Travel Consideration: Guatemala

Contributed By RealAdventures

Guatemala has a developing economy, characterized by wide income disparities. Hotels and other tourist facilities in areas frequented by visitors from the United States are generally good. A peace accord, signed in 1996, ended a 36-year armed conflict. Common crime, however, remains a serious concern due to a ready abundance of weapons and a legacy of societal violence.

A valid U.S. passport is required to enter and depart Guatemala. Many people, including some U.S.-based airline employees, mistakenly believe that this requirement is not enforced, but U.S. citizens returning to the United States from Guatemala are not allowed to board their flights without valid U.S. passports. Certificates of naturalization, birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and photocopies are not considered acceptable alternative travel documents. While in Guatemala, U.S. citizens should carry their passports, or photocopies of their passports, with them at all times. Minors (under 18) traveling with valid U.S. passports need no special permission from their parents to enter or leave Guatemala. U.S. citizens do not need a visa for a stay of 90 days or less (that period can be extended upon application). U.S. citizens whose passports are lost or stolen in Guatemala must obtain a new passport at the U.S. Embassy and present it, together with a police report of the loss or theft, to the Extranjeria (Foreign Affairs) Department of INGUAT (the Guatemalan Tourist Board), to obtain permission to depart Guatemala. INGUAT’s offices are open from 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and are located at 7th Avenue 1-17, Civic Center, Second Floor, Zone 4, Guatemala City; telephone (502) 361-8476 or 361-8479. An exit tax must be paid when departing Guatemala. For further information regarding entry and customs requirements, travelers should contact the Guatemalan Embassy at 2220 R Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008; telephone (202) 745-4952, extension 102; fax (202) 745-1908; e-mail at; Internet web site -; or the Guatemalan consulate in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, or San Francisco.

Guatemalan citizen frustration with crime has led to violent incidents of vigilantism, including lynchings, especially in more isolated rural areas. It is wise to avoid any public gathering of agitated citizens; persons attempting to intervene have themselves been attacked by mobs.

Visitors to rural areas with predominantly indigenous populations should be aware that close contact with children, including taking their photographs, can be viewed with deep alarm, and may provoke panic and violence.

A few large political demonstrations have occurred in recent years in Guatemala City. Demonstrations can cause serious traffic disruptions, but they are usually announced in advance. Visitors are encouraged to keep informed by following the local news and consulting hotel personnel and tour guides. While most demonstrations are peaceful, some have turned violent, and travelers should avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place.

More information about tourist security is available from the Tourist Protection Office of INGUAT at the address above; telephone (502) 331-1333, extensions 241 and 243; fax (502) 331-8893; e-mail at Tourist groups may request security assistance from INGUAT, attention: Mr. Jose Antonio Parada. The request should be submitted by mail, fax or e-mail and should arrive at INGUAT at least three business days in advance of the proposed travel, giving the itinerary, names of travelers, and model and color of vehicle in which they will be traveling.

Care should be taken along Guatemala’s Pacific Ocean beaches, where currents and undertow pose a serious threat to swimmers.

Although almost all of the 180,000 U.S. tourists who visit Guatemala annually do so without incident, the twin legacies of widespread poverty and violence combine to produce a level of crime that is a serious concern for tourists and residents alike. The safest means to visit Guatemala is through a reputable tour organization, though small tour buses are occasionally targets of crime. Tourists who explore off the beaten track and stay in budget hotels may be more susceptible to crime.

In recent years, the number of violent crimes reported by U.S. citizens has steadily increased. In 1997, 46 U.S. citizens reported to the U.S. Embassy that they were victims of violent crime. The number climbed to 52 in 1998 and 79 in 1999, reflecting a substantial increase in armed robberies. Recently, foreign tourists have been targeted by armed robbers while climbing Pacaya and Agua, two volcanoes near Guatemala City. Pickpockets and purse-snatchers are prevalent in major cities and tourist sites, especially the Central Market and other parts of Zone 1 in Guatemala City. These thieves also prey on travelers using lower-priced inter-city buses (recycled U.S. school buses known as "chicken buses"). Travelers should pay attention to their surroundings and refrain from displaying jewelry, large amounts of money, or other valuable items. Those who offer no resistance when confronted by armed thieves are usually not hurt. U.S. citizens who suffer criminal assaults are encouraged to contact the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy (or the duty officer after hours) for advice and assistance.

Travel after dark is extremely dangerous and not recommended anywhere in Guatemala. Most of the highway robberies reported to the U.S. Embassy in the past several years have involved cars or small tourist vans traveling roads near major tourist destinations. U.S. visitors are advised to stay in groups, travel if possible in a caravan consisting of two or more vehicles, and stick to the main roads.

The safest route to Lake Atitlan is via the Pan-American Highway (CA-1) and Solola. Violent attacks have been reported recently on secondary roads near the lake. Visitors to the Mayan ruins at Tikal are advised to fly to nearby Flores and then travel by bus or tour van to the site, although a newly-inaugurated road may prove to be a safe alternative to flying. Overland travel in the rest of Peten Department can be dangerous and is not recommended. In early 2000, there were several attacks on travelers along CA-1 near the border with El Salvador.

The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Citizens applying for replacement passports will be asked to present proof of citizenship and identity. Photographic proof of identity is especially important for young children because of the high incidence of fraud involving children. Passport replacement can be facilitated if the traveler has a photocopy of the passport’s data page. U.S. citizens may refer to the Department of State’s pamphlet, A Safe Trip Abroad, for ways to promote a more trouble-free journey. This publication and others, such as Tips for Travelers to Central and South America, are available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402; via the Internet at; or via the Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at

A full range of medical care is available in Guatemala City, but medical care outside the city is limited. Guatemala’s public hospitals have experienced serious shortages of basic medicines and equipment. Care in private hospitals is generally adequate for most common illnesses and injuries.

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Guatemala is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

Safety of Public Transportation: Poor
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Good
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Good
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Fair

Public transportation both within and outside the capital is considered risky. Frequent accidents and petty criminals make common "chicken buses" particularly dangerous. Modern inter-city buses offer some security from highway violence. Dangerous mountain roads and poorly maintained vehicles also present a danger to motorists. Roadside assistance is generally available on main routes, which are patrolled by the police. Cellular telephone services cover most areas frequented by tourists.

Overland travelers leaving Guatemala should arrive at border posts (only the border posts on main routes are recommended) by early afternoon to ensure enough time to clear formalities and arrive in a major town before dark. Many border posts close for lunch and for the day at dusk.

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS: Guatemala is a geologically active country. Therefore, visitors should be aware of the possibility of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the need for contingency measures. Occasional eruptions, such as those in January-February 2000 of Pacaya Volcano near Guatemala City, have forced evacuations of nearby villages and briefly closed Guatemala City’s international airport. The Caribbean coast of Guatemala is vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms from June through November. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available via the Internet from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at

OTHER LEGAL ISSUES: Non-Guatemalan citizens who marry in Guatemala are required to provide proof of identity and civil status (indicating whether they are single or divorced). Prior notice of the marriage must be given in the Diario Oficial and any large circulation daily newspaper for fifteen days. The marriage must take place within six months of the publication of the notice.

Current information on Guatemalan adoption procedures and the immigrant visa application process is available from the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy. Prospective adoptive parents are urged to check with the Consular Section to be sure that their child’s adoption is complete before traveling to Guatemala to apply for their child’s immigrant visa. Adoptive parents are also urged to carry with them complete adoption paperwork when traveling with their adopted child to, from and within Guatemala. for more information on international adoption of children, international parental child abduction, and international child support enforcement issues, please refer to the Department of State’s Internet site at's_issues.html or telephone (202) 736-7000.

U.S. citizens living in or visiting Guatemala are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City and obtain updated information on travel and security in Guatemala (telephone (502) 331-1541, extension 4403). The Consular Section is open for citizen services, including registration, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon and 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. weekdays, excluding U.S. and Guatemalan holidays. The U.S. Embassy is located at Avenida la Reforma 7-01, Zone 10; telephone (502) 331-1541 during business hours (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), or (502) 331-8904 for emergencies during non-business hours; fax (502) 331-0564; Internet web site at

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of Guatemala’s Civil Aviation Authority as Category 2 - not in compliance with international aviation safety standards for the oversight of Guatemala’s air carrier operations. While consultations to correct the deficiencies are ongoing, any of Guatemala’s air carriers with existing routes to the U.S. will be permitted to conduct limited operations to the U.S. subject to heightened FAA surveillance. No additional flights or new service to the U.S. by Guatemala’s air carriers will be permitted unless they arrange to have the flights conducted by an air carrier from a country meeting international safety standards.

For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at telephone 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA’s Internet web site at The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. In addition, DOD does not permit its personnel to use air carriers from Category 2 countries for official business except for flights originating from or terminating in the U.S. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact DOD at telephone (618) 229-4801.

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