5 Benefits and 5 Mistakes to avoid
Are you moving, or have you already moved, from UK to Guatemala? Wherever you are moving abroad, there are hundreds of things to think about from a financial perspective. Well, hopefully we can help.
We continue our series of moving abroad from the UK articles with a contribution by a friend of mine, Tom Barker, who has moved from the UK to Guatemala with his wife Joy. Their first hand experience should give you a good understanding of certain financial benefits and money mistakes to avoid when moving to Guatemala.
For previous articles, see the links below:
Moving to Guatemala – 5 benefits
I am living in Guatemala City with my wife Joy. I am a Chartered Civil Engineer and Joy is a qualified teacher. We are using these skills working with a Christian Charity called the Potter’s House. The Potter’s House is serving a community of 11000 people many of whom make their living by finding recyclable items on the rubbish dump and selling them, in Guatemala you can sell your recycling.
1 – People
People in Guatemala are friendly and there is a great mix. Men greet by shaking hands and women greet with a kiss on the cheek. Guatemalan time, 10 minutes being an hour, is only the case in a social context. Everyone is on time to work because most people fear losing their job and the job prospects here are few with high unemployment. The indigenous people dress in their typical dress and speak one of the 24 official languages. There has been extreme racism towards the indigenous people in the past and remnants of this remain. It can be better to use the term Hindu to describe Indian people and cuisine because using the term Indian here is a derogatory term for the indigenous people. The more Spanish you speak the better, as people warm to you if you speak their language. Also learning the Guatemalan slang terms (Chapinisms) will further help your acceptance. Many people have thanked us for coming to Guatemala sadly the polar opposite of what happens back in the UK.
2 – Transport
The City Red and Intercity (Chicken) buses are crowded and driven by budding F1 drivers. The roads are really busy and there are rush hours in the morning, lunchtime and afternoon. The buses are really cheap though. Red bus journeys cost 1 Quetzal (8p) before 5pm and then 2Q, also at the weekends. The Intercity buses probably average about 10Q an hour (80p). We had enough of being squashed into a bus going nowhere so invested in bikes. Now we whizz past the traffic and have a healthier lifestyle, sadly there is no pollution limit on any vehicle so it can be a little unpleasant. We have found there is a healthy camaraderie between cyclists here and more respect from other road users. White taxis are available but they often don’t know the streets well enough so will get close and ask directions. You agree a price before getting in and can barter. They also have a bad reputation for being unsafe. Green taxis are pre-booked and safer they just cost a little more but they are metered.
3 – Communities
Lots of people in Guatemala live in gated communities. These range from streets where the neighbours meet together and decide to put a gate and a guard at one end and close off the other end. Other gated communities are small towns; where we live has, a church, basketball courts, shops, hairdressers, grocery stores and pharmacies. There are lots of really expensive places you can live in Guatemala and be certain that you will not meet your neighbours, these generally require you to have a car as there are no shops inside. There are also lots of reasonably priced places to live where you will meet the neighbours. Exclusive areas you are looking at 4000Q (£330) for a 3 bedroom house a month other places 2000Q (£165) for a 3 bedroom bungalow, these rates are City rates and reduce as you move further out.
4 – Food and Drink
Tortillas and beans are the staple meal and will cost you about 4Q (32p). Most places have cheap restaurants where you can get a decent portion of rice, salad and chicken for 10Q (80p). This is what we usually buy for lunch and then have tortillas and beans for tea. There is a decent variety of tea here but we are yet to find Chai or Redbush. Fizzy drinks are cheapest when bought in glass bottles, which you need to return. 3.5Q (30p) for a 500ml bottle of coke.
5 – Climate and Travel
Guatemala is a beautiful and stunning country and has lots to offer. From black sand beaches on the Pacific Coast to white sand beaches on the Atlantic Coast. There are volcanoes to climb, active and dormant. There are cities to visit; Huehuetenango, Chichicastenango, Xela, Antigua etc. There are Mayan ruins to visit, the most famous being Tikal. There are also the amazing natural swimming pools of Semuc Champey and the caves of Lanquin. There is Rio Dulce, Livingston, Lake Atitlan and more. Most places can be reached by Bus, similar to the national express buses in the UK. It is also quite easy to visit Belize, Mexico and El Salvador. The climate is very pleasant with 6 months of sunshine followed by a 6 month rainy season where it generally rains in the afternoon or evening but is blisteringly hot during the day.
Moving to Guatemala – 5 mistakes to avoid
1 – Gangs
There is a lot of fear in Guatemala due to the violence which is a hangover from the civil war and coupled with this is a lack of trust. There are more private guards than policemen. There are lots of guns about and cars with polarized windows. Most buildings have bars and razor wire keeping everyone out and the city is broken up by ravines. There is extortion and when not paid people get shot, generally bus and taxi drivers. Buses are well targeted here for robberies, we have been relieved of our possessions just the once though. It is good to carry only a few valuables and keep them well hidden. Few people go out at night but generally gated neighbourhoods are safe up to a point as are the touristy areas of the city. The city is split into Zones of which some are gang controlled (Red Zones), so it would be better not to live in red zones.
2 – Drinking Water
You can’t drink water out of the tap. The two options are buying refillable 8 gallon bottles, and a decanter, for 16Q a pop (£1.24), or you can buy a 400Q (£34) water filter which will probably pay for itself in 3 months, depending on consumption. There are electric water filters coming available but the original works by adding a bucket of water to it each day. We only really drink our drinking water and use tap water with disinfectant to clean fruit and veg. Where we live we do not have a water supply throughout the day and therefore have a water tank on the roof to store water.
3 – Salaries and Holidays
In Guatemala salaries are paid in 14 equal instalments. 12 are paid monthly and there is a 13th bonus salary paid in June and a 14th bonus salary paid in December. It is best not to travel on the intercity buses just after this has been paid. In Guatemala the school year runs from January to October. There is a week’s holiday for Easter and another week in June. Some workers in Guatemala receive membership of IRTRA, kind of like Centre Parcs, with this you are able to stay there for free. The national holidays are 1st January, Thursday and Friday of Easter week (but some companies give you the whole week off), 1st May (Day of the worker), 30th June (Army Day), 5th September (Independence Day), 20th October (Day of the revolution), 1st November (Day of the dead), 25th December (Christmas). In terms of holiday it appears to generally start at 2 weeks annually.
4 – Visas
As we are volunteering here, and there is not a volunteer visa, we are here on a tourist visa. You can stay for 90 days on a tourist visa and then renew in country for another 90 days. You can do this at the immigration office with a credit card and proof that you will leave in the next 90 days, it takes a week to process. So every 6 months you need to leave. Residency takes a long time to obtain and costs a fair bit. Children born in Guatemala become citizens.
5 – Paying bills
Online banking has not arrived yet and we are still using our UK bank account. Therefore to pay our bills we take out cash and pay it into the bank. We pay rent into our landlord’s account, which has to be done in a branch of the bank he uses. You can pay electricity in any bank, with your bill which comes through the letter box each month. Our bill is usually 85Q (£7) a month. We have ‘pay as you go’ phones and all the companies here have triple days where if you top up you get 3 times the amount you topped up with. Phones can be topped up in most corner shops. Internet is available for all needs and can also be ‘pay as you go’, which can be topped up in corner shops, or pay monthly paid in the bank or the company’s shop. Water is paid in the municipality offices and you can pay up to 12 months in advance, ours is fixed at 65Q (£5.4). We pay 100Q (£8) a month for the security guards in our gated community. To pay the binman you stop the lorry in the street, again you can pay in advance, make sure you get your receipts (facturas). We have a gas oven which uses a 25 pound gas cylinder, not many places here have mains gas and you see lots of motorbikes going round with gas cylinders on the back. We take about 6 weeks to go through a 25 pound cylinder and it costs 120Q (£10) a time. The fire brigade is also the ambulance service and they are funded by donations.