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|Introduction to Guatemala
Despite its turmoil, travellers flock to Guatemala because it offers Central America in concentrated form: its volcanoes are the highest and most active, its Mayan ruins the most impressive, its earthquakes the most devastating and its history of repression decidedly world-class.
Guatemala is the Mayan heartland of Central America, though the government has both touted and tortured the Maya - sticking pictures of them on its tourist brochures while sticking guns in their faces. Despite this, indigenous Guatemalan culture is alive and well.
It survives in the ancient ruins of Tikal, the Mayan/Catholic rituals of Chichicastenango and the blazing colors of everyday Mayan dress. Since the peace treaties were signed, inspiring even the least-intrepid travellers to venture beyond the Guatemala City-Antigua corridor, indigenous Guatemala has been rolling out the red carpet to once-isolated and lovely villages with access to some of Central America's wildest natural wonders.
Travel in Guatemala is generally safe, but a relatively high level of violent crimes are committed against foreigners. Vehicle-jackings are almost an everyday occurrence, especially in Guatemala City.
Travellers are advised to avoid demonstrations and political gatherings; to avoid taking photos of children without parental permission, especially in remote areas where rumours circulate of child abductions by foreigners; and to keep abreast of the latest news developments.
Intercity travel after sunset should be avoided. Violent crimes have been known to occur during daylight hours too and in some cases affect entire groups of travellers.
Full country name: Republic of Guatemala
Area: 108,890 sq km
Population: 13.9 million
Capital City: Guatemala
People: 56% mestizo/ladino descent, 44% Mayan descent
Religion: Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Mayan-Catholic fusion
Government: constitutional democratic republic
GDP: US$53.2 billion
GDP per capita: US$3,900
Major Industries: Coffee, sugar, bananas, textiles and clothing, furniture, chemicals, petroleum, metals, natural rubber, flowers, cardamom, tourism
Major Trading Partners: USA, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Germany, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan
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Visas: Visa regulations changed in 1996 and citizens of most countries no longer need either a visa or a tourist card. Depending on the country you come from, stays are limited to 30 or 90 days. Citizens of some countries still need either a visa or a tourist card, so check with the closest Guatemalan embassy for up-to-date information.
Health risks: cholera, dengue fever, malaria, hepatitis, typhoid
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -6
Dialling Code: 502
Electricity: 120V ,60Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Semana Santa (Holy Week - the week before Easter) is Guatemala's biggest festival, featuring processions and celebrations throughout the country - Antigua's fiesta is said to be the best. Rabin Ajau, held throughout the Verapaces, most impressively in Cobán, is a traditional Q'eqchi' (Kekchí) Maya festival which takes place in late July or early August. Independence Day is celebrated nationwide on September 15. November 1 celebrates All Saints' Day, and Chichicastenango commemorates Santo Tomás from December 13-21.
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|Best time to Visit
The dry season, from November through May, is the most pleasant time, weather-wise, to be in Guatemala. Along with summer holidays, however, this is also the busiest time. Although the rain may restrict some activities during the wet season, it's still worthwhile planning your trip for this time of year, particularly as you'll be more likely to pick up accommodation bargains. If you're planning to be in the area around Easter, try to be in Guatemala for Semana Santa (Holy Week), the highlight of the country's festival calendar.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Prices in Guatemala are very reasonable. You can pick up a one-plate meal for less than US$2, or stuff yourself on almost-free fruit and snacks from elaborate markets. Camping is incredibly cheap, and bus trips cost around US$1 an hour. Even if you splash out on a few comforts, you should be able to get a room with a bathroom, plus two or three meals, for US$25 a day.
It's a waste of time trying to change anything other than US dollars - even currencies from neighboring countries will probably be difficult to exchange. If you do have a different currency, try the casas de cambio (currency exchange office) at Flores or Guatemala City airports. You'll find ATMs for Visa/Plus System cards in all but the smallest towns, and there are MasterCard/Cirrus ATMs in many places too, so one of these cards is the best basis for your supplies of cash in Guatemala. In addition, many banks give cash advances on Visa cards, and some on MasterCard. You can pay for many purchases with these cards as well as American Express.
Waiters expect a tip of around 10%, on top of the 10% IVA (value-added tax). Hotels charge a 10% tourist tax in addition to the 12% IVA. Most hotels and shops have fixed prices, but you'll be expected to bargain at markets - remember to keep your sense of humor and perspective.
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Guatemala City is the largest urban agglomeration in Central America. It sprawls across a range of flattened, ravine-scored mountains, covering an entire mountain plain and tumbling into the surrounding valleys. It's rickety chicken buses and chaotic marketplaces are straight off a postcard.
As the city is visited more for its role as the nation's administrative and transportation hub than as a must-see tourist site there is little to see. However, The Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología and Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno have great Mayan artefacts and 20th-century Guatemalan art.
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 sturdy colonial buildings have weathered 16 earthquakes and numerous floods and fires. Antigua is beautiful during Semana Santa, when the streets are carpeted with elaborate decorations of colored sawdust and flower petals.
At 2030m (6658ft), the magical and misty highlands town of Chichi is surrounded by valleys and overshadowed by looming mountains. Though isolated, it's 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; check out the church of Santo Tomás and the shrine of Pascual Abaj, which honours the Mayan earth god. Incense, food, drink and cigarettes are offered to ancestors and to ensure the continued fertility of the earth.
Flores is a dignified capital, with its church and government building arranged around the main plaza, which crests the hill in the centre of the island. The city was founded by the Itzáes, and at the time of conquest was perhaps the last still-functioning Mayan ceremonial centre 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. You can take boat rides to various lagoon settlements and visit the limestone caves of Actun-Can.
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 days of the 1960s, laid-back travelers have flocked here to swim in Lago de Atitlán and 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.
Quetzaltenango, more commonly called Xela ('shay-lah'), is an excellent base for excursions to the many nearby hot springs and handicrafts villages. The commercial hub prospered during the 19th century as a coffee-brokering and storage centre until an earthquake and volcanic eruption ended the boom.
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 - built to honour the classical goddess of education in the hope of inspiring Guatemalan youth to new heights of learning.
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