To stay hydrated when backpacking in Guatemala, think like a local. In most municipal towns, you will find a central park or square with large tubs of free agua potable (filtered water suitable for drinking) from which you can fill your water bottle. When you run into situations that deny access to a source of free water, you have a few options.
Bags of Agua Potable
For less than 1Q or 50 cents USD, you can generally find purified water in 12oz plastic bags. If you lack a water bottle or container to pour it into, bite a small hole in the corner and drink it the way the locals do. To be safe re: avoiding germs, use a bit of rubbing alcohol to sanitize the bag beforehand. A 2oz container of rubbing alcohol is always ideal to have on hand, in cases such as this and also as part of the mini first-aid kit you should carry with you at all times.
Portable Water Filter
I carried a portable water filter while backpacking in Ecuador, but found I didn’t need it. In Ecuador they treat the tap water with iodine, which makes it safe to drink. In Guatemala, I’m fairly certain my travel companion brought one. However, I never used it and I don’t think he did either; from prior experience backpacking through Latin America we learned that tap water, when boiled, is perfectly safe to drink. That aside, when I researched water filters in 2010 in preparation for Ecuador, I found limited options in terms of portability and convenience. Five years later, the google search results instantaneously pointed to the LifeStraw, which boasts that it allows you to procure drinking water from “virtually any source” without the aftertaste characteristic of other portable filters. Also, for every LifeStraw water filter sold, a child in Africa receives clean water for an entire school year.
You can buy these in Guatemala, but they’re not very expensive in the states i.e. at REI or online. It’s never a bad idea to have some on hand, should you run into a sticky situation e.g. you arrive at a border crossing and can barely speak to the guard because you’re parched, having run out of water—and with no tiendas in sight, all you have to work with is the questionable cup of tap water offered to you so you can speak up and explain that it is you in the passport photo, despite the fact that your signature has changed significantly since you were 16 and you are now blonde with a very short haircut as opposed to a brunette with dreads.
Clearly, brands other than Potable Aqua Water Treatment Tablets exist. I have thorough experience with this brand however, and endorse it over other brands I’ve tried.
Boiling is the safest, most tried and true method of water purification. Buy a lightweight metal pot from an open-air market in Guatemala, and carry it with you when you travel. Keep the iodine tablets on hand for times when you don’t have access to a stove or flame. If you’re in the highlands and it’s freezing, and you spot a woman selling a hot beverage reminiscent of water—typically a very weak coffee with sugar or panela—drink it. It’s boiled to a temperature high enough to melt the sugarcane. It’s purified liquid that will hydrate you, so be prepared to bite the bullet and ingest some sugar. If made traditionally, the sugar is pure sugarcane juice added to water. When you find yourself in a situation like this, without the convenience of tiendas and with a crowd of angry locals behind you screaming in Spanish to the guard that you’re a imposing tourist wasting their time…as you collect yourself, nervously awaiting a sentence of 5-10 in a Mexican prison, the dietary consequences of boiled panela water will seem insignificant.