This post discusses some important things to know before your trip to Guatemala. We knew some of these before our travel, but others would have been very helpful in planning a more efficient trip. We will keep adding to this list as and when we remember important details.
1) The official currency of Guatemala is the Quetzal. 1 Quetzal = 100 Centavos. US Dollars are readily accepted in most places. The approximate exchange rate of US$1 = Q8 is usually used everywhere.
2) ATMs are available in most tourist locations, so it should be fine to carry smaller amounts of Dollar cash into the country. However, these ATMs typically charge a percentage or flat fee to withdraw money. If you need to change money, do so in a bank or at the airport tax counter - they will give you an exchange rate close to US$1 = Q7.9. The private money exchangers in the airport give you a rate closer to US$1 = Q7.5.
3) Private tourist mini-buses typically do not travel after 7pm for safety reasons. If you need to travel after this time, you will have to use a public bus (could be unsafe) or private taxi (much more expensive). Try to plan your trips so that you travel between 5am and 7pm. Sunrise and sunset times in November are approximately 6:00am and 5:30pm respectively.
4) Keep Antigua, and not Guatemala City, as your trip base (central point) inside Guatemala. Antigua is the town that is most-visited by tourists, and most tourist buses operate from and to Antigua to other parts of Guatemala. Antigua is only 45min-1hr by bus/taxi from Guatemala City (Airport).
5) If you plan to visit Flores-Tikal (and you DEFINITELY should), try to plan this portion of the trip towards the beginning of your stay in Guatemala. Chances are, most of the places you will visit will be in the southwestern portion of the country, while Flores & Tikal are in the northeast. It is not particularly close to the more commonly visited towns.
6) The typical cost of a round-trip flight ticket between LAX and GUA at the time of the trip (last week of November, 2010) seemed to be around $600, but we ended up paying ~$800 because we waited a bit too long and our trip coincided with the Thanksgiving week in the US. The flying time from LAX to GUA is around 4.5-5 hrs, and most flights fly overnight, leaving late in the night from LAX and reaching GUA early in the morning. Dallas is around an hour closer, so flights leave in the evening and reach GUA the same night.
7) The typical cost of a round-trip flight ticket between Guatemala City and Flores is around $250, and the flight takes around 1hr. There are also several buses (public and private) plying between Antigua/Guatemala City and Flores which are much cheaper, but take around 10-11hrs one-way. (Note: the bus stand in Guatemala City for Linea Dorada, the most popular private bus line in Guatemala, is located in a very shady part of the city. Exercise caution in this area.)
8) Approximate travel times between common points:
GuaCity - Antigua: 1 hr
GuaCity - Flores (Tikal): 11 hrs
Antigua - Monterrico: 3 hrs (could involve taking a ferry)
GuaCity - Monterrico: 4 hrs (could involve taking a ferry)
GuaCity - Coban: 4 hrs
Coban - Semuc Champey/Grutas de Lanquin: 2 hrs
Flores - Coban: 6 hrs
LAX - GuaCity: 5 hrs
DFW - GuaCity: 4 hrs
GuaCity - Flores: 1 hr
Panajachel - Santiago Atitlan: 1 hr (0.5 hr by the more powerful private boats)