While small, Guatemala is the most diverse country in Central America. Only 2% of it is urbanized, so it’s a green paradise, rich in natural beauty and colourful villages, markets and churches. We are big fans of this fabulous country, so it goes without saying that your trip to Guatemala is going to be superb. To help you out with your planning, we’ve compiled a list of a few rules, habits and customs to know before you go.

Who lives there?

Guatemala’s population is divided pretty evenly between the descendants of indigenous Maya groups and Ladinos, who observe western dress and culture, and speak Spanish - the country’s official language.

There are also many mestizos, who are a mixture of Mayan and European, as well as a smaller number of people with pure European lineages.

The 18-million-strong population is also on the rise — in fact, Guatemala is one of the fastest growing countries in all of Latin America.

Customs and Etiquette

Guatemala is in many ways rather formal and good grooming and manners go a long way. You’ll find most locals are warm and friendly, as well as curious about overseas visitors.

With regards etiquette, it’s worth knowing that - while we consider it normal - queuing is definitely not de rigueur in Guatemala. People may wait in line in formal settings like banks and doctors, but don’t expect the same at markets or in shops. It’s not considered rude; it’s just how things are.

And be mindful when taking photographs of Maya people. It’s not a good idea to do so without permission, as they consider it offensive and an intrusion upon their spiritual beliefs. Besides, asking first is a great way to get to know the locals.

Money Talks

Guatemala is a poor country so visitors should behave cautiously and avoid external signs of wealth, like wearing expensive jewellery and watches. Arrive with new or almost new dollar bills as used

ones are often refused, and if you withdraw money from an ATM always do it inside the bank, never outside.

It’s useful to have some of the local currency, the Quetzal, in cash, as the cost of things is cheaper than in dollars, but dollars are also useful to carry when travelling throughout Central America.

Top Tips

Tipping is widespread in Guatemala. Allow around 10% in restaurants; while guides expect to receive between 3 and 5 USD per day, per person; drivers around 2 to 3 USD; and hotel staff a dollar. If you’re shopping and searching for a bargain, haggling is expected, and the ‘gringo’ price is always inflated. Lower the asking price by 30% and go from there. Ditto for taxis - it is better to agree the price before getting in the car (start by halving the initial sum).

Food and Drink

The food here is delicious, mixing Mayan flavours with European recipes and ingredients. Maize, beans and pumpkins have been part of Guatemalan gastronomy for centuries and you’ll find them everywhere.

Our tip is to order a chapin – an excellent breakfast of eggs, mashed beans, fried bananas, cheese and coffee. Speaking of coffee, the country’s subtropical climate, altitude and rich volcanic soil produce some of the world’s best beans. Be sure to enjoy a cup or two while you’re away.

Religion and Dress

Religion is important in Guatemala, and you’ll find a mix of Catholic, evangelical and traditional Mayan belief systems. That deep faith also means the people are pretty conservative, which is reflected in how they dress.

In cities and Ladino-dominated areas, people are more open to shorts, miniskirts and vest tops, but men usually don’t go shirtless unless they’re at the beach. In Maya-dominated communities, the women wear traditional clothing, and their cortes – woven skirts – always fall below the knee.

If you’re unsure whether your clothing is appropriate, it’s best to cover up: put on a shirt and don’t wear anything too short. If you visit a church or spiritual site, it’s respectful to cover your shoulders and arms.

Festivals and Fireworks

One thing’s for sure, Guatemalans know how to celebrate. The country is full of festivals bursting with colour, ancient customs and good times. In fact, it’s practically impossible to visit Guatemala without stumbling across a party.

Some of the biggest and best celebrations are Holy Week (every March/April), Independence Day (15th September), and the Day of the Dead (1st-2nd November). And don’t be surprised to see and hear fireworks wherever you go. Guatemalans consider them an integral part of the festivities, day or night.

Additional Information

Be aware that fabrics are better quality in shops than in markets.

Don’t carry fruit in your luggage as the local customs officers are notoriously paranoid (remember bananas are a major export).

When entering a restaurant or a hotel it’s customary - and polite - to call out ‘buenos dias’.

Be aware that even in luxury hotels, it is customary to throw toilet paper in the basket, not in the bowl.

Contact one of our Guatemala specialists