Traveling through Central America – Is It Safe?

Q&A with a Reader

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Good day,

I just discovered your website yesterday, and I certainly envy your decision to retire so early!

My husband and I will be retiring next year, and we have a bucket list of travel to do. I have always been attracted to travel in Guatemala, and we have seen Tikal and the amazing ruins there. But I always thought that travelling in that country solo was dangerous, mainly because of the drug cartels, not the people. My main concern is being kidnapped or robbed on local buses. I am being crazy in thinking this? Do you feel pretty safe travelling on your own?

We also want to travel further in Central America as well.

And I asked to subscribe to your newsletter as well.

Cheers,

Sylvia

Hi Sylvia,

Thank you for taking the time to write.

Billy and I have been traveling the globe now for almost 3 decades.

There are certain things to keep in mind to maintain one’s safety as best we are able. While nothing is guaranteed, doing the following should help you gain confidence to travel and not be afraid.

Maya children playing in the Plaza fountain, Antigua, Guatemala

Do not flash cash or digital toys, and do not wear expensive jewelry. Doing any of this will make you a target for thieves. We try to blend in as much as possible and not make any waves of any kind. We generally pay for food and hotels in local currency, and we don’t bring out a wad of cash and peel off the bills when doing so.

These days just about everyone has a cell phone, but we still carry our computers and cameras in a day pack. We also lock up everything of value, including our passports, extra cash and digital items with a pacsafe. We do this whenever we leave our hotel room. Also, we don’t wear any expensive jewelry as that would have us stand out from the regular people. There is a large financial discrepancy between the locals in Mexico, Guatemala and Central America and most tourists – and it’s hard for them to imagine owning gold or a diamond ring. Better to keep temptation away.

Do not join in on any demonstration of any kind. Stay out of local political events and leave your own politics at home. Do not make yourselves loud by arguing, shouting, or disagreeing with people in public places.Try to be a diplomat or an ambassador of good will.

Docked boat in Flores, Guatemala

Do not wander around inebriated at 2 or 3 in the morning, and don’t go home with your new best friends you met at the bar. Be aware of your surroundings and your possessions (travel bag, day pack, glasses, passport, etc.)  and if you need to get your bearings duck into a store or restaurant to look at your map. Have a sense of assurance when you walk so you are not pegged to be a hapless mark to those with odious leanings.

Avoid night travel when possible. Overnight buses can appear attractive – you just sleep all night and arrive the next day at your destination. But if something goes wrong (a flat tire, a blockade in the street) you are more vulnerable to trouble.

Do not tell vendors too much about yourself. When street or beach vendors ask politely ‘Where are you from? Where are you staying? Where did you have dinner?” realize that they want to know this information for a reason. Vendors have years of experience sizing up tourists in order to estimate what price they might be able to extract from you for their goods – they are not ‘just being friendly’. When you divulge too much information about yourself, your whereabouts and what kind of money you may be carrying, you are clearly asking for trouble.

Santa Catarina Arch, Antigua, Guatemala

Put Caution into perspective and know the difference between caution and fear. Years ago I read a book by Gavin de Becker called The Gift of Fear. I would recommend this book to you as well.

Mr. De Becker takes the position that violence isn’t just ‘random’ and that clues and access to information which can prevent us from becoming a victim is available to us beforehand. He explains that caution is different than fear, with fear actually being a gift that can save our lives. Gut instinct is much different than an over-active imagination.

The information in this book is good, solid advice to use anywhere, including your own home town.

A very high percentage of victims of violence will admit that they knew ‘something wasn’t right’ or that they felt strangely before violence struck. They shushed themselves up and went ahead into the dangerous situation anyway. In other words, we as human animals ‘know’ but often don’t take our warning signs seriously.

Akaisha and her Maya friend, Panajachel, Guatemala

Learn some survival phrases. World Nomads has free language apps available. Take a look! When you are traveling through foreign countries, knowing some basic phrases puts you more in control. And anyone with nefarious intentions will think twice when they understand that you speak some of their language.

All this being said, we have not experienced any trouble traveling throughout Mexico, Guatemala or parts of Central and South America. We would certainly encourage you to pursue your desire to travel, as it is such a life enhancer and broadens your perspective.

I hope you find this information to be useful. Feel free to write any time.

Best Regards,

Akaisha

About Retire Early Lifestyle

Billy and Akaisha Kaderli retired two decades ago at the age of 38 and began traveling the world. As recognized retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance and world travel, they have been interviewed about retirement issues by The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, The Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement newsletter, nationally syndicated radio talk shows and countless newspapers and TV shows nationally and worldwide. They wrote the popular books The Adventurer's Guide to Early Retirement and Your Retirement Dream IS Possible.
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