On first impressions, Guatemala City is a chaotic, fuel-fumed urban jungle. The largest city in Central America and home to more than four million people, it is Guatemala’s undisputed centre of politics, power and wealth.
The capital is not a place to visit for its beauty or architectural charm. It has an intensity and vibrancy that are both its fascination and its horror. For many visitors, dealing with the city is an exercise in damage limitation, as they struggle through bus fumes and crowds. The extremities of life in the city are plain to see: glass skyscrapers tower over sprawling slums and shoeless widows peddle cigarettes to designer-clad clubbers.
But the city’s regeneration is underway. The last few years have seen a concerted effort to boost civic pride, improve transport, add greenery and address pollution. The once decayed heart of the city, the centro histórico, has been revitalized and streets here have been pedestrianized, buildings restored and new cafés and bars have opened.
Whether you end up loving it or hating it, there’s no doubt la capital will leave a lasting impression. To help you navigate it a little easier, read our Guatemala City travel guide with the lowdown on when to go, where to stay, places to eat and what to see and do while you’re there.
Two thousand years ago, Guatemala City was the Maya city of Kaminaljuyú, its ruins still scattered amongst the western suburbs.In 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 fifty thousand and dominated the surrounding highlands. But, following the decline of Teotihuacán, it was surpassed by the great lowland centres, and by around 700 AD it was abandoned.
Eight centuries later, following months of devastating earthquakes, the Spanish were forced to flee Antigua and established a new capital at Guatemala City’s present site.
Guatemala City has grown at an incredible rate, escalating in the 1970s and 1980s as waves of internal refugees sought an escape from the civil war in the countryside. Economic migrants continue to flock to the capital, the population explosion filling once-uninhabited deep ravines with precarious new barrios.
Guatemala City enjoys a moderate climate all year round, so you can visit almost any time. Thanks to its high altitude, humidity is never an issue and the nights are mild. Guatemala’s rainy season is between July and October every year, but downpours are limited to late afternoon and you can always take shelter in one of the city’s numerous museums or eateries.
You’ll pay more for a bed in the capital than in the rest of Guatemala. Zona 1 (the centro histórico) is not a great area to be hunting for a room late at night, but it’s safe enough during the day and early evening.
Many travellers stay close to the airport, in Zona 13, where there are some good options – virtually all offer free airport pick-ups and drop-offs, though be sure to book ahead and note there are no restaurants or cafés close by.
Upmarket hotels (and the odd hostel) are clustered together in a relatively safe part of town, in Zona 10, within reach of the Zona Viva, where there’s a glut of restaurants and bars.
Broadly speaking, the city is divided into two distinct halves. The northern section is mainly comprised of Zona 1, the historic, if run-down part of town containing the main plaza, the Parque Central, some museums and many of the first-class bus company terminals. Zona 2 even further north also has a couple of sights.
The modern half of the city is to the south, comprising Zonas 9 and 10, which are separated by Avenida La Reforma. Further south still, Zonas 13 and 14 hold wealthy, leafy suburbs and are home to the airport, a cluster of guesthouses and more museums and cinemas.
Zona 4 serves as a buffer between the two parts of town. Here you’ll find many civic buildings, the tourist office and the National Theatre.
In Zona 1 you’ll find a great selection of inexpensive places to eat, with lunchtime a particularly good time for a filling feed. Excellent set-price, three-course menus are available for US$3-4 a head. Try the streets west of the Parque Central.
For really cheap, tasty eats head to the stalls inside the Mercado Central. International options – including steak houses, and Asian and European places – are grouped together in the Zona Viva (Zone 10). Cafés serving espresso-style coffee and snacks are found all over the city.
You won’t find yourself feeling bored in the capital. Here’s our rundown of the best things to do in Guatemala City, with the best places to shop, where to catch a film or show and spots to head to for a drink and dance. While it may not be renowned for its culture scene, the capital is also home to some excellent museums.
For souvenirs, foodstuffs and everyday items check out Zona 1’s Mercado Central. Fontabella Plaza is a classy shopping centre, with boutiques and restaurants scattered around little courtyards. Head to Sopho’s bookstore for English titles, Saúl for fashion and Flights de Vinoteca for a glass of wine.
Oakland Mall Diagonal and Paseo are both upmarket malls with stores including Diesel, Apple and Zara, food courts and cinemas. For a mid-range mall, head to Los Próceres, where you’ll find more than two hundred stores, including many budget clothes, electrical and phone shops, some food stalls, a multi-screen cinema, a café or two and a good spa.
To catch a film, you can’t beat Centro Cultural de España. It’s a spectacular location inside an Art Deco cinema, showcasing an innovative selection of arthouse, European and independent Latin American movies, plus occasional classics. The venue also hosts plays and concerts.
Cinépolis Oakland Mall is a multiplex and has the best-quality audiovisuals in the city. It even offers “butler service” tickets, which get you a leather seat and drinks brought to your seat.
The Teatro Nacional complex has several theatres, including an amphitheatre, and stages some prestigious events including symphony orchestras and ballet.
Nightlife in Guatemala City essentially it comes down to two choices: gritty Zona 1, which has some atmospheric old bars and raucous student places, or Zona 10’s Zona Viva, largely the domain of wealthy Guatemaltecos, with upmarket bars and clubs.
It’s best not to stroll around Zona 1 late at night, but Zona 10 is considered safe enough. For information on Guatemala’s clubbing and DJ scene, consult the electronik.net Facebook page.
Here are some of our favourite places to visit in Guatemala City.
The Archeological and Ethnological Museum has a world-class selection of Maya artefacts. The collection includes prehistoric sections, a re-creation of a royal tomb from Río Azul, and spectacular jade masks from Takalik Abaj. However, it’s the exhibits collected from Piedras Negras, one of the most remote sites in Petén, that are most impressive.
The capital’s best-organized museum, the Museo Ixchel is dedicated to Maya culture, with an emphasis on traditional weaving. It contains a stunning array of handwoven fabrics, including some very impressive examples of ceremonial costumes. Weavers can usually be seen in action and there’s a permanent exhibition of paintings by Guatemalan artists.
Picture a huge, colourful flea market selling everything from souvenirs to snacks housed in a building seemingly modelled on a nuclear bunker and you’ll start to get an idea of what it’s like to shop at the Mercado Central. Practically speaking, you’ll find textiles, leatherware, ceramics and basketry as well as fruit, vegetables and flowers. In the basement there’s a selection of cheap and authentic food stalls, snack stands and juice bars.
Take some time to wander around the hub of the old city, a world of low-slung, crumbling nineteenth-century town houses and faceless concrete blocks, car parks, noise and dirt. Signs of regeneration are emerging, particularly along newly pedestrianized Sexta Avenida as once-grand buildings are renovated and clusters of cafés are opening.
An imposing plaza that forms the country’s political and religious centre, the Parque Central is flanked by the grand Palacio Nacional and cathedral and was originally the scene of a huge central market. Today, it’s a good place to absorb city life as ladino and indigenouscapitaleños stroll, chat and snack and pigeons, shoe-shiners and raving Evangelicals jostle for space. Marimba and classical music performances are staged twice weekly on the west side of the square.
Head to Zona 13 on a Sunday and you’ll find Avenida La Reforma and Avenida Las Américas closed to traffic as joggers, cyclists, skateboarders and street performers flood the streets in a fiesta-esque atmosphere. The scheme, called Pasos y Pedales (Steps and Pedals) attracts 15,000 people most weeks.
The modest ruins of Kaminaljuyú are all that’s left of a Maya city that once housed around fifty thousand people and thirteen ball courts. Today, the archeological site is little more than a series of earth-covered mounds - visit the Miraflores museum nearby to get an idea of Kaminaljuyú’s former scale and splendour.
The city’s third excellent museum, the Museo Popol Vuh has a small but outstanding collection of artefacts from archeological sites all over the country. The Preclassic room contains some Olmec ceramics and sculptures from Kaminaljuyú, while highlights of the Classic section include an altar from fellow Maya city Naranjo and some demonic-looking incense burners.
Guatemala City’s small gay scene is mostly underground, though there is an annual Pride march in June. Nightlife is concentrated around a few (almost entirely male) venues. “In” places change quickly: consult Gay Guatemala Internacional for the latest info.
In the heart of the city since 2006, this bar-club is an intimate space with classy decor and attracts a lively crowd with themed nights, go-go dancers and strippers.
A long running gay club where DJs spin house and latin music. Arrive early and the happy hour all-you-can-down drinks specials (US$6) certainly get the party started.
This is the city’s largest (mainly) gay club with three floors and a VIP section, and plays pumping trance and house music. There are themed nights and go-go dancers.
The countryside around Guatemala City – a delightful landscape of volcanoes, pine forests, milpas and coffee farms – also begs to be explored. Looming over the capital is Volcán de Pacaya, one of the most active peaks in Latin America. You’ll also find countless interesting villages to visit in this area, including San Andrés Itzapa, where there is a pagan shrine to the “evil saint” San Simón, and Jocotenango which boasts museums dedicated to coffee production and Maya music.
The one sight that really warrants a day-trip from the capital is Volcán de Pacaya, a highly active cone. From Guatemala City, the highway to the Pacific passes through endless suburbs, a swathe of new housing projects and giant maquila (clothing assembly) factories until you glimpse the waters of Lago de Amatitlán nestling at the base of the Pacaya volcano.
To the northwest of the capital lies Mixco Viejo, ruins that enjoy the most dramatic setting of any archeological site in Guatemala. Like all the highland sites, the structures are fairly low – the largest temple reaches only about 10m in height – and are devoid of decoration. Mixco Viejo is, however, an interesting site in a spectacular setting, and during the week you’ll probably have the ruins to yourself, which gives the place all the more atmosphere.
If you find yourself in Guatemala City in November, it’s worth making the trip to nearby Santiago. The town’s local fiesta to honour the Day of the Dead on November 1 is one of the nation’s most spectacular, with massive kites flown from the cemetery to release the souls of the dead from their agony.