Guatemala City, Guatemala Report of what it's like to live there - 03/14/19
Personal Experiences from Guatemala City, Guatemala
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
This is our second Central American tour; we've also lived in San José (CR), as well as various cities in Europe, and the Middle East.
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?
It's a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Guatemala City to Atlanta on Delta, with frequent connections to all East Coast cities from there. The flights are on the expensive side, but are easily found, with morning and afternoon flights available.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Work at the US Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We LOVE our housing. We have a three-bedroom house (which was an initial surprise, since smaller families than ours here have been given larger homes with more bedrooms). The house itself is gorgeous, and the neighborhood is fantastic. The homes in our neighborhood are all in the colonial style: terra-cotta roofs, whitewashed walls, huge wooden doors. The new Embassy is currently under construction not too far away and new families seem to be increasingly placed in this neighborhood to prepare for the big Embassy move in the years to come.
The gated community in which we live has green spaces for kids to play, several playgrounds, a fire pit, an outdoor pool that's open year-round, a gym, and a large community space for rent for birthday parties/weddings/etc. There's a large, high-end open-air shopping plaza that abuts our neighborhood, with a large grocery store, excellent restaurants, bars, hairdressers, a karate dojo, and more. It's safe to walk on during the day and at night, and is a popular destination for Guatemalans looking for a pretty, safe place to take a weekend outing with their family. The commute to the Embassy is miserable as traffic is awful here. Since there's practically no parking available at the Embassy, the majority of people have to take an Embassy shuttle. It's not fun for the employee, but it has meant that our family can easily get by with one car here.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Nearly every grocery product imaginable is available here. Groceries are more a bit expensive than I would have expected, but not problematically so. A number of different large grocery store chains exist, as does a warehouse club store equivalent to BJs/Sam's Club/Costco in the US. We get a huge community share agriculture (CSA) box of vegetables delivered to our home every other week for about $20. Fresh seafood delivery is available as well.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More sunscreen! Particularly waterproof sunscreen for kids at the pool, and facial sunscreen for adults. The selection here is lacking and expensive, and sun damage comes on strong and fast, particularly because of the altitude. The longer we're here, the more I resemble an expensive leather handbag.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
American fast-food chains are abundant in the city: McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway, Krispy Kreme, etc. Nearly all offer home delivery. Uber Eats (and several competitors) have also recently started up and are doing well. We have great Indian and Korean restaurants, a taco place, and good Guatemalan restaurants, too. There are options available to suit nearly anyone.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We've had far fewer insects than I would've expected. An initial infestation of tiny sugar ants when we moved in was quickly resolved. Our biggest problem has been tiny moths, a minor annoyance at best. Mosquitos were a problem in our first rainy season here, but the Embassy installed window screens, which dramatically improved matters.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO is fast and reliable. There is no Guatemalan postal service.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We employ a part-time housekeeper/nanny three days a week, and pay her the going Embassy rate of around US$20/day (8 hours). Many, if not most, members of the Embassy community employ either part-time or full-time housekeepers and/or nannies. Houses have a small living quarters intended for live-in employees.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Many residential communities and apartment buildings have their own gyms (with no membership fee required for residents). The city has many other gyms that you can join, as well, ranging from CrossFit gyms to Orange Theory to HIIT classes. A large gym in our part of the city also has a heated indoor pool with swim classes offered for adults and children.
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?
We use credit cards nearly everywhere and have had no problems with them. The open-air artisan markets are cash-only, but every store I can think of accepts our US credit card. ATMs are commonly found. The ATM fees are exorbitantly high ($5-$7 per withdrawal), but the Embassy cashier can also cash checks or make withdrawals from your checking account with your ATM card, fee-free.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English is relatively widely-spoken by the Guatemalan elite/upper class, but not the rest of the country. Basic Spanish is a must in daily life. Luckily, Spanish tutors for adults and children are widely available and incredibly convenient; most will come to your home, work around your schedule, and design a curriculum that meets your needs. Embassy-recommended tutors run about $20/hr. Far cheaper options are available, but you may get what you pay for.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I think so, yes. Cobblestone streets are common, and sidewalks are frequently narrow, slanting, and in poor repair.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Embassy families are prohibited from using local buses or taxis for safety concerns. Gang attacks on buses and taxis are a relatively common occurrence. Uber, however, is allowed, and has been fantastic for us here.
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?
We've been happy with our large SUV. Outside of the city, the roads can get dicey, and having a larger car with higher ground clearance that's more capable of handling challenging road conditions has been good for us. Parking our large vehicle in small underground parking garages has been hard, but not impossible. Regardless of what kind of car you bring, you'll want to immediately get the windows tinted. Installation of the tint can be done at your home, on your schedule, but is a safety must.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
"High speed" is debatable, but the internet access here through either Claro or Tigo (the two largest internet companies) is fast enough to watch Netflix. It took us weeks to get it installed, weeks for repairs every time there was a problem, and our speeds are never even approaching the speed we've paid for, but it gets the job done. The walls of all of the residences in our community are concrete, so Wifi signals have a very difficult time reaching the whole house. Even with a Wifi extender, we still have dead spots. Choose the location of your desktop computer wisely.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Most Embassy people here buy a cell phone plan through either Claro or Tigo. Service and quality seem to be about the same. We bought pay-as-you-go SIM cards upon arrival, and just kept them the whole time instead of signing up for a plan. We pay around $13/month for calls to Guatemala and the US (can't remember how many... we never seem to run out of either...) and 2gb of data.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
The wide variety of styles in public places is fascinating: everything from very traditional Mayan clothing (hand-woven long skirts and blouses) to skinny jeans/crop tops/stiletto heels is seen on the streets here in the capital. Outside of the city, in the more conservative indigenous areas, I feel more comfortable when I'm more covered up, but I've seen plenty of backpackers around Lake Atitlán wearing booty-shorts.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Crime is a major issue in Guatemala. Carjackings and muggings happen; they seem to be more frequent in poorer neighborhoods, but no area seems to be completely immune. Just in the past two years, I've heard of two different taxis being shot up at the taxi/bus stand near our home, not far from where school buses drop off kids from the international schools. Neighborhoods in the city go from reasonably safe to gang-controlled-territory within the span of a block or two, and even after two years here, I'm always uncertain as to where I should or should not be driving. It's a challenge. That said, I feel VERY safe in our home and neighborhood, and have never worried about home invasions. You can spend your time here closed up in a bubble of security, but you'd miss out on so much of what this country has to offer. There are ways to mitigate (although not completely eliminate) your personal risk as you travel out and about. It's worth finding the balance that works best for you.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Food poisoning abounds. I've had more digestive upset here than anywhere else in my life. That said, the quality of available medical care is very high, and very inexpensive. The specialists we've seen here have spoken perfect English, received most of their training in the U.S., give out their personal cell numbers to patients in case we need to follow up with them after hours, and they charge so little we sometimes don't even bother submitting receipts for insurance reimbursement. I've been far happier with our medical care here than in Washington, DC, and at a fraction of the price. Same goes with dental care.
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?
Air quality is poor (although certainly not as disastrously poor as many other places around the world). In the dry season, the air is filled with dust; in the rainy season, there's lots of mold and mildew. Pick your poison. Bad, chest-rattling, viral coughs are par for the course.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Managing food allergies here is a challenge. Without strict labeling laws governing food packaging, it can be anyone's guess as to whether or not your particular allergen is an ingredient.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The weather here is as close to perfect as I can imagine. It changes enough that there are discernible seasons; there are times of year when it's warmer or colder, but never TOO hot or TOO cold. The rainy season and dry season are predictable, and the rains are very tolerable. Even at the height of rainy season, there are usually sunny, bright mornings to be had.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are several international schools available and most Embassy families choose either Colegio Americano de Guatemala (CAG) or Colegio Maya, although there are also kids at Equity. Each school has a different feel to it. I don't think there's a bad choice to be made: the academics, class sizes, and teaching staff at all three are excellent, and the kids seem to be happy and thriving.
2. 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?
In this neighborhood, Tykes and Pequenitos are the most popular preschool/daycare options. Both are walkably close, both have excellent staff and facilities.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Absolutely! Art classes, dance classes (ballet/jazz/modern/hip-hop), karate classes, any instrument you can think of, Little League baseball... it's ALL available here.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
I suspect most expats in Guatemala tend to live in Antigua or on Lake Atitlán instead of the capital, but there are a fair number here in the city, as well. They seem to run the gamut from happy hippie backpacker kids to adventurous retirees.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's been a great tour for my family! There are lots of things for kids to see and do and lots of activities to join. I'd have been thrilled to be here as a singleton or a part of a couple, too. There's so much for everyone to see and do.
3. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
We've found Guatemalans to be very warm, welcoming, and easy to get to know. The linguistic barrier is a real challenge if your Spanish isn't up to par, but people here are patient with broken Spanish, and eager to help. It's the first post we've had where I felt like I really made local friends, and it's been a highlight of our time here.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
There are too many to count! Climbing ancient Mayan temples in Tikal and Yaxha, speeding across Lake Atitlán in a tiny lancha, bartering for one-of-a-kind handicrafts in the market at Chichicastenango, wandering the colonial cobblestone streets of Antigua.
5. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
YES. Oh, yes. For handicraft lovers, this is one of the best posts imaginable. The handwoven fabrics, the embroidery, the wool rugs, the pottery, the jade... it's high-quality, one-of-a-kind, and ridiculously affordable.
6. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
As the largest city in Central America, it's got something for everyone. Whatever you're into, you're likely to find it here, and it'll probably be inexpensive. It's nice to so close to the US, and sharing the same time zone (or close to it, anyways) makes communication with family and friends there easy.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I'd taken the time to study more about the history of Guatemala. Current events would have been much easier for me to understand if I'd known the events of the past. Whether you agree with them or not, get up to speed on the U.S.'s current immigration policies... they WILL come up in conversation. I also wish I'd taken the State Department's security class (FACT) before coming; I think it would have helped me to feel more comfortable faster, particularly the driving.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
ABSOLUTELY! I think Guatemala is the hidden gem of the Foreign Service.
3. But don't forget your:
Situational awareness, bartering skills, sense of adventure, and Immodium.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Guatemala Reader, Born in Blood and Fire, Bananas