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Traveling through Central America is exciting and unique, from rainforest escapes to beautiful beaches, to the pre-Columbian cultures well preserved in many parts. And Guatemala is no exception. The small country south of Mexico is full of blue seas, from the Pacific Ocean to the landlocked lakes like Atitlan, ancient artifacts and ruins around every corner (including the ruins of Tikal) to buzzing cities like Guatemala City, travel to Guatemala should be on your bucket list.
However, your trip to Guatemala can be dangerous if you don’t use common sense. The country draws in hundreds of thousands of adventurous tourists looking for a special vacation experience. While the large majority of tourists have a worry-free journey, there are still travel warnings in place and a seemingly worryingly high crime rate, meaning it’s important to understand the context and history of the country.
From 1960 until 1991, Guatemala entered into a decades-long civil war. The war began after a popular left-wing candidate won the presidency, but a foreign-backed coup d’etat toppled the government to install a military leader. The new president reversed many of the decisions previously made, including land reforms to help the lower classes. As a result, left-wing guerrilla groups began fighting the government, launching the country into a violent and aggressive civil war.
For over 30 years, military dictators ruled the country with increasing control and violence over citizens. In 1982, a new leader took over and abolished the constitution, as well as all political parties. An increase of law enforcement and control of guerilla territories led by Montt created more violence at the hands of the military and civilian defense groups. In 1985, Montt was ousted in another coup and democratic elections returned to the country. By 1996, President Alvaro Arzu began a peace process to end the 36-year civil war.
While peace was restored over 20 years ago, the country is still suffering the scars of a long and brutal civil war. Violent crime, corruption, and organized crime, as well as petty crime, are all common in the country. Communities were used to violence, which is said to be one reason that violent crime has been able to thrive in the years since.
By the mid-1990s and early 2000s, Guatemala, like much of Latin America, especially Central America, saw large numbers of citizens being deported from the United States. Many that returned to Guatemala had joined gangs, originally as a form of protection and preservation of cultural identity in the US. These groups came into a still recovering and weak Guatemala. The combination of the scars of the war and the new groups entering the country is what is said to have allowed organized crime groups to take control of regions of the country. Today, Guatemala has high numbers of membership in groups like MS-13 and Barrio 18.
In 2016, there were a recorded approximate 100 murders per week in Guatemala. Compared to other nearby countries such as Costa Rica, Guatemala is considerably more dangerous, however, most tourists are fine here. Most violent crime happens within specific areas of the country and does not include tourists. In Guatemala City, Zone 3, in the center-west, Zone 6 in the north, Zone 18 in the northeast, and Zone in the far south of the city are considered the city’s most dangerous zones, and you’re advised to avoid these areas. Regions like Peten, in the far north of the country along the Mexican and Belizean borders, are common for criminal activity and drug trading — avoid travel to such areas. The best way to swerve potential danger is to follow to the advice of locals. Local authorities and citizens know their community best and if they say an area is a no-go, it’s a no-go. And of course, if you don’t get involved in drug or gang-related activity, you shouldn’t run into any trouble.
The most common danger to a foreigner in Guatemala is petty crime. Robberies and even armed robbery can be very common, especially in major cities. Any robbery can become dangerous quickly, so the best thing to do if you are being robbed or mugged is to give them what they want. No item is worth your health or your life. Keep valuable items at home or locked up in a safe back in the hotel room, and try not to flash too many fancy items when walking down the street.
Pickpocketing is also common in many parts of Guatemala, especially in crowded public spaces. Watch out for pickpockets in Guatemala City’s tourist areas, and on public transportation. Keep your valuables in front of you, and be conscious of anybody approaching and standing very close. Sometimes, pickpockets will pretend to sell you something as a distraction.
When using a debit card or ATM in Guatemala, be careful of ATM scams. Often, thieves will tamper with the machines to steal your information. There have been numerous reports of foreigners using an ATM and later seeing charges made to their card. The best way to avoid this happening is to carry enough cash with you for the whole day.
Foreigners stand out in Guatemala, so if you feel unsure of an area, don’t travel alone. This is particularly true the farther you go from the normal tourist destinations in the country, in small towns and rural sites.
Homosexuality is legal in the country, though marriage is not, and there is no protection against discrimination. Especially in smaller towns and areas, people tend to be more conservative and may not be as accepting. LGBT travelers may face harassment in any part of the country, cities or small towns. That said, Guatemala City has parts that are pretty open, and has a number of gay bars to check out. Antigua, the small colonial town outside the capital city is much more liberal and accepting than the rest of the country. You’ll be able to find gay bars, queer-owned spots, and a full, but small, LGBT community.
Solo female travelers in Guatemala should always be aware of their surroundings while traveling. Women may face harassment on streets and in major cities, and should not travel alone at night. Don’t travel too far into remote areas if you’re traveling alone, and try to find a reliable tour company to take you if you plan to travel far. The public transport, or ‘chicken buses’ as they’re called, can be especially dangerous for foreign women alone, so try to take them as little as possible, and don’t go alone on the buses at night.
Guatemala is prone to various natural disasters, ranging from small inconveniences to large-scale danger. It’s best to monitor local media and news to know when there is a risk of disaster. If one does strike, follow local authorities to stay safe.
In June 2018, Guatemala’s Fuego volcano erupted, killing over 100 people. Volcanic eruptions can be extremely deadly and can come with little-to-no advance warning. If you find yourself near a volcano and there is a chance of its eruption, leave immediately.
Watch out for the rainy season and hurricane season in the country. The rainy season runs from May to October, and is usually sunny in the mornings and rainy all afternoon. Some areas can be more unpredictable, including beachside towns and rainforest towns. Hurricane season in Guatemala is from September to November, at the end of the typical rainy season. Hurricanes usually do not affect the country as badly as other countries in the region. You’ll more likely experience lots of heavy rains and heavy winds, and tropical storms, as opposed to a devasting hurricane.
If you’re traveling to remote parts of the country, including rainforests, jungles, or beaches, bring protection against mosquitos, as the Zika virus is active in these regions.