Guatemala has a bad reputation for safety, and it's true that pickpocketings, muggings, and car thefts are common. However, most Central Americans are extremely honest and trustworthy. It's not uncommon for a vendor to chase you down if you accidentally leave without your change. Taking a few simple precautions when traveling in Guatemala is usually enough to avoid being a target.
Attitude is essential: strive to look aware and purposeful at all times. Look at maps before you go outside, not on a street corner. Hire taxis only from official stands at the airport, and ask hotels or restaurants to order you a cab. If you do hail one on the street, do so only at major intersections.
Don't wear anything that looks—or is—valuable. Even small items attract attention (your wedding ring, for example) and are best left behind. Limit your accessories to cheap beads and the like. Whipping out a flashy camera on a busy city street isn't a good idea either. Keep a very firm hold of handbags when out and about, and keep them on your lap in restaurants, not dangling off your chair.
Take special care when driving. If you can avoid it, don't drive after sunset. A common ploy used by highway robbers is to construct a roadblock, such as logs strewn across the road, and then hide nearby. When unsuspecting motorists get out of their cars to remove the obstruction, they are waylaid. If you come upon a deserted roadblock, don't stop; turn around. In cities, always park in car parks, never on the street; and remove the front of the stereo, if possible.
Many popular destinations have a special tourist police service, known as the Policía Turística or just "Politur," a joint venture of INGUAT and the National Police. (Their presence is most evident in Antigua and at Tikal.) Aimed at reducing crimes against tourists, they're more like a private security service than a police force. As well as keeping a lookout at street corners, they'll accompany you on hikes and walks in places where safety is an issue.
Guatemalans don't have much faith in their regular police force: many officers are involved in highway-robbery and protection rackets. At best the police are well-meaning but under-equipped, so don't count on them to come to your rescue in a difficult situation.
The lonely slopes of the volcanoes near Antigua and Lake Atitlán have been frequented by muggers, so go with a group of people, a reputable guide, or a member of the Tourist Police, and carry only minimal valuables.
The increase in adoption of Guatemalan children has provoked the fear by many here, particularly rural villagers, that children will be abducted by foreigners. Limit your interaction with children you do not know, and never take photos of children without asking permission of their parents first.
The most important advice we can give you is that, in the unlikely event of being mugged or robbed, do not put up a struggle. Nearly all physical attacks on tourists are the direct result of their resisting would-be pickpockets or muggers. Comply with demands, hand over your stuff, and try to get the situation over with as quickly as possible—then let your travel insurance take care of it.
Nature can be menacing, too. A strong undertow lurks in the waters off the Pacific coast, making swimming there risky. Beaches have few, if any, lifeguards.
Violent crime is a serious issue in Guatemala and tourists have been victims.
Guatemala has four active volcanoes and earthquakes are a constant possibility.
You can check the tectonic situation before your trip at The U.S. Government Federal Management Agency (FEMA). www.fema.gov.
June through November is hurricane season: both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts are often affected. During this time heavy rain frequently causes landslides, blocking roads and occasionally causing more serious destruction.
General Information and Warnings
U.S. Department of State. www.travel.state.gov.
Pickpockets are the most common threat in Guatemala. They typically work in pairs or in threes: one will distract you while another slips a hand into your pocket or backpack during the commotion. Distractions could include someone bumping into you, spilling something on you, or asking you for the time. Crowded markets or street corners are hot spots for this, especially if your hands are full with your luggage or purchases. Remember that children and old women are just as likely to be pickpockets as men; many are so skillful you won't realize you've been robbed until later.
Keep your money in a pocket rather than a wallet, which is easier to steal. If you carry a purse, choose one with a zipper and a thick strap that you can drape across your body; adjust the length so that the purse sits in front of you at or above hip level. On buses and in crowded areas, hold purses or handbags close to your body; thieves use knives to slice the bottom of a bag and catch the contents as they fall out.
Try to keep your cash and credit cards in different places, so that if one gets stolen you can fall back on the other. Avoid carrying large sums of money around, but always keep enough to have something to hand over if you do get mugged. Another good idea is to keep a dummy wallet (an old one containing an expired credit card and a small amount of cash) in your pocket, with your real cash in an inside or vest pocket: if your "wallet" gets stolen you have little to lose.
Traveling alone as a woman in Guatemala can be tiring. Catcalling single females, especially foreign ones, is practically routine. The best reaction is to make like local women and ignore it. Going to a bar alone will be seen as an open invitation for attention.
Unfortunately, Guatemala has also been the site of some disturbing assaults on women. These have occurred on buses, usually late at night in remote areas, so avoid traveling alone at night. There's very little crime outside the major cities, but it does happen. Hiring a guide through the local tourist office or through a respectable tour agency can help to avoid such situations.
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