Guatemala City, Guatemala Report of what it's like to live there - 01/03/14

Personal Experiences from Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guatemala City, Guatemala 01/03/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

This was my second expat experience, the first one having been in Vienna, Austria.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

My home base is in South America, and the most convenient flight is with Copa Airlines. It takes between 10-20 hours, depending on the length of the layover in Panama City.

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3. How long have you lived here?

I was posted to our Embassy in Guatemala for a short (1-year) tour of duty, completed in early 2013.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

I was a Foreign Service Officer at the Embassy of a South American country in Guatemala, my second expat experience.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Renting options are plentiful and generally very high-quality and comfortable. Living close to the workplace is advised as traffic can be tough during rush hours.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Supermarkets are comfortable, well stocked and offer prices comparable to those one can find in the U.S. PriceSmart (a local version of Wal-Mart), a membership-based wholesale store, is the best option for those who can buy stuff in bulk.

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3. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Food is good, cheap and plentiful. All American fast food chains are present (McDonald's, Burger King, IHOP, Wendy's, Dominos, and the like - a Planet Hollywood franchise has just opened), and there is a very good Guatemalan chain of chicken-based fast food (Pollo Campero). Guatemalan traditional food is also very good. Dining options are plentiful throughout Zones 10, 14 and 15, but the best restaurants I've seen in the country are in Antigua - Santo Domingo, Panza Verde, el Convento, Sobremesa, Le Cinq Bistro are all excellent.

Coffee is amazing. A local chain of cafes (Barista) has copied and improved the Starbucks model, and their coffee is simply wonderful.

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4. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Bugs were not a problem in Guatemala city perhaps because of the altitude. Some cities and areas on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts might have some problems but nothing to be concerned about.

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Daily Life:

1. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Domestic help is easily available, even if the quality of the service may be hit-or-miss. We had to let a couple of maids go, but eventually found a very good one. Maids and nannies usually make minimum wage, which has just been raised to US$303 in 2013.

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2. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes. Most upscale apartment buildings have well equipped gyms themselves, and for the workout aficionados there are some good options like Futeca Sport Gym and World Gym. Costs are moderate.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Credit and debit cards are accepted nearly everywhere. Beware of card fraud, however.

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4. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

A good command of Spanish is pretty much necessary for work and daily activities.

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5. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Probably yes. Sidewalks are bumpy and uneven. Even though most public places, such as restaurants, shopping malls and the like are accessible, quite a few are not - including the Foreign Ministry, which is mostly impassable for wheelchair users.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

There is no rail network. Local buses are crowded, unsafe and prone to all sorts of violent crime. Intercity buses are the same, with the added risk of reckless drivers trying to out-maneuver their competitors in order to reach the next bus stop first and collect more passengers. Even though many tourists regularly use them (particularly backpackers), truth is that they are best avoided. The main roads are generally very good, but avoid secondary roads (Rutas Nacionales) unless you know from a trustworthy source that they are in good condition.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Japanese cars are particularly desirable in the Guatemalan used car market. However I was told that Mazda vehicles are particularly sought by car thieves so insurance for them has a higher cost.

High-clearance and 4WD vehicles are not necessary but might come in handy for some trips to the countryside.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes. Claro offers a voice-data-cable TV package for about US$60 a month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Cell phone operators are pretty good in Guatemala. 3G Coverage is impressive (I managed to upload pics from the top of the Acatenango volcano).

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No need for quarantine, just proper paperwork from your home Government's animal health agency. Many good vets and pet stores around town.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Many. Numerous foreign NGOs and charities have a strong presence in Guatemala.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Yes. Crime is rampant in most areas of Guatemala City, and even the most affluent Zones are not completely exempt (such as Zones 10 and 14, where most embassies are located and where diplomats and other expats tend to live). Though most violent crimes are drug-related, robberies at gun-point can (and do) happen anywhere to anyone, cell-phones being a particularly desired booty. That said, one can dodge the risks by avoiding walking in the streets and places without private security.

Driving across the country is generally safe although driving at night is to be avoided at all costs - not only due to the risk of theft (and worse), but also because a staggering amount of cars and buses circulate without tail lights (and that does not mean that they are any more cautious because of it).

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Medical care is very good at private hospitals/clinics. Doctors are often educated in the U.S., so speak fluent English.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

In the capital's streets, air quality is terribly unhealthy because of the fumes released by old, poorly-maintained cars and rickety buses, made worse by the fact that gas and diesel that are sold in Guatemala contain toxic additives long prohibited elsewhere.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

As hinted before, Guateamala deserves the epithet of "Land of the Eternal Spring". In the capital, it is never too cold nor too warm, the temperatures ranging from 15 to 25 degrees Celsius most of the year. It gets quite hot in the Peten department, however, where the climate is decidedly tropical.
The country is, however, prone to periodic floods, hurricanes and earthquakes.

My tour of duty coincided with the second strongest earthquake in the country's history, but after the 1976 catastrophe, which killed more than 20,000 people, the country adopted stricter building codes, and so the damage this time has been much less serious. Most new buildings are earthquake proof.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Quite large for the size of the country. Apart from resident embassies (around 30), there are many UN and Aid Agencies offices, and large foreign companies also operate in the country.

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2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Good for everyone, in principle, though singles may find the nightlife in the capital a bit boring. Antigua, however, is a good option in this regard, and is so close to Guate City (60km) that one can literally go every weekend.

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3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Guatemala is a comparatively conservative and traditional society but I never heard any strong complaints from gay/lesbian expat friends.

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4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

There are serious racial and gender issues within Guatemalan society as a whole but prejudices against foreigners are not common at all.

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5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Visiting Tikal, the world-famous archaelogical site in the Northeastern Department of Peten; relaxing at Hotel Atitlan, on the margins of the majestic lake Atitlan, with a breath-taking view of the three volcanos that surround it; and climbing the Acatenango Volcano and seeing the constant eruptions of its active neighbor, the Fuego Volcano.

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6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Climbing the Acatenango volcano. Most people tend to go to the Pacaya (which is beautiful and should not be missed) but the Acatenango offers the best views. One can book a hike with a guide from Antigua for US$60-120.

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7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Despite being a small country, Guatemala packs an amazing array of beautiful places and tourist atractions, and has a fascinating cultural heritage. The people are welcoming and warm. The weather is very mild and constant throughout the year - the epithet "land of eternal spring" is not just a PR stunt. Prices are quite low comparing to my home country, so the cost of living is not a major concern.

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8. Can you save money?

The answer is an unqualified yes. The cost of living is quite affordable at least for the expat community.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Definitely. I miss Guatemala and hope to visit it soon. Another posting there further up in my career would also be welcome.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter clothes.

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3. But don't forget your:

Hiking gear. Many volcanos, active and inactive, offer terrific opportunities for hiking.

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