Traveling to Guatemala: 7 Mistakes I Made

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What was supposed to be a three-month trip to Guatemala, was cut short to six weeks. The reasons why I left early have little to do with the country itself, rather, it was me doing a poor job of planning this trip and making several mistakes that somebody of my tenure in this biz could have avoided.

But, that’s how the cookie crumbled, and now that I’ve picked up the pieces, I’m here to share with you seven travel mistakes I made in Guatemala. May these help you to avoid traveling as I did in Guatemala – or wherever – and plan it better than me!

This post was originally published in 2019. It has since been updated for the accuracy of links and content.

Note: If you are traveling to Guatemala and came to this post to learn how to travel in Guatemala, this is probably not the article for you. You’ll get some pointers contextually, but this article is less about Guatemala and more about a bunch of mistakes I made, for better or worse.

7 travel mistakes I made in Guatemala
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7 Travel Mistakes I did in Guatemala

Not Researching Enough

Funny thing: I got by well in my first decade or so of full-time travel without particularly researching the place I was about to visit. Instead, I followed my nose when an opportunity presented itself, (usually in the form of creative/free accommodation) – perhaps house-sitting, volunteering, filming a tv show (no, really! That happened – a few times), or just visiting friends. From there, the rest of the trip would somewhat organically unfold.

But more recently, I’ve strayed away from free accommodation gigs, as I’ve wanted a bit more freedom; the kind of freedom that tending to somebody else’s home and pets can’t offer.

In some ways, it has introduced a whole new set of travel difficulties; difficulties that most “normal” travelers are probably accustomed to facing and know how to circumvent – such as the very ordinary difficulties of booking accommodation. This exercise in having my travel stripes stripped off has been humbling, to say the least. Here are a few of the ways that not researching enough got me into trouble in Guatemala.

Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is beautiful, but even so, I wasn't immune to travel difficulties

Booking Accommodation in the Wrong Place on Lake Atitlan

After almost a month in  Antigua, Guatemala where my boyfriend and I ate ourselves silly and enjoyed the ambiance of this UNESCO-rated walkable town, we headed to Lake Atitlan where we had reserved an AirBnB in a residential area of Panajachel.

While our Guatemala travel itinerary was already on the rocks (for reasons that will become clear later), arriving at Panajachel was the end of the line.

Lake Atitlan is rumored to be one of the most gorgeous lakes in the world; on par with Italy’s Lake Como. Lake Atitlan (which is an ancient caldera of a volcano) is dotted with small towns rich in Mayan history and traditions, many of which are only accessible by boat, and which feature unique indigenous languages/dialects and cultures.

Unfortunately, researching a destination from afar isn’t easy, and it was difficult to determine which town on Lake Atitlan was best to commit to as a base for two months. (Committing to a base for two months from afar was also a travel mistake, but we’ll get to that later).

Our research revealed that Panajachel was the most popular town on Lake Atitlan for tourists. It is the best town in terms of accessibility (which felt important for ease of getting in and out), as well as having facilities like well-stocked grocery stores and other accoutrements of a comfortable life. Panajachel is also the largest town but appeared to be pretty small on a map, still allowing me to conjure up visions of a quaint picturesque lakeside town.

So we booked an AirBnB in a residential area of Panajachel, resting assured that we would be staying in a very quiet area that would be comfortable for a little personal retreat of sorts.

Problem is, no sooner than the place was booked, did a gaggle of people come out of the woodwork (many of whom were Guatemalan) with disapproving scowls on their faces.

None of them liked Panajachel as a destination (for various reasons), but given that I’d already made the arrangements, they shrugged and said it would be a good place as a base for exploring other towns on the lake. It wasn’t the best of Guatemala, but it would do, they supposed.

They were right. Panajachel did nothing for me. I was staying on the opposite side of a river that runs just beside Panajachel’s center, and there were clouds of smoke from people burning their garbage on the river’s banks; the river itself is a giant excavation site for sand. 

Burning garbage on the riverbanks of Panajachel Guatemala. My travel mistake was booking accommodation in the wrong place.

By mid-afternoon, the smoke was so thick I couldn’t even see the gigantic volcanoes on the other sides of the lake. None of this was particularly attractive….or aromatic (or healthy).

I later learned that Panajachel is the center of commerce and a destination for weekenders from Guatemala city who want to drink and party. It’s a jumping-off point for every other town on Lake Atitlan. But for the most part, it’s not the place to stay.

WHAT I LEARNED: Feel free to book a place in Panajachel, but more as a place to stay on your way into or out of other towns around Lake Atitlan. Towns to consider (and research!) include San Pedro, San Marcos, Santiago Atitlan, and San Juan.

Not Checking the News

I seldom check travel alerts, because generally speaking if you take them too seriously you’ll never leave the house. However, after buying my travel insurance for the trip, I received a list of travel alerts from  World Nomads (my travel insurance provider at the time). Volcan de Fuego had been acting up recently; not only that, but the latest eruption was act two – it erupted violently earlier in the year, killing 200 people. Not only that, but Volcan de Fuego is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America, and is near to Antigua, where we were staying for almost a month.

I evacuated Bali for less volcanic activity than this.

So in the weeks leading up to our departure, I seriously considered pulling the plug on the trip. I asked a few questions via email to some people living in Antigua, and they blew off my concerns, ultimately convincing me to disregard the beginnings of a wee inner voice urging me to cancel the trip.

Volcan de Fuego in Antigua Guatemala, puffing smoke. Check the news for volcano alerts before you travel!
With equal parts curiosity and terror, I spent a lot of time gawking at the always-active Volcan de Fuego in Antigua

Volcanoes aside, when my Dad (and others) said they’d seen Guatemala in the news and that it wasn’t good, I also blew that off, dismissing the headlines as being about dramas near the border to Mexico that I would have been unaffected by.

But when my Guatemalan friend in Toronto emailed me the night before I was to leave, saying there were political troubles and that rumors indicated there would be a coup and state of emergency, I wavered. 

By the following morning, she replied to my rapid-fire questions by saying it seemed the rumors were just rumors, and that I would be fine even if there was trouble – which would be isolated to Guatemala city.

While I did persevere in taking the trip, my inner voice was developing some actual ammunition for not being in Guatemala.

WHAT I LEARNED: I still don’t read travel alerts. But in the future, if I’m visiting a country I’m not already very familiar with, I’ll do a quick search for that country/destination in the news, just in case there’s something I need to know that would affect my decision to go.

Random Rookie Travel Mistakes

While the mistakes above fall into the overall category of not researching enough, I don’t necessarily categorize them as rookie mistakes – especially since my little head-in-the-sand and free-accommodation approaches served me well for so many years.

But the travel mistakes below? Yeah, I have no excuse.

Central Antigua Guatemala, with children, jugglers, and a volcano! Too bad I made so many rookie travel mistakes

Booking Too Much, Too Far in Advance

When I lived in the Sacred Valley of  Peru, I watched travelers of all ilks come through the area. Some were on short fixed-duration vacations requiring efficient use of time; thus, their trips were pretty intricately planned. No problemo.

Other travelers were on much longer trips; it was common to meet people who had dedicated up to a year for a big trip around Central/South America. These people would arrive at the Sacred Valley of Peru and fall in love with the place (as I did). But because some were on a tight schedule, they couldn’t stay, much as they were desperate to. I could tell how far into their trip they were by the physical evidence of travel fatigue; dark circles under their eyes and slumped shoulders from bearing their backpacks for too long without enough rest.

These people overbooked their trips to see everything everywhere, allowing no flexibility to rest and/or take more time in a particularly magical place.

While I didn’t pack my trip to Guatemala with too much activity, I did create too many “commitments” too far in advance. With 90 days in mind, I booked the first month in Antigua, and the remaining two on Lake Atitlan in Panajachel. The division of time between Antigua and Panajachel was arbitrary; my thought being that Antigua would be the more active of destinations, and Panajachel would be a quiet lovely retreat type of experience.

As you’ve already read, Panajachel was the wrong choice of destination on Lake Atitlan; on top of that, the accommodation itself left a lot to be desired; it wasn’t quiet, the bed was minuscule, there was no comfortable seating or workspace (ergonomics is very important for digital nomads), and the place smelled of mold.

Had other factors (to be divulged later on) not been in play, I might have been able to bear – enjoy, even – this accommodation in Panajachel. But as it turned out, it was the final straw pushing us to cancel the entire trip. Problem was, we were at the mercy of a hefty cancellation policy, and despite staying only two of the eight booked weeks, we had to pay for four weeks.

WHAT I LEARNED: I already knew what I learned; it was simply an unsavory reminder. Unless you’re sure of a destination and/or specific accommodation, leave your schedule open. Book the first few days, even a week or two. But not two months, sight unseen.

The problem is, it’s a very fine line, the other side of the equation entailing getting stuck paying a last-minute premium to stay somewhere you want to spend some time but didn’t book in advance, or worse yet no accommodation being available at all. A friend of mine ran into exactly that problem in Oaxaca Mexico during high season; after her pre-booked week, she wanted to extend but couldn’t. And when she searched for apartments, she had trouble finding something suitable/reasonably priced.

But experience has also taught me that most places available online (especially on sites like AirBnB) are categorically overpriced. With a little bit of work, you can find a place to stay on the spot that will cost less than anything you can find online in advance. I did it all over Asia and it worked a charm. (See also: How to Find an Apartment in Chiang Mai).

My real problem was not having the energy to risk getting stuck somewhere without a plan. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Boats on Lake Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala. Travel safety is a going concern here.

Setting Expectations / Trying to Recreate Old Experiences

Visiting a new town is like having a conversation. Places ask questions of you just as searchingly as you question them. And, as in any conversation, it helps to listen with an open mind, so you can be led somewhere unexpected. The more you leave assumptions at home, I’ve found, the better you can hear whatever it is that a destination is trying to say to you.”  –  Pico Iyer

Expectations are always dangerous; they’re a cosmic set-up for disappointment. Thus, I erred in setting expectations that Antigua would be like Cuenca Ecuador, and that Panajachel would be like Pisac (the town I lived near in Peru). While Antigua was far from disappointing, I think some of my disappointment with Panajachel was in realizing that it was nothing like Pisac.

WHAT I LEARNED: Again, this is a lesson I preach regularly but needed to be slapped with for good measure. Expectations are bad. And recreating old experiences is worse. It’s bad enough if you try to recreate an experience by returning to the same destination; it’s madness if you try to do it elsewhere.

Listening to too Many People About Guatemala Travel Safety

This one is a real can of worms. So before I get into questions like “is Guatemala safe”, I will note that everything is relative. And safety depends largely on location.

I had a friend who wouldn’t visit me in Peru because travel alerts told her there was trouble at the Peruvian border with Ecuador; it didn’t matter that it was thousands of miles from where I lived – the whole country was a no-go zone for her.

I’m not a particularly skittish traveler. And I’m pretty careful about whose advice I heed. Before I left for Guatemala, some acquaintances in Florida warned me of the dangers of Guatemala. They’d never left their county, much less the country, so I wasn’t concerned about their advice.

But the woman I met in Antigua who had made studying Guatemala her life’s work and who had visited Guatemala consistently over the last 40 years? I figured she knew a thing or two.

The problem is, she loved to pepper every conversation with gruesome tales of violent crimes and murder – many of the victims thereof being unsuspecting tourists. After informing her of our plans to take a day trip to the coast from Antigua with some ex-pat friends, she relayed how many deaths happened along that very stretch of road, like she was talking about how many roadside fruit stands there are along the way. 

For good measure, she threw in a few other tales of bus drivers being attacked weekly and a French tourist being killed for not giving up his wallet while being mugged.

I canceled the day trip.

I let this woman get under my skin. Now, perhaps I wouldn’t have, if hers were the only tales of violence in Guatemala. The problem is, I’d already heard about violence in Guatemala, a lot.

I even met a man with a very mashed-up face. He had been attacked and robbed outside a bar in Antigua just a few days prior. As an ex-pat living in the area, he was extremely nonchalant about it. 

He seemed to think he got what he deserved for being out in Antigua late at night. The group of ex-pats I was with at the time all nodded in agreement at this; it’s the cost of being out after dark, especially on empty streets, in Guatemala.

While this man was my only first-hand account of violence in Guatemala, wherever I went I found myself no more than two degrees of separation from somebody who had been robbed, attacked, or even killed. It seemed to be a fact of life in Guatemala. People consistently told me Guatemala city is generally to be avoided at all costs, and the rest of the country is hit and miss.

Generally speaking, if you stick to tourist-friendly places, don’t go out at night, and never go walking by yourself somewhere without many people, you’ll be fine.

But the “edge” of this edgy place did nothing to help me relax.

WHAT I LEARNED: If you’ve made it this far into this article, you’ve probably figured out that my trip to Guatemala was a perfect storm. These tales of violence, threatening my sense of safety and security – regardless of how founded or unfounded my concerns were, threw me over the edge. I was uncomfortable in every single way.

Women selling weavings in Parque Central in Antigua Guatemala, where I made a few travel mistakes

My REAL Mistake

All the above travel mistakes were definite factors, but superfluous ones to the real reason why Guatemala was a bust for me.

The bottom line is: I didn’t want to travel. I was still too burned out from years prior of pushing too hard for too long with no home base to recover in. I had only just moved into my apartment in Toronto when, paint still proverbially drying, I left for five months. A variety of circumstances (including the encroaching winter) had dictated that it was time to hit the road again, so despite having reservations, I figured “why not”.

But it wasn’t right, and I paid the price for it. After a month of bouncing around California, my boyfriend and I retreated to my friend’s place in Hollywood Florida for a month – my home away from home. 

But even while in Florida, I vocally admitted that I didn’t want to travel to Guatemala since I needed more rest. 

Creature comforts. Sushi. Netflix. And fast internet. 

I didn’t want to be in a foreign environment, trying to figure everything out from scratch. The “intrepid” part of my traveling personality was on vacation (somewhere not in Guatemala).

Leading up to the trip, I had an inner voice saying “don’t go”. It was pretty persistent, but I dismissed it as irrational fears of volcano Fuego blowing, or concerns about safety after being barraged by negative stories from afar, or….it doesn’t matter. Every time the don’t-go voice popped up, I dismissed it. The trip was booked and paid for, and I was going to enjoy it come hell or high water.

But I didn’t enjoy it. It takes a monumental amount of energy to travel – to simply exist in a foreign environment; even more so when it’s long-term and you’re balancing a full-time location independent career alongside those travels.

And in the months before my trip, I hadn’t had enough time to myself, to rest and recover following what I now understand was a pretty catastrophic episode of burnout that had been years in the making (and unmaking).

WHAT I LEARNED: The time is not always right to travel. And if that time is not right, fighting it won’t help.

I’ve said over and over again that travel is contextual, and here’s proof: I thought my accommodation in Panajachel was horrific. All I saw was the bad stuff. But my boyfriend didn’t see it that way.

Sure, he nodded empathetically when I ranted and raved that the walls were moldy and the constantly barking dogs were intolerable. But had I been in a different frame of mind, instead of staring at moldy walls I’d have seen the beautiful garden, and instead of hearing dogs barking I’d have put in some earplugs or listened to music.

Traveling in a compromised state (and/or when you simply don’t want to) is inadvisable. Only on this (failed) trip to Guatemala did I realize just how much energy it takes to travel and be abroad. And only on returning from my trip early did I realize how sweet “home” can be.

Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. I share my Guatemala travel tips here!

Other Guatemala Travel Advice

You can’t drink the water in Guatemala! This also affects what you can eat, and where. For more information, check out How to Stay Healthy While Traveling: Natural Preventions and Cures.

The exchange rate between the Guatemalan Quetzal and the Dollar (U.S. or Canadian) is tricky. Before you head into the marketplace to test out your bargaining skills, arm yourself with a good currency conversion app. Here are some of the Best Travel Apps out there.

Booking your trip to Guatemala? Use the widget above to search for some digs (and I’ll earn a small commission, which helps me to keep this site running). I stayed at the Posada San Sebastian in Antigua and and highly recommend it for its great location, easy access to public transportation, eclectic environment, and super-friendly staff.

And remember, don’t go out alone! The hiking in Guatemala is epic, but it’s important to do it in groups. Here are some opportunities below:

7 travel mistakes I made in Guatemala

Addendum: Now please. You can see from the string of comments that this post struck a chord with many people who love Guatemala and see this post as an attack on the country or some of the places I mention in Guatemala. Then there are other people who have hurled a variety of insults in my direction regarding my travel experience, personality, and much more.

Before you join this club and leave a negative comment, please reread this post, starting with the very first paragraph, which states very clearly that Guatemala was not the problem. Then, please practice empathy before you write me off as a ding-dong, and consider that 13 years of full-time travel coupled with severe burnout might have put me in a position the likes of which you may not be familiar.

I don’t want to have to close comments on this post, but if negative comments continue, I will.

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54 thoughts on “Traveling to Guatemala: 7 Mistakes I Made”

  1. Learning from other people’s mistakes is generally a better way than making them myself, with that in mind… Thank you Nora!

    Not to long ago you didn’t have a “home” to be away from, where ever you were was “home”. After reading this piece it looks like things have changed, you have a home. You’re not just traveling as a way of life anymore.

    That is something for me to keep in mind!

    Nice picture of the volcano!

    • Hi Rob,
      Interesting observation! I’m in a deep period of reflection at the moment, and hesitant to share too much of the inner workings of my mind (for fear that I won’t make sense – ha ha)!

      But I will say that while I was able to honestly experience the whole world as “home” while I was traveling full-time, it’s simply not a sustainable way of life. Even with the home bases I had along the way (which were life-savers), 12 years on the road took a serious toll on me.

      And from here in my own apartment in my home town, surrounded by family and friends with whom I have long-standing connections and history – people who really care about me and will do anything for me (and vice versa), I will say that the “home” I experienced on the road was a fraction of the sense of “home” I have now.

      For anybody who is curious about this home base of mine, here is how I came to have it:

      • My traveling is different from yours, I’ve been in a van or RV for several years now. I consider ‘it’ my home, it’s just parked at different places.
        One morning (a few years back) I woke up and the first thought in my head was “I want to go home”. I looked around and realized that I was home or what I considered home.
        I knew then that things would, at some time have to change a bit. I am now aware of the power of “home”.
        I’ve been looking since then.

        You’ve found yours, I’m envious 🙂

    • I am be in Antigua Guatemala,for the last 3 months, and was terrible, the Uber charge more, the ATM it is not secure, Everything isn’t workingi have to stay a little more but I don’t recommended at all, I am leaving to us,as soon I can!!!!

  2. We were in Guatemala a few years ago and I never once felt unsafe. Not sure if things have changed in the past 3 years or we got lucky or we were only in touristy neighborhoods. We loved Antigua! As for Panajachel, wow I totally agree! Awful! We were in travel mode, so moving fairly quickly, but at that point in our trip I wanted a kitchen, so we found an apartment style place a little ways from the main drag for 4 nights. It also smelled moldy and gross, which screwed with my allergies, and that was just one of its many problems. Plus it wasn’t actually easy to buy groceries to cook and there was nothing within walking distance. It was so bad we left after one night and booked a room in a guesthouse for 2 nights and left for Antigua a day earlier than planned. Ugh, I really thought Panajachel was an awful town.

    • Hi Ali,
      Interestingly, I never actually felt unsafe in Guatemala either! But I was assured over and over (and over) again of how unsafe it can be. That took a toll on me.
      I’m sorry you also had a bad experience in Panajachel. That sucks! But on the upside, you got to experience the awesomeness of Antigua for a few days more! 😉

    • Years ago, I had a similar experience in Pana. I had awful allergies that flared up inside the little house I was renting with friend. Plus, scorpions. Eeek. Still, I have some fond memories.

      • Hi Vicky,
        Scorpions?? I thought they stuck to the warmer climates (like the jungles of Flores). I’m glad I didn’t know about scorpions when I was there! Ha ha.

  3. Hey Nora – I can so relate on the amount of energy needed to travel and figure things out! It sounded so relieving when you could go to your special spot in FL and re-energize…it seems like it just required taking the long route via Guatemala to get there. 😉

    • Hey Tiff,
      Yep! I do find that even a lacklustre travel experience is great for helping me to appreciate something else in a new way. In this case, my experience in Guatemala helped me appreciate simplicities like comfortable furniture, fast internet, sushi, and Netflix all the more! 😉

  4. This was a very interesting read, since when you said you were going, I thought “OMG, not at this time.”

    We were there a few years ago looking for our next ex-pat gig. Budapest, Hungary for 13 or 14 years at that point was wearing thin. We loved Antigua and at the time, met many North American ex-pats who seemed very pleased with the life there.

    Then the politics made a major change in living. People were fleeing their homes and businesses without any possibility of selling them.

    • Hi Ryan,
      While I readily admit I really didn’t research this trip enough, the bizarre thing is that there were – are are – a huge number of people still traveling to Guatemala!
      Politics (and world news) is a funny thing; I believe it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, and I don’t tend to pay much attention because my actual experiences around the world have in many times completely contradicted what was being portrayed to the rest of the world.

      What I found truly bizarre were my conversations with the expats who had lived in Guatemala for upwards of 25 years. Some of them arrived during war times…and stayed!
      While I’d have thought that those times would be the worst Guatemala had to offer, they argued that in fact, today’s Guatemala is much more dangerous.

      • I do hope you will reconsider coming back to visit Guatemala, with a better attitude and a different state of mind. It is a beautiful country. It isn’t perfect, like everywhere else, but it has so much to offer and explore!!

        • You are so right! Seems a harsh article . I am Guatemalan, love my country, and it is very important to research risks in every country. I don’t walk alone at night in many streets in New York, Los Angeles or Mexico. And that doesn’t make the US or Mexico less wonderful!

          • Anybody who says this is a harsh article has not actually read it, in my opinion.
            I write over and over again in the article and throughout these comments that Guatemala wasn’t the problem. It was me and the mistakes I made, which is the TITLE OF THIS ARTICLE….THE MISTAKES I MADE.
            If I thought Guatemala was a bad place, I would have made that the title.

            Instead, I humbly admit the mistakes I made, and am chastised for attacking Guatemala. I can’t win.

  5. Nora,
    It is better to be safe than to be sorry, a worn out cliche but true in this case. It is safer to learn from others so that we avoid same pitfalls. You have outlined very critical ideas that travelers overlook in many cases. Thanks a lot for this post.

    • Thank you, Lydia! Glad this post was helpful.
      And while cliches tend to be annoying from overuse (which is what makes them cliche), they usually exist for a reason – because they’re true! 😉

  6. Hi Nora, maybe this burnout has been coming on for a while? No need to prove anything to anyone else, but we do tend to deceive ourselves sometimes.
    Still, your experience of Antigua sounds positive, despite the pesky volcano. I had a couple of months in Guatemala a few years ago, no bad experiences but the sights of Antigua were special but too much English around, not surprising considering the amount of language schools. San Pedro de Sula on Lake Attitlan was a lovely place to stay to do my own language bit! I travelled all around for 2 months and felt Guatemala had everything to offer, monuments – Tical – wow, rivers, volcanos, 2 diverse coast lines and diverse cultures, hopped into Honduras for a mo..
    Things have changed politically but hopefully you’ll try again. Guatemala was my ‘best country’ so far, until I visited, Nicaragua then Colombia, but this year maybe Honduras will take the title. Keep well Nora and enjoy the warmth of your friends and family.
    Ps Sorry to go on about Guatemala but just wanted to redress the balance.

    • Hi Pamela,
      Great info about Guatemala! I don’t dispute that it’s a great country.

      My case of burnout absolutely had been coming for a while! (I’d say it started in early 2017, bottomed out in November 2017, and I didn’t start getting better until April 2018. Here we are a year later, and I’m still recovering).
      But I’m not sure what that has to do with anything else. Under my “real mistake” I admit that the reason Guatemala was a bust for me was because it was taking much longer for me to recover than I had anticipated. Are you inferring that the longer burnout is in the making, the longer it takes to recover?

      Either way, I’m glad you like Central and South America as much as you do! It’s a pretty special part of the world, to be sure.

  7. Please forgive me when I say I literally laughed loud enough to wake the dog when reading the part about “Volcan de Fuego”. Surely the name must’ve given a tiny little planet-sized clue to burst the bubble of milk and honey, angels and harps, and replace it with one of sulphur and brimstone, demons and tridents?!

    BUT … Another incredibly useful post, and your honesty is really appreciated, thank you. The wise sage, Barry “Bee-Gees” Gibb, once said that they got ahead so relatively quickly and far in the music industry because they soon caught on that life’s too short to learn from your own mistakes, so they learned from other people’s mistakes instead. Similarly, this post will help us all in our quest to be ah ah ah ah Stayin’ Alive! 🙂

    • Hi Ian,
      LOL! Indeed, if I’d known there was a volcano of that name in the area (which harkens back to my point about not doing enough research), I might have reconsidered. 😉

  8. Hi Nora,
    That article rang so true for me at the point in my travels that I was feeling exhausted and wanted to “go home”……..a thought I have never had before when away. I ignored it of course……it will get better I thought. I had only been away for a few weeks but the trip wasn’t how I had imagined it in my head….but with no plan or research done. A lot of it was because I allowed myself to give friends dates as to where I would be when. I have always said “I go where the wind blows me” and that does not involve dates!

    So after several days of transport tickets bought too early, hence losing money on them when cancelled, one bus not turning up and going anywhere was costing a fortune and not meeting up with one friend I gave up and am now in Dallas Texas celebrating my 79th birthday with my son and returning to Napier NZ in 10 days!!
    I’m glad to hear I am not the only one to make “rookie” mistakes after years of travel!
    Next year is still to come. Enjoy your time in Canada in summer…..and I will try to enjoy the NZ winter. You know..I think I am going to.??

    Part of the problem was leaving too soon after a hip replacement……9 months ago now. My stamina was way down I discovered after almost 3 years of not being able to walk far, lugging a big pack…..which weighed far more than 3 years ago (?) and not listening to that inner voice…..or my gut…..same thing.

    • Hi Jo,
      I’m sorry that you’ve suffered similar lessons to me, but I’m also a bit perversely glad that I’m not alone! Ha ha.
      Happy Birthday – enjoy your time in Dallas, and winter in NZ! I hope you continue to recover brilliantly from your hip replacement; given a bit more healing time, I’ll bet you’ll be even more nimble with your new hip than you were prior!

  9. Oh My God.

    Professional ??? hardly….

    I’ve lived in San Pedro for four years. I speak very little Spanish. I use a positive attitude, common sense and my own inner voice… I love it here. This ‘professional’ person sounds like a persnickety, entitled white person …. I too am ‘white’ … but I don’t let it hinder me in communicating with some of the most beautiful people on the planet. By beautiful, I mean inner beauty. This ‘professional’ person has missed so much …. by her own walls of defense – and fear. Go forward with a good heart and no fear and you will live in bliss.

    • I have no idea what any of this comment means, much less how it pertains to the article above. (But it’s probably best that you don’t elaborate – ha)
      I’m glad you like living in San Pedro. I’ve heard good things.

  10. I feel there was much of Panajachel that you didn’t get to experience. I have gone to live and work there a couple of times. To this day it is one of my favorite places to visit. There are beautiful people that are loving and kind. The daily walks were amazing. I made friends both Maya and expats whose friendships I’ll always cherish. It saddens me to hear that you didn’t have a good experience. But I hope people don’t frown upon the idea of visiting Guatemala and Lake Atitlan.
    The life around the lake is such a wonderful experience and I hope readers give it a chance.


    • Hi Stevie,
      I totally believe that Guatemala and Lake Atitlan are very special places – there is so much evidence of it, and I always hear great things. While my Guatemalan friends in Canada don’t think much of Panajachel, I also believe it has many redeeming qualities.

      Which is why this article emphasizes that my real mistake was not taking the time I needed to recover from being very ill before traveling again. Travel is so contextual, and if we’re not feeling well, it can reflect in a poor experience overall.

      I will return to Guatemala, one day!

  11. Once in a while you hear people saying that Guatemala is a dangerous country to be because they mug you on the streets late at night, or they rob you, sometimes killings? So they advice u not to go there to visit? I guess it is safer to live here in USA, where you hear “Every Day” killings, people vanishing,mass murders in malls and schools, children with guns killing on the streets, people exploding their bombs attached to their bodies in bars, people driving cars where there are groups of people, crazy people shooting at random at parks? You hear these news every single day in USA. Guess what country is more dangerous to live at!!

    • David- Thank you for the common sense advice! I live in the US and it was a good reminder that safety is all relative. I am always a careful traveler, but people have been freaking me out with all of this “crime talk” I want to enjoy my trip in Guatemala and don’t want all of this messing with my head.

      Nora- Thanks for your perspectives and advice. Helpful!

    • Visited Guatemala 5x. Travel alone. Single older white woman w red hair. Guatemalans have told me they marvel at my being so brave. Yes, I stay on tourist routes, get in by 9:30 pm. AND quote what you have written regarding the USA! I feel much more afraid at home! USA is far more violent, far more often, far less predictable

  12. Lady I think you are millionaire with a high delicate personality you choose the wrong country you should go to Qatar and Guatemala is for people who like adventurous and meet poor people but with a beautiful heart. I live in Canada and I tell you this i can hear my neighbor dog barking and the person screaming saying bad words. But I understand this world is not perfect.

  13. Wow… Panajachel a dumpster? It is the largest town, and not all of it is a dumpster. I’m sorry you pick a bad area and a bad Airbnb but you destroyed the whole town with your article. Not once you mentioned anything about the beauty of the lake or the kindness of the people.

    No, need to lie either, if you didn’t like it, you didn’t like it. But somehow it feels like the whole article was written at a moment of discomfort and your note at the end about your overall exhaustion doesn’t take away the fact that you destroyed the country/city.

    • Hi Anne,
      Wow, you give me too much credit for “destroying the country/city” in my article! Thank you for thinking I have that kind of power. Ha ha!

      I’m glad you got the point of the article however; one that I tried to make very clear at the end––that what I was really experiencing was personal discomfort and exhaustion, and that it was reflected in my travel experience.

      Thank you for your comment.

  14. I am living in Canada and just week ago we have a man who kill over 15 peoples in just one day this happened in Nova Scotia and often someone dies in Calgary due to the drugs gangster my bycicle got stolen from the back yard of my house and also there is a bad smell around my area from the recycle field.but after all I love Canada and I understand it is hard to be the perfect country.

    • Good for you, Francisco. I appreciate your view.

      I will not engage in a debate with you about how Canada and Guatemala compare. The nature of your comments imply that you misunderstood what (I thought was) the whole point of this article.

      But that is my fault as the writer, not yours as the reader. Rather than try to explain it all to you here, I will reexamine and edit my work accordingly. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  15. I would never choose to read anything about travel that this person says, I have been to 90 Countries and have had a home anong 25 others that are all rental properties. Over the 14 years we have these properties we have rented to thiusands if famlies, singles, old people young people and children and have NEVER had anyine mugged or anythins stoled. This person knows how to write but excuse me does not know how to travel. PANA WHICH IS CALLED GRINGO PANANGO can be a wonderful place to stayif you know what you are doing which has nothing to do with planning. This young qwoman has no business in third world countries. I wqould suggest she and her boyfriend stick to Western Europe. The first time I was in Guatemala 15 tears I planned my own trip which I have done for 50 years, it was 9 nights and went to Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Tikal also spending two nights in Guate City. 1 year later I returned for 5 weeks only booking one night in the City, renting a car, which I did the first time for the 9 night trip and traveled all over the country NEVER having a problem.
    This woman thinks she is a traverel but from what I read, she needs someone to guide her about how to take a trip.

    • This comment is so poorly written that even the website the of their property that I presume they were trying to promote by leaving a comment in the first place…was misspelled and thus the link was inaccurate.

      But I think I get the point the commenter is trying to make. I don’t know how to travel. Loud and clear. To each their own.

  16. I appreciate your honesty and think you were very clear in your assessment of burnout affecting your travel, you made very good points. I travelled all over Guatemala about 30 years ago, it was a travel of wonder, there was only 1 guidebook at the time and traveller’s checks were the only way to carry funds, they took sometimes 2 hours to cash, you really needed patience. Panajachel was just a little place then, and kinda dear, we found a hotel that was exactly like a string of stables with suspect mattress material, but a warm and welcoming owner made it just fine, we bused from one place to the next with no solid plan, so few tourists then. Even then no travelling at night, the one time we were on a bus at dusk we were stopped and a bunch of guys with machine guns piled on, the bus went silent, everyone avoided eye contact, we failed to blend in being the only tourists on the bus, I was plenty scared as they were hollering their heads of till all of a sudden they stopped the bus, thanked the driver for the ride and left. The bus was silent till we were down the road a ways and then everyone burst into nervous laughter . We were young at the time so very resilient and met so very many kind people, the big pogroms of the 80s were not too distant a memory for the people then and life was very tough for most. We learned to eat what we saw growing, farming onions? Great how about onion soup. Otherwise we ate a lot of spaghetti and Maria cookies, you couldn’t be fussy then about food you just had to make do, so many had so little you just couldn’t fuss. One meal stood out, for taste and thoughtfulness. We had just got off the bus in Panajachel, right after the machine gun episode, frazzled and tired, we walked down the dusty unpaved street that led to the lake and it was lined with men and women with little wok like pans frying French fries ( or chips as we call them) they were using yellow potatoes which were not on our grocery shelves at the time, we figured all that deep frying would make anything safe so we lined up to order, the only non indigenous folks there, when we got to order the man had us wait, he put in fresh oil and cut the potatoes before us, just to make us feel safe, how kind, he didn’t have to but he did, they were the best fries I ever ate. My memories of that 6 weeks travel has stayed with me all these years, the physical beauty of it was amazing, but it was the unflagging kindness from people that had so little touched my heart deeply. I think you gave very good advice, also I feel perhaps just a few days here and there, staying longer if it suits might make the trip more enjoyable.

  17. I’m sorry that my country had to pay the price for your “fear” and your bad state and choices. Yes, things happen here and you have to take care of yourself but it’s a gorgeous country and it honestly has the best weather in the entire world, you won’t find weather like Guatemala’s anywhere else. I’ve lived here 26 years and nothing bad has ever happened to me, sometimes I wish I could explore more but I’ve explored quite a bit. As a traveler myself, there several places that have incomparable beauty to anywhere else I’ve visited.

  18. I went to Guatemala for several weeks the end of last January and into February and stayed in San Marcos in a hostel. San Marcos is considered to be a hippie town which I liked and it is a small town. Being a small town I saw many of the same people everyday and I felt safe walking the streets, going to the market place, going to the lake, etc. The people I met were friendly and helpful. The country is beautiful, the people are welcoming, and I hope to return there someday.

  19. I am currently in Guatemala, staying in Panajachel. I have been here 9 times in the last 4 years and consider it my home away from home and the people I have met here are like family to me. If you had done your research, you would know not to stay on the other side of the river. I have never felt unsafe here, even traveling as a single woman, and I find it sad that you gave such a horrible review of such a wonderful place. Antigua to me is an overpriced tourist area, albeit beautiful. We work with people in the villages all around Lake Atitlán and have come to love the heart and souls of the Mayan people found here. I admit I miss a good salad, water pressure, and drinking from the tap, but wifi and other “first world” comforts have been creeping in over the last few years. My fear is that it will change the wonderful, beautiful culture that is Guatemala. Hope you give it another chance and can write a review that won’t be so harsh.

    • Hi Dana,
      I’m so happy that you love Guatemala and Panajachel in particular. I find it so interesting that you and others have read my article as a “review” of Guatemala, despite my repeatedly saying that my observations weren’t about the country itself, but rather my personal experience and inner process.
      Case in point: You say if I had done my research properly, I would have known not to stay on the other side of the river in Panajachel. And what was the very first, front-and-centre mistake I mentioned in this article? Not researching enough. So, thanks for proving my point, I guess!

  20. We, two female travelers, should have paid more attention to the safety warnings. Although we enjoyed the vast majority of our trip, it really was unsafe pretty much the whole time!

    Read the warnings on the US State Department’s webpage on travel to Guatemala — dangerous roads, active volcanoes, torrential rains and landslides, unsafe public transportation (including boating in the lakes), bacteria in the water/food, and physical danger to travelers are all real and serious threats.

    We had an intruder on the deck of our cottage at a 4-star resort on a lake near Tikal. The experience was terrifying and we feel thankful that nothing more happened than our screaming at the top of our lungs for several minutes until the intruder left. The hotel said he was “security.” We don’t believe that.

    Be careful — where the state department recommends traveling with a group or with security, follow the recommendations. Otherwise, Guatemala is beautiful and interesting and worth the visit!!

  21. I definitely understand the travel burn out mindset & where you’re coming from. Currently living in Antigua now and have been here for the past 3 months. It’s incredibly safe, even in the evening. Just be smart, of course. I think the issue with your article is repeating “hearsay” and 2nd hand accounts of danger… you’ll always have the one or two horrific stories that people recount but that could also happen anywhere. I understand you were more so sharing about your mindset and how you got to where you were but it really does paint a negative light on the country. I understand people being upset. I would definitely recommend editing this to be more respectful. You can still get your emotional well being across without recounting specific horror stories in detail.

    • Thank you for your feedback Amy, and I will take that to heart.

      But even in Antigua, I was warned – many times, by Guatemalans and expats alike – not to walk alone in certain places at night.
      And the guy with the mashed up face, who had been living in Antigua for many years – that’s not hearsay; I spoke to him about it.
      I think like you say, it’s important to be smart.


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