“Is Guatemala safe to travel to?”
For those who are wondering if Guatemala is safe or not. I feel you! Because I’ve had the same question. Before booking my flight to Guatemala, I kept receiving mixed opinions about Guatemala and it gave me so much anxiety. My friends were warning me about how I might get kidnapped, but then travel bloggers were telling me, “Oh don’t worry, it’s SUPER safe!” And I was like….”Ok, cool. I bet none of y’all know what you’re talking about. I’m gonna see for myself”
Guess what, in my mind, the BEST way to see for myself, was to actually go visit
and see WHAT HAPPENS! Hahaha. I booked a ONE-WAY ticket to Guatemala through Skyscanner and decided that I would stay there until my money runs out. I ended up staying in Guatemala for 3 months, and I managed to come back home in one piece. Not a toe nor a finger missing. Safe and sound!
I found out that neither my friends nor the bloggers were right. Guatemala is definitely not that dangerous, but I wouldn’t say it’s super safe either. Just like visiting any country in the world, we need to have common sense! Some countries like Japan might be more forgiving, but when in Guatemala, being alert is crucial to prevent yourself from being a victim of petty crimes.
Where Is Guatemala?
Guatemala is situated in Central America, bordered by four other countries, which are Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. And with both the pacific ocean to the South West and the Caribbean Sea to the East. Due to its unique geographic situation, Guatemala boasts a spectacular number of wetlands, lagoons, mangrove forests, and ocean littorals. Without a doubt, it is a country that embraces its beauty given by mother nature.
In terms of its demographics, Guatemala currently has an estimated population of 17 million, making it the most populated country in Central America. With around half of its population being Ladinos (mixed indigenous and European), and the other half being Mayan. The largest cities in Guatemala are respectively, Guatemala City, Mixco, and Villa Nueva, which make up a significant percentage of the population in this country.
Which Regions Are Riskier For Foreigners?
Is Guatemala safe? According to the travel advisory of the United States, some particular regions of Guatemala are considered “riskier” than others. Therefore, if you’re considering traveling to any of these regions, just make sure to be extra careful of your surroundings. And make sure to heighten your awareness at all times.
However! Keep in mind that travel advisories can sometimes be a bit misleading. I think of the travel advisories as my overprotective mother. They want the best for us, so sometimes, the cautionary advice can be a bit exaggerated. So at the end of the day, be safe, but don’t be paranoid!
Tikal, the spectacular ancient Mayan ruin that many tourists around the world flock to see, is situated right in the Peten Department. So if Tikal is one of your first travel destinations, consider flying directly into Flores International Airport to avoid unnecessary travel around the city streets. Also, since there are lots of tourists here, robbery and petty crimes can be common. Especially in areas where lots of people gather.
Remember to exercise caution in terms of protecting your own safety. Sometimes we can get so carried away with taking photos and enjoying the moment, that we forget our common sense. Have fun, but more importantly, be safe!
Chiquimula, is one of the 22 departments in the country of Guatemala. It is also known for the town of Esquipulas, where one of the world’s most revered images of a black Jesus Christ is housed.
However, Chiquimula is still considered by the travel advisory board as a level-3 travel location. Meaning that you should reconsider traveling to this region if possible. But if you must visit, be aware that armed robbery and violent street crimes can be common, and try to avoid major roads and highways.
Quetzaltenango, or also known as Xela, is a department of Guatemala that is located up in the highlands. With an elevation of around 2000 meters above sea level, the temperature can get quite chilly. Though not as touristy as other parts of Guatemala, Xela is known for being a hotspot of affordable Spanish schools where eager Spanish learners from around the world come to visit.
As in any major city in the United States, mugging and petty crimes can be common after dark. So exercise common sense. Avoid narrow alleys after dark, and try to walk in areas that are brightly lit. There are 12 zones in Xela, but try to stay in Zone 1 or Zone 3, which are relatively safer zones for tourists.
The Izabal Department is the gate to the Caribbean Sea. Located right next to the coast, this region boasts one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, Rio Dulce. It is a paradise on earth, and an amazing place to spend your vacation.
However, just like many other popular attractions in Guatemala, people like to take advantage of naive tourists. Puerto Barrio, Rio Dulce, and Puerto Barrio can all be quite dangerous at night. So avoid walking outside at night, even if it’s in small groups. Better safe than sorry!
Guatemala Department is where the capital of Guatemala, Guatemala City, is located. Also, the main international airport, La Aurora, is situated in this department as well. With lots of people traveling around and visitors coming in and out, this region is quite hectic, and tends to be avoided by many tourists due to the overwhelming activities going on.
If you’re traveling to the Guatemala Department, there are a few regions you should try to avoid. Zone 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 21, and 24. And when arriving at the international airport, which is in Zone 13, don’t just hail any Taxi on the street! Always use Yellow Taxis (Taxis Amarillo) that have taximeters (by calling 1766). For more information click here!
The Escuintla Department is situated directly south of Guatemala City, bordering the Pacific Ocean. According to the travel advisory, this department is also considered relatively risky for tourists around the world. Violent crimes such as armed robberies, street crime, and gang activity can be common. And local police might lack sufficient resources to react efficiently to these situations. So as emphasized before, pay attention to your surroundings, and don’t put yourself in situations that make you vulnerable to petty crimes.
Types Of Crime In Guatemala
Petty theft happens all over Guatemala, but it is especially prominent in tourist destinations. These crimes usually happen when the victim is walking through crowded and popular areas, such as the markets, malls, and parks. And it can even occur in broad daylight. A lot of the time, the muggers like to use motorcycles to make their theft execution easier. For example, you can be walking the market with your wallet in your hand, and the moment you’re about to put it back into your backpack. The muggers would quickly ride past you in their motorcycle, and snatch the wallet out of your hand. And why do I know? Because this happened to me once. Thank goodness he missed. And also, I literally only had 50 cents in my wallet, so he would’ve been disappointed anyway lol.
Demonstrations and protests happen a lot in Guatemala. And these demonstrations can sometimes gather more than thousands of people at a time. Even though some of the times these gatherings are rather peaceful, there are also many protests that have gone violent, especially large-scale demonstrations. Another consequence of these political demonstrations is that the major routes of the city can be purposely blocked by these protesters. Causing traffic concerns as well as accidents, and preventing tourists from reaching their destinations.
Most of the drug-related crimes in Guatemala happen near the border of Mexico. And although there is a serious problem of trafficking in Guatemala, most of these crimes do not affect the general population. The Mexican drug cartels flourish under the lack of police presence in both countries, as well as their established gang forces. And these narcotics-related exchanges have contributed to the rise of criminal activities around the border region. Therefore, civilians are strongly advised against traveling through this area.
Armed robberies are common in Guatemala. And these types of crimes often occur on the road in the form of carjacking. In the past, many armed robberies have happened between the road from Guatemala City to other popular tourist destinations. Like peten, Tikal, and even the Belize border. Therefore, it is important to research your transportation options before taking off. If you can, opt for private transportation rather than public buses since those are frequent targets by armed muggers.
Card skimming is another frequent crime that happens in Guatemala, and many other parts of the world. These scammers will secretly tamper with the public ATM machine. By either installing a camera to watch you input your PIN, or installing a small device to read the magnetic strip on your credit or debit card. These can happen in any public ATM, and it can be quite hard to detect. Here’s a YouTube video that can help you understand how ATM skimmers work!
Try to always use the ATM machine INSIDE a bank to avoid falling victim to this kind of personal information theft.
Is Guatemala Safe For Travel? Ways To Stay Safe
Don’t Draw Attention
One of the easiest ways to draw attention to yourself is by wearing flashy jewelry or showing off your $3000 dollar DSLR camera in crowded areas. I think it’s important that we pay attention to our surroundings when we’re snapping a photo of something. Because, trust me, my phone has almost been snatched from me two times due to my negligence (Shake My Head). So, as soon as you’re done taking a photo, make sure to put your camera or phone back in your bag right away. Don’t hold it in your hand as you wander around looking for the next photogenic spot. Lots of muggers will take advantage of tourists like this. And the next thing you know, your precious camera/phone full of memories will be all gone.
Make Copies Of Important Documents
God forbids that you fall victim to these petty crimes, you’ll want to make sure that all your important documents are backed up somewhere. Whether it’s actual physical copies, or digital copies stored on your Cloud/Google Drive. Take a few minutes before your trip to make a copy of documents like your passport, travel insurance, ID card, credit cards, and other valuable information. And I hope these copies won’t have to come in handy. But if they do, you’ll be glad that you thought about this in advance.
Be Wary Of Public Wifi
The public WiFi is known to be unsecured due to its lack of encryption. And so the open nature of the network can expose your phone to possible hijackers and scammers. If you must use the public WiFi for whatever reason, make sure to not input important personal data on any webpage. For Example, your SSN number or credit card information.
When traveling abroad, I would recommend using your own pocket Wifi or getting a local SIM card.
Know How To Ask For Help
No matter which country you’re in, you’ll need to know how to ask for help in the local language. It’s only a quick google translation away! In Spanish, it’s “Ayudame!” which is simple and easy. But honestly, I think anybody around the world can understand the common expression of “AHHHHH!!!” accompanied by a panicking face.
But just to make sure the locals can truly understand you, and actually lend out a helping hand. Try to learn how to say “Help Me!” in their local language.
Secure Your Bag and Wallet
“SECURE YOUR BAG SIS!”
I mean, literally! Secure your bag and your wallet. Don’t make the same mistake I made, taking out my wallet on the street, and having it almost snatched away by a dude on a motorcycle. Yea, that was pretty terrifying. So make sure to pay attention to your surroundings whenever you’re handling money in a public area.
Also! Keep two wallets with you. And spread out your “assets” between the two wallets so that if someone was to ever steal one of them, you will still have some money left. Oh yea, and keep those two wallets in different areas. Maybe one in your hidden money belt, and one in your backpack.
Know Where You’re Going Even If You Don’t
Fake it till you make it guys! Even when you’re lost, pretend like you know where you’re going. Don’t keep looking at your Google Map with a face full of confusion. Instead, glance at the map once, and then look up and walk confidently like you’re a local. The more confident you look, the less likely people would mess with you. And I’m not going to lie, I’ve gotten lost A LOT! And I used to be awful at pretending to know where I’m going. But after a while, it will become natural to you.
Don’t Walk Alone At Night
Ugh, I’ve done this before. Shame on me.
But after realizing how dangerous it was, I forced myself to stop doing this, no matter how independent I think I am. Sometimes we’ll think to ourselves, “Oh, it’s just one time, nothing will happen”! But the scary thing is, no matter how predictable you think life is, it always has a way to surprise you. So don’t bet on your luck, and take the safe route. Either ask someone to accompany you or take an Uber. Better safe than sorry!
Useful Information To Know
The currency used in Guatemala is called the Quetzal, which is named after the national bird of Guatemala. Pretty cool. And fun fact! In the ancient Mayan culture, the feathers of the Quetzal bird was used as their form of currency!
Today, $1 USD is around worth $7.679 QTZ. Whereas $1 QTZ is around $0.13 USD
The weather in Guatemala can vary quite a bit depending on which region you’re in. For example, if you’re staying in Quetzaltenango, which is in the highlands, the weather will be much more chilly and rainy than Lake Atitlan or Guatemala City. But overall, Guatemala’s weather is quite moderate, not too hot and not too cold. For more detailed information on the weather conditions in different regions of Guatemala, check out the World Travel Guide’s post on “Guatemala Weather, Climate, and Geography”.
Citizens from countries around the world, including the United States, do not need a visa to set foot on Guatemala. As long as the stay is less than 90 days. However, if you’re still not sure whether you need a visa or not, visit http://www.doyouneedvisa.com to find out!
Also, apart from the visa situation, make sure that your international passport is valid for more than half a year after the arrival date at your travel destination. This is crucial for traveling to any part of the world.
Embassy Information For United States Citizens
Make sure to check out the website for the U.S Embassy in Guatemala before your trip. Save the emergency contact information in your phone and also keep a physical copy just in case.
VERY IMPORTANT: Make sure to enroll your trip with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. This free service will allow you to receive alerts and safety conditions in your travel destination. And most importantly, help your family and friends get in touch with you during an unexpected emergency.
I highly recommend getting travel insurance if you’re traveling to Guatemala. Especially if hiking and adventurous activities are on your bucket list. I know, insurance kind of sucks. Because most of the time, nothing will happen, and you’re just paying money to feel safe. BUT! God forbid anything happens, and you don’t have insurance! UGH, the mere thought of that will make you willingly hand over your hard-earned money.
Thank goodness, I never had to use my travel insurance when I was abroad. But there were definitely moments (riding on the crazy chicken bus & getting parasites) that I was glad I had it handy. Luckily, my parasites went away after two horrible weeks! So if you’re wondering, is Guatemala safe in terms of food?…all I can say is, don’t eat salad, like I did!
Check out Forbe’s article on the “Best and Worst Travel Insurance Companies” to help you decide which insurance company fits you best!
Cost Of Living
The cost of living in Guatemala relatively low compared to other Latin American countries, and definitely much lower than the cost of living in the United States. For a single person, with rational expenditures, the monthly cost of living is around $600 USD. Including an apartment rental, three meals a day, and transportation cost. However, the wages are low too. So that is something to take into account if you decide to move to Guatemala.
But if you’re able to budget on food expenses, meaning, not eating out at fancy Americanized restaurants. You will be able to make your money stretch for a long time! Learn how to eat like a local! At most local restaurants and food stands, you can get a full course meal for less than $5 USD. And if you make your own food at home, you can save even more.
Do I Need To Know Spanish?
I would argue that, if you plan on visiting touristy areas such as Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Tikal, Rio Dulce, etc., you can get around without really knowing any Spanish at all. Especially if you’re planning on staying in Hostels where most staff can speak English. However, if you’re visiting other regions that are less touristy, and your goal is to immerse yourself in the culture. Then knowing some basic Spanish can be extremely helpful.
Knowing Spanish can also prevent you from being scammed, and allow you to be more aware of your surroundings. Even if you only know a few vocabulary words in Spanish, you never know when they might come in handy. And overall, the Guatemalan Spanish accent is quite clear and easy to understand compared to the Spain or Argentinian accent. If you’re interested in learning Spanish before your trip, I have a post on “How to learn Spanish with YouTube” that can help you sharpen your listening
skills and increase your basic vocabulary count!
Read About Other Traveler’s Experiences In Guatemala
If you’re interested in visiting Guatemala for the purpose of perfecting your Spanish, then I would definitely recommend checking out Ciara’s blog post on her experience studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala. In her post, she shares detailed information regarding the Spanish school she attended, the cost, as well as other additional resources you should know about.
Claire is an amazing solo female traveler that ventured through many countries in Central America on her own, including Guatemala. Read about her experience on her blog where she provides tips and tricks on how to stay safe when traveling alone. She also shares beautiful pictures from her travel that will inspire you to go explore too!
Lauren had the opportunity to explore Guatemala during her three-day weekend vacation from work. She made great use of these three days by exploring all the major tourist destinations in Guatemala. Including Antigua, Guatemala City, Lake Atitlan, and the Pacaya Volcano. That’s pretty amazing for a 72-hour trip! Check out how she did it.
Bella had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Guatemala through a volunteering experience with Soles4souls. Check out her blog post to read more about her experience interacting with the Guatemalan locals, how she was able to help out their community, as well as the places she was able to explore while there.
(*Shameless Plug here*) Jamela On The Go – San Marcos, Guatemala
Sorry guys, but I loved Lake Atitlan so much that I had to shamelessly promote my own blog post on this list, haha! But in all seriousness, I 100% recommend checking out all the towns in Lake Atitlan, and spend as much time as you can exploring this beautiful paradise on earth. I had the privilege of staying there for more than a month. And let me tell you, I didn’t want to leave! If it wasn’t for my college degree, I would skip all my classes so I can there forever and ever.
The Verdict! Is Guatemala Safe For Travel?
SO….. Is Guatemala safe for travel? Hmmm… *Drum Roll*
Yes! I think Guatemala is as safe to travel to as New York City or Los Angeles. The media tends to portray Latin American countries as a hotspot for drug trafficking, kidnapping, and violent crimes. But truth of the matter is, that can also happen in major cities in the world like Miami, Barcelona, Rome, and Paris. We can be subject to crimes as such if we put ourselves in situations where we are vulnerable and prone to becoming a victim. For example, listening to music while walking on the street at night, wearing shiny jewelry, and playing on your phone instead of being aware of your surroundings.
I currently live in Downtown Los Angeles near the University of Southern California, and every day, our school emails us about students being involved in petty crimes around campus. And most of the time, it was due to the student’s lack of awareness. Every day, even in metropolitan areas like DTLA, people become victims of all kinds of crimes similar to the ones in Guatemala.
Of course, when you’re traveling in foreign countries, your appearance may stand out from the locals. And therefore, it’s even more important to heighten your awareness and practice common sense. But all in all, I would not avoid visiting a beautiful, diverse, and culturally-rich country like Guatemala just because of crimes that can happen anywhere in the world. Follow your intuition, listen to safety-guidelines, avoid sketchy situations, and you will be fine! Enjoy Guatemala, I’m sure you’ll love it just as much as I did!
For more travel tips and inspiration, make sure to check out: