Guatemala with Kids | 9 Important Things to Know Before Visiting

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Guatemala is one of the lesser visited Central American countries, but tourism is now a growing industry. Although it is the most populated country in Central America, it is still one of the most economically challenged. Unlike its neighbors to the north and east, Mexico and Belize, tourism has not been a major income source for Guatemala until recent years. Nowadays though, Guatemala is becoming increasingly popular for backpackers on a budget and even for families traveling to Guatemala with kids.

Home to volcanoes, ruins and Mayan heritage sites, dense rainforests, and colorful colonial cities, Guatemala is a fascinating country to visit.

This travel guide to Guatemala with kids includes a bit of history about the country, the best places to visit, and information on safety and things to expect and look out for when traveling around Guatemala with children.

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Guatemala History

Until the mid-2000s, the country of Guatemala had a bad reputation for violent crime, femicide (the killing of women because of gender), and illegal drug trading. It spent decades in a bloody civil war that finally ended in 1996. The country’s problems didn’t end there though. Many more years were spent recovering, rebuilding the economy, and fighting to reduce crime.

Although the country has made huge strides and is now fairly safe for tourists, many still associate the country with its violent past. Whether you plan to visit Guatemala with kids or without, it’s good to read up on the country and learn a few key facts about Guatemala before your visit to truly appreciate your experience.

Where to go in Guatemala with kids

If you are considering a visit to the country, there are many ways to do so. Along the Pacific coast, there are popular ports for several different cruise lines. And if you fly into the capital city of Guatemala City, there are several popular tourist destinations nearby. 

Antigua

The historic city of Antigua is perhaps the most popular city for tourism in Guatemala. The Spanish colonial town is surrounded by volcanoes and renowned for its colorful buildings. Once the colonial capital city, Antigua was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, and the capital was moved to Guatemala City. For this reason, Antigua has maintained its colonial charm and has a relatively low population, making it a great place to stay when visiting Guatemala with kids.

The pretty colonial city of Antigua Guatemala.
The pretty colonial city of Antigua.

Lake Atitlan

About two hours from Antigua, Lake Atitlán is another must-visit location in Guatemala. Base yourself in the Maya town of Panajachel, where you’ll find craft markets and plenty of food options. Take a guided boat tour across the beautiful and enormous volcanic crater lake, or simply relax, take in the views, and immerse yourself in the culture. You could easily spend a few days in Lake Atitlan escaping the busyness of life and enjoying the laid-back vibes.

Looking across Lake Atitlan at two volcanos
Looking across Lake Atitlan

Pacaya Volcano

About an hour from Antigua, you’ll find the Pacaya Volcano, an active volcano you can actually hike. A guided tour is the best way to experience this breathtaking site. The hike can be challenging, but if you are visiting Guatemala with kids who are old enough and physically able to hike for about 3 hours, this is a bucket list experience that families will remember forever. 

Volcanic smoke coming from the top of the Pacaya Volcano
Volcanic smoke coming from the top of the Pacaya Volcano

Tikal National Park

While most of the country’s top spots for tourism are located in the western portion of the country, eastern Guatemala is becoming more popular among visitors thanks in part to significant archeological sites like the Mayan city of Tikal and the backpacker town of Flores.

The eastern region of Guatemala is easily accessible through Belize, but buses and shuttles also run to this area of the country from the other regions, as well. 

The top of one of the pyramids at Tikal National Park
The top of one of the pyramids at Tikal National Park

Tikal National Park is perhaps one of the most impressive Mayan ruins sites in the Americas. If planning to visit the notable park, you can either stay within the national park itself or in nearby Flores. Another option is to stay in San Ignacio, Belize and take a day trip to Tikal.

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey is a great place to stop on your way from Antigua or Guatemala City to eastern Belize and Tikal. The natural monument is a tropical park known for its river caves and brilliant turquoise swimming pools.

A natural swimming pool at Semuc Champey
A natural swimming pool at Semuc Champey

When to visit Guatemala

We visited Guatemala in September, which is the month the country celebrates its independence. If you are lucky enough to visit on or around its Independence Day, you will find numerous celebrations throughout the country during the middle of the month. Guatemalan Independence Day is just one of many festivals and celebrations in Guatemala held throughout the year.

September is actually the country’s off-season or rainy season. We lucked out, and had perfect weather during our travels to Guatemala. However, it poured buckets a few days later when we were back in Belize. Their dry season runs from December-April, but you’ll likely pay more for your airfare and lodging during this period, as it is their high season for tourism. However, Guatemala is a reasonably inexpensive country to visit, so even though you might pay more during peak season, the monetary amount is relative. 

Regardless of the season, plan to spend at least one week in Guatemala.

What to know about visiting Guatemala with kids

Visiting Guatemala with kids is a great experience for both parents and little ones. Regardless of their age, taking your kids to Guatemala exposes them to a different culture, a different way of life, and if you speak English, a different language. It is a learning experience and an eye-opening one. But there are definitely a few things to consider if you are planning a trip to Guatemala with kids.

Water quality | Can you drink the water in Guatemala?

As with other developing nations, the water that comes out of the faucet is not drinkable in Guatemala. Bring bottled water with you when you leave your hotel, or buy it while you are out sightseeing. Also, stick to fruits with a peel (like bananas, pineapple, etc.), and avoid anything raw that had to first be washed, as it was likely washed in the non-drinkable water.

Climate | What is the weather like in Guatemala?

Like other Central American countries, Guatemala has a tropical climate. It is hot and humid, and the sun is intense. Sunscreen is a must as is insect repellent. As mentioned above, Guatemala has two seasons, a dry season which runs from December through April, and a wet season which runs from May through November. 

Personal Safety | Is Guatemala safe to visit?

Although we did not personally encounter any safety issues while we were in Guatemala, as with anywhere else in the world, be vigilant of your surroundings and watch your children closely. You will likely hear plenty of people tell you about the dangers of visiting Guatemala before your trip. The country does have one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. But, I’ve found most of the negative comments about a country come from those who have never actually been there. 

Although safety in Guatemala might be a concern in some areas – particularly in Guatemala City – we found the country safe and the people welcoming.

Driving in Guatemala | Car seat laws and car insurance in Guatemala

Car seat laws do not exist in Guatemala. Don’t be surprised when you see children as young as one year old on motorcycles with their parents. Car seats are among various safety measures for kids you may not find in Guatemala or other developing countries. 

A father and three little kids on a small motorcycle in Guatemala
Not only are car seats not common in Guatemala, you’ll often see children or whole families riding on motorcycles.

Guatemala also does not recognize car insurance, so if you get in an accident, the damages will be out of pocket expenses. For this reason, it is a good idea to invest in an inexpensive travel insurance plan before your trip to Guatemala.

Additionally, if you prefer to leave the driving and planning to professionals, you can book a 10-day guided adventure that stops in all the places mentioned above, and includes hotels and transportation.

Vaccinations | Do I need any special vaccinations for travel to Guatemala?

When we visited Guatemala, we were up-to-date on all of our routine vaccinations. However, there are a few vaccinations that are often recommended, like Typhoid, Yellow Fever, and Rabies. We did not get these vaccinations because we were not going to be in Guatemala for more than two weeks, but I would advise checking with your family doctor, and following his or her recommendations.

Street Dogs | There are so many stray dogs in Guatemala

The number of street dogs in Guatemala is heartbreaking. At times, it seemed like there were as many stray dogs in Guatemala as there were people. Our daughter has grown up with dogs and believes they are all friendly and want to be petted. While most of the stray dogs in Guatemala are used to people, and are likely friendly, unfortunately many probably have fleas, ticks, and some may have significantly more frightening medical issues, like rabies. 

Stray dogs in the streets of Antigua
Stray dogs in the streets of Antigua

Although organizations in Guatemala have taken steps in recent years to reduce the occurrences of rabies in stray dogs, the disease is still prevalent in Guatemala. And because rabies in humans is fatal if not vaccinated or treated immediately with a series of shots, you should take extra precautions and do not allow your children to approach stray dogs like they would your family pet.

Language | Do they speak English in Guatemala?

Spanish is the native language in Guatemala. You will also find native Mayans speaking their own language. Unlike many European countries, and even some other Central American countries, you can’t really get by strictly on English alone. English is not widely known or spoken in Guatemala. You will find those working in the tourism industry speak English, however most Guatemalan residents do not.  I recommend learning a few key languages or phrases in the native language for any country you visit.

Currency | Are American dollars accepted in Guatemala?

The Guatemalan quetzal is the country’s official currency, and the only currency you’ll find accepted in most businesses or establishments. You’ll find currency exchange vendors on either side of the Belize-Guatemala border if entering Guatemala from the east. There are also ATMs located in the main tourist destinations, and many of the places in cities like Antigua accept credit cards, although there may be a minimum charge. Be aware, if you plan to buy anything like textiles from street vendors, you will need to have Guatemalan cash on you.

Blonde children will receive attention

Guatemalans are beautiful people! They typically have darker skin and brown or black hair. So our white toddler with her blonde locks stood out a bit. And locals went crazy over her. If traveling to Guatemala with kids who have a Caucasian or Asian appearance, be prepared for them to be noticed, and for locals to ask for a photograph with them. We encountered similar scenarios in places like China and Japan, but it is something to keep in mind or you may be taken aback by it. 

A blonde toddler wearing sunglasses and a sunhat in Guatemala
Blonde children will receive looks, smiles, and a lot of attention from residents in Guatemala.

Is Guatemala a good country to visit with kids?

Ultimately, if you are considering a trip to Guatemala with kids, understand it is still a developing country and with that comes certain challenges. But there is so much beauty, history, and culture inside this country’s borders just begging to be explored. Although some of the cultural differences in Guatemala definitely stood out to us, we found the country safe and welcoming and the people friendly.

And visiting Guatemala and other Central American countries will open your mind and your heart, and it may just change your perspective on a few things, too.

Have a comment or question about traveling to Guatemala with kids? We’d love to hear from you. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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This travel guide to visiting Guatemala with kids was first written in September 2016 and was updated in August 2022 for accuracy and current information. 

Photo credits: Antigua – Photo by Victor Hugo Cardena from Pixabay | Lake Atitlan – Photo by Dezalb from Pixabay | Pacaya Volcano – Photo by Ortal from Pixabay | Semuc Champey – Photo by Alexander Schimmeck from Unsplash | Stray dogs – Photo by Angello Pro from Unsplash

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6 comments on “Guatemala with Kids | 9 Important Things to Know Before Visiting”

We just got back from our Belize family vacation, with a visit over the border to Tikal. This blog/video was a HUGE help!! (We even took the secret way to avoid the toll bridge) TY!!!

Good, precise and informative travel blog. I got to experience the place from your words. Guatemala is definitely going to my travel destinations list.

I’m not sure that fleas are the biggest concern when it comes to stray dogs. How about Rabies? It’s zoonotic and fatal. Everyone should avoid the stray dogs, not just the kids.

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