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Travel & living abroad

North and Central America and Caribbean

Guatemala

Flag of Guatemala
Still current at: 25 April 2011
Updated: 13 April 2011


This advice has been reviewed and reissued with amendments to the Travel Summary, Safety and Security - Crime and General Money (increase in reports of credit cards being cloned) and Health (HIV/AIDS statistics). The overall level of the advice has not changed; there are no travel restrictions in place in Guatemala.

(see travel advice legal disclaimer)
  
       
          

Travel advice for this country

Travel Summary

  • The rainy season in Guatemala normally runs from June to November, coinciding with the hurricane season in the Caribbean. The country has suffered heavy rain damage, flooding and landslides. See Safety and Security - Local Travel and Natural Disasters - Rainy Season/Landslides.

  • We advise caution if travelling in the area around Santiaguito volcano in Retalhuleu, which is currently at a state of Yellow Alert following increased volcanic activity. See Natural Disasters - Volcanoes.

  • We advise caution in all areas of Guatemala City due to violent crime. See Safety and Security - Crime and Local Travel.

  • Guatemala is subject to frequent minor earth tremors and occasional earthquakes. See Natural Disasters - Earthquakes.

  • We advise against travel on public buses (i.e. repainted US school buses) for security reasons. Private inter-city coach services are not included in this restriction and are generally a safer alternative. See Safety and Security - Local Travel.

  • There has been an increase in the cloning of credit/debit cards used in ATMs in Antigua and Guatemala City. See Safety and Security section.

  • There is a public warning in the Department of Guatemala (including Guatemala City) and Escuintla on increasing cases of Dengue fever. You should take precautions against mosquito bites. The authorities are spraying to combat the outbreak.

  • Studies have declared that the water in Lake Atitlan is no longer safe for bathing or drinking. Should you fall ill during a trip to the lake, or immediately after, you should seek medical advice.

  • Large demonstrations occur throughout Guatemala, often with little or no notice, and can cause serious traffic and other disruptions. Although most demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent, and you should avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. See Safety and Security - Political Situation.

  • There is a low threat from terrorism. But you should be aware of the global risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks, which could be in public places, including those frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.

  • 20 British nationals required consular assistance in Guatemala in the period 1 April 2009 – 31 March 2010. See General - Consular Assistance Statistics.

  • You should take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance before travelling. See General - Insurance.

Safety and security

Safety and Security - Terrorism
There is a low threat from terrorism in Guatemala and there has been no history of domestic terrorism since the end of the 36-year civil war in 1996. But you should be aware of the global risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks, which could be in public places, including those frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers. See our Terrorism abroad page.

Safety and Security - Crime
Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America with around 40 murders a week in Guatemala City alone and a total of 98 per week in the whole country. Although the majority of serious crime involves local gangs, incidents are usually indiscriminate and can also occur in tourist areas. There are no “safe areas” in Guatemala City, including Zone 10 (Zona Viva), which is popular with tourists and foreign residents. On 17 October 2010, three people were killed as the result of a shooting inside a restaurant in this area. Although the Guatemalan authorities have increased their presence in Zone 10, the risk of further violent attacks remains.

Elsewhere in Guatemala, violent attacks on tourists, including car-jackings, assault, armed robbery, murder and rape have increased in the past few years and can happen anywhere and at any time of day. Guns are commonly used, and there is a low arrest and conviction rate for perpetrators. You should take your personal security seriously and be aware of your surroundings at all times.

See our Victims of crime abroad page

The risk of violent crime, such as armed attacks, muggings and sexual assault is real. There continue to be armed attacks on tourists and foreign residents travelling to/from and around major tourist sites such as Antigua, Tikal, Peten and Lake Atitlan.

Tourists have been attacked on minor roads around Lake Atitlan, and in particular the road between Santiago Atitlan and San Pedro. There are frequent boat services between the towns and the lakeshore, which may be a safer alternative.

There have been several armed attacks on tourists climbing mountains. We advise against climbing the Tajumulco volcano in San Marcos or visiting the surrounding area due to unrest in local communities. We recommend you only climb Agua, Acatenango, Fuego, Pacaya, Santiaguito and Tacana volcanoes as part of a group with a professional guide. We advise against climbing volcanoes at night.

In September 2010 a group of British visitors were victims of armed robbery and assault at the Cerro Alux park in San Lucas Sacatepequez. When planning travel in isolated areas, you should check your route with local police or the local Guatemalan Tourist assistance unit ASISTUR or the INGUAT tourist office.

On 4 November 2009 a foreign tourist was shot whilst taking a taxi tour of Puerto Barrios after disembarking from a Cruise Ship. Passengers and visitors from Cruise Ships are advised to only take recognised tours and confirm their itinerary with the boat, port authority or with the Guatemalan Tourist representatives (INGUAT and ASISTUR).

Two British tourists were attacked in May 2009 at the Cerro de la Cruz lookout point in Antigua. Tourists are advised not to climb the steps or use the road to this vantage point without first seeking an escort. The local tourist authority ASISTUR and local police offer escorted trips to the view point. There is no police presence at Cerro de la Cruz at lunchtimes between 12:00 and 14:00.

The incidences of armed attacks and muggings at ATM machines, petrol station forecourts and shopping centres have increased. There has also been a reported increase of robberies that occur in and around the airport, Zone 10 and Los Proceres Boulevard. These attacks usually involve firearms and are conducted and coordinated by motor cycle riders. We advise caution whilst circulating in these areas. Do not to display wealth or valuable items if possible.

Foreign visitors and residents can be targeted by scam artists. The scams come in many forms, and can pose great financial loss to victims. If you or your relatives or friends are asked to transfer money to Guatemala you should make absolutely sure that it is not part of a scam and that you have properly checked with the person receiving the money that they are requesting it.

Despite the high levels of crime most visits to Guatemala are trouble-free. Around 25,000 British citizens visited Guatemala in 2009 and the overwhelming majority of visitors were unaffected by crime. In recent years, the Guatemalan Government has taken steps to address the issue of crime against tourists, in particular by expanding the Tourist Police. This has helped reduce crime against foreigners in some tourist areas. British Nationals may need help for hospitalisation, arrest, and for the loss of passports.

When travelling in Guatemala you should be aware of the risks and take steps to mitigate them. The following local advice and travel tips may help:

  • Keep your valuables locked away in a safe or keep them on your person when travelling.
  • Carry a photocopy of your passport for identification purposes.
  • Assailants generally carry guns and are prepared to use them. Victims have been killed and injured resisting attack.
  • Avoid displaying items of value such as laptops, cameras and mobile phones. Do not wear jewellery and only carry minimal amounts of cash.
  • You should be particularly careful of your belongings at bus stations, airports and crowded tourist places. Theft is common in Antigua and Zone 1 in Guatemala City.
  • Consider your transport options carefully when travelling between cities or tourist sites. There have been several armed attacks on tourists travelling to/from places such as Coban, Antigua, Tikal, Peten and Lake Atitlan. We advise against travel on public buses (i.e. repainted US school buses) for security reasons (see Local Travel section for detail). Private inter-city buses are generally safer, although attacks can also occur on these.  
  • For shorter trips within towns and cities the safest option is to take radio or hotel taxis. You should avoid walking in unfamiliar areas or catching local city buses or unofficial taxis. When arriving at the airport you can buy pre-paid taxi vouchers from the INGUAT Tourist Office (in the arrivals terminal).
  • There has been an increase in reports of credit and debit cards being cloned after being used in ATMs in Guatemala City and Antigua resulting in often large amounts of cash being withdrawn from bank accounts.  Check ATMs for evidence of tampering, but beware that affected machines may not be easy to spot. We are working with the Guatemalan authorities to try to resolve this problem. It is safer to change money in hotels, at banks or at foreign exchange offices. It is wise not to withdraw too much money at one time and you should avoid withdrawing money at night.
  • Avoid travelling on your own or at night, especially at border crossings or areas where there are few other people around. The risk of attack increases at night, so you should travel during the day.
  • You should take particular care when travelling around all parts of Guatemala City, especially in Zone 1 (historical centre) where many cheaper hotels are situated and several bus routes terminate.
  • Avoid approaching, or taking pictures of, Guatemalan children without permission from the child’s parent or guardian. This is particularly important advice to follow in more remote areas such as Quiche, Peten, San Marcos and Chiqimula provinces. There has been an increase in the number of lynchings and attempted lynchings related to accusations and fears of child kidnapping for adoption or theft of vital organs. Foreigners have become caught up in these violent reactions.
  • Be wary of persons presenting themselves as police officers. There have been reports of visitors becoming victims of theft, extortion or sexual assault by people dressed in police uniforms.
  • There have been several armed attacks on tourists climbing mountains. We advise against climbing volcanoes at night. It is also safer to go with others and hire a guide or take part in a tour with a reputable company.
  • Consider contacting the local tourist authority INGUAT who can provide you with emergency assistance and guidance during your stay. Their 24 hour number (502) 2421 2810 (or 1500 in country).


For more general information see our Victims of crime abroad page.

Safety and Security - Local Travel
You can obtain up-to-date security information through INGUAT (service available in English), the Guatemalan Tourist Institute. INGUAT’s tourist assistance service, ASISTUR, can be reached on (502) 2421 2810 and (502) 5578 9836. You may also dial 1500 in Guatemala.

On 4 June 2010, the local tourism authority INGUAT issued a travel advisory for the Livingston area of Izabal. They are advising that you should remain vigilant to an increase of criminal activity, especially robberies, in and around the Siete Altares Waterfalls and the beaches of Quehueche. They are advising that you should not travel to these places after 14:00 and leave no later than 15:30. You should contact the tourism police in Livingstone on (+502) 5314 3219 for up to date travel information in that area.

Much of the country remains affected by the damage caused by Tropical Storm Agatha and from further continued heavy rains in 2010. Many roads have seen landslides and flooding and there are bridges washed away in many parts of the country. Disruptions to road travel are likely, including on main routes to the Pacific Coast, Izabal and the El Salvador and Mexico borders. We advise you to monitor local media as local travel disruptions are likely.

Since September 2008, ASISTUR have been issuing recommendations for routes to be taken when travelling in and around Solola, Panajachel and Lake Atitlan. Please contact them for further details.

There continue to be armed attacks on tourists travelling to/from major tourist sites such as Antigua, Tikal, Peten and Lake Atitlan. You are advised to avoid the Godinez by-pass via Patzun between Guatemala City and Panajachel. You should use the Pan American Highway to Solola instead. The road between Cocales (Suchitepequez) and San Lucas Toliman (Atitlan) should also be avoided where possible. Armed attacks on tourists have also taken place on minor roads around Lake Atitlan, and in particular, the road between Santiago Atitlan and San Pedro. There are frequent boat services between the towns and the lakeshore, which may be a safer alternative.

Car-jackings and armed hold-ups are increasingly common on the main road 'carretera Salvador' leading from Guatemala City to the border with El Salvador. The crossroads at Fraijanes, San Jose Pinula and Las Luces are also focal points for express kidnappings.

ASISTUR offer an escort service for tourists groups or individuals travelling locally in the region. Please contact them on the number above for more information regarding this service.

Safety and Security - Local Travel - Public buses and coach services
When travelling in Guatemala you should carefully consider your route and transport options in advance.

We advise against travel on public buses (i.e. repainted US School buses) for security reasons. There has been a marked increase of armed attacks by local gangs on bus drivers and conductors, often resulting in serious injury or death. Since July 2010 these attacks have included the use of explosives, increasing the risk of injury or death to passengers. There have been reports of violent muggings, including rape and assault against foreigners on these buses. You should be aware that UK based members of the British Embassy, their dependants and official British visitors are instructed not to use these buses because of the risk of violent robbery and accidents.

Private inter-city coach services are not included in this restriction and are generally a safer alternative. However, there have been armed attacks, including rape, on cars and buses (including tourist buses) during daylight hours on well-used, main roads.
Guatemala City Council no longer permits some inter-city buses to enter the city centre. Passengers are dropped at various points on the outskirts. You should take this into account when planning your journeys.

Safety and Security - Local Travel - Border areas
You should pay particular attention to your security at the border areas with Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. You should avoid openly changing large amounts of money and make sure valuables are kept out of sight. It is often better to cross borders in the morning as borders often close in the early evening and it also allows time for you to reach your destination before dark. You should exercise particular care when travelling in the Belize/Guatemala border area because of the ongoing dispute between the two countries. You are advised to use only the officially recognised border crossings.  

Safety and Security - Local Travel - Road Travel
You can use your UK Driving Licence to drive in Guatemala for visits under three months.  However, you are recommended to hold an International Driving Permit. When travelling by car, it is generally safer to travel on main roads between major cities and tourist destinations. Quieter routes and poor road conditions increase the risk of attack. Travelling in a convoy of more than one car may be safer. Roads between the main tourist locations in Guatemala are of an acceptable standard. In more isolated locations, roads are unpaved and four-wheel drive vehicles are advisable. Driving standards are variable compared with the UK. You should drive carefully and expect the unexpected.  Adequate car insurance is essential. If you are involved in an accident you should contact the National Police by calling 120 or the fire brigade by dialling 122 or 123. If you are involved in an accident you should normally wait for the police to arrive.

It is illegal in the Department of Guatemala to have more than one person riding a motorcycle. Motorcyclists throughout the country are also required to wear a black vest and helmet with the registration number. Motorcyclists violating the law are required to pay a fine of Q1000 (around £80).

See our Driving abroad page.

Safety and Security - Political Situation
Guatemala Country Profile

You should exercise a high degree of caution in Guatemala, as incidents of political violence, roadblocks, strikes and large demonstrations can occur, often with little or no notice. Although most demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent, and you should avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. The use of roadblocks and/or blocking of public facilities, including the international airport, has increased and these may affect your travel plans. You should be aware that some demonstrations in the capital and at strategic points on the country's main highways have turned violent.

You are advised to check your onward travel possibilities before trying to travel within the country. You should not attempt to pass through any blockades and should avoid large crowds. Please continue to monitor local press, radio and TV, or contact the Embassy, for local updates.

Local laws and customs

There are stiff penalties for drug trafficking (10-20 years) and drug use (8-15 years). Guatemalan prisons are overcrowded, violent, unsanitary, and disease is rife.

You should refrain from taking pictures without permission, especially in the case of children. See the Crime section above for details. You may be asked to pay a small amount of money to take photographs of both children and adults.

In Guatemala City, local people are largely tolerant of individual’s personal lifestyles and small displays of affection between same sex couples are accepted. A more conservative attitude prevails outside Guatemala City and public displays of affection by same-sex couples are not recommended.

Passports should be left in a hotel safe/deposit box, but you should carry a photocopy of your travel document for identification purposes. However, please be aware that in San Pedro La Laguna, Sololá, local authorities may not accept a copy of your passport as identification, and may fine or detain you if you cannot produce your original passport or a certified copy when asked. You should ensure that your passport has sufficient validity and a plentiful supply of unused pages before you travel.

For more general information for different types of travellers see our Your trip page.

Entry requirements

Entry Requirements - Visas
Visas are not required by British citizens to enter Guatemala and can visit freely for up to 90 days. If your stay in Guatemala is longer than 90 days you should go to the General Directorate of Migration in Guatemala to apply for an extension to the 90-day rule. If you would like to clarify any other information on entry requirements you should contact the Guatemalan Embassy in London.

Entry Requirements - Passport validity
Your passport must have at least six months’ validity before travelling to Guatemala.

Entry Requirements - Central America Border Control Agreement
Guatemala is part of the Central America Border Control Agreement (CA-4). Under the terms of this agreement, British tourists may travel within any of the CA-4 countries (Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala) for a period of up to 90 day, without completing entry and exit formalities at border Immigration checkpoints. This period begins at the first point of entry of any of the CA-4 countries. Fines are applied for travellers who exceed this 90-day limit, although a request for an extension can be made for up to 30 days by paying a fee before the 90 days limit expires. If you are expelled from any of the four countries you are also excluded from the entire CA-4 region.

Entry Requirements - Departure Tax
There is a US$30 (or Quetzal equivalent) airport departure tax which is normally included in the price of the ticket. An additional security tax of US$3 is payable at the airport. For internal flights there is a five Quetzal per person travel tax, which is also payable at airline check-in desks.

When crossing into Guatemala by land border, there have been numerous reports of customs/immigration officials charging an "entry fee". This is illegal. By asking for an official receipt for your money you may find that the "fee" is dropped.

Entry Requirements - Travelling with children
For information on exactly what will be required at Guatemalan immigration, please contact the Guatemalan Embassy in London.

Health

Since October 2009 there has been a slow build up of bacteria and algae in Lake Atitlan, which has resulted in a colour change in the water in some areas from clear to green/brown. Local scientific and media studies have declared that the water in the lake and is no longer safe for bathing or drinking. Should you fall ill during a trip to the lake, or immediately after, you are advised to seek medical advice.

There is no in-country Swine Flu quarantine policy but screening equipment has been installed at airports to check incoming passengers only.

Hospitals in Guatemala are reluctant to give medical treatment unless they can be satisfied that you have medical insurance.  It is therefore essential that you carry evidence of your insurance cover at all times.  State-funded hospitals are on the whole under-staffed, under-funded, ill equipped, and are often unhygienic.  You should use private clinics where possible.

Malaria occurs in low-lying areas outside Guatemala City. 

Dengue fever occurs throughout the year. The Guatemalan Government has declared a State of Calamity in the Department of Guatemala (including Guatemala City, Villanueva, San Miguel Petapa, Mixco and San Jose Pinula) and Escuintla because of the increasing number of cases of Dengue fever. In 2009 there were  outbreaks of Dengue fever in the Department of Izabal, especially in and around the towns of Puerto Barrios and Livingston. There were also confirmed cases of Classic Dengue and Dengue Hemorragico. You are advised to take additional health precautions against mosquitoes and be advised that the Authorities are publically spraying a mixture of insecticide and diesel to combat the outbreak.  In 2007 there was a marked increase in the number of reported cases of dengue across the region, with an increase in the number of reported cases in the common border areas shared with El Salvador and Honduras.

In the 2010 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic the UNAIDS/WHO Working Group estimated that around 60,000 adults aged 15 or over in Guatemala were living with HIV; the prevalence percentage was estimated at around 0.8% of the adult population compared to the prevalence percentage in adults in the UK of around 0.2%. Exercise precautions to avoid exposure to HIV/AIDS. See our HIV and AIDS page.

Seek medical advice before travelling to Guatemala and ensure that all appropriate vaccinations are up-to-date. For further information on vaccination requirements, health outbreaks and general disease protection and prevention visit the websites of the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) or NHS Scotland’s Fit for Travel or call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47.

See our Travel Health page.

Natural disasters

Natural Disasters - Rainy Season/Landslides
The rainy season in Guatemala normally runs from June to November, coinciding with the hurricane season in the Caribbean. In 2010 the country suffered heavy rain damage, flooding and landslides, including on main road routes. You should monitor local and international weather updates from the World Meteorological Organisation and the National Hurricane Centre. For more general information see our Tropical Cyclones page.

Heavy rains cause frequent flooding, landslides and collapsed roads and bridges throughout the country. Roads may become blocked at any moment. If you are planning to travel through the country, you should monitor local news media and consult your tour operator and ASISTUR as travel routes are likely to face disruption.

Natural Disasters - Volcanoes
A strong volcanic eruption of Pacaya volcano (approximately 40km south of Guatemala City) on 27 May 2010 caused significant ash clouds and falling sand in the surrounding area, including Guatemala City. We advise caution if travelling near the volcano or trying to climb it, as further significant volcanic activity continues. We also advise you to monitor the local media for news, and your tour operator for any possible travel disruption.

Four of Guatemala's volcanoes are currently active. A state of yellow alert is in place for Pacaya, Fuego and Santiaguito. These volcanoes erupt intermittently, and you should exercise caution in the vicinity.  Volcano Santiaguito is currently showing increased eruption activity, and so extra caution is advised if planning travel in the Retalhuleu area. There is also a lesser state of alert (green) for the Tacana volcano. If considering climbing an active volcano, we recommend you contact the local tourist authority ASISTUR on (502) 2421 2810 (or 1500 within Guatemala) for current information, and then only climb as part of a group with a professional guide. When climbing Fuego and Santiaguito, you should avoid the areas around the craters.

When climbing other volcanoes or walking in remote areas, it is safer to go with others and hire a guide or take part in a tour with a reputable company, and only conduct this activity in daylight hours.  

We advise against climbing the Tajumulco volcano in San Marcos or visiting the surrounding area due to unrest amongst local communities involved in land use disputes.

For further information on volcano warnings please check with the Humanitarian Early Warning System - Volcanoes Watch and/or the guatemalan disasters agency CONRED (in Spanish).

Natural Disasters - Earthquakes
Guatemala is subject to frequent minor earth tremors and occasional earthquakes.

Ensure that you know what action to take should an earthquake occur. If staying in a hotel read their earthquake instructions. During an earthquake, you should drop to the ground and take cover under sturdy furniture, in a doorway or next to an inside wall, away from windows or objects which may fall. Cover your head with a pillow or your arms and wait for the earthquake to stop, before moving to a safe area outside. Further advice may be found on American Red Cross - Earthquake.

General

General - Insurance
You should take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance before travelling. Check for any exclusions, and that your policy covers you for all the activities you want to undertake. See our Travel insurance page.

If things do go wrong when you are overseas see our When Things Go Wrong page.

General - Registration
Register with our LOCATE service to tell us when and where you are travelling abroad or where you live abroad so our consular and crisis staff can provide better assistance to you in an emergency. 

You may also register in person by calling into the British Embassy in Guatemala City.

General - Passports
Applications for British passports should be sent to the UK Passport Service for the Americas & Caribbean at the British Embassy in Washington. Details of the process and costs can be found at their website www.ukinusa.fco.gov.uk/en/passports.

In exceptional circumstances, the British Embassy in Guatemala City will continue to issue Emergency Travel Documents. This document is only available if you have held a full passport previously. This passport is restrictive and only allows for one nominated journey.  For travel via the United States on an Emergency Travel Document, you are required to obtain a US Visa.

General - Money

You should not rely on debit cards as a means to transfer funds to Guatemala: ATMs sometimes reject them. Credit cards and travellers' cheques are more reliable. In September 2010 we had a number of reports of credit card cloning in Guatemala City, and in 2011 reported incidences of credit card cloning from popular ATMs in the city of Antigua have increased. You should monitor your bank account carefully if making credit card transactions in Guatemala. If credit cards are lost or stolen there may be difficulties obtaining a replacement as the main international courier services from the UK are refusing to accept them for delivery to Guatemala. See Safety and Security - Crime above for advice on changing and withdrawing money in Guatemala.

General - Consular Assistance Statistics
20 British nationals required consular assistance in Guatemala in the period 1 April 2009 - 31 March 2010 for the following types of incident; four deaths; five hospitalisations; and four arrests. During this period assistance was also requested with regard to lost or stolen passports (52 cases).

Contacts

Guatemala, Guatemala City, British Embassy

Address:

British Embassy
Edificio Torre Internacional, Nivel 11
16 Calle 0-55, Zona 10
Guatemala City

Telephone:

(502) 2380 7300

Fax:

(502) 2380-7339

Email:  embassy@intelnett.com (General enquiries)
Email:  consular.guatemala@fco.gov.uk (Consular enquiries)

Office hours:

Embassy
Monday to Thursday: 0730-1230 and 1330-1630
Friday: 0730-1130

Consular Section
Monday to Thursday: 0800-1200
Friday: 0800-1100

 

Website: http://ukinguatemala.fco.gov.uk

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