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Tourism in Guatemala

Guatemala is a model country for tourism FLORES, Guatemala- “If you only went to the tourists sites of Guatemala, you would think that it was a really nice country,” my wife Chaya observed. Guatemala is a nice country, but more than giving an very general status report on the place, what my wife was really [...]

Guatemala is a model country for tourism

FLORES, Guatemala- “If you only went to the tourists sites of Guatemala, you would think that it was a really nice country,” my wife Chaya observed.

Guatemala is a nice country, but more than giving an very general status report on the place, what my wife was really getting at that the country would seem “wealthy, clean, gentrified.”

It is true, if you only travel to the tourists hot spots of Guatemala you will see a very different scene before you than elsewhere in the country. The “made for tourism” towns of Guatemala are posh, they are first class destinations for first class travelers. Guatemala is now truly a world class travel destination for folks with money to spend.

This is not a country just for hippies, anthropologists, and vagabonds anymore.

The tourist areas of Guatemala have been somewhat gentrified — for the better, perhaps, for the worse, perhaps. But what I do know is that a lot of money is pouring into a few dots on a map of this land, in a few places the streets are clean, the old buildings restorated, the new buildings built magnificently to replicate the old, the country has become full of first class tourists doing first class things.

It is my impression that Guatemala has been going this way for a long time.

Wade and Petra in Flores

Travelers in Flores

I came to Guatemala for the first time rather late on the scene. My first time in the country was in the spring of 2008, by this point I had already been traveling for eight years. I did what could be called the usual run through Guatemala this time through:  went to Antigua, to Pana, to a few other villages around Lake Atitlan, to Flores, and out of the country to Mexico. I found the country good for travel, good for tourism.

Guatemala tourism industry is amazing

I was amazed over how much energy the tourism industry put into providing a travel structure that any type of traveler could use and enjoy. There were tourist shuttles between the tourist towns, hotel pickup services, and a basic doorstep to doorstep infrastructure was placed over every tourist destination in most of the country. It became apparent to me that someone could travel through this land and not need to step out of the tourist bubble once.

It has perhaps been figured out by the powers of economics who control such things that many people do not take vacations to Guatemala because they are afraid of Guatemalans. So the tourism industry has created a way for a person to travel the country end to end without every having to interact with a Guatemalan who is not serving them.

This is amazing for business, the masses of tourists have arrived, the tourist towns are fast changing — becoming ever more wealthy, becoming ever more posh, gentrified. It is wild to me that Guatemala has been able to create such a fool proof tourism structure to profit from while most other countries with vastly more resources have not bother.

Though if you wanted to step back down to the ground when traveling in Guatemala, it is also easy — you just had to board a local bus to a place you have never heard of before and stay in a cheap hotel. Guatemala is not like Southeast Asia where you need to struggle to break out through the walls of tourism.

But even the tourist areas of Guatemala are still not extraordinarily expensive, they are gentrified — most Guatemalans cannot afford to visit — but they are still within the budget of most travelers.

It is interesting how the tourism industry of this country can provide amenities for both backpackers on the cheap as well as true luxury tourists. It is also amazing how close together these two industries run together. The backpackers and the rich tourists live and travel side by side. Generally, I have found that in many countries there are the posh tourist areas and the slum dog backpacker joints — there is a big division between the two groups. The two types of tourist run virtually mutually exclusive of the other, neither enjoying each other’s fruits.

This was two years ago, now, on my second and third incidences of travel in Guatemala I have been able to observe the gentrification pattern being taken to extreme. The nice tourists towns of this country are now really nice tourist towns. The Antiguas, the Flores’ are continuously being taken to ever higher levels of tourism gentrification.

Antigua

tourist attraction in antigua

The epicenter for tourism in Antigua - the clock tower

The t-shirt and cheap-o souvenir shops of Antigua are being replaced by high quality jewelers, the budget to mid-range eateries by truly upper end restaurants. Nearly every other door in Antigua is either a hotel, a restaurant, or a tour agency. I have a friend at the Hotel Casa Shalom, I returned to visit her when my family and I traveled back through Antigua in March. I put a website up for her mother’s hotel the last time I stayed there. At that time there was around four hotels on the block, now there are way more than ten — on the same block. The city was very upper class, very touristy the last time I was there — for sure — but the changes that I have observed in this direction that have taken place over the past two years are mind blowing: Antigua is now a luxury travel center of the world, it truly is.

Though kids dressed as hippies still walk through the cobblestone streets without shoes on their feet.

I paid the same price for my room as I did two years ago.

Flores

hotel in flores guatemala

Hotel in Flores - this is where I stayed

The last time I was in Flores, it was to visit Tikal, this time, it was because it was a logical stop off point on the road to Mexico. In 2008, Flores was definitely a tourist island — it was full of hotels and tourist restaurants and bars. This time I have noticed that its progression towards becoming a very upper class tourist city has grew unchecked. There are now posh, USA style convenient stores — open 24 hours a day — that were not there before, there are brand new towering mansion hotels for the rich on vacation, the walk way that circumambulates the island is now a completely decked out water front where last time I visited there was a long stretch of walking on a little dirt path around a bend that few tourists would trod, and the cheap barbeque chicken restaurants that once lined the main street have been replaced by luxury tourist restaurants. The place is changing, but it looks pretty nice.

I, again, paid the same price for my room.

flores

Water front in Flores in 2008

This is a photo of the water front on the north eastern side of Flores in 2008. This area was somewhat of a no man’s land then. This area has now been renovated into a fully posh, paved water front with stairs leading down to the lake, people swimming, vendors selling food, and masses of people strolling.

Competition keeps prices low

travelers in flores

Prices in Guatemala low enough for vagabonds

Just so there are drastically more provisions for tourists than there are tourists Guatemala will remain a good country for budget travel. I noticed only a rise in appearances and services between the two years since I traveled to this country rather than a rise in prices. Competition in the tourist industry here has kept prices low. I can still get a really nice double room with a private bathroom and hot water for only a little over 10 USD per night.

The tourist industry in Guatemala is at a comfortable level — there is still a buyer’s market but it has not grown so drastically out of control that touts and people trying to sell things bother you at every step. Guatemala has found a gentle balance in tourism — there seems to be just enough tourists to keep this massive infrastructure in tact, but not so many that the prices rise out of control.

Guatemala tourism conclusion

Guatemala has grasped the keys of tourism that few countries put the effort into grabbing. They created a way for just about any type of travel to move about their country at their chosen level of comfort. There are different tiered price brackets for tourism, but the idea is the same: if tourism is the device which allows people to visit a country and experience more of what is good about it and less of what is bad, then Guatemala has created an example that just about every other country in the world can learn from.

Floating in a bubble through a country is not usually my game — I like the grit of traveling, I enjoy meeting the people in the streets, on the ground — but if I want the bubble, it is good to know that it is only a tourist shuttle away.

Related stories:

  1. Cheap Hotel Guide for Antigua
  2. Tourism can be watched on the TV screen
  3. The economic impacts of tourism
  4. Tourism in Wadi-Musa and Petra
  5. Hotels in Haiti are Expensive
Filed under: Central America, Guatemala, Tourism

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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8 comments… add one

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  • Caitlin September 2, 2010, 7:56 am

    Holy crap… Petra has a lot of hair.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com September 2, 2010, 5:21 pm

      Yeah, and it is blond! I have — or had — black hair, and my wife has hair of the same color. Hey, what is going on in this girl’s genetic pool? If she wasn’t mischievous, overly curious, and stubborn I may be drawing some conclusions haha.

      Just a joke that my wife does not like very much.

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  • The Longest Way Home September 2, 2010, 1:00 pm

    Do I detect you like it in Guatemala?

    BTW What’s the visa situation in Guatemala? 30days, renewable, or is central America another visa run region?

    Might make an interesting post? Central American countries and their visas?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com September 2, 2010, 5:09 pm

      Good idea on that Central America visa entry. Going to have to do that — it is strange. Will do it today. four countries — Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador — in Central America teamed up and formed a region called the CA-4. You get 90 days between these four countries, visa runs need to be out of the region — Mexico, Belize, or Costa Rica are the most popular. Some countries, such as Guatemala, give extensions while others don’t. We had an tenuous run with knowing the visa rules in Guatemala because nobody really seems to know them. Technically, as far as I can tell, we overstayed our CA-4 visa by two and a half months. But, apparently, Guatemala allows travelers to renew their visa once for free just by going to El Salvador — which is part of the same region and technically should not renew the visa. After this one “intra-regional” renewal you either have to pay 300 Quetzales — a little over 35 USD — for a new 90 days or go out of the CA-4 for at least three days to come back for a renewal. Many expats live in Guatemala indefinitely, combining visa runs with extensions to stay for as long as they want.

      Guatemala seems to be one of the last countries on the planet that seems to like perpetual tourists, and it may be a good place for you to settle down in for a while as least as far as visas are concerned.

      Guatemala is a good country for creating more of a “life” when traveling. Tons of expats have made it home.

      If you are from the country that I think you are from then Mexico may also be a good place for you to live in for a while as well. You get 180 days off the bat, which I think is easily renewable. Mexico is cool, as well. Real cool.

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      • Una March 12, 2011, 3:59 pm

        Hi,
        How sure is that info about the Salvadorian border? I need to expand my 90 days in Guatemala, and would really prefer to go to El Salvador instead of the Mexican border.
        Thanks for the info,
        Una

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 12, 2011, 7:59 pm

          I am positive that this is how it worked out in my case. But I would highly recommend not betting on this. Visa runs to El Salvador do not run flush with the CA-4, and I do not recommend trying to do this to get another visa for Guatemala. Go to Mexico or Belize.

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  • Pearl September 5, 2010, 6:09 am

    Petra is looking more and more like you every time I see a picture of her! Cute 🙂

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  • Gary October 5, 2011, 4:04 pm

    I have read some of your other posts and feared you were going to trash my beloved Guatemala. I may not agree with you on some of your communication pieces but on this one we are definitely in sync.
    I love Guatemala! I am heading back for a short stay in November. Everyone always asks when I go back, Why? I have no anecdotal reason that would swoon others to my cause, it just fits.
    Thanks

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