live in guatemalaSo… a crazy thing happened the other day. We woke up, and discovered that we live in Guatemala (that’s not the crazy part). The crazy part is that we discovered that we’ve been living here for one year!!!

Yes, can you believe it!! It’s been one full year since we first crossed the border from Belize, stopped off in Tikal, and then descended from the Guatemalan highlands to the lakeside town of Panajachel (all the while hoping our brakes wouldn’t go out on that steep, windy road that drops down from Solola.)

Just a few days ago, we officially celebrated our ‘Pana-versary’, one full-year living on the shores of Lake Atitlan, a comparatively long time to be in one place for a nomadic, wandering family like ours.

So what’s it like living in this country? (And, why are we still here?)

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I arise while it’s still dark, and spend time studying before my kids wake up. The roosters are already crowing, but most of the street dogs are silent, a welcome repose.

After a morning snack (Atlas, 2, asks for food as soon as he gets up), Greg and I take our morning hike, leaving the kids to work on their chores and to get breakfast going. We walk down our street, passing bushes and trees blooming in purples, pinks, magenta and orange, then cut off the road to the left, up a trail that climbs the mountain to the onion fields above.

Live in Guatemala - 07The hike leaves me out of breath (not hard, since I’m not in great shape… but I’m working on it). Greg and I use this time to discuss ideas and formulate future plans. Once we reach the fields, we pause for a moment to gaze at the towering volcano of Toliman as it looms over the lake. During this time of year, the sky is hazy, because the corn fields are being burnt, in preparation for a new seeds to be sown, but the view is still breathtaking (or maybe it’s just the hike.)

As we begin our descent, we wish a ‘Buenos dias’ to the men and women on their morning commute — climbing up to the foot-access-only fields where they’ll spend the day working.

Back at home, our maid has arrived and is washing dishes and cleaning up. We share breakfast with our kids, then get clean using our ‘suicide shower’ (so named because of it’s illogical combination of electricity and water), the only source of hot water in our house.

The neighbors have already begun their familiar pat, pat, pat as they form masa into tortillas. The corn grinder is also in full operation, making it’s usual whir, whir, whir, sound, and runs much of the day, grinding more feed corn to be made into a never ending round of tortillas.

Live in Guatemala - 08In need of groceries, we walk down our street toward town, until we find a tuc tuc to give us a ride (we’re on the ‘outskirts’ of Pana, so there are fewer tucs out our way.) Carrying our own grocery bags, we do the ‘easy’ shopping first at stores like Despensa and Chalos (buying bread and milk, maybe cheese or yogurt), before we walk toward the centro (where the market is located) to buy the ‘heavy’ stuff.

Living in Pana you do a lot of walking, especially around town while you’re doing errands. There’s the pacas where we buy nice clothes for cheap (think thrift store). We get school supplies at the libreria, and doo dads at the 3 quet store (even toothbrushes and tupperware). Dropping in at the tailors, we pick up clothing that was mended. Then maybe we’ll run across the street to the biblioteca where we’re allowed to check out 3 books each (only 2 for kids).

Now at the market, we stop for lunch before making purchases. We get the usual (and probably the only options) — caldo or guisado with vegetables, rice, and tortillas, only $2.00 a plate.

Bellies full, we choose our fruits and veggies from our ‘usual’ lady. Loading up our bags to overflowing with watermelon, papaya, melon, carrots, onions, broccoli, and zucchini, we strong arm them onto our shoulders, then haul them up the stairs and outside to the street. Here we pick up five pounds of strawberries from our strawberry lady, maybe grab some kale and fresh coconuts, then catch a tuc to lug our purchases to the house.

At home, the clothes have been washed and hung on the line, and we unpack groceries. Somedays, we’ll catch a pickup to Patanatic so we can work on the self-reliance project. Or we might install smoke-reducing stoves.

Once a week, Greg and I will go out for dinner with friends, usually at a restaurant on Santander such as Lazzeronis, Guajimbos, Patio or the Deli. I’m wearing my usually hoodie to keep me warm, since the temp will drop to a ‘chilly’ 59 degrees. (Don’t hate me ;) ) This is known as the ‘land of the eternal spring’ here at Lake Atitlan.

Occasionally, we’ll branch out to other parts of Guatemala (we’re so brave, aren’t we ;) ). We might:

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Next week we may be headed to Monterrico, a beach town. Won’t that be fun?

Oh, and the last thing I hear before drifting off to sleep each night is the herd of street dogs howling and barking.

Culture

If there’s one thing Guatemala’s got, it’s culture. It often reminds my husband of Peru. Although it is the ‘land of the Mayans’, there are not as many ruins here as in Mexico, although one of the best (Tikal) is here in Guatemala.

Live in Guatemala - 06Many men, woman and children still wear the traditional clothing, especially around the lake and in the mountains and highlands.

Hand-weaved huipils (blouses), cortes (skirts) and faja (belt) for women, and the traditional traje for men (which includes colorful pants with a mismatched and equally colorful ‘skirt’ or ‘apron’ around the waist.) You can tell what city or town a woman is from by the design of her huipil, corte and head dress.

For many Guatemalans, Spanish is their second language — with an indigenous Mayan language such as kaqchikel or K’iche as their first (over 21 Mayan languages are still spoken in Guatemala). Many of the people speak at least three or four languages, including Spanish.

Guatemala has a literacy rate of about 50-69%. Between 30-50% of the population over age 15 cannot read or write. This is in a large measure due to the focus of average families on the need to survive, since many of them live hand-to-mouth. The United Nations ranked Guatemala 131 out of 187 countries in the 2011 Human Development Index (which compares life expectancy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide.)

life in guatemalaIn fact, Guatemala is ranked as the most malnourished country in Central America, and the fourth most in the world. The staple of the Guatemalan diet is corn — in the form of tortillas, atol (a corn drink or soup), chuchichos (corn tamales) and more. There’s not a lot of variety. (Which is in part why we included garden boxes in our self-reliance project.)

Poor nutrition leads to inability to learn or to focus. Poverty leads to children dropping out of school to help on the farm or to get a job, which leads to perpetuation of the problem in the next generation. It’s a vicious cycle.

The Guatemalans are religious (traditionally Catholic, thanks to the Spanish Conquest), and celebrate holidays such as Dia de los Muertos (which honors their ancestors and those who have died), and Semana Santa (Holy Week), which remembers the suffering of Christ before he was crucified.

The major form of transportation for most Guatemalan people is walking, bicycle, motorcycle, tuc tuc or bike taxis, or ‘chicken bus’. Some own cars, but not many. Day or night, you’ll find people out on the streets, walking, talking, selling or shopping. It’s a very social place.

culture guatemala

People

As a people, the Guatemalans are wonderful, kind, and hard-working. They value family relationships and they work very hard to provide for their families. They are also very happy. No matter how heavy the load on their back, they’ll still smile, or stop to talk to you. They’re incredibly strong, and perform human feats I never thought possible (like riding a bike with one hand along a cobblestone street with three passengers hanging on to their neck; or riding on the back of a motorcycle, without holding on, while nursing a baby in one arm and carrying a toddler in the other!)

Men and woman have their roles, and they stick to them. You’ll rarely see a man carrying a baby, (or anything on his head.) Women work in the markets, take care of children, cook and clean. Men do manual labor, or drive tucs. They both run family owned shops, or work in the fields. And they are both tough, very, very tough.

Many of the people are descendants of the Mayans, but there’s also some diversity. The big city (Guatemala) is vibrant and progressive. And on the Caribbean coast you’ll find the Garifuna culture (African descent).

While there is a socioeconomic range that exists in Guatemala, it’s not as diverse as that in Mexico. There’s not as much wealth here as in other places in the world, though it still exists.

Overall, the Guatemalans are more reserved, quiet and soft-spoken. While they enjoy music, they don’t blast it as loud, or as often as the Mexicans. When it’s time to have fun, they enjoy their fiestas (the music is plenty loud then, like on Christmas Eve in Pana). But for the most part, they live simply and humbly.
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people of guatemalaTerrain

Although Guatemala is small, it offers a diverse terrain. From the jungles of Tikal, the cloud forests and mountain highlands to the beaches, lakes and rivers, and volcanoes, there’s a lot here in this tiny country the same size as the U.S. state of Tennessee.

Surprisingly, we haven’t discovered a lot of wildlife here. Most of the animals are domesticated, although we have heard about coyotes (that’s a funny story!), and we’ve seen some squirrels and birds… but that’s about it. (Not a whole lot, especially when we think about all the wildlife in Costa Rica.)

Terrain CollageSafety & Visas

In the past, Guatemala endured a violent civil war and may have not been a safe place to visit. But today, this country is heavily protected by police and a very safe place. We frequently see policia patrolling the highways, streets and neighborhoods, and they are always very friendly and protective of foreigners. While theft can and does occur (like the morning we got robbed) we’ve never felt unsafe, even walking the streets at night here in Panajachel. The overall atmosphere is friendly and harmless.

If you’re a foreigner, Guatemala will give you a 90 day visa when you arrive (part of the CA4, which includes El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua). When that 90 days is up, you have to renew the visa (if you don’t leave the country), along with vehicle permits, if you drive in.

Technically, you’re supposed to leave the country for 3 days (going to either Mexico or Belize, since the countries in the CA4 don’t count for renewing visas). But, if you talk to the right people, and have Q100 per passport, then you can get renewed without the 72-hour departure.

I’ve also heard you can renew visas and vehicle permits in Guatemala City, but we don’t have any personal experience with that.

Food

When I wrote about our time in Mexico, I really spent some time raving about the food – tacos, tlyudas, tortas, tamales and much more.

I’m not sure that I’ll have as much to say about the food in Guatemala…

There are some meals that are quite tasty — caldo (a beef or chicken broth with vegetables), guisado (a beef or chicken stew), dobladas (meat & veggies fried in masa - a corn flour dough), pollo encebollado (chicken in onions), asados (grilled chicken, beef or pork – usually with green onions) and pupusas (which are actually Salvadoranian.)

There are also some things I’m just not fond of… chuchitos (a kind of tamale made from corn flour and wrapped in corn husks), tamales (made from rice flour and wrapped in ‘banana’ leaves, and usually mushy), fried chicken and french fries (okay, this is good when I’m craving something unhealthy). And the corn tortillas. The staple in Guatemala is corn tortillas, and while I loved the corn tortillas in Mexico (we would heat them plain, hot, and fresh off the fire), the tortillas in Guatemala have cal in them (crushed limestone) and aren’t as delicious…at least to me.

To be fair, there are a lot of dishes I haven’t tried. Since we’ve spent most of our time at Lake Atitlan, we’ve only tasted what they have to offer around here. Other destinations in the country offer different fare — like iguana stew (something our friends tried when we visited Xocomil)

While I may not rave about the tipica Guatemalan food like I did Mexican food, don’t worry, we’re not going hungry. There’s still plenty of good things to eat, not to mention all the fresh fruits and vegetables! Mangoes, bananas, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, melon, strawberries, apples, lychee, zucchini, carrots, broccoli, plus things you’ve never even heard of before — and so much more — much of it local and cheap, cheap, cheap.

Food Collage

Cost of Living

Just like many places you travel to, you can live inexpensively in Guatemala, and you could also live expensivelyIt all depends on you.

Just here in Panajachel, you can rent a house for $200 a month, up to (I think the highest I heard) $7000 a month. It all depends on what you’re looking for, and what sort of lifestyle you’re after.

Here’s a sample of what you might spend in Guatemala:

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  • Mangoes (first because they’re my favorite) – 3/$0.65 (when they’re in season)
  • Watermelon – $1.30
  • Papaya – $1.68
  • Bananas – $0.77/dozen
  • Carrots – $0.78/dozen
  • Zucchini – $0.26/each
  • Eggs – $4.38/30
  • Milk (in a 1 liter bag) – $1.00
  • Apples – $1.16/lb imported; $0.39/lb local (when in season)
  • Pears – $1.16/lb imported
  • Can of tuna – $1.98
  • Black beans (dry, 1lb) – $0.65
  • Tortilla chips – $2.10
  • Loaf of whole wheat bread – $2.97
  • Diapers – $7.74 to $11.61
  • Pack of 80 wipes (Huggies) – $1.94
  • Diesel – $4.25/gallon
  • Dinner for two – $5 to $18 (depending on what kind of food you want)
  • Dinner for seven – $14 (because we usually eat at the market, or get pupusas, where you spend $2.00 a plate)

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Cost of living comes down to what your lifestyle is about. If you want to live on fresh fruits and vegetables, and local foods, and in simple accommodations, you’ll live inexpensively.

If you’ll be continuing your diet from ‘home’, with imported foods, and living in a pricey expat neighborhood, you’ll spend a lot more. It’s all up to you.

Guatemala is a great country. I don’t have the slightest hesitation in recommending it as a destination for travel, vacation, retirement or raising your children.

We never thought we would be here this long, but we’re really enjoying it.

So why are we still here — we who are supposed to be nomadic, driving from Alaska to Argentina?

Well, there’s 3 main reasons:

Community

Somehow we’ve found (or attracted) a really great group of friends. Currently there are 5 families here in Pana (including ours), and between us we have 22 kids ages 2 to 16. We share similar values and have a lot of fun together.

Each of us homeschool following similar methods, so we do book clubs, art and music classes, sign language and cooking lessons, not to mention all the cool ‘field trips’ we do together, and weekly date nights for the adults. Overall, we’re just having a really great time.

For everything there is a time and season, and right now this is the season of friendship and learning.

Contribution

After the success of our perpetual self-reliance project, we’ve explored ideas that would take it to a community level — creating a local ‘model’ homestead where the local Guatemalans could come and ‘learn and earn’. There would be hands-on work, and live demonstration where they could ‘catch the vision’ of ideas that can help to improve nutrition, create more self-reliance, PLUS protect the lake from the onslaught of pollution that comes from sewage and gray water runoff. Stay tuned for more information on this.

Business

I’ve been taking part in weekly business mentoring through an ‘online reality show’. It’s keeping me busy, and helping to grow our business, which will solidify our long-term sustainability for the rest of our traveling life. :) As romantic as the notion of ‘working from anywhere’ sounds, it’s not a feasible option. To work consistently on something that will bring the results you want, you need scheduled time, consistent internet, and a place to do it. All of those things are difficult to do (consistently) when you’re on the road.

So when will we leave? I don’t know… What’s your guess? (And would YOU like to visit Guatemala?)

About The Author

Mother of six kids, Rachel has traveled with them to 12 countries, along the way inspiring you to get out there and pursue your own unique dreams. Want an awesome life? Learn how with this free video

47 Responses

  1. livingoutsideofthebox

    What a wonderful writeup, Rachel. Wish we were one of those 5 families in Pana right now…sigh!!  But there is a time and a season for all things… 
     
    I agree it is too hard to travel continuously while being able to successful grow your business. Focus is only possible when you are in a position to not worry about the daily details of “travel”…as I am learning. We will soon be slowing, as well. 
     
    Guatemala is a beautiful place, and we’re so glad we were able to come down last Spring and visit you and the area. Gorgeous–vibrant–and so colorful!
     
    Give your family our love!

    Reply
    • RachelDenning

      @livingoutsideofthebox We would love to have you here! It’s been almost a year since our ‘unconventional family convention’ :) Miss you guys!

      Reply
  2. bohemiantravelers

    I have a feeling Guatemala may be happening soon for us.  Thanks for this post, reminds me of that great community sense and Central American culture I do miss.

    Reply
  3. joycemontejo

    Love this post! Our family just returned from 3 weeks in Gautemala. My husband’s village is called Agua Zarca and is on the Mexican side of Huehuetenango. My brother in law lives in Solola. It was my 3rd trip. We also are a homeschooling family with 6 children. Too bad we didn’t know about ya’ll then when we were there. We were also able to visit Fundacion Salvacion and help the church my husband’s family attends. We love Guatemala and are praying for God to help us get freed up to be there for longer periods of time.

    Reply
    • lanenkailar

      My husband is from Buxup, Guatemala! That is fairly near to Agua Zarca, if I am correct. :-) He is 100 percent Jacaltec Mayan. Since getting married, we’ve been unable to go to Guatemala but we would like to one day.

      Reply
      • Rachel Denning

        That is so neat. Guatemala is a fantastic country.

  4. hawaiibobb

    @redparka Aloha! Duz sound great & i’d LUV their Mexican food! U should go & rite a book hb

    Reply
  5. MaryBright1

    This was such an interesting post. I love reading about interesting places from people visiting/living there. I’m curious about the “things you’ve never even heard of before ” you mentioned in the section about local produce. You should tell us more about that.

    Reply
  6. ColinKelly

    Awesome writeup Rachel!  We love being one of the 5 families here and always look forward to our daily adventures together!  It truly is a magical place that sucks you in!

    Reply
  7. TravelwitBender

    Will be in Antigua Saturday and we are so coming to meet you. Cant wait!

    Reply
  8. PierreH

    I’m very interested in the vegetable oil diesel conversion idea and I’d appreciate if Greg could tell me the pros and cons of the system. Is it as good as the company claim it is?  I found your site three days ago by fluke and I’ve been glued to the screen since. I had to read everything and watch all the videos. I was brought up by parents who travelled all the time, and I’m really thankful for it. Because of it, I regard myself as a “planeterian”, a soul without silly borders. Your children will one day definitely realize the full scope of how mind-expanding their globe-trotting adventures has had on them. As for both of you… you are beautiful people. Keep on evolving! God knows we need more people living their birth-right potentials. May each breath empower you even more.

    Reply
    • RachelDenning

      Wow Pierre! Thanks for your great comment. I love hearing about people who have had a childhood similar to what our kids are experiencing. Thanks for sharing! All the best in the world to you.

      Reply
    • RachelDenning

      Oh, and I’ll have my hubby do a post about the veggie… alternatively you can contact him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/gregory.denning

      Reply
  9. RachelDenning

    Thanks for this glimpse into your lives. Guatemala is on our list of places to visit within the next few years. It is so good to know there is an active homeschooling community there!

    Reply
  10. Amy

    Thanks for this glimpse into your lives. Guatemala is on our list of places to visit within the next few years. It is so good to know there is an active homeschooling community there!

    Reply
  11. GaryHancock

    I am very interested in re-locating to lake atitlan . I am on disability so income is limited but from what I have read, it will be plenty sufficient to live in this area. Any information you could give me would be very helpful

    Reply
  12. 4nomadas

    Lovely post.  One comment:  Guatemala is not an entirely safe country.  It’s true that there is violence anywhere on this planet.  Unfortunately you as white foreigners have the privilege of protection from the police.  My indigenous friends there do not, and violence is ongoing.  It looks different than it did during the civil war however it persists.  I would suggest that you stay abreast of local politics and be aware of the reality around you.  Yes it is a beautiful and lovely place with incredible people but it is not paradise for all.  Blessings on you and yours.

    Reply
  13. zjhoskin

    Hello! Thanks for all of the great information. I’m wanting to move to Lake Atitlan for an extended stay (manths, years, who knows?) but, I require a somewhat consistent internet connection to maintain some income. I am a graphic designer, photographer and artist, so I need some sort of connection. I was wondering what the internet situation is like around the lake? Is it consistent and reliable, or will you go days without having any connection. Thank you so much! Happy living!

    Reply
    • RachelDenning

      zjhoskin Internet is not super fast here in Guatemala, but it is reliable. We lived in the Dominican Republic and it was constantly going out (either that or the power went out). But here we’ve found it to be very reliable. We currently use a USB stick from Claro (a phone/internet company here) that we plug into our computer and recharge when needed.

      Reply
  14. samtayloru3

    Nice comprehensive post. Thank you so much for this. I have never been here but would like to visit for sure. This place seems to be very nice. The environment, culture, traditions and other things seem to be good. The only thing is they need to be developed a lot. I have a chain of http://www.clubvillamar.com/ and would like to do something for this area too. Will respond asap. Thank you for making us aware of such things. :)

    Reply
  15. MollieLambert

    ran upon your post while doing a random search about living in Guatemala…my BF randomly said about three months ago, “Lets move to Guatemala!” I brushed it off but the idea stuck in my head.  recently while having lunch with his sister and her SO it was brought up again in more detail.  Im very curious, not sure if it could happen, Im thinking about work and bringing in some sort of income (that is actually my biggest concern) Would love to chat with you more if your ever free???

    Reply
  16. Kathy

    Thank you for this article!!  I just came across it this morning when I did a search for ‘Living in Guatemala’. I read it to our family (consisting of my husband and 3 girls!) on the way to church.  We are planning on spending three of our winter months (January to March, 2014) in Antigua.  We will be attending a Language School while we are there.  This gave us a good idea of what to expect!!  Thanks again for this informative post! Kathy

    Reply
  17. Susan

    We were just in your neighborhood today :-) Great lunch by the water and strolls around town. We ended up on an alley off the main road and had a lovely time seeing some hidden markets and taquerias and greeting the locals.

    Wonderful location.

    Reply
  18. Susan

    Actually… wondering if I saw you today! Saw an American woman that looked somewhat like you :-)

    Reply
  19. LydiaNicoleMockabee

    Thank you!!!! Guatemala is where I know God has called me to serve and I can’t wait to go there!!!!!!

    Reply
  20. hippieamanda

    Thank you for sharing! I love what you do, you are such an inspiration :)
    I want to spend the summer doing volunteer work and learn spanish. Im a little bit worried about the weather in june and july, is it very little sun?
    Im thinking about going to Antigua
    Or ecuador (galapagos ) or costa rica for 8 weeks.
    Take care :)
    Xx

    Reply
  21. RachelDenning

    hippieamanda  Thanks so much. The weather would be fine in  June and July. It is rainy season, but mostly only rains in the afternoons. Otherwise sunny and beautiful. Of course Ecuador would be awesome, and we love Costa Rica.

    Reply
  22. hippieamanda

    RachelDenning hippieamanda Thank you for answering! And congratulations with your baby girl! Amazing reading!!
    As I am not an experienced traveller and would travel alone, im also thinking about safety. Ive heard about students and tourists being attacked, assaulted and of course robbed. Where would you say is the safest cities in wich countries, and the safest place to go?
    My options are Quito and Galapagos, Antigua and Hawaii- monterrico, and costa rica.

    What im thinking is that galapagos will be a little expensive and that guatemala seems the most unsafe.
    I would love it if you could make som recommendations based on your experiences and what youve heard.
    Where do you believe i can be most safe?
    And do you have any other suggestions, a country or city i could go? Where these are the priorities 1 safety 2 volunteering with turtles and wildlife 3 learning spanish 4 warm weather 
    X

    Reply
  23. RachelDenning

    hippieamanda RachelDenning  I feel that Guatemala was very safe, and I really like Antigua. I did not go to Hawaii/Monterrico, but visited other beach towns on the Guatemalan coast and really liked them. I have not been to Quito or Galapagos (yet). Costa Rica is of course a great country, although more expensive. I would recommend either Guatemala or Costa Rica, though the beaches in CR are nicer than Guatemala. But you would be safe in either location.

    Reply
  24. PabloCardona

    Great it’s amazing that you like Guatemala, im from here! but i’m from the capitol. i think is way much different, ofcouse we have somethings we share like the culture and music and food, but there is other like the weather (is a little bit colder here) and panajachel is an small city, Guatemala City is huge and its great! i know we might have some issues with security but is really an amazing place, and the best thing is that you can travel all around Guatemala in a few hours and is way more cheaper than in other countries. if you want to know more about Guatemala just send me an email
    pablo.cardona@ymail.com i have some experiencie working with americans and i’m willing to still doing it, im 17 years old and i love my country.

    Reply
  25. Jessica Johnson

    Before children I lived in Belize and Ecuador, and somehow accidentally ended up in the US again. Now I have two children, ages 8 and 10, and would love to move to CA again. Thanks for having an informative article from the perspective of a family. Here I homeschool, but would it be possible for my children to attend school there? I’d like them to get good at Spanish, mine is rusty, but I’m not worried.

    Reply
    • Rachel Denning

      Hi Jessica,

      There are schools that your children could attend if you would like… one is called Life School in Panahachel. There are also Spanish schools/classes you could take, which might fit well with a homeschool schedule, since it’s nice to have that flexibility to travel, explore, etc.

      Reply
  26. Dulce

    hi! Thank you for the information!
    A few questions… what about taking a pet.. special permits in Guatemala???
    you go into Guatemala as a tourist… do I need to show round trip flight once I get there? to prove that I “will leave” the country?
    thank you!

    Reply
    • Rachel Denning

      No, it is not necessary to show proof of exit when you arrive in Guatemala, at least not when we were there. As for pets, I think you can bring them with no problem, although you would want to have vet/vaccination paperwork with you.

      Reply

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