Yes and no. It depends.
When I left for Guatemala in January 2016, almost every single person would ask, “Is it safe?”, in response to me telling them where I was moving. Coming from the United States, there are a lot of preconceived ideas about any Spanish speaking country south of the US border and safety is a quite common bullet point in the list of ‘why not to travel south’. A lot of these ideas are born out of an unfounded fear cultivated by the media and a lot of fear mongering politicians, but to be fair, there are some security issues in some Central American countries. The key word here is some; not every country is safe, not every country is dangerous, and there is variation within countries, within cities. The ‘safety’ of a country is often reported on in the media by number of murders, violent crimes, and petty crimes, but even then there is no one experience of a country. If you are a woman you will have a different experience than a man in Guatemala and if you are dark skinned you will have a different experience than if you are fair skinned in the still kind of racist Argentina.
Before my trip, I did not know much about Guatemala and I did think it would be safe, but that was mostly because I naively thought it would be similar to my time spent in Argentina during university. I made the fatal mistake of making assumptions about one country based on an experience in another, vastly different, country. When I got to Guatemala, I had an awakening about the particular safety concerns of my new home for the next six months. I had to learn that as a woman I did not walk alone after dark, I wore clothes that covered as much skin as I could to avoid cat calls, and I did not run alone, ever. It was a hard learning process, one that left me frustrated and sometimes angry at my loss of independence, but I passed my time in Quetzaltenango with no incidents. I was safe in the end.
However, just because I didn’t have an incident, does not mean that I wasn’t aware of the fact that Guatemala is a more dangerous place than Davis, California. Two of the women in my program were sexually assaulted, one was groped on her way to morning yoga and the other was forcibly kissed on her way home from a night out. One woman got robbed at gun point, but gave the attacker her phone and was physically okay. One man got beaten up and robbed coming home alone from the bars at three in the morning. The fact of the matter is that the large majority of Guatemalans are poor and it is known that Westerners are wealthy, after all we can afford to travel. Thus Westerners are often the targets of petty crime in Guatemala. The more violent, sexual crime is the type that affects all women in Guatemala, foreigners and locals alike, as Guatemala does have one of the highest femicide rates in the world. I wrote more about my experience as a woman in Guatemala here.
This is not a scare post. I listed out the things that happened to people I knew during my six months in Guatemala to give potential visitors a real idea of the safety situation they will be going into. Most travelers, especially only short term travelers, have no problems in Guatemala. This may be because most travelers stick to the tourist trail and stay in cities like Antigua that aren’t representative of the majority of Guatemala. Quetzaltenango, while a lovely mountain town amid the clouds, is not really on the tourist trail and it is a true Guatemalan city, complete with the potential for crime.
I’m trying to give an honest representation of how safe I felt during my time in Guatemala, because if there is one thing I hate it is travel bloggers misleading people out of the desire not to say a single bad thing about a country. I loved my time in Guatemala and I would do it again in a heart beat, but there are certain safety considerations that any traveler to Guatemala, and the region in general, should know. Well unless you are in Costa Rica, Costa Rica doesn’t really fall in the same category.
Safety Considerations for Central America
1. Do not walk alone after dark if you are a woman. (If you are a man it is still probably a bad idea, but you are less likely to have problems.)
2. Do not run alone, especially in secluded places like El Baul (a nice running mountain just outside the city of Quetzaltenango).
3. Do not carry any more money than you can afford to lose at night. However, keep a little cash on hand to give to robbers if they stop you as most won’t believe a Westerner has no money and could get more forceful if they believe you are hiding something.
4. Do not carry electronics around in the open, that goes for big DSLR cameras and really any smart phones. You can buy a pay as you go plan with a cheap Guatemalan phone for about $20 USD. Also they call the phones frijoles and I got endless entertainment out of calling my phone a bean, it’s a win win situation.
5. Do not wear short shorts, mini skirts, or very revealing tops if you are a woman and don’t want to be constantly bothered with cat calls. Quetzaltenango is a fairly traditional city when it comes to women’s dress so keep this in mind when choosing what to wear.
6. Do not travel at night. Night buses can get pulled over by bandits in the Guatemalan mountains and it is just not worth getting stripped of all your belongings to travel at night.
7. Know the city/country that you are going to. Antigua is not Quetzaltenango just like Quetzaltenango definitely is not San Salvador. I felt entirely safe in Antigua, cautious in Quetzaltenango, and I would not have gone to San Salvador without our Salvadorian guide shuttling us to and from everywhere.
If there is one main take away point from this article, it would be do your research about the safety situation in the country and cities you will be going to. Security situations change often around the world and you just need to be up to date about the situation in your planned travel locations. The list below is how I felt about the safety situation in each country I went to when I went there (I added South American countries as well for context). Just please remember that this is a list based on personal experience and that things change quickly so do your own research prior to your trip. And please, please, please do not let fear mongering in the media deter you from exploring this amazing region of the world, yes there are things to be aware of, but no, they should not stop you from having a life changing trip.
Cities visited: Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Uspallata, Bariloche, and Córdoba.
Safety: I felt very safe in Uspallata, Bariloche, and Córdoba as they are smaller cities than Mendoza or Buenos Aires. I felt safe for the most part in Mendoza and Buenos Aires, but they are bigger cities and, like anywhere in the world, have parts that you wouldn’t want to walk alone at night in.
Recommendation: Go, you will love the wine and the lovely, rolling Argentine accent.
Cities visited: San Ignacio and Belize City
Safety: San Ignacio felt very safe, honestly I never was worried in Belize, but we were just passing through Belize City, which is the largest city, so there may be more need for caution there.
Recommendation: Go, the jungle river cruises of San Ignacio are well worth the trip.
Cities visited: Santiago and Valparaiso
Safety: I felt entirely at ease during my time in Chile, but one of the women in our group did get her wallet stolen out of her purse. In the defense of Chile, she did leave her purse unattended and hanging open off the back of her chair throughout dinner, if you do that in some places in the US you’ll get something stolen.
Recommendation: Go, the street art of Valparaiso and the history of Santiago are not to be missed.
Costa Rica (2016)
Cities visited: Monteverde and San Jose
Safety: Costa Rica is probably the safest country in Central America, but it is also the most expensive and touristy (probably because of its stellar safety record).
Recommendation: Go, if you have the money and don’t want to have to learn Spanish; seriously everyone speaks amazing English, which is probably due to the booming tourism.
El Salvador (2016)
Cities visited: San Salvador and Costa del Sol
Safety: El Salvador has a well publicized gang problem that seriously affects the safety of travel in the region. I only went to San Salvador because I was on a group trip with a Salvadorian leader who knew where to take us and where not to take us. Luckily, the safety problems don’t reach the coast and the beach towns are safe enough to travel through.
Recommendation: Skip San Salvador, it’s a very interesting city but not safe enough to try to navigate yourself, and head to the coast instead, there is some world class surfing along the Salvadorian coast.
Cities visited: Quetzaltenango, Antigua, Panachael (on Lake Atitlan), Lanquin (Semuc Champey), Flores (Tikal) and Chichicastenango.
Safety: Guatemala has some safety considerations to be made for travel there, but they mostly apply to less touristed towns like Quetzaltenango and Chichicastenango.
Recommendation: Go, Guatemala has an amazing variety of things to do and see from the Mayan ruins of Tikal to climbing Volcán Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America. However, keep your wits about you, be aware there are some dangers in the bigger cities, and don’t bother with Guatemala City, it really is too dangerous to be worth anymore than a short stay for the airport.
Cities visited: San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba, and Utila Island
Safety: Honduras also has a mixed bag for safety and because we were only headed to the islands we heeded the warnings and moved very quickly through the mainland, staying only one night in San Pedro Sula and just passing through La Ceiba. That being said I had friends who traveled without issue through the mainland, but we decided it wasn’t worth the risk. The Bay Islands on the other hand are very safe.
Recommendation: Go, at least to Utila, it is the one of the cheapest places in the world to get SCUBA certified and the reef is one of the healthiest I have ever seen.
Cities visited: Mexico City, Oaxaca City, and Puerto Escondido
Safety: Mexico gets a very bad rap in the US due to the drug wars of 20 years ago. For the most part things have calmed down and I felt extremely safe in Oaxaca City and Puerto Escondido. Mexico City was mostly good, but there are sections you just don’t go to. For the most part avoid border towns, in the north or south, and any known drug cartel area. Kane heard a very sad story through the Australian grape vine about two Aussie surfers who didn’t take enough caution and drove their camper van onto a Sinaloa drug cartel territory in the middle of the night. They found their bodies and the burnt out car a couple of days later. Moral of the story, do not travel at night and know the areas you will be traveling in. Oaxaca is super safe and they have amazing mole, go there instead.
Recommendation: Go, go, go, please go! Mexico is a huge country with so many amazing places to see, things to do, and tacos to eat that it would be a pity to miss the entire country for fear of a few problem spots.
Cities visited: León, Granada, Ometepe Island, and Playa Marsella near San Juan del Sur
Safety: Nicaragua’s safety situation would probably be on par with Guatemala’s as they have similar histories and social situations, but I felt safer in Nicaragua than in Guatemala. This is most likely due to the fact that we were traveling for three weeks in Nicaragua and staying on the tourist trail, while in Guatemala I was living there for six months.
Recommendation: Go, it is a beautiful country, but as always, be aware of your surroundings.