Guatemala has so much to offer visitors, from its culture, the Mayan history, active volcanoes, and outdoor adventures.
However, Guatemala suffers from high crime rates, both petty and violent, bringing questions about its safety. Violent crimes involve gangs and bad neighborhoods but sometimes occur in tourist zones.
Be vigilant, avoid bad neighborhoods, and take possible safety precautions to enjoy your stay here. Below are the top travel tips to consider to ensure you stay safe in Guatemala.
Is Guatemala Safe to Visit?
Guatemala is generally safe to visit. Although this country has a bad reputation for its high rate of violent crimes, tourists are unlikely to become victims. The only common crimes against visitors are petty theft/scams in the city and crowded places.
If you’re not vigilant enough, you may become a victim of bag-snatching, pickpocketing, car theft, and ATM/credit card scams. Consider doing the following to avoid being a victim:
- Keep your belongings close to you
- Carry enough cash for the stay
- Leave your valuables in the hotel while going out
- Avoid trekking or using public transport at night
- Avoid visiting Guatemala’s crime hotspots
Crime isn’t the only safety issue for visitors in Guatemala. This country is at risk of natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, floods, and landslides.
Most natural disasters occur in the rainy season, but your major concerns should be earthquakes and volcano eruptions.
Such political demonstrations are peaceful, but you never know. They may turn violent, so avoid them altogether.
Crime in Guatemala
Common crimes in this country include murder, armed robbery, sexual violence against women, street gangs, and mob violence. These crimes mostly happen in some regions of Guatemala, deemed as crime hotspots.
Petty theft is most common in tourist areas and crowded places like Guatemala City and public transport. As a tourist, you’re most likely to become a victim of petty crimes.
Be watchful of your surroundings as petty thieves and scammers are on standby to take advantage of any available opportunity. Here are some helpful safety tips to help you avoid crime in Guatemala:
- Don’t display valuable items like expensive mobile phones, cameras, and laptops
- Withdraw and exchange money at hotel ATMs
- Don’t leave your drinks unattended in Guatemala bars and restaurants
- Avoid walking solo in secluded areas
- Avoid traveling around at night
- Avoid wearing jewelry when exploring the country
- Leave your valuables in your hotel room or locked in a safe if you have one
- Only use hotel taxis and radio on short trips to tour the country
- If visiting in your car, consider booking hotels that offer secure parking
- If attacked, don’t resist
- Avoid public ATMs
- Read and understand Guatemala’s laws to avoid getting into trouble
- Always be aware of your surroundings
- Avoid political demonstrations as they could quickly turn violent
Avoiding Bad Neighborhoods
As a visitor to Guatemala, you may be tempted to explore every region. However, that may not be the best decision.
Some parts of Guatemala are not just safe, whether you go alone or in groups, since they register the highest numbers of crimes. Below are the no-go areas.
Guatemala City – Zone 1, 3, 6, 18, and 21
Guatemala City is perhaps the worst region in the country. Zones 1,3,6,18, and 21 harbor criminals of all sorts, from petty thieves like pickpocketers and bag snatchers to murders and armed robbers. In these places, you are most likely to get robbed at gunpoint.
Zone 1, for instance, has a historic downtown with attractions that might lure visitors. However, staying here isn’t an excellent idea due to the many robberies reported daily. Most robberies in this zone happen near the central market and bus terminal.
You don’t want to set your feet in zone 3 either, commonly known as Basurero, meaning the dump. The dump is controlled by a known international gang, Mara Salvatrucha, which makes money through murder, extortion, and burglaries.
You don’t have to avoid border zones if you’re crossing over. However, don’t go there hanging around because you’ll be robbed. Pickpocketing and scams are most common at the border zones, so be extra careful.
This department is quite notorious for drug trafficking, especially narcotics. You may not be aware, but drug traffickers may talk you into ferrying illegal drugs into the country.
Volcano de Agua
Hiking volcanoes are the main reason hikers visit Guatemala. Although there may be guards and tour police at the site, not all volcanoes are crime-free.
Tourists have in the past reported cases of robberies while hiking the Agua volcano. Instead of avoiding it altogether, you only need to be careful here and, if possible, get a guide.
Anywhere at Night
Most crimes in Guatemala happen at night, and since you don’t want to be a victim of any of them, don’t go anywhere at night.
You can tour the country’s beautiful sites, be it in the city or countryside, during the day, then head back to your hotel before night falls.
Natural Disasters in Guatemala
According to the World Risk Report 2017, Guatemala is the fourth country globally at the risk of natural disasters. Common natural disasters in this country include earthquakes, volcano eruptions, floods, landslides, and ground collapse.
During the rainy season, usually from June to November, the country experiences heavy rains that cause havoc.
Streams and rivers overflow, causing flooding. The floods destroy roads/bridges and trigger landslides in some parts of Guatemala.
If possible, avoid heading to Guatemala during the rainy season. Monitoring local weather updates will greatly help you make your decision.
Other major concerns in this country are volcano eruptions and earthquakes. Guatemala is home to 37 volcanoes, and three of them are active, including Santiaguito, Fuego, and Pacaya.
There’s always a possibility of a volcano eruption in this country, so travelers must always be careful.
The most severe volcano eruption happened at Fuego Volcano on June 3, 2018. This eruption affected more than 1.7 million people, killing 165 and several others missing.
Due to the country’s tectonic situation, earth tremors and earthquakes are prevalent. The earthquakes can sometimes lead to tsunamis, leaving several people dead and properties destroyed.
Ensure you know what to do if a volcano eruption or earthquake occurs for your safety. Seek advice from your tour guide and the local authorities.
Common Scams in Guatemala to Be Aware Of
There are various scams in Guatemala that you can only avoid if you already know them. These are clever tactics petty thieves use to steal from tourists and locals. Most of these scams occur in Guatemala City.
A local may hand you a camera and request that you take their picture. After you return the camera, they will drop it purposely and say that you’ve broken it. These fraudsters then demand you pay for the damages to the camera.
Be aware of the distraction scam. Most scammers work in a group or as a team. Someone may spill something like a source on you, then another scammer volunteers to clean it off.
The volunteer will even be rebuking the culprit for being rude and careless to make you believe in him. All these happen to cause distraction, and while you’re distracted, they will reach your pockets and bags to rob you.
Ignore people approaching you asking for donations and help towards a specific school or organization. The best thing is to walk away.
You may encounter fake police officers in Guatemala City. Scammers dressed in police uniforms are widespread in the city’s tourist areas. They steal from visitors and commit other crimes like sexual assault and extortion.
Most tourists get overcharged after riding in an unofficial taxi, only to discover this later. In places where you can’t access Uber or radio taxis, and you must drive on an unofficial taxi, ask the driver how long the trip will take. You can also ask them to turn their meter on to enable you to approximate how much the trip will cost.
Carjacking and car robbery scams are also common in Guatemala. A local dressed in priest attire may stop you on the highway claiming there’s an emergency somewhere and that you should help them get there. Please don’t allow a stranger in your car.
Fake police can sometimes set a police roadblock. These imposters will then ask you to leave your car so they can check it and rob you in the process.
Things to Consider
There are several things that anyone visiting Guatemala should consider doing and those they shouldn’t do.
Top 5 Things You Should Consider Doing in Guatemala
- Visit one of the ancient Mayan ruins, Tikal, to learn about the rich Mayan history and culture. Here you’ll hear different interesting Mayan dialects from the indigenous people
- Consider a trip to the gorgeous colorful Antigua. There is so much to explore here, including the Spanish colonial buildings, Mayan languages, the volcanoes, busy markets, art, and traditional clothing
- Relax at the beautiful and unique Lake Atitlan for a few days, surrounded by volcanoes and mountains
- Hike the basecamp of Acatenango Volcano and directly view the Volcano de Fuego, the most active volcano in the country
- Take the long bus rides to the Semuc Champey National Park
Top 5 Things Not To Do in Guatemala
- Don’t wear sandals or flip flops when visiting Tikal because of the unstable climbs
- Don’t walk around or travel at night, either alone or in a group
- Don’t wear jewelry or show off wealth while exploring the country
- Don’t photograph the locals without first asking for permission
- Don’t assume everyone you meet speaks Spanish
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are frequently asked questions about visiting Guatemala.
What are the safest places in Guatemala?
Guatemala’s safest places to visit include Antigua, Xela (Quetzaltenango), and Lake Atitlán. While in Guatemala City, the safest zones are 4, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, and 16. But there is still a need to watch out for pickpockets as they can be anywhere in the country.
Are taxis in Guatemala safe?
Not all taxis in Guatemala are safe. Some don’t use meters, meaning you may get overcharged. To avoid overcharging scams in cabs, ensure you agree on the price before boarding.
The best way to move around from one destination to another is by Uber or radio taxis. But in places you can’t access the two, use the hotel taxis or ask the hotel to call a cab on your behalf.
Is it safe to travel by public transportation in Guatemala?
Public transportation in Guatemala isn’t all that safe. Chicken buses used for public transit are where Guatemala’s crime happens the most.
There have been reports about sexual assaults, pickpocketing, robberies with and without violence, and hijackings of tourists. If you must use them, you have to be vigilant and keep your valuables close.
Is it safe to drink tap water in Guatemala?
Tap water in Guatemala isn’t safe to drink and may lead to diarrhea. Locals boil tap water before drinking, making ice, or brushing their teeth. For your health, stick to purified water, available in most hotels.
Is Guatemala safe at night?
Guatemala isn’t safe at night, whether in the city or countryside. Tourists should not walk around or even travel at night for their own safety.
So, Is Guatemala Safe?
Guatemala isn’t one of the safest countries for its high crime rates. However, the country can be safe for tourists if they avoid crime hotspots and bad neighborhoods and take safety precautions seriously.
Remember to stay vigilant, use common sense, and always be aware of your surroundings. That way, your stay in Guatemala will be enjoyable and worthwhile.