Guatemala City, Guatemala Report of what it's like to live there - 06/07/15

Personal Experiences from Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guatemala City, Guatemala 06/07/15

Background:

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

Yes, aside from a study abroad in Buenos Aires.

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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?

United has a direct 5-hour flight to DC one or two days a week, otherwise connect in Miami, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, San Salvador, ect. Can be in Miami in two hours.

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3. How long have you lived here?

A bit more than a year.

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

U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Housing is great, though this post is transitioning from LQA to housing pool and it's hard to say what it will be like in the future. Most people live in large, luxury apartments in buildings with pools and gyms, though many families live in gorgeous houses in gated neighborhoods. All buildings and neighborhoods have several layers of security, and at least the apartments are constructed to near-U.S. standards and solid enough to avoid worry during the regular, small earthquakes. The U.S. Embassy is located downtown and is a very short commute for most people - for me it's a 15-minute walk or a 5-minute drive - but they are constructing a new building further outside town.

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

Most things are available. Fruit and vegetables are typically cheaper than in the U.S., while most other things are slightly more expensive. There are some small, boutique stores when you can find unexpected luxuries (including a place in Antigua that carries a random assortment of Trader Joe's branded items) but at a regular grocery store it can be hard to find baking soda, certain spices, bread crumbs, bourbon, ginger, crisco, it just depends on the season and what order the store happens to have recently received. If you want to buy the exact same products you used at home it will definitely cost you more, but you can make up for it with the cheap pineapples, avocados, eight varieties of mangos, blackberries...

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Wine that isn't from South America and beer that isn't Gallo.

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

Pollo Campero is the Guatemalan favorite, but you'll also find McDonald's. Wendys will deliver right to your house! Comparable to U.S. prices. Dunkin Donuts is here, and Krisy Kreme is apparently coming soon. Applebees, TGIF, and Hooters round out some of the U.S. based chains. Most of these are limited to Guatemala City, and here you'll always do better to find an independent restaurant where you can pay Applebees prices for a very tasty, high quality meal.

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

Few in the city.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO or pouch. DPO takes an average of a week using Amazon Prime, pouch takes longer.

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

Available, and US$15-18/day for live out housekeepers.

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

Most people who live in apartments have access to gyms in their buildings. There are also public gyms - I think Futeca is the nicest - and a surprisingly active running culture that organizes group training runs, weekly races all over the country, etc. You can also take tennis classes from internationally competitive players for US$10-15/lesson.

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

Prevalent within Guatemala City. Outside the city, best to have cash.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There's an English-language Protestant church, and a Catholic church occasionally has English mass.

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

You could probably get by as a tourist without too much Spanish, but you will be very limited living here without it.

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

Yes. Sidewalks are bad, ramps are uncommon.

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Transportation:

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

Some are safe, all are affordable. There's a recommended taxi company that will charge US$5-10 for trips within the central city. There's a new transurbano line of city buses that are supposedly much safer than the red city buses - they don't take any cash and every stop lets out on a platform staffed by police - but they still aren't recommended and honestly don't serve routes that will be useful for most expats. Some of the inter-city bus lines are safe and affordable, you just need to check on the route and the company.

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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?

Toyotas and Hondas are the most common. If you're staying in Guatemala City something small and fuel-efficient is best, as many parking spots are tiny and traffic can make efficiency a big deal. Four-wheel drive and high clearance might be necessary if you plan to go to certain places (Semuc Champey, many of the volcano hikes) though usually there are plenty of pick ups willing to give you a ride in the back in those places. More than four wheel drive, I've found that having a powerful engine makes a big difference. Most of the roads are two-lane highways with very few straight sections and full of slow-moving sugarcane trucks from the 1970s. Being able to pass easily and nimbly can save a lot of time and stress.

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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, the internet is comparable to what I had in the U.S. The cable/phone/internet plan that I have is fast enough for skype and to stream music and video smoothly and costs about US$85/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?

Tigo and Claro both offer very extensive coverage at reasonable prices. I have a data-only prepaid plan from Tigo and pay US$13 for 1.5GB that lasts a month.

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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 quarantine. I adopted my cat here and have been very happy with the quality of pet care. I love my vet. Like medical care, getting appointments is easy, vets will make house calls, prices are lower, and professionals have more time to spend answering questions.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

I know some people who have had success working in the bilingual schools or for NGOs. I don't think that pay is anywhere near what you would get elsewhere.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Plenty. If you don't have any specialized skills there are opportunities at shelters, at a nonprofits that works with residents of a city dump, with religious organizations. Those with medical or agricultural expertise will find more specialized volunteer opportunities.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Somewhat more formal than the US.

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Health & Safety:

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

Yes, of course, and everybody develops their own comfort levels with security. Most violent crime is targeted and/or takes place in neighborhoods that a foreigner would never visit, but there are no truly safe areas and colleagues have been mugged or had their cars assaulted in broad daylight in the ritziest zones. A few very public (almost certainly targeted) murders have recently taken place on the streets in neighborhoods where many expats live and work. I personally walk alone during the day, walk around in groups at night, run outdoors with my headphones at certain times and in certain neighborhoods. I avoid driving outside of the city after dark and, aside from the well-timeD running routes, don't use electronics or pull out my wallet in public. I'm probably on the less cautious side of the spectrum but in general I don't feel that security concerns affect my day-to-day life, though I've accepted there are constant, unavoidable risks.

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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 of good or excellent quality in most cases, though anything particularly specialized or critical would likely be better treated in the U.S. Primary care and basic medical services are great, with doctors who have been trained in Mexico, Colombia, or the U.S. but who have much more time to spend with patients and charge much lower prices that we might be used to. It's also typically much easier to get an appointment than in other parts of the world. I had gum graft surgery here with excellent results and for a sixth of the price that I would have paid at home.

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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?

Moderate to unhealthy in the city. There are no enforced emissions standards; many vehicles lack catalytic converters, and traffic can be terrible during the week. During February-April the weather gets warmer and hazy and air quality declines, but the rainy season that follows, generally leads to better conditions, at least on weekends and outside of rush hour.

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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?

There's a rainy season from May-November, during which it rains most days and mostly in the afternoons. In the capital, the temperature doesn't vary much, March and April months might be five or seven degrees (F) warmer than the rest of the year. Guatemala has 20-something microclimates, mostly based on altitude. You can travel from Quetzaltenango, where the weather is typically cool to cold and it even snowed once (decades ago) to Rehaltuleu, where average highs are in the 90sF, in less than an hour.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

No personal experience, but at least the families I know with elementary-aged children and younger seem very happy with their choices.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Again no personal experience, but most people with young children hire full-time, live-in nannies. I'd guess that this runs about US$400/month though I'm sure it varies.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

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

Guatemala City is the most developed city in Central America, and accordingly home to a lot of expats who are here for work. Most retirees, backpackers, and students live in other parts of the country. Morale is high in general.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Lots of people travel together, take salsa classes, go out to eat, game nights.

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

Good for everyone. There's a strong community of singles here, but not a ton of nightlife due to security concerns. It's fairly easy to date in the local community, though as a woman dating Guatemalans I've found it can be tough to find something serious (though maybe this is the case everywhere?). Guatemalans love kids and even fancy restaurants often have play areas.

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

It's okay. Homosexuality isn't widely accepted but in general Guatemalan are either too oblivious or too polite to say anything, and though there are definitely instances of violence against gay and lesbian Guatemalans it's doubtful that an expat would experience any issues. I've never experienced anything but warmth and acceptance from those who I know personally, in and out of the embassy community. I don't know much about the scene, but I've heard that dating locals can be tough because many are not fully "out" and are looking for hookups or under-the-table relationships only. On the other hand, a friend met her now-wife here so clearly it can be done.

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

Racism is a huge concern. Overt racism against the large indigenous community is a fact of life, and there were lots of incidents in the past of landlords refusing to rent to African Americans (though now that we're moving to a housing pool that should no longer be an issue). Typically, you can pick out the person in charge in any situation by figuring out who is whitest, and there's a lot of history to back up these trends. Again, Guatemalans tend to be very polite, especially to foreigners, so I'm not clear how much this racism would affect an expat on a day-to-day level. Gender prejudices are pernicious for those from here but haven't affected me as an expat on a two-year assignment, and religion has never come up.

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

Climbing Tacana, the second highest peak in Central America. Holding a candle above my head as I climbed and swam through underground caves at Semuc Champey.

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

In the capital, you go out to eat, out to drink, to the movies, or you make your own fun. There are day trips to hot springs, Antigua, coffee plantations, Eco Lodge, Pacaya volcano. Salsa and cooking classes are also popular.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

There are beautiful handmade textiles. Guatemala is famously home to some very high quality jade and you can buy jewelry, figurines, masks, etc. out of jade.

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

The travel opportunities are fantastic! Mayan ruins, Lake Atitlan, dozens of volcano hikes, decent beaches (especially in El Salvador), eco lodges - all are accessible in a weekend. The weather is also a highlight; in the land of perpetual springtime it's always between 60 and 80F. Guatemala City isn't much of a travel destination but it offers good dining and access to most products from home. The Guatemalan people are very warm and welcoming and many fellow expats have commented that it's easier to get close to locals here than in many other parts of the world.

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10. Can you save money?

Absolutely. Anything produced domestically or involving mostly labor costs (vs capital costs) will be affordable. Travel can be done as cheaply as you like. If you are a member of the diplomatic community, it's currently fairly simple to get the 12% IVA (VAT) removed from most purchases, and flights originating in Guatemala are often a couple hundred dollars cheaper than the list price due to the various taxes that you don't need to pay.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Yes - Guatemala is a hidden gem.

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

Winter clothing.

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3. But don't forget your:

Flexibility and a sense of humor. Hiking shoes. Common sense.

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