Questioning safety in Guatemala – at the last minute

Just three weeks before I’d planned to leave for Guatemala, the first country on my itinerary for my first long-term trip, a friend forwarded an email from her Guatemalan friend regarding my upcoming travels:

“My advice is that if she has her heart set on going to Guate, do the volunteering thing and keep travel limited to Lake Atitlan and Antigua … If her heart can be persuaded to go to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I would highly recommend that … Guatemala is in a sort of state of war where human life is very poorly regarded and that is why if you get mugged it is VERY dangerous …”

She also referenced a recent New York Times story explaining that the Peace Corps recently decided not to send new volunteers to Guatemala as it is assessing safety.

Ok, I knew Guatemala was a developing country and that there would be dangers, and I’d been armed and ready to explain to my family and friends that I’d be ok. I’d read tons of forums about safety in Guatemala. I’d read numerous blogs about female solo travel. I knew all the places to avoid, all the things to do and things not to do.

But the Peace Corps backing away and a Guatemalan resident recommending against coming? This was enough to give me major pause.

I spent the entire weekend researching other options. I narrowed it down based on volunteer opportunities I’d found in Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay. I was all set to completely change my flight and my entire plan.

And then I talked to more people: A 23-year-old woman who recently arrived at the volunteer organization in Xela, Guatemala, where I’d be going, said she had the same concerns as me – especially after hearing the news about the Peace Corps – but once she got there, she felt safe overall. I heard from another female volunteer coordinator who confirmed that Xela has a large foreign community and that the majority of volunteers are single female travelers. She said, “You should definitely take precautions and use common sense at all times, however there is no need to be afraid or alarmed all the time.”

I also talked to my friend who lived in Guatemala for a year, who could connect me with many contacts if needed. And I talked to my uncle, who has done missionary work there for many years, who said as long as I’m with others, I will be ok.

It’s tough to know who to listen to, but I decided to stick with my original plan.

Dealing with the safety concerns brought up by others has been one of the most unexpected aspects of my trip planning so far, and has certainly spun me in circles several times. But what it comes down to is that there’s no guarantee of safety anywhere, and as long as I take all the precautions and remain aware of my surroundings, I’ll be doing the best I can to avoid problems.

Here are some of the things I try to remind myself as well as others when they question my safety:

  • It can be dangerous everywhere, including where I currently live – Chicago. True, comparing Chicago to Guatemala is in no way comparing apples to apples, but remembering that we’re constantly vulnerable to danger helps put things in perspective. Plus, as a Chicagoan, I know which parts of the city to avoid; when I’m traveling, I will do the same.
  • The majority of the news about Central America violence is related to drug and gang crime – not crime against tourists – and negative news is reported much more often than positive news.
  • I’ve read many articles and forums and have spoken to several people who’ve experienced Guatemala. I’m equipped with tips from people who’ve traveled all over the world – including women who were traveling alone. This is the most I can do to prepare.


Here are some articles I found helpful in my research about Guatemala safety and female solo travel safety:

Posted by | Comments (6)  | February 1, 2012
Category: Central America, Female Travelers, General, Travel Safety

6 Responses to “Questioning safety in Guatemala – at the last minute”

  1. Chris Carruth Says:

    Sounds like a tough situation for the first stop on your travels, but it also sounds like you’ve done your research and are confident (if still wary) about moving forward. Good on you for sticking with your original plan. And I think you’re absolutely right in drawing the conclusion that there are no guarantees of safety anywhere and all you can do is be smart, be prepared and minimize any potential problems. Remember that you got in country and, should you feel the need, you can get out too.

    All that said, I like to journal on the road and when things are rough I flip through my notes and reacquaint myself with my convictions and values…remind myself why I’m suffering GI pains in some humid geographical backwater. And really, aren’t tough situations and hard places the best times to test our resolve? Looking forward to hearing more…

  2. Ted Beatie Says:

    “It can be dangerous everywhere..” is so true. Last year I went to Mexico. I got the “Are you sure it’s safe?” before going. It was fine.

    However, while I was there, our house here in the U.S. got robbed.

    Just goes to show..

  3. DEK Says:

    I assume that, as a volunteer, you will be part of a community of foreigners with experience and local people, whose advice and constant contact can keep you much safer than a tourist or passing traveler or even a local who may have reasons for being targeted.

    Be conscious of everything going on around you and make sure people see you doing good works. It might be nice if they see you in church.

    One time I wanted to go farther north, where I had heard guerrillas might be operating, and asked the Indian boys who were traveling with me if it would be safe. No problem, they said, just don’t wear you “military clothes”, meaning that my stylish Banana Republic bush jacket made me look too much like I was military and that could be a bad thing where we were going. That possibility had never occurred to me.

    On the other hand, if you don’t have some special reason for going to Guatemala and you don’t think constant fear of violence is your idea of a good time, you might just want to go someplace else where they still need you and you don’t have to be worried constantly for your safety.

  4. Rolf Potts Says:

    This is solid, well-considered advice. Destinations considered “dangerous” often wind up becoming my favorite places to visit. By definition, the news is in the “man bites dog” business, and rarely gives a balanced view of day-to-day life in faraway places. “You should definitely take precautions and use common sense, however there is no need to be afraid or alarmed all the time.” Well said.

  5. cld Says:

    My wife and I spent 8 weeks in Guatemala with our 9 year old son last fall (returned to the US just before Christmas). We have been traveling to Guate since 1991 and have been all over the country. This time we rented an apartment in Antigua and only did day trips because our focus was on spanish classes. I realize our situation on the latest trip may not be typical of a volunteer experience in the country but I would be happy to relate our experience if you are interested.

  6. Preparing for the unexpected responses to your travel news | Vagablogging :: Rolf Potts Vagabonding Blog Says:

    […] were afraid for my safety. As I mentioned in my post last week, I was prepared to respond to the safety concerns of others, but I wasn’t prepared for that to be […]

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