I was asked if Guatemala is safe by another traveler while hanging out in a hostel in Argentina. And let’s be honest, Guatemala is much less developed than Argentina, so it’s a legitimate question. It’s not the first time we have been asked about traveling in Guatemala, although the questions did usually come up when we were in South America. You don’t get asked such a question in Central America, mostly because all those countries are relatively the same in terms of safety and infrastructure less Costa Rica.
Safe is an Opinion
This is a very difficult question to answer, not because I think Guatemala is unsafe, but rather because the answer is an opinion. When speaking about travel safety, you want to hear facts or concrete evidence to squabble your fears. The only evidence I have is that Aracely and I traveled most of Guatemala for over a month and were never knowingly in danger. I am not asking you to make a judgement on the safety of traveling in Guatemala based on our experience alone, however all I can share is our experience.
Guatemala was the first country we visited on this backpacking journey and the most underdeveloped country I had ever been to. I should clarify by saying, I have never really traveled much beyond the United States, Spain and Germany. I was nervous. We were carrying a few thousand dollars worth of equipment and I not only had to worry about myself, but I felt responsible for Aracely’s safety too.
We had heard prior to visiting Guatemala that Guatemala City was very dangerous. Specifically, bus robberies and bus jackings were common by gangs. We made no plans to visit the city. When we arrived there by plane, we hopped on a shuttle bus to Antigua, “Gringo Town.”
While staying in Antigua, we did meet travelers that visited Guatemala City during the day for some sightseeing. They described it as any other major city, and had no bad experiences. We also were there when our hostel maid received a phone call that her sister was just hit and mugged while picking up her paycheck in the city. It’s all about experiences and what you may have heard. We decided to go bowling in the city one night. A bunch of us rented a private shuttle bus and all went well.
Antigua is the backpacking mecca of Guatemala. All the amenities you are used to exist here including WiFi, bars, dance clubs, laundry facilities, cafes, fast food chains, restaurants and major banks. If you can’t find something ask another traveler or the Tourist Police. I think Antigua is the perfect place to get your feet wet as a backpacker.
Antigua is usually the base camp for visiting other nearby attractions such as Lake Atitlan, Xela, Monterrico Beach, Semuc Champey or even Tikal. Tourists usually take shuttle buses around the country, but Chicken Buses (old American school buses) are available for the more daring. More daring in the sense that you really need to speak Spanish, be willing to travel slower and hope that you can figure out how to get from one destination to the other. The shuttle buses will take you directly to your destination, but it will be cramped.
There are many volcanoes to climb in Guatemala and some have had a history of bandit attacks. Bandits are looking to rob you and possibly harm you. It’s very easy to avoid such treks. Just listen to the advice from tour agencies and hike volcanoes that are national parks. The tour agencies are always trying to request the government convert more volcanoes into national parks, but it’s a slow process. Once a national park, rangers patrol the area for your safety.
- Tikal National Park Video Tour
- Climbing Volcano San Pedro Video Tour
- Active Volcano Pacaya Video Tour
- Monterrico Beach Guatemala Video Tour
It may take some time getting used to seeing armed guards patrol everything from gas stations to jewelry stores. These aren’t your everyday mall cops, these guys all carry shotguns. It’s a bit intimidating, however that is what they are going for.
The people of Guatemala are kind, the country is explored by few and the adventures are endless. You won’t find roped walkways and concrete steps on your hike to Semuc Champey. You will find yourself saying, “This wouldn’t be legal in my country.” But, this is what makes it so exciting.
Be Smart Stay Safe
This article isn’t intended to persuade you to avoid Guatemala City, chicken buses or volcanoes that aren’t national parks. We are just suggesting alternatives if you want to play it safe. However, the best way to be safe is to be smart. Don’t carry things in pockets that can be easily pick pocketed. Try to make friends and travel in groups. Always be aware of your surroundings. These are things that Aracely and I do in every country we visit.
I think Guatemala is special. I know this because every time Aracely and I are asked about it, we light up and explain how much fun we had while traveling there.