Costa Rica hasn’t been as convenient of a base for traveling around Central America as I anticipated. Long distances, jungle and mountainous terrain, poor road conditions and high airfare costs can make exploring a challenge. However, I’m proud to say that I recently accomplished my goal of visiting every country in Central America!
And, out of all the places I’ve visited on this sub-continent, Guatemala is hands-down my favorite.
Guatemala is a beautiful country full of a diversity of landscapes, cultures and historical sights. The country is home to colonial cities, Mayan villages, volcanoes, lakes as well as the largest capital city in Central America. The country proudly touts itself as “the heart of the Mayan world,” and rightfully so – the living Mayan population is robust as nearly 51 percent of the population belongs to one of 21 Mayan groups.
With the exception of Tikal National Park and Petén, both important archaeological sights with ruins from the Ancient Mayan civilization, most of the country’s must-see attractions are located in a compact area. This means you can spend less time traveling to sights and more time experiencing them – a determinant that factors highly into my enjoyment of a travel destination.
I also am a huge history buff and Guatemala has an interesting, if highly tragic history to uncover on a visit. Nearly four decades of war came to an end in 1996 during which an estimated 200,000 were killed during the 36-year long Civil War. The current political situation is also interesting to learn about. Protestors found recent success in forcing former Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign after a United Nations commission recently exposed a multimillion-dollar network of customs fraud. Protests continue with the hopes of forcing the President to resign as well.
Despite this dark history, the people of Guatemala have a resilient spirit. The people I interacted with were all incredibly warm, welcoming me with open arms and teaching me about the power of rising from the ashes of one’s circumstances.
Unfortunately, despite the many reasons Guatemala is an excellent travel destination, it doesn’t have the best reputation for being safe. I traveled throughout the country on my own and as a solo female traveler am happy to report that I found the country very safe. I wasn’t cat called or followed down the street like I have been in other places in Latin America and I didn’t encounter any situations that made me uncomfortable or fear for my safety.
That being said, I did take some extra precautions that I wouldn’t take elsewhere in places like Europe or even Costa Rica. I definitely recommend visiting Guatemala, but follow some extra safety measures to keep your visit a positive one. Read on for my top tips for women traveling to Guatemala.
Tips for Women Traveling to Guatemala
1. Don’t take public transportation.
While public transportation may be a tempting option due to the low price tag, it is not advisable to take public transportation in Guatemala. The “chicken buses,” as locals call them are actually one of the most dangerous places in the country as they are prime territory for gangs. It was recently reported that 900 bus drivers have been murdered by gangs committing robbery.
Many of the locals I spoke with were skeptical themselves of taking public transportation. As a foreigner you will really stand out on these buses and be a huge target as people generally assume that travelers have valuables such as cameras, wallets and passports on them.
Instead of public transportation, take private shuttles or taxis. Prices are low in Guatemala so you will be able to do so without breaking the bank, while keeping yourself safe. During my visit I arranged public transportation and tours with two companies – Voyaguer Tours and Guatemalan Adventures. Both companies provided efficient, comfortable and, most importantly, safe transportation.
2. Stick to the beaten tourist path while exploring solo.
When I travel I love getting off the beaten path and wandering to places other tourists may not discover. Guatemala is not the place to do this. Again, as a foreigner, you automatically stand out and have a huge target on your back. Besides, the sights that lay on the tourist path are interesting and vibrant enough to fill your time!
While exploring on your own, stick to the main destinations like Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Both these places are so accustomed to tourists that there is an infrastructure and culture for safety. Antigua especially is a comfortable place for solo travelers. It makes a great base for exploring Guatemala as it is tourist friendly and close to many other places you can explore on day trips. I haven’t felt more at ease in a city anywhere else in Central America as I have in Antigua, even when walking around at night. It reminded me of my days in Europe!
3. Take guided tours.
Of course, Guatemala has a lot to offer apart from Antigua and Lake Atitlan. To stay safe while visiting other places in Guatemala, take a guided tour.
I took a guided tour of Guatemala City, known for a high crime rate, as well as to climb Pacaya Volcano. Not only did my guides keep me safe, they also gave me great insight into culture and history that I would not have learned if visiting on my own.
4. Carry important phone numbers with you.
It is a good idea to bring phone numbers of people who can help you with you as you explore on foot. Most of the tour guides and drivers I met offered me their phone number in case I encountered any problems in my travels after I had left their presence, as did the concierge at my hotel in Antigua. It gave me comfort to know that someone would be able to help me if I found myself lost or in an uncomfortable situation.
If you have a phone that allows you to insert SIM cards, you can buy a cheap SIM card that works in Guatemala at the airport or in any town. If you don’t have a phone with you and find yourself in trouble, stop in at a hotel or restaurant and ask if you can borrow theirs.
5. Be wary of taxis
Like most places in Central America, it is a good rule of thumb to be wary of taxis as pirate or fake taxis are prevalent. Do not get into unmarked taxis. To confirm that a taxi is official, look for identification in the front window before entering. It is also a good idea to write down the license plate of each taxi you use just in case any problems arise (or you accidentally leave anything behind).
6. Don’t drink the tap water.
Tap water in Guatemala is not always sanitary. Avoid drinking tap water. Many hotels and hostels have filtered water available for guests. Fill up your water bottle using this water, or else purchase bottled water.
7. Don’t be afraid to be rude if you feel you are being harassed.
Although I didn’t encounter this on my visit, in Guatemala, as many other places in Central America and around the globe, you may encounter beggars or wayward men who approach you. Some of these people can be quite aggressive and follow you down the street asking for money or otherwise bothering you.
One common mistake I see fellow women travelers make is being overly polite to these types of people. I think as women we generally feel the need to be nice to strangers. Of course its important to be kind to locals when abroad and remember that you are an ambassador for your home country in your travels.
However, trying to be polite to people harassing you will only encourage them to continue interacting with you. And while traveling your safety comes first, even above maintaining politeness. It can feel unnatural to be so rude to a stranger, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what people may think of you. It only matters that you stay safe!
There is no rule that says you have to be kind to people who are bothering you. If you find yourself approached by someone who makes you uncomfortable, give them a firm indication you don’t want to talk, ignore them, or pull out that RBF and walk away.
And there you have my top tips for women traveling to Guatemala. Have you been? What other advice do you have? Let me know in the comments below!