Questioning safety in Guatemala – at the last minute

On January 22nd, 2016

3885709629_40e90d083f_oJust 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 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:

Ready plan a Round The World adventure?

Image: Dave Wilson (flickr)
Image: Frédéric Poirot (flickr)