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Living in Guatemala

A practical guide to the way of life in Guatemala

Famous for its natural beauty and Mayan runes, there's more to life in Guatemala than hiking up a volcano, though! Discover more about living in Guatemala as an expatriate in this article, from transportation, healthcare, education, and more.

Life in Guatemala

Guatemala, officially known as the Republic of Guatemala, is situated in Central America. The country shares borders with Mexico to the north and west, Belize to the north-east, Honduras to the east and El Salvador to the south-east. Guatemala has 400 kilometers of coastline shared between the Pacific Ocean to the south-west and the Caribbean Sea to the east.

Healthcare in Guatemala

Expatriates planning a new life in Guatemala are advised to be vaccinated against diseases commonly found in Central America, including hepatitis A and B, as well as typhoid. Depending on the location, it may be advisable to take anti-malarial medication or be vaccinated against dengue fever also. Of course, precautions such as mosquito repellents and nets, hand sanitizer, and drinking bottled water are beneficial.

The cities and larger towns have both publicly funded and private hospitals. As one might expect, the private hospitals have shorter waiting times and typically the doctors speak a little English, but these hospitals are more expensive than public ones. Rural towns have health clinics, and each village typically has a doctor.

There is approximately one doctor per 1,000 people living in Guatemala, which is half the World Health Organization’s recommended ratio, and the rate of spending on healthcare is comparatively low. Sadly, this may be linked to the high infant mortality rate and low life expectancy at birth.

Education in Guatemala

Education is compulsory for six years in Guatemala, but while schools are funded by the government and are free of charge, the cost of books, transport and uniforms is often too much for Guatemalans to afford. Enrolment in primary school is in the region of 80-90%, but only 30% of children who start school complete it. Many children are withdrawn from school to be put to work and the literacy rate is 75%.

State funding of the education system is very low at 3%, so a good choice for expats moving to Guatemala is the wide selection of international schools. Languages spoken include English, French, German, Spanish, and Japanese and the facilities and extracurricular activities are typically of a high standard. There are international schools in Guatemala City, Antigua, and Quetzaltenango.

Transportation in Guatemala

There is no rail network in Guatemala, even though railways were built – but they have since closed. Travel within the county is typically done by road. The majority of the road network is unpaved, but roads within the major cities are paved and often one way. Guatemalans typically get around by bus and the quality of vehicles varies vastly.

So called ‘chicken buses’ are recycled old vehicles, often American school buses, and will stop anywhere, for anyone. These buses are often overcrowded with people and livestock, hence the name. Pullman buses operate between cities and are of a higher standard. There are also decent taxi services and tuk-tuks for short distances in the cities.

Expats can use their own country’s driving license or an International Driving Permit to drive in Guatemala for the first month of their stay. Following that, they will need to get local, temporary driving permit (called Permisos) from the police.

That said, some of the quirks of drivers in the country demand consideration. Drivers going uphill take right of way and if there is a traffic incident, a warning system of placing branches and shrubs in the road is put in place, but rarely cleared away afterwards. It is inadvisable to drive at night due to carjacking and drunk drivers.

Next to the road network, there are 990 km of waterways throughout the country, around 750 km of which only become usable during high water season. There are also 11 airports with paved runways.

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Updated on: December 06, 2018
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