Is Guatemala Safe?

| by Jason | 14 Comments » | Central America, Guatemala, Reflections

Is Panajachel safe?

Walking the Streets of Panajachel

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.

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 Guatemala safe?

Walking the Streets of Antigua

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 western nations.  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.

Resturants in Flores

Domingo's Restaurant in Flores

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.”

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 Gringo or the Tourist Police.  I think Antigua is the perfect place to get your feet wet as a backpacker.

Local Transportation in Guatemala

Chicken Buses of Antigua

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.

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.

Storing Bags on Chicken Buses

Backpacks Stored in the Back of the Bus

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 turn more volcanoes into national parks, but it’s a slow process.  Once a national park, rangers patrol the area for your safety.

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.

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

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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Tags: blogsherpa, Central America, Guatemala, safety

Written by Jason

Co-founder of TwoBackpackers.com. Jason has been traveling, writing, taking photos and creating adventure videos since 2009, when he departed on his first year long travel backpacking journey. Jason is a full-time blogger and social marketing guru trying to find the way. Visit my website

14 Responses to “Is Guatemala Safe?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. rich@farm and cottage holidays says:

    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.

  4. Sonya says:

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

  5. 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).

  6. 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!

  7. 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. =)

  8. 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!

  9. Lisa E @chickybus says:

    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.

  10. 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.

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