Guatemala vs. Mexico


Lash overlooking Campeche Plaza & CathedralGuatemala vs. Mexico

(and, no, I don’t mean any sports events! lol)

After traveling through Guatemala twice and spending more than one year exploring Mexico, I couldn’t help but compare the two countries and contemplate how they stack up against one another.

I was especially interested to check my impressions of Guatemala the second time I visited, after having explored Mexico. And, in particular, I was curious to see if Guatemala’s wonderful colonial town of Antigua still held up after visiting so many gorgeous Mexican colonial towns and cities.

I was happy to discover that Antigua was just as beautiful and charming as ever. In fact, it was a bit bigger, more spacious and cleaner than I’d remembered. And it reminded me a lot of Mexico’s San Crystobal de Casas in Chiapas state (While in San Crystobal, I had thought it reminded me of Antigua as well).

Similarities Between Mexico and Guatemala

The Great Outdoors

The two countries are very very similar in many ways. They both have a huge diversity of natural places, topographies and climate zones. Both have Pacific coastlines with wild surfing beaches and black volcanic sand.

They have hilly highlands and mountainous terrain; dozens of volcanoes, many still actively spewing smoke or spitting lava; pretty Caribbean coastlines; crashing Pacific surfing beaches; hot & steamy tropical jungles; pine and deciduous forests; gushing rivers and crater lakes. Outdoor adventure opportunities are diverse and plentiful in both countries.

El Merced Cathedral viewed from Antigua's distinctive arch

El Merced Cathedral viewed from Antigua’s distinctive arch

Spanish Legacy

Both countries were also colonized by the Spanish, starting in the early 1500s. The Spaniards left important permanent legacies in both countries: the Spanish language; Catholicism; Spanish-style towns with a central plaza surrounded by columned government buildings and grid-patterned streets full of historic European architecture; grand churches & cathedrals and culinary influences.

Talud TableroTemple - Tikal-Guatemala

Talud TableroTemple – Tikal-Guatemala

The Mayans

The heart of the great Mayan civilizations stretched across the territory that is now Guatemala and eastern Mexico. The most impressive Mayan ruins are found in both countries.

The descendants of those original Mayans still thrive in both countries, many living generally traditional lives with their distinctive customs, clothing, languages, villages and cuisines in tact. Mayan culture is also woven deeply into the modern culture and peoples of both countries.

visiting a coffee plantation in Guatemala

visiting a coffee plantation in Guatemala

Produce and Tourism

Both countries grow an abundance of corn (the basis of their cuisines) as well as coffee, chocolate, fruits and vegetables. Thus, to some extent, the cuisines of both countries are nearly the same.

Both countries have thriving tourist industries, bringing a constant stream of western visitors and offering all sorts of outdoor adventures, scenery, indigenous culture and tasty food. In addition, many Ex-pats, mostly from north America, live in particular places in both Mexico and Guatemala.

But there are differences too…

LashWorldTour at waterfall cenote - Yucatan - Mexico

Here I am at a cenote with a high waterfall cascading down from its rim

Differences Between Mexico and Guatemala

The Great Outdoors

As for the great outdoors, Mexico is a vastly larger country than Guatemala. So it’s not surprising that in addition to having many of the same topographies and climate zones, Mexico has even more. These include hot arid deserts full of cacti in northern Mexico, more extensive Pacific and Caribbean coasts with a lot more beaches, the amazing cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula, to name a few.

Mayan street market in Antigua

Mayan street market in Antigua

The Mayans

While both countries have a large Mayan presence, Mexico also has dozens of other indigenous Indian groups. There art Aztec, Olmec and Tolmec ruins. The Nahual, Perepuchan, Mexcla and other groups still live traditional

lives in small pockets around the country, while others have integrated into the modern Mexican melting pot.

On the other hand, the Mayan presence in Guatemala is much more prominent.

In many parts of the country, including main tourist destinations, Mayans make up a significant part of the population, still dressing in traditional clothing and often selling fresh produce, stunning Mayan fabrics and various art and handcrafts. Their traditional weaving industry is well-established and fabrics are much more elaborate than those made by Mexican Mayans.

Mexican food in PueblaCuisines

While the cuisines of the two countries are very similar, based primarily on corn, with influences from Mayans and the Spaniards, Mexico has much more variety. And, rather surprisingly, Guatemalan food is considerably more expensive.

Zacatecas at nightCities and towns

In the early 1500s the Spaniards discovered large caches of silver, gold and other precious metals at several locations in central Mexico. They proceeded to extract all those treasures, build glorious cities & towns, and become very wealthy in the process.

As a result, Mexico is studded with dozens of spectacular historic towns and cities built on mining proceeds, following the magnificent, changing architectural styles of Europe during the 1500-1800s, and using the finest materials: marble, tile, terracotta and wood. Most of these towns and cities are still intact and renovated to one extent or other. They’re filled with elaborate, soaring cathedrals & churches, grandiose government buildings, palatial homes and blocks & blocks full of other colonial buildings.

In great contrast, Guatemala has just one remaining colonial city – Antigua. A few colonial buildings also remain in Guatemala City, Xela and a few small towns. But that’s the extent of the Spanish architectural legacy in Guatemala. Most towns and cities in Guatemala are sorely lacking in architectural beauty, amounting to conglomerates of unadorned cement houses & shops.

For travelers interested in architecture and beautiful cities, Mexico is far superior. Visitors to Guatemala could easily be disappointed or uninspired town-wise, aside from the stunning colonial town of Antigua and the cute island-town of Flores in northern Guatemala.

Mariachi band in CuernavacaThe Arts and Music

Mexico has a much more diverse art scene, music scene and traditional folk arts & handicrafts.

Public transportation and roads and getting around

Mexico wins hands down for roads and pubic transportation. Throughout the country, quality of roads and highways rivals those in the US. And Mexico’s bus system far exceed that of the USA in every aspect. Mexico has luxury buses that are on par with airplane journeys.

Guatemala has nothing like it. The country’s distinctive, colorful public buses are great to behold, but they are far from luxurious. They are essentially suped-up, elaborately decorated school buses. In rural areas mini-vans also serve as public transportation. All often become excessively over-filled with passengers, so that everyone is crammed in like sardines. In Mexico, generally once the seats are full, that’s it. No more passengers.

colorful public buses in Guatemala

colorful public buses in Guatemala

In addition, Guatemala’s roads are a mixed bag. Main highways between key cities and destinations are in excellent condition. But most roads consist of pot-holed paved roads or rough dirt roads. This makes traveling overland slow, rough and tiring.

In the end, Mexico’s public transportation system is considerably more modern, more luxurious, more comfortable, spacious, all with regular, frequent service to most places in the country. Roads are in excellent condition, making for a smooth, easy ride.

As a traveler, getting around Mexico is a much easier, comfortable and luxurious experience. Guatemala can be time-consuming, bumpy, cramped and crowded.

Recommendations for Travelers to Mexico and Guatemala

Travelers seeking great outdoor adventures can find plenty of excitement in both countries. Those specifically looking for beautiful beaches and/or surfing will have a lot more choice in Mexico.

People interested in Mayan ruins can find fantastic sites in both countries. Those specifically interested in traditional Mayan life, fabrics and arts will do better in Guatemala. 

Foodies will find much more diversity in Mexico, particularly central Mexico. Those into architecture, museums, music and the arts will also find a lot more of interest in Mexico. 

As for my personal opinion, while I greatly enjoyed both countries, when I take  into account all aspects of each nation, Mexico wins hands down as my favorite.

You might also find these articles useful:

17 Reasons Guatemala is an Easy Travel Destination

My Route Through Central Mexico

Busting American Myths About Mexico



  1. Tom

    Hi Lash, thanks for such an honest appraisal for both Guatemala and Mexico. After exploring both countries myself, I agree completely with you.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hey Tom!

      Welcome! Nice to see you here, fellow traveler!

      Ok, cool. Good to know you’ve got the same views on these 2 great countries.

      Thanks for stopping by to read and leave your views.

      cheers, Lash

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