Guatemala is one of the most unique and non-touristy countries I have ever traveled too. You can hike volcanoes, visit Mayan ruins, experience authentic culture and swim in one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. However; it is also part of the northern triangle of Central America which is infamous for high rates of violent crime. Keep reading for my opinion on the frequently asked question: is Guatemala safe for travellers?
I would like to start off by stating that it is impossible to dub a city or a country “completely safe” or “completely unsafe”. This is especially true when relying solely on the experiences of other travellers. Two people visiting the same area could have completely different experiences depending on their background, their decisions, and their knowledge of the culture and language.
Think about it.. are their areas in your city or country that you would consider a “no go zone”? Probably. Does that make your whole country “unsafe”? I sure hope not.
It is entirely possible to end up in a bad situation no matter what country you travel to or even in your own neighbourhood. And while I am not naive to the fact that some countries have more of these “no-go zones” than others; it’s important to keep it in perspective. In my opinion, travelling “safe” is more about a person’s experience and decisions and less about the actual destination.
I believe it is very possible to travel through Guatemala safely if you do it the right way.
So what does that mean.. the “right way?” Here are some of my top travel tips for staying safe in Guatemala.
Learn the History
Researching the history and the current events of any country you plan to visit is a vital step. It’s important to understand a little bit about the country so that you can travel in the safest and most respectful way possible.
Guatemala is well known for its civil war (spanning 1960-1996) between the government and the Guerrillas. During this time there were a number of human rights violations including a genocide of the indigenous Maya population. Most of the local people we’ve spoken to describe feeling incredibly terrified and unsafe in their own communities. They remember mass murders, riots in the streets, and new missing persons reports almost daily. It is estimated that 140,000-200,000 people disappeared or were killed during this time.
The government and the URNG (formerly known as the Guerrillas) signed agreements on human rights in March 1994. They also made significant progress on other agreements, historical clarifications, and indigenous rights over the following few years. A peace process in 1998 successfully put an end to the civil war; but there are obviously still many people living with the memories and the aftermath.
Do Your Research
Research, research, and more research! Not only on the beautiful sights to see; but on the safe methods of transportation and the best and worst areas to travel. Some general rules of thumb while traveling in Guatemala:
- Avoid Guatemala City
- Plan your transportation to/from the airport in advance through a reliable company (your hostel is a great option) or someone you know
- Avoid public transportation unless traveling with a local who knows the route (the “chicken buses” are frequently robbed)
- Tourist shuttles are the preferred method of transportation and can be arranged between all major destination through your hostel or hotel
- Keep your wits about you (don`t find yourself wasted in a local bar at 2 AM)
- Don`t travel alone or after dark
- Travel in groups whenever possible
- Don`t show wealth by keeping valuables hidden
- Learn a MINIMUM of basic Spanish (there is very little English in Guatemala, especially in the smaller towns)
- Don`t walk between towns (even if they are close) due to robberies
Talk to the Locals
Asking the locals is the best way to get up to date information on which areas might be safe and which areas to avoid. Most of the Guatemalan people are very friendly and willing to help out in any way possible. You can get advice from hotel staff, waiters, and anyone else you come across making sure to get multiple opinions before making a big decision. If you happen to know someone who lives in Guatemala, even better!