Trip Coach: November 6, 2007
Al Argueta, author of "Moon Handbooks Guatemala," answered your questions on Guatemala.
Al Argueta: Thanks for joining me today to talk about Guatemala. I appreciate you taking the time to ask some very good questions. Guatemala is my second home and a land that I love very much, so without further ado, let's get started!
Portland, Ore.: Hi, I am a single, mature woman and interested in traveling alone between 11/18 and 12/18 to Antigua to study Spanish and see the area. I have been reading on the government sites and it makes it sound like I'll be dead or robbed before even leaving the Guatemala City airport. And that if I survive the airport, the banditos will get me on the bus to Antigua. I'm an experienced solo traveler but these reports are leaving me a little nervous. Is it as bad as they are making out?
Al Argueta: A few folks have written with similar questions. Honestly, I feel Guatemala is one of those countries that often get a bad rap. For many years, especially during the civil war, Guatemala was a pariah state and the country's bad reputation was a way of punishing right-wing governments for human rights violations at the hands of an overzealous military by denying them tourist dollars. I feel that much of the bad press (and government warnings) are a carryover from these times, much the same way that Costa Rica has always been depicted as a peaceful Shangri La.
After the civil war, crime levels tended to increase, reflecting the 'growing pains' the nation was experiencing on the sociopolitical landscape as it moved towards the consolidation of a stable democracy. Guatemala, like many countries in Latin America, has its fair share of violence, which is not surprising given its history and its status as a developing nation. Violence rarely affects tourists, however. That being said, there are certainly places that should be avoided because of a propensity towards banditry and I do my best to discuss these in Moon Guatemala along with practical tips to make your stay safer. The Guatemalan private sector and the Guatemala Tourist Commission have also teamed up to provide excellent services for travelers in need via their Asistur program, offering travel insurance and 24-hour assistance for just $1 a day. As for robberies occurring on the outskirts of the Guatemala City airport, these have been drastically curtailed thanks to increased police presence and the ongoing reorganization of access roads into the city as part of the airport expansion project.
Nothing in life is 100 percent safe. I know folks who have been robbed while honeymooning in Costa Rica just after driving off from the airport in a rental car. My advice is to go to Guatemala, but if you're really worried about being robbed then leave anything you might miss at home and travel with travelers' checks or other form of replaceable currency.
See the next entry for a comment by an expatriate resident living in Guatemala City. I can't say it any better myself.
Guatemala City, Guatemala!: More of a comment than a question. Please tell people not to be afraid of this beautiful country. My husband and I are expats in our second year here, and we love it. Be wary of gloom-and-doom accounts telling you how dangerous it is here. If you exercise normal street smarts, you should be fine.
Al Argueta: I totally agree!
Minneapolis, Minn.: I will be in Santo Thomas de Castillo. What are the main things I cannot miss out on seeing while in port for one day?
Al Argueta: Cruise ships on Guatemala's Pacific and Caribbean ports of call have become big business in recent years, with plans for nearly 100 ships to make landfall in Guatemala during the 2007-2008 season. Santo Tomas de Castilla, on the Caribbean side has some of my favorite attractions anywhere in Guatemala. Don't miss the Rio Las Escobas pools and surrounding Cerro San Gil rainforest, just minutes from the cruise ship terminal. Chiltepe Tours is a Gray Line affiliate offering military jeep tours between the terminal and the park. Alternatively, you can laze the day away at the pleasant Amatique Bay Resort or see the funky Garifuna town of Livingston.
Sausalito, Calif..: We will have one day in Puerto Quetzal on our Princess cruise (Nov. 26th--I know, cruises don't let you see the country worth a damn) and wonder what you would recommend. We both speak Spanish pretty fluently, so we think we can get around OK on our own. Antigua?
Al Argueta: On the Pacific port side, I would definitely recommend a day trip to Antigua. It's easily accessible along a four-lane highway and embodies much of what makes Guatemala so darn appealing: colonial architecture, sentinel volcanoes, cobblestone streets, Mayan culture, great food and plenty of shopping. Have fun and enjoy your introduction to fabulous Guatemala. But I warn you, you'll want to come back and see more!