The Other Americans: Residents Leave One of Guatemala’s Top Tourist Destinations

The peaceful Tz’utujil Mayan town of Santiago Atitlán has long been a tourist destination, even during the darkest days of Guatemala’s thirty-six years of internal armed conflict. Tourists are drawn to the picturesque Lake Atitlán and the town’s indigenous traditions. But in recent years it has been marred by a pandemic and, despite a reported return to normal, migration is on the rise.

“We have about three people who have gone to the United States,” said Juan Manuel Ramierez, a local evangelical preacher. The progressive in an interview in April 2022.

He points out that migration from this city to the United States was rare fifteen years ago. Now, he says, it has become routine.

“In times of [internal armed] conflict, there are only a few people left,” adds Ramierez. “But the pandemic has come to affect the economy, so there are people choosing to go to the United States.”

Diego Sapol, a local academic researcher, explains that community migration has increased over the past two years. “There are a lot of people looking for a way to get that money to go to the United States to find an opportunity,” Sapol said. The progressive.

“The lack of employment has greatly affected [of people],” he says. “Some families sometimes don’t even have enough for their children’s education, food, or health care. So they cross the United States and give their children a decent life.

The current cost of a coyote, or migrant guide, from Santiago Atitlán is currently around 125,000 quetzales, or more than $16,000. Sapol himself has been approached to migrate, but he has no interest at the moment.

“I thought about going several times,” says Sapol. “Many times I thought it best to go [to the United States] look for an opportunity. »

Due to inflation, the cost of living has increased in Guatemala. But as costs rise, daily wages have hovered around fifty or sixty quetzales a day (between $6.50 and $7.75).


A similar phenomenon occurs a short boat ride away in the municipality of San Pedro la Laguna, also a Mayan community. Since the start of the pandemic, residents of San Pedro have sought to reach the United States to find opportunity.

The city is located on the western shore of Lake Atitlán. It is popular with tourists from the alternative spiritual movement and retired Israel Defense Forces soldiers. But this never contributed to the development of the local economy, and worse, the presence of tourists drove many local residents out of their markets.

“Tourism only benefits certain groups,” says Sapol. “Mainly people who own spaces by the lake.


The tourism industry in these towns with largely Aboriginal full-time residents has done little to develop the community. Opportunities for young people, for example, remain limited. This situation is particularly dire for residents who have a higher level of education, as there are few job opportunities.

At least three of the victims of the San Antonio, Texas tragedy in June 2022, where fifty-three migrants died in a trailer, were from villages in the Atitlán Basin.

“Many times I thought it best to leave [to the United States] look for an opportunity.

The region has also seen the concentration of land in the hands of foreigners seeking to profit from tourism. Yet despite this, the Guatemalan government continues to promote tourism as a means of economic development.

“The model, the style of economic growth, is completely exhausted,” said Jonathan Menkos, director of the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies. The progressive. “And no amount of tourism or foreign direct investment flows can compensate for this style of economic growth that does not generate enough jobs or conditions to sustain people.”


One of the few opportunities in the region is to meet the demand for drugs from tourists. The presence of drug and narco culture in the community has contributed to the city being classified as a red zone for US Peace Corps volunteers, according to US program participants.

“There are many children, there are young women and there are mothers [and] older men who are [selling drugs] because of the lack of jobs,” says Sapol. “The same [economic] necessity compels them to do things that are crimes.

Faced with this image as a destination for drugs, the Guatemalan ministries of foreign affairs and tourism have launched a international campaign entitled “Enjoy a drug-free Guatemala”. But the lack of surveillance and regulation around the lake has created a destination where impunity reigns.

“What hope is there in the country when there is a gang of thieves in power [the country]?” Juan José Hurtado, the director of the association for the defense of migrants Pop No’j, says The progressive. “When what [these thieves] do is to persecute people who try to do the right thing; when what you see is prices going up and the basic cost of living going up, and people going through hardship to survive.

Added to this are the violence and extortion caused by the economic crisis. increasing. This means that opening small businesses for many is almost impossible to obtain.

“[This] is a country that offers no future to anyone,” says Hurtado. “There is no hope in Guatemala and desperation is a problem that forces people to leave.”

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