Moon Guatemala (Moon Handbooks) - Al Argueta (2015)
aerial view of Guatemala City’s older districts.
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S Palacio Nacional de la Cultura: At the heart of downtown Guatemala City, this former presidential palace now serves as a museum that offers a fascinating glimpse into the country’s rich history (click here).
S Zona Viva: Guatemala City’s most cosmopolitan sector, while offering some of the city’s best hotels, is also a fun place for a meal and a night on the town (click here).
S Museo Ixchel: The city’s finest museum is a wonderful tribute to Mayan culture and to Guatemala’s famous textiles and traditional village attire (click here).
S Museo Miraflores: This excellent museum is dedicated to the ancient Mayan site of Kaminaljuyú, which occupied the valley in which Guatemala City now stands. Several of the site’s temple mounds lie nearby (click here).
S Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología: Before or after visiting Guatemala’s fascinating Mayan sites, head to this museum to admire many of the original pieces once found there, including beautifully carved monuments and brilliant jade masks (click here).
Due to its much-maligned international image, you’ll probably be surprised when you first lay eyes on Guatemala City from the window of your airplane. Even if you’ve visited other Central American capitals, you’ll be taken by Guatemala City’s beauty from the air. Bordered by a lake, forested mountains, and four volcanoes, the nation’s capital is a bustling urban agglomeration of three million inhabitants occupying a broad valley and spilling into ravines and neighboring hillsides.
The beauty of its physical surroundings aside, Guatemala City, or “Guate,” as it’s more commonly called by locals, can seem polluted, noisy, and downright dodgy once you step onto its streets—however, the same can be said of New York or Mexico City. It’s all a matter of getting acquainted with your surroundings and discovering the pleasant aspects of this mountain city. Among these are a temperate spring-like climate, a splendid scenic backdrop, excellent dining and entertainment options, and the opportunity to travel in relative comfort with all of the amenities of a cosmopolitan city.
If you give it a chance, you’ll find that Guate grows on you after a while. As far as Latin American capitals go, you could certainly do worse. (Some travelers find other Central American capitals less agreeable.) As the region’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, Guatemala City has a wide variety of accommodations and entertainment options suited to tastes, needs, and budget.
The remodeled La Aurora International Airport serves as a fitting gateway to Central America’s largest city. Just minutes from the airport, you’ll find most of the areas frequented by Guatemala’s well-to-do and expat residents. Scattered among forest-clad ravines and sprawling east into neighboring mountainsides are Guatemala City’s business, retail, and residential sectors. The northern part of the city is home to its downtown core, which has unfortunately seen better days as a colonial capital, but is also the ongoing focus of some much-needed urban renewal. Tumbling out into surrounding ravines and plateaus in the vicinity of the downtown core are the city’s slums, while its industrial sectors lie mostly to the south and west. Chances are you won’t be venturing into the these two sectors, just as you likely wouldn’t hang out in a Brazilian favela.
It should be expected that a country of such great wealth (though poorly distributed) should have a modern capital with all the developed world comforts one would expect to find there. Great restaurants, museums, shops, and entertainment can all be found in this cosmopolitan capital. Like everything else in Guatemala, it all coexists side by side with some of the uglier realities. Things can look very different from one zona to the next. It’s all there for you to see, and nowhere else in the country is this striking contrast of wealth and poverty so evident. Look at a visit to Guatemala City as a glimpse into the nation’s culture, history, and politics, and a worthy introduction to a fascinating country of contrasts with unexpected surprises around every corner.
Guatemala City is in fact the fourth capital of Guatemala, the other three having been destroyed by natural disasters, including earthquakes and mudslides, or replaced by the establishment of Spanish-modeled urban centers, as in the case of the first highland capital Iximché. Like Iximché, the land now occupied by the modern-day urban center was once the site of a Mayan city that exercised considerable influence over trade routes for obsidian during Classic Mayan times thanks to an alliance with the central Mexican powerhouse of Teotihuacán. Kaminaljuyú, as the city was called, was first settled sometime around 400 BC. The early foundational cultures preceding the Mayan city established agriculture in the valley now occupied by Guatemala City and settled much of it, mostly in the western part of the valley. As with the other Classic Mayan sites, Kaminaljuyú was just a distant memory by the time the Spanish arrived on the scene in the 16th century.
The city’s modern settlement dates to 1776, in the aftermath of the 1773 earthquakes of Santa Marta, which rocked the previous capital, now known as La Antigua Guatemala (The Old Guatemala, or “La Antigua” for short). Debate over whether or not to rebuild La Antigua raged for a few years, but in the end it was decided to start all over again in the neighboring Valle de la Ermita (Valley of the Hermitage), as the valley was known. An edict by Governor Martín Mayorga made the move official. It took a while for the new capital to catch on, as many Antigua residents refused to move despite Spanish decrees ordering the settlement of the new city. In 1800, the population of Guatemala City was only 25,000. The new city was laid out in a grid pattern, much like every other town established by the Spanish, with the construction of major public buildings including the Catedral Metropolitana (cathedral), Cabildo (Town Hall), and Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. Of these, only the cathedral remains standing.
Like its predecessor, Antigua Guatemala, the new Guatemalan capital would experience its own series of destructive earthquakes in December 1917, lasting into February of the following year. By this time, it seems, the population had come to terms with the fact that much of Guatemala lies upon one of the world’s most active fault lines. The fault line would again wreak widespread havoc with another earthquake in 1976. Ironically, the most recent earthquake triggered wide-scale migration into the city, resulting in the establishment of many slums lining the city’s numerous ravines, or barrancos.
The city grew tremendously throughout the 20th century, spreading from its original core (now known as the Centro Histórico) and spilling out into the surrounding barrancos and up into the mountains lining the western and eastern edges of the valley. Much of the country’s industry is concentrated here, fueling economic migration from other parts of the country. The population of Guatemala City’s metro area now reaches over four million.
Guatemala City enjoys a delightful climate almost year-round. Its location in a valley at an altitude of 1,493 meters (4,897 feet) above sea level ensures that it never gets excessively warm, as do some other, low-lying Central American capitals. This pleasant climate has earned it the nickname “Land of Eternal Spring.” It should be noted, however, that the nickname was coined during a long-gone era before the city’s exponential growth, which has given rise to urban microclimates such as the urban heat island. The latter is caused when the direct tropical sun heats large expanses of pavement, which in turn heat the surrounding air masses, causing a phenomenon not unlike a large convection oven. The truth is that it can get somewhat hot here during April and May, what locals generally call verano, or summer, with daytime highs in the mid- to upper 80s. Longtime residents frequently remark about the increasingly warm summers, which they say have become much warmer than what was once typical. This is also the driest time of year, and the surrounding mountains can turn some rather parched shades of brown. Thermal inversions causing extreme haze are also quite typical this time of year, making Guatemala City look somewhat like a smaller version of Los Angeles. These occur frequently in valleys when a layer of warm air settles over a layer of cooler air lying close to the ground, holding this cooler air down and preventing pollutants from rising and scattering.
Between June and August, after the arrival of the rainy season, mornings are typically sunny and warm, giving way to increasing cloudiness and afternoon showers almost every day. September and October are increasingly rainy with entire stretches of cloudy or rainy days. In November the skies clear and become increasingly windy. Many people equate this time of year with kite-flying, and indeed the giant kite festival in the nearby towns of Sumpango and Sacatepéquez take place on the first of the month. December through February can be chilly here and elsewhere in mountainous parts of Guatemala with the arrival from the north of frequent cold fronts coinciding with the Northern Hemisphere’s winter season. Bring some warm clothes if you’re traveling to Guatemala City or elsewhere in the highlands during this time of year, as concrete houses with tile floors are the most popular form of architecture and aren’t typically heated or carpeted, making it feel even colder.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
Upon international arrival into Guatemala, most travelers eager to make their way to the country’s fascinating interior head straight to Antigua Guatemala, taking a shuttle bus from the airport and bypassing Guatemala City altogether. Whether at the beginning or end of your trip, a visit to the capital is crucial to understanding what makes this country tick. It is certainly worth spending some time here, and it can be an extremely rewarding destination after weeks spent in the countryside, offering fine restaurants, excellent museums, and all the comforts that a modern capital city has to offer. Guatemala City is also the country’s transportation and business hub, so if you are trying to get around the country or are in Guatemala on business, you will find yourself on its streets sooner or later.
Most of the major attractions can be seen in a day or two. If you have more than two days to spend in Guatemala City, you might consider staying in Antigua to make better use of your time. Exceptions to this would be those in town for business looking for things to do after hours without taking a trip out of the city. Zona 10, conveniently near the airport, has some fine hotels and is home to a number of highly recommended museums. It is also one of the city’s most attractive commercial and financial districts. A day strolling down pleasant Avenida La Reforma and sampling the Zona Viva’s cafés, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants is a great way to cap off your visit to Guatemala.
Guatemala City’s sprawl occupies about 400 square kilometers, filling a large valley scarred by deep ravines (known locally as barrancos) and surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. Its terrain gives the city a patchwork feel when viewed from the air, with parts of the city meandering fingerlike into the scarred landscape. The urban sprawl has also started migrating east and west into surrounding mountains. A large plateau atop the mountains abutting the city to the east is traversed by the Carretera a El Salvador (Road to El Salvador) and is one of the fastest-growing suburban sectors. The surrounding landscape is accentuated by the presence of active Pacaya Volcano, often visible at night, to the south. To the southwest, the cones of Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango Volcanoes can be seen rising above the mountain separating Guatemala City from neighboring Antigua Guatemala.
The city itself is divided into 25 zones, or zonas. Only a few of these hold any interest for the foreign visitor or resident. Zonas 1 and 2 encompass the downtown sector, with Zona 4 serving as a kind of transition zone between the original city core and newer business and residential sectors. Zona 10 harbors the homes of wealthy elite, high-rise condominiums, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, banks, and embassies. Moving south and abutting the airport, Zona 14 is home to a large concentration of wealthy neighborhoods and high-rise condos. To the east and heading up the slopes of surrounding mountainsides lie residential Zonas 15 and 16 and Carretera a El Salvador. Several of the city’s zonas are separated from each other by natural boundaries, such as forested barrancos.
Unlike in Managua or San José, street addresses are very much in use here. Pay special attention when looking for street addresses, as the same street and house number can exist in more than one zona. Addresses usually begin with an avenue, or avenida, followed by a number with a dash. A typical street address would be something like: 7a Avenida 8-34 Zona 10. In this case, the “8” corresponds to the intersecting street number, or calle. The number after the dash is the house number. So the above address would be house number 34 between Eighth and Ninth Streets along 7th Avenue of Zona 10.
Guatemala City can be dodgy, though certain zonas are certainly safer than others. Most of the areas frequented by tourists are relatively safe, though the downtown area is considerably less safe than Zonas 10 and 14 and purse snatching and pickpocketing are serious problems. Exercise common sense and caution when in public areas. Riding public buses is not usually a good idea, though the newer Transmetro mass transit system has proven safer and is certainly more efficient. Transmetro buses are bright green and not to be confused with the Transurbano bus system (similar to the municipal buses).
the many contrasts of Guatemala City
The Feel and Vibe of Guatemala City
Guatemala City might feel quite intimidating and downright scary. While crime, pollution, and noise cannot be denied, you’ve made it this far, so you should probably check things out for yourself and see it through your own eyes.
Guatemala City is Central America’s largest city, with an approximate metro area population approaching four million inhabitants. The good news concerning the city’s size is that you really have no reason to venture into more than about a third of its area. Much of the sprawl constituting the sizable metro area is found outside the official city limits and is composed of Guatemalan working-class subdivisions, industrial parks, and slums. The nicer parts of town are also conveniently located adjacent to each other, in the eastern third of the city near the airport. The downtown core lies to the north of the city’s newer sectors.
Perhaps most fascinating about Guatemala City are the constant juxtapositions evidencing this vibrant capital’s status as a microcosm of Guatemala’s larger wealth and class disparities. Tin-roofed shacks cling to forested hillsides just out of view from the wooden decks of $500,000 homes. Buses trundle slowly down tree-lined boulevards while late-model BMWs zip by in the passing lane. Maya from the highlands dressed in traditional garb wait for these buses under steel-and-glass bus stop shelters advertising French perfumes.
Guatemala City feels more like a real city and not an overgrown town (sorry, San José), with actual buildings occupying a somewhat impressive portion of the urban sprawl. These buildings house condos, banks, hotels, and offices, giving the city a very modern feel. You’ll see Guatemala’s well-to-do frequenting the cafés, bars, restaurants, and hotels found in these sectors, along with travelers and foreign residents. Guatemalans love to be seen dining out in fine restaurants and shopping at exclusive stores for the latest fashions.
A darker side of Guatemala City’s flashy displays of wealth is the shotgun-toting guards you’ll find stationed outside of banks, gas stations, and fast-food franchises. The congregating of suit-wearing bodyguards outside gyms, restaurants, and private schools would be downright comical were it not such a flagrant reminder of the specter of extortionary kidnapping. And then there’s the barbed wire—lots of it—and iron bars adorning many of the city’s houses, which lie bunkered away in cordoned-off neighborhoods guarded by access gates staffed by security personnel. It all takes some getting used to, but we’re fairly adaptable as a species.
Good or bad, love it or hate it, Guatemala City is what it is. If it all gets to be too much, just head up into the hills east of the city and look at it from above. It seems a lot more peaceful that way, framed by low-lying clouds and its gorgeous volcanic backdrop. Spend a few minutes picking out your favorite locations and seeing how many different parts of the city you can identify. It’s a sight for sore eyes.
Pay careful attention when using ATMs. Some thieves have been so ingenious as to set up keypads at the entrance to ATM kiosks asking cardholders to enter their PIN numbers in order to gain access to the machine. You should never enter your PIN number anywhere other than on the ATM keypad itself.
Watch out for another common scam, particularly in the vicinity of the airport, whereby a “Good Samaritan” informs you of a flat tire on your car. If that is indeed the case, pull over in a well-lighted, public place if you can but do not stop in the middle of the road to change the tire. He may try to carjack you. If you are able to make it to a public place such as a gas station, have someone in your party stay inside the car while another checks all four tires. If a tire is indeed flat, stay inside of or close to your car while someone changes the tire for you (it’s common for gas station attendants to change tires in Guatemala). The important thing is not to lose sight of the inside of your vehicle for a moment. Thieves can be extremely crafty at distracting you and getting into your car while you take care of the urgent business at hand. Locked doors may be a deterrent but are not going to stop the thieves if they’ve targeted you. For information on other precautions and common scams to watch out for while traveling in Guatemala, see the State Department’s Consular Information Sheet online at http://travel.state.gov.
Sights are listed by city zone, the official format for divvying up the city’s land area. Most of the city’s historic sites are found within the Centro Histórico. Some of the nicer museums are found near the airport in Zona 13 and in the Miraflores area west of the city center in Zona 11.
The original core of Guatemala City, dating to its foundation, is composed of 1a to 17 Calle and 1a to 12 Avenida, known today as the Centro Histórico. Most of the architecture is neoclassical, a sharp departure from the baroque architecture found in the previous capital of Antigua Guatemala. Few of the original buildings remain, having largely been destroyed by earthquakes in 1917 and 1976 or modified with the passing of time. Yet some excellent examples of the original architecture can still be found, and there is an ongoing campaign to restore several historic buildings in the downtown core. This program, known as RenaCENTRO, is a collaboration between several entities, including the local municipality, INGUAT, the private sector, and Argentinean, Spanish, and French cooperation.
Guatemala City was once nicknamed “The Silver Teacup” for its urban Spanish Renaissance design and architecture, including elegant theaters, large colonial mansions, broad avenues, imposing churches, and charming side streets. Although they have aesthetically deteriorated, they are not beyond rescue. This is precisely RenaCENTRO’s mission: a multifaceted, holistic approach to restoring the grandeur of Guatemala’s colonial-era capital. The restoration inexorably hinges upon local economic reactivation. Given Guatemala’s huge tourism potential, it seems only fitting that its capital would become a welcome stop along the visitor’s path, although restoration remains an ongoing process.
In typical Spanish colonial fashion, the city was laid out around a central plaza with a Catholic church and government buildings surrounding it. It is also known as the Plaza de la Constitución. The Parque Central encompasses a large area between 6a and 7a Avenidas and 6a and 8a Calles. Alongside it are the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, Catedral Metropolitana, and Portal del Comercio. The park is usually abuzz with shoe shiners and folks enjoying a stroll through its grounds, now largely composed of concrete blocks with little greenery after being remodeled in the mid-1980s to include an underground parking lot. A large Guatemalan flag dominates the plaza near a small, sadly neglected monument to the 1996 peace accords; it consists of a glass case that once enclosed a flame, which has long since burned out. South of the park, heading towards 9a Calle is Portal del Comercio, a commercial arcade recently restored as part of RenaCENTRO’s ongoing gentrification projects. Novena Calle (between 6a and 7a Avenidas) has also been restored as a pedestrian thoroughfare known as Pasaje Aycinena.
S Palacio Nacional de la Cultura
Boston’s Fenway Park has its Green Monster and so does Guatemala City. The former presidential palace, built between 1939 and 1943 during the time of maniacal dictator Jorge Ubico, is a large, green stone structure with elements of colonial and neoclassical architecture. The 1996 peace accords between the government and URNG guerrillas were signed here and the building was subsequently converted into a museum. It is also sometimes used to host visiting dignitaries such as former president George W. Bush and actor Mel Gibson. With most of Guatemala’s presidents preferring to live in other parts of the city, it has not housed a president during a term in office since the early 1990s.
The Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (tel. 2239-5000, 9am-noon and 2pm-5pm daily, $5) is one of Guatemala City’s most interesting attractions, as it affords the visitor a glimpse into Guatemala’s colonial and dictatorial legacy. After all, Guatemala City was once the capital of the entire Central American isthmus and nowhere else in the region were colonial institutions so embedded in the national fiber. Similarly, Guatemala’s caudillos (military strongmen) needed a residence befitting their status as rulers of a quasifeudal kingdom, to which end the palace served them quite well.
You can take a guided tour of the palace so as to better appreciate the intriguing architecture, including some Moorish courtyards, frescoed arches made of carved stone, and artwork by several Guatemalan artists of the 1940s. As you climb the wood-and-brass main stairway, you can admire a mural by Alredo Gálvez Suárez depicting a romanticized take on Guatemalan history. Stained-glass windows by Julio Urruela Vásquez and Roberto González Goyri can be found adorning the palace in the second-floor banquet hall; they depict the virtues of good government. You might also be able to see the presidential balcony, which overlooks the plaza in classic dictatorial fashion.
A more modern-day attraction is the Patio de la Paz, where a stone sculpture of two hands commemorates the 1996 signing of the peace accords. A white rose held in the outstretched hands is changed at 11am by the palace guards once a week and on special occasions by visiting dignitaries. The rose used to be changed daily, but I guess it’s one more thing we’ve lost to government cutbacks.
The construction of Guatemala City’s neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana (7a Avenida facing the plaza, 6am-noon and 2pm-7pm) began in 1782 and was completed in 1815, though the bell towers would not be completed until 1867. It has survived two earthquakes, a testament to its sturdy construction, even if it isn’t exactly the prettiest of Guatemala’s churches. The pillars on the church’s facade are adorned with the names of many of Guatemala’s disappeared, etched into the stone as a testament to the desire for justice, whether in this lifetime or the next. Inside, many of the altars and paintings adorning the church were brought here forcefully when the capital, along with its institutions, was officially moved to its current site from Antigua. The standout is the image of the Virgen del Perpetuo Socorro, Guatemala’s oldest, brought into the country by Pedro de Alvarado in 1524.
Adjoining the larger central plaza, to the west, is the smaller Parque Centenario, with the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) and Archivo General de Centroamérica (National Archive) bordering it. It occupies the former site of the Palacio Centenario, built to commemorate 100 years of independence from Spain. It briefly housed the National Congress, whose building was burned to the ground in 1927. Its most interesting feature is a small acoustic shell amphitheater.
Behind the cathedral is the city’s Mercado Central (8a Avenida and 6a Calle, 6am-6pm Mon.-Sat., 9am-noon Sun.). The basement of the central market harbors produce, while the top two floors have a varied assortment of textiles, leather goods, and various handicrafts. It’s a bit dark and bunkerlike, with the stalls packed to the ceiling with all kinds of goodies. It’s also a bit overwhelming. The current market replaced the one destroyed by the 1976 earthquake. Be wary of pickpockets here.
Paseo de la Sexta
Historically, Sexta Avenida, otherwise known as “La Sexta,” was the place to see and be seen. It was Guatemala City’s most important thoroughfare, where the latest European fashions and luxury goods could be purchased from shops owned by Jewish, Spanish, and German immigrants. As the city expanded and its well-to-do moved south to Zonas 9, 10, and 13 during the 1970s, Sexta Avenida began a long, downward spiral.
As mentioned before, the downtown core of Guatemala City’s historic Zona 1 has undergone urban renewal for some time now. In 2010 this process included the relocation of street vendors from the city’s Sexta Avenida, at that time a disorganized mess choked by car traffic and sidewalks lined with those hawking everything from pirated DVDs to knockoff designer sunglasses. Today, the car traffic is gone and Sexta Avenida, along 10 blocks from the city’s Plaza Central south to 18 Calle, has been renamed Paseo de la Sexta. An ongoing process, it has yielded remodeled art deco buildings, new lighting, sculptures, and a smattering of new cafés.
Paseo de la Sexta
Although the area is much touted by the local media, don’t expect to find a hip, trendy, and completely revamped downtown core. You also won’t find cool streetside cafés or many good restaurants. This is Guatemala City, not Mexico City, and it’s clear the wealthy prefer to stick to other parts of town. While you might expect to find new, slightly more upscale shops to line the newly upgraded streets of this pedestrian thoroughfare, the truth is the same shops continue to exist in slightly upgraded surroundings. If you’re staying downtown, Paseo de la Sexta is worth a stop, but it’s not yet a popular attraction with foreign travelers. Still, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of working-class Guatemalan urbanites. Among the hubbub as you walk (or bike) down the thoroughfare, you’ll find vendors curiously carrying full-sized and fully clothed mannequins on their backs or those selling ready-to-eat fruit and ceviche (only for the heartiest gringo stomachs). It’s still not the safest part of town for a stroll, so be extra careful if you do venture out this way, as it’s known for assorted riffraff, including pickpockets. There is a fair amount of police presence here, which is reassuring. The Transmetro now reaches this area, which makes it easier than ever to get to.
Paralleling 6a Avenida is 7a Avenida, with a variety of architectural highlights. Among these is the splendid Palacio de Correos (Central Post Office, 8:30am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 8:30am-1pm Sat.), at the corner of 7a Avenida and 12 Calle, featuring a large archway that reaches over to the building across the street. Also attractive is the nearby Tipografía Nacional (National Printing Press), at the corner of 7a Avenida and 18 Calle. It dates to 1894 and somewhat resembles a gingerbread house.
Both 6a and 7a Avenidas continue their straight course southward through Zonas 4 and 9 before ending at a series of archways marking the northern extreme of the airport runway.
One block east of the market and one block south on 10a Avenida is the Museo Nacional de Historia (9a Calle 9-70 Zona 1, tel. 2253-6149, email@example.com, 9am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., $1.50) with historical documents, clothing, and paintings, largely to do with Guatemala’s tyrannical rulers. Among the more interesting exhibits are some photographs by Eadweard Muybridge, who visited and photographed the country in 1875. The museum is housed in a very attractive colonial building.
Casa Mima (8a Avenida 14-12 Zona 1, tel. 2253-6657, www.casamima.org, 10am-5pm Mon.-Sat., $3) offers a fascinating peek into the lives of Guatemala’s upper middle class from generations past. The splendidly restored 19th-century town house is furnished in art deco, Victorian, and French neo-rococo styles. Guided tours are available and must be arranged one week in advance. La Casa de Cervantes (5a Calle 5-18 Zona 1, tel. 2251-8120, http://casadecervantes.com, free) showcases fair trade goods in Guatemala and has a gift shop, where you can purchase fair trade coffee, handicrafts, and even locally made kombucha. There’s a small café with pleasant outdoor seating in an old courtyard and a bookstore packed with excellent titles documenting subjects of Guatemalan history and social justice. There are periodic exhibitions and special events. It’s more of an information and cultural center than a museum but is certainly worth a look. It was being repainted with artwork from a local muralist during my last visit.
a detail from La Casa de Cervantes
Train enthusiasts will enjoy Museo del Ferrocarril (in front of the intersection of 9a Avenida and 20 Calle, tel. 2232-9270, www.museofegua.com, 9am-4pm Tues.-Fri., 10am-4pm Sat.-Sun., $0.25), housed in a refurbished building that was once the city’s train station. The state-run railways, known then as FEGUA, were privatized during the Arzú administration. Among the attractions are several steam engines, train cars, and exhibits of train paraphernalia, including some wonderful old photographs. Some cool classic cars are also on display here.
The Centro Cultural de España (6a Avenida 11-02 Zona 1, Edificio Lux, Nivel 2, tel. 2503-7500, www.cceguatemala.org, 10am-7pm Tues.-Fri., 10am-2pm Sat., free) shows movies most nights, hosts workshops and art exhibits, and has a small library. It makes a nice addition to the city’s Paseo de la Sexta, having moved here from its old location at the now defunct 4 Grados Norte.
Several of the city’s downtown churches have been restored in recent years and might be worth a stop to admire their noteworthy architecture. Construction on Iglesia de San Francisco (6a Avenida and 13 Calle Zona 1, 7am-noon and 2pm-7pm daily) began in 1800 and wasn’t completed until 1851. Its charming light gray exterior has been worn down by the elements; inside are 18 altars of impressive quality. Another beautiful church is that of Iglesia Santo Domingo (12 Avenida and 10a Calle), constructed between 1792 and 1808. In addition to its attractive architecture, it is known for its paintings, including one depicting the apparition of the Virgin Mary to Santo Domingo de Guzmán, after whom the capital of the Dominican Republic is named. (It is believed he received the rosary from her.) El Cerrito del Carmen (12 Avenida and 2a Calle Zona 1, 7am-noon and 2pm-6pm daily) denominates both the name of this hermitage and the hill on which it rests, with wonderful views of the downtown area. It dates to 1620 and is known for its image of a virgin of the same name embossed in silver, a gift from Carmelite nuns in the 17th century. Oil paintings by Tomás de Merlo adorn the inside of Iglesia San Miguel de Capuchinas (10 Avenida 10-51 Zona 1, 6am-noon and 2pm-7pm daily), with its transitional baroque-neoclassical architecture.
As you head north along 6a Avenida and then Avenida Simeón Cañas, it’s about 1.5 kilometers from the city center to Parque Minerva in the adjoining Zona 2 sector. The park here has some sporting facilities, including the Estadio de Béisbol Enrique “Trapo” Torrebiarte, where there are sometimes games on weekends. Its informal atmosphere is a bit like that of old-time minor league parks in the U.S. Midwest. Baseball is nowhere near as popular in Guatemala as in other parts of Central America, namely Nicaragua, but if you’re a fan of the game, you might want to stop and check it out.
The park’s main attraction, however, is also one of Guatemala’s most unusual. The 2,000-square-meter Mapa en Relieve (Relief Map, Ave. Simeón Cañas Final, Hipódromo Del Norte, Zona 2, tel. 5632-5708, www.mapaenrelieve.org, 9am-5pm daily, $0.75) is built to 1:10,000 scale and was created in 1905, well before the invention of Google Earth. It gives you a good idea of the country’s mountain topography and the contrasting flatness of Petén and neighboring Belize, which, of course, is included as part of Guatemala in accord with the long-standing border dispute. The scale of the mountains is somewhat exaggerated, with the volcanoes and peaks looking steep and pointy. There are observation towers from which you can get a better vantage point. The rivers and lakes are sometimes filled with water from built-in taps, making for an even more authentic experience. It makes a good stop if you’re in Guatemala City before heading out to the interior and want to get a feel for the country’s unique geography.
Museo de los Mártires
A fascinating glimpse into Guatemala’s tragic (and largely unknown) history can be found in Zona 2’s Museo de los Mártires del Movimiento Sindical, Estudiantil y Popular de Guatemala (1a. Calle 1-53 Zona 2, tel. 2232-4853, www.fafg.org, donations accepted). Forensic anthropology has come a long way in recent years in helping to identify the victims of Guatemala’s 45,000 cases of forced disappearance during the civil war. The museum stands as a testament to the lives of almost 200 victims based on information found in a military archive detailing date of disappearance and death. There’s a video presentation, clothing and personal items left behind by the victims, and a tribute to forensic anthropologists in their search for the truth. The victims’ mug shots and file information are chillingly reproduced on a wall, giving a face and voice to the victims of Guatemala’s dirty war.
The disappeared from Guatemala’s civil war are remembered at Zona 2’s Museo de los Mártires.
A revitalization program gave Zona 4 a distinct character in recent years with the establishment of a pedestrian thoroughfare known as 4 Grados Norte, lined with sidewalk cafés and restaurants during the day, doubling as bars at night. While it was a good idea in theory, it soon attracted a motley assortment of drug dealers and local riffraff. The restaurants and bars have mostly closed their doors, but the area is enjoying a renaissance as a center for technology-based businesses. The New York Times compared it to Silicon Valley in a 2011 story featuring the area’s Campus Tec building. Dozens of new technology start-ups have sprung up here in recent years. Some of the postproduction for Hollywood movies now takes place here, including that for The Chronicles of Narnia.
Further adding luster to this area is the appearance of food trucks in a space fronting the pleasant Plaza de La República (7a Avenida y Ruta 5). The food trucks serving Chinese food, burgers, and tacos are a popular lunchtime option with workers in nearby office towers.
Zona 4’s other main attraction is a dilapidated bus terminal for second-class buses, though this was expected to fall into disuse with the municipal government’s plans to move all bus traffic out of the city.
As you head south from the downtown sectors of Zonas 1 and 2, you’ll come to a transitional area between the old city core and some of the newer parts of town. Some guidebooks refer to the latter as the “new city,” which to the best of my knowledge has never been used by locals to describe their city layout. As the city spread south from the central area, urban planners and architects decided to build around a concept of a civic center to house some of the more important government buildings. Thus was born the Centro Cívico. Today it houses Guatemala’s Corte Suprema de Justicia (Supreme Court), Banco de Guatemala (Bank of Guatemala), Municipalidad de Guatemala (City Hall), and the administrative offices of the Guatemala Tourist Commission (7a Avenida 1-17 Zona 4, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.). There’s the occasional exhibit in the lobby and you can get some tourist information, including maps, but you’re probably better off picking these up at the information kiosks at the international airport.
Zona 4’s Centro Cívico
Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias
Inaugurated in 1968 and named after Guatemala’s Nobel Prize-winning author, the capital’s national theater is built on a hill once harboring the fort of San José de Buena Vista, destroyed by artillery fire during the October Revolution of 1944. The Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias (mcd.gob.gt/teatro-nacional) consists of a Gran Sala (Great Theater) with a seating capacity of 2,041, an outdoor amphitheater seating 2,500, the 320-seat Teatro de Cámara (Chamber Theater), and several smaller venues. It has some interesting architecture designed by Efrín Recinos, and its hilltop location overlooking the rest of the civic center gives it an air of grandeur. The center still hosts frequent events, including ballet and theater productions. Check local listings for more information.
Parque Arqueológico Kaminaljuyú
This Mayan site occupied the valley where Guatemala City now stands. It was first settled sometime around 400 BC and grew to house an abundance of flat-topped pyramids (with the remains of nobility buried underneath) by AD 100. The first inhabitants of the site appear to have been some early cultures (Las Charcas, Miraflores, and Esperanza, dating from 1500 BC to AD 150), which established a foundation for the later development of the Classic Mayan culture here. These early cultures are characterized by the development of agriculture, weaving, pottery making, and ritual burial of the dead in temple mounds and shrines. Central to the city’s rapid population growth was the construction of a series of irrigation canals drawing upon the ancient lake of Miraflores. Eventually the lake began to dry out, leading to widespread migration out of the city. Its Chol-speaking inhabitants are thought to have moved on to El Salvador and maybe even Copán, Honduras. The site’s historical record fades out (momentarily) sometime between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
With the rise of Central Mexico’s Teotihuacán in the 5th century, the Guatemalan highlands received a large influx of invaders from the north. Here the invaders established their regional capital, constructing new temples and structures, and flourished with the control of trade networks around highly prized obsidian and jade. It is thought that, along with its powerful neighbor to the north, Kaminaljuyú exercised considerable influence over the Petén lowland sites, in particular Tikal. One of Tikal’s rulers, Curl Nose, may actually have come from here in AD 387.
The site was first excavated in 1925 and yielded potsherds and clay figurines from the early cultures. Its larger extent and importance were discovered in 1935 when a local football team uncovered a buried structure after cutting away the edges of two inconspicuous mounds to lengthen their practice field. Today the site is really no more than a series of mounds. Though the site is in Zona 7 proper, the best place to see it is actually near the Museo Miraflores in adjacent Zona 11, where you can tour the excellent museum and see some temple mounds.
Part of the city’s newer sector, Zona 9 adjoins Zona 4 and is crossed by 6a and 7a Avenidas. Along 7a Avenida, on 2a Calle, is an Eiffel Tower-like monument commemorating the rule of Guatemala’s liberal reformer Justo Rufino Barrios (1871-1885), known as Torre del Reformador. Wonderfully illuminated at night with a large spinning spotlight at its top, the steel tower serves as a nice backdrop for an annual December fireworks show. A bell at top is rung every year on June 30 in remembrance of the Liberal victory in the revolution of 1871. It was a project of the Ubico administration and was not a donation from France, as is commonly thought. The bell tower, however, was a gift from Belgium. Nearby, at the corner of 5a Calle and Avenida La Reforma is Plaza Estado de Israel, honoring the creation of the Jewish state with a giant Star of David sculpture.
Also along Avenida La Reforma, between 2a Calle and Calle Mariscal Cruz, is the Jardín Botánico y Museo de Historia Natural (Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museum, tel. 2334-6064, 8am-3pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-noon Sat., $1.50), managed by the Universidad de San Carlos. It’s really only recommendable for the botanical gardens, which offer a nice respite from the chaotic traffic just beyond its walls. The plant species are all labeled in Spanish and Latin. Give the natural history museum a skip unless you’re really into bad taxidermy.
At 7a Avenida and 12 Calle is the Plazuela España, a circular miniplaza circumvented by traffic and featuring a pretty fountain built in honor of Spain’s King Carlos III in 1789. It originally was in the city’s central park, where it had a large equestrian statue that disappeared shortly after independence from Spain. Its current location was a move by the Ubico administration. Some once-attractive but now deteriorated tile benches are on the sidewalks opposite the fountain.
Avenida La Reforma
Running between 1a Calle and 20 Calle, Avenida La Reforma is a classic example of the 19th-century trend, common throughout Latin America’s major capitals, of emulating French architectural and urban design with wide, tree-lined boulevards adorned with statues. This broad thoroughfare separates Zonas 9 and 10 and features some of the city’s better hotels, cafés, and restaurants along its path. The wide, grassy median contains some interesting sculptures and makes a great place for a stroll or bike ride thanks to a new bike path running its entire length. La Reforma culminates at the spacious Parque Obelisco, featuring a large obelisk, a gigantic Guatemalan flag, palm trees, a fountain, and sitting areas.
S Zona Viva
Within Zona 10, east of Avenida La Reforma all the way to 6a Avenida and running north to south from 10a Calle to 16 Calle, the Zona Viva is Guatemala City’s most pleasant commercial district, with a variety of hip cafés, trendy boutiques, lively bars and nightclubs, excellent restaurants, and expensive hotels. It’s Guatemala City at its best and after long periods in the country’s hinterlands, it can be downright refreshing.
Unlike in downtown Guatemala City, you’ll find plenty of trees sheltering the streets from the harsh tropical sun in addition to wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. Zona Viva’s many high-rise buildings harbor banks, offices, the bulk of Guatemala City’s international hotel chain properties, and condominiums. None of these buildings is more than 20 stories high, as the airport’s proximity limits vertical expansion of the adjacent areas, giving the neighborhood a cosmopolitan feel without the claustrophobic concrete-jungle look found in larger international cities. Interspersed between office buildings are the area’s many dining and entertainment options and tucked away into the side streets are some of Guatemala’s nicest residences sheltered behind walls, barbed wire, and bougainvillea.
During the day, Zona Viva’s streets are mostly the haunt of businesspeople because of the area’s prominence as the city’s main financial district. By night, especially on weekends, it becomes the enclave of young folks heading to bars and nightclubs or dinner at a fancy restaurant. If you find yourself needing to spend a night or two in Guatemala City, you might make it a very enjoyable experience by checking into one of the area’s attractive boutique or international chain hotels, eating at one of the recommended local restaurants, and taking in one or several of the nearby museums. The recent addition of a hostel to the area’s accommodations means this is no longer just an option for wealthy travelers. It is also conveniently close to the airport.
S Museo Ixchel
The city’s most magnificent museum, Museum Ixchel (6a Calle Final Zona 10, tel. 2361-8081/2, www.museoixchel.org, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sat., $4 adults, $2 students, $15-80 for guided tours in English) on the grounds of the Francisco Marroquín University, is dedicated to Mayan culture with an emphasis on weaving and traditional costumes. It’s housed in a beautiful brick building built to resemble a Mayan huipil, or handwoven, embroidered blouse. On display are pre-Hispanic objects, photographs, handwoven fabrics, ceremonial costumes, weaving tools, and folk paintings by Guatemalan artist Andrés Curruchich. You’ll find interactive multimedia displays, a café, bookstore, and huipiles for sale in the excellent gift shop. Displays are in English and Spanish. This museum is a must-see for anyone with even a casual interest in Mayan weaving, as it manages to condense the country’s rich weaving heritage spanning a fairly vast geographical range into a single place with excellent displays and an attractive setting.
Museo Popol Vuh
Next door and also on the university campus is the similarly high-caliber Museo Popol Vuh (tel. 2361-2301, www.popolvuh.ufm.edu, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sat., $4 adults, $2 students). Started in 1978 with a university donation by private collectors, it has been in its current location since 1997. The museum houses an impressive collection from Guatemala’s archaeological record grouped in different rooms denoted by Preclassic, Classic, Postclassic, and Colonial themes. The highlight is in the Postclassic room with a replica of the Dresden Codex, one of only three Mayan books to survive their postconquest burning by the Spanish (the other two are the Paris Codex and the Madrid Codex).
S Museo Miraflores
The excellent Museo Miraflores (7a Calle 21-55 Zona 11, Paseo Miraflores, tel. 2470-3415, 9am-7pm Tues., Wed., Sun., 9am-8pm Thurs., Fri., Sat., $5 adults, $1 children and students) is dedicated to the history of the Mayan site of Kaminaljuyú. Just outside the museum’s main entrance is a replica of an irrigation canal similar to those found throughout the Mayan city as early as 600 BC. Inside, the large window panels provide fantastic views of the stark contrast between old and new, with the green temple mound of structure B-V-3 flanked by modern glass buildings in the background. Also at the entrance is a scale model of what the city probably looked like in its heyday, built into the museum floor under a glass case. In the main exhibit area, you’ll find a comprehensive history of Kaminaljuyú in English and Spanish as well as a burial display, pottery, jade jewelry, stone sculpture, and obsidian blades. There are also old photographs of the site’s excavation and maps showing the large area once occupied by the ancient city. You are free to explore the temple mounds outside (steps are built into them). A few more temple mounds can be found in the vicinity of the museum, having been completely closed in by one of the city’s larger shopping complexes. Among the latter are the ever-growing Galerías Miraflores, Paseo Miraflores, and Las Majadas.
a statue of Nobel Prize laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias on Avenida La Reforma
This area was once the site of a large farm known as La Aurora, which today gives its name to the zoo, airport, and adjacent horse track on the grounds of the former Hipódromo del Sur. The horse track has been reinvented as Parque Deportivo Ecuestre La Aurora.
Zona 13 also houses a number of fairly good museums, all adjacent to each other in a large complex, and the city’s zoo.
La Aurora Zoo
Guatemala City’s La Aurora Zoo (Boulevard Juan Pablo II Zona 13, tel. 2475-0894, http://aurorazoo.org.gt, 9am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $4 adults, $1.50 children) is modern and well run. Its grounds are a popular weekend destination for city dwellers from all walks of life. About 900 animals representing 110 species are housed in re-creations of their natural habitats, including African savannah, Asia, and tropical forest. There are leopards, lions, giraffes, Asian pachyderms, Bengal tigers, and jaguars and other species found in Guatemala’s tropical forests. All cages have been removed from the park so as to provide visitors with the opportunity to see the animals free of visual obstructions. Check out the English teahouse dating to 1924. Penguins were the most recent addition to the zoo at last visit. Three Bengal tiger cubs were born and introduced to the public here in 2014, to the delight of spectators. They will likely find residency in a North American or European zoo by the time you read this, in an effort to maintain the gene pool of this highly endangered species.
Museo de los Niños
Right across the street is the Museo de los Niños (Children’s Museum, 5a Calle 10-00 Zona 13, tel. 2475-5076, www.museodelosninos.com.gt, 8:30am-noon and 1pm-4:30pm Tues.-Fri., 9:30am-1:30pm and 2:30pm-6pm Sat.-Sun. and holidays, $5), housed in a pyramidal building, with educational exhibits and hands-on learning on themes such as civic values and teamwork. You’ll also find a giant jigsaw puzzle of Guatemala, a music room, and trampolines. It’s a popular school field trip.
S Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología
The city’s Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (6a Calle y 7a Avenida Zona 13, tel. 2475-4399, www.munae.gob.gt, 9am-4pm Tues.-Fri., 9am-noon and 1:30pm-4pm Sat.-Sun., $7.50) houses an outstanding collection of original monuments from Guatemala’s archaeological sites, including ceramics, carved rock sculptures and stelae from Kaminaljuyú, barrigones (Olmecoid stone figures with distended, bloated bellies) from the Pacific Coast sites, and stelae from the Petén sites. Among the latter are beautifully carved stelae and a spectacular hieroglyphic bench from Piedras Negras as well as stelae and hieroglyphic panels from Dos Pilas and Machaquilá. Another of the archaeology and ethnologgy museum’s highlights is a splendid jade mask made famous on the cover of the September 1987 issue of National Geographic. The ethnology section has displays on traditional costumes and housing. The exhibits are not quite as modern or well executed as those in some other of the city’s top museums, but the sheer significance of the original pieces found here makes a visit more than worthwhile.
a Maya stela on display in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología
Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno Carlos Mérida
Across the street is the city’s Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno Carlos Mérida (tel. 2472-0467, 9am-4pm Tues.-Fri., 9am-noon and 1:30pm-4pm Sat.-Sun., $2.50), which focuses largely on the work of its namesake artist, including examples of his Cubist art and large murals. Mérida’s Guatemala’s most celebrated artist; his work also adorns the inside of several buildings in Guatemala City’s Civic Center, including City Hall, with a giant mural known as Canto a la Raza (Ode to the Race), recently restored. Among the other interesting works found at the museum of modern art is one titled La Peste (Pestilence) by Rodolfo Abularach, reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica.
Museo Nacional de Historia Natural Jorge Ibarra
For all of Guatemala’s rich ecology, it still lacks a comprehensive natural history museum to do it justice. The Museo Nacional de Historia Natural Jorge Ibarra (6a Calle 7-30 Zona 13, tel. 2472-0468, 9am-4pm Tues.-Fri., 9am-noon and 2pm-4pm Sat.-Sun., $1.50) makes an attempt but falls short. You’ll find plenty of taxidermy as well as exhibits on several of the country’s ecosystems. A standout is the photo exhibit on the Atitlán pied-billed grebe, extinct since 1987, and the attempt in the mid-20th century to save it.
Guatemala City’s boom district, Zona 14 has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years thanks to a plethora of new condos and office buildings built in this area. The sector’s main feature is Avenida Las Américas, which is really just a continuation of Zona 9/10’s Avenida La Reforma and boasts the same sylvan landscaping interspersed with monuments to Columbus and other historical figures centered around wide plazas. At the end of this avenue is a steep drop-off and Plaza Berlin, from which there are good views of the city’s southern sprawl and Pacaya Volcano, along with some simple snack and drink stands. An addition to this plaza are three pieces of none other than the now-departed Berlin Wall, with a plaque commemorating liberty.
Avenida Las Américas parallels La Aurora Airport’s runway. Branching off from the main artery are a number of side streets and residential areas. Two-story houses now share these streets with 20- and 30-story commercial and residential buildings. Between the airport runway and Avenida Las Américas is Avenida Hincapié, where the hangars of some of the domestic carriers and helicopter flights are housed just off its juncture with 18 Calle.
On Sundays, a stretch from Avenida Las Américas all the way to Avenida La Reforma’s Plaza Israel is closed to pedestrian traffic, making for a very pleasant place to take a stroll.
ZONAS 15 AND 16
Also enjoying substantial growth due to new condos and office buildings are Zonas 15 and 16, on the eastern edge of Guatemala City bordering ravines and the hillside leading up to a neighboring plateau. In addition to the area’s prominence as an affluent residential sector, it also houses joint retail/residential centers such as the ever-expanding Paseo Cayalá with condos, an outdoor shopping mall, gym, and even a driving range. It’s pleasantly urbanized while feeling like you’re well outside of the city core, seen off in the distance separated by deep gorges. Among the main thoroughfares is Bulevar Vista Hermosa, leading southeast out of the city.
aerial view of Guatemala City’s Zona 10 looking east to Zonas 15 and 16
Carretera a El Salvador
From Bulevar Vista Hermosa, the road winds out of the city and up a mountainside heading southeast, eventually making its way to neighboring El Salvador. The first 35 kilometers or so of this Carretera a El Salvador are Guatemala City’s suburb extraordinaire. After climbing up the mountains to the east of Guatemala City, the road eventually traverses a plateau, providing the perfect topographic conditions for the establishment of a virtual satellite city. The area around Carretera a El Salvador is also prime agricultural land. You’ll find countless subdivisions springing up all over this fast-growing area, giving it all the feel of a U.S. suburb. The plateau lies at an altitude of about 2,135 meters (7,000 feet), so it’s a bit cooler than Guatemala City and it also receives more rainfall during the rainy season. Those familiar with San José, Costa Rica, might find this area very similar to the Escazú suburbs near that city.
Although it’s very much a residential area, you may find yourself visiting friends or staying at one of the hotels in this neck of the woods. Catering to the ever-increasing numbers of Guatemala City residents migrating to the surrounding suburbs, the area has at least one sizable shopping mall in Pradera Concepción, which adjoins the Condado Concepción shopping district. Between them, they boast a number of restaurants, PriceSmart warehouse shopping, WalMart, Sears, banks, car dealerships, a Starbucks, and even an IMAX movie theater. The selection of goods in local supermarkets is more upscale (with prices to match), so a lot of folks looking for favorite import items do their shopping up here. This area is also home to two of Guatemala’s most upscale golf courses and one of the city’s finest hotels. Also in this area, and once used as a little-known shortcut for getting out of the city, Muxbal has recently seen the rise of upscale shopping centers housing some of my favorite eateries.
Guatemala City has a fairly lively nightlife scene with bars, clubs, and music found mostly in the Zona Viva and downtown. There are plenty of places to dance to salsa and Latin beats in addition to rock and pop music. Electronica is also a big hit with Guatemalan partygoers. DJ Tiësto performs in Guatemala fairly frequently.
A good mix of bars in the downtown area caters to the city’s bohemian population as well as to international travelers. In Zona 10, the Zona Viva sector centered around 16 Calle is the place to go if you want to hang out with the city’s wealthy elite in the hippest establishments.
Downtown, El Portal (Portal del Comercio, 9a Calle, between 6a and 7a Avenidas, 10am-10pm Mon.-Sat.) is said to be the old stomping grounds of none other than Che Guevara, who lived in Guatemala City in the early 1950s. You’ll find a long wooden bar and some wooden tables along with draft beers for about $2. The entrance is at the Portal del Comercio arcade ingress on the south side of the park along 6a Avenida. Nearby Las Cien Puertas (9a Calle between 6a and 7a Avenidas, Pasaje Aycinena, Zona 1, tel. 2232-8502, noon-2am Mon.-Sat.) is the city’s quintessential bohemian hangout set in a restored colonial arcade. Enjoy tasty quesadillas and tacos when you get the munchies. Europa Bar (11 Calle 5-16, Edificio Testa, Local 201, tel. 2253-4929, 8am-midnight Mon.-Sat.) is a restaurant doubling as a bar that is popular with the expat crowd. CNN and sports are on the cable TV, and the restaurant serves decent food, including the all-American staple breakfast of eggs, hash browns, bacon, and toast. Reilly’s GuateCity (12 Calle 6-25 Zona 1, firstname.lastname@example.org), a spin-off of the popular Irish pub in Antigua Guatemala, is also a good bet in downtown Guatemala City.
Zona Viva’s motley assortment of upscale bars is constantly in flux. New places open and close all the time, and it’s hard to keep up with all the changes, even if you live in Guatemala City. A classic expat hangout, Shakespeare’s Pub (13 Calle and 1a Avenida, Torre Santa Clara II, Local 5, Zona 10, tel. 2331-2641, 11am-1am Mon.-Sat., 2pm-1am Sun.) appropriately advertises, “No tragedy, no comedy, just good times.” Cheers (13 Calle 0-40 Zona 10, tel. 2368-2089, 9am-1am Mon.-Sat., 1pm-midnight Sun.) is a cool sports bar with scrumptious buffalo wings, frosty beer on tap, dartboards, pool tables, foosball, big-screen TVs, and classic rock on the stereo. Rattle N Hum (4a Avenida 16-11 Zona 10, noon-1am daily) is a fun, Australian-owned place often featuring live music. There’s also tasty pub grub, and it’s popular with locals and visitors alike.
Among the hotel bars, the InterContinental’s Maya Lounge (14 Calle 2-51 Zona 10, tel. 2143-4444) bears mentioning for the cool vibe and chic modern-day Mayan decor. I also must note the bar at the Hard Rock Café Guatemala City (1a Avenida y 13 Calle Zona 10, Edificio Dubai Center, tel. 2332-3862, www.hardrock.com/cafes/guatemala-city, noon-12:30am Mon.-Sat., 11am-10pm Sun.) for its live music, the sheer variety and creativity of drink options, and the simple fact that it’s one of the few places in Guatemala City with a cool outdoor patio bar. Antigua’s popular Monoloco (16 Calle 1-01 Zona 10, CC Plaza Obelisco, tel. 2367-3283, www.restaurantemonoloco.com) now has a Guatemala City location with the same fun atmosphere and decent bar food.
Hard Rock Café Guatemala City
Like the bars, nightclubs are in constant flux, but here are some options that have been around for some time. In Zona 10, Kalhua (15 Calle and 1a Avenida, Zona 10, 8pm-3am Mon.-Sat., $5 cover) is one of Guatemala City’s most popular clubs with a wealthy clientele and hip atmosphere spread out on four floors. I’ve had a great time dancing to electronica at The Box Lounge Groove (15 Calle y 4a Avenida, Zona 10, 5pm-1am Tues.-Sat.). It’s on the small side, but its loyal clientele don’t seem to mind squeezing in. SOMA Centro Cultural (11 Calle 4-27 Zona 1, tel. 2253-0406) is a good downtown option for music and a hip atmosphere. Also downtown, Savoy Zona Uno (12 Calle y Sexta Avenida 5-59 Zona 1, tel. 4040-4888) is wonderfully set in a derelict old building turned hipster haven. There are street tacos and other munchies for sale on the ground floor.
A popular place for live music in a wonderfully bohemian atmosphere is La Bodeguita del Centro (12 Calle 3-55 Zona 1, tel. 2230-1780, 8pm-2am Tues.-Sat., $4 cover on weekends). Besides live folk, rock, and jazz music, there are poetry readings, forums, and movies some nights. The atmosphere features posters the likes of Bob Marley and Che Guevara, as well as tons of Che-related memorabilia. Food is also served, with tasty chicken sandwiches. TrovaJazz (Vía 6 3-55 Zona 4, tel. 2267-9388, www.trovajazz.com) has live trova most evenings. It also serves food and coffee beverages. For live jazz, check out La Esquina Jazz Café (6a Avenida 0-15 Zona 2, tel. 2230-2859, noon-8pm Mon. and Thurs., noon-10pm Sat.-Sun).
The Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias (24 Calle 3-81 Zona 4, tel. 2232-4042, 2232-4043, 2232-4044, or 2232-4045, mcd.gob.gt/teatro-nacional/) hosts ballet and a number of cultural events throughout the year. Check listings in the Prensa Libre newspaper or Recrearte, a free monthly publication widely available in tourist shops and hotels.
The Teatro de la Cámara de la Industria (Chamber of Industry Theater, Ruta 6, 9-21 Zona 4, tel. 2331-9191, showtimes 8:30pm Fri. and Sat., 5pm Sun., $8) usually has theater performances on weekends, mostly of satirical works.
For other cultural events, check the entertainment section of the useful Spanish-language website at www.deguate.com.
Guatemala City has a number of excellent movie theaters, with movies sometimes opening on the same day as their U.S. release. It’s also (compared to the U.S.) a lot cheaper to go see a movie. The city’s original IMAX movie theater is found at Cines Pradera Concepción (tel. 2329-2550, circuitoalba.com.gt), at the Pradera Concepción shopping mall along Km. 17.5 of Carretera a El Salvador, where you can have the IMAX theater experience for just $6. In one of the city’s most popular shopping malls is Cinépolis Miraflores (Centro Comercial Miraflores, 21 Avenida 4-32 Zona 11, tel. 2378-2300, www.cinepolis.com.gt). Miraflores now also has an IMAX theater. Cinépolis (a Mexican chain) also has a location in Zona 10’s Oakland Mall (Diagonal 6, 13-01 Zona 10, www.cinepolis.com.gt). Five of Oakland Mall’s theaters are VIP lounges, in which you can order a meal and/or drink while you watch a movie. Other Cinépolis locations include Cinépolis Cayalá (Boulevard Rafael Landívar 10-05 Zona 16, Paseo Cayalá, tel. 2378-2300, www.cinepolis.com.gt) and Cinépolis Portales (Km. 4.5 Carretera al Atlántico Zona 17, Centro Comercial Portales, tel. 2378-2300, www.cinepolis.com.gt).
Not to be outdone, U.S. franchise Cinemark opened its first Guatemalan location at Cinemark Eskala Roosevelt (Calzada Roosevelt Km. 13.8 Zona 11, tel. 2250-7084, www.cinemarkca.com) featuring 3-D movies. There’s a now a second location at Cinemark Arkadia (Boulevard Los Próceres, 18 Calle 26-21 Zona 10, www.cinemarkca.com) showing 3-D, D-BOX and XD movies.
Check the Prensa Libre newspaper or the theaters’ websites for showtimes. Movies at all of these venues generally cost between $4 and $5, and all have stadium seating.
The creators of Retalhuleu’s (Pacific Coast) Xocomil and Xetulul theme parks have provided Guatemala City with a fun entertainment option in the form of Mundo Petapa (Avenida Petapa 42-36 Zona 12, tel. 2423-9000, www.irtra.org.gt, 9am-5pm Thurs.-Sat., 9am-6pm Sun., $13 adults, $7 children). There are plenty of rides (including a small roller coaster), swimming pools, a dinosaur-inspired playground, and a small zoo to keep kids and adults entertained. Food prices in the many kiosks and eateries are surprisingly reasonable for a theme park in an urban area. If adrenaline is your thing, check out X Park (Final Avenida Hincapié, Km. 11.5 Carretera a Boca del Monte, tel. 2380-2080, www.xpark.net, $2 admission, activities from $2.50), where there is bungee jumping, paintball, an obstacle course, and a climbing wall.
Have an outdoor adventure without going too far from Guatemala City at Green Rush (Km. 24 Carretera a El Salvador, tel. 5708-8801 or 5900-4291, www.greenrush.com.gt, 8am-8pm weekends, weekdays with prior reservation, $7 adults, $4 children; entrance includes access to trails, animal sanctuary, and relaxation areas). This ecoadventure park in the eastern hillsides flanking Guatemala City features 10 kilometers of trails and various outdoor activities that include archery ($2.50 and up), horseback riding ($2.50-13), and a zipline ($7). There’s an animal sanctuary and a trail leading to a far-off waterfall. Services include a restaurant and picnic areas with gorgeous views over the Guatemala City valley. You can camp here with your own tent or go glamping in one of their souped-up safari tents ($121 d, including breakfast). The tents have private decks with lovely views and private bathrooms with hot-water showers.
You can find almost anything you might possibly want or need in Guatemala City. In addition to many modern shopping malls stocked with the latest fashions and electronics, there are a number of department stores for household appliances and cosmetics. For grocery shopping, the local giant is Paiz, which was recently taken over by WalMart. La Torre is also a well-stocked local grocery chain. U.S.-style warehouse shopping is available at PriceSmart or at a number of local chains. Guatemalans love U.S.-made goods, which is easy to see given their wide availability. For organic grocery shopping and natural foods, head to Orgánica (Diagonal 6 16-23 Zona 10, tel. 2363-1819, 9am-7pm Mon.-Sat., and Km. 15.5 Carretera a El Salvador, Condado Concepción Fase 1 Local #21, tel. 6634-7077, 9am-6pm Mon.-Sat.). The website for all locations is www.organicastore.com.
In line with its fashionable cafés and expensive hotels, Guatemala City also features a number of attractive stores for window-shopping or picking up an outfit should you need something nice to wear for a fancy dinner or night out on the town. Two of the most fashionable retail outlets are the European chain Mexx (16 Calle 5-86 Zona 10, Plaza Magnolia, tel. 2368-0757, www.mexx.com, 10am-8pm daily) and the European-inspired menswear store Saúl Méndez (6a Avenida 15-64 Zona 10, tel. 2379-8722, www.saulemendez.com, 10am-8pm daily). Saúl Méndez, Mexx, and more recently, Zara (www.zara.com.gt), have locations in the following upscale shopping malls.
Guatemala City has some excellent shopping malls carrying the most basic or most exclusive items one could need, in addition to fashionable boutiques and department stores. None of the latter (curiously) seem to result from Guatemalan investment. These include Simán (El Salvador), Carrion (Honduras), Figaly (Panama), and Sears (United States). The city’s largest shopping mall is Pradera Concepción (Km. 17.5 Carretera a El Salvador, 10am-7pm Mon.-Thurs. and 10am-9pm Fri.-Sat.), with a variety of familiar stores and restaurant chains including Sears and T.G.I. Friday’s. It adjoins a smaller, open-air shopping center known as Condado Concepción, which features a Starbucks and an Applebee’s in addition to several local chains. Opened in 2003 and expanded in 2006 and 2011, the sprawling Galerías Miraflores (21 Avenida 4-32 Zona 11, 10am-8pm Mon.-Thurs., 10am-9pm Fri.-Sat., 10am-7pm Sun.) also harbors some of Guatemala’s most exclusive stores, including a Simán department store, the international Zara boutique, and a L’Occitane store. There’s also an IHOP if you need your pancake fix. Across the way is the Parque Comercial Las Majadas shopping center with a Sears, Fetiche perfume store, and a T.G.I. Friday’s. They’ve recently expanded with a new, very pleasant outdoor concept known as Majadas ONCE (tel. 2200-9696, www.majadas.com, 9am-9pm daily).
Parque Comercial Las Majadas
In Zona 10, east up the hill toward the Carretera a El Salvador, is Galerías La Pradera (20 Calle 25-85 Zona 10, tel. 2367-4136, 10am-8pm Mon.-Sat. and 10am-7pm Sun.), an upscale shopping mall remodeled in 2010-2011. Though not as upscale as its Zona Viva location might suggest, Gran Centro Los Próceres (16 Calle 2-00 Zona 10, tel. 2332-8742) nonetheless is conveniently situated near the major Zona 10 hotels. Also conveniently situated in Zona 10 (and brand-new) is Arkadia Shopping (Boulevard Los Próceres, 18 Calle 26-21 Zona 10, www.arkadiashopping.com, 10am-8pm Sun.-Thurs., 10am-9pm Fri.-Sat.).
Zona 10’s most upscale shopping mall is also Guatemala City’s nicest. Oakland Mall (Diagonal 6, 13-01 Zona 10, www.oaklandmall.com.gt, 10am-8pm Mon.-Thurs., 10am-9pm Fri.-Sat., 10am-7pm Sun.) features 170 stores spread across three floors, in addition to several movie theaters. Among its stores and restaurants you’ll find an aquarium, an impressive waterfall producing geometric shapes, and even a carousel imported from Italy. A Starbucks with plenty of outdoor seating fronts the street along its main entrance. Also in this sector is the very pleasant Plaza Fontabella (4a Ave. 12-59 Zona 10, tel. 6628-8600, www.plazafontabella.com), built as an outdoor mall in neocolonial style, where you can enjoy Guatemala’s spring-like climate and a decent selection of stores and restaurants while strolling the cobblestone pedestrian walkways. Guatemala’s first Carolina Herrera designer handbag store opened here in 2011. Convenient for shoppers coming in from neighboring Antigua due to its location on the southwestern edges of Guatemala City is SanKris Mall (Boulevard Principal de San Cristóbal, tel. 2300-0600, www.sankris.com.gt, 10am-8pm daily). It has a decent selection of stores and a World Gym.
In Zona 16, you’ll find a fine example of the recent trend toward construction of outdoor pedestrian malls in warm-weather locales. Paseo Cayalá (Ciudad Cayalá, Zona 16, www.paseocayala.com.gt) is housed in a sprawling collection of whitewashed Spanish neocolonial buildings. There are numerous specialty stores in addition to cool restaurants and bars with outdoor patio seating fronting the cobblestone pedestrian thoroughfare. Three universities lie nearby, and the shopping district is part of a larger residential complex encompassing homes and student apartments. Recent additions include a movie theater, driving range, a World Gym, and a Starbucks. There are lovely views of the city’s downtown core, off in the distance.
the open-air style of Paseo Cayalá
You can shop the jam-packed stalls in downtown Guatemala City’s Mercado Central (8a Avenida and 6a Calle, 6am-6pm Mon.-Sat., 9am-noon Sun.) for textiles, típica clothing, and leather goods. A safer and more enjoyable option can be found near the airport and Zona 13 museums at the open-air Mercado de Artesanías (Boulevard Juan Pablo II, 8am-6pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-1pm Sun.), with a fairly wide assortment of handicrafts and tourist souvenirs.
Recommended retailers include Lin Canola (5a Calle 9-60 Zona 1, tel. 2232-0858, www.lin-canola.com, 9am-6pm Mon.-Fri.), where the assortment varies from home decorative items to jewelry and everything between. This store is especially recommended if you want to buy Guatemalan fabrics by the yard. Its Zona 10 location, In Nola (18 Calle 21-31 Zona 10, Boulevard Los Próceres, tel. 2367-2424, 8:30am-6:30pm Mon.-Fri. and 8:30am-1:30pm Sat.), is more modern and contains much the same in a better part of town.
Selling fashionable adaptations on traditional designs for the home, Textura (Diagonal 6, 13-63 Zona 10, tel. 2367-2098, 9:30am-7pm Mon.-Fri.., 9:30am-2:30pm Sat.) is especially recommended for its beautiful and colorful hammocks.
If you want to take in the work of local artists, head to Guatemala’s oldest art gallery, Galería El Túnel (16 Calle 1-01 Zona 10, Plaza Obelisco, tel. 2367-3284, www.galeriaeltunel.com.gt), featuring the work of more than 100 artists. Another good art gallery worth checking out is el attico (4a Avenida 15-45 Zona 14, tel. 2368-0853, www.elattico.com). Fundación Rozas Botrán (16 Calle 4-66 Zona 14, tel. 2366-7064, www.fundacionrozasbotran.org) has rotating painting, sculpture, and photography exhibits in its spacious gallery.
For a great atmosphere for unwinding with a cup of coffee or tea and a large selection of books (though mostly in Spanish), try Sophos (Plaza Fontabella, 4a Ave. 12-59 Zona 10, tel. 2419-7070, www.sophosenlinea.com, 9am-8pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-6pm Sun.). Also with plenty of books in Spanish is Artemis Edinter (www.artemisedinter.com) with several locations including Galerías Miraflores, Pradera Concepción, and Oakland Mall.
A number of bookstores cater to the expat community, stocking a variety of English-language books on their shelves. Vista Hermosa Book Shop (2a Calle 18-50, Vista Hermosa II, Zona 15, tel. 2369-1003, email@example.com, 9am-1pm and 2pm-6pm Mon.-Sat.) has books in English and Spanish and is in a quiet residential sector east of Zona 10.
For anything you may have neglected to bring for your outdoor Guatemala adventures, head to Big Mountain (Centro Comercial Miraflores, 2do nivel, Kiosko K-96, tel. 2474-8547, www.bigmountainonline.com, 9am-8pm Mon.-Sun.), offering a good assortment of hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and camping gear, and name-brand outdoor clothing.
Another option for outdoor gear is The North Face (2nd floor of the Oakland Mall, Diagonal 6, 13-01 Zona 10, tel. 2336-6881, 10am-8pm Mon.-Thurs., 10am-9pm Fri.-Sat., 10am-7pm Sun.). There’s also now a location at the Galerías Miraflores shopping mall.
The idea of a greenbelt is relatively new to Guatemalan city planners. Most of the city’s parks tend to be plazas centered around churches. A refreshing alternative is that of Parque Ecológico Deportivo Cayalá (Calzada de la Paz, Zona 16, in front of the Cemaco warehouse, tel. 4561-8082 or 5744-4360, www.cayala.org, 8am-5:30pm Tues.-Sun., $5), where there are nature trails winding through the park’s 24 acres of mostly forested land showcasing the flora and fauna of the city’s barrancos. The urban oasis is privately run by ecological organization FUNDAECO and entry includes a visit to the Museo Metropolitano de Aves (Metropolitan Bird Museum). The museum showcases wooden versions of Guatemala’s myriad bird species, including endemic and migratory birds.
On Sunday mornings, parts of Avenida Las Américas and Avenida La Reforma (from Plaza Eucarística to Plaza Israel) are closed to car traffic as part of the municipality’s Pasos y Pedales initiative. Pedestrians, cyclists, inline skaters, and skateboarders take to the broad streets, while the green grass and plazas of the boulevards’ wide central dividers serve as pleasant areas for rest and relaxation. A more recent development is the addition of a bike path running down the entire length of the wide, tree-and-grass strewn median of Avenida La Reforma all the way from Plaza El Obelisco to its northern extreme.
There are a number of good gymnasiums, mostly U.S. franchises, where you can pay a day rate of about $7 to work out if you don’t have a membership. World Gym (www.worldgym.com.gt) has four locations to choose from. Its Calzada Roosevelt location (Calzada Roosevelt 21-09 Zona 7, Centro Comercial Gran Vía Roosevelt, tel. 2475-2856) is conveniently across the street from Galerías Miraflores and the Grand Tikal Futura hotel. It also has a Zona 10 location (Boulevard Los Próceres 25-74 Zona 10, Gran Vía Pradera, tel. 2423-6000), a third location in the southwest suburbs of San Cristóbal (3ra. Calle Sector A-3, Boulevard San Cristóbal 6-72 Zona 8 de Mixco, SanKris Mall, tel. 2424-4848), and the newest location at Paseo Cayalá (Diagonal 35 Boulevard Austriaco 16-25 Zona 16, Cardales de Cayalá, tel. 2491-4333). All have a full gym and swimming pool. You can also work out at Gold’s Gym (Pradera Concepción Mall, Km. 17.5 Carretera a El Salvador, tel. 6634-1240, www.goldsgym.com).
Fans of golf will find some excellent golf courses in and around the city; those within private country clubs are usually still open to visitors. You can enjoy a round of golf surrounded by the country’s spectacular mountain scenery as you play on narrow, sloping fairways lined with pine trees and a variety of other obstacles. Several of sportfishing outfitters have combined fishing and golf packages. If interested, contact The Great Sailfishing Company (tel. 7934-6220, or 877/763-0851 U.S., www.greatsailfishing.com) or Sailfish Bay Lodge (tel. 2426-3909 direct or 800/638-7405 U.S. reservations, www.sailfishbay.com). It’s also possible to arrange a round of golf through the concierges at some of the city’s finer hotels, including the Westin Camino Real and InterContinental. Entry to all of these clubs is by prior authorization only. You’ll need to call ahead or email.
In 2006 and 2007, Guatemala City’s San Isidro Golf Club hosted the NGA/Hooter’s Pro Golf Tour, which has become an annual event between the last week of February and the first week of March. Guatemala is also a major stop along the annual Tour de las Américas in February.
Guatemala City’s exclusive Cayalá area is now home to a driving range, the first of its kind in Central America. Top Tee (Boulevard Austríaco 37-01, Arcadia de Cayalá, Zona 16, tel. 2300-0700, www.toptee.com.gt) has 38 driving stations, TV lounges for watching sports, and a well-stocked bar.
San Isidro Golf Club
Still officially within the city limits in Zona 16, San Isidro Golf Club (Finca San Isidro, Zona 16, tel. 2419-1200, www.clubcampestresanisidro.com) is the city’s most modern and is in a quiet residential section in its eastern extremes. The 18-hole, par-72 course measures 6,640 yards and offers some truly spectacular views of Guatemala City flanked by Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego Volcanoes. Greens fees are $75, clubs rent for $15, a cart rental costs $20, and caddies are $15. The splendid facilities here include a restaurant overlooking the greens featuring a beautiful dining room with vaulted wooden ceiling, a gym, a squash court, and a swimming pool with lap lanes.
Hacienda Nueva Country Club
The 18-hole, 7,100-yard, par-72 golf course at Hacienda Nueva Country Club (Km. 25, Ruta Nacional 18, Carretera a Mataquescuintla, San José Pinula, tel. 6628-1000, www.haciendanueva.com, $75 Tues.-Fri., $90 weekends and holidays) is just outside the city near Carretera a El Salvador and set beautifully on the grounds of a 16th-century Jesuit monastery. There’s a small chapel with original artwork where Mass is still held weekly. Facilities include nine tennis courts, two squash courts, tennis and golf pro shops, and a swimming pool that has won international design awards. The clubhouse has three dining areas, including a poolside snack bar, a casual dining room serving international dishes, and La Pérgola, an outdoor steakhouse overlooking the 18th hole. Fees include $15 for caddie service and $25 for cart rental. A limited number of golf clubs are available for rental at $15. There are also a driving range and putting green.
Alta Vista Golf and Tennis Club
The most challenging course can be found just down the road from Hacienda Nueva at Alta Vista Golf and Tennis Club (Km. 27, Ruta Nacional 18, Carretera a Mataquescuintla, San José Pinula, tel. 6661-1414, www.altavistagolf.com.gt, 7am-8pm Tues.-Sun., $75), where the 18-hole, par-71, slope-122 course is divided into two nine-hole sections. Additional challenges include 74 sand traps and two water traps with a route defined by 1,800 trees of varying species, adding a nice alpine touch to the incredible mountain views. The clubhouse is in a large and attractive three-story, English-style building with an elegant restaurant, a bar with pool table, an indoor swimming pool, three squash courts, and six tennis courts. Golf cart rentals cost $30, clubs are $15, and caddies $15.
Alta Vista Golf and Tennis Club offers one of Guatemala’s most challenging courses.
Mayan Golf Course
South of the city in the neighboring district of Villa Nueva, Mayan Golf Course (Finca El Zarzal, Villa Nueva, tel. 6685-5800, www.mayangolfclub.com, $75) is Guatemala City’s oldest, dating to 1918. The facilities here feel somewhat dated but have been well maintained. The 18-hole, par-72 golf course has exquisite views of Lake Amatitlán and Pacaya Volcano along its 7,092-yard length. Rental clubs and golf carts are available, and there is a café with a terrace overlooking the course. Additional sporting facilities include a bowling alley, tennis courts, a soccer field, volleyball court, and swimming pool.
Metro Bowl (2a Calle 15-93 Zona 15, on Vista Hermosa Boulevard, tel. 2243-2424, www.metrobowl.com.gt) is Central America’s largest bowling alley, with 28 lanes. There are also eight pool tables and an area for video games. And, of course, there’s a snack bar.
Equestrian has become increasingly popular with Guatemala’s well-to-do. In addition to the recently rehabilitated horse track known as Parque Deportivo Ecuestre La Aurora, next to the airport in Zona 13, there are a number of private facilities where equestrian and horseback riding are practiced. Guate Equinos (www.guateequinos.com, tel. 3163-8160 and 5305-7443) offers horseback riding lessons for all ages and instruction in all things equestrian on the grounds of the horse track at La Aurora and at its own facilities near a turnoff at km. 24.3 Carretera a El Salvador. Call or visit the website for a map of how to get here. Club Ecuestre Vista Hermosa (20 Avenida 21-00 Zona 16, Jacarandas de Cayalá, tel. 2261-0926, www.clubecuestrevistahermosa.com) has three different tracks at its facility in Guatemala City’s Cayalá area. For more on this sport of rising popularity in Guatemala, check out the Asociación Nacional de Ecuestres de Guatemala online at www.guatecuestres.com.
Like other Latin Americans, Guatemalans are crazy about fútbol. The two most popular teams in the country’s four-team national soccer league, denoted by the colors of their jerseys, are the Rojos (Municipales) and Cremas (Comunicaciones), who usually end up battling it out at the end of the season for the championship title. International games are also a big event, as Guatemala has never been to a World Cup. In recent years, it has gotten closer than it’s ever been, and the postgame celebrations have spilled into the streets and lasted into the wee hours of the morning. Unfortunately, their high hopes have ended in bitter disappointment. Games can be seen at the Estadio Mateo Flores (10a Avenida, Zona 5), but be advised: The scene can get quite rowdy. In 1996, things got so out of hand that a stampede ensued when stands collapsed, killing 100 people. The soccer stadium has been remodeled in the aftermath. If you’ve always wanted to see a Latin American soccer match, you might want to check it out.
You can see baseball games at Parque Minerva’s ballpark (Zona 2).
Traditional city tours can be arranged through any of the larger hotels or via Clark Tours (7a Avenida 14-76, Plaza Clark, Zona 9, tel. 2412-4700, www.clarktours.com). It has offices in the Westin Camino Real, Holiday Inn, and Barceló. For an urban adventure exploring Guatemala City on the ground level, consider a bicycle tour offered by local hostel Quetzalroo (6a Avenida 7-84 Zona 10, tel. 5746-0830, www.quetzalroo.com, $15 including bike rental). The tour varies depending on guests’ interests and needs but you can expect to cover a lot of ground and see some interesting attractions through the eyes of well-informed local guide Marcos Romero-Close. The long version of the tour traverses Zonas 1, 2, 4, 10, 13, and 14 with stops at art galleries, coffee shops, a Zacapa Rum retail outlet, the Civic Center, Paseo de la Sexta, and various museums. Although Zona 10’s Avenida La Reforma has a bike trail, most of the tour takes place on the gritty streets and sidewalks of Guatemala City. Helmets and reflective vests are provided. It’s surprisingly safer on Guatemala City streets than you have been led to believe and Marcos has even hosted celebrities on the tour, including well-known Mexican singer Julieta Venegas.
Guatemala City has a wide variety of accommodations for all budgets. The major U.S. hotel chains have properties in Zonas 10, 11, and 13—close to the airport. Downtown is home to many of the city’s budget accommodations.
There are some real cheapies in downtown Guatemala City, traditionally the city’s budget accommodation headquarters, though there are also some nice budget options outside the downtown area now, so there’s really very little reason to stay in this somewhat dodgy part of town.
An exception located on a quiet side street is S Posada Belén Museum Inn (13 Calle “A” 10-30 Zona 1, tel. 2251-3478, www.posadabelen.com, $55-67 d), an 1873 home converted into a lovely museum inn. It has 10 rooms with tile floors tastefully decorated with Guatemalan bedspreads, paintings, and weavings. Its gracious hosts, René and Francesca, speak English and can help you plan your journeys into Guatemala’s rugged interior. Amenities include telephone and Internet access. All rooms have private bath and rates include breakfast. Other delicious homemade meals are available upon request. Oozing with history is the landmark Hotel Pan American (9a Calle 5-63 Zona 1, tel. 2232-6807, www.hotelpanamerican.com.gt, $55 d), which was once Guatemala City’s go-to property, having been established by its namesake airline. Rooms have tile floors and are nicely decorated with Guatemalan artwork and furnishings. The dining room, serving international and Guatemalan dishes, is well known for its antique charm and elegance, with waiters wearing traditional village attire. It’s also very well located, just steps away from bustling Paseo de la Sexta.
Conquistador Hotel (Vía 5, 4-68 Zona 4, tel. 2424-4444, hotelconquistador.com.gt, $90 d, including breakfast) was formerly a Ramada property. You’ll find a lobby bar, the Café Jardín serving a breakfast and lunch buffet, and La Pérgola serving fine international dishes for dinner.
The Howard Johnson Inn (Avenida La Reforma 4-22 Zona 9, tel. 2201-1111, www.hojo.com.gt, $95-103 d) comes with all the standard amenities you would expect from this international hotel chain, including air-conditioning, fan, nice wooden furniture, phone, and TV. There’s a small restaurant in the lobby. Try to get a room facing the outside street.
Among Guatemala City’s numerous international hotel chain options is S Barceló Guatemala City (7a Avenida 15-45 Zona 9, tel. 800/227-2356, www.barceloguatemalacity.com, $125 d), with six different room types to choose from and all the standard comforts usually found in the Spanish hotel chain’s properties. American and United Airlines have offices in the lobby of this former Marriott property.
The Hilton Garden Inn Guatemala City (13 Calle 7-65 Zona 9, tel. 2423-0909, http://hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com, from $119 d) is a winner for its sophisticated modern ambience. Amenities include a gym and restaurant. Its 110 rooms have air-conditioning.
The current Guatemala City favorite of the backpacking crowd is S Quetzalroo Hostel (6a Avenida 7-84 Zona 10, tel. 5746-0830, www.quetzalroo.com, $16-35). The owners take great pride in sharing their vast knowledge and enthusiasm for Guatemala and its capital city with visitors. For $16, you get a comfortable bed in a dorm room, shared bath, free wireless Internet, continental breakfast and free shuttle transport to the airport nearby. Private rooms with shared bath cost $35 d per night. The hostel is conveniently situated in the heart of the Zona Viva. A fun add-on is a historical bike tour of Guatemala City. There’s a cool rooftop patio with city views.
view of Zona 10 from the rooftop of Quetzalroo Hostel
Best Western Plus Hotel Stofella (2a Avenida 12-28 Zona 10, tel. 2410-8600, www.stofella.com, $100 d), a solid choice for business travelers, has rooms with fan or air-conditioning with breakfast included in the nightly rate. You’ll find a lobby lounge, a fitness room with whirlpool tub, a bar, and in-room Internet connection. Offering many of the same services as its pricier sister hotels under the management of the Camino Real chain, Biltmore Express (15 Calle 0-31 Zona 10, tel. 2338-5000, hotelbiltmore.com.gt, $90 d) offers a continental breakfast and has comfortable rooms with broadband Internet. Guests can enjoy use of the nearby Westin Camino Real’s swimming pool, whirlpool tub, and tennis and racquetball courts for an additional $10 a day. There’s a free shuttle to and from the airport.
Otelito (12 Calle 4-51 Zona 10, tel. 2339-1811, www.otelito.com, $140-200 d) is cool and hip but a bit noisy for some people’s taste on account of a popular lobby lounge and nightclubs in its vicinity. There are 12 rooms, all named after local produce, housed in a modern home turned upscale hotel. The decor is minimalist with a different color scheme in evidence during each of the year’s four seasons. It offers chill-out music playing on the speakers throughout the property, wireless Internet throughout, a business center, and a book exchange. Rooms feature nice artwork, 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, down pillows, air-conditioning, flat-screen cable TV, hardwood floors, and in-room chill-out music. Some have a minifridge. Walk-in showers feature tempered glass in lieu of shower curtains. There’s a hip, frosted-glass lounge and restaurant (lunch and dinner daily, $7-12) downstairs. Popular Plaza Fontabella shopping mall is right across the street.
A top choice is the fabulous, 246-room S Real InterContinental Guatemala (14 Calle 2-51 Zona 10, tel. 2413-4444 or 800/835-4654 toll-free U.S., www.intercontinental.com, $125-485 d) with a wonderful lobby featuring Guatemalan paintings and sculpture, a sushi restaurant, a French café, and boulangerie and patisserie. The comfortable, stylish rooms feature in-room Internet access, down pillows, Egyptian cotton sheets, and flat-screen cable TV. Bathrooms have rain showerheads, and the safe deposit boxes are large enough to accommodate a laptop. There are free airport shuttles and a pleasant swimming pool on a deck overlooking the city. President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, spent the night here during their 24-hour visit to Guatemala in March 2007.
Mercure Casa Veranda (12 Calle 1-24 Zona 10, tel. 2411-4100, www.mercure.com, $120 d) features all the amenities you’d come to expect from a reputable international hotel chain. Among the unique features of the property’s 99 spacious suites are hardwood floors, Persian rugs, wireless Internet, and balconies with fantastic city views; some suites have full kitchens. The property also features a decent restaurant and bar.
A number of other international hotel chains are in this price category. Among them is the ever-reliable Holiday Inn (1a Avenida 13-22 Zona 10, tel. 2421-0000 or 800/009-9900 toll-free U.S., www.hinn.com.gt, $120 d), the landmark 271-room Westin Camino Real (14 Calle and Avenida La Reforma Zona 10, tel. 2333-3000, www.starwoodhotels.com, $149-329 d), and the business traveler-oriented, all-suite Viva Clarion Suites (tel. 2421-3333, www.clarionguatemala.com, $105-125 d).
The Radisson (1a Avenida 12-46 Zona 10, tel. 2421-5151 or 800/333-3333 toll-free U.S., www.radisson.com, $120 d) is another good business traveler option. All rooms have a minibar, in-room safe, large windows with city views, and in-room Internet access. There are also a gym, sauna, business center, and sushi restaurant/bar open 11am-midnight daily.
Conveniently near the U.S. embassy in a building oozing with European charm, Hotel San Carlos (Avenida La Reforma 7-89, Zona 10, tel. 2247-3000, www.hsancarlos.com, $90-175 d) offers 23 modern, comfortable rooms. The spacious suites are a good value and have hardwood floors and kitchenettes. There are also one- or two-bedroom apartments. At research time, U.S. hotel chains Hyatt Place, Courtyard by Marriott, and La Quinta announced plans for Guatemala City hotels to open in Zona 10 in 2016. The Hyatt Place project is particularly interesting, as it’s part of a mixed use commercial, office, and residential complex known as AVIA encompassing three towers built round a plaza dotted with exuberant greenery. It will take up an entire city block, between 2nd and 3a Avenidas and 11 and 12 Calles.
Formerly the city’s Hyatt Regency, the Grand Tikal Futura (Calzada Roosevelt 22-43 Zona 11, tel. 2410-0800, www.grandtikalfutura.com.gt, $90-600 d) maintains high-quality standards and has comfortable, well-furnished rooms varying from standard rooms to stunning Diplomatic Suites. All have splendid views of the city and surrounding mountains. Restaurants include elegant La Molienda, serving international and Guatemalan dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and the excellent Asia Grill and Wok serving lunch and dinner in a tropically inspired, casual atmosphere. There is a lobby bar, a fitness center with health-food bar, and a covered swimming pool with poolside service and city views.
ZONA 13 (AIRPORT)
A number of inexpensive hotels all offering similar services are centered in a middle-class neighborhood near the airport. All offer free transport to and from the terminal as well as breakfast, though this varies from continental minimalist to a full-on Guatemalan feast. Guatefriends B&B (16 Calle 7-40 Zona 13, Aurora 1, tel. 5308-3275, $20) is run by a friendly couple. The rooms and property are decorated in bright colors that nod to Guatemala’s colorful textiles and vivid Mayan culture. Among the nice extras are tasty home-cooked meals. Dos Lunas Guest House (21 Calle 10-92 Zona 13, Aurora II, tel. 2261-4248, www.hoteldoslunas.com, $18 pp) has nine basic rooms, all with shared bath, including a breakfast of eggs and toast. Reservations are necessary, as it’s usually booked. Hostal Los Lagos (8a Avenida 15-85 Zona 13, tel. 2261-2809, www.loslagoshostal.com, starting $30 pp) has cheerful rooms with colorful paintings and several beds each. Rates include a complete breakfast of eggs and beans or cereal, and coffee or tea. You’ll find Internet, cable TV, laundry, and baggage storage as well as two sitting rooms with bamboo furniture.
A notch above the rest of the lodgings in the airport neighborhood is S Hostal Villa Toscana (16 Calle 8-20, Aurora I, Zona 13, tel. 2261-2854, www.hostalvillatoscana.com, $52-68 d), a bed-and-breakfast where there are large, well-decorated rooms with private bathrooms and wireless Internet—there is even a suite with a balcony and volcano views. Hotel Casa Blanca Inn (15 Calle “C” 7-35, Aurora I, Zona 13, tel. 2261-3116, www.hotelcasablancainn.com, $40-55 d) is another good choice with pleasant, simply decorated rooms with big beds, reading lamps, and shared or private bathrooms. There is wireless Internet throughout and a pleasant patio bar.
The 183-room Crowne Plaza (Avenida Las Américas 9-08 Zona 13, tel. 2422-5050 or 800/835-4654 toll-free U.S., www.ihg.com, $115 d) features rooms with the chain’s Sleep Advantage, including deliciously comfortable beds, fine duvets, and your choice of seven different pillows. It has a business center with wireless Internet, a huge gym with excellent city views from the top floor, a sports bar with video poker and slot machines, and a heated pool with whirlpool tub. The Los Volcanes restaurant, on the ground floor, serves international and local dishes à la carte or buffet style. There’s a piano player at night. Video Lotería Monte Carlo (video gambling, 1pm-3am daily) is also based on the ground floor, featuring video poker and slot machines. Proceeds benefit the environmental foundation Monte Carlo Verde.
CARRETERA A EL SALVADOR (SUBURBS)
Although a bit far from the action, the all-suite S Vista Real Guatemala (Km. 8.5 Carretera a El Salvador, tel. 2420-7720, www.vistareal.com, from $119 d) scores big points for its location on a bluff overlooking the city and its neocolonial architecture featuring Mexican artistic touches. Its 129 rooms are all comfortable and well furnished with some truly splendid features, including vaulted wooden ceilings and neocolonial archways in some rooms. The Suite Gran Clase rooms are a good value and substantially nicer than the Master Suites, which are only slightly less expensive. Check the website for special deals. Wireless Internet is offered throughout the property. There is a pleasant, though unheated, garden swimming pool. Its Restaurante Las Ventanas is one of the city’s most exclusive, with a variety of international dishes served in an elegant dining room overlooking the hotel’s gardens. Its well-stocked Bar Quinta Real is open 5pm-1am Monday-Saturday.
view from the Presidential Suite at Vista Real Guatemala
Well outside of Guatemala City but entirely worth the trip, S San Gregorio Hotel & Spa (Carretera a Santa Elena Barillas Km. 29.5, tel. 6634-3666, www.sangregoriospa.com, $120 d) is a modern, ecochic facility with 10 stylish rooms featuring hardwood floors, flat-screen TVs, Guatemalan textiles, wood accents, and views over Guatemala City valley to Lake Amatitlán and Agua Volcano. There’s an indoor/outdoor swimming pool; the hotel’s ecochic status is punctuated by the use of solar panels for water heating and rainwater collection for landscape irrigation. To get here, take the Carretera a El Salvador to a turnoff at Km. 25. You’ll see a Texaco gas station; follow the road to Santa Elena Barillas another 4.5 kilometers. A sign for San Gregorio indicates the intersection where you’ll make a right-hand turn to the lodge.
Cosmopolitan Guatemala City features a variety of excellent eating establishments for every taste and budget, as well as some more familiar U.S. franchises. In recent years, Jake’s received a spot on Travel + Leisure magazine’s list of Top 10 Restaurants in Latin America.
A profusion of new cafés has come and gone in the downtown area in recent years. Among those still in business is Café de Imeri (6a Calle 3-34 Zona 1, tel. 2232-3722, www.deimeri.com, 8am-6:30pm Mon.-Sat.), which enjoys a loyal following owed to its delightful old-fashioned atmosphere and efficiently elegant service. The cakes and baked goods are top-notch, and there are good breakfasts, tacos, pasta, and salads. It makes a great place for lunch with a set menu for $4.
Saúl Café (several locations throughout the city in Miraflores, Oakland Mall, and Paseo Cayalá, www.saulemendez.com/site/es/gastronomia.html, $8-15) is a local chain serving delicious sweet and salty crepes, ice cream, sandwiches, salads, smoothies, and coffee in an eclectic atmosphere with relaxing music. Beer and wine are also served. Caffé dei Fiori (15 Avenida 15-66 Zona 10, tel. 2363-5888, www.caffedeifiori.com, $3-8) has been around since the 1970s in three prior Zona 10 locations. Its current incarnation features a pleasant covered patio where breakfasts, pizzas, pastas, salads, and sandwiches are served. Desserts include delicious tiramisu and empanadas de piña. Great espresso drinks round out the meal.
There are a number of local coffee shops with a widespread presence throughout Guatemala City. These include & Café and Café Barista. If you must, there are four Starbucks locations in upscale Guatemala City shopping malls.
LIGHT MEALS AND SWEETS
Popular with Guatemalans, San Martin and Company (13 Calle 1-62 Zona 10 and various locations in upscale shopping malls, www.sanmartinbakery.com/english, 6am-8pm Mon.-Sat.) is a bakery and café with pleasant outdoor seating on a terrace or ceiling fan-cooled dining room inside. There are scrumptious croissant sandwiches for breakfast as well as a variety of sandwiches, salads, and soups for lunch and dinner in the $3-5 range.
Chocolate lovers will find bliss at Xocoli (6a Avenida 9-19 Zona 10, tel. 2362-3251, www.xocoli.com, 8:30am-6:30pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sat.). The Mayan world is, after all, the birthplace of chocolate, dating back to the use of cacao beans as currency in Mayan times. Quite possibly the best artisanal gelato outside of Italy, Ríbola Gelato (Plaza Vista Muxbal local 109, Km. 9.5 Antigua Carretera a El Salvador, tel. 6646-6948, www.ribola.com.gt) serves a variety of mouthwatering flavors made with ingredients imported from Italy.
At Tapas y Cañas (13 Calle 7-78 Zona 10, tel. 2388-2700, www.tapasycanas.com, lunch and dinner daily) you can savor delicious Spanish tapas. Try the pinchos españoles or the albondigas de lomito. A longtime local favorite, SAltuna (5a Avenida 12-31 Zona 1, tel. 2251-7185 and 10a Calle 0-45 Zona 10, tel. 2332-6576, www.restaurantealtuna.com, noon-10pm Tues.-Sat., noon-5pm Sun., $7-22) is also one of the city’s fanciest offerings with impeccable service and an elegant atmosphere. Specialties include fish and seafood dishes, including paella and lobster, but the restaurant also serves land-based fare, including jamón serrano and chorizo.
Pollo Campero and the Cult of Fried Chicken
If, like most people traveling home from Guatemala, you fly out on a commercial airline, don’t be surprised by the distinct smell of fried chicken onboard your aircraft. One look at the overhead bins will quickly reveal that they are crammed tight with boxes of fried chicken. Meet Pollo Campero, which, along with coffee and bananas, may be one of Guatemala’s main exports.
Guatemalans have always had an affinity for the stuff. It’s actually quite good, though I’ve never taken it along as a carry-on. Many travelers take a box home for homesick relatives craving a taste of the land they left behind. Although Pollo Campero has opened up shop in recent years in several U.S. cities, expatriate Guatemalans still make a point of stopping at the store in La Aurora Airport to pick up a box. To illustrate the utter hold it has on the Guatemalan masses, the airport shop operated out of a streetside trailer during the airport’s recent renovation at a time when all other businesses were simply closed.
You may be asked by U.S. Customs if you’re carrying food, and this question might specifically address your smuggling of Pollo Campero. Rest assured, customs officials are happy to let the cooked chicken cross the American threshold after applying the requisite X-rays. Some Newark Airport customs officers even claim to have the uncanny ability to distinguish chicken from a Guatemalan Pollo Campero versus that of a San Salvador outlet, though I’ve never taken them up on offers to verify their claims.
Pollo Campero is becoming more than just a Guatemalan phenomenon, however. An aggressive company expansion includes the opening of numerous new locations throughout North America, Europe, and even Asia in the coming years. In 2007, Campero opened outlets in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Shanghai, China, with ambitious goals to open 500 more restaurants in China by 2012. Campero already operates 220 restaurants in 10 countries, including 38 in the United States. It employs more than 7,000 people and is the largest fast-food chain in Latin America. With such aggressive expansion plans, Pollo Campero may be headed for a location near you, and I don’t mean seat 25F.
You’ll find a variety of excellent steakhouses in Guatemala City, including Hacienda Real (5a Avenida 14-67 Zona 10, tel. 2380-8383, www.hacienda-real.com, lunch and dinner daily, $10-20), where the meals are served with tasty tortillas and savory side sauces. Try the peppered steak. There are other locations at Condado Concepción and Las Majadas. For absolutely astounding views of the city from its perch along Carretera a El Salvador, you can’t top El Portal del Ángel (Km. 11.2 Carretera a El Salvador, tel. 2322-7300, www.elportaldelangel.net, noon-9pm Mon.-Thurs., noon-10pm Fri.-Sun., $8-35). The food is just as good as the views and the tasteful decor, with walls in vivid hues adorned with cool paintings of Catholic saints, make this place truly heavenly. It is also in Zona 11 at Paseo Miraflores and Zona 10 at Plaza Fontabella, minus the city views. S Don Emiliano (4a Ave. 12-70 Zona 10, Oakland Mall; tel. 2475-5957, www.donemiliano.com.gt, noon-9pm Mon.-Thurs., noon-10pm Sun., $25) is another fine steakhouse with additional locations at Miraflores and the Mercado de Artesanías in Zona 13. It scores big points for its modern atmosphere and the beautiful presentation of its dishes. Try the tasty steak salads.
Los Cebollines (6a Avenida 9-75 Zona 1, tel. 2232-7750 and Condado Concepción, at Km. 15.5 Carretera a El Salvador, tel. 6634-5405; www.cebollines.com, 7am-11pm Mon.-Thurs., 7am-midnight Fri.-Sat., 7am-10pm Sun.) serves tasty grilled meats, enchiladas, and tacos you can wash down with refreshing lemonades, smoothies, or cocktails. Try the delicious tacos de pollo pibil. Along with its branch in Antigua, Fridas (3a Avenida 14-60 Zona 10, tel. 2367-1611/13, lunch and dinner daily) serves Mexican dishes that include tasty fajitas and flautas at fairly reasonable prices ($5-10). The chicken in mango sauce is delectable, and the bar makes excellent margaritas. Pick your poison from the long list of tequilas ($4-12). The most casual of all the Mexican food options is Ta’contento (14 Calle 1-42 Zona 10, tel. 2444-4080, www.tacontento.com, 11am-midnight Tues.-Sun., $3-7), where you can eat tasty tacos alfresco fronting a lively Zona Viva street.
There has always been considerable French influence on Guatemalan culture, which is also evident in the city’s culinary offerings. Among the excellent options are Saint-Honoré (14 Calle 2-51 Zona 10, tel. 2379-4548, 11:30am-11pm daily), inside the InterContinental hotel, a typical French bakery serving cakes and some of Guatemala’s best coffee. Also in the hotel lobby is the excellent Café de la Paix (6am-11pm daily), the only franchise of the famous Parisian brasserie chain outside of France, serving heavier meals, including entrecôte and onion soup ($12-25).
S Jean Francois (Diagonal 6, 13-63 Zona 10, tel. 2333-4785, www.grupoculinario.com, noon-3pm and 7pm-10:30pm Mon.-Fri., noon-3pm Sat., $8-25) is a longtime favorite with Guatemala’s wealthy elite and arguably one of the finest restaurants in Latin America. The atmosphere is elegant with tablecloths and flowers adorning the tables and antique colonial furniture in the lounge. Entrées include snook in a cream and lemon sauce with fine herbs and steak bondelaise with porcini mushrooms. Try the fantastic cold lemon soufflé with caramel sauce for dessert.
A more casual and yet very tasty French dining option is Enchanté (20 Calle 25-96 Zona 10, Centro Comercial La Plaza, Local 15A, tel. 2366-9000). With pleasant indoor and outdoor seating at Plaza Fontabella, S Clio’s (4a Avenida 12-59 Zona 10, tel. 2336-6949, www.cliosbistro.com, 12:30pm-3:30pm and 6:30pm-10:30pm Mon.-Sat., 12:30pm-3:30pm Sun., $25) serves classic French cuisine in a tasteful atmosphere with excellent service.
For gourmet Guatemalan cuisine served in a wonderful atmosphere accented by a high-roofed thatch ceiling, head to S Kacao (2a Avenida between 13 and 14 Calle, Zona 10, tel. 2337-4188/89, www.kacao.com.gt, lunch and dinner daily, $7-13). You can try a variety of traditional Guatemalan dishes, including spicy beef and chicken dishes in pepián and jocón sauces as well as corn-based delicacies such as chuchitos and tamales. In the downtown area, another popular place for Guatemalan cuisine is Arrin Cuan (5a Avenida 3-27 Zona 1, tel. 2238-0242, or 5a Avenida 10-22 Zona 9, tel. 2366-2660, www.arrincuan.com, 7am-10pm daily, $5-10), with many dishes from the Cobán region, including kakik stew, but also some less adventurous recipes such as chicken in apple sauce. The atmosphere is charmingly simple. Another good place for hearty Guatemalan fare is Casa Chapina (1a Avenida 13-42 Zona 10, tel. 2367-6688 or 2368-0663, www.restaurantecasachapina.com, lunch and dinner daily, $8-20), serving well-presented Guatemalan dishes such as pollo en salsa de loroco accompanied by fresh avocado and corn on the cob. An awesome new discovery is S La Cocina de la Señora Pu (6a Avenida “A” 10-16 Zona 1, tel. 5055-6480, www.senorapu.com, lunch daily, $7-15), where you’ll find a modern take on traditional Mayan fare. Señora Pu hails from Quiché department, and you can watch her lovingly prepare dishes before your very eyes in the cozy open-air kitchen. There are beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and even duck dishes cooked in a variety of traditional sauces. You can wash it all down with traditional cacao-based beverages.
Señora Pu at work in her kitchen
Sushi places seem to have sprung up all over town recently—even the Holiday Inn and Radisson each have their own sushi restaurants in their respective lobbies. The best of the hotel lobby sushi places, however, is S Tanoshii (14 Calle 2-51 Zona 10, tel. 2379-4548, noon-3pm and 6:30pm-11pm Mon.-Sat., $10-25), inside the InterContinental hotel, also serving Japanese dishes in a hip, ultramodern setting. Also in Zona 10 is Sushi Itto (4a Avenida 16-01 Zona 10, tel. 2366-7676, www.sushi-itto.com, lunch and dinner daily). The city’s best Thai restaurant, S Khawp Khun Kha (13 Calle A y 7a Ave. Zona 10, Centro Comercial Plaza Tiffany, tel. 2367-1719, noon-3pm and 7pm-10:30pm Tues.-Sat., $7-15) features tasty pad thai but also has a number of other great dishes such as chicken satay, beef in coffee sauce, and hearty soups.
For Chinese food, downtown there’s Long Wah (6a Calle 3-75 Zona 1, tel. 2232-6611, lunch and dinner daily) with reasonably priced staple dishes you can eat in or take out. It’s the best of several Chinese places west of the central plaza. China Town (13 Calle and Avenida La Reforma Zona 10, tel. 2331-9574, lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat.) delivers to the Zona 10 hotels, or you can enjoy your meal in its pleasant atmosphere.
You’ll find a number of familiar restaurant chains in Guatemala City, including Applebee’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, IHOP, and Tony Roma’s. For a local take on American fare, check out Frisco Grill (4a Avenida 12-59 Zona 10, Plaza Fontabella; tel. 2336-7147/48, www.friscogrill.com.gt, 11am-11:30pm Mon.-Sat., 7am-10pm Sun., $15). There’s outdoor patio seating and tasty American favorites such as nachos, burgers, steak sandwiches, fish-and-chips, and quesadillas. I’m a big fan of their margaritas. One of only three in Central America, Hard Rock Café Guatemala City (1a Avenida y 13 Calle Zona 10, Edificio Dubai Center, tel. 2332-3862, www.hardrock.com/cafes/guatemala-city, noon-12:30am Mon.-Sat., 11am-10pm Sun., $10-25) serves the usual HRC fare including nachos, burgers, and decent sandwiches. A chainwide menu revamp has brought tasty fish and steak dishes to the menu, which you can enjoy amidst a backdrop of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and loud music. The Rock Shop, on the ground floor, sells destination-themed souvenirs and opens an hour earlier.
Pecorino (11 Calle 3-36 Zona 10, tel. 2360-3035, www.ristorantepecorino.com, noon-1am Mon.-Sat., $12-30) is an excellent choice for its authentic Italian food, including brick-oven pizza, seafood dishes, steak, pasta, salads, and panini served in an attractive old-world atmosphere. There’s also a huge wine selection. S Enoteca Toscana (20 calle 12-84 Zona 10, Plaza Ferco, tel. 4739-6393, $15-40) is an authentic Italian restaurant with mouthwatering dishes lovingly made by its chef-owner Leonardo Nardini. Many of the ingredients used are imported from Italy, which is reflected in the prices. Worth it, if you ask me. In a modern, casual setting with attractive blue-and-white-checkered tablecloths, Tre Fratelli (2a Avenida 13-25 Zona 10, tel. 2420-5350, www.trefratelli.com.gt, noon-1am daily) serves ample portions of very good food in a lively atmosphere with prices in the $5-10 range. It’s part of a growing chain of restaurants with locations in the United States, Mexico, and Central America. Other Guatemala City locations can be found in Zona 11 and Carretera a El Salvador. I love the country atmosphere and cool decor at S L’Ostería (4a Avenida 10-41 Zona 10, tel. 2278-9914, www.saulemendez.com, noon-10pm Mon.-Thurs., noon-midnight Fri./Sat., noon-6pm Sun., $10-16). The menu is actually a mix of Italian, Mediterranean, and Greek food. There’s indoor seating (with open windows) in the remains of an old, tin-roofed farmhouse or outside on a patio under the shade of a 100-year-old avocado tree. You’ll get 15 percent off your check if you ride your bike here.
colorful decor of L’Ostería
My favorite pizza place is Margherita (Boulevard Vista Hermosa 23-41 Zona 15, tel. 2375-0000, margherita.gt, lunch and dinner daily, $10-20). There’s phenomenal brick-oven pizza prepared New York-style, thin crust, Neapolitan, or Sicilian. There are tasty salads, antipasti, and calzone that you can wash down with beer or wine. The atmosphere is modern and casual with indoor or outdoor seating and electronica music on the stereo. You can dine in or carry out. Another good option for brick-oven pizza served in a casual atmosphere is Pizzeria Vesuvio (18 Calle 3-36 Zona 10 and three other locations, tel. 2323-2323, www.vesuvio.com.gt, lunch and dinner daily, $7-15). A trusted reader and in-the-know Guatemala City resident recommends L’Apero (Vía 5 2-24, Local 5, Zona 4, tel. 2360-2561, noon-3pm Mon.-Tues., noon-3pm and 6pm-10pm Wed.-Fri., noon-10pm Sat., $5-12), where there’s tasty pizzas in an assortment of uncommon flavors. Try the scrumptious blue cheese and pear pizza.
FUSION CUISINE AND FINE DINING
Many Guatemalan chefs study overseas early in their careers, which is clearly evident in the international influence permeating the city’s excellent fusion cuisine. In other cases, talented chefs from New York and other international cities have set up shop in Guatemala, completely raising the bar for everyone else. Such is the case of S Jake’s (17 Calle 10-40 Zona 10, tel. 2368-0351, www.restaurantejakes.com, noon-3pm and 7pm-10:30pm Mon.-Sat., noon-4pm Sun., $10-25), started by New York City artist-turned-chef Jake Denburg. Several unique features come together to make a visit to Jake’s something truly special. For one, it has a wonderful atmosphere in a converted house with tile floors and wooden ceilings, interesting photography, and tables covered in butcher paper (crayons supplied). But nothing tops the eclectic menu and exquisite food. The wine list is also impressive, and rounding out your meal with one of the delectable homemade cheesecakes is a must.
A wonderful new addition to the city’s already impressive list of restaurants is Gracia, Cocina de Autor (corner of 14 Calle and 4a Avenida Zona 10, tel. 2366-8699, noon-11pm Tues.-Sun., $8-20). Chef Pablo Novales has lived and worked in Spain, Switzerland, France, and England, gaining considerable culinary prowess evident in the dishes on the menu. The atmosphere is cozy, modern, and casual, with a small outdoor lounge next to the bar. I like the porcini mushroom risotto and Asian tuna avocado salad for starters, and the chicken kebabs in sesame seed sauce for the main course. The refreshing papaya sangria is a great way to get things started.
Also serving as a culinary school, Camille (9a Avenida 15-27 Zona 10, tel. 2368-0048 or 2367-1525, noon-3pm and 7pm-10pm Tues.-Fri., 7pm-10pm Sat., $10-15) serves creatively prepared fish, chicken, and seafood dishes. The steak in chipotle sauce served on a cheese pupusa (Salvadoran cheese-filled tortilla) is truly extraordinary. The atmosphere is pleasantly cozy with carbon sketches etched on the white plaster walls and also on ripped-out pages from spiral-bound notebooks framed and hung.
A longtime favorite is S Tamarindos (11 Calle 2-19A Zona 10, tel. 2360-5630, tamarindos.com.gt/en, noon-3pm and 7pm-10:30pm Mon.-Sat., 11am-3pm Sat. brunch; bar open 6pm-1am Mon.-Sat., $10-20), which makes some fine sushi and does an excellent job of combining Thai, Italian, and Guatemalan flavors into some irresistible dishes. There is pleasant indoor and outdoor garden patio seating and the hip ambience is set by postmodern decor and electronica music on the stereo. Try the crab-and-almond-stuffed mushrooms or the four-cheese gnocchi as an appetizer. The snook in banana sauce makes a fine main course. A spin-off of Tamarindos in a more casual environment is Tamarindos Bistro (Plaza Majadas ONCE, Zona 11, tel. 2473-7528, www.bistro.tamarindos.com.gt, 7am-10pm Mon.-Sat., 7am-8pm Sun., $8-20). There’s a varied menu that includes delicious breakfasts, sushi, tasty sandwiches (try the Philly cheesesteak), and seafood.
Zona 14 also has some highly recommended restaurants. Amid spacious gardens is S Ambia (10a Avenida 5-49 Zona 14, tel. 2312-4690, www.fdg.com.gt, noon-midnight Mon.-Sat., $13-50), where the emphasis is on New Age cuisine consisting largely of Asian recipes, including Thai chicken and shrimp recipes, tuna tartare, flavorful soups, Italian pastas, and even gourmet burgers. There are decadent desserts, including black-and-white chocolate mousse and pears in red wine. The wine list, incidentally, is extensive and includes several fine malbecs and even a $700 bottle of Chilean Errazuriz Viñedo Chadwick Cabernet Sauvignon.
In the suburbs just east of the city, S Tua (Km. 14.5 Carretera a El Salvador, Centro Comercial Escala, tel. 6637-5443 or 6646-7038, $30) is a bistro serving wonderful cuisine that is on par with the fabulous volcano views off in the distance. It’s definitely a place to choose outside seating, but the inside is modern and attractive as well, with dramatic high ceilings. I like the tuna tataki and coconut-breaded shrimp. The lamb chops and chipotle chicken are also fabulous.
In the city center and recommended more for the historical atmosphere than the somewhat overpriced, uninspired food is Casa del Callejon Castillo Hermanos (2a Ave. “A” 13-20 Zona 1, tel. 2366-5671, $15-35). Set in an old colonial home brimming with charm, the museum-like locale documents the life and times of the city’s wealthy Castillo family, of Gallo beer fame. Interspersed with elegant dining areas are old photos, family heirlooms, and cool antique furniture on display. It makes a perfectly good place for a drink in a fancy, old-fashioned atmosphere. The best nights to visit are those featuring special performances of live jazz and tango, as dinner is often included in the admission price and tends to include better fare.
Donde Mikel (6a Ave. 13-32 Zona 10, tel. 2363-3308, lunch and dinner Mon.-Fri., lunch Sat.) serves some of the city’s best seafood and grilled steak in a casual atmosphere. Its surf-and-turf plates are a popular favorite.
Information and Services
The main office of the Guatemala Tourist Commission (INGUAT) is at 7a Avenida 1-17 Zona 4, and it is open 8am-4pm Monday-Friday. Your best bet, however, is to stop by its kiosk in the airport arrivals area, which is open 6am-9pm. It also has smaller offices inside the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (Parque Central, tel. 2253-0748), which keeps odd hours, and the historic Palacio de Correos (Main Post Office, 7a Avenida 11-67 Zona 1, tel. 2251-1898, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri.).
The best maps of Guatemala are Mapas de Guatemala (tel. 2232-1850, www.mapasdeguatemala.com), a series of beautifully illustrated, full-color maps of Guatemala’s main tourist regions that also include helpful information on local businesses. The free maps are available at INGUAT and at tourist gift shops and restaurants seemingly everywhere. You can also find interactive versions on their website. ITMB Publishing (530 W. Broadway, Vancouver, BC, Canada, 604/879-3621, www.itmb.com) publishes an excellent International Travel Map of Guatemala ($10.95), which is weatherproof and can be found at well-known bookstores in the United States.
Staying Safe in Guatemala City
Guatemala City can be a dodgy place, though some zonas are certainly more prone to crime than others. Most of the areas frequented by tourists are relatively safe, though the downtown area (Zona 1) is by far the country’s purse-snatching and pickpocketing hub. Exercise common sense and caution when in public areas. Never leave valuables in a parked car and avoid flashing expensive items such as laptops and cell phones in public places.
Pay careful attention when using ATMs. Some thieves have been so ingenious as to set up fake keypads at the entrance to ATM kiosks asking cardholders to enter their PIN numbers in order to gain access to the machine. You should never enter your PIN number anywhere other than on the ATM keypad itself.
Riding public buses is not usually a good idea, though the new transit system, the Transmetro, has proven much safer. If driving, it’s a good idea to keep the car doors locked and the windows rolled all the way up. (Make sure your car’s air-conditioning system is working properly so as to avoid the temptation to roll down the windows when it gets hot out.) Avoid talking on a cell phone while driving; it will keep you alert to your surroundings and will not draw undue attention from potential thieves. Cell phones are a favorite target, as is flashy jewelry. Recently, some parts of the city have become prone to robberies whereby the perpetrators (usually on motorcycles) target cars stopped at traffic lights. In most cases, the victims have been talking on their cell phones or are women traveling alone and wearing expensive jewelry. For this reason, many Guatemalans tint their windows to keep prying eyes away from the contents of their car. If you are the victim of a robbery or witness one, dial 120 from any phone.
Watch out for a common scam, particularly in the vicinity of the airport, whereby a “Good Samaritan” informs you of a flat tire on your car. If you can confirm that you indeed have a flat, pull over in a well-lit, public place. Do not stop at the side of the road to change the tire. If you are able to make it to a public place such as a gas station, have someone in your party stay inside the car or keep an eye on it yourself while you a gas station attendant changes the tire for you. The important thing is not to lose sight of the inside of your vehicle for a moment. Thieves can be extremely crafty at distracting you and getting into your car; locked doors may be a deterrent but will not stop thieves if they’ve already targeted you. For information on other precautions and common scams while traveling in Guatemala, see the State Department’s Consular Information Sheet online at http://travel.state.gov.
In November 2008, the U.S. Embassy issued safety warnings for certain Guatemalan roads. Among the areas mentioned was the road east of kilometer 13 of Carretera a El Salvador. Due to its popularity with the city’s wealthy residents, it appears this sector has become the scene of several violent robberies, carjackings, and kidnappings. The embassy recommends avoiding travel beyond kilometer 13 between 9pm and 6am. The document also recommends avoiding travel on the following roads outside Guatemala City: Routes 4 and 11 in the vicinity of Lake Atitlán and Route 14 between Antigua and Escuintla.
For this and other pertinent information, visit http://guatemala.usembassy.gov.
The main post office (8:30am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 8:30am-1pm Sat.) is downtown at 7a Avenida 11-67 Zona 1. There are also branches at the airport and the corner of Avenida La Reforma and 14 Calle Zona 9 with the same hours. It’s called El Correo. Now you can find post office locations and even track packages online via their website at www.elcorreo.com.gt.
For faster service, many people prefer to use one of the international couriers, including FedEx (14 Calle 3-51 Zona 10, Edificio Murano Center Local No. 1, tel. toll-free from Guatemala 1-801-00-333-39, www.fedex.com.gt), UPS (5a Avenida 7-92 Zona 14, Local 4, CC Euroshops, , tel. 2421-6000, www.ups.com), and DHL (12 Calle 5-12 Zona 10, tel. 2332-7547, www.dhl.com). For an all-in-one shipping locale, try Fast Mail (5a Avenida 7-42 Zona 14, tel. 2246-4646, www.fastmailcenter.com, 8:30am-5:30pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sat.).
You can exchange dollars and cash travelers checks at virtually all of the city’s banks. ATMs linked to international networks can be found all over the city. Be especially careful when withdrawing money at ATMs in the downtown area. The safest places to hit up an ATM are the Guatemala City shopping malls and hotel lobbies. There are money exchange kiosks at La Aurora International Airport, though you’ll get much better rates elsewhere.
You can search for Visa ATM locations online at www.visa.com/atmlocator and MasterCard ATMs at www.mastercard.com/atm. A useful listing of Banco Industrial Visa ATM machines throughout Guatemala can be found at www.bi.com.gt.
The American Express agent in Guatemala City is Clark Tours (7a Avenida 14-76, Plaza Clark, Zona 9, tel. 2412-4700, www.clarktours.com). It also has offices in the Westin Camino Real and Barceló hotels.
Downtown there’s Lavandería El Siglo (12 Calle 3-42 Zona 1, tel. 2230-0223, www.lavanderiaelsiglo.com, 8am-6pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-3pm Sat., $4 per load). There are other locations throughout the city. In Zona 10 is Lavandería Obelisco (20 Calle 2-16 Zona 10, tel. 2368-1469), where self-service laundry costs about $3 per load to wash and dry.
Guatemala City is becoming a destination for medical tourism, with many excellent private hospitals. Public clinics such as the Clínica Cruz Roja (Red Cross Clinic, 3a Calle 8-40 Zona 1, 8am-5:30pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat.) offer free or low-cost consultations. Private clinics with doctors who speak English include the highly recommended 24-hour Hospital Centro Medico (6a Avenida 3-47 Zona 10, tel. 2279-4949, www.centromedico.com.gt) and the Hospital Herrera Llerandi (6a Avenida 8-71 Zona 10, tel. 2384-5959 or 2334-5955 emergencies, www.herrerallerandi.com). Grupo Hospitalario Guatemala (www.hospitalesdeguatemala.com) also has a good network of hospitals in the Guatemala City metro area.
Dial 120 from any phone for the police (6a Avenida and 14 Calle Zona 1). For emergency medical assistance, dial 125 for the Red Cross. For the fire department, dial 122 or 123.
The offices of Migración (tel. 2361-8476, www.migracion.gob.gt) are on the second floor of the INGUAT building at 7a Avenida 1-17 Zona 4 and are open 8am-2:45pm Monday-Friday.
For booking plane tickets and onward travel within Guatemala, a good choice is Viajes Tivoli (6a Avenida 8-41 Zona 9, tel. 2386-4200, or 12 Calle 4-55 Zona 1, Edificio Herrera, tel. 2298-1050, www.tivoli.com.gt), as is Clark Tours (7a Avenida 14-76, Plaza Clark, Zona 9, tel. 2412-4700, www.clarktours.com). Clark Tours also has offices in the Westin Camino Real, Holiday Inn, and Barceló.
The once-wonky La Aurora International Airport (GUA, www.dgac.gob.gt), in Zona 13 six kilometers south of the city center, underwent a major expansion and renovation in 2007 and is now one of Central America’s largest and most modern airports. Services include a bank, ATMs, various restaurants, excellent duty-free shopping, souvenir shops, and a post office. Members of United Airlines’ United Club enjoy access to the airport’s Copa Club, a lounge operated jointly with Copa Airlines and located next to gate 14. It’s also open to First Class passengers traveling on United, Copa, or Star Alliance partners. Not traveling in first class? You can pay a day fee to visit ($50) if traveling on any of these airlines. Guests enjoy a TV lounge, free cocktails, wireless Internet, and space to relax before the flight.
Guatemala City’s underutilized La Aurora International Airport
Immigration, customs, and baggage claim are on the main building’s first floor, while departures and check-in counters are on the third floor. There are technically two adjacent terminals, though they are merged into one large facility. The first area, known as finger central, consists of six gates for wide-body aircraft. It fronts the main terminal, which is all that remains of the original facility dating to the 1960s. The second terminal, known as finger norte, consists of gates 7 to 19 and is seamlessly integrated into the rest of the terminal building. There is a food court on the fourth floor of the main terminal building overlooking the check-in counters. Additional restaurants can be found past the security checkpoints leading to the two fingers, one floor down from the check-in lobby.
Immigration and customs procedures at La Aurora Airport are very straightforward. Customs (known as SAT) will look at your declaration paperwork (to be filled out on the airplane prior to arrival) and will either put you in a line where your bags will be searched and applicable duties (if any) collected or will simply wave you on. Most foreign travelers are waved on, as what they’re mostly looking for are arriving Guatemalans with loot from stateside shopping sprees. A disproportionate number of bags per traveler are usually a sure tip-off.
Taxis are easily booked from a kiosk inside the airport terminal, as are rental cars. A taxi from the airport costs $8-20 depending on what part of town you’re going to. Avis, Budget, Hertz, and National have kiosks inside the airport terminal. Their lots are across the road fronting the airport’s three-level parking garage. If you’re arriving on a later flight and have never driven Guatemala City’s chaotic streets before, it might make more sense to take advantage of free airport shuttles to Zona 10 hotels and have the rental car company drop off the vehicle at your hotel the next morning. You could also just as easily take a cab or shuttle from your hotel to the airport the following day and pick up the car at that time.
If most of your travel involves the Guatemala City and Antigua area, my advice is to forgo a car rental in favor of taxis and shuttle buses. You can also hire a driver to take you around for about US$75-100 a day. Local hotel concierges can usually recommend someone for you. Doing so will allow you to get a feel for the city without the stress of having to drive on its unfamiliar streets. It will also allow you to get acquainted with the particular style of Guatemalan urban driving you’ll need to adopt if you do end up driving here.
If you’re bypassing Guatemala City altogether, you’ll find shuttle vans to Antigua (about $20) are easily booked upon arrival at the airport. There is also a very helpful INGUAT (Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo) information desk just after passing customs. It’s staffed by English-speaking agents who can help you get your bearings.
It’s not a good idea to ride a public bus into the city, especially at night. The Transmetro is perfectly safe and efficient, but its coverage area is limited. It will not get you to or from the airport, though the newer eje central route can get you as close as Bulevar Liberacion, which fronts the airport runway’s northern extreme.
Several U.S. and foreign carriers fly daily into Guatemala City. Most of these airlines have city ticket offices, including American Airlines (Barceló Guatemala City, 7a Avenida 15-45 Zona 9, tel. 2422-0000), United Airlines (18 Calle 5-56, Edificio Unicentro, Local 704, Zona 10, tel. 2385-9610 or 801/812-6684 toll-free), Delta (15 Calle 3-20 Zona 10, Centro Ejecutivo, Primer Nivel, tel. 2337-0642), Avianca (Avenida Hincapié 12-22, Zona 13, tel. 2470-8222), and Iberia (Avenida La Reforma 8-60 Zona 9, tel. 2332-0911). American Airlines and United Airlines passengers can check bags in the day before their flight at service centers in the Barceló Guatemala City hotel (7a Avenida 15-45 Zona 9).
The only domestic service is to Flores, near the ruins of Tikal, though other routes may open if government plans to revamp several smaller airports throughout the country ever come to fruition. The only airline leaving from the main terminal for domestic flights is Avianca, with several daily flights to Flores. Local carrier TAG (Ave. Hincapie y 18 Calle Zona 13, tel. 2380-9494, www.tag.com.gt) offers service from the other side of the runway at its private hangar.
The airport is located 6 km south of downtown Guatemala City and 25 km from Antigua.
Guatemala City’s unattractive Zona 4 bus terminal is being phased out (at least in part) thanks to a long-overdue plan to bring order to the chaos traditionally characterizing the state of public transportation, both within and into and out of the city. Accounting for 80 percent of the bedlam are buses arriving from and departing to the Western Highlands and the Pacific Coast. Buses to and from both of these regions were to be based out of the Central de Transferencias Sur (CENTRA Sur) in Zona 12, on the southern outskirts of the city, though this was only partly implemented. From CENTRA Sur, a series of modern, bright green interconnected buses known as buses articulados take passengers on a new system called the Transmetro into the city center. CENTRA Norte (CA-9 Norte 40-26 Zona 17, Km 8.5, tel. 2500-9800, www.centranorte.com.gt) was unveiled in 2012 and serves as the hub for buses heading out along the highway leading east to Izabal, Las Verapaces, and Petén. It’s open 24/7 and has a modern shopping center with stores and restaurants. The city’s public transportation system, meanwhile, is being replaced almost entirely by the Transmetro, a sort of surface metro, which will cover the entire metropolitan area by 2020 (or so they tell us).
A number of the (mostly) first-class buses heading to the Highlands and the Pacific Coast still leave from their own depots spread throughout the city, and this will probably continue to be the case for some time. The consolidation of bus routes heading east to Izabal, Las Verapaces, and Petén has been more successful. Here is the information on some of the more popular first-class bus routes:
To Chiquimula (3.5 hours, $4, 170 km): Rutas Orientales (CENTRA Norte, tel. 2503-3100, www.rutasorientales.com), departures every half hour 4:30am-6pm, or Transportes Guerra (CENTRA Norte), every half hour 7am-6pm.
To Cobán (4.5 hours, $5, 213 km): Transportes Escobar Monja Blanca (CENTRA Norte) has hourly buses 4am-5pm, stopping at El Rancho and the Quetzal Biotope.
To Esquipulas (4.5 hours, $5, 222 km): Rutas Orientales (CENTRA Norte, tel. 2503-3100, www.rutasorientales.com), has departures every half hour 4:30am-6pm.
To Flores (eight hours, $10-30 depending on service level, 500 km): Options include Línea Dorada (CENTRA Norte, tel. 2415-8900, www.lineadorada.com.gt), with luxury buses departing at 10am and 9pm ($30), or a more economical overnight bus leaving at 10pm ($16). Fuente del Norte (CENTRA Norte, tel. 2251-3817) has about 20 daily departures ($10-20).
To Huehuetenango (five hours, 266 km): Los Halcones (7a Avenida 15-27 Zona 1, tel. 2238-1929, $5), departs at 4am, 7am, 10:15am, 2pm, and 5pm. Transportes Velásquez (20 Calle 1-37 Zona 1, tel. 2221-1084, $4) has nine buses daily. Transportes Zaculeu Futura (9a Calle 11-42 Zona 1, tel. 2232-2858, $5), has buses at 6am and 3pm.
To La Mesilla (seven hours, $6, 345 km): Transportes Velásquez (20 Calle 1-37 Zona 1, tel. 2221-1084, $5.50), every two hours 5:30am-1:30pm.
To Panajachel (three hours, 148 km): Transportes Rebuli (21 Calle and 4a Avenida Zona 1, $2) has hourly buses 5:30am-3:30pm.
To Puerto Barrios (five hours, 295 km): Litegua (CENTRA Norte, tel. 2220-8840, www.litegua.com) has 16 buses daily 4:30am-7pm.
To Quetzaltenango (four hours, $4.50, 205 km): Transportes Álamo (21 Calle 0-14 Zona 1, tel. 2251-4838) has six buses a day 8am-5:30pm. Líneas América (2a Avenida 18-47 Zona 1, tel. 2232-1432) has seven buses a day 5am-7:30pm. Transportes Galgos (7a Avenida 19-44 Zona 1, tel. 2253-4868) leaves seven times daily 5:30am-7pm. The newest option is a nonstop bus on an ultraluxurious coach aboard Línea Dorada (16 Calle 10-03 Zona 1, tel. 2220-7900 or 2232-9658, www.lineadorada.com.gt, $6) at 8am and 3pm.
To Río Dulce (six hours, $6-21, 280 km): Línea Dorada (CENTRA Norte, tel. 2415-8900, www.lineadorada.com.gt) has luxury buses departing at 10am and 9pm ($21), or a more economical bus leaving at 10pm ($11). Both continue to Flores. Litegua (CENTRA Norte, tel. 2220-8840, www.litegua.com) has buses at 6am, 9am, 11:30am, and 1pm.
To Zacapa (three hours, $3.50): Rutas Orientales (CENTRA Norte, tel. 2503-3100, www.rutasorientales.com) has 15 buses daily.
To Copán, Honduras (five hours, 238 km, $35): Hedman Alas (2a Avenida 8-73 Zona 10, tel. 2362-5072, 2362-5073, or 2362-5074, www.hedmanalas.com) departs daily at 5am and 9am.
To San Salvador, El Salvador (five hours, 240 km): Melva Internacional (3a Avenida 1-38 Zona 9, tel. 2331-0874, $15) departs hourly 5am-4pm, with more expensive especiales ($20) leaving at 6:45am, 9am, and 3pm. Tica Bus (Calzada Aguilar Batres 22-55 Zona 12, tel. 2473-1639, www.ticabus.com, $20) leaves at 1pm. King Quality (18 Avenida 1-96 Zona 15, tel. 2369-0404, $30) has luxury buses departing at 6:30am, 8am, 2pm, and 3:30pm. Pullmantur (1a Avenida 13-22 Zona 10, Holiday Inn, tel. 2367-4746, www.pullmantur.com, $30-46) offers the most luxurious service on this route with double-decker buses and a choice of fare classes, departing at 7am and 3pm daily with additional buses Fridays at noon and Sundays at 4pm.
To Tapachula, Mexico (seven hours, 290 km): Transportes Galgos (7a Avenida 19-44 Zona 1, tel. 2253-4868, $22) has departures at 7:30am and 2pm. Línea Dorada (16 Calle 10-55 Zona 1, tel. 2232-5506, www.lineadorada.com.gt, $22) departs at 8am.
Getting around by taxi can be tricky, as there is really only one reliable taxicab company in the city and it requires you to call for a pickup if you wish to hire its services. Taxis Amarillo Express (tel. 2470-1515 or 1766, www.amarilloexpress.com) is also one of the only companies to use meters. Otherwise, the airport taxis and those at the Zona Viva hotels are generally reliable. It’s not usually a good idea to hail a cab from the street, as some of these are gypsy cabs and robberies do sometimes occur. If you find a reliable cab driver, you can always ask for a business card and hire his services for the rest of your stay or ask him to refer you to another reputable driver.
Several car rental agencies operate out of the airport and nearby areas, including Avis (6a Calle 7-64 Zona 9, tel. 2324-9000 or 800/331-1212 U.S. toll-free, www.avis.com.gt), Dollar (Avenida La Reforma 8-33 Zona 10, tel. 2385-8728 or 800/800-4000 U.S. toll-free, www.dollar.com.gt), Budget (6a Avenida 11-24 Zona 9, tel. 2332-7744 or 800/472-3325 U.S. toll-free, www.budget.com), Hertz (7a Avenida 14-84 Zona 13, tel. 2314-4411 or 800/654-3001 U.S. toll-free, also with offices inside the Westin Camino Real, InterContinental, and Barceló, www.rentautos.com.gt), Alamo (La Aurora Airport, tel. 2362-2701, www.alamoguatemala.com), and Thrifty (7a Avenida 14-28 Zona 13, Aeropuerto La Aurora, tel. 2379-8747 to 52, or 800/847-4389 U.S. toll-free, www.thrifty.com).
Guatemala City’s chaotic public bus transportation is not recommended for international travelers, mainly for safety considerations, as armed robberies and purse snatchings are frequent. Buses are also particularly susceptible to the city’s increasing gang-related violence, and drivers are often harassed and/or murdered for money by gang members.
A glimmer of hope for the city’s mass transit system emerged in 2007 with the unveiling of the Transmetro, a completely revamped public transportation system, which should be in full operation by 2020. The first phase, including the first transfer center (in Zona 12) for buses coming in from other parts of Guatemala, is already up and running and a second branch was scheduled to go into service at time of publication. Bus service via long, train-like interconnected green units brings travelers from the transfer center to the downtown area. More transfer centers are in the works.
The system promises to provide Guatemalans (and foreign travelers) with a safe, comfortable, and fast option for getting around the city. Buses stop at designated locations, drivers no longer trundle the streets competing for passengers, a prepaid system eliminates on-board cash, and buses and stations are guarded by cameras and plainclothes police officers. It costs Q1 to ride the Transmetro and the system only accepts one-quetzal coins. Drop your coin in the slot, push past the turnstile, and wait for the next bus under a covered, raised platform.
For now, the Transmetro’s routes include the eje sur, starting in Zona 12’s CENTRA Sur and heading downtown to Zona 1’s Plaza Amate, corredor central, and the newer eje centro histórico. The eje sur makes 12 stops along the way, including at the Centro Cívico (Plaza Municipal) and El Trébol. The corredor central route runs the length of 7a Avenida from Zona 1 to Zona 13’s Avenida Las Américas all the way to Plaza Berlín, stopping at Zona 4’s bus terminal and Cuatro Grados Norte along the way. The bus terminal’s status as the transportation hub for many bus lines will probably remain in place pending the gradual transition to the new system based on transfer centers. Direct Transmetro buses (no stops) heading from downtown to CENTRA leave from Plaza Amate (4a Avenida and 18 Calle Zona 1, 5am-9am and 4pm-9pm Mon.-Fri.). The eje centro histórico is quite convenient for visits to Guatemala’s City’s downtown sector, with a route that parallels Paseo de la Sexta and leaves you just one block from the central plaza at Parque Centenario.
Near Guatemala City
South of the city along Calzada Aguilar Batres, the sprawl continues into the adjacent district of Villa Nueva, a suburban housing and industrial area that has been swallowed up by the larger city. From here, the Carretera al Pacífico, or Pacific Highway (CA-9) leads south to Escuintla and the Pacific Coast.
Amatitlán lies 30 kilometers south of Guatemala City on the road to the Pacific Coast. The lake is in the process of being rescued from what would have been certain ecological death caused by wastewater from nearby industry and uncontrolled urban growth. A new sewage treatment plant now filters the filthy waters of the Río Villalobos, which once flooded untreated sewage into the lake. Trees have been replanted, and the lake is being pumped with oxygen and cleaned of plants in an effort to reverse its eutrophication. It’s still not possible to swim in the lake’s waters, though it may be some day.
aerial view of Lake Amatitlán, on the fringes of Guatemala City
The public beach of Las Ninfas was being remodeled by tourism authorities to include boat docks (for sailboats and motorboats), new food stalls, walkways, and landscaping, but like so many other projects in Guatemala it was never finished. The long-closed Teleférico (Aerial Tram, 9am-5pm Fri.-Sun., $2 adults, $0.85 children) was reopened in 2006, in an attempt to kick off the rebirth of one of Guatemala City’s oldest recreational enclaves. The funicular climbs 350 meters up a mountainside along a 1.5-kilometer route. There’s a lookout point at the top of the mountain where you can get out, appreciate the view of the lake and Guatemala City, and grab a bite to eat at a small cafeteria serving snacks. The Teleférico was unfortunately not operational at the time of writing, and it’s anyone’s guess if it will be resuscitated any time soon.
If you’d rather just soak your weary bones in the warm waters of some pleasant hot springs, you can do that at Kawilal Hotel & Spa at Baños Termales Santa Teresita (Avenida Puente de la Gloria, Riveras del Río Michatoya, tel. 6644-1000, www.santateresita.com.gt, 9am-5:30pm Mon.-Thurs., 9am-7:30pm Fri., 8:30am-8:30pm Sat., 8:30am-6:30pm Sun. and holidays), where you can enjoy a private steam bath or a soak in a private tub filled with steaming hot water to your taste ($5). Several outdoor pools of varying temperatures are also available, and there’s a restaurant serving grilled meats and chicken, salads, sandwiches, and seafood. Rounding out the list of offerings is a spa, where you can enjoy a one-hour massage for about $20. A modern, 18-room hotel (www.kawilalhotel.com, $90 d) opened in 2013, with comfortable accommodations and its own swimming pool, restaurant, and bar.
Parque Nacional Naciones Unidas
This 491-hectare park near the lakeshore is managed by private conservation group Defensores de la Naturaleza (tel. 5651-4825 or 2310-2929, www.defensores.org.gt) and is open 8am-4pm Monday-Friday and 8am-5pm Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $3.50. Facilities include picnic areas with barbecue pits, hiking and mountain biking trails with hanging bridges and lookout points over the lake, basketball courts, and soccer fields. A five-platform, 400-meter canopy tour, and rappelling were added in 2008. There are miniature replicas of Guatemalan landmarks such as Tikal’s Gran Jaguar temple and Antigua Guatemala in areas denominated “Plaza Guatemala” and “Plaza Antigua.” The park is one of five original national parks dating back to 1955.
You’ll probably need to rent a car to get to Lake Amatitlán, though you could also hire a cab to take you there from Guatemala City for about $30. If you’re driving, take the Pacific Highway (CA-9) south out of the city. The main entrance to the Amatitlán lakeshore is at Km. 26. You’ll see signs. The exit veers off from the right side of the highway. From the exit ramp, you’ll come to a Shell gas station, at which you turn left. Follow the road until it dead-ends just past the soccer fields on your left. Turn left at the dead end. You’ll pass a bridge over the Río Michatoya on your right. The next left will take you to the Teleférico and farther up that same road is Parque Nacional Naciones Unidas. Turning right onto the bridge over the Río Michatoya followed by an immediate right will bring you to the Santa Teresita hot springs.
view of Antigua from Cerro de la Cruz, with Agua Volcano in the background