Stay Safe in Guatemala
Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. Travellers should take extra precautions while in Guatemala. If you are assaulted, robbed or approached by armed persons, cooperate. Do not make any sudden movements or hand over any items or money that are requested. Tourists have been shot for resisting attackers. Be aware that these robberies are sometimes committed by off-duty police officers – incredible as it may seem, being a robber or kidnapper is a part-time job for many police officers.
Do not travel to areas known to be hotbeds of drug trafficking (i.e. parts of Peten) and do not travel to the most dangerous areas of Guatemala City (zones 3, 6, 12, 18, 19 and 21). Be careful in Zone 1 of Guatemala City, especially after dark, and do not stay in hotels in this area. The slightly more expensive hotels in Zone 10 or Zone 13 (near the airport) are a much better idea.
Women should be especially careful around men, even if they pretend to be employees of a local hotel. Last year, several tourists were victims of brutal sexual assaults in the beach community of Monterrico and in the town of Panajachel. In one case, a local man posed as a hotel employee before torturing, raping and attempting to kill a young woman who lived in the area.
Do not use buses in Guatemala City as they are often robbed by gangs. Radio taxis (Taxi Amarillo) are a safer way to get around the city. When travelling by chicken bus, also pay attention to the people sitting next to you.
While some say that travellers should always carry some cash and be prepared to bribe a few police officers, most tourists will have no reason to bribe anyone. The most likely situations in which you would need to bribe the police would be if you were driving a car or motorbike and were stopped for fictitious traffic violations. Most Europeans/North Americans find this immoral, but it is much easier to spend Q50 and avoid a headache than to be harassed by the police. Phrases like “I’m sorry officer, is there a way to resolve this now?” work well. Do not offer a bribe directly to an officer as this is illegal and you could get into more trouble.
Never take photos of children without permission. Some Guatemalans are extremely suspicious about this and will think you are a kidnapper (even if the children are someone else’s). In Guatemala there have been many problems with children being sold or kidnapped and offered for adoption on the black market. This of course does not include a few children mixed with many adults at a distance. This happens mostly in the more remote villages of Guatemala. In the big cities, people are a little more open about being photographed, but they still avoid it.
It is dangerous to travel between cities after dark. This greatly increases the risk of having a car accident or being robbed at gunpoint.
Pickpocketing is common at markets, so never carry anything in your back pocket and carry as little as possible.
One of the best things about Guatemala is the abundance of natural beauty and the many hiking trails. Some of them are notorious for predation (Volcan de Agua, trails around Lago de Atitlán, Volcán de Pacaya). Always enquire about the situation before going in blindly. The Inguat, locals and other travellers are reliable sources of information. Travelling in a group during the day sometimes reduces the risks, but not always.
The traffic can be dangerous. You will encounter many single-lane roads (one lane in each direction) and drivers tend to swerve to avoid potholes and bumps. There are also several multi-lane highways. Traffic in Guatemala City and surrounding metropolitan areas is very slow during rush hour, but generally driving is very fast (average speeds can reach 60 mph on some city streets).
Stay Healthy in Guatemala
Drink only purified water (Agua Pura Salvavidas is recommended by most hospitals and hotels).
The CDC states that the risk of malaria is in rural areas at altitudes below 1,500 metres, and that there is no risk in Antigua or Lake Atitlán. Preventive antimalarial medication can and should be purchased before travelling to areas where malaria is endemic.
Dengue is endemic throughout Guatemala.
Vaccinations against hepatitis A and B are recommended.