The idea that Antigua, Guatemala might be especially “dangerous,” never really occurred to me until after I arrived, and was putting on my jacket to go grab some street food that first night.
“Make sure you don’t walk down dark streets,” my host, Cesar interjected.
Sensible advice, of course, no matter where you travel, but usually people don’t take the time to say it. He continued, off-handedly, as he stirred a pan of sautéing mushrooms.
“Tourists gets robbed a lot. Girls get robbed a lot.” He eyed me. “And you’re a tourist and a girl.”
At his direction, I unloaded half of what was in my bag back into my bedroom before heading out into the evening, including the professional camera I had planned to use to photograph the street cart cuisine.
“One more thing,” he said as I thanked him and told him I’d see him later. “If you do get robbed, just make sure you don’t die.”
And there it was: the apparent universal warning uttered to visitors when entering Antigua, a breathtaking, mountainous town characterized by new-wave coffee shops, crumbling ruins, exquisite art and, well, a reputation of being a little bit dangerous.
During the day, the cobblestone streets and lush parks throughout the center feel as safe as strolling through New York’s SoHo. But after dark, things change.
At least, in reputation.
The warnings I heard over and over were hard to match up with what I felt on the streets.
I had felt nothing but safe since I arrived, if a little on edge because everyone kept telling me to be careful. During the day I felt completely care-free. At night, I’d never seen or experienced anything even slightly threatening. Almost everyone I met was incredibly friendly and the locals in the town seemed committed to help protecting everybody. If your backpack is in the wrong place at a cafe, you can bet someone will come and tell you, kindly, to move it.
Still, throughout my first two weeks in the city, I found it to be a topic of conversation — everywhere. One day, in the Plaza Mayor, a woman doing surveys with the tourism bureau asked me a list of about seven questions culminating in the hot-button topic that Guatemala has been trying to overcome for years.
“Is Guatemala safe for someone like you?”
One Friday night I had the pleasure of helping to shut down Cafe No Sé, the kind of bar that sells community as much as it does mezcal and beer and sucks you in until closing time. The bartender instructed me not to walk home.
“Yeah, yeah, I was going to take a tuk tuk,” I told him, referring to the open-air carts that act as quick taxis.
“Well, you can’t take a tuk tuk, they stop at 9 p.m.,” he said. “They were getting killed.”
Hm. OK then. Always good to have context. Obviously, tuk tuks, without real windows or doors and ample cash, would seem easy targets.
After I got a tattoo one night, finishing at 10 p.m. and without a drop of alcohol in my system, my tattoo artist instructed me to take an Uber also.
Another day, at Antigua Brewing, a new-is micro brewery, a TV crew from Amsterdam was interviewing the bartender. At least two-thirds of the conversation revolved around whether Antigua was safe in general, whether it was safe for tourists, safe for walking, safe for people alone, safe in the day, safe at night.
The bartender started by saying you needed to be cautious, but backed away from that as the on-camera reporter pressed harder.
“I do think Antigua is safe,” he said. “Don’t you feel safe?”
But of course, by this point, I was taking precautions that I hadn’t worried about anywhere else in my travels.
If you dare to venture down the Google wormhole on Antigua’s safety, you could come away believing you should never travel here.
But despite the grisly image, everyone I’ve spoken with has agreed that for the most part, violence is uncommon. Robberies? Yes. But in the last four years or so, the “dangerous” reputation ends there, not at injury and death.
Don’t get me wrong: having your belongings not great, but also not the worst thing that could happen to you while traveling abroad. So my takeaway after a few weeks in Antigua? Prepare to be robbed (yeah, I know) and then take further actions to help prevent that.
Here’s what else I learned to do in Antigua:
1. Don’t walk down dark streets. Like Cesar said! This is smart everywhere, but particularly when alone in a place with a reputation of robberies.
2. Walk around and near other people if you can. There is safety in numbers, of course. After dark, I always choose the streets with the most cars and pedestrians to walk down. (Antigua is in arranged in square blocks, so it’s easy to take a variety of routes.)
3. Don’t bring much out with you at night. The saddest fact of this reality for me is that I haven’t been able to tote around my Nikon, leaving me without great night photos in Antigua. But I also make sure I ditch my computer and tech equipment, my sunglasses, my passport, most of my cash and all but one credit card.
4. Use ATMs during the day (and leave your ATM card at home at night). I haven’t heard anything about robberies extending to the point of where they take people to ATMs to withdraw further money, but not bringing it along rules that possibility out for sure!
5. Stay alert, stay sober when walking. Again, smart no matter where you go, but in Antigua especially so. If I’ve had more than one drink and I’m not with other people, I’m not walking.
6. If it’s later than 10 p.m., take an UBER. ESPECIALLY AFTER DRINKING. Tuk tuks stop at 9 p.m., but luckily UBER has a presence in Antigua, and since they don’t take cash, they don’t feel like targets.
7. Keep some money in your shoe and/or in your pocket. Distribute the cash around your body. Some in wallet, some in pocket, some in shoe. If someone is robbing you, they’ll likely be in a hurry so someone else doesn’t walk up and bust them, so they might not take the time to check in all your various hiding spots.
8. If you are approached, just give them everything. While violent crime seems to be far less of a problem, many people have told me that robbers are usually armed. But they also say the only recent stabbings were the result of people who resisted giving up their things. Things can be replaced; your life cannot, so don’t be a hero!