Sunday, September 18, 2011


Let me take a step back before proceeding. After I did my research on line, booked and paid for both the flight and the hotel, my good friend Lin D. offered to lend me a copy of her Travelocity Guide Book on Guatemala. She had visited there a few years ago and purchased the book then, so it was rather up-to-date. She enjoyed her short stay there and had no problems. I readily accepted her offer and began devouring each page, eager to learn more about my vacation destination. There were some of the same warnings regarding travel and safety that I found on line, including ATM scams and fraud. This didn’t really bother me because this sort of thing goes on in every city, world-wide.

The guide book was touting inexpensive lodging and meals, neither of which I found. In fact, I thought everything in Guatemala was way overpriced for an emerging third-world country in Central America. (If that statement hurts anyone’s feeling, sorry, but that is my personal opinion.) I base this on the fact that I do consider myself an experienced traveler, not a tourist. When inquiring about restaurants and the like, the good folks at the hotel told me of some rather inexpensive restaurants, but cautioned me not to go to that part of town, day or night. They provided some acceptable alternatives even though I found the prices were a bit out of line with the overall environment and quality of food.

We settled on one of the restaurants the hotel recommended and they called a taxi cab for us. It was just getting dark and traffic remained heavy. We arrived at the restaurant and I was pleasantly surprised to find a variety of dishes on the menu. I was also surprised to find an armed guard at the door and one roaming around the restaurant while you tried to enjoy your evening meal! We ordered a platter for two consisting of some local sausages, some beef, a small potato and a few trimmings. Tortillas were served with the meal. Not to my liking as they were small, very thick and quite chewy. The bill, including beverages, was almost $40.00. The atmosphere and food quality did not equal the price. We had the cell phone number of the taxi and the restaurant gladly called the same driver to pick us up.

We decided to stop at a small store to pick up a few snacks and soft drinks to have in the room as the hotel offered nothing except the two-egg breakfast. The driver took us to a store just a few blocks from the hotel, but we couldn’t go in! We could approach, walk by the scrutinizing eye of the armed guard, and order through heavy metal bars protecting the workers, the stock, and the cash register. I found the same thing at a nearby drug store. This was weird I thought. Nevertheless, we got our goodies and off we went. I had also noticed that even the trucks that delivered bottled water, or any other service vehicle for that matter that collected money on its route, had an armed guard. Sawed off shotguns and automatic weapons were the weapons of choice.

The next morning, it was the two-egg breakfast, and off to the bank to change US dollars into Guatemalan Quetzels. Mexican pesos are not accepted. The hotel arranged transportation and the taxi took us to the bank, parked and agreed to wait for us. Entering the bank was probably tantamount to entering Fort Knox. Locked doors and armed guards both in and outside of the bank actually gave me an uneasy sense of false security. After doing all the paperwork including showing your passport, making copies, etc., and so on, we stood in line at the teller to get the Quetzels. ( I’ll inject a personal note here. My entire stay in Guatemala was a state of confusion when it came to money. I was continuously converting Quetzels to US dolalrs at the rate of 7.5 to one, and then converting the dollars to Mexican pesos at the rate of 12 to one, to get a feel for the price of things. I’m not exactly sure how all that worked out for me and I didn’t really stay around long enough to find out or care for that matter.)

I changed $400.00 US dollars into Quetzels and wound up with a whole bunch of paper money of varying denominations. I was grateful that it all fit into the security pouch I carried around my neck and I put about $50.00 worth of Quetzels in my pocket. It was back to the hotel to unload some of the money into the safe in the room and re-secure our passports. We then decided to go to the local market to search for treasures. Again, the hotel staff arranged a cab for us with warnings about safety and security in the market. Again, I found this a bit un-nerving, but heeded their warnings.

I read in the guide book about the markets and the warnings about pickpockets and thieves scouring the market places for unsuspecting tourists. I was surprised to learn that the children also practiced pickpocketing! I also found a reference to the US Embassy web page that posted warnings about travel and crime in Guatemala. Having exhausted most of my research, I decided to go to this web page, and was absolutely in a state of shock with what I found there. After reading just a few entries, I knew that I would not have gone to Guatemala had I read this first. It was too late to cancel as it was already paid for. Mind you, this comes from the US Embassy and not just opinions of tourists and travelers. That web site is:
(Note: you may have to copy and paste this into your browser)


Now, I was actually afraid for my safety and reviewed my travel plans accordingly. While in Guatemala, there were definitely two things I wanted to do. One was to see Antigua and the other was to experience the market in Chichicastenango. We managed to do both but opted for private transportation via one of the taxi drivers from the hotel, which meant spending a lot more money to get there and back. All other travel plans were cancelled, and with no regrets. After reading the US Embassy’s web page, it became quite apparent to me why banks and stores looked like mini fortresses, well-armed and overly guarded.

You may find this boring, shocking, a little over the top, or unnecessary, but I am copying the entries just for the first three weeks of August 2011, from the US Embassy web page for your review:

08/20/2011 Guatemala City, Zone 14: Unknown individuals broke into a resident’s vehicle and stole a briefcase.

08/19/2011 Antigua, Sacatepéquez: Two knife-wielding men stole a tourist’s purse.

08/19/2011 Carretera a El Salvador, Santa Elena Barillas, Guatemala: At approximately 7:30pm, a pickup truck with five men pulled in front of three tourists’ vehicle and forced them to stop. Three men exited the truck and fired shots into the air. The armed men forced their way into the group’s vehicle, drove to a deserted country road, and raped two female tourists. The assailants later stole the tourists’ money and departed.

08/18/2011 Antigua, Sacatepéquez: At approximately 12:30am, on the corner of 6a. Avenida Sur and 5a. Calle Poniente, a group of assailants traveling in a pickup truck slashed a tourist with a knife and robbed him.

08/18/2011 Antigua, Sacatepéquez: At approximately 12:15am, on 3a. Calle Norte between 3a. and 4a. Avenida, a group of assailants traveling in a pickup truck approached two tourists. The assailants stabbed both tourists with a knife and stole their belongings.

08/18/2011 Antigua, Sacatepéquez: At approximately 11:30pm, on Calle del Arco between 5a. and 6a. Avenida, a group of assailants traveling in a pickup truck approached a resident. The assailants stabbed the resident, cutting off a piece of his ear, and stole his belongings.

08/18/2011 Antigua, Sacatepéquez: At approximately 11:00pm, on the corner of 4a. Calle Poniente and 6a. Avenida Norte, a group of assailants traveling in a pickup truck robbed two tourists. One of the tourists was slashed with a knife during the robbery.

08/18/2011 Antigua, Sacatepéquez: At approximately 8:00pm, in front of La Merced church, an assailant stole two tourists’ belongings and slashed them with a knife.

08/17/2011 Antigua, Sacatepéquez: Two armed men assaulted a tourist who was riding a chicken bus. The men forced the tourist to remove his clothes to see if he was carrying anything of value.

08/16/2011 Livingston, Izabal: An unknown individual stole a tourist’s belongings at a hostel. The stolen items included $300 cash as well as the tourist’s driver’s license and passport.

08/14/2011 Livingston, Izabal: Three assailants boarded an anchored boat at around 8:00pm. The two tourists aboard were tied up and threatened; the intruders stole their diving gear, boat equipment, watches, cell phones, credit cards, and passports.

08/14/2011 San Juan La Laguna, Sololá: An unknown individual stole a tourist’s backpack while the tourist was swimming in Lake Atitlán. Although the tourist reported that she was only in the water for five minutes, the thief got away with her possessions, including her passport.

08/12/2011 Puerto de San José, Escuintla: At approximately 11:30pm, unknown individuals allegedly stopped a car belonging to a married couple. The husband tried to escape the assailants, who then fired several shots into the vehicle. The husband escaped on foot but the wife was shot dead.

08/12/2011 Tecpán, Chimaltenango: Residents have received several blackmail threats demanding 200,000 quetzales in exchange for not harming the couple’s child. The threats have been delivered to their home and their relative’s home via phone calls and letters.

08/08/2011 Chimaltenango, Chimaltenango: Two men on a motorcycle approached a tourist in his car. The men pointed a gun at the tourist and took his belongings, including $500 cash.

08/08/2011 Guatemala City, Zone 10: An American Embassy employee was walking on 7a. Calle when he noticed a car following him. In response, he crossed the street and ran away. From a distance, he saw three men get out of the car; one of them was carrying a gun. No one was injured in this incident.

08/05/2011 Guatemala City, Zone 13: An unknown individual stole a tourist’s money belt at La Aurora International Airport.

08/04/2011 Panajachel, Sololá: An unknown individual stole a tourist’s passport from her purse while she was leaving a bank.

08/03/2011 Panajachel, Sololá: A tourist reported that someone stole his passport while he was waiting inside a bank.

08/03/2011 Villa Nueva, Guatemala: A resident reported threats ordering him to pay 10,000 quetzales or face harm to his family. He has received a dozen anonymous phone calls regarding this threat.

08/01/2011 Antigua, Sacatepéquez: A tourist reported that he attempted an ATM withdrawal and, although the withdrawal was unsuccessful due to a supposed ATM problem, the funds were still withdrawn from his account.

08/01/2011 Antigua, Sacatepéquez: An unknown individual stole two tourists’ passports while the tourists were dining in a restaurant.

You may also want to check out the August 26, 2011, letter from the US Embassador, entitled EMERGENCY MESSAGE TO US CITIZENS. The letter warns of the dangers of traveling in Antigua, Guatemala. The web site is full of such incidents and continues on for pages and pages. As I mentioned earlier, had I known beforehand, I wouldn’t have gone. Now, you may have a better understanding of why I high-tailed it out of Guatemala!

Personally, we were very fortunate although we did have a few scares. While I was in the market in Antigua, Luis noticed someone was following me and staring at the pockets in my pants. I figure he was trying to determine how hard, or easy, it would be to pickpocket me, or who knows what. However, that is conjecture and not supported by fact, but given the factual statistics, it is a definite probability.

One afternoon while in the hotel, Luis decided he needed a second trip to the local market and went off on his own while I stayed in and rested. When he returned, he rang the doorbell to the hotel and while waiting for the staff to open the door, a man approached him, asked for a light, and was fumbling with something in his pocket. Luis said the guy tried to pull whatever it was out of his pocket, but (luckily) it was stuck and he couldn’t get it out. Was it a knife, a gun, or? Again, not fact but high probability. Luis told me at that moment he thought his life was through. Thankfully, all this was interrupted by Luis running into the middle of the street and the staff opening the door. Th would-be assailant exited stage left, and very quickly.

On the way home from Chichicastenango, there was some commotion in the other side of the divided 6 land highway. There was a small crowd and two bodies on the side of the road, but no visible signs of an auto accident. That evening on the news, the staff at the hotel told us of two guys that went to a bank, withdrew some money and were followed, shot, killed and robbed on the same road we travelled. Had we been just a few minutes earlier on our return trip, we would have been witnesses. Too close for me!

All this, coupled with the Embassy web page, confirmed my decision to return early. I changed our tickets with Interjet and we left in the early morning of September 7th, after having just arrived on the first of the month and cuting the vacation short by 9 days. There was no way I was staying in a country that I did not feel safe in, couldn’t walk the streets day or night, and had to cope with armed guards while buying a soft drink, an aspirin, or trying to enjoy a meal in a restaurant. Not my idea of a good time or a vacation, that’s for sure. It seemed like everything we would choose to do would include an inherent risk factor and the wrong choice could result in serious consequences.

On a happier note, what I saw of the countryside was impressive, the weather was wonderful, and the hotel staff was super. And that’s about all I can say on a positive note. We never made it out of our hotel to travel to any other destination other than day trips to Antigua and Chichicastenango, and then only with a private driver, and that is probably a good thing. As much as I wanted to see and do more, I am perfectly content to be home safe and sound. I never took my camera out of the room safe, and never clicked one photograph; thus, no photos to post!

I hate to speak poorly of a place just because I personally did not like it, but I make an exception for Guatemala because of the possible dire consequences of travelling there. BEFORE YOU TRAVEL TO GUATEMALA, PLEASE, PLEASE, CHECK OUT THE WARNINGS FROM THE US AMBASSADOR TO GUATEMALA. DON’T JUST TAKE MY WORD FOR IT.

If this post saves just one person the grief of being robbed, raped or otherwise molested, or even killed, then I am pleased. I know there are those of you out there that will take exception to my findings and opinions, but I’ll stand by my post, my personal experiences, and the word of the US Ambassador to Guatemala. Please don’t write and tell me how very safe and wonderful Antigua is when the statistics show just the opposite.

I do hope that things will change there and one day it will prove to be a safe place to visit as the country has much to offer. In the interim, I will choose other destinations for my travel.

Stay safe wherever you may travel.


  1. Which, in your opinion are the political and social factors attributable to this regressed state of lawlessness in Guatemala?
    Sorry you didn't have the holiday you planned but glad you're safely away.

    P. Mernitski

  2. Glad you made the choice to get back home. We learned from a friend who lived in Guatemala, just how bad it was. In fact she was surprised you were going there. You were already there so we couldn't tell you that. I guess the rule of thumb will be to access the US Embassy letters and check out ANY country before going. Especially these days. Barb

  3. P. Mernitski: Political factors? Probably the fact that there are 10 major political parties in Guatemala, and according to the locals, most, if not all, are highly influenced by the drug cartels. Social factors? Desperate people do desperate things, especially if they can get away with them. There is a very visible class system in place there and those that don't have much will stop at nothing to have their piece of the pie. Tourists are prime meat in this regard.

    Barb: I'm glad to be out of Guatemala and home safe and sound. And, you are correct - check out your Embassy's web page for crime statistics before you venture off into the unknown. Since my story, I have heard from lots of folks who advise they new of the problems there and scratched Guatemala off their travel list long ago. Smart folks in my opinion!

  4. When we went a few years ago, it was freaky but not the way you describe it now. We spent a night in "Esquintla" - EVERYONE there carried a machete. I remember a police presence, but that is just a Dole Pineapple truck stop. Our hotel rented by the hour. Never been in one of those before, don't plan to again. The place was scary.

    I was not impressed with Antigua, mostly the attitudes of the 'tourists' there made me sick, bunch of snobs, although I loved Chichicastenango. We also went to Livingston, which was a scary place even tho our trip was pre-military takeover - don't get me wrong there were guards armed with AKs all over the place, but we see that here too, and it wasn't more than we were used to...a few years ago. Livingston is the home of the Garifuna, the only blacks who were not enslaved upon arrival in the new world. They play music. There are very few tourists there and the people are desperately poor. The town is seedy, it isn't safe to be out at night after an early dinner. People looked at us like we were from another planet, like one that doesn't have news of the declining life of Guatemala. But luckily we had no problems. By the way I loved those little fat tortillas, they're my faves. The book was Lonely Planet - who should be advised of all the changes since they printed that version! One would have to think things are pretty f'd up there or we wouldnt have such a problem with Guatemalan much that Mexico made a special arrangement to allow so many refugees into the country. Lin