Guatemala – Jen Bishop (2010)

Jen Bishop is a medical student at the University of Colorado. Jen traveled to rural Guatemala where she educated community health workers on improved nutritional practices, early childhood health interventions, etc. Jen received $1500 from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Jen’s travel safety tips:

Guatemala is an unbelievably beautiful place with many volcanoes to climb, lakes to visit and some of the most incredible Mayan ruins in Central America. Unfortunately, among all the natural beauty, there is a significant amount of poverty and need. Although the other countries in Central and South America continue to make progress against stunting (poor growth and a marker of chronic malnutrition), Guatemala has not followed suit. There are a multitude of NGOs working to combat this tragedy and many opportunities to volunteer and lend a hand. As well, Antigua Guatemala is home to a myriad of Spanish language immersion programs and a wonderful place to learn the language.

Guatemala has a rich history and blend of Mayan and Spanish culture, and unfortunately a relatively recent history of political turmoil. Its civil war ended in 1996, and although there are is not a present risk, the aftermath of the war still permeates the western highland region. Many of the indigenous Mayans are skeptical of outsiders and also the military. For that reason, it is important to know where you go, especially if it is a more rural region because there are many small communities that are closed to outsiders. Finally, Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America (since Mexico technically is not part of Central America, but rather North America). This title comes with the associated risks of urban high-volume living including significant danger/red zones (parts of the city that are not tourist appropriate). Check the state department website before travel around the city (see link below).

Although there are certain dangers to travel in Guatemala, that is not unlike other developing nations. It does not prohibit travel to this gorgeous place, but does make smart decision making a priority. Here are a number of things to consider so your trip is fantastic and problem free.

1) Prepare before you leave, know the circumstances of where you are going.

Educate yourself about the location you will be staying. Also, make sure you have a plan for when you arrive. Since most arrive to Guatemala City, it is important to have safe and reliable transportation arranged ahead of time. Try to speak with your local contacts if you are going to be working or staying for longer about safety concerns, so you can prepare accordingly. Spanish is the national language of Guatemala, but many of the rural regions speak different dialects of Mayan languages. Although English is understood by many people in the tourist locations, there are definitely areas where Spanish is needed to communicate.

2) Sign-up with the State Department so they know where you are.

The US State Department website has good resources about their warning regarding travel to any region or country in the world. Although this is a conservative perspective, it is good to educate yourself on their perceived risks. They also provide an online registry to put your contact information, duration of your stay and where you will be staying in case of emergency or natural disaster. It is called the “STEP”- Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.

3) Have emergency contacts in the US who know where you are.

Although you are an adult, it is always good to have people in your life who keep tabs on you. Have a number of emergency contacts in the US, or your home country, who have your itinerary and know where you are. Make sure you provide them with a means of contacting you and vice versa. They will be able to help in case of emergency.

4) Get Your Vaccinations and medications.

Vaccinations can be expensive, but they are one of the best investments you can make. Many of the developing world, especially if tropical, have a number of different risks and diseases. The Center For Disease Control (CDC) website has country specific recommendations for vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis. Although Yellow Fever is not required for Guatemala, the customs agency will look for it if you have traveled to other countries in Central America with endemic risk. Therefore, it is also a good idea. Finally, Guatemala is home to many wild dogs, and if you are planning to be somewhere off the beaten path, the Rabies vaccinations are important. Malaria is endemic in some parts of Guatemala, so check the CDC recommendations regarding prophylaxis.

5) Visas:

Currently, there is no visa required for travel to Guatemala from the United States if you stay is less than 3 months. If you are planning to stay for longer than three months there are some options. First, you can apply for a one-time extension for a second 3 month period. This can be a little cumbersome and require trips into Guatemala City, and it is not always reliable. A second option is to leave the country for 72 hours. After this period, there are no restrictions on re-entry and the 3 months begin again. The one caveat to this is that Guatemala participants in the Central American 4 (CA-4) in border control. The CA-4 includes Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Therefore, exit for 72 hours must be to a country outside of the CA-4.

6) Make smart decisions when you travel, this sounds simple, but is not always so.

The best way to make a smart decision is to educate yourself about risks and options. Be aware of your surroundings and your belongings, you do not have to walk around in fear, just an added awareness. The most dangerous part of the abroad experience is the travel between destinations. So, when going places, look at multiple options for travel. Sometimes the cheapest is not the safest or the best. Look around at the people selling you deals, and use your common sense. Travel on Guatemalan roads is dangerous by day, but night adds another level of danger for both accidents and crime. So, do not travel at night. Also, make sure the road conditions are passable because the rainy season can add another level of difficulty. Finally, listen to your intuition. If something does not feel right, make a change, your gut is your friend.

7) Get a Cell Phone.

In Guatemala, like many developing countries, cell phones are EVERYWHERE. You can buy a very cheap phone from any of the carriers, TIGO, CLARO or MOVIESTAR. The minutes are prepaid, so just pay as you go. This will allow a way for you to stay in contact with others, and how your emergency contacts can find you. Also, these phones usually have a very cheap rate for international calling to the US.

8) Don’t assume that you understand the cultural context, or the risks, even if they seem irrational.

If you are staying in a small community, especially in the western highland region, it is important to orient yourself with the cultural context. As mentioned in the introduction, many of the communities hold some fear of outsiders and their method of dealing with conflict may look different than what you are used to. At times a misunderstanding can turn into something greater quickly, so make sure to be respectful of the cultural context and educate yourself about the community before assuming that something normal in your home, would be acceptable there. For example, many families are very protective of their children and staring at, touching, pictures or excessive attention to a child can be perceived as a risk to the family. Baby stealing, although it sounds irrational, is an actual fear for some of these families.

9) Don’t assume your travel book or guide is up to date on the safety circumstances.

Especially in the western highlands, the season can take a road that is safe and turn it into a landslide waiting to happen. The rainy season is from about May through September and the land just soaks up the water and then the water carries the land tumbling down the hills. The roads toward the tourist destination Lake Atitlan are notorious for these dangers, so check the current condition before you leave on a trip to this region.

10) Have a Safety Plan:

It is always good to have a safety plan, health plan or an exit plan in case of emergency. There are private travel and health insurance companies that can provide these services. Sometimes they are combined, and others are separate. Regardless, if something occurs, you will have something in place to help you manage your circumstances. Also, know the emergency call number to the embassy and put it in your phone.

11)Don’t ruin your trip with worry, HAVE FUN!

Although there is risk associated with international travel, there is no need to ruin your trip with worry. An international experience is a phenomenal adventure and unique way to build independence, character and open your eyes to a whole new way of living. It is the best experience of my life, and worth every challenge in the journey. So make wise decision, create a safety net for yourself and enjoy the adventure!


– Guatemalan/US Embassies
– US State Department Website
-Center for Disease Control Website
– INGUAT Centers (Centers for Tourism in cities throughout Guatemala)
– Ask Locals, usually they will tell you the truth about the circumstances. The key is to ask more than one so you can gain multiple perspectives, and not the tour guide who is trying to sell you something and does not have your best interests in mind.