The unseen side of Guatemala

Jurg Widmer Probst - travel - Guatemala

Guatemala has a huge amount to offer any traveller – even those people who aren’t prepared to be too adventurous and to head off the beaten track. The traditional tourist trail includes spectacular Mayan ruins, colourful and vibrant cities and of course plenty of active volcanoes.

But for those of us who are looking for something a little different, Guatemala has plenty of hidden and unexpected experiences just waiting to be discovered. We find that these are the kinds of experiences that are often the most memorable. You might find that is the person that you got chatting to when you got on the wrong bus on the way to the ruins in Tikal that you actually remember, rather than the ruins themselves.

Of course, as always, your personal safety has to come first, and we’d never recommend that you put yourself in a risky situation. So, be sensible, but also be brave, and try something a bit different when you come to Guatemala. Here are just a few suggestions.

Do a homestay

Finding a hotel or a hostel is often the easiest option, but a great way to really get an insight into family and community life in Guatemala is to do a homestay. There are lots of options – you may be staying with a local Maya family or in a cramped apartment in the bustling heart of Guatemala City – but wherever you are it will give you the perfect opportunity to learn more about this wonderful country and its people. You’ll also almost certainly have a chance to brush up on your Spanish skills too – sitting around the kitchen table is one of the best places to pick up the language quickly.

Go to a football match

Guatemala, like most of Latin America, is absolutely nuts about football. While their national team might not have quite reached the heights of Brazil, Argentina or Chile, the game is still a national passion, and going to a live match is a fantastic way to get a sense of how ordinary Guatemalans relax and let off steam. We think that one of the best places to catch a game is Antigua. Once you’ve ticked off all the usual tourist sites in this beautiful historic city, we strongly recommend you try and catch an Antigua GFC game. Their home ground in Jocotenango isn’t huge, but to be honest that just adds to the atmosphere – the fans are passionate and genuine, and sometimes it feels like the whole of Antigua is there enjoying the game. A great experience.

Get on a chicken bus

Ah, Guatemalan buses. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine why anyone in their right mind would actually choose to travel by bus in Guatemala – of course, there’s often no other option, but they are notorious for being cramped, unreliable, overcrowded and sometimes even dangerous. All of which is, to a large extent, true – but don’t let that stop you.

They are also a real experience – a colourful and unforgettable taste of everyday Guatemalan life. Most Guatemalan buses are retired American school buses, and many have been redecorated in psychedelic and colourful new designs. Travelling on a chicken bus is a riot for the senses – they make a horrendous noise, they look spectacular and if you’re really lucky you might even find yourself on one of the few remaining ones that still has someone’s live chickens wandering around. And even if there is no longer much livestock on most buses these days, you’ll still be able to catch up on the latest in Guatemalan TV while you’re on board.

Seek out some live music

Guatemalans love their music – especially when it is performed live. Of course, exercise a bit caution when you are heading out after dark in some of the major cities (especially Guatemala City), but don’t let that put you off trying to find some local live music.

Zone 4 in Guatemala City is increasingly popular, and venues like La Erre and Trovajazz are great places to check out. Our tip is to just hit the streets and follow the locals – whether you are into merengue, marimba, garifuna, punta or reggaeton, wherever you are in Guatemala you’ll soon find a venue that’s playing your kind of music


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