Guatemala City Travel Guide
[This is a brief excerpt from pages 75-105 of Eric Larson’s travel guide to Guatemala, published by Other Places Travel Guides.]
If flying into Guatemala, your first taste of the country will be its capital, La Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, more commonly referred to as Guatemala City. Tucked into the vast Ermita Valley and surrounded by hills and ravines, Guate (as its usually called) is the most populous city in Central America, with an urban population of more than 2.5 million and, when including the surrounding area, nearly 5 million in total. Like most capitals, it’s a noisy, hectic, and dangerous place; however, Guate has its charms as well, and it may grow on you once you give it a chance.
All the important sights can be seen in a day or two, but most visitors head straight for Antigua and avoid it altogether. You’ll be in good company if you never see more than the airport or an international bus terminal. However, if you’ll be in Guatemala for a while, give the capital a chance, and it may surprise you.
Get Your Bearings
Guatemala City is divided into 22 zones, or zonas. Only a select few of them are worth a visit: Zones 1 and 2 (Historic Center), Zones 9 and 10 (Zona Viva and wealthier areas), Zones 11 and 13 (the airport and some museums), and Zone 4 (Cuatro Grados Norte and some bus terminals). To the east, along the Carretera a El Salvador, you can find wealthy suburban neighborhoods in Zones 14, 15, and 16. You’ll spend most of your time in the capital along its main thoroughfares, 6th and 10th Avenues, which run parallel to each other through Zones 1 and 4 before splitting off into Zones 9 and 10.
There are plenty of sights and activities, too many to list here but are covered in our travel guide. Below we list our Don’t Miss picks.
If you visit just one museum during your time in Guatemala City, make it the Museo Ixchel de Traje Indígena (6a Calle Final; 2331-3739; www.museoixchel.org). The museum, named for the Mayan moon goddess, contains fascinating exhibits on all aspects of Mayan culture, but focuses on weaving and the diversity of traditional indigenous huipiles and cortes (brightly colored blouses and skirts). Inside are displays of pre-Colombian artifacts, astounding watercolors by Carmen Petterson, and artwork by the famous painter Andrés Curruchiche. Entrance includes a short film on the evolution of indigenous dress. There is also an overpriced gift shop where you can take home one of many marvelous souvenirs.
Right next-door is the Museo Popol Vuh (www.popolvuh.ufm.edu; 2361-2301), another high-quality museum that details each important period of Guatemala’s archaeological history. The exhibit takes its namesake from the Popol Vuh, the most important and complete piece of Mayan literature to be discovered. Though small, the showrooms display the very best of Guatemala’s ancient artifacts, including breathtaking jaguar-shaped ceremonial urns and beautifully carved temple pieces. Casually displayed in the middle of the museum is an exact replica of the Dresden Codex, one of three painted Mayan books to survive the Spanish conquest. Entrance at both museums is Q40 and you can pay an additional Q10 to take pictures. Both are open 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri. and 9am-1pm on Saturday.
In Zona 13 is the must-see Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (6a Calle and 7a Ave; 2475-4399; www.munae.gob.gt), the National Archeology and Ethnology Museum. The best Guatemalan artifacts end up here, including pieces from Petén, the coast, and the highlands. Among the highlights are impressive stelae, jade, and masks from the remote Piedras Negras ruins in Petén. It could be better organized, but the sheer importance of the museum’s holdings make it worthwhile. It’s open daily 9am-4pm except Monday.
Within Zona 10 and just east of Avenida La Reforma is Zona Viva, or Guate’s “lively zone.” Besides a few bizarrely located shopping centers, this is without a doubt the nicest part of Guatemala City. A pedestrian-friendly escape from the car-choked labryinth of Avenidas and Calles, Zona Viva is lined with good restaurants and bars, expensive hotels, and luxurious residences. Zona Viva is frequented by wealthy Guatemalans looking to unwind after the daily grind, so the nightlife heats up nicely on the weekends. If you’re in need of some first-world comforts during your trip, this is the place to go.
Volcán de Pacaya
Near Lake Amatitlán is the ash-spewing Pacaya Volcano (www.volcandepacaya.com), an ever-active cone that occasionally wakes up enough to wreak havoc on surrounding communities and the airport. It makes for an excellent day trip from the capital or Antigua. If you have a car, you can get there by driving south on CA-9 past Lake Amatitlán to the exit at KM 37.5. Eight kilometers east of the turn-off is the park entrance at San Vicente Pacaya. Continue upwards another 10km to the trailhead in San Francisco de Sales. Without your own transportation, it is best to a book tour in Antigua.
Ruins of Kaminaljuyú
On the run-down western edge of the city, the only thing of note is the Parque Arqueológico Kaminaljuyú, the ruins of the civilization that once occupied present-day Guatemala City. The Mayans established the city around 400 BC, although previous settlers may have laid the groundwork for the settlement centuries before. It was a powerful commercial center, maintaining trade and communication with kingdoms as far away as Petén and Honduras.
Today, not much remains of the once-great city. The site is little more than a few grass-covered mounds, but its juxtaposition to the urban sprawl of Guate is unique. You can also visit the ruins from the excellent Museo Miraflores (7a Calle 21-55 Paseo Miraflores; 2470-3415; www.mcd.gob.gt), a museum dedicated to the history of the Kaminaljuyú ruins.
Experience the very heart of Guate with a tour of the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura or take a stroll down Sexta Avenida. Check out our blog post on exploring Centro Histórico, Guatemala City’s historic center.
As the biggest city in Central America, Guate offers just about everything you can imagine in terms of food, and prices tend to be reasonable. Budget cafés and comedores can be found throughout the city, but the best are in Zona 1. Zona 4, especially the Cuatro Grados Norte neighborhood, is an up-and-coming culinary dynamo with many ethnic options. It’s hard to find a cheap meal in glitzy Zonas 9 and 10, where fine dining is king, but at least there is fast food to fill the void. Our travel guide has personal recommendations organized by zone, then price. Here, we list only our top picks.
Café de Imeri: An old-fashioned café-restaurant with a nice courtyard, perfect for breakfast or a set-menu lunch. Service is stellar and the food is scrumptious (6a Calle 3-34, Zona 1; Q30).
Altuna: An upscale Spanish restaurant with excellent service, elegant surroundings, and a private club-like ambiance. Specialties include delicious seafood, ceviche, lobster, paella, chorizo, and jamón serrano (Two locations: 5a Ave 12-31 Zona 1 or 10a Calle 0-45 Zona 10; Q80-150).
Kacao: Without a doubt, this is Zona 10’s best option for hearty local food, comida típica, although it’s a little more expensive than usual. Offerings include authentic pepián, chuchitos, and tamales, all served under a thatched roof (2a Ave 13-14 Zona 10; Q60-150).
Pecorino: Most agree that this is the best Italian restaurant in town, and its prices are laughably low for what you get. Its great menu of pasta, antipasta, pizza, and seafood dishes is coupled with a fantastically stocked wine cellar (11a Calle 3-36 Zona 10; mains Q60-120).
International hotel chains are near the airport in Zones 9, 10, 11, and 13. Cheaper options are downtown around the Centro Histórico in Zona 1. Expect hotels in Guatemala City to be slightly more expensive than the rest of the country, although there are budget options as well. Here are our top picks from our travel guide.
Posada Belén: This quiet, well-decorated inn has a green patio and a delicious restaurant. The owners are friendly and very knowledgeable. Breakfast is included (13 Calle A 10-30 Zona 1; 2253-4530; www.posadabelen.com; single/double with bath Q360/400).
Pensión Meza: A backpacker favorite with a nice courtyard, dependable beds, and dingy sort of charm. Ché Guevara is rumored to have stayed here, there’s a ping-pong table, and English is spoken (10a Calle 10-17 Zona 1; 2232-3177; shared/private bath double rooms Q50/100).
Xamanek Hostel: The first budget hostel in Zona Viva is still running strong with pleasant separate male-female dorms, affordable private rooms, and a communal kitchen. Breakfast included (13 Calle 3-57 Zona 10; 2360-8345; dorms Q120, double Q280).
Quetzalroo: A self-styled “backpacker’s lounge and traveling hub” in the heart of Zona Viva. Free airport pick-up, breakfast, and Wi-Fi. The “Peligroso Tour” gives a cool perspective of Guate and its history (6a Ave 7-94 Zona 10; 5746-0830; www.quetzalroo.com; dorms Q120, s/d Q200/280).
Guatemala City is home to an impressive variety of bars and nightclubs, mostly in Zona Viva or downtown Zona 1. Our travel guide has 12 additional recommended spots to grab a drink, but these are top picks.
El Portal: Located in the Portal del Comercio south of the park, this was one of Ché Guevara’s choice watering holes when he lived in Guate in the 50’s. Wooden tables and Q15 mugs of beer make it a perfect barstooling spot (9a Calle between 6a and 7a Ave, Zona 1).
Cheers: This may not be the place where everybody knows your name, but it is arguably the best sports bar in Guate. The buffalo wings are delectable, and plenty of TVs, pool tables, dartboards, and foosball will keep you entertained all night (13 Calle 0-40, Zona 10).
Rattle N Hum: A cozy and very popular Australian-owned place with great tunes and a fun atmosphere. Often features live music (4a Ave 16-11, Zona 10).
Want more information and recommendations for Guatemala City and traveling in Guatemala? This page is a small sample from our 398-page comprehensive travel guide for Guatemala. Written and researched by a long-time resident and Peace Corps Volunteer, the book is quickly becoming the go-to resource for travelers looking to get off the “Gringo Trail” and experience the real Guatemala. Click here to learn more about the book and what others are saying about this unique travel guide.