Okay, so I’m sure you’ve been wondering about it. After all, Central America isn’t widely known as the safest region in the world. And Guatemala does have a violent history, especially in the ’80s and ’90s during the civil war. Unfortunately, many people still associate the country with its violent past, and some even warn against going.
However, let me tell you this: as a young woman travelling independently in Guatemala, I felt very safe – especially on Lake Atitlan. Now, if you’re planning to spend time in Guatemala City, there are some serious safety precautions you should consider, as the capital is one of the most dangerous parts of the country. But when you’re around the lake, all it takes is some common sense and being aware of your surroundings.
Here are some tips on staying safe while travelling and living around the lake.
As a rule of thumb, try to avoid wandering around after dark. There are some towns that are safer – for example, in Panajachel and San Marcos, I felt safe walking alone before 10pm. However, if you’re in another town around the lake, it’s best to take a tuk-tuk after dark. If there are no tuk-tuks around, then definitely walk with other people. Especially if you’re a woman, it’s best to always travel with a male friend at night.
When you get into the wee hours of the night – 12am and later – that’s when you should take extra precautions. Let’s just say that there are people under the influence of certain substances that you’d rather not run into, whether you’re travelling with a group or not. If it’s past 12am, my rule of thumb is to take a tuk-tuk and avoid the “what if” question all together.
As long as there are other people out and about, it’s okay to wander around by yourself – even as a woman. When you are walking around alone, it’s best to stay within populated areas (i.e. don’t go wandering down sketchy allies).
Specifically in Panajachel, people like to walk or jog along the road that connects Panajachel and Santa Catarina. This is safe to do alone after about 8am, once there are more people out and about.
If you are traveling with others during the day, it is usually safe to walk around anywhere in town – just avoid travelling on the roads connection the towns (I’ll explain this more in the Transportation section).
As I mentioned earlier, tuk-tuks are a great way to get around, whatever town you’re in. Tuk-tuk drivers are licensed and trustworthy, and it’s very affordable to take a tuk-tuk anywhere in the town you’re in. Pick-up trucks are also reliable forms of transportation, but they only run in the day-time. Pick-ups usually run from town to the surrounding communities, or between towns that are in close proximity. Pick-ups are even cheaper than tuk-tuks because they are public. I definitely recommend hopping in the back of a pick-up at least once while you’re visiting the lake – it’s an adventure all in itself, no matter where you’re going. The safest pick-up routes are from Panajachel to Santa Catarina and San Antonio Palopo, and from San Pedro to San Juan.
When it comes to traveling in between towns that are father apart (i.e. between Panajachel, San Pedro, San Marcos, and Santiago), it is safest to go via boat, or lancha. Even the locals avoid driving on the roads connecting the towns. It isn’t uncommon for cars and buses to be held up and robbed along these more deserted roads, and landslides are also a danger during the rainy season. The most dangerous road around the lake runs between San Pedro and San Marcos – something to keep in mind. Lanchas are safe, easy, and affordable alternatives to driving in between towns – and they’re more fun!
The moment you’ve all been waiting for…chicken buses! This is my favorite way of travelling to and from the lake. Chicken buses do not run in between towns in Atitlan, but they do run out of Panajachel and Santiago to towns outside of the lake area. They are very affordable, always on time, and never fail to be an adventure, to say the least. Buses are the local transportation in Guatemala – few people actually own cars. This makes buses fairly safe, but there are some things to remember while riding.
When traveling by chicken bus, it is best to keep money hidden underneath your clothing. While it is rare, it isn’t unheard of for buses to be held up and robbed. But people seldom get hurt in these robberies – just do what the other passengers do. In all my time in Guatemala, I was never held up. But it’s always best to play it safe and know what to do just in case something happens.
Specifically for Women
Unfortunately, women still have to be the most cautious when traveling – wherever you are in the world. Some tips to keep in mind:
1. Dress conservatively. Avoid shorts and short skirts. Pants, capris, and knee-length skirts are fine. Make sure your shirts cover your cleavage.
2. If you feel like something might be dangerous, bring a male friend along.
3. You will most definitely get your share of cat-calls while walking down the street. These are almost always harmless. Just look straight ahead, keep walking, and don’t acknowledge that anything is happening.
4. One or two times, I have been pursued by a man asking me to get dinner with him, teach him English, or give him my phone number. When this happens, I go into a store in order to get off the street. Every time, this has been enough, and he has left me alone.
Hopefully with these tips, you can travel around the lake and feel more safe. I have to reiterate that Atitlan is the safest place that I’ve ever traveled to. However, especially when traveling alone, it’s always best to be cautious and aware.
Now go jump on a pick-up truck and enjoy your time at the lake!