Yes, even your hard-working friendly PR peeps at OutsidePR go on holiday occasionally!
This time, it was Central America calling. Guatemala to be precise. It’s low-season there right now, monsoon time as it were, but that didn’t deter me. In fact, with lower costs, less tourists and a good pair of rain-boots, it was the perfect time to visit.
Here are my top tips for visiting Guatemala:
1. Learn some Spanish
- Don’t be that person. Don’t be that socks and sandals wearing, fanny-pack toting uber-tourist that pronounces gracias like “grass-e-ass”. Take a quick online course prior to your trip with an easy free app such as DuoLingo, invest in a pocket-book of phrases and always try, even if you’re unsure. There’s a hesitation to use English in Guatemala, for good reason – it’s not their native language. So you have to adapt and learn. The basics will be helpful, more than that will be utterly magical.
2. Bring long pants
- The native dress is modest and covered, even in hot weather. Bring at least a long, light skirt and comfortable breathable pants for your trips to villages and some cities such as Antigua. Shorts can be used in more touristy areas, but you won’t see many, if any, local men or women sporting shorts or cut-offs at any time. Best to be as respectful as possible, plus bug-bites are easily avoided when covered up – which leads me to a side note. Don’t forget the repellent. Bugs, a lot of bugs.
3. Practical swimsuit
- Cliff jumping, bridge diving, rapids and waterfalls can all have seriously detrimental and ultimately embarrassing repercussions when combined with that itsy bitsy teeny weeny bikini that looked “so hot” in Ibiza last year. The active and adventurous travelers will want to bring a more industrious piece of lycra to avoid all the potential disasters that come with getting active.
4. Do some accommodation research
- In the high season it’s essential to book in advance. However, when traveling low season you may be better off waiting until you arrive, as prices on the day or on-site can be cheaper than if booked through an American website. Plus, you can chat to other travelers about where they’ve stayed and what they recommend. This tactic saved me from inadvertently turning up at the ‘Party Hostel’ where I’d be the wet rag sporting ear plugs and staying fully clothed while naked jenga and jello shots raged outside my room like the frat-party from hell.
5. Visit Semuc Champey
- I don’t care if it looks ‘out of the way’ or whatever, get there. A full day of caving – which involves a candle-lit underwater cave tour with rope ladders, waterfalls, cliff jumping and pure magic, followed by rapids tubing, hiking and visiting the ethereal pools/hot springs; Semuc Champey is Mother Nature’s apology for Justin Bieber and a breath-taking day of adventure and environment. We stayed in El Retiro lodge, right on the Lanquin river – highly recommended.
6. Time it right
- The transportation is..meh, but bearable. Be prepared to tack on a good 2-3 hours more for any distance being traveled by bus than it would take in Australia, Canada, UK, USA. The roads are variable, sometimes dirt and rocks, sometimes paved with numerous potholes. Just be ready to be bumped around, and do research on the costs for transport too. Prices will usually be jacked up initially, so be firm and barter when you know you’re being taking advantage of. Chicken buses are good for shorter trips but any traveler who’s happy paying a few bucks extra should organize a minibus for a bit more safety and comfort. No overnighters. No.
7. Bottled water
- Don’t drink the tap water. Always get bottled. Unless you don’t mind public bathrooms, every 5 minutes. Oh, and you can’t put toilet paper in the toilet either. That goes in the garbage bin next to you. Remember that – it sucks when the toilet is clogged and you’ve drunk bad water. Sucks.
8. Talk to people
- Guatemalans are super friendly but they’ll only respect you when you respect them. Be polite and courteous and friendly. Don’t assume you can take photos of them and their children without asking nicely first, and if you’re going to give a child some food or a gift, be prepared to have 10 more swarm you. Just use common sense and a smile, goes a long way.
9. Visit Antigua
- One of the most beautiful cities in Guatemala, Antigua is steeped in history and culture and the colonial architecture is stunningly beautiful. Surrounded by active volcanos, there’s plenty to do and see, but be warned – it’s more expensive than most places in Guatemala. A great starting point, many travelers stay with a host family and learn Spanish before heading off to other parts of the country or Central America. Make sure you visit Cafe NoSe. Trust me. And climb Mt. Pacaya volcano. It recently erupted in March 2014, so you can’t go all the way to the top but the steaming rocks of solidified lava flow are amazing, and you can roast marshmallows on the hot-spots. No s’more will ever top the ‘volcanic rock broiled s’more’, so I urge you to give it a go.
10. Expand your trip
- Guatemala is wonderous. Dense rainforest, Mayan ruins, volcanic lakes, natural caves, timeless villages, delicious street-food, affordable transport and accommodation, historic and culturally rich cities, adventurous hikes and friendly people. Oh, and millions of random dogs that all look the same. There’s so much to do, see, eat, experience, but it’s also so close to Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and from there, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama.. With only 10 days or 2 weeks, stick to Guatemala and really soak it in, but if you can get more time off work (sweet talk the boss, do overtime, quit…), try to get to other Central American countries too. There’s a big and beautiful world out there – go experience!!