Guatemala Travel Guide
Guatemala can be remarkably cheap, especially when you're traveling in the villages of the highlands. Mid-range hotels and restaurants where locals eat are an excellent value. Rooms at first-class hotels and meals at the best restaurants, however, approach those in developed countries. Trips into remote parts of the jungle and specialty travel like river rafting and deep-sea fishing are also relatively expensive.
You can plan your trip around ATMs—cash is king for day-to-day dealings—and credit cards (for bigger spending). U.S. dollars can be changed at any bank and are accepted as payment at many businesses catering to tourists—large bills may prove difficult to change; leave all other currencies at home. Traveler's checks are useful only as a reserve. They can be exchanged for local currency at some banks, but few businesses accept them as payment.
Prices here are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
It is nearly impossible to find Guatemala's currency, the quetzal, outside the country, and if you can, it will be at a very unfavorable exchange rate. Wait until you arrive to change money.
ATMs and Banks
ATMs—known locally as cajeros automáticos—are easy to find in Guatemalan cities. Screens on most offer you a choice of Spanish or English, and a growing number offer the indigenous Quiché language, too. Cards on the Cirrus and Plus networks can be used in ATMs bearing these signs: "Credomatic", "Bancared", "Bi", and "5B". Major banks in Guatemala include BAM, BanRural, and Bantrab. In some smaller cities finding an ATM is trickier. Technically, you should be able to go into the bank to withdraw money through a teller using your ATM card, but it's easier just to take ample cash supplies with you. ATMs often empty out before holiday weekends, so withdraw your cash beforehand. Be sure your pin number only has four digits, as most Guatemalan ATMs don't accept longer ones. Make withdrawals from ATMs in daylight, never at night. Where possible, choose ATMs inside banks rather than freestanding ones.
Visa is the most widely accepted credit card in Guatemala, followed by MasterCard and American Express. Diners Club and Discover might not even be recognized. If possible, bring more than one credit card, as some establishments accept only one type. You can usually pay by credit card in top-end restaurants, hotels, and stores; the latter sometimes charge a small surcharge for using credit cards. Many transportation and tour companies also take plastic.
It's a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you're going abroad and don't travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you're prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you're abroad) if your card is lost, but you're better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank's number is usually printed on your card.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether or not he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you'll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don't always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn't an option.
Reporting Lost Cards
American Express. 800/528–4800 in the U.S.; 336/393–1111 collect from abroad.
Diners Club. 800/234–6377 in the U.S.; 303/799–1504 collect from abroad; 2338–6801 in Guatemala.
Discover. 800/347–2683 in the U.S.; 303/902–3100 collect from abroad.
MasterCard. 800/627–8372 in the U.S.; 636/722–7111 collect from abroad; 800/999–1480 in Guatemala.
Visa. 800/847–2911 in the U.S.; 410/581–9994 collect from abroad; 800/999–0115 in Guatemala.
Currency and Exchange
Guatemala's currency is the quetzal, named after the national bird, and is equal to 100 centavos. Single quetzals come as both coins and bills. There are also 1-, 5-, 10-, 25-, and 50-centavo coins. Bills come in denominations of ½ (brown), 1 (green), 5 (purple), 10 (red), 20 (blue), 50 (orange), and 100 (tan). (The ½-quetzal bill is rarely seen these days.) The central bank has announced plans to introduce bills of 200 (aqua), 500 (gray), and 1,000 (ocher) quetzals sometime during 2010. At this writing, the exchange rate is 8.3 quetzals to the U.S. dollar.
U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Guatemalan shops and restaurants that cater to tourists, though the conversion rate will not be quite as good as at banks. Street-side money changers abound, but you'll be safer from scams if you change your money at a bank, even though the rates aren't quite as good. You can exchange money easily at the airport and at border crossings.