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Is it safe to travel alone in Guatemala?

Pelke

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  • Added on: January 2nd, 2010
I just was in Guatemala City, Zona 1, two days ago (New Year's Eve). Why was I there? Well, all the museums in Zona 10 and Zona 13 were closed that day due to the holiday, so I figured why not head up to Zona 1 to see some of the historical sites up there? Here's my experience:

I hailed a cab from outside the Aurora Zoo (as far as I got after finding all the Museums closed) and asked to be taken up to Parque Concordia in Zona 1. As we arrived, the cab driver warned me to be "very careful". I asked him if there was a problem with safety in the middle of the day (it was 1:30PM). He told me "you should be OK, but just watch yourself". Due to my limited Spanish and his limited English, I couldn't get any more detail from him beyond that, but clearly he was concerned about dropping me off there.

I strolled around Parque Concordia for a while, but there wasn't a whole lot to see there, so I headed on up to the Parque Central/Parque Centenario area, checking out a few of the landmark buildings along the way. I enjoyed these parks as there were a lot of people/families there enjoying their holiday. There's nice fountain in the middle and the church on the east side and palace on the north side are interesting buildings. There were a lot of vendors selling food and drinks. Overall, it was a nice experience. Oddly though, it seemed I was the only non-local there that day.

I wondered why no other tourists were there. And, everyone I passed gave me a confused look as if to ask "what the heck are YOU doing here?" At one point, someone who spoke English actually approached me and asked me just that -- "why are you here?" I told him I was visiting Guatemala and wanted to see a bit of the city. He just stared at me. Then he asked if I had family that I was visiting here. I told him no, I was just visiting. Again, the blank stare. He shook his head and mumbled as he walked away: "you better be careful, this is a dangerous place". Hmm, hadn't the cab driver also warned me about my safety?

Well, I didn't feel at all threatened while I walked around. I saw nothing but families with young children there seemingly enjoying themselves. It was 2:30 PM at that time, middle of the day, bright and sunny. There were even some police stationed in the park. When I sat down in the shade to get out of the sun for a bit, I found out why everyone seemed so concerned.

After a few minutes a young kid, maybe 12-14 years old, walked in front of me and started making hand gestures while he shouting something at me. I had no idea what he was saying, so just kept quiet and tried to ignore him. Thankfully, he moved on after a minute or so but soon after, one of his buddies, a few years older, hopped up and sat down next to me. He spoke English and asked where I was from. I told him I was from the US and he seemed excited and told me he used to live in Los Angeles. He wanted to know what city I lived in and where I worked. Then how much money did I make at my job and what hotel was I staying at in Guatemala City. Well, at this point I realized he was sizing me up to see how much money I had, so I told him I had a crappy job at the mall where I live and that I was staying at a budget hotel down in Zona 13. Then I noticed he was looking at my watch. Lucky for me, I wear a cheap plastic Timex. He clearly wasn't interested in it. Then he laid it on me -- he told me he was a gang member and showed me his tattoos -- I distinctly remember the number "18" tattooed on the side of his neck (Presumably representing his membership in Mara 18, aka the 18th Street Gang. And those hand gestures the younger guy was making, those were obviously their gang signs). He told me this was his hood and he wanted some money from me for being there. I grabbed all the change I had in my pocket and handed it to him. It was only about 8 Quetzals (about US$1.00), but it was still a large hand full of coins. I nervously asked him if what I handed him was OK. He responded, almost re-assuredly, "yeah, it's OK", then shook my hand as if to say "don't worry, I'm just messing with you", then took off. I thought to myself "wow, that could have gone a lot worse", so I figured I better get out of there while my luck was holding up.

So, what are my impressions of Zona 1 after having a mildly negative experience there? I still enjoyed my visit there. I never had the impression that it was that dirty or bad of a place, especially compared to other cities I've been in (like Kathmandu, Dhaka, or even Manila). It just struck me the same as any large city. Aside from the Parque Central (Central Park) area, there really was not a lot to see there. The one thing I did find attractive is that there were a lot of local restaurants where you could try some authentic food. Down in Zona 9 and 10 it is mostly just Japanese, French, Italian, and American food (as in McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc). Apparently, rich Guatemalan's like their Sushi :-)

Would I go back to Zona 1? Yes, but next time I would be a bit more careful as I was warned (twice) by the locals. What does being careful mean? What I learned from my experience is:

1. If you don't look like a local, assume that somebody will be checking you out/sizing you up.
2. Don't carry anything valuable with you while you are walking around -- this means nice cameras, watches, jewelry, iPod, iPhone,etc. I am not kidding. If you don't want to loose it, don't bring it. If someone does confront you, they will take it.
3. If you carry a cheap point-n-shoot camera, keep it in your pocket and absolutely minimize the number of pictures you take. They probably won't want your camera (if it is a cheapo), but your picture taking behavior marks you as a naive tourist. This is what drew the attention to me.
4. Keep your daypack at the hotel/hostal. Don't carry a purse or a fanny pack.
5. Carry a minimum amount of cash with you. Keep credit and ATM cards at the hotel. Split your money up and stash it in a few locations. Keep some give away money in your pocket to quickly give away if confronted. In my case, this was good enough. I was lucky I was not asked for my wallet or anything else. If all your money is in your wallet, you will probably loose all of it if confronted.
6. If someone asks you anything about your job, income, what hotel you are staying at, how much it costs per night, etc, they are probably trying to size up your cash situation. If you are not broke and already living on a shoestring, then be prepared with a story to minimize your apparent wealth. You don't want to be telling them you are a doctor who drives a BMW and is staying at the Intercontinental Hotel at $200 per night.

My bottom line: I cannot say anything about whether it is OK to stay in a hotel up there as I have no experience with that. But, I can say that Zona 1 should be fine to visit during they day. It is a somewhat interesting place with a few things to see and some good options for eating. Just be careful, as I was warned, by keeping a low profile and keeping your guard up. Trouble definitely is lurking there, but you should not have any trouble if you keep your wits and use common sense.

Pelke
Pelke

juan3

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  • Added on: January 3rd, 2010
Pelke,

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences with all of us. This would be a much more interesting and helpful forum if more travelers would follow your great example.

Up until about 4 years ago I would suggest that travelers who wanted to see Zone 1 take a local bus in the morning and ride it for it's entire loop. This would give a wonderful overview of the underbelly of Guatemala City, from the whore's shanty town along the railroad tracks to the streets so clogged with vendors that traffic cannot pass. That was then, this is now. I don't advise anyone to take one of the red local buses anywhere in the Capital. This past year over 60 bus drivers and more than 25 of their audantes (helpers) have been fatally shot by extortionists for not paying the weekly graft. Although the passengers are not always robbed, the gang members are not big on target practice, and several passengers have been killed accidentally in the gunfire.

Zone 1 is the historical center of the city, and attempts are being made to re-gentrify the area, but to me, the rewards of the area are far outweighed by the risks involved.

Again, thanks for the great post.
----------------------------------------- I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.-Mark Twain

zoomcharlieb

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  • Added on: January 3rd, 2010
Pelke, it sounds to me like you are not smart enough to know how much danger you were in. I used to live in a Ghetto in Seattle, and went for a long time without any trouble and then one night, i had 5 bullets go through my window, this after i had a fight out in front of my door with a bunch of gang members and then after shutting the door, a knife thudded into the wood, so did i stick around another night to see if the ambiance would improve? No!!!

Tortuga_traveller

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  • Added on: January 4th, 2010
I once lived in a bad part of my city, and had little trouble during the day. Yet... I never went out much at night, and one night, at 4 am, I chose to take the bus to my parents home in the suburbs rather than walk those 6 blocks to my house.

I lived in a somewhat safer area, and thought myself save until I crossed the street to my apartment, and found myself surrounded by four young men with long kitchen knives. Long story short, I came out alive, but a bit scared of staying out at night after that.

I was in Zona 1 at night, did some stupid tourist things, and got robbed for my trouble.

I went to Guat city in the day, and found it a bit safer. Still, nothing to stick around for. I even had stayed the night in house of a Guatemalan friend of mine in the city in one of the Colonias, and found it to be a boring place, but a lot safer. I suppose not even my friend visited Zona 1 at night!

Bottom line, I have been and lived in dangerous areas, and have learned many of the signals for such places. I have a list of more or less dangerous cities and places. Guat city is one of them.

San Salvador was worse, if this is any consolation.

Also on this list is, of all places, the docks of Rotterdam after 6pm. So, Central America is not the only place where danger lurks in large cities, just one of those places where the capital cities seem to attract the most dangerous elements of those countries, and those elements rule the streets at times.

Pelke

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  • Added on: January 4th, 2010
Hi zoomcharlieb:

Perhaps I am not smart enough to realize the danger I was in. However, I can say at no point in the confrontation did I feel in danger of physical harm. I say this based on the demeanor, tone of voice, and body language of the individual who confronted me. I knew immediately when he sat down that I was going to be shaken down for money, but I never felt at risk of being beaten, stabbed, or shot. I have plenty of experience with big city crime and I don't consider this incident to be any different than others I've had in New York City (back in the 80's when things were a bit rougher there). I consider this incident to be more of a wake-up call to be more careful than a warning to never return.

I still believe that Zona 1 is a safe place to visit in the daytime, as long as you behave sensibly. Don't get me wrong, I'm not blind to there being risks there -- it is certainly much worse than Antigua and other spots in the country. But, I do believe you can visit there with reasonable safety during the day. 100% safety? No. But reasonable safety, absolutely. Any traveller that believes they are perfectly safe in any city is at serious risk for trouble. I just wouldn't rate the risk in GC to be worse than many of the other large US cities that I've spent time in (NY, Detroit, Houston, etc).

So, the other half of the debate on this thread is whether or not Guatemala City in general, and Zona 1 in particular are even worthy of a visitor's time. Some characterized the city as a dirty cesspool to be avoided at all costs. Although not articulated well, the other point I was trying to make in my last post was that I found nothing particularly objectionable about the city. It was certainly much cleaner (and I'd say safer, too), than a lot of the large cities I've visited in Asia. No one who has been to Kathmandu or Dhaka or Manila can tell me they consider Guatemala City to be worse.

True, there is not a whole lot to see in Guatemala City. I wouldn't plan on spending a week there. But visiting for 1-2 days is definitely worthwhile. I visited Zonas 1, 9, 10, and 13 while I was there and I found something interesting in each of them. And, I am still glad I visited Zona 1, even after my incident, as it had the most life going on there -- people shopping, working, relaxing, etc. If I visit Guatemala again, I will definitely go back to Zona 1, but it will be during the day and I will be a little smarter about how I behave while I'm there.

Pelke
Pelke

zoomcharlieb

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  • Added on: January 4th, 2010
Pelke, i don't mean to demean you although it probably came out that way, but there was a very lengthy dissertation/blog by an attorney who sailed into Rio dulce and had a little trouble and he went to great lengths to describe the odds of not having trouble, etc. and basically, we all judge things by our own personal experience, but this doesn't mean we are a good judge of the experience we went through.

now let me explain.

suppose you walk down murder alley and come out completely unscathed. Does this mean it is probabloy ok to walk down murer alley. maybe we were the lucky 10% who DIDN'T get wacked. Get what i'm saying. unless you do a real snalysis of the data and then forecast the probablilities of problems based on weather, time of day, etc, etc, you can't really give anyone any advice that is even close to accurate, n'est pas?

That's all i'm saying, based on your one experience you give advice re safety. i don't think so!! so what if the guy who sat down next to you gave you the vibes that he was going to garrot your sorry ass. As your sphincter tightend up with the thought and the sweat immediately came upon you and as you saw the futility and , (let's face it) the stupidity of your choices, well it wouldn't have been the walk in the park you tried to described it now would it.

sure i know what it is like to have a gang of 20 black hoods surround you at a busy street corner, and the last minute rush as i dashed out in the street , just getting a graze from the club that was descending on my head, this down by the Seattle Center, 40 years ago, a very safe area usually, but it was no fun. And i didn't head back to see whether things would get better for me.

busman7

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  • Added on: January 6th, 2010
Well I have been to both Kathmandu & Guatemala City & consider Guate worse!! Only spent opne night in Manila but driving in a cab from the airport around midnight it didn't appear as bad either.
http://blogs.bootsnall.com/busman7 | http://wwwlasbrisasplayasandiego.blogspot.com
"I started out alone to seek adventures. You don't really have to seek them - that is nothing but a phrase - they come to you." Mark Twain

Felix the Hat

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  • Added on: January 6th, 2010
Guatemala City, particularly Zona 1, is a tough place. Full stop. Compared to other cities commonly visited by backpack tourists, it is quite unrewarding.

Piecar

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  • Added on: January 10th, 2010
I have only been to Guat City twice. Both times I stayed in Zona 10. Nothing cultural there, let me tell you.

The Plaza Bolivar is actually all right. A very exposed plaza, compared to many of the tree covered plazas elsewhere, but somewhat more solemn, so I don't mind the choice.....I made ever widening circles, using Plaza Bolivar as the center, and never saw anything else that was really worthwhile...

Guat City is a grungy beat up city. Dangerous and tough. With nothing to see. I have one caveat.

If you are going to Tikal, or have an interest in any of that kind of thing, it behooves you to visit the Guat museum where all of the original stelae were spirited away to. Take heart, my travelling chums, the museum is walking distance from the airport. I have always found it safe around the airport, though I'm perfectly willing for The Hat to step on me there, he loves that.

There is also some sort of bastardized Eiffel Tower over an intersection in either Zona 9 or 10...That's it. Better to go and experience the CA Lite of Antigua than venture into Guat.

Good Luck Out There
D
Good Luck Out There.

Pelke

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  • Added on: January 10th, 2010
OK, I think it is pretty clear that most of the experienced travelers here don't like Guatemala City, so I'll defer to you guys on that point. I only spent two days there and didn't find it that objectionable, but perhaps that is not enough time to get a good feel for the place. That being said, I'd like to swing back to the original topic of this thread, which is: "Is it safe to travel alone in Guatemala?" In this case, I mean everywhere else in Guatemala besides Guatemala City.

I really enjoyed my week in Guatemala, spent mostly in Antigua, and thought it would be worthwhile to come back in the future to explore the country in more depth. After the debate over safety in Guat City that popped up here, I looked a little more into safety in Guatemala as a whole and it sounds like there is bad stuff going on just about everywhere in the country. I like to travel mostly on the ground, taking public or tourist busses from city to city. But, it seems one of the more prevalent forms of crimes against tourists in that country is bus robberies.

It is tough to know what the real story is, so I'll defer to others on this board who have spent a lot of time in Guatemala. Is it reasonably safe to travel the country by bus? Are the other cities like Quetzaltenango, Coban, Rio Dulce, Livingston, and Flores relatively safe (say, on the order of Antigua)? Or, is it just nuts to even think of traveling extensively in this country, let alone by bus? And while we are on the topic, what about the rest of Central America for that matter (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, etc)?

Any insights you guys can give will be greatly appreciated.

Thanks in advance......Pelke
Pelke

Felix the Hat

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  • Added on: January 10th, 2010
Pelke wrote:It is tough to know what the real story is, so I'll defer to others on this board who have spent a lot of time in Guatemala. Is it reasonably safe to travel the country by bus? Are the other cities like Quetzaltenango, Coban, Rio Dulce, Livingston, and Flores relatively safe (say, on the order of Antigua)? Or, is it just nuts to even think of traveling extensively in this country, let alone by bus? And while we are on the topic, what about the rest of Central America for that matter (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, etc)?

Any insights you guys can give will be greatly appreciated.

Thanks in advance......Pelke


Bus travel is reasonably safe, yes. Robberies do occur, although you are more likely to be in a bus crash than robbed. I've been all over the country on chicken buses, and never had a problem. Just remember that the plural of my anecdote is not data.

Quetzaltenango (Xela) is safer than Guatemala City. Coban is quite tranquil, Rio Dulce as well. Livingston is dodgy and has somewhat of a menacing air to it. Flores is extremely chilled out, although the city across the causeway, on the mainland (San Benito, I think), is not. The area around Lake Atitlan, outside of the villages, has a very bad reputation for robberies. So does Pacaya volcano - don't go without a guide. Don't let that stop you from going, but think twice about hiking around the lake.

Honduras has much of the same gang problems as Guatemala. El Salvador is even worse. Nicaragua is generally safer (although be careful in Managua). Costa Rica has much more theft and official corruption than its PR juggernaut lets on. Panama, outside of certain areas of Panama City and the Darien, is quite safe.

Piecar wrote:I have always found it safe around the airport, though I'm perfectly willing for The Hat to step on me there, he loves that.


Heheh, I actually agree with you on this one.

Piecar

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  • Added on: January 10th, 2010
Santa Elena is the town directly across the bridge from Flores, and is fine. It's just the usual mash of stores and open air markets that are ubiquitous in CA. If you continue down the main drag south, however, you DO cross into San Benito. The road, as I recall it, will tell when this happens. Santa Elena paved their part of the road.....San Benito decided against it. About this time, the street will empty of stores filled with plastic basins (and what the hell is it with the plastic basins anyway? Man, there are alot of plastic basins in CA! I don't see people at home using plastic basins all that much, so what gives? but I digress) and turns into little shithole bars with blankets as doors...and then brothels, and then, where the road Ts, a selection of handgun stores. I was able to hold, cock and aim all kinds of interesting guns down the end of this road. I have heard that this area is dangerous, and the handgun stores, lack of other stores, and proliferation of brothels lends credence, but never really saw anything hinky. So just don't go down there...Nothing to see, really.

D
Good Luck Out There.

juan3

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  • Added on: January 11th, 2010
OK Pelke, back to the original question. For a male, I would think it just as safe to travel alone in Guatemala, as with one or more other people. The criminals with guns are not intimidated by a group of unarmed tourists. The majority of armed robberies of tourist vans appear to be inside jobs, so it is extremely important to have up to date local information. As a rule of thumb, I feel that the larger and more expensive the bus the less likely you are to have a problem with criminals. An expose was just published today as to the large bus companies that specialize in tourists and the large monthly dollar amounts they are paying the gangs in extortion money to leave their buses alone.

Again, up to the moment, local knowledge is vital for security. At the moment, most of the gang activity is in the Capital. Possibly due to the lynching of criminals in the communities in the countryside. Not all crime is due to gang members, however. One must remember that there is almost no law enforcement in this country, and some of the police are part of the problem. Yet, if you consider the number of tourists that come to Guatemala compared with the number of tourists killed or injured due to crime, you will see that tourists are physically quite safe from a statistical standpoint. Tourists are however a major target for petty crime.

Anyone who wants to be entirely safe needs to go to Disney World ( If their full body scan X-Ray machine is functioning properly).
----------------------------------------- I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.-Mark Twain

halfnine

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  • Added on: January 12th, 2010
Piecar wrote:
Santa Elena is the town directly across the bridge from Flores, and is fine.


I'd concur with this. Personally I found it preferential to Flores since it had more of a commoner vibe, but I'd imagine most people likely would prefer Flores for every other reason.

As far as Guatemala City, my opinion is it's danger level is pretty average (kind of in the middle) relative to most capital cities in the less than modern world. Is it worth visiting.....I think Felix pretty much nails it when he says there isn't much there for your common backpacker. However, if you wanted to get a feel for what life is really like for your average, every day Guatemalan, Guatemala city (like most capital cities) fits the bill.

Tortuga_traveller

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  • Added on: January 12th, 2010
However, if you wanted to get a feel for what life is really like for your average, every day Guatemalan, Guatemala city (like most capital cities) fits the bill.


More like life for the every day Guat city Guatemalan. Most people in Guatemala live in small towns and smaller cities. If you want a Guatemala village life, go to Todos Santos.

Life is different for different kinds of places.

Of course if you want to buy drugs, its the place to be. Or so my Guatemalan friends told me. Oh, don't go looking yourself or you could get in trouble fast.


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