Discovering the Treasures of Guatemala Travel

Guatemala is the northernmost country in Central America. It borders the Caribbean, between Honduras and Belize, and also borders the Pacific Ocean, between El Salvador and Mexico. It has a territory of about 42,000 square miles (slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Tennessee) and a population of about 11 million people, the majority of which are Mestizo (Amerindian or mixed Amerindian-Spanish). The official language is Spanish, but some 28 indigenous languages are also spoken. Guatemala enjoys a warm climate throughout the year, with an average temperature above 20C (75F) in the mountains, somewhat warmer along the South Pacific Coast and the Tropical Lowlands of the Peten Region and Caribbean Coast. Cooler averages are found in Quetzaltenango and the Western Highlands. Guatemala is a small country, but it has much to offer the visitor who has opted to travel this ecologically beautiful and culture-rich region. Its natural wonders include truly breathtaking mountains, lakes, volcanoes, flora and fauna. Guatemala boasts a number of black-volcanic sand beaches on the Pacific Ocean, and some large coral reefs on the Caribbean side. Guatemala ranks very high in biological diversity, and has numerous tropical low rainforests and mountain cloud forests. In addition to its natural treasures, Guatemala also has some of the largest and most fascinating Mayan ruins found anywhere in Latin America. The most famous of these ruins is Tikal, making it a very popular destination during a trip to Guatemala. The Mayan population, which is composed of several distinct groups including the Quiche, Kakchiquel and Mam in the Western Highlands, still proudly maintain their ancient culture and traditions; for many Spanish is a second language to be learned in primary school. The first human settlers to arrive in Guatemala are presumed to have migrated from the north at least 12,000 years ago. The civilization that subsequently developed there flourished, with little to no contact with cultures from outside of Mesoamerica. The Maya civilization dominated the region for nearly 2000 years before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, although most of the Great Classic Maya cities of the Petén region of Guatemala's northern lowlands were abandoned by the year 1000 AD. The states of the central highlands, however, were still flourishing until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, who subjugated the native states, beginning in 1523. Guatemala remained a Spanish colony for nearly 300 years, before gaining its independence in 1821. It was then a part of the Mexican Empire until becoming fully independent in the 1840's. Since then, Guatemala's history has been divided into periods of democratic rule and periods of civil war and military juntas. Most recently, Guatemala emerged from a 36-year civil war, reestablishing a representative and stable government in 1996. Understanding Guatemala's Ancient History During a Guatemala trip, visitors will discover a rich, sometimes violent, always fascinating cultural history. The cultural history of Mesoamerica can be divided into three periods: The Pre-Classic from 2000 BC to 250 AD, (Early: 2000 BC to 800 BC, Middle: 800 to 400 BC, and Late 400 BC to 250 AD), Classic from 250 to 900 AD, (Early 250 to 550 AD, Middle from 550 to 700 AD and Late 700 to 900 AD), and Post Classic from 900 to 1500 AD, (Early 900 to 1200 AD, and Late 1200 to 1500 AD). The first proof of human settlers in Guatemala dates at least as far back as 10,000 BC, although there is some evidence that put this date at 18,000 BC. (The evidence includes obsidian arrowheads uncovered at various archeological sites.) Archaeological evidence concludes that early Guatemalan settlers were hunters and gatherers, but pollen samples from Petén and the Pacific coast indicate that corn cultivation was developed by 3500 BC. The earliest Maya civilizations began to emerge in the highlands of Guatemala by as early as 2000 BC. Bustling city-states grew, and trading networks covered large areas of what is now Central America and Mexico. By AD 250, the Early Classic Period, great temple cities of pyramids and plazas rose in the Guatemalan highlands. In addition to the notable architecture, the Maya also developed a complex calendar, a hieroglyphic writing system, and an impressive body of scientific knowledge. By 2500 BC, small settlements were developing in Guatemala’s Pacific lowlands, including such places as Tilapa, La Blanca, Ocós, El Mesak, and Ujuxte, where the oldest ceramic pottery from Guatemala has been found. A heavy concentration of pottery on the Pacific coast has been documented dating from 2000 BC. Recent excavations suggest that the Highlands were a geographic and temporal bridge between Early Pre-classic villages of the Pacific coast and later Petén lowlands cities. There are at least 5000 archaeological sites in Guatemala, 3000 of them in Petén alone. In Monte Alto near La Democracia, Escuintla, giant stone heads and Potbellies (or Barrigones) have been found, dating from 1800 BC. These are ascribed to the Pre-Olmec Monte Alto Culture, and some scholars suggest the Olmec Culture originated in this area of the Pacific Lowlands. However, it has also been argued the only connection between these statues and the later Olmec heads is their size. Nonetheless, it is likely the Monte Alto Culture was the first complex culture of Mesoamerica, and predecessor of all other cultures of the region. In Guatemala, there are some sites with unmistakable Olmec style, such as Tak'alik A´baj, in Retalhuleu, which is the only ancient city in the Americas with Olmec and Mayan features. Dr. Richard Hansen, the director of the archaeological project of the Mirador Basin in Northern Peten, believes the Maya at that location developed the first true political state in America, (The Kan Kingdom), around 1500 BC. Further, he disputes the common belief that the Olmec were the mother culture in Mesoamerica. Due to recent findings at Mirador Basin, Hansen suggests the Olmec and Maya cultures developed separately, and then merged in some areas, such as Tak'alik Abaj on the Pacific lowlands. There is no evidence yet to link the Pre-classic Maya from Petén and those from the Pacific coast, but Dr. Hansen believes they had cultural and economical links. Northern Guatemala has particularly high densities of Late Pre-classic sites, including El Mirador, Tintal, Xulnal and Wakná, which are the largest in the Maya world. The cities were sophisticated and developed, with architectonic structures from 1400 BC. The Conquest
Sent out by Hernán Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado was engaged in the conquest of the highlands of Guatemala from 1523 to 1527. Alvarado was a Spanish conquistador and governor of Guatemala, and was known for his skill as a soldier and his cruelty to native populations. Alvarado first allied himself with the Cakchiquel nation to fight against their traditional rivals, the Quiché nation. Once he felt militarily secure, Alvarado turned against the Cakchiquels, meeting them in several battles until they were subdued in 1530. Battles with other tribes continued up to 1548, when the Kek'chí in Nueva Sevilla, Izabal were defeated, leaving the Spanish to rule. Those of native blood descended to the bottom of the new social hierarchy. The lands were carved up into large estates and the people ruthlessly exploited by the new landowners. The last cities conquered were Tayasal, capital of the Itzá Maya, and Zacpetén, capital of the Ko'woj Maya, both in 1697. These cities endured several attempts, including a failed attempt by Hernan Cortez in 1542. In order to conquer these last Maya sites, the Spaniards had to attack them on three fronts, one coming from Yucatan, another from Belize, and the third one from Alta Verapaz. The 19th century
Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. It brought new prosperity to those of Spanish blood (creoles) and even worse conditions for those of Mayan descent. Huge tracts of Mayan land were stolen for the cultivation of tobacco and sugar cane, and the Maya were further enslaved to work that land. Guatemala briefly became part of the Mexican Empire and then for a period belonged to a federation called The United Provinces of Central America, until the federation broke up in civil war during 1838–1840. Guatemala's Rafael Carrera was instrumental in leading the revolt against the federal government and breaking apart the Union. Carrera dominated Guatemalan politics until 1865, backed by conservatives, large land-owners and the church. Guatemala's "Liberal Revolution" came in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios, who worked to modernize the country, improve trade, and introduce new crops and manufacturing. During this era coffee became an important crop for Guatemala. Barrios had ambitions of reuniting Central America and took the country to war in an unsuccessful attempt at reunification. From Civil War to Times of Peace: Guatemala's Modern History While on a tour of Guatemala, travelers will discover a country that is still addressing the wounds after its 36-year long civil war. Few exceptional leaders have graced Guatemala's political podium. Instead, there as been an alternating wave of dictators and economics-driven liberals, that was briefly interrupted by Juan José Arévalo. He established the nation's social security, health systems and a government bureau to look after Mayan concerns. In power from 1945 to 1951, Arévalo's liberal regime experienced 25 coup attempts by conservative military forces. He was followed by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who continued to implement liberal policies. He also instituted an agrarian reform law to break up the large estates and foster highly productive, individually owned small farms. The expropriation of lands controlled by foreign companies, a move supported by the country's Communist Party, brought about the controversial involvement of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. A successful military coup was organized in 1954 - Arbenz Guzmán fled to Mexico and land reform never materialized. For the next 30 years military officers dominated Guatemala. Political parties, labor groups and rural organizations were banned or severely restricted. As both protest and repression became more violent, civil war broke out. With no peaceful way to seek political or social change, many Guatemalans turned to violence. In response to a growing population of guerillas among the landless indigenous people in the 1960's, the army unleashed a campaign of terror in which thousands of people were killed and entire villages were massacred. Over its 36-year history, the war claimed the lives of an estimated 140,000 people. Booming industrialization in the 60's and 70's helped the rich get richer. Cities became increasingly squalid as the rural dispossessed fled the countryside to find urban employment. The military's suppression of antigovernment elements finally led the USA to cut off military assistance. This led to the 1986 election of civilian Christian Democrat Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo. Five years of inconclusive government were followed by the election of conservative Jorge Serrano Elías. His attempts to end the decades-long civil war failed. In May 1993, following a series of public protests, he carried out an auto-coup. Lacking popular support, he fled the country; an outspoken critic of the army, Ramiro de León Carpio was elected by Congress. Carpio's law-and-order mantle was taken up by a new president, Alvaro Enrique Arzú Irigoyen. In December 1996, the government signed a series of peace accords with leftist guerrillas and the army agreed to reduce its role in domestic security matters. Recent History
In November 1999, Guatemala held its first peacetime elections in nearly 40 years. A new government was sworn in on January 14, 2000, under its recently elected right-wing president, Alfonso Portillo. An admitted murderer, Portillo won by claiming that if he could defend himself, he could defend his people. He vowed to clean up the judicial system, crack down on crime, tax the rich and respect human rights. The subsequent 2003 elections were held amid much scandal and chicanery; the less extreme right-winger, Oscar Berger, supported by the traditional elites in banking and agriculture, was declared president. The following year, the government instituted major cuts to the army (including the retirement of 10,000 soldiers) and admitted its guilt in some high-profile human rights violation cases. In 2006, Guatemala ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, aimed at creating a free-trade zone and reducing tarrifs. Guatemala: A Biodiversity Hot Spot According to the World Conservation Union, Guatemala is number five on the list of Biodiversity Hot Spots in the world. It boasts an amazing fourteen eco-regions, ranging from mangrove forests, subtropical and tropical rainforests, cloud forests, and wetlands to dry and pine forests. A tour of Guatemala is sure to take travelers through at least a sampling of these regions, encountering the equally diverse flora and fauna along the way. The Guatemalan rainforest is characterized by high rainfall, with the minimum normal annual rainfall between 1750-2000 mm (68-78 inches). Rainforests are home to two-thirds of all the living animal and plant species on the planet. It has been estimated that many hundreds of millions of species of plants, insects and microorganisms are still undiscovered. Tropical rainforests have been called the "jewels of the Earth," and the "world's largest pharmacy," because of the large number of natural medicines discovered there. The undergrowth in a rainforest is restricted in many areas by the lack of sunlight at ground level. This makes it possible to walk through the forest. If the leaf canopy is destroyed or thinned, the ground beneath is soon colonized by a dense, tangled growth of vines, shrubs and small trees called a jungle. Guatemala’s awe-inspiring Tikal ruins are in the lowland rainforest. During a Guatemala trip, travelers are commonly as impressed with the rainforest that surround Tikal, as they are with the ruins themselves. Guatemala's location on the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean makes it a target for hurricanes, such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Stan in October of 2005, which killed more than 1,500 people. The damage was not wind related, but rather due to significant flooding and resulting mudslides. To the north of the western highlands is the sparsely populated Petén, which includes about a third of the nation’s territory. This lowland region is composed of rolling limestone plateaus covered with dense tropical rain forest, swamps, and grasslands, dotted with ruins of ancient Maya cities and temples. A narrow, fertile plain of volcanic soil stretches along the Pacific coast. Once covered with tropical vegetation and grasslands, this area is now developed into plantations where sugar, rubber trees, and cattle are raised. Guatemala Cuisine and Coffee Although Guatemala does not have one national dish, many foods have emerged as diet staples for everyday use. As it was during Mayan times, corn continues to be a staple. Most often it is made into tortillas, served warm and wrapped in cloth. Another Mayan food, black beans, are also widely consumed, often at every meal. They are prepared in a variety of ways, from refried to mashed to simply eaten whole. Other staples include rice, eggs, and cheese. As in the U.S., the most popular proteins are chicken, turkey, and beef. These are normally served with beans and rice and are prepared roasted, grilled, or fried. They can also be cooked into stews. Pepian is a thick stew with meat and vegetables that is especially common in Antigua. Delicious seafood can be found on the coasts, prepared roasted, grilled, or fried, with a variety of spices. Although more caloric snacks such as doughnuts are popular (similar to the U.S.), an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables help to maintain a healthy diet. It is not difficult to fit in the daily portion of fruits and vegetables when options like fresh mangoes, papayas, bananas, yucca, and plantains are available almost year-round. Coffee is a large industry in Guatemala, and the region produces some of the best in the world. A trip to Guatemala should definitely include taking the time to sample the rich local coffees and their dark flavors. There are seven distinct types of Arabica coffee in Guatemala, distinctive in taste due to their soil, altitude, humidity, and rainfall. Travelers to Guatemala will therefore have no trouble finding a range of exceptional coffee, and may even be able to see a coffee finca or two, as well as mounds of beans drying in the sun and smell their distinct aroma. Other common refreshments include licuados, which are sweetened fruit juice mixed with water or milk, as well as soft drinks. The following are a few popular dishes that travelers should try during their Guatemala tour: Churrasco - charcoal-grilled center-cut beef tenderloin steak Chiles Rellenos - Roasted fresh green Anaheim, poblano or pasilla chili pepper stuffed with a melting cheese and meat made up of diced pork, raisins, and nuts, covered in an egg batter, and fried. It is often served in a tomato sauce. Platanos – Also called plantains, these starchier, less sweet relatives of the banana can be part of every meal. When harvested before they are ripe, they can take the place of potatoes in meals, and are especially delicious when mashed and fried in round pieces, then lightly salted. This preparation is called tostones. When ripe, they can make delicious desserts, possibly baked with milk, sugar, and cinnamon. Rugged and Mountainous Guatemala Geography Guatemala’s geography has frequently influenced its history. Close to two-thirds of the country’s total land area is mountainous. The rugged terrain provided refuge that allowed the indigenous peoples to survive the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, while the fertile valleys eventually produced fine coffees and other crops that dominated the nation’s economy. Frequent volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and torrential rains have often brought disaster to the country and made building and maintaining roads and railways very difficult. Guatemala is the most western of the Central American states, bounded on the west and north by Mexico, on the east by Belize and the Gulf of Honduras, on the southeast by Honduras and El Salvador, and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. Many people who travel Guatemala also include a trip to Belize in their itinerary – its close proximity makes for a easy day excursion over the boarder. Guatemala’s total area of 108,889 sq km (42,042 sq mi) makes it the third largest nation in the region, after Nicaragua and Honduras. At its widest points, the country stretches only about 430 km (270 mi) east to west and 450 km (280 mi) north to south. Guatemala's Lake Atitlan comfortably boasts the title, "most beautiful lake in the world" with its sweeping views of volcanoes. Along with its beauty, the lake offers those on a Guatemala trip hiking around the foothills of Volcano Atitlan and great kayaking, horseback riding and mountain biking in the area. Two mountain chains traverse Guatemala from west to east, dividing the country into three major regions: the western highlands, where the mountains are located; the Pacific coast, south of the mountains; and the Petén region, north of the mountains. These areas vary in climate, elevation, and landscape, providing dramatic contrasts between dense tropical lowlands and highland peaks and valleys. Guatemala's highlands lie along the Motagua Fault, part of the boundary between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates. This fault has been responsible for several major earthquakes in historic times, including a 7.5 magnitude tremor on February 4, 1976 which killed more than 25,000 people. In addition, the Middle America Trench, a major subduction zone lies off the Pacific coast. Here, the Cocos Plate is sinking beneath the Caribbean Plate, producing volcanic activity inland of the coast. The southern edge of the western highlands is marked by the Sierra Madre range, which stretches from the Mexican border south and east, almost to Guatemala City. It then continues at lower elevations toward El Salvador, in an area known as the Oriente. The chain is punctuated by steep volcanic cones, including Tajumulco Volcano (4220 m/13,845 ft), which is the highest point in the country. The northern chain of mountains begins near the Mexican border with the Cuchumatanes range, then stretches east through the Chuacús and Chamá mountains and slopes down to the Santa Cruz and Minas mountains near the Caribbean Sea. The northern and southern mountains are separated by a deep rift, where the Motagua River and its tributaries flow from the highlands into the Caribbean. Guatemala Wildlife Beckons the Birders During a trip to Guatemala visitors can experience some of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Some of the animals you may encounter on land include jaguars, pumas, howler monkeys, ocelots, wolves of prairie, coyotes, lizards, armadillos, iguanas and several species of serpents (oil lamp, chorale, mazacuate and yellow beard). In the water it is possible to find catfish, shrimp, oysters, lobsters, crabs and turtles. Crocodiles can be found in freshwater, brackish water and mangrove swamps. Bird enthusiasts should not pass up the opportunity to tour Guatemala. A few of the sights include herons (white, pink, blue and gray), wild turkeys (chompipas), parrots, toucans, pheasants, and gorgeous (but endangered) scarlet macaws. The national symbol of Guatemala – the beautiful Quetzal with the long green tail and crimson chest – lives in the highland regions. Culture of Guatemala On a trip to Guatemala you will discover a culture that reflects strong Mayan and Spanish influences, and that continues to be defined as a contrast between poor Mayan villagers in the rural highlands, and the urbanized and relatively wealthy mestizos population (known in Guatemala as ladinos) who occupy the cities and surrounding agricultural plains. With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, power was transferred to the foreigners, and their mixed-race descendants, the ladino, became the new powerful families of Guatemala. Unlike in much of the rest of the New World, however, the Europeans did not completely marginalize or supplant the indigenous people, but rather formed an uneasy alliance. While Spanish became the official language mandated in schools, various Mayan languages never died out, and are still widely-spoken throughout the highlands today. The music of Guatemala comprises several styles and expressions. The Maya had an intense musical practice. Guatemala was also one of the first regions in the New World to be introduced to European music, beginning in 1524. Many composers from the Renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, and contemporary music styles have contributed works of all genres, of very high quality. The marimba is Guatemala’s national instrument. The marimba is made of keys or bars (usually made of wood) that produce musical tones when struck with mallets. The keys are arranged as those of a piano, with the accidentals raised vertically and overlapping the natural keys to aid the performer both visually and physically. Although Spanish is the official language, it is not universally spoken among the indigenous population, nor is it often spoken as a second language. During a Guatemala trip you may hear up to twenty-one distinct Mayan languages are spoken, especially in rural areas. In addition, there are several non-Mayan Amerindian languages, such as the indigenous Xinca, and Garifuna, an Arawakan language spoken on the Caribbean coast. The Maya peoples are known for their brightly colored yarn-based textiles, which are woven into capes, shirts, blouses, and dresses. Each village has its own distinctive pattern, making it possible to distinguish a person's hometown on sight. Women's clothing consists of a shirt (camisa) and a long skirt (falda). Roman Catholicism combined with the indigenous Maya religion to form the unique syncretic religion that prevailed throughout the country and continues to do so in the rural regions. The unique religion is reflected in the local saint, Maximón, who is associated with the subterranean force of masculine fertility and prostitution. Always depicted in black, he wears a black hat and sits on a chair, often with a cigar placed in his mouth and a gun in his hand, with offerings of tobacco, alcohol, and Coca-cola at his feet. The locals know him as San Simon of Guatemala. Beginning from negligible roots prior to 1960, however, Protestant Pentecostalism has grown to become the predominant religion of Guatemala City and other urban centers and down to mid-sized towns. 1960 was also the approximate start of the long and brutal Civil War, which pitted the wealthier urban ladinos against the poorer rural Mayans. Both sides engaged in death squad tactics, although by all counts the losses were far greater on the villagers’ side as the ladinos controlled the government and the military. The government hit squads were aided by the traditional practice of Mayan villagers wearing distinctive fabrics identifying their home village, allowing the government soldiers to kill suspected anti-government villagers on sight. The civil war forced moderates and the middle class to either take sides or flee the country, further polarizing the country. After 36 years of war and approximately 100,000 deaths, a peace agreement was brokered in 1996 and the country has been gradually healing since that time. Understandably, great animosity still exists between rich and poor, Maya and ladino, although they all identify themselves as Guatemalan. Guatemala City is home to many of the nation’s libraries and museums, including the National Archives, the National Library, and the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, which has an extensive collection of Maya artifacts. There are private museums, such as the Ixchel, which focuses on textiles, and the Popol Vuh, which focuses on Mayan archeology. Both museums are housed inside the Universidad Francisco Marroquín campus. The Guatemala National Prize in Literature is a one-time only award that recognizes an individual writer's body of work. It has been given annually since 1988 by the Ministry of Culture and Sports. Miguel Angel Asturias, won the Literature Nobel Prize in 1967. Among his most famous books is "El Señor Presidente", a novel based on the government of Manuel Estrada Cabrera. Look into Guatemala Politics Guatemala’s political structure is a presidential representative democratic republic, in which the President of Guatemala has both positions of head of state and head of government. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Congress of the Republic. The Congress of the Republic is the unicameral legislature of the Republic of Guatemala. It comprises 158 deputies, who are elected by direct universal suffrage to serve four-year terms (the number was increased from 113 for the 2003 election). The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. Guatemala's 1985 Constitution provides for a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The 1993 constitutional reforms included an increase in the number of Supreme Court justices from 9 to 13. The terms of office for president, vice president, and congressional deputies were reduced from five years to four years; for Supreme Court justices from six years to five years, and increased the terms of mayors and city councils from 30 months to four years. The Constitutional Court is Guatemala's highest court. It is composed of five judges, elected for concurrent five-year terms by Congress, each serving one year as president of the Court: one is elected by Congress, one elected by the Supreme Court of Justice, one is appointed by the President, one is elected by Superior Council of the Universidad San Carlos de Guatemala, and one by the bar association. The Supreme Court of Justice comprises thirteen members, who serve concurrent five-year terms and elect a president of the Court each year from among their number. The president of the Supreme Court of Justice also supervises trial judges around the country, who are named to five-year terms). The 1999 presidential and legislative elections were considered by international observers to have been free and fair. Participation by women and indigenous voters was higher than in the recent past, although concerns remained regarding the accessibility of polling places in rural areas. Guatemala Weather Guatemala travel is enhanced by a climate that has been described as the "Land of Eternal Spring"; and indeed, much of the country does enjoy an agreeable climate. However, there are exceptions! The biggest climatic consideration for those looking to tour Guatemala is altitude. In the highlands including Antigua, Guatemala City, Lago de Atitlan and Chichicastenango, the altitude is between 4,260-6,890' (1,300-2,100 m) and the daytime climate is usually pleasant between 64-82°F (18-28°C). Humidity is rarely a problem. However, be prepared for temperatures to cool off at night and be sure to pack some layers. In the coastal areas and the Peten jungle lowlands the heat and humidity can be draining. At any time of the year, be prepared to find temperatures above 85°F (30°C). The historic Tikal ruins owe the lushness of their jungle environment to the climate. Marvel at the ruins but be ready for steamy and humid conditions: as you wander among these towering pyramids, imagine building them under these temperatures! Two seasons exist in Guatemala. Winter, or the rainy season, lasts from May to October. The skies are normally a mix of sunshine and clouds, and travelers to Guatemala can expect periodic short tropical downpours in the late afternoons, clearing for the evening. Summer, or the dry season, is between November and April and paradoxically is the time of coolest temperatures. Due to the clear skies the coolest nighttime temperatures occur in December and January, with occasional snowfall and frosts at high altitudes. For most of the country, this is the best time of year to visit Guatemala. April and May are the hottest months; relief from the heat comes with the start of the rains.