Is Guatemala Safe? – Don’t Judge a Country by its Statistics

Posted by on Oct 7, 2015 in Guatemala | 44 Comments

acatenango

Guatemala isn’t presented that well in the media. According to British newspapers, violent muggings happen all the time, and there’s apparently a huge homocide rate. It’s hard to imagine why, given these statistics, anyone would go to Guatemala.

I was fully aware of this when I booked my flights in March 2015. I was in Guatemala for seven weeks. I experienced zero violent muggings, and nil situations where I felt unsafe. I spent five days in New York straight afterwards, and experienced a very scary fight on a subway, as well as a couple of other instances where I felt much more unsafe than I ever did in Guatemala.

What the newspapers fail to tell is that nearly all of the crime in Guatemala is occurs in gangs. Very little is directed at tourists; and the crime that is could really happen anywhere in the world. 

Why Guatemala?

A lot of people asked me this. I actually went travelling in Central America the year before, but flew from Belize to Nicaragua, skipping Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But once we got to Nicaragua and met travellers who had just arrived from Guatemala, we immediately regretted our decision.

So I vowed to return. But even after booking my flights, doing the incredibly long 2 transfer journey and arriving in the country, I still felt a little skeptical. Is Guatemala safe? Could the media’s advice be true? I wondered during my (incredibly long) stopover in Newark airport.

But as always proved, the world is simply not as scary a place as it is made out to be.

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Just because a place has certain statistics, it does not mean that you will be in danger if you go there. There’s definitely dangerous places in Guatemala (just as there is in London, Bristol and New York). The country does have drug trafficking issues and gang violence problems.  But as tourists there’s two easy ways to stay out of these problems; don’t traffic drugs, don’t get involved in gangs.

is Guatemala safe

Is Guatemala City safe?

The majority of Guatemala’s most dangerous neighbourhoods are in the capital. I avoided the city completely apart from driving through on a shuttle to the airport. It didn’t strike me as dodgy or dangerous at all – it actually seemed like quite a pleasant, prosperous city – but of course this was in broad daylight and I didn’t drive around the most dangerous areas.  This being said, some areas of Guatemala City are absolutely fine for tourists and locals alike – I met people who travelled there and had absolutely no problems. As aforementioned, if you don’t traffic drugs and get involved with gangs, you will hugely reduce your chances of being involved in anything dangerous.

What are the other cities like?

If you go to Guatemala, it’s completely possible to entirely skip the capital. And the other cities are extremely safe.

The colonial city Antigua is only an hour away from Guatemala City airport. If you’re travelling from elsewhere in the country, you can get a direct shuttle or change bus in Guatemala City.

Antigua and Quetzaltenango are both perfectly safe during the day. They may be a bit riskier at night, but I had no problems walking around in a group after dark. There have been incidents of robberies after club closing time, but like anywhere, if the necessary precautions are taken, the risks aren’t huge.

I felt completely safe in Quetzaltenango. Not only did I never find myself in a precarious situation, but I was greeted by immense warmth and friendliness by the locals. It’s commonplace in Guatemala to greet everybody you see on the street – hardly the backdrop for a violent robbery.

I felt most unsafe in lakeside town Panajachel – which is interestingly a very touristy town; but it wasn’t Guatemala’s fault. I encountered a couple of people looking to make money out of me, and kept my guard up as I was a solo female traveller. I didn’t experience any real problems in the town and I happily walked the streets of all the other lakeside villages (San Marcos, San Pedro, Santa Cruz, Jabilito and even the 6km distance from Panajachel to Santa Catarina Polopo) completely safely.

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How did I, a solo female traveller, stay safe in Guatemala?

So why did I feel so safe, in a country that is said to be so dangerous? Here’s a few things that I think really helped me maintain my security as a solo female traveller. These advisories can be (and should be) applied anywhere:

  • I adopted an ‘early to bed, early to rise’ routine when I was in Xela. I never really recovered from jet lag and got up each day at about 5:30am, and either went to the gym or studied for an hour and a half before getting ready and going down to breakfast. I was generally back in the house by 7pm, and went to bed at about 9pm. Not exactly the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, but it enabled me to do what I came to Guatemala to do – learn Spanish and educate myself about the country’s rich culture. When I did go out for drinks in the evening, I just made sure I stayed with a group.
  • In other towns, I stayed out a little later (although admittedly still not late, I was equally happy to be snuggled up with a book by 8pm) but would either keep to the very touristy areas or stay with friends I had met. By doing this, I hugely increased my chances of staying safe. I’m not suggesting that travellers to the region never step foot outside after dark, but it is always worth knowing exactly how different the safety issues are once the sun goes down.
  • Learning Spanish obviously really helped me out. Not only does it deter unsavoury types (of which I only experienced a few – about the same amount as I do in the UK), but by constantly chatting to locals, they would be more likely to come to my aid if needed. That being said, Guatemalan people are generally so friendly that I am sure many would have rushed to my assistance if needed whether I had spoke to them or not, but starting a relationship definitely increases this chance. Speaking to locals also gave an insight to the area and from this I gained advice about places best avoided. Even on the days when I felt like my Spanish was going nowhere, a smile and ‘Buenos Dias’ always went a long way.
  • I didn’t carry around flashy or valuable objects and took minimal cash. If you’re flashing a top of the range smartphone every five minutes, people are more likely to notice. And if you don’t have much cash on you, there isn’t much to steal. I had heard of some people taking a ‘throw down’ wallet with a certain amount of money in, to give to any perpetrators in the event of a mugging, and I actually carried one of these and my old broken phone around with me during my first few days in Quetzaltenango, before I realised how safe the city was. But I’d do this again in a city anywhere else in the world until I was sure of the safety.
  • Mostly, I trusted my gut. If a road looked dodgy, I didn’t walk down it. If a guy wolf whistled or made that horrendous kissing teeth sound at me, even if it was in broad daylight, I crossed over to the other side of the road (just as I do in the UK – where it happens just as much as in Guatemala). I didn’t stroke stray dogs. I dressed conservatively. I respected the locals and their customs.Nonetheless, I cannot express enough how I did not feel like my safety was threatened at any point during my trip. The constant friendliness that I was met with aviated any fear that travel warnings may have stirred. I was in fact reminded time and time again how hostile and suspicious Westerners can be. 

One day in Xela, I was walking down the street with some cash in my pocket. I heard a man saying “señorita” behind me, and turned around. He was holding a 5 quetzal note (just under 50 pence) and said “te cayó esto” (you dropped this). In ‘one of the most violent places in Latin America’, a lovely man had just ran up an entire road to give me my money back. Somehow, I just can’t imagine this happening in London.

is Guatemala safe

So is Guatemala safe?

Seriously, Guatemala did not feel that dangerous to me. Of course, the statistics are present, but there’s a story around each number. I strongly believe that as long as all the necessary precautions are taking, trouble can very easily be avoided. Of course, sometimes situations are unfortunately unavoidable; but this is also the case in London, New York, Sydney and pretty much any other city on this globe. The world really isn’t as scary a place as we’re told. Let’s enjoy it.

If you need any more convincing to go to Guatemala, check out the ten things Guatemala does best and the 14 things I learnt in my first 14 days in Guatemala. If you liked this article please share it or follow me on Facebook!

Where have you been that’s considered ‘dangerous’ but has actually been absolutely fine?

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The Central American nation is thought of by many to be a hotbed of criminal activity. But is Guatemala safe? Here's how I experienced the country.

 

44 Comments

  1. Let there be more light
    May 3, 2016

    I am from guatemala, I like your blog but I am gonna start a little discuss in here. I don’t think you can measure the health of a country just because you didn’t get robbed or because you get robbed. Maybe you didn’t went through this ugly experience but I bet that even in the touristic areas you were, you saw indicators of how bad this country is. For example I bet you saw a lot of kids trying to sell you maya textiles and some other stuff, well, must of those kids are working, sadly they can’t go to school or go to play like a normal kid because they have to work to help their family and in some cases (most in the capital) this isn’t even the case, in the city most of this kids are part of criminal structures that force this kids to work all day (a type of contemporary slavery) with or without the consent of their parents that probably live very far away from the city. Most of them are malnourished and have very few chances to get out of this circle. The same happens with the women at the tortillerias, most of them work around 18 hours to cover the demand of the three meals per day and from Monday to Sunday earning a miserable salary and of course without any social security or life insurance. Most of the lakes and rivers are deeply contaminated, Lake atitlan has support this just because is very deep so it has a big volume of water, but the are seasons when some parasite plants grow on it giving to the water a green colour…

  2. Claire
    May 5, 2016

    Hey! Thanks for your comment. Yes I did experience some sad situations and it’s horrible how the children have to work at such a young age and that the women work such long days. I really felt sadness and empathy towards them and in this post I by no means want to say that everything’s perfect in this country. Like a lot of places in the world, it has its issues. What I was trying to get across in the post was that I really didn’t feel unsafe in Guatemala, nor did any of the people I met. I was just challenging a popular opinion that it is an unsafe country- which it really wasn’t to me at all. The people were nothing but good to me and I never felt like I was in a situation where my safety was compromised. In contrast, I then went to New York, where a really scary fight broke out on a subway! I’m not in a position to comment on the social issues of Guatemala and that wasn’t my aim at all.

  3. Jey
    May 27, 2016

    Hey Claire,

    I think, not only Guatemala has this “problem” of being presented worse in the media than it actually is. I travelled from Mexico to Ecuador by bus through all the countries, skipping El Salvador because the news were a bit scary. I regret it because people warned us from Honduras too and that is such a beautiful country. The poverty is present in Guatemala as well as in a other countries in Latin America, but you can say that with some common sense, you will be fine travelling through them. In fact, I think, as tourists bring money, one should encourage to travel to those destinations, especially if you had a good experience like yours. So, good on you that you share it and show that it is not always the whole picture what you see/hear in the media!

  4. Claire
    May 28, 2016

    Hey Jey, Yes, this is very true! I’ve travelled in all of Central America except Honduras and El Salvador too – and now I’ve met people who have been there I really want to go myself! The poverty is upsetting to see, but I completely agree that by travelling there and supporting local businesses (like I was doing), we are making steps to diminish this poverty, however small they may be! Thanks very much for your comment.

  5. Maya
    May 29, 2016

    Great read Claire. I’m so glad that someone is addressing the safety instead of posts I keep seeing of what to do in… I will be traveling through Central America very soon so I’m glad for this reassurance that Guatemala (as well as other countries, I’m sure) is safe when sticking to few advisories as you wrote. I live in Calgary, Canada now and there are places in the city where I would not go at night..just like any other city around the world. I’m also curious about your spanish learning experience. I was thinking of doing the same in Guatemala or maybe in Mexico, where I will start my trip. I’m thinking of homestay..where did you learn? Now I’m off to read all your posts about Guatemala 🙂 Happy travels!
    Maya recently posted…How to spend 4 days in Vancouver outdoorsMy Profile

  6. Julian
    May 29, 2016

    Like you said, you gotta trust your gut feeling and use your common sense when going around places. We felt the same in some spots in Mexico and were proven wrong, its really not as bad as people say.
    Julian recently posted…Exploring Cambodia’s Wild East – MondulkiriMy Profile

  7. Aisha
    May 30, 2016

    If I had avoided countries due their crime statistics, I would never leave the US. Actually, I should research the crime statistics here for a quick giggle.

  8. Kirstie
    May 30, 2016

    I’m planning a trip to Central America later in the year and had questions about Guatemala, so this is great to read! I’d love to go, so I’ll just be sure to be extra cautious.
    Kirstie recently posted…Where to Stay in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: The PARKROYAL SaigonMy Profile

  9. Carol Colborn
    May 30, 2016

    I was in Tunisia around the time of the three bombings and felt safe because a safe b&b and a local driver were recommended to us. Sometimes we can be more unsafe in our own towns.

  10. Laura @ Grassroots Nomad
    May 30, 2016

    Great article! I’ve been in Guatemala for 5 months now, including 4 in Guatemala City. I really wish people wouldn’t skip the city entirely – I haven’t found it dangerous if you have common sense. I don’t get the bus, only taxis and I wouldn’t walk around on my own at night. But I’ve never had any issues with safety. Because it is a relatively dangerous place, people generally drive everywhere and when they go out it is to do something specific and meet someone specific. For that reason I’ve found it a very hard city to live in – it is almost impossible to make friends! I love Guatemala and would encourage everyone to visit!

  11. Marteen
    May 30, 2016

    It’s very rare the media give a balanced view of certain topics. I’m glad you felt so safe there. Great tips on how you stayed safe 🙂
    Marteen recently posted…Travel Posts I LoveMy Profile

  12. Ashley Hubbard
    May 30, 2016

    I love the story of the man chasing you down to give you your money. Thank you for highlighting a place that gets such a bad rap – I can’t wait to visit one day myself!
    Ashley Hubbard recently posted…The Dirty Thirty Challenge | Skydiving with Skydive TennesseeMy Profile

  13. Brian & Amanda
    May 30, 2016

    Unfortunately the media tends to focus on the bad parts of areas and limited information about the good. We completely agree to use good sense of judgement while traveling to any area. The early to bed/early to rise is a good tip along with not taking flashy items. Great article.
    Brian & Amanda recently posted…Pros & Cons: Alto Atacama in ChileMy Profile

  14. Tom
    May 30, 2016

    I remember reading somewhere once that Guatemala City was the most dangerous city in the world. I guess that is not the case anymore. Though to be fair, that tag applied to Belfast once, and it was dangerous at all when I went last year. So, it’s all relative I guess!
    Tom recently posted…The crazy time we were working for gypsies!My Profile

  15. Andreea
    May 30, 2016

    I cannot relate more to your article! It bothers me so much when media paints a completely negative image of a certain country and its people! I have never been to Latin America, but would do it in an instance without hesitation, despite everything that’s being said about it. As you said, if you follow a few rules of common sense there’s no reason to have something bad happen to you (unless you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time which, again as you also mentioned, might be anywhere in this world).
    Thank you for taking the time to write about your experience. We need more people to focus on the positive side and also raise awareness, as someone from Guatemala commented before. How can we have real, deep insight into the issues of another country if all we hear about is what media wants us to focus on?

  16. Chris
    May 30, 2016

    Some cities are safer than others but no city is 100% safe. I thing the travels needs to take the precautions needed to keep themselves safe…
    Great post!!!

  17. Claire
    May 31, 2016

    That’s really interesting to read about your experience in the city, Laura! I definitely wouldn’t rule out the city entirely; I didn’t read too much about it before I went as I knew that I was spending most of my time in Quetzaltenango and at Lake Atitlan, but when I go back to Guatemala, if there’s something I want to see in GC I’d definitely go. That’s interesting about driving and going out, it’s always great to get a perspective of someone who lives there!

  18. Claire
    May 31, 2016

    Thanks very much, Marteen!

  19. Claire
    May 31, 2016

    Thanks! I know – not the kind of thing that the media would let you believe eh?! I’m glad you’ll be visiting someday 😀

  20. Claire
    May 31, 2016

    Really?! It definitely didn’t seem that way to me! I’ve read a few times that San Pedro Sula in Honduras is the most dangerous city outside of war zones, I’ve never been myself so can’t judge, but I have spoke to a few people who have been there and had no problems. Yes, definitely all relative!

  21. Claire
    May 31, 2016

    Yes, always! I think we, as travellers, are a lot better at judgements than journalists who more than likely have never been there 🙂

  22. Claire
    May 31, 2016

    Glad you liked it! You’ll be fine 😀

  23. Claire
    May 31, 2016

    Haha, like I said I had a scary situation on the subway in New York, and I’ve had a few back in my native London!

  24. melody pittman
    May 31, 2016

    Thanks so much for your post about Guatamala. I see such gorgeous photos all the time of the beauty there but had no idea what areas would be safe to visit. We have several neighbors in Panama who go there for long weekend trips and such. Now I know what area to avoid, which is surprisingly the capital.

  25. Alex
    May 31, 2016

    Great article – a pleasant read and very informative. I absolutely agree that some countries unfortunately get a bad rap in the media which makes them less attractive for many travelers, which is a shame.

  26. Saiful Islam Opu
    June 1, 2016

    Guatemala is one of those rare finds, with a good mix of travel options to satisfy adventurers, culture seekers, beach worshippers, and travelers looking for a little relaxation. Tropical jungles, active volcanoes, mountain lakes, cloud forests, coral reefs, and beaches will entice nature lovers of all kinds. For travelers this is a great highlight! Don’t be scared thinking about safety & security unnecessarily.
    If you allow I may share such an amazing travel story in BD, hope readers will like it http://bit.ly/1SjxSTj

  27. Claire
    June 1, 2016

    If you love Panama, you’ll be head over heels with Guatemala! Yes, most capitals in CA are the more dangerous areas (I use that term loosely, as I still don’t think that they’re as bad as they make out). Definitely go if you get the chance 😀

  28. Claire
    June 1, 2016

    Yes to all of the above! There’s such a range of things to do in such a small space. I’ll check out your Bangladesh post now – another place that I’m very keen to visit.

  29. Claire
    June 1, 2016

    Thanks for your comment! I think you’d LOVE Central America 😀 and yes, common sense is key, everything else is unavoidable everywhere! I’m doing my best to spread the word about this amazing nation, I’m so glad you like it 🙂

  30. Claire
    June 1, 2016

    Thanks Maya! I’m glad this article has reassured you, honestly safety-wise Guatemala wasn’t how I thought it would be at all! I stayed in Quetzaltenango (Xela) and absolutely loved it, it’s a really non-touristy town in the highlands and I had such a lovely authentic experience there! Please get in touch if you have any more questions, I’d love to chat about Guatemala some more!

  31. Claire
    June 1, 2016

    Definitely! I part-lived in Mexico for three years and never had any bad experiences. It’s crazy how dangerous some people think these countries are!

  32. Marge Gavan
    June 2, 2016

    The media would always pick the negative stories to publish because that’s what sells. That’s why some places, like Guatemala and even my own country, the Philippines, have a negative image in the international community. But I salute for giving Guatemala a chance despite the negative rep and that it’s good that you are now telling people that it’s not as bad as everyone believes it to be.
    Marge Gavan recently posted…Musings of a Part Introvert on a Group Tour in BaguioMy Profile

  33. Claire
    June 2, 2016

    Yeah, that’s very true. It’s just a shame that that’s what everyone believes! I’m on a mission to get people to Guatemala 🙂 And I’d love to visit the Philippines one day!

  34. Liberty
    June 4, 2016

    Hey Claire,

    Really interesting post! I’ve never travelled to Guatemala but I really want to go. You’ve made me want to go even more! 🙂 🙂

  35. Claire
    June 4, 2016

    Thanks Liberty 😀 I hope you get there at some point!

  36. MariaAbroad
    June 9, 2016

    A friend of mine did a High School Exchange in Guatemala and she fell in love with the country. Her stories about the wonderful people and the incredible pictures she shared, made me fall in love too, if there is such a thing as second-hand-love 😉

  37. Voyager
    June 10, 2016

    I cannot agree more with you, the media hypes up things and statistics do not present a right picture. One needs to realize that people are the same everywhere and there will be good and bad in every country. It is unfair to paint a particular place or community completely black or white.
    Voyager recently posted…A magical morning walk in misty Lucerne (Win a giveaway)My Profile

  38. Claire
    June 13, 2016

    100%! I feel like Guatemala is often painted in a bad light, and it couldn’t be any more different 🙂

  39. Claire
    June 13, 2016

    Haha, I think with Guatemala that could be possible! I hope you get the chance to go there sometime 🙂

  40. Kris
    May 22, 2017

    Hi,

    we’re just reading this blog (as well as others) in order to try and get a feel for the situation. Last year, we drove 2500km in Mexico (Canun – San Cristobal – Cancun) and the trip was fine. Wondering if anyone here (or you) could perhaps comapre driving between the two coutries? We want to arrive in the capital and leave directly to tour the south before going back to depart for Mexico again.

    Thanks!
    Kris

  41. Claire
    May 23, 2017

    Hey Kris, thanks for your comment! I’m not sure about driving across the the border I’m afraid, I never had any problems crossing borders on foot but I never really met anyone who drove. Hopefully another reader will be able to help! 🙂

  42. Jenny
    July 8, 2017

    Thanks for writing this! It was just what I needed. I’m flying into Guatemala City next week and meeting a couple friends there who have been there studying Spanish. We’re traveling to Tikal and Livingston. The government safety warnings are terrifying and I’ve been reading worried! This definitely helps.
    PS: did you ride the chicken bus?

  43. Claire
    July 8, 2017

    I’m glad it helped Jenny! Seriously, I was terrified before I went to Guatemala and it was no way as scary as I thought it would be 🙂 I haven’t been to Tikal or Livingston myself but I’ve heard that they’re both great places. Yes I did and I loved them! Just don’t go on them at night and you’ll be fine 🙂 Enjoy Guatemala!

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