Staying healthy in Guatemala involves some common-sense precautions and a few destination-specific ones.
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Before You Go
Despite relatively low costs for health care, it is strongly recommended that travelers to Guatemala take out travel insurance, covering medical costs. Check your policy carefully to see what is and is not covered before buying. Emergency medical evacuation is a recommended inclusion.
Discuss your requirements with your doctor, but the vaccines that are usually recommended for travel to Central America are hepatitis A and B and typhoid. If you are planning to spend time handling animals or exploring caves, consider getting vaccinated for rabies.
Availability & Cost of Healthcare
Larger towns have both public (cheap, with long waiting times) and private (expensive, but faster) hospitals, often with doctors who speak at least a little English. In smaller towns there will be a health clinic, and in villages there is usually a doctor. Guatemala City naturally has the best range of health services in the country.
Health care is relatively cheap in Guatemala (around Q30 for a standard doctor’s consultation).
While 'medical tourism' is taking off in Guatemala (dentistry, for example, is a serious bargain compared to what you will pay elsewhere), if you have a serious complaint that does not require immediate attention, consider returning to your home country for treatment.
By far the most common health issues that travelers to Guatemala experience are stomach-related. This can range from serious diseases such as cholera to simple cases of diarrhea. Watch what you eat, drink and generally put in your mouth. The following are a few simple guidelines to keep you out of the bathroom and on the road:
- Wash your hands thoroughly before eating or touching your face. Carry anti-bacterial hand gel.
- Eat only in places that appear to be clean (conditions in the dining room are sometimes a good indicator of what’s going on in the kitchen).
- To ensure the food you eat is fresh and freshly cooked, eat only in busy places around mealtimes.
- Peel, cook or disinfect fruits and vegetables.
- Be very selective when it comes to street food.
- If you do get sick and it lasts longer than a few days, take a stool sample to a medical laboratory (even the smallest towns have them) for analysis. Any pharmacist will be able to use the readout to prescribe the appropriate medicine.
Mosquitoes can transmit several serious diseases, including malaria, dengue fever and zika virus. Malaria tablets are available and recommended if you are planning to travel in rural areas at altitudes lower than 1500m, especially in the rainy season (June to November). It’s worth noting that there is no malaria risk in Antigua or around Lago de Atitlán. The best prevention against mosquito-borne diseases is to avoid getting bitten. In high-risk areas this means a DEET–based insect repellent (bring one from home), long sleeves and pant legs, avoiding being outside around sunrise and sunset, and checking window screens and mosquito nets in hotel rooms for holes.
Zika virus is present in Guatemala. Also spread by mosquitoes, Zika's symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, and sufferers tend to recover after a week or so. Complications for pregnant women and infants are more serious – see the Center for Disease Control website (www.cdc.gov) for details. As with other mosquito-borne diseases, the best prevention is not getting bitten.
While many Guatemalans drink the tap water (often through necessity rather than choice), it is not recommended that foreigners do so.
- Tap water needs to be boiled thoroughly or disinfected.
- Purified water is cheap and readily available in tourist areas and many back-country regions as well.
- Ice in more expensive restaurants is made from purified water, but order drinks without it if you want to be really cautious.
Guatemala's backpacker scene has a strong 'party hostel' element. Condoms are widely sold and responsible hostels should have information about local clinics where you can get tested for sexually transmitted diseases – strongly recommended for both your own health and that of potential partners. Local pharmacies can also recommend clinics.