Guatemala isn’t a difficult country for visitors, but there are plenty of unexpected oddities. Here’s a few things it might be good to know in advance.
1. There are goats in the streets!
If you hit the pavement early in the morning, you may be a little surprised to see farmers wandering around the streets with goats on leads. This is even common in Guatemala City. No, these aren’t eccentric goat herders taking their pets for a walk – these are milk men. If you have
a bottle handy, you can get fresh goat milk straight from the teat for just a few quetzals. I can’t vouch for the hygiene standards (apparently raw milk is a rich source of Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria), but at the very least it makes for some unique photos.
2. INGUAT is amazing.
I’ve set foot in 18 countries, and never encountered anything quite like the Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo (INGUAT). This government-run institute has offices all over the country that provide free information to tourists. However, unlike most public tourist offices, INGUAT doesn’t just dispense brochures and point you in the direction of the closest private travel agent. Instead, INGUAT’s staff know their stuff, and are extremely helpful. They can tell you pretty much anything – bus schedules, good walks, security, whatever. Their information was always far more accurate and up to date than the guidebooks, and unlike private agents they have no interest in selling me anything. My best INGUAT experience was in Coban, where staff offered to call the other side of the country to check the price of a hostel. In Lake Atitlan, the office got the ferry times wrong (apparently they had only very recently changed), but they were still closer to the mark than the guidebooks.
Best of all, INGUAT’s services are free, even for foreigners. As an extra bonus, most visitors to Guatemala don’t seem to know about INGUAT, so the offices are often empty, and the staff seemed happy just to have someone come through the front door. Be sure to leave a nice comment in their visitor book, they deserve it.
3. Pay Extra for the Tapado. Seriously!
While visiting Guatemala, odds are you’ll pass through the pleasant coastal village of Livingston. While there, be sure to try tapado – a signature local dish made from assorted fish and shellfish. Imagine being served a small aquarium of sea life, slow cooked in coconut milk. From experience, I can say it’s utterly delicious. However, this is one of the few occasions where I would suggest splurging on an upmarket restaurant. Surprise, surprise, eating a bucket of shellfish from a grimy beach-side diner isn’t the best idea, as I discovered the morning after my tapado experience. Without going into details, I can say I haven’t vomited that much since the time I ate a bucket of ancient, badly cooked KFC. In the past I’ve gone months without showering; but I disgusted even myself by wandering around for just one afternoon in 40C heat with my clothes drenched in stomach acid and half digested prawns. Moral of the story: pay extra and go somewhere nice, just this once.
4. Drinking in Guate’s Zona 1 can actually be pretty cool.
Guatemala City’s historic centre closes down early. By 9pm most restaurants have closed, and there are few bars in sight. However, there is one discreet alley behind the main square where you can get a stiff drink. On the south side of the square, opposite the Palacio Nacional are a row of shops. Head around the back of this block of shops (in other words, get on the first street south of the square, behind these shops) and keep an eye out for a gated alley with a guard out front. It’s easy to miss the first time, so walk slow and keep an eye out. In this alley are a series of small, hipster-type water holes. The first one on the left is a bit of a leftie-dig, and probably the coolest.
5. Guatemala Gets Hot. Surprise!
If the lowland heat starts to get to you, don’t panic. The highlands are much cooler, and have plenty of great attractions.
6. You’ll be face palming as everyone around you feeds the touts.
This should go without saying, but please don’t feed the touts! Like in any country with a booming tourism industry, Guatemala’s big draw cards are ringed with touts offering visitors hotel rooms, luxury spas, discount meals, weed and an endless supply of cheap trinkets. As soon as you get off the bus, somebody is going to try and grab your bags and insist you follow them to the best hostel in town; for a special price just for you. Most seasoned travelers know that when you arrive at a hotel, restaurant, bus or travel agency with a tout in tow, the price immediately goes up. This is to cover the finder’s fee that businesses offer touts to bring them customers. So, by following a tout you are inevitably getting ripped off – at best. At worst, touts can be seriously dangerous; on rare occasions they can be pickpockets, or straight-out cut throats. There is NEVER a reason to follow a tout in Guatemala. Finding a place to sleep to fit any budget is never difficult, and INGUAT can provide reliable information on anything else, without taking a cut or slashing your bag. Nonetheless, I was shocked by the number of Gringo backpackers I saw in Guatemala that were following touts into over-priced hostels, or picking up a menu just because a stranger on the street told them to. By engaging a tout, you not only screw yourself over, but you also encourage touts to bother other people in the future. So one last time … don’t feed the touts!