Why not? (Guatemala City, Guatemala)

Published: June 28th 2010
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(Day 811 on the road) Should we visit Guatemala City or not, that was the question we were faced with in Ilapa. We were back in Guatemala after our short visit to the ruins of Copan in Honduras and had just climbed a small volcano here, and were now deciding where to go next. On the one hand, Guatemala City was roughly on our route west anyway. On the other hand, the city is notorious for its high crime rate, and most travellers simply avoid it if they can. In the end, we made the decision based on the good old traveller motto - which has become my absolute favourite for reaching any kind of decision on the road: "Why not?"

And of course it was a good choice to say it up front. If I have learned anything on this trip so far, it is this: Doing things is almost always better than not doing things.

Whilst Guatemala City wasn't the prettiest or most interesting city in Central America, it was certainly it's biggest, with a population of 2,3 million. But we managed to find a lovely hotel with a very personal touch and a great inner courtyard, right in Zona 1, the heart of the city, and settled right in.

Entering the city we were at first a little weary considering all the bad press Guatemala city constantly gets (we were even debating if taking a local bus was safe), but we soon felt at ease, realising that it was just another city. Maybe posing more threat than you average big city, yes, but all the same not being overly crazy if we just kept our wits about us.

We spent a few days here, including a lovely day at the zoo and some less lovely but necessary time in the city's glitzy shopping malls to replace Tino's broken camera. Incidently, he ended up with almost the same camera as me - a Canon Ixus 120 since a few people now have asked me which camera I use.

And of course we did what is always best in a city, namely simply walking around more or less without aim to get a feel for the place. Whilst it didn't blow us away, it was certainly pleasant enough (the central plaza was great, see the panorama shot at the top of this entry!). It was also interesting to observe Guatemaltecan people with money, a sight that we never saw up 'till now in the countryside. And how strange to be in a city that is named after the country (or is it the other way 'round?). Imagine the capital of France being France City? Strange. And a little confusing at first, as bus drivers to the capital will just call out "Guatemala, Guatemala", with me thinking "hang on a second, aren't we in Guatemala already?". Weird.

A few thoughts on the issue of (over-hyped) crime all over Central America: I am getting really upset about the whole topic by now: No matter what we read (guidebooks, government's travel warnings) or who we talk to (local people, other travellers), the story is always the same: Don't go there, don't do this, be extra careful here. The amount of time Tino and I are spending discussing if we should do this or go to that place are enormous. And I am starting to get sick and tired of it all.

Yes, Central America is more dangerous than elsewhere (though why exactly I haven't quite understood yet - other poor regions of the world don't have any of these problems; is it simply a mentality thing?). Yes, people get robbed and murdered here. Yes, there are more private security guards in the country than police (including one at almost every shop, not just banks or jewellers). And yes, in many shops here the employees serve you from behind bars for their own protection. But no, over the past month and a half since I arrived in Mexico, I haven't had a single dodgy experience anywhere, neither in big cities nor in the notorious border regions where the drug smuggelig is taking place.

What I do have however is a constantly worrying voice in the back of my head, resulting in me not being able to enjoy my travels the way I want to and the way I am used to. Whenever we are sitting down and deciding where to go, there is always the topic of how safe the place is. I find that Tino and I are spending a considerable but ultimately fruitless amount of time worrying about the whole safety issue, to the point where we leave things out altogether. Or we worry ourselves sick beforehand (Guatemala City being a perfect example), only to find out once we get there that the place is perfectly safe and all the worrying was for nothing - yet again. Just like last time, when we promised to be more relaxed and weren't for some reason. Until we sit down again to make our next plans: "Uh, but I have heard really bad things about San Salvador, that's where we have to be really careful - maybe we should just skip it?".

So, from now on, I have decided to ignore all the over-hyped, over-the-top warnings and simply travel the way I always have. With open eyes, an open mind, common sense, and an adventurous spirit. Not in constant fear.

Next stop: Antigua (Guatemala).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com. And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


28th June 2010
Armed security guard at almost every single shop, even this shoe shop

This reminds me of Dublin city centre. There are security guards at every shop, because the shop lifting problem is so bad. They are not armed though.
28th June 2010

Good for you
It must have been that much more rewarding to experience something that unfortunately scares away most people. It is fear of the unknown, isn't it, that keeps us from exploring (be it of bears in the woods, sharks in the sea or winding up as a warning story about a tourist knifed to death).
29th June 2010

Hi there! Good for you to go to the city as well. Stories are stories... I remember in my preparations for Asia what kind of stories I got to hear and how it frightened me to be there all by myself, don't trust the locals, don't walk alone as a girl, don't go outside after 9PM, don't do this with money, don't talk to locals after 9PM, stay away from streetcats/dogs, don't eat the food or touch the water, and so on. I thought I would be under a constant threat with those scary Asians. As soon as i got there I found out they are the most friendly people ever (accept the ones working in the tourism industry of course) and the same thing I experienced over again when I decided to go to the phillies and got to hear the same stories from other travellers, chinese/hongkonese people. I'm glad that I did :-) Keep following your own instincts! btw, about the name thing, two of our provinces' capitals have the same name as the province (utrecht, groningen) so it's not totally uncommon I guess.... u don't have that in Germany?
30th June 2010

You know Ben? You have a brave heart! Indonesian say it "nekat". Your story always wonderful. And in this part, your confusion of the bus driver who shoutted guatemala makes me smile until now. You're weird too, Ben :-)
30th June 2010

fear your constant travelling companion
Fear will be your constant travelling companion in Latin America no matter how you try to encourage yourself by asking "Why not ?" Where ever you go and what ever you want to do, you will always ask yourself: Is this safe ? And it doesn't help if you know local people, very often they are more scared than we are. I have family in Lima but they have not been to the City Center for years just because of this fear. Whenever we visit them, it takes only a few hours after we have arrived to their house that they start to tell us the last horror stories. Yes Latin America is a dangerous place. But ! I once was in Chile and asked local people if their City is dangerous. Without hesitation they started to tell me how all they where once robbed. But this did not happen in Chile but it was on a Night train from Italy to France. This train is very famous among tourist and the risk to get robbed is very high. So you also can find similar stories in Europe. The group of the people in Latin America who are scared and are afraid of becoming a victim of criminals grow much faster than the real crime rate. We have to accept our fear but the fear should not be our travel guide. Enjoy your travelling! walter
1st July 2010

tolle Bilder (schreibt aber jeder)
Hallo Ben, wunderschoene Bilder aus Antigua und sehr schoene Bilder der Indigenas (Indianer). Ich wuerde auch gerne wissen, was fuer eine Kamera und was für einen Computer Du nutzt. Deutschland hat gerade gegen England gewonnen, war ein schoenes Spiel. cheers walter
5th July 2010

Guatemala and recent conditions
Hey Ben, I just found your blog and think it's so awesome. My boyfriend and I are flying into panama city on July 24 for our own 40 backpacking trip. Reading your blog is getting me so excited. I was hoping you could answer a question for me... How are the roads in Guatemala since the tropical storm and volcano erupting? We have been planning this trip for a while now, but changes our plans once we heard about all the road destruction in Guatemala. We still want to try to make it there but were wondering if it is possible. We would be looking to go to lake atitlan and Antigua coming from Nicaragua. Have you been there yet, or have you heard anything about the roads? Any info or help you could give me would be much appreciated. Thanks for your time and have a safe trip. Tara
5th July 2010

Safety Stuff
You're so right. I would have missed some beautiful places (including Kashmir in India) if I had listening to warnings and fellow travellers. Of course you need to be sensible and use common sense, and, well accept the risks really. And hey - you stole my motto!!! ;)
22nd March 2014

Why not "Guatemala, Guatemala"?
I was reading your article and found it hilarious that you found it strange that the name of the capital city is the same as the country (Guatemala, Guatemala). I'm assuming you are American as I am, isn't there a New York, New York in our country as well? And did you know that at one point it used to be the capital? New Yorkers brag that the city was so great it had to be named twice, maybe Guatemalans felt the same way.
22nd March 2014

Why not "Guatemala, Guatemala"?
I apologize Ben, I had not read that you are actually from Germany and not American as I thought. Regardless, everyone in the world knows about New York, New York and no one finds it odd.

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