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Guatemala City is huge, chaotic and can seem very overwhelming to new visitors. Forget the naysayers, however, as this city has much more to offer than first meets the eye. Here are the most unique experiences to have in Guatemala City.
Guatemalan food is seriously underrated, and the most enjoyable way to discover it is by taking a food tour. With Mayan culture combining with Spanish traditions, the food here is eclectic, flavorsome and diverse. As the capital, Guatemala City is one of the best places in the country to learn about the local gastronomy, and a food tour will take you places you would never have known about otherwise. From pupusas to kak’ik to hilachas, the food here will delight even the pickiest of eaters.
For a relatively small country, Guatemala has an unusually varied landscape. From tropical jungles to active volcanoes, black sand beaches to mysterious lakes, the best way to understand the geography here is to visit Guatemala City’s famous Mapa en Relive. This enormous open-air topographical map is at a staggering 1:10,000 scale, with exaggerated volcanic peaks that appear even more dramatic and precipitous than they are in real life. An impressively accurate 3D replica of Guatemala’s terrain, it becomes all the more impressive when you remember that it was made over 100 years ago, without satellites or modern technology.
Cervecería Centroamericana has brewed most Guatemalan beer since 1886, and most visitors to the country will have tried Gallo, its flagship beer. This brewery manufactures beverages that include Gallo Light, Victoria lager, the dark bock beer Moza, and Malta Gallo malt liquor, and offers fun, informative tours in both Spanish and English. You’ll need to make a reservation (at least a week in advance) but the tour itself is free – and ends with some free samples, too!
To discover the bohemian beating heart of Guatemala City, head to La Bodeguita del Centro. This creative hangout has live music from Tuesdays to Saturdays, from rock to jazz to classical, and there are plenty of poetry readings, discussions and forums too. The walls are adorned with prints of Che Guevara, Bob Marley, John Lennon and Vincent Van Gogh, and entrance is free every night but Fridays and Saturdays.
Guatemala City’s markets are bursting with colorful handicrafts and woven garments, so buying a few items as souvenirs is a must. At the lively Mercado Central, you can explore a seemingly endless maze of underground passages as you browse leather goods, wooden masks, intricate ponchos, hats, tablecloths, wallets and decorative bowls. While the markets here may not be as picturesque as the ones in Antigua or Chichicastenango, they’re more authentic, and the handicrafts are much cheaper. Pick up some souvenirs, either as a treat for yourself or as a unique gift for a loved one.
Avenue 6 is one of the best shopping districts in Guatemala City, and strolling along here is a must while visiting the capital. While you’re here, check out La Jugetaria, a family-run toy store that’s been here since 1927. Despite their rich history, La Jugetaria is a struggling business; with large taxes to pay, the store is facing competition from illegal vendors selling the same products. Support this honest family business by treating any children in your life to a new doll, book, costume or game.
There aren’t many places in the world where you can enjoy a drink in Che Guevara’s favorite bar. Whether this is a good thing to do or not will depend on your political views, but it’s certainly a unique experience to have. Guevara lived in Guatemala City in the ’50s and was a regular at El Portal near the Plaza Constitutional. With a long wooden bar and antique decor, having a drink here is like stepping into a Hemingway novel. Make sure to try a cervezas mixtas; tap beers mixed together in a glass.
Guatemala City obviously doesn’t have a replica of the Eiffel Tower, but a running joke among locals is that Zone 9’s Tower of the Reformer is the next best thing. Built in 1935 to honor 100 years since the birth of former Guatemalan President General Justo Rugino Barrios, the Tower of the Reformer pays tribute to Barrios’ liberal reforms and desire for social freedom.
Guatemala 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.
Formerly a military fortress, Guatemala’s National Theater is made up of five different complexes and boasts outstanding acoustics and views across the city. Inspired by Mayan culture, the theater takes the shape of the volcanoes that surround it, and plays host to spectacular shows, from ballets to operas and concerts. Check out one of the unique shows here; they’re unlike anything you’ll see elsewhere.
Part of Guatemala City’s appeal is its authenticity, and simply walking through the streets allows you to see a side of this country you’ll miss if you only visit the tourist towns. The civil war here tore the country apart, poverty is still widespread and the wealth gap remains enormous. Take to the streets to experience the country’s social and political reality like nowhere else in Guatemala – just make sure your route is through one of the safe zones.