Is Guatemala safer than Mexico? If you are a first-time traveler planning a trip to Latin America, it is not surprising that you may be concerned about safety, especially when traveling to certain countries where the media highlights a violent history or the country’s reputation for crime.
If you are considering traveling to Mexico or Guatemala, do not let the media turn you away. Both of these beautiful countries are rich in culture, Mayan history, fascinating museums, delicious food, and unforgettable adventure.
But which should you visit? Both countries are rewarding places to travel to and each is special in its own way.
This article has been written by a seasoned traveler that has traveled extensively through Latin America, including both Guatemala and Mexico.
It aims to answer all the questions that you may have if you are on the fence about which country you should travel to. (Or you are worried about whether you should travel to the region at all.
My hope is that by the end of this article, you will feel confident in your decision to book that dream trip and have a safe, incredible experience in Latin America.
Is Guatemala Safer Than Mexico?
Guatemala, although roughly 1,700% smaller than Mexico, still offers many unique and exciting experiences. While it would be impossible to see everything any country has to offer in a single trip, in comparison to Mexico, it is much easier to get a sense of what Guatemala has to offer in just one week or even a few short days.
Mexico, on the other hand, is a vast country. (In fact, it is the 13th largest in the world!)
Mexico is made up of 32 different states, each of which boasts different cuisines, cultures, indigenous groups, and indigenous languages. You could go as far as to say that each of the states is like an independent country in itself.
For instance, culturally, Jalisco is vastly different from the Yucatan peninsula, and in turn, Monterrey is very different from Michoacan, etc. It would take a lifetime to explore Mexico in-depth, and any itinerary should focus on one specific region.
Both Guatemala and Mexico can be safe for tourists. But you need to be assertive and have your wits about you when traveling in Latin America.
Guatemala Vs Mexico safety statistics
According to Numbeo, Mexico has a 54.13 crime index. Although it varies by city, this is based on the overall likelihood of corruption, gang violence, vandalism, bribery, drugs, and theft. The most dangerous areas in Mexico are Tijuana, Acapulco, and Culiacan.
The safest states in Mexico are the Yucatan state and the state of Campeche, with Merida, Puerto Vallarta, and the Cancun and Tulum region being among the safest destinations for international tourists.
By comparison, Guatemala has a 60.82 crime index. Similar to Mexico, this rating is based on corruption, bribery, theft, and gang violence.
The most dangerous area in Guatemala is Guatemala City. The safest areas in Guatemala are Antigua, Panajachel, and the Lake Atitlan region.
Although these numbers may seem off-putting, it is important to remember that if you are not looking for trouble, trouble will not look for you. Threats of crime are unlikely to affect tourism and there is little reason to be concerned if you use reasonable precautions as you would when traveling to any place else.
Having traveled throughout both countries, I have never felt unsafe walking around during the day or early morning and evening hours. Even in Guadalajara, often considered one of the “more dangerous” areas in Mexico, when using reasonable street smarts, I never felt as if I was in any danger.
In fact, exploring Guadalajara remains one of my most memorable trips.
In general, the people in both Mexico and Guatemala are among the friendliest and most welcoming. Just use general common sense and reasonable precautions, as you would anywhere else, and you will be fine.
Check your government travel advice before you travel
As with visiting any new country, it is important to do your research. It is always a good idea to check your country’s government travel advice before visiting.
The US Department of State advises travelers that Guatemala is listed with a “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” advisory due to the country’s crime rate. By comparison, Mexico is listed with a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” advisory due to both the crime rate and the aftermath of the global pandemic.
The United States Department of State also suggests that all travelers register in the STEP program. You can find the link for the STEP program here: Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (state.gov).
Safest Places to Visit in Guatemala
The safest places to visit in Guatemala are Antigua, and the smaller towns surrounding Lake Atitlan, such as Panajachel.
Antigua is perhaps the most-visited place in Guatemala. As it is so popular with tourists, you will find many English-speaking hotel staff members, shop owners, and restaurant workers
It is a small but exciting city, as well as an up-and-coming foodie destination.
Ulew Cocktail Bar, for example, does not have a menu. You simply let the bartender know your likes, dislikes and watch them create a drink just for you.
For an authentic Guatemalan meal, check out La Cuevita de Los Urquizu. You will be handed a plate full of rice, beans, and tortillas and shown a wide variety of typical Guatemalan stews and meats to choose from. They also make amazing fresh fruit juices.
In Antigua, you can also find plenty of artisanal craft shops and markets to find a unique souvenir to take home.
You will find that most hotels within Antigua offer private airport transportation (for a fee, of course). Simply contact your hotel ahead of your trip and arrange for a quick and easy pick-up.
If you are using Antigua as your home base in Guatemala, you may also want to consider taking a day trip to Lake Atitlan, where you can kayak or paddleboard around the lake. Here you will also be able to visit some of the surrounding towns.
Lake Atitlan can also be done in several days if you have more time.
If you enjoy hiking, you can visit one of Guatemala’s twenty-seven volcanos. For a shorter hike, visit Pacaya Volcano.
This can be done in a few short hours and has fantastic views along the way. If you are lucky, there are even places to make s’mores or pizza at the top of the volcano from the steam rising from the crater.
For a longer, often overnight hike, check out Acatenango Volcano. This hike has become quite popular for its awe-inspiring nighttime views of flowing lava.
Places to Avoid in Guatemala
If you are traveling to Guatemala and are concerned about safety, you may want to avoid Guatemala City, especially at night.
If you do plan on visiting Guatemala City, consider doing an organized group tour. When planning where to stay, it is helpful to know that Guatemala City is broken up into zones.
The safest zones are 4, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, and 16 and these may be the safest areas to begin your research.
Safest Places to Visit in Mexico
Although Mexico has been given a bad reputation in the media, this should not turn you away as the country has come a long way in recent years. The people are incredibly friendly and eager to share their culture with first-time and seasoned travelers alike.
San Miguel de Allende (often voted one of the most beautiful cities in the world), is also very safe, as is Valladolid and tourist regions across the Yucatan state, the Riviera Maya, and the Costa Maya.
Although Cancun and Tulum have had some recent bad press, this area is basically built for tourists and is generally very safe. Here you can find a number of excellent restaurants, all-inclusive resorts, and white-sand beaches.
If you travel to Cancun or Tulum, you can also take an organized group day trip to visit the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza is one of the Wonders of the World and is not to be missed.
If you decide to take an organized tour, make sure to book one that also includes a swim in one of the area’s approximately 7,000 sunken swimming holes, called cenotes.
You can also visit the nearby town of Valladolid for an authentic Mexican meal and wander around the large park in the center of town.
Places to Avoid in Mexico
If you are traveling to Mexico and you are concerned about safety, you may want to avoid cities with the highest crime rates, such as Tijuana, Acapulco, or Culiacan. If you do travel to these areas, you may want to consider exploring with an organized group tour and using reasonable precautions, especially at night.
Is Solo Travel in Guatemala and Mexico safe?
Generally, solo travel in Guatemala and Mexico is safe. However, this is perhaps best reserved for travelers that have some experience traveling alone, or who may be conversational in Spanish.
If you do choose to travel to Guatemala or Mexico alone you may want to consider the following tips:
- Research your destinations before you travel.
- Stay in a hotel or hostel with good reviews and in a safe area
- Learn some basic phrases in Spanish
- Let your friends or family know where you will be
- Don’t share your real-time location on social media
If you are a first-time solo traveler and have your heart set on Latin America, you can rest easy knowing that most of Latin America has plenty of tourist infrastructure and can be safe, even for first-time solo travelers. Just use your common sense and follow the tips above.
Cartel Presence in Guatemala and Mexico
While you may be concerned about cartel activity in Guatemala and Mexico, you should not let this turn you away from visiting either country. While the cartels do have a presence in both countries, the cartels are mainly focused around the fronteras – cities that border the United States.
Tourists are very rarely the targets of the cartel. Remember, if you are not looking for trouble, trouble will likely not look for you.
Practical Safety Tips for Traveling to Guatemala and Mexico
As with traveling to any country, there are a few universal safety tips that are important to remember.
- Always keep your personal belongings with you at all times
- For women, you should walk with your purse or bag in front of you in crowded markets, rather than slung over your shoulder or behind you
- For men, keep your wallet in your front pocket and don’t keep any valuables/wallets/phones in your back pocket as someone could easily come up behind you
- Keep your valuables, such as phones or cameras, out of sight
- Avoid walking around at night. If you must, try not to walk alone
- Stay in well-lit and well-populated areas
- Make copies of your passport or other important documents in case you misplace the original
- Always be aware of your surroundings
- Research the area you are traveling to, especially if you are traveling alone
- Do not carry too much cash
- Let your family and friends know where you will be
In either country, petty theft is the most common among tourists. In the unlikely event that you do happen to be the victim of a mugging or petty theft, the safest way out of the situation is to hand over whatever it is the mugger is asking for.
Your cellphone or wallet is never worth the risk of violence.
The most important thing to remember when traveling to any country is to simply use your common sense! If something doesn’t feel right, chances are it isn’t!
Learning a little Spanish goes a long way
Mexico and Guatemala’s primary language is Spanish. However, in many of the well-visited regions in either country, it is not difficult to find an English speaker.
Knowing a few key words or phrases in Spanish, however, is never a bad idea. You can also download the Google Translate app on your phone.
That way, if you ever find yourself in an awkward situation where you cannot communicate with the person you are talking to, you can simply type in what you want to say in English, and then hold up your phone or play the audio clip to show them the translation in Spanish.
Don’t be afraid to try the local cuisine
Both Mexico and Guatemala share a similar cuisine, heavy in Mayan and Spanish influence. Both cuisines focus around rice, beans, corn, and chilies served alongside chicken, pork, or beef.
My best tip for first-time travelers to Latin America is if you see a long line of locals around a food vendor, you know you are about to have the meal of your life! A lot of tourists are often concerned about food hygiene in Latin America but traveling here does not have to be synonymous with getting sick.
Honestly, if you choose not to eat at street food stands and try dishes that you cannot pronounce, you are missing out on a huge part of the experience.
Can you drink tap water in Guatemala or Mexico?
One other thing to mention regarding safety in Latin America that many travelers may be concerned about is the quality of the drinking water. You should never drink tap water in Guatemala or Mexico.
Although it is typically purified at the source, it often gets contaminated en route to your faucet. Even locals do not drink it.
Most hotels and Airbnbs will provide you with a couple of complimentary bottles of mineral water when you check-in. From there, you can pick up large, multi-liter bottles from local markets and convenience stores for cheap.
Some luxury hotels and all-inclusive resorts do have designated taps for purified drinking water. If they do, these will be marked ¨agua potable¨.
You should also be cautious when drinking beverages with ice or eating fresh fruits that you cannot peel. For example, eating watermelon, pineapple or a banana is much safer than eating a berry that may have recently been washed with tap water.
Is Guatemala safer than Mexico? Final thoughts
If you are a first-time traveler and you are a little nervous about venturing to Latin America, the safest places to visit in Mexico and Guatemala are the Yucatan region and Antigua. Both areas are full of adventure and delicious food and you are sure to leave with life-long memories.
Every traveler is different and it all depends on the experiences you are looking for. If you are looking for white sand beaches and that all-inclusive experience, the Cancun and Tulum region is for you. If you are looking for a more authentic, small-city Latin American experience, you cannot go wrong with Antigua.
Overall, both Guatemala and Mexico are safe for travelers to visit and you should feel comfortable deciding to travel to either one.
Do you have any further questions about traveling to Latin America? Please do not hesitate to reach out! xo