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Staying safe in Guatemala

When you read some countries’ travel advisories, you might think that Guatemala is a lawless country where there is a gang member behind every bush. In reality, most visitors to Guatemala have a great experience without any problems. That said, there are some real risks to be aware of when you’re in Guatemala, just like in any other country in the world. Some travelers here have been victims of crime and there have also been fatal accidents involving tourists. So how do you avoid becoming another statistic? It will help to follow these ten golden rules for staying safe in Guatemala.



1. Learn some basic Spanish

Being able to communicate won’t guarantee your safety but if you know at least some basic Spanish, you’ll be able to find out about the risks and ask for help when you need it. It’s well worth taking some classes at a reputable Spanish school, such as San Pedro Spanish School, at the beginning of your trip.



2. Use your common sense

The point of traveling to another country is to have an adventure and get out of your comfort zone. This doesn’t mean that you should throw caution to the wind, however. In many parts of Guatemala you’ll find a laissez-faire attitude to basic safety precautions but just because everybody’s doing it doesn’t mean that there’s no risk involved. So, use your common sense. Don’t get into an overloaded boat with only five life jackets, especially not on a windy day when the waves are rough. Don’t ride on the roof or hang out the door of a chicken bus. Don’t get into or onto any form of transportation with a drunk driver. Don’t stumble home alone late at night after you’ve had far too many drinks. Don’t walk right to the edge of that rocky outcrop with the stunning view just so you can get the perfect Instagram shot. In short, don’t do anything stupid.



3. Don’t do here what you wouldn’t do at home

Would you go walking alone, late at night, in one of the less reputable areas in your own city or town? Probably not. So why would it be any safer to do that in Guatemala? Ask yourself what you would do if you were at home. If you wouldn’t do something in your home country, it’s probably not something you should be doing here either.



4. Listen to local advice

Nobody knows the dangers of an area better than someone who has lived there for many years. If you’re not certain that an activity or an area is safe, ask the locals and then heed their warnings. They usually speak from experience: if not their own, then at least from what others have experienced.



5. Be aware of your surroundings

When you are distracted, you’re a prime target for criminals. Accidents also happen when people aren’t aware of what’s going on around them. So, be alert, especially in crowded places, on the road, at night and when you’re exploring off the beaten path. Map your route before you go out, so that you don’t have to stand in the middle of the sidewalk to consult your phone or guidebook. Look before you cross the road, especially if you’re from a country where they drive on the left. Watch where you’re going when you’re hiking. Don’t walk around under the influence of alcohol or drugs that can dull your senses and cloud your judgment.



6. Trust your gut instinct

Those alarm bells going off in your head might be telling you not to engage with a certain person; they might be telling you to get out of a place or a situation fast. Listen to them. When something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.



7. Keep your valuables out of sight

If you go around flashing your wealth, you might as well put a giant target on your back, showing criminals where they can find that opportunity to make a quick buck – or quetzal. Considering that many robberies in the country are purely opportunistic, it’s best to keep your valuables where people can’t see them. When you go exploring, take only what you need and leave the valuable stuff securely locked away at your hotel or hostel. Keep your phone and wallet in a daypack rather than in your back pocket and never leave any of your possessions unattended.



8. Don’t do anything illegal

Being locked up in a Guatemalan police holding cell or jail isn’t a fun experience. The best way to avoid this is to stay on the right side of the law. In addition, engaging in illegal activities will bring you into close contact with some very shady characters who won’t care about your safety or your best interests. Just because marijuana and hard drugs like cocaine are easy to obtain doesn’t mean you should buy or use them, since they’re illegal. So is bribing officials.



9. Use guides with local knowledge

With its jungles, volcanoes and lakes, Guatemala is a hiker’s paradise. However, even the most benign-looking landscape can hide potentially deadly dangers. It’s never a good idea to hike alone and for most hiking trails in the country, it’s recommended that you also use a guide. For some, in fact, a guide is required or you won’t be allowed entry to the trail. You’ll often find guides waiting at the entrances to popular hiking trails, ready to offer their services. However, it’s best to book a guide beforehand, so you can check their credentials. Go with a guide who has a good reputation and knows the area well. They will alert you to the potential dangers and the areas to avoid. After all, their good reputation depends on your safety.



10. Be respectful

A factor many people forget when it comes to staying safe in Guatemala is just how valuable being respectful is. People will go out of their way to ensure your wellbeing if they feel that you value their input and the land they call home. If, however, you act like The Ugly Tourist, you can’t expect much sympathy when something goes wrong.

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© 2017 Study Spanish in Guatemala. 

Photography by Rene de Carufel / additional images by Martin Gray

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