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Expats in Guatemala: Pros and Cons of Living in Guatemala

By Betsy Burlingame

Summary: Expats are very forthcoming about the pros and cons of living in Guatemala. Pros include the spring-like weather, the low cost of living and the lifestyle. Cons include limited access to quality healthcare (especially outside of Guatemala City), gringo pricing, crime and the reality that the rainy season can be depressing.

Expats in Guatemala - Pros and Cons of Living in Guatemala

"Guatemala is a magical place...but like anywhere you have to take good with the bad, understand, respect and be patient with the way things work here. And learn the language," remarked one expat. Keep this advice in mind if you are considering a move to Guatemala. The following list of pros and cons of living in Guatemala are provided by expats:

Pro: The Cost of Living in Guatemala

In most of Guatemala, the cost of living in much lower than the US and Europe. "Medical treatments here are far less expensive. I had hernia surgery last August for less than $2,000 and that include one night in the hospital. Yes, American-style groceries are more expensive but what do you expect they for the most part are imported. I am responsible for a family of five that includes two males 17 and 20 who eat an outrageous amount and I still have a budget of less than $3,000 per month and that includes paying high school for one and university for another. Impossible to be anywhere close to that in the U.S.," wrote one expat.

Pro: The Weather

For most expats, the weather is one of the things that drew them to Guatemala. An expat in Lake Atitlan said, "The location. Situated at 5000 feet (1524 m) above sea level, this is not the hot tropical jungle one usually associates with living in Central America. We call it the land of eternal springtime."

An expat in Antigua wrote in his article, It's Always Springtime in Guatemala, "When you see and experience what there is to offer in the Antigua area you will quickly understand why. Antigua is arguably the most beautiful city in Latin America. An agreeable climate is high on the list of most retirees and it doesn't get any better than here in Antigua. At an elevation of 1500 meters - 5000 ft. the temperature is never goes below 50f or above 80f. Winter is the dry season and the summer-wet season is very tolerable with predictable afternoon showers. Add colonial architecture combined with lush green vegetation surrounded by three volcanoes and you have an ambiance unmatched anywhere in the world."

"The weather was amazing there. Only a few days out of the year did it get unbearably hot. My favorite time of the year was the raining season as it felt so refreshing during each afternoon's shower. The windy season was a joy," said a former expat who lived in Panajachel.

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Lake Atitlan Guatemala

Pro: The Lifestyle

An expat living in Lake Atitlan talked about the why expats love living there, "Low cost of living. Nearly everything is substantially less than what one would pay in the 1st World. The location. Situated at 5000 feet (1524 m) above sea level, this is not the hot tropical jungle one usually associates with living in Central America. We call it the land of eternal springtime. Bring a sweater. And bring a camera...this is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Lifestyle. You can be retired and as lazy or active as you want (lots of volunteer opportunities). If you have a New Age orientation, the lake area is a vortex for seekers and practitioners of every sort."

Another expat in Antigua wrote, "You will truly see two worlds, the simple life of the indigenous people next to modern ways. And it is viewed comfortably here in Guatemala's safest city. There is a sizeable expat population of well over 2000. There are various clubs and groups in the area offering comradely, activities and advise to newbees. You will see the natives walking around everywhere, especially at the huge local Mercado. Here is where one can find most every household item alongside fresh fruits, vegetables and meats of every variety. This is one of the reasons that life is so cheap here. If you don't like wandering through aisle after aisle and bargaining with the locals, there is a nice little supermarket in town."

Pro: You'll Walk a Lot More in Guatemala

We asked what are some things you appreciate most about the new culture? One member wrote, "The busy cultural norm of walking. I notice my health & vigor have improved because I have to WALK a LOT more!?!"

Con: Cost of Living is Higher in Cities Like Antigua and Panajachel

"If you are thinking about living in Antigua remember the prices there are ridiculously expensive in everything. Cuidad Vieja is very close to Antigua (10-15 min.) and everything here is very inexpensive. Example I have big 5 Br. house 3Br. Garage and a killer view of the volcanoes all for $187.00 per month, not even possible in Antigua. Cuidad Vieja is a very quite city and very low crime. A Great Place to retire to," advised one expat.

Con: Guatemala is Noisy

When we asked what are the most challenging aspects of the new culture, one expat replied, "The chronic noise of vehicles... grinding gears, horns and just general loudness not of the people but the blaring speakers and vehicles....non stop chaos.....!"

Lake Atitlan Guatemala

Con: The Rainy Season Can Be Depressing

For some expats, rainy seasons are hard to handle emotionally. Our advice: be realistic with yourself about how the weather will affect you. "The weather was another shock and important as it was not accurate either on the web...so was not prepared for the weather emotionally or mentally...quite the shock actually...yes I knew it rained, yes I knew it could be like chilly, no I did not know it was dark, gloomy, down right frio, and there was days you just did not want to get out of bed due to the weather...but some of this has to do with where my casa is located...high up on the cliffs, and in the shade," said one expat.

Con: Healthcare in Guatemala Can Be Expensive

"There is a lot of hype about the medical care costs in Guatemala being cheap. Yes, on some procedures. And, we pay our local doctor 100Q ($12.00) for office visits, but needing shoulder surgery sent me into Guatemala City for a price quote from a specialist. cost $8,000-$12,000. Outrageous. We cancelled our Medicare in the States before our move here based on all the hype about medical care costs. Having needed the shoulder surgery, I have to travel to Mexico for $5,500 surgical cost. If you have Medicare, DO NOT cancel it. You will need it. On a insurance website called CompareNow, for two 66 year olds we are quoted $11,352/yr and that's after a $7,000 discount. One prescription I use as a maintenance drug is $95 for a month's supply. All in all, Guatemalan health insurance IS NOT a bargain for older people." cautioned one expat.

"I agree that one should not cancel Medicare. You would have the expense of getting back to that States, but then it would be taken care of pretty much. Medicines are not necessarily cheaper, but then U.S. prices are outrageous unless you have a drug plan. My husband is diabetic and we priced the U.S. and Guatemala and found them to be pretty much equal. We now go to Canada where his daughter lives to get his insulin. Of course, the best deal here is dental," added another expat.

Con: The Quality of Healthcare in Guatemala

The US State Department wrote, "The full range of medical care is available in Guatemala City, but medical care outside of the city is limited. Guatemala’s public hospitals frequently experience serious shortages of even the most basic medicines and equipment. Care in private hospitals is generally adequate for most common illnesses and injuries, and many of the medical specialists working in them are U.S.-trained and -certified."

One expat said, "The cost of health care here varies widely in both quality and price. 2 people I know had emergency appendectomy surgery at the public hospital, it saved their lives, however the conditions at the hospital were appalling. Living in Pana, if I needed emergency medical care I'd go to the Hospitalito in Santiago de Atitlan."

There are some medical clinics that expats recommend, "I have done a full check up in Clinicas Medicas , with Techniscan... they have different center in Guatemala City. You buy a package according your age and what you want to check out. I bought the one like Premium and it is very complete I spent almost the day doing exams. very clean, professional, slick process and then I have a post visit with a doctor to interpret my results and a nutritionist to discuss my food diet.. it cost me like $800.00 but totally worth it." Another added, "Alerta Medica is here in Antigua as well as GTE. They offer the same type of service as Clincas Medicas and make house calls." Yet another added, "Alerta medica is an emergency response unit that will be dispatched in case of medical need, stabilize you and then move you to the nearest hospital.. They only operate between Guatemala city and Antigua.. not exactly what you need."

To learn more about healthcare in Guatemala, read our article, 5 Important Tips about Healthcare for Expats in Guatemala.

Expats living in Guatemala interested in expat health insurance should take a minute to get a quote from our trusted expat health insurance partner, CIGNA.

Con: Guatemala's Postal Service is Unreliable (at Best)

Guatemala's postal service was officially suspended from 2016 through early April 2019. A contract dispute with the postal agency, El Correo de Guatemala, led to the almost 3 year suspension. During that time, expats and Guatemalans were left in limb. Many didn't even know that the postal service had been suspended. "In all of my research, I never found any mention of Guatemala not having a postal service. Without this knowledge, I had a mail forwarding service send mail to me in Guatemala. It sat somewhere for a month or so and was finally returned. Learning that DHL was the only international mail carrier, I had the mail sent to me here. Cost $140," said one expat in a thread about things to consider about living in Guatemala.

What does the future hold for Guatemala's postal system? It's definitely uncertain and people moving to Guatemala should make arrangements with an international mail forwarding service to receive and scan important mail items.

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Con: Gringo Pricing and Treatment in Guatemala

One expat in San Juan La Laguna said, "Another challenge is the double price standard for foreigners. I'm not a tourist, I live here but still am charged double or higher for many goods and services."

Another expat wrote, "The most difficult of 'phases' was being an American (USA Citizen). Everyone having their hand out because I came from the US of A and supposedly was rich. The feeling of being treated unequally and not fairly and always feeling that someone wants to take advantage of you."

Con: Hot Showers are Hard to Find

"It takes hours to find things like a hot shower & it took months to realize you CAN get clean AND get used to tepid water!? This was my only real cultural shock....," said an expat in Guatemala.

"Many homes only have hot water in the shower which is provided by a shower nozzle that instantly heats the water as it sprays out. However for middle class families and up many new homes have hot water throughout. I have experienced both. Of course like any country, in the very poor areas there might not be hot water or even running water in the homes but I doubt you would live in one of those areas," commented one expat. It is important to note that the shower nozzle that heats water is commonly referred to as a "suicide shower." These types of showers are found in many parts of the world, but that doesn't mean that they are safe (in fact, they are potentially deadly).

Con: Crime in Guatemala

According to the US State Department, "Theft, armed robbery, and carjacking are the most common crimes against U.S. citizens. Travelers have experienced carjackings and armed robberies upon leaving the airport. Victims have been violently assaulted when they resisted an attack or refused to give up money or valuables. Reports of sexual assault remain high. Support for victims of sexual assault is lacking. Pickpockets and purse-snatchers are prevalent in major cities and tourist sites, especially the central market and other parts of Zone 1 in Guatemala City."

The State Department went on to recommend the following, "To decrease the likelihood of becoming a victim:

  • Do not use public ATMs. Only use ATMs inside secure bank lobbies or hotels. Scams involving attempts to acquire a victim’s ATM card and personal identification number (PIN) are common. U.S. citizens have been victims of credit card scams where the card is copied and used improperly.
  • Do not display signs of wealth, such as wearing expensive jewelry or watches. Refrain from using a cell phone on the street. A common crime against foreign citizens in Guatemala is robbery of cell phones.
  • Carry a photocopy of your passport in case you lose your passport.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Report any crime incidents promptly to the police.
  • Do not use local public buses. U.S. Embassy personnel are not permitted to use any local buses. Public buses are subject to frequent attacks by armed robbers and often are poorly maintained and dangerously driven.
  • Do not hail taxis on the street in Guatemala City, instead use radio-dispatched taxis (Taxi Amarillo), INGUAT approved taxis from the "SAFE" stand from the airport or hotel taxis. Uber is also generally safe to use in Guatemala City and Antigua.
  • Avoid low-priced public inter-city buses (often recognizable as recycled and repainted U.S. school buses). Travelers also have been attacked on first-class buses on highway CA-2 near the border areas with both Mexico and El Salvador, on highways CA-1 and CA-9 near the border with El Salvador, and in the highlands between Quetzaltenango and Sololá."

Expat Health Insurance in Guatemala

Expats living in Guatemala interested in expat health insurance should take a minute to get a quote from our trusted expat health insurance partner, CIGNA.

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About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Some of Betsy's more popular articles include 6 Best Places to Live in Costa Rica, 12 Things to Know Before Moving to The Dominican Republic and 7 Tips for Obtaining Residence in Italy. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.

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Updated On: May 29, 2019

First Published: May 29, 2019

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