Nothing is more frustrating than seeing visitors to Guatemala act in an offensive manner out of simple ignorance. There aren’t a lot of huge differences to be aware of, but here are some easy suggestions for responsible travel so that you can avoid being rude or feeling embarrassed. For example, in Guatemala the gesture of sticking one’s thumb between the index and middle finger doesn’t mean, “I got your nose.” A more accurate translation would be, “I want to screw you.”
When in doubt, ask before snapping pictures. Particularly during Mayan ceremonies, photography can be highly offensive. While traditional indigenous dress may be fascinatingly exotic, it is important to remember that these people are just trying to live their lives. Put yourself in their shoes – you might be annoyed if someone came up and snapped a picture in your face, too. However, most Guatemalans are very friendly and willing to take a picture with you, as long as you ask for a foto. Some may charge you a few Quetzales.
Be environmentally conscious – don’t litter. You will probably notice the scarcity of wastebaskets in Guatemala. Many people simply throw trash on the ground or out the windows of moving vehicles. Don’t be one of them – take the extra time to find a trash can – they do exist. Especially in national parks, try to leave no trace. By picking up just one piece of trash, you can leave every place you visit just slightly better than you found it.
Always accept food or drink when offered. Guatemalans are generous with what little they have. They love to host and will almost always offer visitors something to eat or drink. Even if you are full or scared of getting sick, accept what you are offered and finish it. You can always take some Cipro for that diarrhea later. It is customary, when leaving the table, to say thank you out loud. You don’t have to thank every person at the table individually – one Gracias is enough. Like magic, every Guatemalan will respond, “Buen provecho”, which loosely translates to ‘I hope you enjoyed your meal.’ When walking into a small restaurant or passing a family sharing a meal, it is polite to say Buen provecho to acknowledge that they are eating. This should go without saying, but don’t throw food, specifically tortillas, especially in rural or indigenous areas. Corn is sacred to indigenous Guatemalans, and throwing it suggests a lack of respect for a huge part of their culture.
Be prepared to be fijese que’d. This typical expression can be both infuriating and incredibly useful. If you don’t speak Spanish, you will be oblivious to its use, but if you do, embrace this gem of Guatemalan culture. It is impossible to translate literally, but its meaning approximates, “Fix yourself on the fact that…” It’s basically the disclaimer that an excuse is coming, that there was a change of plans, or that there’s been a delay. We like to joke that it really means, “What you’re about to hear, you’re not going to like”, but this phrase is reflective of Guatemalans’ relaxed nature.
Despite being a very conservative country, Guatemala does have small lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities and annual pride parades in major cities. That being said, being openly not straight is very rare, especially in rural parts of the country. Discretion is the key to not attracting unwanted negative attention. In addition, Guatemala is well behind the times as far as accommodating travelers with special disabilities. Wheelchair accessibility to public buildings and transportation is virtually zero outside of upscale hotels. Finally, solo travelers should exercise extra caution when traveling in Guatemala, as it is easier for thieves and would-be criminals to target lone foreigners, especially women.
In recent decades, Guatemala hotspot for the adoption of children by Western families. The trend created a semi-adoption industry in which families were paid for their children, or worse, robbed of them. As a result, an indefinite moratorium on adoption in Guatemala was put into effect, and it is ongoing today. While concerns have subsided, foreigners should be careful when interacting with children (alone) in rural areas. Some villagers still believe that tourists are robachichos (baby stealers) and get very defensive.