Guatemala City, Guatemala Report of what it's like to live there - 10/06/22
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?
Several western European countries and several southeast Asian countries.
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?
DC. Most days United has one non-stop flight from DC, which only takes 4.5 hours and is extremely convenient. We've found it to be much longer and much more expensive to visit family on the west coast and in the midwest.
3. What years did you live here?
Arrived in 2021.
4. How long have you lived 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?
The new embassy is opening this winter and it is in Zone 16 in Cayala, an upscale, cloistered area that was built outside the main city as a refuge for wealthy Guatemalans. Cayala contains a large housing compound that most families with kids want to live in. It contains a mix of townhouses and condo units, all very new and nice. Four bedroom housing is much rarer than three bedroom housing. I believe it is the only housing in the housing pool that contains all of the following: large and safe green space for running around, playgrounds, tennis courts, a fitness center, and a beautiful pool. It's built right next to the retail section of Cayala, which is car-free most of the day, so walking to shopping/restaurants/cinema is safe, convenient, and pleasant. There are many activity options for kids and multiple preschools in walking distance and the embassy community has hired teachers/coaches to lead activities for kids in the compound (soccer team, tennis lessons, swim lessons, etc). Unfortunately, there isn't enough housing there (or even the greater Cayala area, currently) for everyone that wants it.
We were placed in a Zone 16 neighborhood that isn't easily walkable to Cayala, and it's been difficult. There are only two children close in our neighborhood that are close in age to ours and our nanny doesn't drive (I've never met a nanny here that does), so our kids are mostly stuck at home all day.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
If you're buying them from a regular supermarket or the mall, expect for them to cost more on average than in the US. There's a reason we have COLA in Guatemala. Services are cheaper, but products are more expensive. Definitely try not to buy any electronics or toys here - for example, the LEGO store at Oakland Mall is twice as expensive as in the US.
The main grocery store is La Torre, and it is very comparable to Giant or Safeway. You can find most things there, although I personally feel that the quality and variety of the fruit available at regular grocery stores here is subpar. Berries are quite pricey, not very good, and go rotten quickly. You can find Fuji and Gala apples and occasionally Pink Lady, but they're not great and good luck trying to find any other variety of apple.
The variety and quality of vegetables is much better, although still more limited than in the US. I've never found a head of lettuce in a grocery store here - it's all bagged leaves. If you take advantage of the dry season, however, you can grow great veggies in your yard/balcony with all the bright sun! Everything in our garden drowned during the rainy season, though.
There are multiple branches of the Costco-equivalent PriceSmart here and they generally have produce that's a bit better quality, but even more limited in variety. They have more US products that you can stock up on there and even sometimes Pillsbury crescent rolls, if that's something that gets you excited!
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I would have brought a bulk supply of spray sunscreen in our HHE. The high altitude sun means you'll burn within minutes, so we go through a lot. Spray sunscreen is pretty expensive here and obviously can't be ordered in the mail.
We don't have access to a gym or pool at our house, so I wish I'd brought a treadmill. And an extra freezer to stash PriceSmart freezer items. :)
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
You can get pretty much anything through delivery services easily; the delivery service is very cheap and the cost of the meal is similar to the U.S. We haven't been impressed with most of the restaurants we've tried, so we don't eat out often.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
There are lots of tiny ants, but that's pretty normal for the area. We have a family of (adorable) small geckos living somewhere in our house. Guatemala doesn't have many unpleasant critters in the housing. The mosquitos where we live are AWFUL, though. No matter what we do and even with paying for spraying in the yard, there are always some mosquitos in the house and we all have at least a couple bites at all times. Malaria is not a concern here, luckily.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and pouch.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Readily available. Many families have an empleada either full or part-time. It would help us out a lot if we could hire a driver to transport our kids and nanny to activities, but hiring a driver costs at least twice as much as an empleada and Uber is challenging with car seats. I haven't met an empleada or nanny here that speaks more than a few words of English. Our nanny has only a small amount of English, which has been hard for our elementary-school aged child, who doesn't speak Spanish. She is absolutely phenomenal with our younger children, though, and most nannies I've seen are excellent, hands-on, and nurturing.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Lots of gyms, but yes, they're a bit pricy. And driving and parking is such a hassle here that I don't think it's worth going to one if you can't walk to it.
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?
Yes, but take cash for markets or traveling outside the city. Most domestic workers also prefer to be paid in cash. We get cash from the embassy bank.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Not sure. I think there is an English mass each Sunday that some people go to.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You absolutely need Spanish. The vast majority of retail workers or service providers only speak Spanish.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Unless you're living in Cayala, the sidewalks (if they exist) are crumbling in many places and have many random barriers placed in the middle. Pushing a stroller requires you to be in and out of the road. Many busy streets in the city have no crosswalk and the only way across is via overpass up a steep set of stairs, and you may have to walk 1/2 mile or more out of your way to get to one. Even in Cayala, the new embassy is across a very busy street from the main housing and retail area. Although many people will technically be able to walk to work and there are a few painted crosswalks, they're not strictly obeyed and it always feels dangerous crossing the street. The embassy has been trying to negotiate for an overpass to be built to make it a bit safer to get to the new embassy compound, but I heard that they've been denied. Vehicle and pedestrian traffic in the area will increase significantly once it opens, which will make the problems worse.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We're not allowed to take any form of transit other than Uber, which is both safe and affordable (although half the time it won't have all its seat belts).
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?
Any is fine, really. If you're going to take more adventurous trips outside of the city, then an SUV is your best option. We've made trips to Lake Atitlan and Monterrico in a non-4WD car just fine.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, the internet is fine. I work remotely successfully with lots of video calls.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
There are two main service providers, Tigo and Claro, and I think they're about the same.
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?
Vets are great, no quarantine is necessary, and it was very easy bringing our animals into the country. Vets and groomers will do house calls and doggy day cares will come pick up your dog for the day and bring them home in the evening.
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?
You can easily work remotely here. You could work on the economy if you wish, but salaries will be pretty low. Most of the EFM jobs at the embassy require fluent Spanish.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
So, so many, but you'll probably need to speak Spanish.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
In general people dress a bit nicer and more conservatively than in the US.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Personally, I've never experienced any issues, but you still should take precautions. There are zones of the city that we're not supposed to go in and gang activity in those areas can be dangerous. Recently, even in Cayala, someone was hurt while having their phone stolen out of their hands, so we're reminded not to get complacent.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is quite good overall; many women choose to have their babies here and I know a number of people that have had (minor) surgeries done here. Parasites and food/water borne illnesses are a possibility and I know people who've been hospitalized for them, but we've never had a problem. You can have water delivery services arranged wherever you live.
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?
Seems decent to me.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
My spouse has bad allergies to something in the air, but that's pretty normal.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Some people have a hard time with the rainy season from June to October, with basically every afternoon and evening being anywhere from overcast to rainy to all out downpours. Even then, every morning is dry and sunny and glorious. And during the dry season the weather is literally the same and perfect every single day.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The summer months are very, very rainy. And by April it feels very hot. Houses/apartments almost never have AC, so you may want to bring your own portable unit(s). The temperature is temperate, within the same 20 degree range year-round, day and night, but it can feel dramatically different if it's sunny vs. cloudy due to the altitude.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The best English-language American school is usually considered to be Colegio Maya; a majority of embassy kids attend. It's small, with one or two classes per grade, but they have beautiful facilities and impressive programming and extracurriculars, given the small student body size. It's probably the most competitive American school in Central America to get a job as a teacher, so the faculty are great. Unfortunately, it's very far away from the city. From Cayala, the bus trip is 25 minutes with no traffic, but 40 minutes is more usual and as there have been some road repair issues lately (the infrastructure is crumbling), the bus home has sometimes taken 1.5 hours and up to two hours.
There is also a very good bilingual international school, CAG, where a decent number of embassy kids attend, especially in the younger grades. It's only a couple minutes from housing in Cayala and also has a lovely campus. It's huge (several thousand students) and people seem happy with it, too. However, teachers there have told me that it's "an American school in name only". Over 90% of its student body is native Guatemalan and as you get into older grades I've heard that cliques and exclusionary behavior are more common.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
As is the case for all international schools, they may not have the same resources for special-needs kids as in the states. They try really hard, so be sure to reach out and ask them to see what can be done.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Day care is uncommon, but I believe Pequenitos (a Spanish language preschool) in Zone 16 recently re-opened their full-day program. I know they accept even babies. I don't know of any other facilities that offer good full-time care, though. Basically everyone I know who works and has children has a nanny. There are many options for morning-only preschool. Popular options include Tykes (which has a location right next to Ramblas housing in Cayala and is bilingual), Pequenitos, and Seeds (also bilingual and has multiple branches around the city). Seeds will help arrange a van transport service to and from school to pick up/drop off your child up at your house.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
You can find pretty much anything for kids, but nearly everything will be mostly in Spanish. And if it's not in a location walkable to your housing, you'll have to drive them, which can take an hour for a normally 15 minute drive due to traffic.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is large, although the expat density is small here compared to Antigua. Most people seem happy and morale is fairly high.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There's basically been nothing during Covid, although it's increasing now. Guatemala City has had quite tight Covid protocols compared to what you might expect. Masking was mandatory indoors and outdoors at all times and was almost 100% observed. Many Guatemalans still wear a mask everywhere, even outside (this is not the case when you leave the city and travel throughout the country). The embassy didn't allow the community to hold any events or even publicize any small group gatherings or socialization until just recently. So, although there may have been groups and clubs that existed previously, they don't anymore. The community is starting back up again with gatherings, so I imagine that will increase socialization and connectedness.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Good for families with young kids, can't speak for others.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I hope so, but I don't have enough knowledge to say.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
If you speak Spanish, sure, if you put in the time and effort. Locals often have their own tight friend groups and large families, so they understandably might not be as invested in becoming friends with someone who will be moving in a couple years.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There are definitely major ethnic and socioeconomic disparities between people of indigenous vs European heritage. It's a very Catholic country and politically conservative on social issues. We live a pretty sheltered life as expats, though. Nearly every Guatemalan I've interacted with has been kind, gracious, and happy (although annoyed with and critical of rampant government corruption).
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
I don't enjoy Guatemala City all that much. Most tourists don't spend any time at all in Guatemala City, they just fly into the airport and immediately take a shuttle elsewhere. The zoo here, however, is one of my favorite zoos I've been to anywhere and is a delightful place to take kids. The children's museum re-opened recently, and it's also quite good. Outside the city are endless weekend destinations: some of the "must dos" are Antigua, hiking Pacaya volcano, Lake Atitlan, Monterrico, and Tikal (have to fly to Tikal). Be prepared though: any trip outside the city usually means anywhere from 1.5 to many hours in the car because of traffic and infrastructure issues.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Woven textiles are the specialty of the region. Definitely take a traditional weaving class sometime. It's a fun thing to do at Atitlan and it will increase your appreciation for the art form exponentially.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's convenient to get back to DC and there aren't time zone issues for remote work and communicating with family. There are beautiful outdoor opportunities (if you leave the city on weekends) and access to incredible Mayan ruins. Life in general is easy, if you don't mind traffic.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
That you and your kids really need to learn Spanish.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
If we had known our housing situation ahead of time, then no, I wouldn't. There are lots of other posts with similar pros and cons that allow you to live in a compound housing area so kids can be near their friends.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Coats. I've never worn anything warmer than a sweatshirt in the mornings, which comes off by 11 am. It's also pretty rare to wear shorts.
4. But don't forget your:
sunscreen and umbrellas!