Is Guatemala Safe? What Some Guatemalans Think About Safety and Rights

Safety in Guatemala

***The following is an article about safety living in Antigua Guatemala.

If you’re planning on traveling here, also check out this article about Antigua Guatemala safety (new window).***

How would you respond if you were living in a foreign country and heard that thieves broke into a nearby house, poisoned all the neighbor’s dogs, all to steal the clothes in their closet?

Or what if thieves strolled into your “secure” gated condo in their vehicle, in broad daylight, and forced their way into three empty homes, calmly taking any belongings they liked? All while the “security guard,” pleading ignorance because he was at the corner grocery store drinking Coke and munching on Tortrix (the cultural equivalent of potato chips in Guatemala), happened to be away at the exact time window the robbery happened?

I’m not on edge, but recent events in our neighborhood have made me think about security in Guatemala… again. Try as I might, it seems one can’t get away from the topic. But how do Guatemalans view this issue? What’s their reaction to crime?

I got a glimpse of it during the neighborhood meeting that ensued after a rash of robberies put our sleepy gated condo on edge. And coming from a law enforcement background and who’s well aware of the Bill of Rights in the US, their response surprised me a bit. But first some background:

How Guatemalans View the Safety Issue

I often get questions about Antigua Guatemala’s safety, which I’ve written about in the past (click to open a new window). It’s my view that how secure or insecure you feel here will come down to what your background is and how accustomed you are to being mindful of your surroundings – aka your “street smarts.”

Having lived up and down the East Coast in the US, I can tell you it’s a lot different to live in Passaic, New Jersey (478 out of 490, one of the worst cities in NJ when it comes to crime) than it is to live in the sleepy suburb of Middleton, Massachusetts, where the crime rate is two-thirds lower than the national average.

Safety in Guatemala

Having bars on every window seem to be a must in Guatemala

Is Guatemala Safe?

But… what do Guatemalans think about security in their country? It turns out it’s very much in their mind.

Ask any Guatemalan if they, or a close family member, has been a victim of a crime. Invariably, they’ll rattle off some brushes they’ve experienced with crime, some probably recent. Heck, I’m still ticked off that my new bicycle was stolen in broad daylight.

In a survey published by Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre (click for infographic – in Spanish) 52% of Guatemalans decried “lack of security” as their primary concern, 35% cited economic concerns (high cost of living, unemployment, extreme poverty, and low salaries), while corruption came at a very low 3%. How does this impact the average tourist or future expat in Guatemala? It depends.

Much of the crime in Guatemala happens in its capital, Guatemala City. For the most part, the government does a good job of protecting tourists. Now, this doesn’t mean visitors are immune from crime. Petty theft and violent crime do happen, even in and around Antigua – especially if you don’t heed the advice that would apply anywhere else in the world, like:

  • “Don’t get drunk and wander into dark alleys late at night.”
  • “Don’t flash cash or expensive equipment around people you don’t know.”
  • “Be careful walking about in remote wooded areas on your own without a machete-wielding guide.”

Don’t make yourself a target and you’ll be okay and have a splendid time here.

But what about expat life? Those of us who have settled here? How do we protect ourselves? That’s an uncomfortable question I’m often forced to ask myself.

How Guatemalans Go About Protecting Themselves

After last week’s neighborhood robbery, it seems residents had had enough. A big meeting was called for last Sunday evening. I usually tend to skip those, but had I known things were going to get that interesting; I would’ve attended.

Here are the most important points that were made in the meeting, according to the wife, who was present, and my observations:

1. No private security company would be hired.

It seems that nobody in Guatemala fully trusts the people they’re paying money to protect them. Whenever something like this happens, the first people suspected are the security guards. After all, they know who is in or out and what their schedule looks like. In our condo’s case, the gatekeeper – the one who conveniently vanished right as the crimes were happening – was fired on the spot. He wasn’t arrested because Police lacked proof he was involved, but he had to be gone. (I later found out the man who did odd jobs around the condo was the culprit – he scoped out houses and passed along the info to accomplices).

The security detail for our community are local guys – we often run into them outside the condo when they’re off duty. We ran into the same guy who was fired just a couple of days before – he sat behind us on the chicken bus. Yeah, it’s going to be awkward if we run into him again.

Now, what about a professional outfit, like bulletproof vest wearing, quasi-military companies like Grupo Golan? According to the neighbors, they’re even worse. Because these are professional guys, they’re more likely to dabble in extortion plots and kidnapping, they argued. I don’t know the likelihood of a private security guard going rogue, but I did find one such case regarding extortion by one of their agents (article in Spanish). Police Officers here are routinely involved in extortion plots, so why would private companies be different?

“Coincidentally,” someone from Golan had just happened to drop a bunch of leaflets offering their services a week before the incident happened, something that I had never seen before. What are the odds the two events being wholly and entirely unrelated? It certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the neighbors.

So basically, they’ll continue to underpay gatekeepers – less than minimum wage, which is illegal – and trust them with their homes when they’re away. Sounds like a brilliant plan :: eye roll::

2. More cameras will be installed.

A plan was hatched, and now neighbors are expected to pitch in Q200 per household by the end of the week to install additional cameras. Right, because the ones already at the gate worked so well.

In fact, there WERE cameras and monitors set up to watch over the gate. Unfortunately, they happened not to be working that morning. Such a shame, I know. That fired gatekeeper must have the worst luck in the world, be truly incompetent, or more likely, quite sneaky. Who will watch the watchers? No one thought to ask, apparently.

3. Random searches by a private investigator.

This one got my blood boiling and has me ready for a showdown at next Sunday’s meeting. So I’m supposed to allow a private investigator, a total stranger of the HOAs choosing, to come into my house and look through my stuff? How would they even know what’s mine and what isn’t? Of course, the consensus at the meeting seemed to be “Hey, if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about, right?” And unbelievably, people appeared to be OK with this!

“Over my dead body will they come and root around my house,” I said to the wife when she told me this.

“But if you don’t, that’ll cause more trouble!” she said.

“What kind of trouble? Don’t they need a court order to search a house?” I replied.

“They can call Police and get us in trouble. It’s not like it’ll be your DPI (Guatemalan ID Card) that will be on file!” She was becoming agitated.

“On file for what? On what grounds??? What charges???” I countered.

And on and on it went. I was thisclose to sleeping on the sofa after that one.

Afterward, I went on a searching spree online. Does there a exist a Guatemalan Bill of Rights? More specifically, I wanted to know if  there was something in the law here like the Fourth Amendment in the US, which states:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

It turns out there is! Article 23 of the Guatemalan Constitution reads as follows:

“Article 23 -. Inviolability of the home. The property is inviolable. No one can enter another person’s home without permission of the occupant, except from the competent judge in the matter of diligence and never specified before six or eighteen hours after order. Such diligence is always conducted with the person concerned or his authorized representative.”

Unless there’s a court order, issued by a judge, not even an owner can enter a renter’s property without the renter’s consent – as long as the renter has a signed contract and is in good standing. Something to keep in your back pocket in case you run into a meddlesome landlord.

Of course, the subject of weapons in the home was discussed and pros and cons, as well as the finer points of “self-defense” law. This is something I’m now kicking myself for having missed.

So, What Do We Do?

Right now, we’re watching and waiting. Fortunately, one of us is home most of the time, so it would be hard for someone to sneak into our home. We’ll probably end up moving before year’s end anyway. We’ve been here for about a year and a half without incident, but it feels like it’ll only be a matter of time the longer we stay.

For one, I’m now very aware why there’s a need for bars on windows – fire hazard be damned – on even the poshest of residential neighbors. And if you think this doesn’t happen in better communities in Antigua, think again. Coincidentally, a friend had told me about a similar rash of robberies in a popular expat neighborhood inside Antigua proper (name withheld).

It’s not all sunshine and roses in “the land of eternal spring.” Make safety a priority if moving to Antigua Guatemala.

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What’s your experience regarding safety in Guatemala?

Share below!

Valhalla Macadamia Farm: Visitors Guide

Macadamia Pancakes Valhalla Macadamia Farm Antigua guatemala

Let’s play a quick game of mental association. When I say “macadamia,” what comes to mind? If you’re like most people, it’ll probably be “Hawaii”. But did you know that macadamia trees are indigenous to Australia? Hawaii just happened to market macadamia nuts better than anyone else.

In fact, Hawaii now has to import macadamias from all over the world – from California and even Guatemala – to keep up with demand. One could, in theory, eat Guatemalan macadamia nuts that have been imported to Hawaii, then shipped to your local Walmart in the form of Hawaiian macadamia nuts.

How did I become a macadamia-savant? Well, it wasn’t because I went on a macadamia-induced Wikipedia binge. I learned the precious little bit I now know about macadamias after my visit last week to Valhalla Experimental Station, a macadamia farm, spa, and restaurant located on the outskirts of Antigua Guatemala – near San Miguel Dueñas to be exact.

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Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm Antigua Guatemala

Entrance to Valhalla

The History of Valhalla Macadamia Farm

The Valhalla Experimental Station is the brainchild of Lorenzo Gottschamer and Emilia Aguirre, the welcoming couple who owns the farm. My wife and I spoke at length with Emilia, who graciously showed us around a bit.

The couple has dedicated a good chunk of their lives to perfecting their genetic stock of organically-grown macadamia trees that are strongest and most naturally-suited to thrive in Guatemala.

It hasn’t always been easy – the couple lived in an Airstream trailer inside the property for over 15 years while they supervised – and did – much of the hands-on work of planting and processing macadamias. To learn more about their story, click here (opens new window).

The Gottschamer's First Home in Guatemala

Lorenzo and Emilia’s Old Home

Attractions at Valhalla

While Valhalla is a working farm, it does have attractions for tourists and local visitors.

It features a restaurant, a spa (open by appointment), and a small store that sells miscellaneous macadamia-related products, chief among them beauty products, as macadamia oil has been found to possess anti-aging properties. Visitors can get a free facial (tip not included) and try out their products.

Valhalla Oxygen Lounge Restaurant

Valhalla’s main draw is its restaurant, which offers breakfast and lunch options.

But to be honest, it’s all about the pancakes, which have bits of macadamia nuts, drizzled with creamy macadamia butter and topped with fresh blueberry marmalade – blueberries happen to be organically grown on on the farm.

Macadamia Pancakes ,Valhalla Macadamia Farm, Antigua guatemala

Don’t be fooled – these pancakes will leave you stuffed!

They’ve also expanded their menu, adding macadamia-smoked BBQ, burgers, salads, pasta omelets and other goodies. Check out their menu options here.

Valhalla Wellness SPA

If you’re interested in a spa session – featuring luxurious yet affordable macadamia oils and creams – contact Valhalla directly, and they can arrange that for you (see prices here).

Valhalla Wellness Spa, Antigua Guatemala

Valhalla Farm’s Spa

The visitors’ area grounds are delightful to walk around. In fact, if all you want to do is check out the farm and walk around for a bit, you’re welcome to do so. Bring a book if you want, find a spot in the shade and soak in the peaceful atmosphere. Plans to build bungalows are in the works.

Helping Local Communities

In addition to commercial ventures, the farm aims to provide local farmers with young macadamia trees at little or no-cost. The trees serve to encourage farmers to consume macadamias, which are rich in omega-7 and monosaturated fats. If farmers produce macadamias in enough quantities, they can sell macadamias for export. Valhalla – a certified macadamia grower – can process macadamias for farmers, which nets them a higher profit than if they sold their macadamias unprocessed.

A macadamia tree starts producing fruits in about two years on average, is disease-resistant and produces year round.

An added benefit of encouraging farmers to plant macadamia trees is that it prevents the use of slash-and-burn agriculture, which is prevalent here. This type of farming depletes the soil of nutrients and the expense of short-term crop gains.

Macadamia trees also supply ample firewood, making them even more attractive to locals.

To learn more about the farm and about the benefits of macadamias, click on any pic below to start the slideshow:

Getting To Valhalla

To get to Valhalla, catch a chicken bus bound for San Miguel Dueñas – they leave every 30 minutes from the main terminal. The trip is about 15-20 minutes and costs Q4 from Antigua. Just ask the driver to drop you off at the Macadamia farm.

Hours: Open daily from 8 am to 4:30 pm.

Email: info@valhallamacfarm.com

Phone: (502) 7831-5799 and (502) 5889-4925.

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Check out more fun stuff: https://www.okantigua.com/things-to-do-in-antigua-guatemala/

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Have you visited Valhalla yet?

Caoba Farms, Antigua Guatemala: Visitors Guide

Organic Farm Caoba Farms Antigua Guatemala

Contrary to what many people believe, not all fruits and vegetables found at Antigua’s Mercado are wholesome and organic. In fact, many crops are sprayed with a huge amount of pesticides – some claim that in Guatemala up to 40% more pesticides are used than actually necessary.

That is the reason why we wash all our fruits and vegetables at home very thoroughly before eating them. But that still leaves one exposed to all the chemical fertilizers used to grow the crops. So, what to do?

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Caoba Farms in Antigua Guatemala

Organic Produce Store

Fortunately, there’s a growing awareness in Antigua about the importance of using sustainable, organic farming techniques.

This week, I visited Caoba Farms, an organic farm that provides restaurants and locals with many vegetables (such as arugula) that aren’t available anywhere else, as well as standard products.

Caoba Farms' Store and Offices

 Caoba Farms’ Store and Offices

I came away very impressed with their operation. Caoba Farms produces most of the items they sell, including honey, free-range meat, and of course, fruits and vegetables. I was surprised to find they even had chemical-free dog food available for sale. Their prices are reasonable, and they even deliver as far as Lake Atitlan.

I also liked that all their produce is thoroughly washed with filtered water before packaging (see photo gallery). To place an order, call 7832-9201 or 5203-8473.

Wide Selection of Produce and Items

Wide Selection of Produce and Items

How to Volunteer at Caoba Farms

Caoba Farms also accepts volunteers, which work alongside paid staff. If you want to learn more about organic farming – and get paid in veggies – Caoba Farms is worth checking out. You get a bag of vegetables for three hours of work – it starts at 9 am sharp. Some of the tasks include pulling weeds, cleaning animal yards, planting seedlings, turning compost, and harvesting seeds. you can see their volunteer schedule here.

If you’re interested in volunteering, email them at farmscaoba@gmail.com or call them at 5685-7286.

Guided Tours

They also offer guided tours for 60Q, which last an hour to an hour and a half. For 135Q the tour concludes with a meal. See more info here.

There’s also an introductory course to permaculture, which lasts 3 days, and costs 1,150Q – lunch included. Contact them for course dates.

Tours start when the shuttle picks up passengers – Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3 p.m and Saturdays at 10 a.m. Email info@caobafarms.com for details.

Caoba Nights (Thursdays)

This is geared more towards adults, but kids are welcome. There’s live music, a large selection of craft beers, plus board games and other games (cornhole or toss, depending on where you come from).

Shuttle departs from Tanque de la Union

There’s a free shuttle, which departs from Tanque de la Union (2a Avenida Sur and 6a Avenida Oriente) every half hour, starting at 6 pm.

Farmers Market (Saturdays)

Caoba Farms hosts a Farmers Market every Saturday with live music, art exhibits, organic food and drinks, games, and workshops.

There are free shuttles to the farm starting at 9 am from Tanque de la Union (2a Avenida Sur).

Activities For Kids (Sundays)

If you’re looking for a place to have lunch with your kids, Caoba has you covered. They offer free activities from 11:30 am to 2 pm, while you sit down for a relaxed meal or have a drink at the cafe. There’s often live music as well.

Yoga Classes (Thursdays and Sundays)

If you’re in the mood, Caoba has yoga classes every Thursday from 5 pm to 6 pm and Sundays from 10 am to 11:15 am. A donation of 30Q is suggested.

Flea Market (First Sunday of Every Month)

Whether you want to buy or sell your second-hand items, you can visit Caoba on the first Sunday of every month. It’s a fun atmosphere, as there is live music, and food and crafts vendors as well.

Photos of the Farm

Click on any pic to open gallery:

Location Map (Walking Directions)

Caoba Farms Antigua Directions

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More activities here: https://www.okantigua.com/things-to-do-in-antigua-guatemala/

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Have you shopped at Caoba Farms?

What was your experience like?