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Overshadowed by its neighbors, Guatemala is a Central American gem that’s often left off travel itineraries. General uncertainty surrounds the topic of tourism in this country, which allows nearby Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama to steal the spotlight. However, passing on a trip to Guatemala means missing out on exploring stunning mountains and coastal plains, shopping for handmade artisan goods in villages with time-honored traditions, and trying Spanish-influenced Mayan cuisine. Here are six reasons why Guatemala may be one of the most underrated travel destinations.
It’s a Relatively Safe Country
A quick Google search of “Is Guatemala safe?” returns a number of websites stating that travel to Guatemala should be reconsidered due to crime. The Department of State’s Travel Advisory page declares crime and murder are common. The Canadian government affirms Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America, one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and a very low arrest and detention rate — enough to make anyone think twice about visiting.
Sifting through the warnings uncovers another perspective with travel bloggers describing real experiences in Guatemala. These blogs paint Guatemala in an entirely different light, leading to confusion over which information is accurate.
The truth is, a little vigilance is all that’s needed when traveling to Guatemala. Vendors don’t mercilessly hassle shoppers in the markets. Walking down the street alone during the day is completely safe. Cell phone theft is reportedly common, but it doesn’t require travelers to be on an exaggerated level of alert. Does crime happen in Guatemala? Definitely. Is it an unsafe country to visit? No, but it doesn’t mean threats don’t exist. Staying safe is all about using common sense and applying the same logic practiced in daily life.
The Language Barrier Isn’t So Bad
It’s intimidating to travel to a country when you don’t speak the language. Some Spanish definitely helps — especially when you’re communicating with tuk tuk drivers or local vendors. For the most part, a conversation can be pieced together with a few words and gestures. In places more heavily trafficked by tourists like tour operator offices and hotels, English is commonly spoken.
It’s an Eco-Friendly, Sustainable Travel Destination
Guatemala focuses intently on sustainability and eco-friendly methods when it comes to local crafts and trade. The number of co-operatives around Lake Atitlan is impressive. The local weaving, coffee, and chocolate production all play a part in supporting the economies of the rural lakeside villages. San Juan la Laguna is the trifecta, boasting a number of women weaver co-ops, a coffee co-op, and a chocolate factory that makes all their delectable sweets in-house.
Visit Casa Flor Ixcaco to see how women weavers spin homegrown cotton into vibrant textiles, Licor Marron Lake Atitlan Chocolate Factory for a free chocolate tour and tasting, and the obscure La Voz Coffee Cooperative to watch how the bean-to-brew process happens. All these co-ops use materials and ingredients grown right in the lake district and sell their products for fair prices, ensuring the protection and preservation of the environment and the economy.
It’s Rich in Ancient History
Tikal, a site of ancient Mayan ruins featuring former palaces and temples in the rainforests of northern Guatemala, is the best-known attraction in the country, albeit a bit off the beaten path. If traveling to the northern corner of the country is out of the question, there are other options for ticking ancient Mayan ruins off the bucket list.
Fortunately, Mayan ruins dot the Guatemalan landscape. Although many are densely clustered in the northern region of Petén (near Tikal), several sites lie in the highlands between Lake Atitlan and Antigua. Iximché, the site of the Kaqchikel Maya capital in the 14th century, is just one hour from Antigua and easily accessible. This spiritual site showcases a number of pyramid temples, palaces, a ceremonial area, and two Mesoamerican ballcourts. Hire a guide and learn all about the site’s significant history.
When it comes to Central American travel, the country that first comes to mind for many people is Costa Rica. With its lush rainforests, epic surf breaks, famous coffee, and breathtaking beaches, Costa Rica is an obvious holiday destination.
However, Guatemala boasts all of the above — and at a better price! Booming tourism in Costa Rica is driving prices up, while less-popular Guatemala is easier on the budget. Not to mention, Guatemala offers an unparalleled volcanic landscape, crowd-free surfing along the west coast, undeveloped beaches, a plethora of historic Mayan ruins, and all the local coffee you can drink.
It’s an Adventurer’s Paradise
Opportunities for adventure abound in Guatemala. Can’t-miss activities include trekking up the active Pacaya Volcano, overnight hiking trips up Acatenango, cliff jumping in Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve, pre-dawn viewpoint missions to Indian Nose, kayak and SUP adventures around Lake Atitlan, and caving by candlelight in Lanquín’s Grutas Las Marias.