I get asked A LOT about safety and crime in Guatemala. Not only from the people who are looking to become expats, but my friends and family, even if they’ve visited me. I’m used to the question now and sometimes will blow it off with a quick answer…
Is it safe?Future Expat/Friend
Of course, it is. I’ve been here 4 years without a problem. And look at me, I’m a helpless girl with a 15-year-old son who goes where ever he wants.Me
Let’s be truthful here. Yes, I’ve been here for 4 years. But I cheated in a way. My Dad, the original New Expat, came before me. He already had a place to live where I could live. He had friends I could become friends with. He had a translator. He had a car. I got the opportunity to hear about the Expat Files and meet Johnny Mueller on a visit so I knew what I was getting myself into. The truth is, when I came to visit for the first time, I was scared. Like blindly scared. I didn’t think I was going to make it out alive at the airport, driving through Guatemala City (those of you who got the chance to ride with John Galt will know that wasn’t just because we were in a 3rd World country. It was an everyday occurrence), driving to Antigua, walking to have dinner in Antigua. I’m still not sure I survived.
I know the feeling. The almost blind fear. I had it again after I moved when I drove for the first time into Antigua from our house in the ‘burbs. Would I know where to go? Would I park right? Would I remember to take the damn keys out of the ignition? Would I lock the car? Would I remember where I parked? I laugh about it now, but the anxiety was real. So, I really understand when you say you’re afraid to move here. I may roll my eyes (on the inside, I promise) but I really get it.
I say all of this as a preface to what this article is really about. Is it safe in Guatemala? How can I stay safe in Guatemala?
Yes, Guatemala is safe for the most part. Just like any place in this world is safe for the most part. Remember that blind fear I talked about above? I had it in Paris (!) when I arrived there alone. I’ve felt uneasy at times in Denver, Seattle, Albuquerque, and even Orlando. Anything can happen anywhere at any time to anyone. Seriously. I’ve seen statistics where the murder rate is higher in some US cities than the ENTIRE country of Guatemala. And have you seen the news out of Albuquerque in the past year? Yikes.
But, Jen, Guatemala is a 3rd World Country.
Ok, I may get controversial here.
Do you think calling Guatemala a 3rd World Country really makes it any different than the US right now? I really see no distinction from a lot of the places I’ve been in the 1st World. Except one big difference.
Yes, most of the people are poor in this 3rd World Country. Like really poor. But for the most part they are open and sweet and generous. And they don’t really want to hurt you. There are bad apples, sure. I’ve met them. I have stories to tell. I can pick the bad guys out of a crowd and there are certain signs they give. I steer clear. WAY CLEAR. But for the most part, you’ll find the Guatemalan people to be exceptional and kind. I love them and their warmth and quick smiles. It’s a warmth from strangers I don’t feel when I visit the US.
OK, then, what about the stuff I see online? I see Chicken buses getting robbed, girls go missing at the lake, dogs being poisoned, people being robbed at gunpoint, and that Volcano of yours is a real mess.
Let’s address these one by one…
People will tell you not to ride them at all. I say go for it but there are some guidelines to riding them. First, never ride one during a holiday. Holidays tend to bring the worst out in people. I’m looking at you Christmas and your related retail friend Black Friday. Easter is a big deal in Guatemala. Both holidays tend to be family and gift centric which in turn causes people to want money more than other times of the year. This puts buses at a higher risk for extortion and armed robbery. I’m not saying every bus gets robbed but why put yourself into that situation if you don’t have to?
And NEVER ride a chicken bus into the city. I don’t ride them long distances anyway. If you’ve ever seen one drive down the “highway” in Guatemala, you’ll know that all of these guys seem to have gone to the Richard Petty driving school before getting their learning permits. They are C R A Z Y. I have no death wish, I’ll take a tourist shuttle instead, thank you.
I do ride them on occasion around Antigua and for the most part, I have survived. They’re “safe” and cheap and a good place to people watch. There is always loud music and usually a light show. And sometimes you’ll even be able to see the road below you through the holes. They are always an adventure.
I’m talking specifically about the British backpacker who went missing and was found dead after what was determined to be a fall. Here’s a real shocker. Are you ready?
Facebook and the media tend to latch on to stories like this and exaggerate them. Usually the real story isn’t nearly as exciting as what they tend to churn up. I am in no way saying that what happened to Catherine wasn’t a tragedy, it was. But the truth wasn’t nearly as exciting as the rumors.
And guess what I’m gonna say next?
Crime happens everywhere! The key here is to be prepared for it and always be aware of your surroundings. And take those Facebook news stories with a grain of salt.
In Guatemala, it’s best to look people in the eye with confidence and say hello. You’ll get a friendly hello back but mostly you’ll let the other person know you see them. I know this is counter-intuitive to what you’ve been told to elsewhere but it’s important here. I always check who’s walking behind me. And if I’m going out to a bar, I have a plan to get home. And it is NOT walking alone in the dark. Listen to your gut. If it tells you something’s not right, it probably isn’t.
And while we’re on this topic, yes, I let my 15-year-old son walk around Antigua by himself. I realize this is a thing I would get in trouble for in the US. I once got yelled at by the school for making my 2nd grader to walk less than a mile to school. He knows all the rules about staying alert. He’s bigger than 99.9% of the population here and he knows to be home by dark (remember that from your childhood?). He’s not completely unmonitored either. He has a phone and checks in regularly.
Dogs Being Poisoned
If you haven’t heard of it, it happens here more often than you’d realize. The mayors of some small towns will routinely go around and poison the stray dogs in an effort to minimize the stray population. It’s not something I like to talk about. It’s a sad scene and it’s a horrible practice. It’s a very 1st World thing to look at a dog or cat as a family member. And if you’re worried about your pet when you move down, ask yourself when the last time was you allowed it to run free in the streets. If you keep your pet on a leash and in your control as you’re accustomed to do, you can take your pet most anywhere without a problem.
Being Robbed At Gunpoint
I’m going to point you back to what I said in the section about the missing girl. I’ll say it again. As long as you’re alert, you have a general sense about your surroundings, use common sense, and have a plan, you’ll be fine. I have been for 4 years. I know many people who have been here longer and never had an incident. This advice goes for ANYWHERE in the world. Always remember that anything can happen to anyone at any time!
I love Fuego. I know mountains are usually referred to in a feminine way but Fuego is a “he”. He reminds me of a relative of mine, Uncle Foch. He was grumpy and sometimes a little scary but if you stayed out of his way, he was practically harmless. I know it seemed like the whole country of Guatemala was buried under fire and ash last summer but in all reality, it affected a very small part of the population. Us Expats still talk about the time we had to shovel inches of black sand into bags for weeks. I like to refer to it as Ashmegeddon. One good thing that came out of all that sadness for the people in it path, was that there was a real sense of community among the Expats in Antigua. It was great to see every one work together to help the first responders and families that needed it.
I know moving or visiting to Guatemala can be daunting. I hope this helped in some way. Remember, if you come, you’re not alone. There are others here who have done exactly what you want to do and are happy to share their stories and advice. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to go back. We won’t think you’re crazy.
Well, maybe a little bit.