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21 Tips for Traveling Guatemala City Safely

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Guatemala City is not the safest place to live, I have come to learn through trial and error. So I stay home a lot. I actually wish I’d read some Guatemala City travel advice or stories before coming, because I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

Sometimes, I make purposeful Google searches, ones which I know will lead to travel blogs. I love such blogs, especially those written by people living abroad; they always have good advice for traveling around their country! I have not yet lived in the countryside in Latin America (that comes next month), so my advice is for traveling to Guatemala City.

This information particularly applies to those travelers coming from more developed countries, such as the US.

1) You’ll see men urinating in public. More than you’d expect. The other day, I was walking home when a man startled me, emerging from behind the wall in front of me and zipping up his pants. He ignored me and kept walking, but the day was scarred. There are such men in every part of the world, so don’t let them ruin your day. Maybe even yell at them a bit. The advice of my boss, Carlos, is to just yell “I hope it falls off!” as loudly as you can. Then they might not do it anymore. But then again, maybe they will.

2) Don’t expect to have access to all types of cuisine, at any hour of the day; although almost all food places here have home delivery (even McDonald’s), there are few options. The majority of the food is Spanish or Central American, or North American fast food. The most difficult for me to find has been Asian food, and there is no African food to speak of, until you hit the shores of Panama or Colombia.

3) Expect to receive the gringo price, at least initially, if it is obvious that you do not speak fluent Spanish or are not from the country. Each time that I go to a place, I always ask the price, even if I’d been told it before. Sometimes you will receive a lower price, and if it is higher, you can argue it or at least know that you had probably received a reasonable price the last time. Maybe you should practice your Spanish (or what-have-you) more, in that case.

My view of the volcano from Panajachel.

​4) Speak the language of the country. I know that English speakers often assume that there will always be someone there who speaks English, and will willingly translate for them. But in reality, unless you bring your own translator, it is rare to find other English speakers, even in the cities of Guatemala.

5) Never forget to stop and look around at where you are, to remember how lucky you are. The majority of the people around you have likely never traveled outside of their country, so check your privilege.

6) Get used to the smell of car exhaust throughout the city, and then a bit further. The quality of gasoline outside of the US & Europe tends to be sub-par, to say the least, even when you buy “premium” gas.

7) Keep a bag of protein-heavy snacks in your bag, like peanuts or almonds or something similarly portable & shelf-stable. Sometimes it’s hard to know when your next meal will be or even just where to find breakfast, so something healthy and high-calorie is good to keep around.

8) The highway is a perfectly reasonable place along which to walk. It just is, but still be vigilant and walk with others when possible.

9) Avoid walking alone. No time of day is a good time to practice the art of the solo walk. Bring a friend.

10) The only place in which it is safe to make a call is within a building. Never on the street in open air; it’s not uncommon to be robbed blind even when it’s light out.

11) Go into a conversation speaking with confidence, or else the person with whom your speak will doubt you and try to speak English (possibly worse than you speak their language!). This is one of my biggest tips for new travelers.

12) Phone chips are different in every country— you’ll likely have to keep buying new ones every time you go.

13) Don’t expect the same cooking ingredients and food options, even at the grocery store. Some staples are relatively universal, like chicken meat & eggs, carrots, onions, and basic spices, but don’t rely on finding any of your usual prepared foods.

14) The REAL fast food is found at the $2 taco stands along the road, where you can get a cheap delicious meal– McDonald’s is just a tasteless American rip-off no matter where you go. I’ve found this to be true across multiple continents and countries, at this point.

15) Plan to spend a ton on bottled water, or bring your own bottle with filters or portable filter like a Life Straw (which I used when traveling Cuba).

16) Try to stick near walls when walking down strange streets, keeping your bag facing away from the street as much as possible (it’s not uncommon for a motorcyclist to drive by and pull the bag right from your shoulder). Look straight forward as often as possible and do NOT pull out your phone in public, even if it’s not a smartphone. It’s still a distraction and could attract attention to you.

17) Robberies are more common around holidays and the middle & end of the month, when everyone has just gotten paid. Christmas is NOT the time to expect that everybody’s just gotten into the holiday spirit.

Making friends while touring a coffee plantation in Antigua, Guatemala.
Making friends while touring a coffee plantation in Antigua, Guatemala.

18) If you have the option to practice a non-native language, take it! I have followed this advice often and rarely am I worse off than before. In fact, I’m almost always better off.

19) ALWAYS keep a bit of emergency money hidden in your bra or underthings in case of a robbery; $100USD for a night in a hotel or a long cab ride should suffice. Never put your budget before your safety, and definitely never keep your passport or ID in your bag. And if someone does try to rob you, don’t be like me. Just give them your bag and run in the opposite direction; desperation makes people do crazy things.

20) Budgets are your best friends, especially for longer trips. Make one that you will actually follow, and stick to it. Then bring along just a bit of extra money, because life is unpredictable (see above).

21) Hair bands are wonderfully convenient if you have a room key or lock key. They stay on your wrist and are much harder to steal (or lose!). Just a light tip after all those heavier ones.

Canción de la semana: Ronald El Killa— Sin Testigos ft. Tony Lenta

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