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Is Guatemala Safe? A Comprehensive Guide for Travelers

Guatemala is a place that has a lot of different sides to it. It is a gorgeous country with breathtaking natural beauty and a vibrant cultural heritage, and the locals are just so friendly. However, it’s a place that draws in a lot of adventurous travelers but also brings up a bunch of questions and worries: Is Guatemala a safe place to visit? So, what kinds of risks and challenges do travelers typically encounter?

I lived several years in Guatemala and can completely and sincerely answer some of these questions.

After reading this article, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect and how to get ready for your trip to Guatemala.

view of volcano lake atitlan guatemala
Guatemala is safe and a land of contrasts, both enchanting and challenging. By staying informed, respecting local norms, and embracing the adventure, you can experience its magic.

Is Guatemala Safe?

Yes, it’s safe, but it depends a lot on the area. As a tourist, your chances of facing something sketchy if you practice common sense are reduced.

Guatemala has a reputation for crime and violence; some areas indeed have their own challenges, but we shouldn’t generalize and apply those challenges to the entire country.

Explorers who go beyond the news stories find a welcoming atmosphere, vibrant customs, and awe-inspiring scenery.

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Why is Guatemala labeled “high risk”?

Guatemala is a country that has been through a lot. It suffered a brutal civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996, and it has also faced natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions. It has struggled with political instability, corruption, and human rights violations.

And it has endured social and economic problems like poverty, inequality, crime, and migration.

All these factors have contributed to the perception that Guatemala is a dangerous and unstable country, and to some extent, this perception is true.

Guatemala is not a haven for travelers. It has high levels of violence, and it has widespread gang activity, drug trafficking, and extortion, as well as frequent protests, roadblocks, and strikes that can disrupt travel and services.

And it has potential threats from natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, floods, and volcanic eruptions.

These are some of the realities that travelers may encounter when visiting Guatemala. But they are not the whole story.

What are the main safety concerns in Guatemala?

Guatemala can be a bit risky, so travelers need to be aware of the potential dangers and difficulties they might encounter.

Here are a few safety concerns in Guatemala:

Crime

Crime rates in Guatemala are quite high, particularly in urban areas and on public transportation. Travelers often encounter crimes like petty theft, pickpocketing, mugging, and robbery.

Travelers need to stay alert and be careful, especially during the evening, in busy locations, and in remote areas.

One effective approach to preventing crime in Guatemala is to stay alert, well-informed, and considerate.

Despite this, you might not come across any crimes or scams during your trips, but it’s a good idea to keep a few crime tips and precautions in mind.

Here are some of them:

  • Do not carry large amounts of cash or flash your money or valuables.
  • Do not walk alone, especially at night or in unfamiliar areas.
  • Do not participate in illegal activities, such as gambling, prostitution, or drug trafficking.
  • Do not resist or argue with armed criminals, and cooperate with their demands.
  • Do not leave your belongings unattended or lose sight of your cards or documents.
  • Report any crime or incident to the local authorities, and contact your embassy or consulate.
  • Respect the local culture, laws, and customs, and avoid any conflict or offense.
guatemala local market indoors
Crowded places like markets, or bus stations are usually targeted by pickpockets and scammers, you should stay alert.

Scams

There are a few scammers out there who like to target travelers and foreigners and pull sneaky tricks to get their hands on money or valuables.

You need to stay alert. Some common scams you should be aware of are: fake police officers, fake tour guides, fake taxis, counterfeit money, and fraudulent charities. Travelers should approach their journey with caution and be mindful of any questionable or unexpected offers or requests.

Here are some useful tips to avoid scams:

  • Do not accept rides, drinks, or gifts from strangers.
  • Do not trust anyone who offers you a deal that sounds too good to be true.
  • Do not give out your personal or financial information, or use public or unsecured Wi-Fi.
  • Try to walk with someone you trust or in a group, and stick to well-lit and busy streets.

Health

If you want to stay healthy in Guatemala, it’s important to prioritize both your physical and mental well-being.

You may encounter a few health risks and challenges along the way, and those include food poisoning, water contamination, mosquito-borne diseases, altitude sickness, sunburn, or stress.

If you want to avoid or address these problems, just stick to some simple health tips and take the necessary precautions.

  • Get vaccinated; it is one of the most important and effective ways to prevent some of the diseases that are prevalent in Guatemala.
  • You should consult your doctor at least 4 to 6 weeks before your trip and get recommendations for your destination and activities.
  • Don’t forget any medicine you take regularly, and bring any certificates or medical receipts.
  • Drinking bottled water is another essential and easy way to avoid getting sick from contaminated water.
  • You should avoid eating raw or undercooked meat, seafood, or anything that looks “unhealthy,”  since they can have bacteria or parasites that can cause gastrointestinal problems.
viewpoint green rush guatemala
Many must-visit attractions in Guatemala are high places or national parks where mosquitoes, muddy paths, and landslides may be an issue, make sure to take precautions beforehand.

Natural Disasters

One of the key things to keep in mind when it comes to preparing for natural disasters in Guatemala is to stay aware, informed, and ready.

Since you might encounter various natural disasters like earthquakes, landslides, floods, or volcanic eruptions.

They aren’t common, but you should be prepared for these situations. It’s a good idea to keep in mind some simple disaster tips and precautions.

  • You should wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks, and shoes, and apply insect repellent to your exposed skin, especially during dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
  • Sleep under a mosquito net or in a room with screens, fans, or air conditioning, and avoid areas with stagnant water where mosquitoes breed.
  • Prepare for altitude sickness, ascend gradually, and give yourself time to acclimatize to the lower oxygen levels.
  • Have an emergency kit ready with you, containing items such as water, food, a flashlight, a radio, batteries, a phone, a charger, cash, documents, and medication.
  • Think about an emergency plan with a meeting point, a contact person, and an evacuation route.
  • Follow the local news and weather and the advice of the authorities, and stay away from any affected areas.

Now let’s take a look at other issues you should keep in mind:

Safety by Region and Destination

Guatemala is divided into 22 departments, each with its features and challenges. The departments are further subdivided into municipalities.

The level of safety in Guatemala varies by region and destination. Some regions and destinations are safer than others.

In general, the regions and destinations that are safer for tourists are those that are more developed, more visited, and more protected by the authorities.

The regions and destinations that are more dangerous for tourists are those that are more remote, more neglected, and more affected by violence and poverty.

Petén

Petén is the northernmost and largest region of Guatemala, covering about one-third of the country’s territory. It is also the most sparsely populated and least developed region, with vast areas of tropical rainforest, wetlands, and savanna.

It is home to some of the most impressive and important Mayan archaeological sites in the world, like Tikal, Yaxhá, Uaxactún, and El Mirador. It is also a biodiversity hotspot, with numerous national parks, reserves, and wildlife sanctuaries, like Petén Itzá Lake.

The safety of Petén depends largely on where you go and what you do. The safest and best places to visit in Petén are the main tourist attractions, like Tikal, Flores, and El Remate, which are well-guarded and well-maintained by the authorities and the tourism industry.

woman in front of tikal temple guatemala
Tikal is the perfect example of a highly safe place in Guatemala, you can visit it without 0 issues or worries other than mosquitos and insects.

Alta Verapaz

Alta Verapaz is a region located in the central-northern part of the country. It shares borders with Petén, Izabal, Baja Verapaz, and El Quiché. This region of Guatemala is incredibly diverse and beautiful, offering a wide range of landscapes, climates, and ecosystems.

You’ll find everything from mountains and valleys to rivers, lakes, caves, and forests. Alta Verapaz has some amazing natural attractions like Semuc Champey, Biotopo del Quetzal, Lanquín Caves, and Cobán.

The safety of Alta Verapaz depends mainly on how you travel and who you interact with. The safest and best places to visit in Alta Verapaz are the natural and cultural attractions, like Semuc Champey, Lanquín Caves, Cobán, and Biotopo del Quetzal, which are relatively safe and well-managed and taken care of.

views of the pools of semuc champey from lookout in guatemala
Despite being located deep in the woods, Semuc Champey is a safe place to visit, and one you can’t miss.

Izabal

Izabal shares borders with Petén, Alta Verapaz, Zacapa, Honduras, and the beautiful Caribbean Sea. This region of Guatemala is incredibly diverse and full of exotic wonders. From stunning coastlines and islands to majestic mountains and lush jungles, it offers a wide range of landscapes, climates, and cultures to explore.

It has some pretty awesome natural attractions like Río Dulce, Livingston, Quiriguá, and Punta de Manabique.

If you’re looking for safe spots to check out in Izabal, you’ll want to visit Río Dulce, Izabal Lake, and Livingston. These places are not only beautiful, but they’re also well-protected and safe thanks to the authorities.

Some areas in Izabal, like Puerto Barrios, Morales, and Santo Tomás de Castilla, can be quite risky to visit due to higher crime rates and violence.

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Central Highlands

The Central Highlands are situated in the central part of Guatemala; this region is pretty crowded and well-developed. It has all sorts of landscapes, climates, and cultures to offer, like volcanoes, valleys, lakes, plateaus, and forests.

The Highlands are famous for their stunning natural attractions, including Lake Atitlán, Pacaya Volcano, Chichicastenango Market, and others.

It’s got some interesting cultural attractions to check out too, like the Maya communities, the Feria de Santiago Atitlán, and the UNESCO Site of Antigua, a colonial town.

The Central Highlands is a chill and laid-back area where folks and communities live together and work together, making it a pretty safe and stable region of Guatemala, especially in the rural and tourist areas. Crime and violence are low, and there’s a good level of security and development.

Some safe places to check out in the Central Highlands are the natural and cultural attractions. You’ve got Acatenango, Lake Atitlán, Pacaya Volcano, and Chichicastenango Market. These places are pretty safe, and the authorities and tourism keep things running smoothly.

street on a village lake atitlan
Lake Atitlan and its villages are among the safest places to visit in the country, you won’t face most challenges and it’s incredibly stunning.

Pacific Coast

The Pacific Coast is known for its scorching temperatures and arid conditions. It offers a diverse range of landscapes, climates, and cultures, including stunning beaches, lush mangroves, towering volcanoes, vast deserts, and farms.

It’s home to some awesome natural attractions like Monterrico, Xocomil, and Xetelul (water and amusement parks), El Paredon Beach, and Takalik Abaj, a Mayan site.

The safest and best places to visit on the Pacific Coast are the touristic places, like Monterrico and El Paredon, which are relatively safe and well-protected.

el paredon sign guatemala
El Paredon is a popular place that has earned a lot of popularity, a beach town with a unique vibe and a safe environment.

Is Guatemala City safe?

Guatemala City is the capital and largest city of the country, and it’s also the most populous and developed urban area in Central America. A city bustling with government institutions, businesses, industries, universities, museums, and monuments.

It is the main transportation hub, boasting the La Aurora International Airport, the Central Railway Station, and the convenient Transmetro bus system.

Guatemala City can be quite a challenging place to travel to, particularly in certain areas where there is a high level of gang activity, drug trafficking, and crime.

It depends on where you go and what you do in the city when it comes to safety. If you’re looking for the safest spots in Guatemala City, you can’t go wrong with zones 4, 9, 10, 13, and 14 (Make sure to visit Ciudad Cayala in Zone 16)

These areas are packed with tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants, and shops.

On the other hand, it has some areas that are known for higher crime rates and should be approached with caution. These areas include zones 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 12, 18, and 21. They are usually not very safe and tend to be overlooked by authorities and the tourism industry.

staycation in guatemala woman walking a dog in guatemala city
Guatemala City is divided into zones, make sure to stick to the tourist ones like Cuatro Grado Norte to avoid any issue.

How to stay safe in Guatemala

Traveling to Guatemala can be a safe and enjoyable experience, as long as you follow some general tips for travel safety.

Here are some of the best practices to keep in mind:

Research

It’s a good idea to do some research on your destination before you travel. Look into the culture, laws, security situation, and any potential risks.

This will help you plan your trip smoothly, avoid any unexpected hiccups, and show respect for the local customs and norms.

Insurance

Make sure you grab yourself some travel insurance before you head out. It’s always a good idea to have coverage for your health, belongings, and activities.

This will provide you with a sense of security and safeguard you in the event of any unexpected situations or accidents.

Documents

Don’t forget to make copies of your important documents before you travel. This includes your passport, visa, insurance, and itinerary.

It’s always a good idea to have backups! Just make sure you have one set with you and give another set to someone you trust.

This can come in handy if you ever experience any loss or theft.

Money

Before your trip, make sure to convert some money into the local currency, the Guatemalan quetzal. It’s also a good idea to have a mix of cash and cards on hand.

Try using ATMs that are found in safe and well-known locations, like banks, hotels, or shopping centers.

It’s a good idea to avoid carrying around a bunch of cash. Instead, keep your money and cards in a safe and hidden spot, like a money belt or a lockable bag.

quetzales coin and bills guatemalan currency
The Quetzal is the official and legal currency of the country, you can exchange your money at banks, ATMs, or exchange offices, make sure to avoid the black market or the street vendors.

Communication

Make sure to grab a local SIM card or a roaming plan for your phone before you hit the road. It’s always a good idea to have a way to stay connected while you’re out and about.

Stay connected with your loved ones, buddies, or emergency contacts, and easily access helpful information like maps, directions, or translations.

Accommodation

It’s always a good idea to go for safe and reliable accommodation choices like hotels, hostels, or VRBO.

It’s best to steer clear of inexpensive or sketchy accommodations, as well as locations that have a reputation for being unsafe or secluded.

Make sure to always lock your door and keep your valuables in a safe or locker.

Awareness

When traveling, just keep an eye out for what’s going on around you and go with your gut. If you ever get a bad vibe, feel like you’re in danger, or feel uneasy, it’s best to get out of that situation or ask for assistance.

Just keep a low profile and don’t flaunt your wealth or possessions. Remember to be polite and friendly to the locals, but also keep an eye out for any unfamiliar faces or offers.

Transportation

Public buses can be crowded and occasionally targeted by pickpockets. Taxis are a safer option, especially those arranged by hotels. It’s always a good idea to stick with trustworthy and authorized transportation choices like official taxis, buses, or shuttles.

It’s best to steer clear of hitchhiking, driving after dark, or getting into vehicles that aren’t marked or authorized.

If driving, be prepared for narrow roads and aggressive drivers, and make sure to buckle up and keep your windows and doors locked at all times.

woman sitting on a tuk tuk in guatemala
 Public buses, especially in urban areas, are often targeted by criminals and are crowded and uncomfortable I recommend you avoid them and use a tuk-tuk or taxi instead.

Tips for Staying Safe in Guatemala

Urban Areas and Tourist Zones

Guatemala City, the capital, has its share of crime, but Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers a safer alternative.

You should exercise caution, avoid isolated areas, and stay informed about local conditions.

Cultural Etiquette

Respect local customs by dressing modestly and learning a few basic phrases in Spanish.

Engage with locals; they’ll appreciate your effort, and you’ll learn much more about their culture. Guatemala has a strong Mayan presence, and you should respect that.

Adventure with Caution

Some amazing hiking trails will take you to hidden waterfalls, and you can also explore ancient Mayan ruins.

While many hikes or attractions can be visited without a guide, I highly recommend that you consider hiring local guides to enhance your experience and ensure your safety.

Connect with locals

Guatemalans are friendly and take a lot of pride in their heritage.

Have a chat, check out the nearby festivals, and get into the local culture.

Carpet made during the Holy Week in Guatemala
Holidays like Holy Week in Guatemala are especially good for connecting with the locals, learning about their culture, and having a good time.

Conclusion: Should you travel to Guatemala?

Guatemala is safe to travel to if you stick to the tourist areas, but that doesn’t mean you should not be cautious or alert; it has its fair share of issues and risks. But it has its fair share of beauty and joy, too.

There’s a little something for everyone in this country; it’s a place you should check out and discover. It’s not about whether Guatemala is safe or not; it’s about whether you are ready or not.

If you’re up for it, then you’re all set to head to Guatemala, and I guarantee you won’t regret it. Guatemala is an amazing country that will have a profound impact on your life.

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I have been traveling and living in Guatemala for over 25 years
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Tips

If you want to travel without the hassle and confusion – check out a complete guide for traveling to Guatemala.

Places

For more travel ideas to add to your bucket list, check out a complete guide to all the best places to visit in Guatemala.

Food

Guatemala has a huge variety of food, check out the guide to the top 15 Guatemalan Food and Dishes.

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Last Updated on March 7, 2024

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