Guatemala City has long been known for its criminal gangs and drug violence, but things are slowly beginning to change. While it has a long way to go before it becomes a tourist-haven like nearby Antigua, Guatemala’s chaotic capital is experiencing something of a renaissance, and visitors to this sprawling metropolis may find themselves pleasantly surprised. But as such a big and diverse city, you need to do your research before you go. Here are 10 things to know before visiting Guatemala City.
With approximately 3.3 million residents, Guatemala City is the biggest city in Central America. The sheer size of the city means you could spend months exploring here and still not scratch the surface. However, many parts of the city remain off-limits for tourists, and you are strongly encouraged to visit the neighbourhoods that are more tourist friendly.
It’s split into zones
Guatemala’s capital is split into zones, and these zones are so different they may as well be separate towns. Zone 1 is the heart of the city, the most central district that’s home to many notable old buildings. There are lots of cheap hotels, bars, shops and restaurants here, so it’s popular with backpackers on a budget. Then there’s Zone 4, which is packed with street art, trendy coffee shops, cool bars and communal working spaces for digital nomads. Check out our guide to see which zones you should explore.
It has an exciting music scene
You may not be able to name any awesome Guatemalan musicians, but that doesn’t mean they’re not around! As the capital, Guatemala City is the hub of the country’s thriving music scene. From record-breaking Latin American pop icons to pioneering feminist rappers and flute-playing rock bands, check out some of the key musicians you should know before visiting this musical hotspot.
It has an excellent market
If you want to purchase some souvenirs while you’re here, the Mercado Central is the best place to do it. The seemingly endless maze of underground passages may not be as pretty as the open-air markets in Antigua or Chichicastenango, but the handicrafts found here are often much cheaper. Browse stalls selling leather goods, wooden masks, and woolen blankets… but keep an eye on your belongings, as pickpockets lurk here.
It has some fascinating museums
With a unique history that merges Mayan traditions with Spanish culture, Guatemala is one of the most interesting countries in the world. Guatemala City has excellent museums where you can learn about Mayan history, traditional textiles, archaeology and what it feels like to experience an earthquake. Check out the top museums to visit here.
It has beautiful colonial architecture
It’s not known for being a beautiful city, but Guatemala City’s colonial buildings will definitely impress, and walking through parts of the capital will take you back to the days of the Spanish Empire. Picturesque and well preserved, Plaza Mayor is the beating heart of Guatemala City, and this square is home to some of the city’s most spectacular buildings, including the National Palace and the Catedral Metropolitana, the interior of the latter being a fine example of Neoclassical architecture.
It’s pretty gritty
Much of Guatemala City’s appeal is its authenticity. The brutal civil war tore the country apart, poverty is still rampant and the wealth gap remains enormous – and Guatemala City allows you to see the bigger picture in Guatemala in ways the tourist towns simply can’t. If you want to experience the country’s social and political reality, you definitely won’t find it in touristy, almost-twee Antigua.
It’s overrun with chicken buses
Guatemala City is famous for its chicken buses, and these photogenic vehicles are the primary means of transportation for most locals. Donated from the U.S., these old school buses are customized in three ways: first they’re shortened, so they can better navigate Guatemala’s winding hills and roads, then a faster engine is put in, and finally they’re painted in a variety of bright colors and patterns. Because of the relatively low literacy rate, the buses are color-coded in relation to their destinations.
Che Guevara lived here
You may associate him with Cuba, but Che Guevara lived in Guatemala City in the ’50s, and the city hasn’t forgotten this. Whatever your own opinions, most Guatemalans love Che, and Guevara graffiti is commonplace throughout the city. Many tourists visit El Portal, a traditional bar located in the Pasaje Rubio that’s famous for being Guevara’s favourite watering hole when he lived here. Having a drink in this bar is like stepping back into a Hemingway novel; sit at the long wooden bar, listen to marimba music and sip a cervezas mixtas (tap beers mixed together in a glass).
You still need to be careful
Guatemala City is trying to shake off its reputation as a criminal hotspot, and in many ways it’s slowly succeeding. But obviously, crime does occur here and you do need to be careful. Don’t set foot in Zones 3, 6, 18, or 21, and even in the ‘tourist-friendly’ districts, stay alert. Don’t walk around at night; even if your destination is a five-minute walk away, take a cab or tuk-tuk. Don’t carry money in your backpack (it can be easily slicked through) – keep it in your front pocket. In busy areas, strap your backpack to your front.