Guatemala City, Guatemala Report of what it's like to live there - 10/19/22
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?
I have lived in the US, UK, India, and Romania.
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?
I can speak to traveling to Washington, DC, and New York. From Guatemala, there are sometimes direct flights to Dulles, Newark, and JFK. In the time I've been in Guatemala, the schedules have changed, so direct flights are not always offered, or they might be offered only on certain days of the week. If flying on US carriers, you can easily transit through Miami (American), DFW (American), Houston (United), and Atlanta (Delta). Getting to any of those connection points is an easy 2.5- to 3.5-hour flight.
3. How long have you lived here?
1.5 years out of an expected 2 years.
4. What years did you live here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Many diplomatic families live in Zona 16, up near where the new US embassy is being built (expected to open early 2023). Zona 16 has several gated communities. One is directly in a cobble stone outdoor mall-like area. It is very pedestrian-friendly and has some parks. I live in a nearby gated community that has more grass, trees, and nature. My family of two people has a spacious three-bedroom apartment with five bathrooms. Huge sliding glass doors and large balconies are common, and make apartment living lovely. We do not have air conditioning or heating. That's expected in Guatemala City, and it's comfortable most of the year, though climate change may make it so people will need A/C in the future. In addition to having a huge apartment with ample closets, we also have three parking spaces and an additional storage space in the parking garage that's as big as a studio apartment in New York City.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
All kinds of groceries are widely available. Some imported items will disappear from shelves for weeks or months at a time. For me, those items have included lemons, fresh orange juice, and canned tomatoes. The main grocery store chain is La Torre. It is safe, clean, and huge just like an American supermarket. You can find smaller online purveyors that specialize in organic items or farms that sell directly through WhatsApp. I have been really happy with Cinco Azul, for example, and Caoba Farms (located outside Antigua) delivers orders to Guatemala City once per week.
People warned me that grocery store prices can be high. In my experience, it's not at all true, but I'm vegetarian. If you buy meat, you may want to find a butcher for good quality products, as grocery stores will sell subpar stuff. For fish, which my partner eats, frozen options are ample and are quite good. Vegan items are available but may disappear from shelves on occasion. A shop called El Mercadito 14 (attached to LAVKA vegan restaurant) sells some vegan burgers and sausages. For Asian items, particularly Korean, there are several locations of a fantastic store called Happy Mart and a bigger shop called Rodeo.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Cleaning products here tend to be heavily scented. I shipped in several bottles of Soft Scrub and wish I had brought more. Everything else is available locally, including imported olive oils, American brands of laundry detergents (including unscented options), paper towels, toilet paper. I would only recommend shipping in items that you are picky about.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
A lot of expats seem to be very happy with the range and quality of restaurants and take-out. Delivery is plentiful with UberEats and Pedidosya. For my tastes, I've found a handful of places that I like. When I extend my range beyond them, I'm usually disappointed. The best pizza is Quino's. Lavka and Moonrise Comida Vegana have really good and satisfying vegan food. Dodam is good for Korean dishes, and on request they may make something vegetarian. Other Asian cuisines (northern Indian, sushi, Szechuan) are available but underwhelming. Boutique coffee shops are everywhere and make amazing pour-overs, espresso drinks, and cold brew; sometimes they have good breakfast food or bakery items. I'm a fan of Family Bonds, Torch, and El Injerto in particular.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
No. The occasional spider trots across the wall but they are nothing to write home about. A termite got into one of my dressers once, but I caught it and handled it quickly and have not had any more problems. I've seen snakes here and there but again, all small and harmless.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
US embassy has both pouch and DPO. Since COVID, they have both been remarkably unreliable. Packages have been lost, routed to El Salvador for weeks at a time, or just show up months later than expected. I highly recommend keeping a list of expected incoming and outgoing mail with tracking numbers.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Plentiful and cheap. Guatemalan people tend to be very polite, hard working, dedicated, and loyal. Rates vary. I pay someone for full-time cleaning, cooking, and dog walking approximately $320 USD every two weeks. Please pay your employees well and give them raises!
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
They are available, and so are personal trainers who will come to your residence; I don't use them. Gated communities often have their own gyms and swimming pools for exercise as well, often included with residency. Some require additional membership fees, though. The gym in my community has huge sliding glass doors and excellent air circulation.
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 widely accepted. You can buy a cup of coffee using your phone. ATMs sometimes run out of money and it's advisable to use an ATM that you know.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You absolutely need basic Spanish to navigate Guatemala City. In Antigua, you can get by with English because it is a tourist city. Language classes and tutors are easily available at low rates.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Guatemala City is a very car-centric city if you are an expat or a rich person. Walking is not advisable in much of the city, and it's downright dangerous after dark. If you can get around in a car with your disability and you stick to places that rich people go, like shopping plazas and malls, it's not that different from being in any US city (which isn't exactly a shining star of accessibility). Sidewalks, ramps, curb cuts, elevators--they all depend on where you go, but there are a lot of places where they are in use.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Safety is a big issue for public transit. Uber is safe and affordable. There are two taxi companies, and people in the diplomatic mission are advised to use one but not the other. Walking is not generally safe except for a few select areas in daylight only.
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?
Wealthy people here all drive SUVs. An SUV or sedan is fine. Most people get their windows tinted much darker than what would be allowed in any US state. I have heard that people have been known to get robbed while sitting in traffic. Carjacking seems less common. It's more robberies for cash and small valuables. Electric vehicles aren't widely used here but there are some charging stations at a few plazas and parking garages. I would imagine for in-city commutes you could have an EV but not for trips outside Guatemala City as the infrastructures for charging isn't available yet.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
It's expensive. Tigo and Claro are the two companies. For the fastest internet speeds, you're looking at about $150 USD per month. For phones, the best, highest plans cost around $25 per month. Electricity and the internet do drop out from time to time but it's really not that bad, and it's rare for it to last more than an hour or two.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Using a local provider is best because you'll need a local number for somethings. For example, to buzz people through the gate where I live, the call routes through my mobile phone, and so I need a local number. Otherwise, for talking with people and communicating with businesses, everyone uses WhatsApp. It's almost impossible to avoid it.
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?
Standard pet import forms for US pets with no quarantine. Vets are great, inexpensive, and there are some that do house calls, which is amazing. Anti-heartworm medication can be purchased over the counter. I really have not seen too much of a problem with fleas or ticks here either, though my pets do not go off leash anywhere. Dog parks are almost unheard of, which is strange given the popularity of dogs. There are some parks where they are allowed off leash, but no fenced-in dog parks.
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?
EFMs often work at the embassy. Some have remote jobs or are independent workers.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Embassy people wear suits. Rich Guatemalans dress up to go out. Casual wear for the rest of us. You do see traditional dress as everyday clothes here, especially among women, which is beautiful and charming.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Security is real. This is the kind of place where it's ideal to always have cash on hand so you can give it away quickly if you get robbed. Robberies can get violent. Basic precautions are not hard to follow though some of them may make life feel smaller and more restricted.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Because the US is so close, I have continued to seek medical treatment there. I had one dental cleaning in Guatemala. It was fine. If you are paying out of pocket, the dental care in Guatemala is much cheaper and it's decent. Braces ("brackets"), Invisalign, veneers can all be had at about half the cost as in the US. For any serious medical condition, you'd want to go to a place that's better equipped overall, which could be the US, but Mexico City might also be an option.
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?
Overall it's very good. In traffic you will suck tailpipe. There are about 4 weeks when farmers burn cornfields, and then the air is bad. If a volcano erupts you might have to shut all your windows and stay inside for a few days. Allergies are wild! People who have never had them will get odd flare-ups. One of my dog gets allergies for a few months out of the year! I have no problems, luckily.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Environmental allergies here are unpredictable and strange. For food allergies, have a low bar of trust. I don't have any, but I have asked for dishes to be made vegetarian or to omit cheese from time to time with mixed success. Dairy can be hard to avoid.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
There's a wet season and a dry season. Otherwise the temperatures are mild throughout the year. A day that hits 80F is hot. A day that hits 65F is cold. Wet season is not like a monsoon. It might rain once a day for a few months, but it doesn't rain for days on end. You always get breaks in the rain. If you enjoy seasons, this is not an ideal place. If you thrive in moderate weather, you'll love it. Overall, most days get some sun.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's big and not especially cozy. Morale waivers. The embassy community works hard, long hours. I get the sense that people with children find community quickly. Childless people, in my experience, have a harder time finding opportunities to meet people. If you are a native or fluent speaker of Spanish, you will have a much easier time joining activities and potentially making friends.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Families and native/fluent Spanish speakers will have a pretty easy time here. I think you'll also do fine if you are a car-culture person. As someone who prefers to experience a place by walking and bicycling, or taking public transit, I've found my ability to explore Guatemala really limited.
3. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
It is reasonably easy if your Spanish is up to snuff.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes, though on the whole Guatemalan people are polite. White privilege is easily identifiable and in play. "Light" privilege is also in play. I have noticed that indigenous people tend to be viewed and held in a place in society that's lower than others.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Guatemala is an outdoors country. If you don't mind long car rides and have the ability to do outdoorsy things, there is much to do on the weekends and long weekends. I enjoy these activities but I don't enjoy the car time, but I've still been able to do some. Antigua is just lovely any time. Tikal is a magical experience. Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey are still on my to-do list. I hear mixed things about going to the Pacific coast, which sounds like it's best for people who like either resorts or hippy beach bum vibe.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Small private parks make for an easy weekend outing. Kanajuyú Ecological Park is practically around the corner from the new US embassy and for a few dollars, you can have a gorgeous and safe little nature hike. Jacarandas is similar though not as pretty.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Pottery has been a pleasant surprise here, and not necessarily just traditional stuff. A shop called Ceramica in Antigua has great fun stuff. You can buy modern items here, like outdoor furniture, custom-made for relatively low prices.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
People who enjoy moderate weather year-round love that aspect.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Guatemala City is car-culture if you are an expat or a rich person. Also, I have bicycled in so many places the world and I would never get on a road here on my bike. It's way too dangerous. If you live in Zona 10, you can bike on the weekends when one of the main roads is closed to traffic. If you don't live near there, however, it is not at all safe to ride down that way.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
It's not bad. It's comfortable and relatively easy. Knowing what I know now, I would list it as a "medium interest" place, but not high interest.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothes and skis.
4. But don't forget your:
Car and sunscreen/sun-protective clothing.