Jürg Widmer Probst looks at Guatemala culture and etiquette

If you’re thinking of visiting Guatemala, then it’s well worth understanding a bit more about the culture and etiquette of our country. This is a place that has been influenced by many different ethnic groups, cultures and religions. We’ve posted here before about our country’s rich history and religious traditions.

All this has made modern-day Guatemala an incredible mix of influences. And we’re a friendly, welcoming country too. But day-to-day interactions can also be confusing for visitors sometimes. So, here is our guide to some of the most important things you need to know about Guatemala culture and etiquette. 

Greetings

We Guatemalans are open – but we can also be quite formal sometimes. One of the most noticeable examples of this is when we greet each other. 

Americans or Europeans might just say 'hi'. But when you meet a Guatemalan however, things are often a little more formal. Men will always shake hands firmly, and men and women will often air kiss. People in Spanish-speaking countries will generally go for two air kisses. It's usually right cheek first, but if you're not sure, just let the other person lead! We also prefer direct eye contact. 

It gets a little more complex when it comes to what you say. Just saying 'hola'isn't enough for a first meeting. Instead, go for the more formal 'Mucho gusto', or 'good to meet you'. Most Guatemalans will also use 'Buenos Dias' in the morning, 'Buenas tardes' in the afternoon and 'Buenas noches' in the evening.

Eating out

Of course, food is a big part of any culture, and as Guatemalans we are no different. Most of the restaurants and comedors(a kind of cheap diner) that you eat in will be informal. But in order to fit in it is still well worth knowing what people tend to eat, and when. 

Breakfasts are hearty – usually tortillas, eggs and beans. So, don't expect muesli if you're in a traditional eatery! 

Lunch time is where most Guatemalans generally settle down and have a big meal. If you're looking for a quick snack you might be better off having something from a street stall and eating on the go. If you're in a restaurant, expect two or three big, meat-filled courses.

In the evenings, we Guatemalans don't eat as late as the Spanish. Most of us will eat around 8 or 9pm, and generally it is a lighter meal than lunch. 

And finally, what about tipping in restaurants? Well, unlike in the US, where tipping is ubiquitous, it is much less common here in Guatemala. If you are in a fancy restaurant and you are happy with the service, then you might want to leave a 10% tip. Generally speaking, it isn't expected.

Read more about Guatemalan food here.

Taking pictures

Taking photographs as a tourist is always a delicate balancing act. While you might want to try and snap a picture that feels natural, don't be tempted to do it without asking first in Guatemala. This is particularly the case with Maya people up in the Highlands, who are especially sensitive to this issue. 

Our take on this is that if you want to take pictures of local people, Mayan or not, always speak to them first. Get to know the people you're visiting. Spend time with them, sit down and find out more about their lives. And if you all feel comfortable with it, then ask them if is OK to take a picture. 

One final tip about interacting with Maya people however. Don't just assume they will speak Spanish (let alone English). There are 31 different Mayan languages – so take the time to learn what you need to say first! You can read more of our thoughts on Mayan culture here

Appearance and socialising

As Guatemalans, we are typically a little more formal in the way we dress than Americans or Europeans. It is fairly unusual for men to wear shorts for example. Things are generally more relaxed by the beach however. 

The cities are much more formal. If you are lucky enough to attend an event like a wedding, then you'll need to dress appropriately. That means no jeans and trainers, and a neat and tidy appearance. 

Be mindful of covering up in churches and Mayan holy sites. And also, be aware of the significance of Mayan textiles too. Many patterns are a proud symbol of a particular area or cultural group. So, understand and be respectful of this if you choose to wear traditional clothing. 

A final word about events in general. In common with many Central and Southern American countries, Guatemalans are quite relaxed about turning up 'on time'. 

While Europeans and Americans focus on getting somewhere early or on the dot, the opposite is true here. Many people will turn up late to an event, so don't be surprised if this happens! 

Finally, if you’re invited to dinner at someone’s home, it’s also polite to take a gift. Flowers (not white – unless it is a funeral), wine or chocolates are always welcome.