Each country in Central America has a reputation of some sort, and it’s nothing short of tragic for a country so beautiful and vibrant as Guatemala that its reputation is steeped in a history of violence. Though this is certainly not without reason – Guatemala has a history of interference from outside political entities (largely the USA), resulting in the formation of various paramilitary and guerilla resistance forces, military juntas, and coups which have shifted its political leadership to and fro for decades. The country has been volcanic, both literally and politically, for most of our recent, collective memory.
Though Guatemala’s devastating civil war ended in 1996, like all conflicts, it has left lasting impacts on the cultural and political sphere of the country. Today, most people’s knowledge of what happens in Guatemala is informed by gruesome news articles which tend to circulate more than any other news story, usually revolving around the death or murder of foreigners who had the gall to visit the country in the first place (by the way, there are many many more non-violent news articles, if one takes the time to look).
Such headlines could make even the most experienced traveler among us wonder, “is it safe to travel in Guatemala? If I choose to go, will I regret it?”
The honest answer to the question is complicated – it cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” as no area of the country is considered absolutely safe and safety itself is relative. It also depends who you are, the risks you take, where you go, etc. It is more accurate to say that it is possible to visit Guatemala and be completely safe, as approximately 2 million tourists visit Guatemala each year without incident. That said, always prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best. And the best way to prepare? Research, research, research. Know the risks and possibilities, and then plan your actions accordingly.
We’ve compiled a list of considerations and tips for staying safe during your visit to Guatemala. Keep in mind that the list is not exhaustive, and we encourage anyone and everyone to do extensive research prior to visiting any new country. That said, you can consider this a good jumping-off point in your travel journey. Take notes!
Staying Safe in Guatemala
- Stay on guard in the capital city. Guatemala City is the biggest city in Central America, and while it has its charm and is slowly cracking down on violence, it is still a criminal haven in light of drug trafficking and gang violence. There are no zones which are considered completely safe for tourists, and you will want to exercise your utmost caution while visiting – that means not traveling at night, staying in groups where possible, and being extra vigilant at protecting your belongings from theft, pick pocketing, bag snatching/slitting, etc.
- Avoid traveling at night. And certainly, do not walk around at night, lest you become an easy target for mugging and attack. If you must travel at night, use only first class buses for long distances, or call a taxi/Uber for even short distances.
- Talking to children is not recommended, especially in rural areas. Guatemala has a history of lynching those suspected of child abduction and are fiercely protective of children. Doing things such as talking to children without supervision or taking their photo without parental permission can be easily misinterpreted, and it is best to avoid this behavior altogether.
- Check the latest volcanic activity. There are four active volcanoes in the country, and a recent eruption in 2018 killed nearly 200 people. Know the threat before you go, and especially before you decide to climb one.
- Take a Guatemalan guide on your hike. It’s not a good idea to go hiking alone – to start, this is a mountainous country, the thinner air can leave you in poor shape after physical exertion, so having a companion can help to assist you if you need support or guidance in your delirium. In addition, it is common for thieves to take advantage of hikers who are alone. Hiring a local guide will be a huge help in ensuring your safety during the trek.
- Stay far away from political demonstrations. Demonstration in Guatemala is common and spontaneous, and while they tend to be peaceful, violence can always erupt without warning. Best for foreigners to steer clear rather than be caught in the fray.
- Use caution on chicken buses. These are school buses donated from the US government, painted crazy colors, and widely used by locals to move around the country. However, they are unpredictable and unregulated. If you do use one, keep close watch over your belongings, but to be honest, we don’t recommend using a chicken bus unless you’re with a local who knows the system – it’s hard to be sure of where you’ll end up otherwise!
- Use caution at borders. The borders with Belize and Mexico are hot spots for smuggling of drugs and aliens. Only use designated border crossings, and only during the day.
- Contact one of the local tourism authorities. In order to counter its violent reputation and attract more tourism, there are many resources for tourists, which range from trip planning services, to providing individuals and groups with guides, support in the event of criminal activity, and more. Check out either INGUAT or PROATUR for more information.
General Safety Tips
The above were largely specific to travel in Guatemala. However, if you’re new to travel and you need some more general advice about how to keep your wits about you and your money in your pocket, see below:
- Don’t hail a taxi off the street. Always call a taxi from a reputable company (you can ask your accommodation to do this on your behalf). You can also find official taxi stands outside many hotels and malls, where you can find real taxis. The alternative would be climbing into an illegal taxi, and risk being robbed or worse.
- Don’t be flashy. This means not wearing jewelry, not taking out your phone in public, keeping your cash in your pocket while on the street. If you show what you have, the thieves will know what they can take.
- Learn some Spanish. It can’t be guaranteed that you will meet English speakers in all of the places that you need them to be. Knowing the most vital phrases will seriously help you when it’s most necessary.
- Don’t isolate yourself. Walking alone in empty streets makes you an excellent target for mugging and attacks.
- Only use ATMs inside banks, malls, etc. Card-skimming is common, and unmonitored, outdoor ATMs are the ones to look out for.
- Split your cash up, and take only what you need out that day. It’s better to carry your valuables in different places on your person, so that if the thieves get you, they don’t get everything. And remember, the amount of cash you have on you is what you risk losing.
- Carry a photocopy of your passport. It’s preferable to keep your vital identification locked in your hotel/hostel safe, and carry photocopies, so that you don’t risk losing them.
- Be aware of scammers. These can take many forms – a “priest” who runs up to you requesting assistance, or someone who approaches you asking for money for a cause that doesn’t exist, or someone spills something on you while another stranger helps you clean up, then pick-pockets you in the process. Don’t fall for it, and be suspicious of any stranger approaching you.
Like we said before: to be absolutely safe in Guatemala is an ideal, but not a reality. There are plenty of ways to greatly reduce your risk of encountering danger or misfortune. Guatemala is a beautiful country which deserves to be seen, and we don’t recommend letting the fear overcome or overwhelm your desire to travel. Learning how to travel smart and safely is the best way to enjoy your trip without much stress!