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The night I accidentally slept through a 7.1 earthquake in Guatemala

Planning to travel to Central America and worried about being in an earthquake in Guatemala? They are so common in this part of the world so it’s very likely that you will experience a Guatemala earthquake at some point. Although it will probably just be a small one.

If like me, you are from a country that does not have earthquakes then, you may be clueless about what to do in a Guatemala earthquake. I know I was. In this post, I’m going to talk you through a few facts about earthquakes as well as what to do during a serious earthquake in Guatemala.

An earthquake in Guatemala? WTF I’m from England we don’t have Earthquakes!?

One night in Guatemala I was woken up at around 1 am because my house was moving. Once I’d woken up I realized this must be an earthquake in Guatemala. Being from the UK I had never experienced one before. By this point, I had been in Guatemala for a few months and I’d felt a few tremors but nothing to worry about. Although, sometimes these little earthquakes had been from the volcano’s erupting rather than an actual earthquake.

But this was different…

Firstly everything was shaking pretty violently and secondly, it lasted for a very long time.

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What not to do during an Guatemala Earthquake

So what did I do? Nothing, I just went back to sleep. Which I now know was a bit silly of me. But being British and not wanting to overreact I figured this was normal and as the house was still standing I’d be safe. I didn’t even think about aftershocks…

Turns out when I spoke to people the next day, this earthquake in Guatemala was 7.1 (this is bad) and it was something to worry about. Also, it wasn’t the only one that night… This was just one of 27 earthquakes in Guatemala over a 24 hour period. Of those 27 recorded 11 of them were over 4 and 4 over 5.

Realizing my naivety I thought I had best do some research on earthquakes and learn what I should do if/ when this happens again.

What is an earthquake anyway?

I’m not a geologist. So if you want a proper explanation then take a read of this from some science people who know what they are talking about. But in brief easy to understand terms an earthquake is sudden rolling or shaking of the ground that happens along fault lines when they ‘slip’ past each other. They can’t be predicted and they can be felt miles away from the fault line.

Why is Central America (especially Guatemala) so prone to Earthquakes?

You only have to read up on the historical earthquakes in Guatemalan cities like Antigua (where I’m currently living) to see how prone to earthquakes. Antigua has been devastated by an earthquake in Guatemala more than once. According to some sources, it has a huge earthquake every 50 years…the last one was in 1976. It was a 7.5 (only .3 more than the one I experienced) and it was the most deadly earthquake in history with around 25,000 deaths recorded. Antigua, Guatemala City, and Quetzaltenango are all situated on the Montagua and Chixoy-Polochic fault complex this cuts right across Guatemala and forming the boundary between the North American Tectonic Plate and the Caribbean tectonic plate.

Just take a look at the map below and you can see how many fault lines are in this small area. It’s no wonder earthquakes are so common.

Travel Stories | The night I accidentally slept through a 7.1 earthquake in Guatemala

What makes a difference is how close to the earth’s surface they are. The closer they are the worse it is. The deeper they are, the less effect we feel. So although the earthquake I experienced was a 7.1 it was pretty deep so the effects were minimal.

What to do in an Earthquake?

So now you might know a little bit more about what an earthquake is. But what do you do when one happens? For some really comprehensive guidance check out this website. Or keep reading for a summary.

  • As soon as you feel the earthquake you should go to the ground and if you can get underneath something like a table or desk to protect yourself from falling objects.
  • If there is nothing that you can get under to protect you get on the ground and crawl to the safest place in the room away from things that could fall on you.
  • Stay in a safe place protecting your head with your arms until the shaking has stopped. Do not try and get outside or to a door.
  • If (like I was) you are in bed, you should stay there and cover your head with a pillow.
  • If you are outside, move away from buildings, lamp posts, or anything that could fall on you. Drop to the ground, cover your head and hold on!
  • Once the earthquake stops you need to leave the building you are in and get to a clear open space (not just go back to sleep as I did…oops!).
  • If you are trapped, don’t move or kick up dust. If you have your phone close then call for help.
  • Once you are safe to check local news for updates and advice. And be ready to “Drop, Cover, and Hold on” if there is an aftershock. Which is very likely (I slept right on through that one…).
Travel Stories | The night I accidentally slept through a 7.1 earthquake in Guatemala

How to prepare for an Earthquake

The best way to prepare for an earthquake is to download an Earthquake app on your smartphone and check it regularly.

Sleep with your phone close to you, just in case. I know this isn;t great advice as smartphones can fry your brain, haha, but maybe turn it off at night if you are worried. I also have a whistle that I keep close by.

Another good habit to get into is checking your accommodation for a safe place to take cover and an emergency exit route. This way if something does happen then you already have a plan that you have thought through.

earthquake in Guatemala


The day after I wrote this post, Guatemala experienced had a second earthquake! This one was a 6.9. But it felt so much worse to me. It happened at 6:30 am and luckily I was up and about. I had to catch a 7 am bus that morning.

I was in the kitchen making breakfast when all of a sudden everything started to shake. It began slowly but got intense very quickly. This time knowing what I should do I grabbed for my coffee (very important) and ran for the door. Holding on to the TV with one hand and my coffee with the other I crouched down in the corner of the room close to the door away from anything that could fall on me.

I must admit I was pretty shaken up by this one. Maybe it’s because I now know the potential danger, which I didn’t the first time. Or maybe it’s because I wasn’t in bed half asleep. I’m not sure but I was pretty scared. Once it was all over I went outside and chatted with the neighbors, we were all outside waiting for the aftershock (like a true Brit).

Then not long after we have a 7.9 Earthquake. This one was the most frightening. I actually experienced phantom earthquakes every time I lay down for weeks after. Although didn’t realize it at the time but it is a quite common mild form of PTSD.

I really hope this post is helpful for any other travelers like me who are a little clueless about earthquakes. Remember, don’t roll over and go back to sleep haha.

This post was proofread by Grammarly


Monday 29th of January 2024

Hey! Thanks for this article. I am actually visiting Guatemala in few days. How bad is the earthquake aftermath? Is there anything on the news regarding another aftershock?


Monday 3rd of April 2023

You described it perfectly. I experienced some nasty Earquakes in Croatia, also felt phantom earthquakes, then worked with a therapist because I was, for 9 days, in a fight or flight mode. But, I informed nyself later, what you wrote is correct. Thx and take care.


Tuesday 4th of July 2017

Good lord! Hahah super glad earthquakes aren't an issue where I live, pretty sure that I would freak out if the earth itself moved....but glad I know what to do now! :)

Claire Summers

Wednesday 5th of July 2017

It's so strange to now live somewhere where the earth moves coming from the UK! We just get rain and wind haha

Paige W

Tuesday 4th of July 2017

Holy cow! What an insane experience! I would be so scared! You and I are a lot a like in the sense that before you really knew the danger you went right to bed, and then after researching being terrified. I'm not scared of anything until someone brings something up, then I'm petrified! I'm glad you're safe and sound!

Claire Summers

Wednesday 5th of July 2017

Thank you! Yes it's funny how calm I was the first time, fear is a strange beast!

Danielle Desir

Tuesday 4th of July 2017

This was very informative! I'm from NYC and have never experienced an earthquake so I wouldn't know what to do until now. I'm happy that you're safe and are better prepared now.

Claire Summers

Wednesday 5th of July 2017

Glad to help :-)