How to Survive a Suicide Shower


How to Survive a Suicide Shower in Guatemala

There are few things more daunting than taking a hot shower in Latin America. Rather than use a large tank-style water heater as we do in the US, the heater here is built into the shower head and usually appears to have been installed by a drunken monkey. But fear not — it is possible to de-stinkify yourself without a shocking surprise.

Although the heaters look like something you’d find for sale late at night on one of those shopping channels, they are a common sight in many parts of the world. In Asia, I found similar setups, but there the heater is a sealed, waterproof unit mounted on the wall and I never really worried about being shocked.

Here, it’s a large electrical time bomb hanging above your head, often with visible bare wires (count yourself lucky if you find electrical tape or wire nuts).

The first step to using a shower like this is to give it a good visual inspection. Is it mounted high enough that you can shower without bumping your head? Are bare wires visible where they could possibly contact water? If it’s just too sketchy, ask the management for a bucket, fill it with hot water and clean off with a washcloth.

Looking closer, you’ll see the ‘temperature selector’ which has three settings: high, medium and off. Don’t touch it. It doesn’t really work anyway and most likely the last tourist left it set at its optimum setting. Or else he died trying.

In fact, it’s best just not to look at the heater from this point on. It really makes things easier. Trust me. Try not to think about it. Keep your head down, do your business and get the hell out of there.

You’ll probably notice a small bulb with holes in it hanging off the side of the shower head — this is a pressure blow-off valve. If for some reason the shower head becomes clogged, this will –theoretically– pop off and allow the water to pour downwards rather than spray up into the wiring. I’ve found that they have a tendency to pop off at random times and scare the hell out of you for no reason.

With no true temperature control, the only way to adjust the temp is to adjust the flow of water through the heater. Turning it on full blast will produce a fairly cold shower. Turning down the volume gives the water more time to heat up on the way through. Turn it down too low and the heater will turn off — it’s a bit of a dance.

Basically, you have the choice of a stiff, cold shower or a warm, drizzly one. Your call.

But wait! There’s one last detail. I often find that the stall has a metal shower knob (if it’s plastic, praise your favorite deity). And since no one seems to believe in grounding their wiring around here, there’s a good chance that the knob will be slightly electrified once the heater comes on. And believe me, there’s nothing like tweaking the water temperature during a shower to make you nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnever want to do it again.

So here’s my technique: Bring two towels to the shower. While still dry, adjust the water pressure to get a decently warm temperature. Hop in the shower, do your thang and avoid thinking about things like wills, funerals and barbecues. And for God’s sake, don’t touch anything.

When finished, step out, dry yourself off with one towel, and then use the other dry towel to turn off the water. Or wear a thick pair of flip flops.

If any of that is too daunting, just skip the shower. Everyone expects backpackers to be a bit smelly anyway.

57 comments on “How to Survive a Suicide Shower

  1. “the last tourist left it set at its optimum setting. Or else he died trying. ”
    This is funny :D

    If I’m ever there I’ll try my best to avoid taking showers, or I’ll die trying :P

  2. Love it. We had heard about the suicide shower before we reached Costa Rica, and sure enough, our first place had one. Good or bad, we didn’t really think about the danger all that much. No shocks, luckily. I’ll definitely pay more attention next time we run across one!

  3. That pic says it all!

    It’s a good thing these showers tend to be found in (warm) places near the equator…

  4. There was one shower in Antigua, Guatemala that shocked the crap out of me every time I tried to turn the water on or off.

  5. I actually learned to enjoy cold showers in Central America, it was so hot and those wires always scared me.

    But good tip, NEVER touch the wires.

  6. I remember using one of those scary things in Mexico City around 2002, when the temperature outside was about 30F, so a cold shower was out of the question… Had 2 settings, ice-cold and lava-hot… So I had to shower by sprinkling water with my hand fast so I didn’t get burned….

    And the flow control didn’t work, maximum flow gave me lava-hot….

    Scary stuff… I hope I never have to be in Mexico City again…. Or close to the suicide shower!

    You made me LOL again!

  7. Classic article Johnny :) Love it! I faced something like this in Thailand – thought I was going to be electrocuted for sure!!

  8. “Or wear a thick pair of flip flops.” — Haha, love it!

    This is definitely a bit scary, but these are good (and amusing) tips!

  9. aaron on said:

    Scariest shower I’ve ever seen!!

  10. I love these (what we in the UK call ‘bodge job’) efforts at installing day to day things like shower heads. Definitely looked like a scary shower indeed.

    Probably one i would try and avoid at all costs in fear of electrocution!!


  11. “Everyone expects backpackers to be a bit smelly anyway.” Hahaha I always feel that way every time I travel to any place hot and humid.
    Will take note on this showering tips. It might be handy when I travel to South America, one day.

  12. I have never seen a shower like that! Terrifying and hilarious at the same time! I think I’d be more comfortable with the bucket and a hearty sponge bath…

  13. Well, I’m glad to see you’ve taken to seeing the prospect of intense electric shock or maybe even death with a good sense of humor…

    And funny story, when I was kid living in Ecuador, we rented an apartment on the lower floor of a house in Quito that did not have hot water. There was no hot water because the landlady’s sister had hot water and had arthritis. The landlady didn’t have hot water and did not have arthritis, so, naturally, there was some connection. When we left, she told us that she’d love to rent to more Americans. Our suggestion? Get hot water for the lower unit! We were sure she left thinking Americans were pretty crazy for wanting arthritis…

  14. Oh man – that is one scary looking shower. The joys of traveling ;)

  15. Backpacking in the developing world, it amazes me more backpackers don’t have horrible accidents. Or maybe they do. The joys of travel!

  16. That shower head is exactly the same one we had at the Hotel San Francisco in San Pedro, Guatemala. haha. I saw those wires and showered in terror.

  17. I think I would have had a cold shower…

  18. Wow! That looks so dangerous. I think I’d try with a bucket of water…

  19. The best part about this story… while reading it…is that I know you have been shocked not once, twice, but numerous times!!! I only know because myself I have had the shock of life more then once. There should be a collection of these photos because oddly this is so familiar. Normally open copper cabling wires hanging nonchalantly in the flow of water. GREAT post. Laugh out loud funny with the saddening realization that this is not an uncommon occurrence. Oh the little things in life.

  20. Wow! This is very eye opening. This might make me very girly, but just seeing this image makes me want to spend my entire travel budget on staying in a fancy hotel.

  21. Ha! That picture is a perfect depiction! You may just have saved a few backpackers’ lives with this post. Thanks for the advice!

  22. My, do you exaggerate! The death showers are certainly funny looking, and have shocked me too. But since everyone’s using them, you can be pretty sure that most folks don’t die.

  23. I used one of these while voluntering at an animal reserve in Bolivia. The danger never really crossed my mind, just the annoyance of having to balance pressure and heat! Oh, and the monkeys that would try to get in and join you.

    I did have one shocking experience there though. My light switch dangled frmo teh ceiling ona wire. One dark night, I heard something rustling in my room and hopped up to the turn on the light. I must have wrapped my hand aruond it for the first time and discovered that the wires were connected to two bare screws. Once I got over the intense spasming in my arm enough to let go of it I jumped back about 6 feet… never discovered what’d been rustling in my room.

  24. Now that looks and sounds scary! I hope I never have to stand under a shower-head like that… I guess if I ever do, I now know how!

  25. Hey that looks dangerous. Personally I would prefer a bucket of water than that!

  26. Hey, I used a shower like this in Ethiopia. As I was trying to make it hot, I was completely electrocuted. Definitely beware of loose wires.

  27. OMG.. you have me rolling! This is the funniest, yet scariest thing I have ever seen. I think I would be doing the bird bath thing with the bucket and wash cloth becuase I would just hate to get shock, die in the shower and they find me naked! LOL You are braver than I my friend! :)


  28. I totally got electrocuted when I tried to change the temperature once but thankfully I made it out alive haha. Wish I had read your post before I went on that kiteboarding trip to Venezuela.

  29. No one who has 1% of common sense has ever died in Brazil having shower under an electric shower head. Just read the instructions of use.

  30. I am originally from Brasil,and when I go back to visite I freak out on the idea of being electrocuted.

  31. Hippie killers….LOL!!

  32. Yes, I’ve had the joy of using one of these without being electrocuted! Looks like it’s safer to throw a heater in a bath full of water!

  33. Wow! Not sure I would be brave enough to stand under that one!
    In the Philippines we just used a bucket to dump cold water over our heads.
    The cold water produced some shock, but in the heat is was suprisingly refreshing!

  34. Awesome post! We have yet to travel to Latin America, but when we do, we’ll keep this in mind – seriously, sounds hardcore. I kinda like the Asia style, no frills, just dump some water over your head and get on with it, or just go for a swim and call it a shower.


  35. andrew on said:

    just installing one of these in my casa in medellin.
    i wondered why there was a plug outlet next to the
    not something i have seen in canada.
    if i survive , i will post how it works.

  36. OMG…this is so funny. I have been in these showers so many times and it scares the piss out of me. I hate those stupid things. Nothing worse than live wires right above your shower head to give you a jolt.
    Auston recently posted..Why We Didn’t Like Barcelona and Why We Must ReturnMy Profile

  37. After adopting the daughter of my Thai wife, I was shocked to see her scared of the hot water system. She had never taken a hot shower! I was later to find out that this is quite common for children and adults in Thailand. Why? Heating water costs money.

    Thanks for another wonderful article. The location else might everyone obtain that kind of facts in such a great ways of composing? I’ve a presentation following few days, and i am for the hunt for similarly info.

  38. That’s terrifying! I really wanted to live and teach ESL in south America, but now that I’ve read this – I think I’ll just stay in Asia with the squat toilets.

    The showers in Latin America suck and the toilets in Asia suck. Which facilities would you prefer to live with?
    Kevin recently posted..Thai Chicken with Basil – Kra Pao Gai (Video)My Profile

  39. haha, great post. We are currently in the Dominican Republic and know all to well about these showers. I actually put my hand up once while showering and said hello to a open wire. I got a nice shock and contemplated showering since then =P
    Gabe recently posted..Travel Photography Gear – MeFoto Tripod ReviewMy Profile

  40. I like your writing style very much. Funny, a bit cynical, to the point. This is the third article I read and I am probably going to read much more in the following days. Please continue doing what you do. You’re doing it great.
    Never been to Latin America, but I happily take this shower advice…

  41. Reminds me of the time I stood on one sandal and used the other to turn the water off.

    In the Philippines I learned a lesson about blow-off valves. The instructions were clear: water on, electricity on, shower, electricity off, water off. Forgot to turn the power off after the shower. Pressure built and blew off – through the shower nozzle! Lucky for me I was leaving the bathroom when it happened. I now locate the pressure vent before first use.

  42. Laugh out loud funny. Although it’s been a full decade since I “enjoyed” the exhilarating, shockingly “good” time of a suicide shower in Nicaragua, I’m amused reading that they still exist. But I can easily recall the sight that launched a thousand cold showers…well, at least 300 or so in my year there. :-)

  43. Too funny and completely accurate!! My fiance is an electrician by trade and using on of those for the first time took a lot of courage, on his part. See I just know not to touch it and that’s could enough for me. He actually knows the 100+ procedures and regulations I am sure this shower device has broken. Two things no one should have ever put together, water and electricity and it’s everywhere, got to love Latin America…I sure do!!!
    Tana B recently posted..The Ancient Mayan Ruins of Izapa, MexicoMy Profile

  44. Just heard I might be house sitting a home with a suicide shower. Doesn’t look good to me! =/
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  45. I can only say this: WET WIPES!
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  46. Raul Mar on said:

    Nice post! I found it really interesting, from a Guatemala City native and inhabitant’s point of view (you’re not asking, but history is my profession, anthropology is my second trade, and I know my country a little bit more than the usual guatemalteco). I had never thought about the danger of these “calentadores”, which most of us middle class urban guatemalans use daily throughout our lives. Of course, usually the wires are covered by isolating tape or some PVC devices. The ones with exposed copper are too careless exceptions, as far as I’ve experienced. The only times when I have feared for my life with these heating devices is when I have installed them. I’ve had some shocks while showering, in especially carelessly installed calentadores, but I have never heard or read about any deaths caused by one.
    I find especially interesting the fact that this most common fixture of our daily lives is seen by you “first world” people as a life threatening experience! Then again, most of the traveler’s blog entries I’ve read show an intense fear of Guatemala city. To us capitalinos, the risk of our calentadores is so insignificant, compared to the other life threatening risks our great city offers everywhere and every day, that we just don’t think about it.
    Nice post! I haven’t read anything else on the blog, but I sincerely congratulate the author and thank all of you travelers for visiting my beautiful and fucked up homeland.
    And I strongly suggest to all of you with a real desire to know the real Guatemala, to spend some days in the Capital. It is dangerous, alright, but I think it is impossible to really begin to understand this country without visiting this “hellhole”, as I’ve read it’s been called by more than a traveler blogger.
    Saludos, compañeros y compañeras!

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