|Lake Atitlán at dawn|
When I first visited in 1990, the civil war was still in full swing. Someone had been machine gunned on the front steps of the swank Camino Real hotel days before my arrival, and every visit to farms entailed riding in a Land Rover with a shot gun under the seat and other weapons in the hands of armed guards. Over a hundred local villagers had just been massacred in the village of Santiago Atitlán, producers of one of the certified organic coffees I'd been buying. The political realities of Guatemala (one of the original Banana Republics), and the U.S. role in undermining democracy and supporting murderous dictatorships there, was impossible to ignore. While still at Starbucks I began a lengthy correspondence with a professor of political science who'd devoted his life to telling the "back story" of life in Guatemala, and he shared with me a quote (I don't know the source) that has stayed with me ever since:
"Beauty cloaks Guatemala the way that music hides screams."
25 years later the civil war is still a fairly fresh memory. The huge disparity between rich and poor and the oppression of the indigenous majority by a tiny ruling class are the same as ever, and the abundant supply of guns has shifted into private hands, with many in use by gangs involved in drug dealing, kidnapping, extortion and human trafficking. Guatemala continues to be one of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world, as this State Department report makes abundantly clear.
Having lived in México for 3+ years my wife and I had adapted to living in places where rule of law is essentially non-existent, but there is of course a gradation in actual and perceived risk, from the relative safety of such gringo retirement havens as Lake Chapala or San Miguel de Allende, to the chilling atmosphere of Ciudad Juarez or the wilds of Michoacán. Guatemala City, even in the nicer and safer areas, feels more like the latter Mexican locales.
As for the beauty of Guatemala, the fact that the country is awash in tourists despite high crime, poor infrastructure, expensive airfares to get there from any country and a strong local currency ought to tell you all you need to know. The natural beauty and cultural riches are off the charts. My wife and I, on the other hand, naturally see Guatemala through a México expat's lenses, and from that perspective it's hard to think of anything, culturally or culinarily, offered by the country that isn't offered by Oaxaca or Chiapas at 30-50% lower cost and with infinitely better food.
We'd bought the most current guidebooks available for Guatemala prior to departure as well as consulting online resources such as expat forums and found all of the information on costs available to be way out of date. Not only has it been 6-8 years since these books were revised but the real surge in Guatemala tourism has occurred only since 2011 with a significant increase in prices due at least in part to many more European tourists (enough of a factor that almost all tourist-oriented restaurants charge 10% service automatically).
For anyone contemplating a visit or (like us) thinking of Guatemala as a possible longer-term winter respite location, here are a few observations from our just-concluded trip:
Lodging: while hostelers can do just fine on $7-10 a night, costs for hotels and guest houses in Guatemala are 30-50% higher, apples-to-apples in terms of amenities, than in México. A $25 hotel room in Antigua or at Lake Atitlán is generally going to be like a $15 room in México, which is to say rock-hard bed, not particularly clean, with well-worn polyester sheets, lumpy pillows, marginal security, etc. We (too) often found ourselves spending $40 a night for still very basic but more livable accommodation.
Anyone contemplating a longer stay (say for language study or volunteering) would clearly be better off renting a furnished apartment or the like, and we saw plenty of these on offer at prices comparable to what you'd pay in touristy areas of México.
Transport: Guatemala doesn't have anything resembling the deluxe buses that make long-distance travel in México such a pleasure. Chicken buses are an interesting one-time cultural experience but that's it: they're dangerous, hot and crowded and your chances of being permanently separated from your luggage are quite high. Minivans holding up to 12 people are the best option between popular sites and are quite affordable. Once at your destination their are tuk tuks like the one below that can take you anywhere you need to go for a couple of dollars.
Food: the staples in Guatemala are refried black beans, hand (never machine) made corn tortillas, queso fresco and an abudance of fresh fruits, squash and other vegetables. Indigenous stews such as pepian are worth a try as well, but (again) through a Mexican lens Guatemalan cuisine (like that of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and anywhere else in Central America) is about as bland and boring as small-town dining in the American Midwest - which probably goes a long ways towards explaining the endless choices of foreign cuisine in all of the tourist hot spots.
While you can find a complete meal for $2-3 in local comedors, it's not likely to be a satisfying long-term choice unless you're truly prepared to "go native" in terms of adapting to local bacteria and getting used to the food-as-fuel reality of eating a dozen or more tortillas in lieu of more diverse but costly cuisine. $5-7 per person per meal is more realistic, and in any place offering international cuisine you should expect U.S. plus prices but with lower quality cooking and abysmally slow service. Don't expect to find anything remotely resembling the paradise of street food one gets used to in México: instead of glorious 75 cent tacos you'll see fried chicken and french fries, at KFC prices but with third world sanitation.
We did stay at a few places with shared kitchen facilities and bought fruit and veggies at local markets, but here again learned in short order that the only way to avoid paying 2-3 times the actual local price is to shop at a supermarket, where there are fixed prices but of course much lower produce quality. This kind of price gouging for foreigners is certainly something we've experienced from time to time in México but never with the consistency we found in Antigua and at Lake Atitlán. I'd guess a retiree living in such places might eventually be offered the real price - or they could resort (as friends of ours in San Miguel de Allende once did) to having their maid do all of their food shopping!
Recreation: in Antigua there's a nice moderately hilly short walk to an overlook of the city called Cerro de la Cruz, plus some gyms, plenty of dance studios and some yoga classes. At the Lake it's easy to rent kayaks. Of course given the natural beauty and abundance of trails and dirt roads what one really wants to do is hike, but it's dangerous to do so given the rampant petty crime, and both the local and long-term expats we talked to advised either only going with guides or making sure to only carry items one was prepared to lose. This reality alone, in my view, is pretty much the kiss of death for Guatemala as a potential long-term stay or retirement destination.
Medical care: there are plenty of doctors and dentists catering to wealthy visitors in Antigua but there as at the Lake any serious medical emergency is going to involve getting to Guatemala City (an hour from Antigua, 3.5-4.5 hours from the Lake). In short, it's no country for old (or infirm or handicapped) men.
On a day-to-day basis, cobblestone streets, sidewalks with metal protruding from them and/or holes that can swallow an ankle and (in Antigua) air pollution from diesel-spewing buses, heavy and entirely unregulated traffic and ash (cineza) from Volcan Fuego are the main hazards.
Lake Atitlán (outside of the tourist trap village of Panajachel) is much less polluted, but Antigua though it only has a population of 50,000 has air quality that doesn't seem like any improvement on Guatemala City, a filthy and dangerous city of 4 million that most visitors do their best to avoid entirely except for the airport.
I concluded my visit to Guatemala with a day of coffee cupping and conversation with one of the bright young lights of the trade, a wonderful young man who is improving quality and creating export markets for hundreds of small farmers. Tasting great coffees from Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Huehuetenango, Fraijanes, Cobán and up-and-coming regions I'd never heard of was a wonderful experience, and it made me realize that if I ever do return to Guatemala it will be for volunteer work in coffee. Other than that, it's a nice place to visit, but.....