Living abroad in Guatemala is a little different than you might imagine.
What comes to mind when you picture Guatemala, anyway? Is it the breathtaking views of numerous volcanoes (that you can also hike), a lakeside view of Lago do Atitlan, or is it simply the colonial streets of La Antigua—the country’s first capital? If none of these pop up in your mind, then you have a lot to learn about this gorgeous and interesting country in Central America. However, if you already had the vision but need someone to tell you what it’s really like, then read on.
I was lucky enough to call Guatemala City my home for a full year, and now that I’m gone, I still dream of my trips to the lake, exploring the countryside and wandering the good-filled streets.
I’m happy to share with you my insider tips for living abroad in Guatemala.
Streets of Antigua during Semana Santa
Expert Tip #10: Know Your Vibe
Guatemala is full of possibilities when it comes to choosing a city to live in, and with a booming expat and tourism community, choosing a vibe that best suits you will help spur a decision.
Do you love modern amenities amongst a sprawled out city vibe? Go for Guatemala City, the nation’s capital. Maybe you’d like to have a bit of adventure every now and again and don’t mind hanging out with other expats? Then choose Antigua, where backpackers and tourists from all over the world gather. If neither of these vibes feel like “you”, consider a city along the Pacific Coast, such as Monterrico. There’s also Lake Atitlan, a hotspot for hippy vibes mixed with deep local roots, all with a killer view of the lake.
If moving from location to location is more your style, you can find hostels and cheap accommodations throughout the country! However, your price tag will increase within Guatemala City.
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Expert Tip #9: Come Prepared
While I am all for winging it every now and again, one shocker about living in Guatemala was the climate. I had been told over and over that the humidity in Central America is no joke. And while I had already experienced a bit of that on a trip to Nicaragua some years ago, I wasn’t fully prepared to live in it.
Come prepared with the most breathable clothes you own. Spending a little money to flush out your wardrobe before arriving is well worth it, trust me! Because even as you climb in altitude and the temperatures might decrease slightly, the humidity always follows you.
Expert Tip $8: Get Comfortable With the Idea of Bugs
If insects aren’t your thing, I totally get that! Sometimes knowing too much in advance can freak us out and then we are less inclined to take adventures. But all you need to know is that with humidity, comes mosquitoes. Come prepared with a game plan on how to protect yourself from them: clothing, spray, etc. And remember that if you opt for more rustic vibes while you live in Guatemala, you will be surrounded by new and interesting friends!
Expert Tip #7: Take Uber vs. Chicken Buses
Didn’t know Guatemala even had Uber? It’s true! This note is especially for when you’re traveling in larger cities of the country, Guatemala City included. If you’ve traveled in Central or South America, you know that taxi fraud is a thing. And you don’t want to get mixed up in that! Also, chicken buses look really cool in theory, but the likelihood of theft and getting stranded on the side of the road while riding one skyrocket as soon as you climb aboard. Take the safest option! There are also loads of shuttle companies that can take you from Point A to Point B when you decide to venture out and explore.
Expert Tip #6: Read Up About Safety in Guatemala
Speaking of taking the safest option while commuting, you also might want to do a bit of research on how best to keep yourself out of dangerous situations while living abroad in Guatemala. Like many countries in Latin America, political unrest could pop up when you least expect it, especially in bigger cities. Avoid crowds that gather around protests. Don’t accept strange offers to help you get somewhere. Just be smart!
Expert Tip #5: Prepare Yourself for Super Friendly People
Okay so you don’t actually need to prepare yourself for this necessarily, but it’s something nice to look forward to! The majority of Guatemalans are so thrilled you’re there! They want to help make your experience a great one while you play tourist (even if you live there), and you’ll feel that. Guatemalans are also some of the most willing Spanish speakers I’ve met who are willing to practice with you even if you’re just learning. So take advantage of the relatively slow speech in this country, because your absorption and comprehension levels may be higher when compared to another country in Latin America.
Expert Tip #4: Learn Spanish
It’s difficult for me to imagine someone moving to a foreign country and not even attempting to speak the local language while living there. But I know that so many people actually do this! So don’t be that expat; start learning Spanish before you move there. Use your time there to perfect the language and to really seep into the Guatemalan culture. And like I said, speaking Spanish with locals is often welcomed, and will also improve your chances of getting exactly what you need.
Expert Tip $3: Travel as Often as Possible
Living abroad in Guatemala can be such an amazing life experience (if you let it)! But one thing I wish I had done more of was see the country during my year-long stint there. Take full advantage of seeing every corner you can, from the most popular touristy spots like Antigua or the Mayan ruins at Tikal, to lesser known villages on the outskirts of bigger cities. Visit fincas, take multiple trips outside of the location you choose to live in, and always be on the hunt for opportunities to experience local customs and culture!
Bonus Tip: Don’t miss Guatemalan breakfast! A simple chapin breakfast usually consists of eggs, crema, fried plantains, refried black beans, and a tomato sauce. Sounds simple right? Wrong! It’s one of the most delicious things you will eat in this country! Trust me.
Expert Tip #2: Expand Your Comfort Zone
If you don’t have much experience in traveling in Latin cultures, living abroad in Guatemala will be a definite culture shock. But that’s okay! Expanding your comfort zone and working through the shock will make you a better, more whole person in the end. If you’ve already done a bit of traveling in the region and feel like you’ll have living in Guatemala down pat, readjust that thinking, because you’re still going to be pleasantly surprised! While there are overlaps between other Central American countries when it comes to cultural traditions, Guatemala felt special to me anyway, and I have a hunch it will feel that way for you, too.
Expert Tip #1: Learn Where the Textiles you Love Come From
You probably want to know what to buy in Guatemala, too, right? When it comes to art, crafts, and textiles, I got your back! If you know you will only live there for a short time, start learning right away where your favorite patterns of huipiles (wee-peel-es) come from—meaning which village or region in Guatemala—and look for them at every market you visit. You can simply ask, and the vendor just might blow you away with their knowledge on what comes from where, because there are too many to count!
Bonus Tip: if you can manage to find a place or tour to view women making these huipiles or other textiles, do not miss it!
The author in Antigua
Guatemala is a gorgeous country full of cultural opportunity and countless places that will take your breath away! If you’re still wondering how you can live there, consider teaching English in Guatemala with this premium TEFL Guatemala Program!
Jayla Rae Ardelean is a writer and virtual assistant to small businesses, currently living in New York City. Her year spent abroad in Guatemala felt too short-lived, but was an impactful experience. You can reach her at [email protected]