Guatemala City, Guatemala Report of what it's like to live there - 01/09/20

Personal Experiences from Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guatemala City, Guatemala 01/09/20

Background:

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

Our previous overseas posts include Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bogota, Colombia. Husband has also served in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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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?

You can fly direct to Houston, Miami, and Atlanta within 3-4 hours, often very cheaply. DC requires a layover in one of the afore-mentioned cities. It usually took us one full day of travel either way, once you factor in layovers. The Fly America Act means that we're limited to some of the worst schedule options, but there are very easy flights if you are paying out of pocket. We specifically chose this post to be close to family in the US in case of emergency, and that worked out well.

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3. How long have you lived here?

18 months into our tour, 18 months left.

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

US 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?

Our first apartment seemed small and isolated, and we weren't terribly happy there. We lucked out and ended up transferred after four months to a different neighborhood, where many of the Embassy personnel currently live. Our house is large and beautiful, with huge ceilings and tons of natural light. We have a tiny garden (but most have decent-sized yards where you could entertain) and a three-car garage.

Most homes are in little clusters with an interior courtyard area connecting the garages where the kids run wild. There are three different playgrounds in our neighborhood and a beautiful pool and gym. We absolutely love the neighborhood, especially with our young children. I (the EFM) can walk to the grocery store or restaurants or a good preschool. While we do get a little stir-crazy at times (it's a bit of a fishbowl), the benefits of the community and the incredible outdoor options make it worth it. Watching your kids play at the park with three volcanoes in the backdrop is something I'll never forget. I will say that the homes, while new, have some quality issues and we've had some problems getting repairs done in a timely fashion. Several of us have had issues with major water leaks. Still, in the grand scheme of things, we love our housing.

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

The convenient grocery stores are more expensive, but we can get most everything we like, though some American products are more expensive. We use Amazon for the few items we can't find or that cost too much locally (a specific kind of cereal, Lara bars, chocolate sprinkles, baby food, a preferred kind of cleaner, etc.). We are big bakers and adventurous cooks, and we can find 90% of the obscure ingredients we might need.

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

A few of the more obscure baking products: whole wheat flour, specialty tofu, some Asian chili blends. Nothing major.

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

There are many food delivery options, but we haven't found any that are amazing. There are a few good high-end restaurants downtown, but this is not a foodie destination in the way that Bogota was. Still, no complaints; we can get plenty of different cuisines and there are a ton of American chains when you need to scratch that itch.

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

There are mosquitos and no-see-ums, but nothing major. No malaria in the city, but we've had a few friends come down with Dengue here. Thankfully, the spider situation is minor -- always one of my top criteria when evaluating a post, ha!

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Daily Life:

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

We use the DPO/pouch. It takes a bit longer (anywhere from a week to six weeks), but it's adequate.

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

We pay US $500/month for FT nanny and $250/month for a twice-a-week housekeeper. Almost everyone we know has at least a housekeeper.

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

There are many luxury gym options around town, from Orange Theory-type places to huge gym complexes. They cost around $80/month or more.

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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?

Credit cards are easy to use in the city, as long as you're at a major store. You'll need cash outside the city.

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

English is not widely spoken and a minimal level of Spanish is necessary to interact at the grocery store or with household help.

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

Cayala is the only neighborhood that would work for someone with disabilities, but it still has cobblestones. Outside of that area, it would be very difficult to get around.

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Transportation:

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

Armed robberies are common on public transport and we are not permitted to use them. Ubers are safe, but they're not as nice as I remember in other places; they tend to be kind of run-down, stinky, and don't always have seat belts.

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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?

A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, particularly outside the city; we've watched friends bottom out on steep driveways and potholed-roads to the point where they've had to find alternate roads. During the rainy season, the roads can flood in a very serious way. Kids have gotten stuck for hours on school buses due to road closures. The biggest hassle is that there is often only one road in or out of a particular neighborhood, and if that road gets blocked, you can get stuck for hours. Everyone gets their windows tinted when they arrive for safety. We never bothered, and we've been fine.

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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, though it can be a bit tricky to get installed. Once you have it, it's fairly reliable and high-speed though.

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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?

We found it easy to get our cat here as in-cabin luggage, but we've heard horror stories about pets coming as cargo or baggage. There's a great vet in Cayala that helped us in an emergency.

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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?

Most everyone I know who wants to work has found a job at the Embassy (typical EFM type of jobs). A few telework and a few others teach.

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Health & Safety:

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

Crimes of opportunity are a serious issue, and you need to be smart when you're around town; don't flash cash or jewelry. We've never had a problem personally, although we did have one scary instance in our apartment where someone shot gunshots into the parking area, where I was just getting home with my three-year-old at 1 pm in the afternoon. We were happy to leave that building and it's no longer in the housing pool.

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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?

There is adequate care here in the city for most routine issues, and we saw several specialists that we were happy with. Some women are having their routine births here; we chose to MedEvac though based on lack of good NICU care options in the case of an emergency. The biggest concern for me was the lack of care outside of the city. There are amazing places to visit around Guatemala, but if you get hurt or seriously ill, you're best chance is to drive like heck back to the capital. This can be scary when you're out at Atitlan with small kids who want to do All The Dangerous Things.

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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?

There is city pollution, particularly construction dust, but it's not terrible. I have a daughter with asthma, and she did well here. Being out in Cayala helps, as there is a lot more green space out here.

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4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

I'm in my mid-tour funk, where the novelty has worn off and my frustrations are at a peak. My biggest frustrations come from the bureaucracy and what seems to me to be a lack of sense when it comes to stuff like banking, traffic, and taking care of administrative business. Bills have to be paid in person, requiring multiple trips to different banks. And I have a blood feud with the guards, who insist that I walk through THIS gate, not THAT gate, even when they're adjacent to each other and both are open (this is just an example). The silly rules and lack of flexibility drive me nuts. That said, it could be worse and overall, we like it here.

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

The weather is the best part about this post. The dry season lasts about 7 months, and it is in the high 80s around noon and drops to the 50s or 60s at night. It is dry and lovely most of the time. I hate hot weather, and I loved it here. We found ourselves outside nearly every day. The rainy season is, well, rainy, but it rarely lasts all day. We go swimming in January. This is an incredible place for kids -- my kids play outside at least four hours every day, year-round.

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Schools & Children:

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

There are several school options, and most seem happy with the two major schools: CAG and Colegio Maya. CAG is very close to Cayala, but it is the elite school in all of Central America, and that comes with its own problems. Maya is only English-speaking, and quite a hike out of town, but the campus is beautiful.

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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?

We still have preschool-aged kids, and I wasn't terribly impressed with the local options and we ended up homeschooling for pre-k. Most preschool classrooms are small, with large class sizes, and mediocre facilities. One thing I noticed at the preschool level at least was a heavy emphasis on obedience and rule-following, even for 3/4/5-year-olds. Kids need to sit, be quiet, do their worksheets, and raise their hands; this was hard for my kiddo. You'll definitely want to find a school near your housing, as traffic is terrible in my opinion.

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

There are many options through the schools, and most kids do extracurriculars at school. There are options for dance, gymnastics, horseback riding, swim, and karate outside of school. Just be aware that traffic in the afternoons is not good, and I wouldn't want to be driving around rush hour. We ended up skipping the gymnastics option here because the 15 minute drive took 90 minutes during rush hour.

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Expat Life:

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

I think morale is pretty high, based on the great housing, good weather, the wonderful travel options nearby, and the ease of hiring household help. It's a nice community here, and everyone really supports one another. I think morale will only increase when the new Embassy building moves nearby.

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

This is a great family post, and we've been really happy here with our small children. It's rare to find a place where your kids can play safely outside all year round with lots of green space and relative freedom. I would call Guatemala, and Cayala specifically, a hidden gem in that regard.

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

I love how easy it is to travel out of the city. With a good car, you can see amazing sites within 4-6 hours around the capital. Roads are rough and even the "touristy" places are quite rustic, but there's a lot to see and do in Central America.

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

My favorite site is the Mayan ruins of Iximche, about 2 hours away. They're small, peaceful, at almost 8000 feet elevation, and just magical.

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

There are lovely weavings and textiles, as well as local art and handcrafts. In general, these items are cheap and well-made.

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

The low cost of living, affordable household help, beautiful weather, great housing, and easy travel opportunities.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

This is a small city and in general, pretty infuriating to navigate. It's not cosmopolitan at ALL. I always underestimate how much I will hate the traffic, but seriously, I HATE the traffic here. It's the worst of anywhere we've lived. Because of that issue, we tend not to leave our neighborhood much, which can get a bit isolating, particularly as a SAHM.

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

Yes, it has been a wonderful family post, but three years will be enough.

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

Fancy jewelry, high-heels, dreams of attending cultural events like ballet/opera/jazz festivals.

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4. But don't forget your:

Patience and sense of humor.

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5. Do you have any other comments?

This is a great place if you have young kids and are open to more rustic travel options. If Guate sounds good to you, you might also check out El Salvador, as it has a similar vibe.

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