We spent almost three weeks in Guatemala, and are by no means experts but we were surprised by many things and wish to share our findings with you!
From being a country we didn’t know much about, Guatemala grew to be a favourite of ours. We’ve lost track of the amount of times we’ve said things like: “Guatemala was so amazing!” “Guatemala was great!” “I wish we would’ve stayed longer” after leaving. Here are some of the things we wish we would’ve know before visiting.
“Is it safe?”
Guatemala has a reputation of being unsafe with high crime rates and reports of tourists getting assaulted and robbed. Travellers are discouraged from walking alone after dark, traveling on the local chicken buses, leaving valuables unattended and spending time in Guatemala City, to name a few.
Traveling to any country, you need to be street smart. You need to know where you are going and be aware of the dangers that can occur. Leaving valuables unattended isn’t something we would do in any country. Saying this, we had no problems besides getting overcharged on one occasion for a bus ticket. We travelled on local and chartered transportation to some more visited and less visited places, staying in several different locations around the country without issues. We’ve spent several days walking around with a SLR camera visible and we’ve been working on laptops at several cafés, patios and restaurants – without having any issues.
A lot of areas that have had a problem with crimes against tourists in the past now have regular police patrolling, and tourists can be escorted on certain stretches of highways if needed. It’s safe to say Guatemaltecas want tourists to visit and are working hard to increase the safety.
“Will there be a language barrier?”
Contrary to popular beliefs it is possible to travel around Guatemala without speaking Spanish. With the little Spanish the Ebba knows we were absolutely fine. People that work within the tourism industry often speak a little English, and besides that people are friendly and helpful making sure you understand with hand gestures etc.
However, if you want to indulge on the full cultural experience, we do advice you to take some Spanish classes. Traveling will only be more fun if you can interact more with locals! And Guatemaltecas are generally super happy to interact with tourists.
Poverty and sustainable travel
Guatemala is one of the countries that receives the most foreign aid in the world, especially from the EU. Poverty is a major issue, and you will notice people begging and kids working (all throughout the week and evenings). Many charities work intensively in Guatemala, helping children get an education and women an independent income.
Traveling in a way that is sustainable for the planet and for the people of the country can feel like a mission of its own. If you’re unsure of how to act, if you should give money to beggars or not or how to help, contact a local charity and ask for advice. Our best advice is to try to support local business whether it comes to organized trips, accommodation or food; stay in family run hotels/BnB’s and shop at the local markets and make sure your souvenirs are authentic and support the community where they’re made!
Traveling around is easy
Although traveling on the local chicken buses is advised against in certain parts of the country, it is easy to get around. Between the major tourist attractions and bigger towns there are shuttles available on a daily basis, and on some longer routes there are fancier night and day coaches.
There is so much to see
Before reading up on Guatemala we had no idea. This country has just about everything. Rain forests, Mayan ruins (the big impressive kind too), beaches, rivers, colonial cities, high peaks and beautiful lakes. We could’ve spent months just exploring in Guatemala, and we will definitely be back to explore more.
On several occasions we have been asked if we wanted to buy various kinds of drugs, but we’ve also met and seen travellers taking drugs. Expats that we met talked a lot about the problems Guatemala has with drugs and corruption (the two working hand-in-hand) and the way it effects Guatemaltecas in their everyday life. There weren’t any cases where we felt unsafe and where a simple ‘no thanks’ and “keep on walking”- strategy didn’t work for us. As a part of traveling sustainably though, we advice you to not take a part of the drug trade – however easily accessible it may seem – as it is illegal and very destructive for the people involved.