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Is Guatemala Safe?

Is Panajachel safe?

Walking the Streets of Panajachel, Guatemala

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.

Is Antigua safe?

Walking the Streets of Antigua, Guatemala

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.

Is Flores safe?

Outside a Restaurant in Flores, Guatemala near Tikal National Park

Guatemala City

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

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.

Buses Guatemala

Chicken Buses of Antigua, Guatemala

Transportation

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.

Travel Guatemala

Backpacks Stored in the Back of the Bus

Volcanoes

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.

Armed Guards

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.

People

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.

Is Panajachel Safe?

Streets of Panajachel, Guatemala at Lake Atitlan

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.

View PHOTOS of Guatemala.

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Grin'n,bear,it says:

Hi Jason,
I have enjoyed reading your blog. I enjoyed reading this particular article. Not to be a critique, but I enjoyed someone for a change explaining it as you did. I have been to Guatemala 7 times since 2008. My last trip was in Feb of this year (’12). On most of my trips early on I stayed at hotels just for security reasons. They were clean and safe with good food. I stayed a couple of trips in Hostels, and as a way to make friends and form groups for safety they can be great along with the saved money. I have since made friends with a few people in country and have started staying at their houses. I pay for the stay and get an authentic experience.
In my trips I have visited Xela, Pana, Santiago, Cerro de Oro, Guate city, Chichi, and Antigua.
I have 5 friends that live in Guate city, and I have seen a lot of it via their help and guidance. Not a place for the wondering backpacker. Much like most large cities you can be in a safe place, wonder a block or 2 and be in trouble fast. Common sense and street smarts prevail there.
I also have a friend that lives in Antigua, He used to be a chicken bus driver turned tour bus driver and now runs his own tour bus company. I will not advertise for him on your site out of respect for you, but if you would want his info I would be glad to put my endorsement on his company. He does tours and airport shuttling from Antigua to the airport and back. He does do drops to hotels in the city if he is there at the airport. I have used him to hire trust worthy taxis for me too. Contact me if you would want to post his info somewhere on your site. I have used him 6 out of the 7 times I have been to Guatemala, thus how we became friends.
Most of my stays in country have been in the Lake Atitlan area. I have been there 6 times now and stayed for up to a week each time. Pana is very touristy and I only really go there to catch a boat across the lake. Santiago is my city of choice and tuk tuks take me anywhere in the city I want to go for cheap. I started out staying at the Posada Hotel there and have become friends with David the owner and much of his staff. I now stay with families in the City to get a cheaper stay with an authentic experience. I love hiking the volcanoes and even little Cerro de Oro was fun. The town of Cerro de Oro is not on the beaten path, but I have come to know many of the locals. The view from the Catholic Church over the lake is awesome.
Safety is always a big concern for anyone. Never flash cash of large amounts. Every time I have gone, I have carried a large enough amount to draw a mugging if not played smart. Stay out of the back roads anywhere you go if you can. Carry the majority of your money in an odd spot, a small amount in a money belt and the money you intend to use that day in your pocket. That way they only see a small amount at a time. If you get caught digging in your money belt and they all know most tourist carry them, it is not everything you have and you won’t lose it all. Pay attention to your surroundings and don’t form routines especially if it involves money. Like going to the bank then hitting a coffee shop on the way back and shortcutting through a short alley. 2 friends of mine got mugged heading to an orphanage in Xela that way.
A lot of people in Guate are learning English and as bad as my Spanish is, I still manage to get around. And even if you speak good Spanish, in the lake area they will switch over to their native Mayan dialect if they do not want you to eaves drop on what they are saying. I have never felt unsafe by myself, but I am a big guy and I listen to that voice that says “this is not a place you want to be or go.” My size means nothing to a gun or machete. That said, I usually look pretty granola-y and everything I have is cheap or well-worn as to not draw attention as a money laden tourist. I don’t travel at night other than to a restaurant or bar down the street. And most of my activity is random and during the day. I look forward to reading more of your future and past posts. I hope to hit Coban one of these trips soon. Never been there and would love to hear some inside advice on that town.

Thanks for all the additional information. It’s priceless to our readers that seek out personal experiences that others have had. It’s been a few years since we traveled Guatemala, but it remains one of the fun backpackers places to explore. It’s cheap, small and diverse. Never been to Coban though.

yılmaz kaya says:

Hello jason,
i was just checking the WEB, and i’m so interested to read about the stories.
ı would like to get your opinion about to move to guatemala to make a life overthere.
ı from turkey and ı’m living in istanbul.
before ı was living in usa between 1999,2010 and ı had a reletaionship with the guatemalan girl.and ı decided to come back to my own country 1,5 half years ago but ı was still in reletaionship with my girlfriend and finally she decided to fallow me and she came to istanbul we’re to gether now. she’s been out of her own country more than 20 years and she does not have enoughf information about guatemala right now. ı was doing research on the net ı found you guys.
can you pls share with me if we go to guatemala one day to make a life overthere would it be wrong decision or ?
thank you so much for your information
thanks

The decision can only be made by you and can only be wrong or right from your perspective. My perspective is probably different from yours. We enjoyed Guatemala very much. It’s incredibly different from NYC, where we lived before we traveled to Guatemala. I don’t think I could ever live there permanently, but that’s just my personal opinion. Everyone’s opinion is unique. My suggestion is to visit for a while before you decide to move anywhere. This will reduce your risk of moving somewhere you don’t enjoy. Best of luck!

Manny says:

Love the post. My GF and I are going backpacking to Guatemala for 2 weeks in the end of March and it is our first time backpacking. I am very excited but nervous, I know that going to another country you have to be open minded and have respect for the people and their culture. I fly into Guatemala City on a Saturday but plan to do the same as everyone else, and get out of there asap. My question is what is the best way to get around Guatemala? Is it possible to take a bus from Guatemala City to Tikal or do we have to fly? If we can how long is the bus ride and about how much does it cost? What are good places to visit for two weeks and what are some hostels we can stay at? Any advice you have will help. I know it is a lot but I hope you can help. Thank you all.

Manny, Bus is the best way to get around anywhere in Central America. It’s cheap, it’s the standard and they go EVERYWHERE, like veins in the body. From Antigua we took a bus to Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, then to Semuc Champey via Antigua, next Flores (Tikal), to Rio Dulce, and then back to Antigua. It can be done in 2 weeks. The best experiences for us were Semuc Champey and Tikal. You can view those videos here –> http://2backpackers.com/videos/ Buses are cheap, can’t remember exactly and trips are typically 8hrs or less since Guatemala is fairly small.

Antigua is full of hostels, you can take your pick. Use HostelWorld or HostelBookers and read the reviews for what you like. It’s hard for me to recommend, because it all depends on your tastes. Private, Dorm, Quiet, Party, Kitchen, Game room etc. We stayed at Hostel BaseCamp and El Hostel, both quite and private rooms. We became friends with those at BaseCamp hostel and did the Pacaya hike with them. Be sure to watch that video.

Panajachel has lots of hostels on the main strip too. We stayed away from the strip, I wouldn’t recommend that. In Flores we stayed at Doña, I believe. To see our day to day itinerary during those first few weeks of Antigua go to http://2backpackers.com/journal/ and scroll to the very bottom of the page. That begins our trip in Antigua.

Be sure to negotiate everything and team up with others to negotiate group deals. Buses are usually Toyota mini buses or Sprinter vans and can get uncomfortable. Luggage will often go on top of the bus, with a rain tarp. If you plan to cross Lake Atitlan, walk down to lake and negotiate a price. The more you avoid paying local travel agencies for things, the more money you will save. Sometimes, however, you have to. We preferred a guide for Tikal, so we paid for that service. When in Semuc Champey, consider staying down by the water for at least one night. Bring a mosquito net though.

Have a great time and update us when you get back! You can send me an email using our contact form.

Stephanie says:

Last week my good friend (who is Guatamalan) had his cousin brutally murdered by police last week outside of Guatamala city. I’ve not been but I have the impression that Guatamala is probably a terribly unsafe place to be- if you are Guatamalan.

As a traveler, I am really excited about visiting Guatamala and the rest of Central America and I think it’s possible to do so safely as long as you are aware of your surroundings and careful about your safety.

Jason says:

Stephanie, so sorry to hear about your friend’s cousin. We also had a bad story with a local getting beaten and robbed after picking up their paycheck in the city. I would still go back as a traveler. I enjoyed Guatemala a lot and found it not different than many of the other Central American countries I visited in terms of safety. Thanks for your comments.

We have traveled all over Guatemala in our own vehicle for the past 4 months and we ahve not entountered any issues. Yes, there are problems, as there are in many places, but with a bit of common sense or terribly bad luck it is not an issue. In fact Guatemala has one of the best and innovative tourist programs we have ever seen. Asistour is a division of INGUAT (the national tourism ministry) and its soul purpose is to help tourists with any issues… from information to being ripped off or having hassles with anything. Just diaql 1500 (free) from any phone and an english speaking operator will help you, even if that means sending the regional Aistour rep there to give you a hand. It’s quite amazing.

Jason says:

We feel similar in that all countries can be dangerous, you just have to be smart. Even in NYC we are always conscious of the equipment we are flashing around. And in each city there are safe places and not so safe places, and we should recognize that. It’s a lot of common sense and luck.

Hi Jason and Aracely; my wife and I spent 10 days in Guatemala in 2007 and did feel safe. We weren’t backpacking per se (independent travel that we had organized, not a tour), but we also traveled in low-key fashion (light, not splashy luggage or clothing/jewelry), and utilized money belts and other safety precautions. I did travel with a good camera but always tried to be smart about when it was out and I was using it. I really think that’s the key- making sure not to put yourself out there as an obvious “target.” We LOVED the country and everyone we met was super friendly and helpful, both the Guatemalans and all the US expats and travelers from around the world. Having been to five countries in Latin America now, Guate was I think my favorite for the combination of natural beauty (Lake Atitlan in particular), fascinating (and at times tragic) history, and the still living Mayan culture that you can experience in the highlands. Highly recommended!

Jason says:

And we feel the same way after spending 7 weeks there. It’s a great country to explore.

Rain says:

The more I read about your experiences in Guatemala, the more I realize that it is very similar to some of the provinces in the Philippines. Safety is also a concern for most people who want to visit the Philippines. But I agree with you, it’s really a matter of opinion. And unless one lacks street smarts, traveling to countries like Guatemala isn’t really dangerous.

Jason says:

It sounds like the Philippines is very similar Rain.

Drew says:

I heard the same things about Guatemala City that you did, and we took the same sort of precautions, mostly “getting the hell out of there.” by contrast, other than getting stiffed by the taxi driver on the way in to Antigua, I felt as safe there as any place in Central America. We stayed for a week in Xela, and I loved that place as well, though I heard mumblings it wasn’t that safe either.

But that might have been mumblings about the water quality…

Jason says:

I felt the same way Drew. We continue to hear bad things about Guatemala City today. We never visited Xela, but hear many great things about it. Also a popular place to take Spanish lessons.

Sarah Smith says:

I’m traveling to Antigua at the end of June for one month. I will first be arriving in Guat. City and will be at the airport for at least 7 hours until I take an overnight coach to Tikal for three days. Then I’ll return to G. City and on to Antigua. Should I have anything to worry about traveling alone? I’m a 30 year old woman who speaks decent enough Spanish.

Jason says:

I wouldn’t worry Sarah. The airport is fine. The chaos starts when you exit the airport trying to get a ride from the 50 or so taxi drivers that swarm you offering their services. But, if you have already booked a trip on, what sounds like a full size tour bus, you should be absolutely fine. Not sure where you plan to stay near Tikal, but if it’s Flores, it’s beautiful. On Tour Buses, you won’t need to worry about speaking Spanish. Spanish will only be necessary if you plan on using local, non tourist, transportation. Have a great time!

Talon says:

Great viewpoint & sound advice. As you point out there are basics you should follow for any country you’re in.

Kristin says:

Shannon and I went to Guate while looking for fair trade clothing options. We felt really safe in all the backpacker places, as you all did, but for SURE Guate CIty was a nightmare! I stayed with a very wealthy family, and we had armed guards and barbed wire all around…

But Guatemala is absolutely beautiful! Every place is beautiful. You just gotta be smart.

Jason says:

The most important thing you said is that, “you just gotta be smart.” That plays such a big role in traveling to unfamiliar places. We had heard many bad things about Guatemala City and were careful when visiting, but didn’t spend much time there.

I’ve been to Guatemala twice and would have to say that it can be quite safe–if you take some basic precautions. When I went, I had my money in a money belt and didn’t flaunt a fancy camera, etc.

I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous or a country to avoid, but more a destination where you need to be smart and somewhat vigilant. (To be honest, though, I must say that I did feel a little safer in other countries, including some in the Middle East.)

I think Guatemala is a wonderful country to visit that is not to be missed. If you love Spanish, indigenous cultures and warm, friendly people, it’s one of the best places to go. I’d go back in a minute!

Jason says:

We would go back in a minute too. It’s one of our favorite small countries with so much to do. And what a great way to start a backpacking trip. Thanks for sharing your comments with us Lisa.

Skott & Shawna says:

Hey there – my wife and I are leaving for our RTW spring 2011 from Canada, and yes, first stop will indeed by Guatemala!!!!! We are going to be taking a homestay Spanish course at Lake Atitlan, and couldn’t be more thrilled!!! You seem to have a lot of great info on CA, so we will definately be using this blog to help with ideas and inspiration…Cheers!

Skott and Shawna

Jason says:

We really enjoyed touring Central America and Guatemala was definitely one of our favorites. It’s the best place to learn language as well, since it’s so incredibly cheap. Just don’t go swimming in Lake Atitlan!

GO! Overseas says:

Not only is this true for Guatemala, but just about any country you plan on visiting. Even here in the US there are still plenty of areas that travelers should avoid visiting if safety is a concern.

Staying safe while traveling is just a summation of common sense, experience, and a smidgen of luck. =)

ABe says:

Well said.

Bryan says:

I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head with your answer – it depends on your specific experiences in the country. You’ll never find a place that everyone agrees is 100% safe. Our travels took us extensively through the middle east much to the surprise and horror of our friends and family. Our experiences were the exact opposite of their expectations, however. We were met with warmth, friendliness, and gifts everywhere we went. I’m sure that someone somewhere has had a problem, but there is crime in my home town as well.

Looking forward to more of your stories!

Ronald says:

Hello, i was just checking the WEB, and i love to read the stories you guys have written on your blogs. I am Guatemalan and love to travel around the world. I have many friends all over the world whose have been visiting my country and they all loved it. And even better nothing danger has happened to them. I do belive it is dangerous sometimes when talking about buses and walking alone on a bad neighborhood. But tourist are usully safe… Congratulations for the Website. And Yes Pacaya Volcano is erupting now. You should try Acatenango Volcano in your next visit, It is the most beautiful view. (its 3800 meters over the sea level and you can see Fuego’s volcano Lava which is only a few KM distance).

Sonya says:

Enlightening post, thanks for this one! I’m researching the region and considering my travel options.

it’s hard to give an all-encompassing answer like that , no matter where you visit because everyone’s experience is individual and unique.I’ve heard some horror stories about places that I’ve never had problems in.

Claire says:

I couldn’t agree more with this post-Guatemala is also where I got my feet wet with backpacking, and Antigua is where it all began. We visited most of the countries in Central America on that trip, and Guatemala was by far, my favorite. It just felt like home after awhile. We never felt unsafe-we still talk to this day how anything bad that happened to us on our three month trek, happened in Costa Rica at the very end of our jaunt. That’s when the **** really hit the fan! But that’s for another blog comment….:)

Guatemala is rugged, and it is beautiful.

Brendan Kane (REI) says:

Hey, you guys! I love your website! I was just checking some entry requirements for the countries in Central America and had a question I think you might be able to answer. Some countries (Costa Rica, Belize) require and onward/return ticket to enter. This assumes you’ll be traveling by air. What’s the story with overland travel? Hope you can help! I’ll be hitting the road in the USA (for starters) in less than a month if jury duty (AARRRGGHH!!) doesn’t hold me up. Keep on ramblin’. And thank Aracely for me for the helpful info on hiking! Happy trails!

Jason says:

Hey Brendan! You won’t have to worry about any onward or return tickets when crossing the border by land. We never had to show anything other than our passport. Jury duty, that stinks.

Eva says:

Hi Jason, we crossed into Costa Rica from Panama a few days ago by land at the Sixaola border crossing. They made a fuss and wanted to see plane tickets out of the country. It always depends who you get. There was a girl next to us who apparently got in without that. Our “woman” was more difficult. We were able to get through with a plane ticket that we have for April from Mexico to Boston, which we had to print out at the nearest pharmacy for $3. At no other land border crossing was that the case, and we’ve traveled all the way from Argentina to Central America (mostly by land), even flying into Panama City from Ecuador one-way was no problem at all. Your website is wonderful! Keep up the good work.

Jason says:

Thanks Eva for using us as a resource. I guess you never really know when you are going to have a border problem, but for the most part, I think it’s fairly smooth, as you have experienced. Although sometimes sketchy, crossing a land border is a unique experience.

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