7 Guatemala Travel Myths You Need To Stop Believing
My love affair with Guatemala did not have the most passionate beginning. I was spending my Friday night as I usually do, half-watching Netflix and binging on Doritos while trolling for cheap flights online. I noticed that there was a super-cheap flight to Guatemala that would line up perfectly with my upcoming school break, but all I could think about was the sketchy things the rumour mill had churned out about the country. After a little background research and the successful entrapment of my boyfriend, we booked two return flights with an attitude equivalent to a shrug and a “how bad could it be?”
Little did I know that I was about to discover one of my favourite countries of all time. Everything from the people to the history and natural beauty totally knocked my socks off. By the time our trip was over, we had already come up with a genius business scheme that would let us stay longer- Salsa and Salsa. I would make killer salsa verde, and he would teach below-par salsa lessons in sparkly costumes.
Update: This business venture did not play out.
After falling so hard for Guatemala, it really saddened me to come home and find that everyone was shocked about my choice to visit. Guatemala has had a really tough time overcoming the dangerous reputation of it’s past to the point where people don’t even consider all of the amazing things the country has to offer to every kind of traveler, from adventure seekers to foodies. Well my friends, for those of you who still have doubts, I’m about to learn you something. Here are seven of the most common misconceptions about Guatemala and why they are more wrong than a blizzard in July.
1. Danger With a Capital D
Ten years ago, you could not pay me to go to Guatemala (and not just because I would have been eleven at the time). The media was full of stories of kidnappings, drug rings, gangs, and everything you could expect from a second rate action movie. Fast-forward to today, and you would have to actively be seeking it out to find any of that danger in Guatemala’s tourist hotspots. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use the same smarts you would while traveling anywhere else, but I felt completely comfortable walking around at night and going solo for awhile. Guatemala has really cleaned up but unfortunately, this new reputation has not fully caught on yet.
Note: Guatemala City is still known for being a risky area for tourists and is the one spot I wouldn’t necessarily recommend spending a lot of time in.
2. It’s Impossible to Get Around
With a tourist industry that is just now beginning to pick up, a lot of travellers are concerned about whether transportation within the country is accessible and safe. This was definitely one of my biggest concerns going into my trip, especially since we were stretching our tight time limit thin! I was seriously amazed at how easy it was to get from place to place, especially when staying in hostels. Most hostels will actually have a travel desk that will book the ride for you, all you have to do is show up! The hostel-run transportation can be anything from a packed mini-van to a luxury shuttle bus complete with reclining seats and movies- it’s all luck of the draw. For a more authentic way to get around, hop on one of the colourful chicken buses with the locals. It may not be the comfiest option, but you’re bound to have an adventure!
3. Tikal Is The Only Worthwhile Stop
Just writing those words hurt my soul. Yes, Tikal is amazing. It made someone who was notorious for sleeping through history class interested in ancient Mayan culture, and I straight-up felt like Indiana Jones exploring these jungle temples. But when people tell me that they are only stopping in Guatemala to see the ruins, it makes me want to curse and shake my fist at the sky. There is so much more to the country to see and with all of the different bus routes departing from Flores, you have absolutely no excuse not to slap on your exploring pants and see something new.
4. There’s Nothing Here For Water Babies
For those of you who want to spend your vacation as a mermaid, I can see how Guatemala’s location could scare you off. With just a minor stretch of land on the Pacific, the swimming opportunities might seem less than promising. I cannot stress this enough- Guatemala is a water-lovers paradise. Swim suit up and go for the ultimate tube ride in the crystal clear water of Semuc Champey, find rope-swing paradise in the lagoons of Flores, hole up at the perfect swimming spot in Lake Atitlan, or head west for a taste of the highly underrated coastline. If I had more time I definitely would have meandered over to The Driftwood Surfer– it’s supposed to be a helluva time.
5. Spanish or Bust
Having traveled through several different Central American countries without speaking a lick of Spanish, I was surprisingly worried about how this would play out here. Luckily, I was once again proven wrong. English is fairly widely spoken in areas that facilitate tourism, and I often found myself speaking with locals that had a better grasp on proper English than I did. However, learning the language of another country shows a different level of respect for those who live there, and Antigua has some of the best and most affordable Spanish schools in Latin America. If you have the time and aren’t already chained to a degree like me, I highly recommend sticking around and getting your Español on.
6. Don’t Come For the Food
As someone whose body is fuelled by processed cheese and various trans fats, I would not exactly describe my tastes as gourmet. But, trying a new cuisine is undeniably one of the best parts of traveling and a killer signature dish can be enough to be make me book a flight. Central America is known for a less diverse style of cooking with lots of rice, beans, and plantains. That’s why I was so surprised by the amount of great meals we had during our stay! From my all-time favourite chile relleno to the indulgent chocolate cake we bought from a stall in the street, we were constantly impressed by the tasties that Guatemala had to offer- and that was before we hit Antigua. This city is rapidly gaining a rep as a foodies paradise, and rightly so. It seems like top-notch chefs from every corner of the earth have set up shop in Antigua and are serving up everything from fondue to sushi. Do your tastebuds a favour (and your waistline a disservice) and do not miss this city.
Hot tip: A lot of restaurants will have a Spanish menu and another for tourists. Order from the former and you’re unlikely to be disappointed.
7. Less Than Social Locals
Again, this comes with the misconception about Guatemala’s dangerous past. I’ve heard reports from other outlets than Guatemalan people are standoffish or cold to tourists, but I was so pleasantly surprised to find the opposite to be true. We were lucky to have some great conversations with everyone from laugh-out-loud hilarious tour guides to helpful strangers. After noticing the panicked look on our faces as we tried to navigate the uber confusing layout of a roadside pharmacy, a total stranger took it upon himself to translate for us to the store owner, and stuck by our side until we were set up with everything we needed. These little acts of kindness were not uncommon during our stay and in a new and confusing environment, were deeply appreciated. Guatemalan people are extremely proud of their country and hearing how much you love it too is bound to bring a big smile to their face. So don’t be that dork who is too nervous to strike up a conversation- you’re likely to be warmly received!
So there’s my hard sell. Obviously I get a little fired up on this topic, but it really is a shame that such an incredible place is still preceded by an outdated and unrealistic reputation. I had nothing but positive experiences during my time here and left smiling so hard that my cheeks hurt. Guatemala, I love ya baby.
Have I convinced you to check it out for yourself? Let me know!