Friends and family were dumbfounded when I told them of my plans to move to Guatemala. They reasoned Guatemala was dangerous and not a good place to live at all. Of course, none had ever set foot here before.
This is fairly excusable if you are to believe the information put out there by other governments that Guatemala is a dangerous place where caution must be exercised at every turn. And they have stats to back it up, as Guatemala is one of the top 10 countries in the world when it comes to homicide.
But not all is as black and white as the numbers would lead you to believe. While the murder rate is high, it’s almost half that of El Salvador and Honduras (currently most dangerous country in the world), it’s two neighboring countries.
Mexico has seen a huge rise in crime in the last two years, and now has 5 of the top 10 most violent cities in the world, with Honduras (2), Brazil (2), and Venezuela round out the top 10. Still, many Americans choose to make Mexico their home and find it safer than the US city where they came from.
How could this be?
Not All Cities Are Created Equal
It all depends on whether you have done your homework before making the transition. Just like many people have no problems living in beautiful Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I did my homework and found my ideal city to live in Guatemala.
Turns out, when you use crime statistics to gauge the safety of an entire country, not only are you doing a disservice to its people but missing out on great places to visit. It would be like saying you don’t want to visit Disney World because crime is high in Detroit.
In Guatemala, crime stats are heavily skewed by what happens in Guatemala City, the capital. And not the entire city at that, but zones (the city is split into sections known as “zones”) where gang violence and crime are much higher than everywhere else.
Watch the video below about urban renewal in the capital’s historic downtown, known as Zona 1, which I’ll cover more in-depth Friday:
The city I live in, Antigua Guatemala, is an example of an easy “transition city,” which are cities that are less likely to throw your world upside-down upon first arriving. They also have the advantage of being reasonably safe for foreigners.
What Makes a Good Transition City?
Everything is exciting and new when you first arrive at any country. You might recognize a few global chains dotting the landscape, such as McDonald’s and Starbucks. But aside from those, things will likely be very different from those back home.
In addition to looking for a safe place to live, a few other factors will help your move be a successful one. What are those factors?
Make sure you consider these factors as they relate to your transition destination:
Built-In Expat Community
A transition city, assuming you have moved into a non-English-speaking country, will have a moderate to a high population of expats from your home country. Having an established community makes adjusting to the new surroundings much easier. Plus they can point what are the best places to live.
You can meet with like-minded people for all sorts of things, whether it’s over your shared love of curry and Indian food, or to get involved with local volunteer groups.
This is another stumbling block for brand-new expats and world travelers, especially if the expat community is small. And doubly hard when the language is hard to learn.
Antigua Guatemala is well-known for its many quality Spanish schools. Spanish is relatively straightforward and easy to pick up for most westerners. The same can’t be said for other languages in popular expat destinations, such as Thai and Japanese.
Something to keep in mind if planning to live overseas for the first time. You’ll feel less anxious and less awkward around the locals when you can understand the language and assess any situation quickly.
Availability of Comfort Food
If you’re kind of adventurous with your food, this shouldn’t be a problem. Not everybody is so quick to adjust to new flavors and spices, which is why having the availability of at least ingredients to prepare your favorite meals is a big plus.
Antigua has no shortage of restaurants catering to all tastes, including a very nicely appointed McDonald’s. Occasionally you’ll crave a few things that are hard to find, if not impossible (haven’t found Nathans hot dogs, yet), but you learn to adapt to what’s available.
Best to keep yourself looking at the positives and learn to find new favorites. Plus it’s nice to save some cash by eating as the locals do.
Stay Safe Overseas
Finding a great place to live overseas is not a perfect science. Do your due diligence and learns the ins and outs of your new location before you make a move. It helps to connect with fellow expats online, or even better, make an exploratory trip before you commit to a city and ask the local what they think.
Safety should not be your primary concern when in the country if you chose your neighborhood wisely before settling in. Knowing what to expect realistically will make the transition that much smoother.
Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun!
Clowning around in Antigua Guatemala
What’s most important to you
when moving to a new city?