GUATEMALA CITY is not a place to visit for its beauty or architectural charm. First impressions of the centre are pretty grim, with potholed streets choked by pollution from rasping buses and grinding levels of poverty all too evident. Understandably, few travellers take to la capital, and many avoid it completely.
But give it a chance, and you’ll find it does offer some metropolitan pleasures. There are three excellent museums: the archeological and Popol Vuh (which both concentrate on ancient Maya culture) and the Ixchel, dedicated to the country’s terrific textile tradition. Zona 1 is on the up as landmark buildings are renovated and new venues promoting alternative rock bands and electronic DJs emerge. Dotted around the city you’ll also find cinemas and North American-style shopping malls.
That said, the disparities of life in the city are extreme, with glass skyscrapers towering over sprawling slums and shoeless widows peddling cigarettes to designer-clad clubbers. Take a little extra care here as street crime is a problem, mainly involving bag snatching – be particularly careful at transport terminals – and use taxis to get around after 8pm. Gang violence is a serious issue in the poor outer suburbs, though this is highly unlikely to concern travellers.
The pre-conquest Maya city of Kaminaljuyú, its ruins still scattered amongst the western suburbs, was well established here two thousand years ago. In Early Classic times (250–600 AD) it was allied with the great northern power of Teotihuacán (near present-day Mexico City) and controlled key trade routes.
At the height of its prosperity, Kaminaljuyú was home to a population of some fifty thousand and dominated the surrounding highlands. But, following the decline of Teotihuacán around 600 AD, it was surpassed by the great lowland centres, and by around 700 AD it was abandoned.