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.
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. And 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.
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, and try to not drive after dark. With a little know-how you will have a fun and safe experience 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. 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. Their website is wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel
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 and 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
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. 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.
Most foreign travelers visit Guatemala without problems. That said, crime does occur in some places and it’s good 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.