Guatemala is a country dotted with forest-clad mountains interspersed with smoky volcanoes, with coastal areas in the south and lowlands in the north. With very heavy rains, the lowlands can get hot and humid, but the highlands are lucky enough to experience a moderately cool climate all through the year. Steeped in Mayan culture, small towns and rural areas in Guatemala still observe the traditional Mayan beliefs and rituals. Antigua is arguably the most visited city by tourists.
Other places of interest to tourists include Peten, Lake Atitlan, and Tikal ruins. Sadly, the capital, Guatemala City, and Antigua are notorious for being dangerous and full of crime. Travelers commuting on city roads and between cities must remain alert and watch out for thefts and armed robberies carried out on public transport, bus terminals, etc. So for a safe travel and to avoid getting into trouble, follow the tips outlined below.
Travel Safety Tips for Tourists
- When you are on the move, keep all your important documents (passports, travel, and health insurance papers) safe by depositing them in a safe deposit box available in most hotels. But it is recommended that you carry a photocopy of your passport and visa at all times with you.
- Do not keep large amounts of money with you. Carry an ATM card which can be used at any of the ATMs found all over the major cities.
- Traveling at night should be strictly avoided. Call for a cab, never walk alone on the streets after dark. Incidents of tourists being mugged and robbed at night, especially on deserted streets, are commonplace.
- In the unfortunate event of you falling prey to mugging, it's advisable that you cooperate with the criminals. Raising an alarm and calling for help or resisting and fighting them will land you in deeper trouble. Muggers are often armed with guns and will not hesitate to injure or even kill their victims. Give up whatever they ask for; your safety is far more important than the worth of the valuables you are carrying.
- Guatemala City is particularly infamous for express kidnappings. Gangs kidnap individuals and release them only after they have been forced to use their debit cards to withdraw a specified sum of money. If travelers do not pay heed to the demands, these gangs do not hesitate to commit murder. To avoid such a nasty incident, never travel or walk alone, especially on lonely roads and highways.
- Guatemala City is subdivided into zones. Of these, zone 1 in particular is where most criminals operate. Tourists fall prey to thefts and robberies often. It is unsafe also because this area sees a lot of drug dealers who engage in drunken brawls, so it is advisable to steer clear of zone 1.
- Incidents of carjacking are common on highways leading up to international airports. Travelers are advised against using the highways after dark, especially when going to or coming from the airport. Cars and buses are targeted by assailants wearing police uniforms, who stop the cars and rob the passengers. In case you need to travel to the airport in the evening or night, contact PROATUR, the local agency that provides assistance to tourists. You can call a radio cab, which will pick you up from the airport and drop you off at your hotel, or vice versa. Note down the number on the license plate of the vehicle. If the cab does not arrive on time, do not linger outside the airport.
- Do not display the valuables you have with you, and these include laptops, iPods, jewelry, snazzy cell phones and the latest cameras. It's best to leave laptops and iPods back at the hotel, locked in your bag or deposited in the safety lockers most hotels provide. Even cell phones and cameras can lure criminals, so be very cautious when out on the streets. Carry your bag strapped across your shoulders and keep all money, ATM cards and other things deep inside the pockets, with the bag never out of your sight.
- Political demonstrations are held regularly on city streets, and can be held without any notice. They can turn hostile for no apparent reason, leading to violent confrontations between the police and the protesters. If you sense a crowd beginning to gather to protest, leave the place before you find yourself becoming a part of a swelling mob. Check the local news daily to keep yourself updated about any security information and road closures, and avoid such areas.
- Chicken buses, the brightly painted intercity buses often entice travelers who want to take a ride in them. These are old US school buses used by locals to ferry goods and passengers across cities. Do not travel in these buses, however inexpensive they might seem. They are not in good shape and the drivers often drive riskily, and are almost always targeted by armed thieves. Intercity travel by road should be avoided at all costs. Violent criminal activities are carried out on the highways and criminals do not think twice before inflicting bodily harm to tourists.
- Scams are another way of divesting tourists of their belongings. Unsuspecting tourists are informed by the criminals posing as regular citizens that their car has developed mechanical problems. The tourists are then led to a desolate parking spot and robbed off all their valuables. Other cases involve criminals using advanced technology to place electronic devices outside ATM doors, which prompts users to insert their PIN numbers to open the door. The PIN gets recorded and thieves use it to empty the accounts of tourists. Beware of such deceptive devices placed outside ATMs.
- Tourists are often tempted to take photographs of the locals, especially children wearing traditional costumes in rural areas. Locals may look upon you with suspicion and think of you as potential child kidnappers. So stay safe and do not click photographs of locals!
- Though Guatemala City has a liberal environment, smaller towns and rural areas are a lot more conservative. Abide by the local customs. Do not indulge in a public display of affection, and this is true especially in the case of homosexual couples.
- Pickpockets abound on city roads. They cleverly trick people by accidentally spilling water or other food on them, and then offering to clean it, creating a disturbance to divert attention, ask for time and directions, and nudge you before fleeing with your bag. And it's not just men, women and children can also be pickpockets.
- If you happen to lose your way, it is safer to go to a nearby store to ask for directions. Try not to appear lost, that would be inviting trouble!
- If you rent a car to drive around, you should know that most cars do not have automatic transmission. Be informed about the rules and regulations before you take to the wheel. Drivers do not always observe traffic rules, so driving around yourself demands total attention. Mountainous roads are steep and not well maintained, and are prone to landslides. Always keep a road map with you (roads are not well-marked) and do not drive at night.
- Travelers who wish to visit the areas of Peten, the Mayan ruins in Tikal, and Lake Atitlan should contact PROATUR at INGUAT for tourist assistance, and travel in groups for added safety. These tourist agencies provide security escorts to tourists and even aid victims. These areas are patrolled by the police, but it's recommended that travelers stay alert and be a part of a group at all times, and not venture out alone to any remote area.
Nature-related Safety Tips
- Guatemala is a seismically and geologically active country, with frequent, minor earthquakes, and active volcanoes. The most recent eruption of Pacaya volcano caused the airport near Guatemala City to briefly shut down. Monitor the news channels for up-to-date information on volcanic activity. If your itinerary involves climbing an active volcano, contact PROATUR so they can arrange for a professional guide to escort you.
- The rainy season coincides with the hurricane season in Guatemala, lasting from May to November, and heavy rains can cause flooding and landslides. Keep tab on the weather forecast for road closures and avoid traveling on highways in case of heavy rains.
- Be careful when you swim. The Pacific coast is known for riptides, undertows, and strong currents. Warning signs are inconspicuous on most public beaches and lifeguards may not be present.
Health-related Safety Tips
- Observe hygiene standards while eating the local street food. Do not eat it if you are unsure about the sanitary conditions of the place. Never eat uncooked food. Do not use ice cubes. Drink only bottled water, or boil and filter the water before consuming.
- The rainy season is when mosquitoes are abundant, especially in the rural areas. If you plan to travel during this period, contact your doctor for antimalarial drugs and gather information on how to take care in case of illness before you set off.
- Buy comprehensive medical insurance before traveling to Guatemala. Most major cities like Guatemala City and Antigua have adequate medical care facilities, but the same cannot be said for smaller towns. Hospitals and private clinics may ask if you are covered by insurance before providing treatment. Ensure you receive all the requisite travel shots before you begin your travel.
Even though Guatemala is rife with crime, that does not mean it receives less tourists. The country is a prime destination for ecotourism and one of the best places to learn all about the ancient Mayan civilization. A helpful tip would be to learn a few phrases in the local lingo, which can be of immense help when you are out on the roads. Do not go out at night (zona viva in zone 10 is an exception, it is the poshest neighborhood in Guatemala City and teeming with tourists). Like a tourist in any big city, be street smart. Follow the suggestions listed above, stay vigilant at all times, and you can be sure to have a fun-filled vacation in this country!