Health and Safety in Guatemala
Guatemala doesn’t have a great reputation for health and safety. It’s true that some people do get sick while traveling here, but that’s usually a result of poor hygiene and eating the wrong kinds of food. Pickpockets and muggings happen on occasion, but with street smarts, you can almost always avoid being harassed.
Food & Water
Prevention is one of the best ways to stay healthy and safe in Guatemala. That means washing your hands frequently, drinking bottled water, and only eating cooked foods and peeled fruits like oranges and bananas. Fruit and veggies that require washing (like strawberries) are usually more suspect and can lead to gastrointestinal diseases. So, although Guatemala grows excellent produce, eating local fruits and vegetables without a peel is not recommended.
Drinking Guatemalan tap water is not recommended either. Even though Guatemalan law requires ice to be made from purified water, it’s usually a good idea to ditch the ice cubes when ordering drinks. Better safe than sorry.
Insects & Snakes
Guatemala's tropical appeal is part of what makes it an exciting vacation destination, however, that also means encountering insects. When it comes to mosquitos, a few basic precautions will help keep you safe and well during your holiday — such as wearing long sleeves, and sleeping in screened or netted rooms.
Guatemala is home to many animals, and this includes snakes. You will need to be on the lookout for snakes, because the country is home to some of the world's most poisonous varieties. However, there are things you can do to stay safe; wearing long clothes, exploring the outdoors with an expert guide, and stepping with care are usually sufficient measures to avoid snake bites.
Guatemala has some lovely beaches, and both the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the country offer good swimming. However, not all beaches are equal — especially when the tides change. Learn more aobut the best time swim on Guatemala's Pacific or Caribbean Coast in "Is It Safe To Swim In The Ocean In Guatemala?"
No vaccinations are required to enter Guatemala. That said, it’s smart to be up-to-date on yellow fever, typhoid, tetanus, rabies, and measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) shots. A hepatitis vaccine is also a good idea. Although malaria medication is not required, it may be prudent if you're visiting Guatemala's rural lowlands. If you’re going to take malaria medication, you need to begin taking it a few weeks before traveling to Guatemala.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has current information on vaccinations and disease in Guatemala. Visit their website for the most up-to-date travel requirements.
Food, Water, and Insect-Borne Diseases
It’s not uncommon for travelers to get a case of diarrhea in Guatemala. This usually only lasts a day or two, but if the problem persists it could be food poisoning — if this happens, drink lots of fluids to replace your electrolytes. You might also want to get an anti-diarrheal medication from a pharmacy.
Other gastrointestinal issues include traveler’s diarrhea, dysentery, and even cholera. The last two are pretty unlikely, but you may come down with a case of “the runs” from traveler’s diarrhea, especially if you eat street food or drink non-purified water.
Insect-borne diseases — including malaria and dengue — are often transmitted by mosquitos in Guatemala. The best way to avoid these illnesses is to use bug spray with DEET and wear long-sleeved clothing, especially while in forested areas. It’s also possible to buy clothing that’s been treated with permethrin, a chemical that repels bugs. Anti-malarial drugs can also be purchased in Guatemala without a prescription.
Doctors, Hospitals, and Pharmacies
If you find yourself in need of medical care during your trip to Guatemala, you will have access to quality medical facilities. Guatemala City has first-rate doctors and hospitals, and there are many good private hospitals outside the capital in urban areas. Rural towns usually lack quality health care.
There are pharmacies spread throughout Guatemala, if you need access to medication. Prescriptions are not necessary to purchase medication. As such, the pharmacists often serve advisory roles about what drugs a patient should or should not take. Medication is often inexpensive in Guatemala, and most towns will have at least one all-night pharmacy.
If you encounter a medical emergency, it is advisable that you get yourself to the nearest big city hospital as soon as possible — preferably in Guatemala City. For non-medical emergencies, consult "While In Guatemala, What Should I Do In An Emergency?" for information about whom to contact in various emergencies, and how.
Conscientious travelers, naturally, try to avoid putting themselves in potentially high-risk situations. With this in mind, it's important to discuss the realities and myths of crime and safety in Guatemala. Most foreign travelers visit Guatemala without problems, so if you practice common sense and restrict yourself to locations and activities Anywhere recommends, you can enjoy a safe —yet authentic— Guatemalan experience.
That said, crime does occur in some parts of Guatemala, making it all the more important to know how to stay safe. Guatemala City typically sees the most crime. This can take the form of pickpockets along the streets or more serious hold-ups, which sometimes happen along highways. Try to avoid driving after dark and always park in a car parking lot. Don’t leave anything valuable in your car.
While traveling, look confident and purposeful. Don’t wear or use anything that is very valuable or attracts attention. Keep a firm hold on purses and backpacks. Store your passport and other valuable documents in safety deposit boxes at the hotel. Keep an eye on your luggage in bus terminals and other public settings. Don’t leave important items on the beach while you swim.
Most popular destinations in Guatemala have tourist police known as Policía Turística. These specialized police work to reduce crime against tourists. They keep a lookout on streets and will even accompany you on walks to places where safety is uncertain. If you’ll be hiking in more remote places, especially near Antigua and Lake Atitlán, it’s a good idea to go with a guide or even have a member of the Tourist Police accompany you. Many Guatemalans do not trust the regular police, as some officers have been involved with robberies and other illegal activities in the past.
If the unspeakable happens and you do get robbed, remain calm and do not put up a fight. Comply with demands and try to get the situation ended as quickly as possible. If you have travel insurance, losses should be covered.
The same goes with other practices. Don’t wear flashy jewelry or use expensive camera lenses in city streets. Look at a map before you go out. Be confident and calm. With a little know-how you will have a fun and safe experience in Guatemala.