoken language in Guatemala, and Roman Catholicism is the principal religion. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian denominations have gained wide followings, while the Maya have preserved aspects of their traditional religions, often blended with Catholicism.

Guatemalan cuisine can’t compete with that of Mexico, although standard Mexican fare such as tortillas and tacos can be found.

Mostly you’ll encounter tough grilled or fried meat, meat and more meat. Beans and rice are often the cheapest and best alternative, and the country has a surprising number of Chinese restaurants.

Coffee is available everywhere—sometimes spectacularly good, but the best beans are typically exported. Beer is prevalent, in light and dark versions, and rum and Quetzalteca are the nation’s favored rocket fuels.

Guatemala City

Guatemala City is the largest urban agglomeration in Central America—it’s far from a pretty site.

It sprawls across a range of flattened, ravine-scored mountains, covering an entire mountain plain and tumbling into the surrounding valleys.

With its rickety chicken buses and chaotic marketplaces, the city’s Latin character is over the top to the point of cliché.

Like all Guatemalan towns, a strict grid system has been imposed on the city’s layout: avenidas run north-south; calles run east-west.

The huge city has been divided into 15 zones, each with its own version of this grid system.

Few colonial buildings grace the city, and it is visited more for its role as the nation’s administrative and transport hub than as a must-see tourist site. In Zona 1, Plaza Mayor is a classic example of the standard Spanish colonial town-planning scheme, and is the city’s ceremonial center, with the retail district nearby.

It’s best visited on a Sunday, when it’s thronged with thousands of locals who come to stroll, eat ice cream, smooch on a bench, listen to boom-box salsa music and ignore the hundreds of trinket vendors. The square is lined by the imposing Palacio Nacional, currently being restored to house a national history museum, and the twin-towered Catedral Metropolitana.

An earthquake destroyed the original market building adjacent to the square in 1976, and today the hugely chaotic Mercado Central specializes in tourist-oriented crafts.

North of Zona 1 is the shady and restful Parque Minerva, featuring a quirky relief map of the country.

Several important museums can be found in Zona 10, including the Museo Popol Vuh, which is a superb private collection of Mayan and Spanish colonial art, and the Museo Ixchel, which displays the rich traditional arts and costumes of Guatemala’s highland towns. Zona 13 houses the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, with its prized collection of Mayan artifacts, and the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno, which has a superb collection of 20th-century Guatemalan art.

Several km west of the center lie the extensive ruins of Kaminaljuyú, an important Late Pre-classic/Early Classic Maya site. Unfortunately, the ruins have been largely covered by urban expansion.

Most of the city’s cheap and middle-range hotels are in Zona 1, while posh hotels are clustered in Zona 10. Zona Viva is the place to go to eat expensively and dance the night away.

Antigua Guatemala

Antigua was the nation’s capital from 1543 until 1776 (following the devastating earthquake), when the capital was moved 45km (28mi) to the east to the present site of Guatemala City. Antigua is among the oldest and most beautiful cities in the Americas.

Set amid three magnificent volcanoes—Agua, Fuego and Acatenango—its superb yet sturdy colonial buildings have weathered 16 earthquakes and numerous floods and fires. Antigua is especially beautiful during Semana Santa, when the streets are carpeted with elaborate decorations of colored sawdust and flower petals.

The city’s churches have lost much of their Baroque splendor, the post-earthquake repair and restoration leaving them denuded of embellishment and elegance. However, many remain impressive, in particular La Merced, the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Las Capuchinas (now a museum).

Casa K’ojom is a fascinating museum of Mayan music and ceremonies and related artifacts. On Sundays, visitors and locals alike gather to assess the goods for sale at the bustling market held in Parque Central.

Chichicastenango

At 2030m (6658ft), the magical and misty highlands town of Chichi is surrounded by valleys and overshadowed by looming mountains.

Though isolated, it’s always been an important market town. The Sunday market is the one to catch, as the cofradías (religious brotherhoods) often hold processions on that day.

The locals have combined traditional Mayan religious rites with Catholicism; the best places to witness these old rites are around the church of Santo Tomás and the shrine of Pascual Abaj, which honors the Mayan earth god. Incense, food and drink are offered to ancestors and to ensure the continued fertility of the earth.

The town’s Museo Regional contains ancient clay pots and figurines, flint and obsidian spearheads, maize grindstones and an impressive jade collection.

Quetzaltenango

The commercial center of southwestern Guatemala, Quetzaltenango, more commonly called Xela (‘SHAY-lah’), is an excellent base for excursions to the many nearby villages, noted for their hot springs and handicrafts. The city prospered during the 19th century as a coffee-brokering and storage center until an earthquake and volcanic eruption ended the boom.

In recent years, Xela has become well-known for its Spanish-language schools. The town’s major sights are the central square and the buildings which surround it, a couple of basic though useful markets and the ubiquitous Parque Minerva—many such monuments were built during the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920), to honor the classical goddess of education in the hope of inspiring Guatemalan youth to new heights of learning.

The beautiful volcanic countryside surrounding Xela features natural steam baths at Los Vahos and Fuentes Georginas. Also in the vicinity is the picture-postcard village of Zunil, the garment district of Guatemala, San Francisco El Alto and the center for wooly woolens, the village of Momostenango.

Flores

The capital of the jungle-covered northeastern department of El Petén, Flores is built on an island on Lago de Petén Itzá, and is connected by a 500m (1640ft) causeway to the service town of Santa Elena on the lakeshore.

Flores is a dignified capital, with its church and government building arranged around the main plaza, which crests the hill in the center of the island. The city was founded by the Itzáes, and at the time of conquest was perhaps the last still-functioning Mayan ceremonial center in the country.

The pyramids, temples and idols were destroyed by the God-fearing Spanish solidiers, and the dispersal of the Mayan citizens into the jungle gave rise to the myth of a ‘lost’ Mayan city. Modern sights include boat rides stopping at various lagoon settlements and a visit to the limestone caves of Actun-Can.

Panajachel
Don’t be deterred by this town’s nickname of Gringotenango (‘place of the foreigners’), nor by the town’s lack of colonial architecture or colorful market.

The attraction here is the absolutely gorgeous caldera lake (a water-filled collapsed volcanic cone). Since the hippie-dippie days of the 1960s, laid-back travelers have flocked here to swim in Lago de Atitlán and generally chill out. Volcanoes surround the lake, and the town is the starting point for excursions to the smaller, more traditional indigenous villages on the western and southern shores of the lake. The most popular day-trip destination is Santiago Atitlán, with its colorfully dressed locals and a unique, cigar-smoking resident deity called Maximón.

The market town of Sololá has been attracting traders for centuries, and the town’s main plaza continues to throb with activity on market days. Village life can be sampled at Santa Catarina Palopá, while lakeside San Pedro La Laguna is perhaps more attractive because it is less visited.

Tikal

The monumental Mayan ceremonial center at Tikal lies northwest of Flores in the department of El Petén.

Its jungle location makes it a unique site. Towering pyramids rise above the jungle’s green canopy, while down below howler monkeys swing nosily through the branches of ancient trees, colorful parrots squawk and dart, and tree frogs fill in the auditory gaps.

The steep-sided temples rise to heights of over 44m (144ft), and although the undergrowth around them has been cleared, the dense rain forest canopy is not far away, making passage within the enigmatic site an unforgettable experience. The many ruins include plazas, an acropolis, pyramids, temples and a museum.

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One Response to “Guide: Guatemala”

  1. Rica at #

    Hi, so i am a single american girl with ny dog in my packed subaru. How much cash will i need to reach costa rica and everyone is worried i will be raped and killed but i believe i will be fine, but would love a travel buddy…

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