It went like this. ‘Guatemala are you serious? It’s so dangerous, maybe you should pick a different country?”, “Guatemala, you are definitely going to get robbed”, “Guatemala?! Don’t leave your hotel after 8:00pm!” “Guatemala! If you go there you are definitely going to die!”
A little dramatic guys…
It’s been almost 4 years now that I have been travelling in Latin America. Due to a somewhat precarious history you can imagine that I have received a number of safety warnings…especially as a traveling female. I won’t ignore this popular idea. As passionate as I have become about this area of the world, I refuse to pretend this reputation does not exist. I would love nothing more than to help to defeat it, and to recreate it, but first it must be spoken about.
Guatemala, of all the countries I have enjoyed in Latin America, this one had me flooded with safety concerns and comments ranging from ‘be careful’ to ‘you’re going to die for sure’. I mean never before have I had such an overwhelmingly negative response about going somewhere. It was like I was heading into the army of El Chapo himself, when actually I was headed to climb some volcanoes and to enjoy one of the biggest UNESCO sites in the Americas.
They warned me of gang violence, the sex trade, the drug trade, petty crime, kidnapping, and of course to top it off…murder. I was warned never to go outside after 8:00pm because that’s when all the bad stuff happens, because who needs to go dancing in Latin America….well I will tell you who does…me! I was warned of highway robberies! They told me nothing was safe, no mode of transport was ok, not even the INGUAT tourist shuttles. I heard horror stories of tourist shuttles being pulled off the highways in an organized manner resulting in both robbery and rape. I was even told that if hiking Acatenango alone there would be men on the trail with machetes waiting to rob me….amongst a wealth of tourist groups? Probably not, more likely farmers on their way home from work, or a mirage. Worry…I heard worry. Worry from people who had never given Guatemala a chance.
Let’s talk about my real experience.
The country, the topography, the landscape; it’s beautiful. The environment in Guatemala is incredibly diverse with only a short distance between each. The warm colonial town of Antigua provides a traveler with stunning cobblestone streets, bright coloured buildings, restaurants, markets, and night life. All of this is surrounded by immense active volcanoes, erupting throughout the day.
Flores, Tikal, and Lanquin are all tourists hot spots located in the jungle. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s full of awesome creatures such as scorpions and tarantulas. It has amazing places to swim, like the lake of Peten and the famous spring water pools of Semuc Champey. Guatemala has a long and unique history, with spectacular ruins to prove it.
Lake Atitlan is a massive navigable lake surrounded by boat access cities, 15 to be exact read about them here. Every day here feels like a perfect spring morning with towering volcanos to add to its charm. What about the volcanoes? They are accessible offering difficult but worthwhile hikes. Cold and windy, climbing them feels like Canada on a winter day. They provide a challenge, but also a view, and I am partial to skree anyways.
The people, they are wonderful. They are passionate. They are helpful and they played a big role in making my experience as good as it was. I made a plethora of Mayan friends and Guatemalan friends. It was pretty easy. They were open to me and excited to share their country with me. Some of them took me out at night to show me the best places to go and restaurants to enjoy. They were pleasant. They always smiled, and they spoke much better English than I did Spanish. They made me feel welcome. Did I feel insecure with them? No, in fact, they took great care of me, the shuttle drivers especially. It is amazing what great relationships small McDonald’s fries can create.
So what about transport? It was easy, The shuttles were plentiful, and every hotel or hostel offered them. It was no work at all, you simply told your hotel, or any hotel for that matter, where you wished to go, and they would give you the time and location for the appropriate shuttle. Shuttles left all day long so without a doubt one would be bound to fit your schedule. Plus you’d be in a van full of tourists like yourself, I made lots of friends in shuttles. Transport was way more accessible than I thought it was going to be. It was mostly on major roads, and I never once felt threatened. I learned everything I needed to know about transportation in Guatemala here!
The food in Guatemala was great and the coffee shops were even better. Every hotel/hostel offered clean and filtered water as did many of the tourist offices and a generous amount of stores and shops within towns. All over Antigua they had big jugs of water available for you to fill up your bottles for free. I found this to be a thoughtful and a useful touch.
The history of Guatemala is wonderful. With a layer of Mayan culture covering the country, it is easy to learn and to appreciate their incredible culture. There are still many who speak the Mayan language, who wear the traditional clothing, and who celebrate the history with much pride. Guatemala has some of the most impressive ruins I have ever had the opportunity to experience, as well as some of the prettiest fabric weaving I have seen to date.
What I wish to encourage in this article is the common, ‘do not judge a book by its cover’ theory. To be warned a country was too dangerous for a female traveler like myself, by a variety of people who have not and who may never give Guatemala a chance, seems unjust. I feel about Guatemala like I feel about every place I have traveled. I believe it is important to be aware of your actions and surroundings no matter where you are, and this should be how you approach any new destination. I never felt uncomfortable in Guatemala, I never felt unsafe, and I never thought rape, robbery and murder was in my future. I was aware of what was happening, and am pleased to say that Guatemala as a tourist destination does very well in creating a variety of safe options for travelers of any type. Listen to the warnings of others, but do not let this deter you from experiencing a wonderful trip.