GUATEMALA CITY is not a place to visit for its beauty or architectural charm. If you arrive in the central area, your first impressions are grim, as a depressing vision of urban blight unfolds: potholed streets choked by fumes from rasping buses, thoroughfares blocked by street stalls and many of the city's fine buildings in a state of advanced decay. Understandably, few travellers take to la capital, and many avoid it completely.
But if you decide to spend a day or two in the city, it does offer some metropolitan pleasures that you won't find elsewhere in the country. There are two first-rate museums devoted to the ancient Maya and another to the country's terrific textile tradition. Culturally, a hip artistic scene is emerging in Cuatro Grados Norte, a vibrant barrio where you might catch an alternative rock band or find a DJ spinning progressive electronic mixes. The swankiest commercial part of town is the Zona Viva, centred around 10 Calle and 3 Avenida, a tight bunch of expensive hotels, office blocks, restaurants, nightclubs and boutiques. Guatemala City's climate is also benign: the city's altitude means that the heat here never gets too oppressive, and when you escape the pollution of the central area, the lush greenery of the outer suburbs lends a certain appeal. Its setting is certainly dramatic, positioned in a massive highland bowl split by plunging ravines.
That said, the disparities of life in the city are extreme, with glass skyscrapers towering over sprawling slums and shoeless widows peddling cigarettes to designer-clad nightclubbers. You should take a little extra care in the capital as street crime is a problem, mainly involving bag snatching – be particularly careful at transport terminals.
Guatemala's first street nomenclature was devised in 1855 when the Conservative Government decreed the use of proper names, such as Calle del Calvario, Calle de los Olvidos, or Calle de la Merced. The system was descriptive and easy to remember, but rapid growth of the city led to its replacement by a numbering method first proposed by the engineer Raúl Aguilar Batres in 1877. Despite its Byzantine complexity, this system is still used today. Streets from north to south are called "Avenida" and those from east to west are called "Calle". Each address has three numbers—"1 Avenida 5-25" for example—to indicate the street number and the approximate distance, in meters, from the nearest cross street. The distance in meters (in this case "25"), is odd for houses on the north side of a street (or avenue) and even for those on the south. Each address is determined by the Municipality of Guatemala.
The zones of the city are also numbered. Using the center of the city as a starting point, numbers increase starting from the north then spiraling outwards, using main roads or geographic divisions as boundaries between each zone. The Avenida Aguilar Batres, for example, separates zones 11 and 12 and the Avenida Reforma divides zones 9 and 10. The logic behind this system is that the city can continue expanding without running out of zone names. Each zone has its own attractions and characteristics, described below.
This is the historic center of the city. In 1775, when Guatemala de la Asunción was founded, the most important governmental and ecclesiastical buildings were constructed here, as well as the houses of the leading families of the era. Private houses were characterized by the mudejar architectural style, with a construction so uniform that the only thing to differentiate between each was the size of the property. Public buildings were constructed in a Neo-Classical style and few of them had more than one floor. Today, the heart of Zone 1, where the Plaza Mayor de la Constitución and most of the important government and church buildings are located, is protected as historic heritage. In this area, there are lots of shopping centers and stores, such as shoe stores, boutiques, fabric stores and other businesses where you can buy good merchandise at low prices.
This zone was founded as a town for indigenous people transferred from Antigua, Guatemala, the former capital of the kingdom. With the construction of the North Hippodrome, during the Liberal Government, many wealthy families built residences on the Avenida del Hipódromo. Some of these houses are still standing today, and belong to private families. The famous Mapa en Relieve of the Guatemalan Republic was constructed in 1904. It is the only map of its kind in the world and a tourist attraction in its own right.
In 1890, during President Barillas' term in office, the canton of Exposición was formed, with the Guatemalan Pavilion of the Paris World Fair in its center. The Centro Cívico is located in this zone, and houses the Bank of Guatemala, the Guatemala Tourist Institute , the Supreme Court of Justice, Guatemala City municipal offices and other governmental buildings. These buildings were built between 1954 and 1970. They are decorated with impressive murals. In the Cultural Center is the national theater, called Centro Cultural Miguel Angel Asturias . Constructed in 1978, this consists of the Main Theater, the Chamber Theater, an open-air stage and the Salon Dorado. The building is shaped like a crouching jaguar. This complex is venue to magnificent theatrical and musical performances.
Zones 9 & 10
In 1892, the public garden Boulevard 30 de Junio was created. Today it is known as the Avenida La Reforma . Traveling along this avenue is a very pleasant trip because of the gardens and the many statues of animals and important historical figures. This avenue separates zones 9 and 10, where the best hotels, restaurants, night-clubs and shopping centers are located. Zone 10 is known as the Zona Viva because there is a party here almost every night!
Zones 13 & 14
These zones are separated by the Avenida Las Americas . At one end of the avenue, a small square was built to celebrate the first Eucharistic Congress. As its name suggests, the avenue is dedicated to the countries of the American continent. In each corner of the square, a picture with wrought iron adornments was installed. Each picture has the shield and the name of an American country. Along here you can see beautiful gardens and many small squares and statues lining the avenue.
Guatemala City is a cultural crossroads, the vibrant vital center of a country with 23 ethnic and linguistic groups. Growing foreign investment, tourism and expanded business activity have recently stirred this mix, creating a city that exudes exuberance and diversity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the restaurants, where the eclectic choices will satisfy anyone's tastes.
In this historic center of Guatemala City, quality restaurants mingle with some of the most important buildings in the entire country. Altuna offers a taste of the city's colonial past, serving up Spanish and Basque cuisine. Arrin Cuan specializes in traditional Guatemalan dishes, such as their award winning turtle soup. Mexican food can be found at El Gran Pavo , which has been around for over 40 years. Don't miss the specialty Caldo Tlalpeño, a soup made of chicken breast, avocado, cilantro and onions. For something a little lighter, not to mention high tech, the Uranus Cafe Net , serves up your typical cafe items along side internet access to stay connected during your stay.
In the highly governmental Zone 4, visitors will find a fairly impressive array of dining and drinking opportunities. Spanish cooking is best represented by La Barraca , where not only can you enjoy the food, but the live music and occasional live theater performances as well. For a sweet snack, Pastelería Palace bakes up the best of Swiss pastries and chocolate, as well as light fare like salads. Alta Mar cooks up all kinds of seafood, but especially make sure you try the fish ceviche along with one of their special cocktails. For some after dinner entertainment, several nearby options exist such as El Refugio and Latinos .
Zones 9 & 10
Zone 9 is well-known for its restaurants. Kloster is a fondue restaurant with a Swiss theme that specializes in cheese, meat, shrimp and chocolate dips. It has a very good selection of international wines and serves beer by the yard. If you prefer pasta, head to Tre Fratelli , or La Piazza . Hacienda de los Sánchez , El Rodeo Steak House and Kacao are good Guatemalan restaurants, serving some of the exciting traditional dishes of this country. A satisfying dinner might get you in the mood for drinking and dancing. Most of the larger hotels have night-clubs, but there are many other choices. Discotheques such as Cashbah , La Iguana Azul and others all have a lively atmosphere, featuring the intoxicating rhythms of salsa, merengue, rock, reggae, as well as romantic music for when the night gets mellow.. Zone 10 is well known as the Zona Viva as the parties here last all night. To fill up before a wild night, try some ever-popular Mexican cooking at Rancho Grande or less well-known, although no less delicious Salvadorian cuisine at Pupusería Típico . To start the party, one good place where you can go to have a drink is Señor Tortuga Fun, Food and Music , a bar-restaurant with a good selection of drinks and cocktails as well as live music.
Our tour begins a hundred meters from the Plaza Mayor de la Constitución , at the Mercado Central in the Plaza del Sagrario. Located behind the cathedral, the three-story market is built over what used to be the city cemetery. Here, there are many stalls selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, weavings and snacks. Not far away, on the corner of Avenida 9 and Calle 10, is the Museo de Historia , which houses an exhibition depicting the city's history and the people who have played a part in it. It has a wealth of historical photographs, as well as furniture and valuable political documents. This is the place to go if you want to find out about the city's past since Independence in 1821. The exhibitions also cover the economy, society, and the arts. A few blocks from the History Museum is La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes , on the corner of Avenida 11 and Calle 5. It houses a fine collection of colonial paintings, as well as gilded altarpieces which were brought from Antigua to the new place of worship.
Walking northwards from the center along Avenida 6, at the corner of Calle 19 in Zone 4 you will come to the Centro Cultural Miguel Angel Asturias , home to the opera, a chamber theater and an open-air theater built around three squares. Work began on the theatre in 1961 and finished in 1978. Shaped like a Mayan pyramid, it stands out from the rest of the Civic Centre on Buena Vista Hill and is considered one of the greatest in the world. You can visit at any time of day.Two kilometers northeast of the center is the Cerro del Carmen , where the first church in the valley was built, dedicated to La Virgen del Carmen. This provides a little oasis of green in the midst of the growing city. From its patio you have a good view of the city center.
La Plaza Mayor
The Plaza Mayor is a good starting point for a walk through the city. To the east is the Neo-Classical Metropolitan Cathedral, where you can contemplate a collection of religious paintings by masters such as Zurbarán, from the Spanish dark period, and pictures from Guatemala's colonial days such as “Saint Sebastian” and the “Virgen del Socorro”, brought by the Spanish conquistadors. To the north of the Plaza is the Portal del Comercio (Gate of Commerce), also in Neo-Classical style, which is home to a variety of businesses and street vendors' stalls. Here you can buy arts and crafts from all over the country. If you want an embroidered huipil, pottery, or craftsmanship in leather, wood, silver, or tin, this is the place to go. To the west of the Plaza is the Parque Centenario (Centenary Park), where shoe-shiners traditionally gather around the benches at the entrance to Avenida 6, to gossip about politics, economics and the news of the day.
You do not have to leave the capital to explore the treasures of Mayan culture. Sitio Arqueológico Kaminal Juyú gives you the opportunity to see from close up how archaeological excavations are carried out. Amongst the ten mounds of earth in the middle of a field, you will find two sets of excavations by teams from the University of Pennsylvania. Named the "Hill of the Dead" by Antonio Villacorta in 1940 due to the large number of burial remains which have been found in it, Laminal Juyú is the site of a Mayan city that dates back to the Pre-Classical period. A visit to the best museum of Pre-Hispanic art in Central America, the Museo Popol Vuh will prepare you for the Route of the Mayas. Forty centuries of Mayan life are summed up in the nine galleries: an introductory room, a map of Central America, a sculpture gallery, a gallery of jade objects, a room dedicated to contemporary ethnology, and rooms containing artifacts from the three major periods of the Mayan civilization, the Pre-Classical, Classical and the Post-Classical. Finally, the “Patio of Stars” is especially impressive. As well, the Pre-Hispanic Art department of the Popol Vuh has a collection of funeral urns from El Quiche and a collection of tubular incense burners rescued from the bottom of Lake Atitlán.
Mapa en Relieve
Five minutes' walk to the north of the Plaza Mayor de la Constitución , on the site of the old North Hippodrome, is the Mapa en Relieve (relief map) . Made between 1904 and 1905 by the engineer Francisco Vela Irrisario, this is a unique and amazingly detailed three-dimensional map of the country. From the visitors' observation box you can see the hydraulic system used to simulate the flow of the country's rivers and lakes. The 108,889-square kilometers that make up the Republic of Guatemala are accurately condensed into only 1,800 square meters. To see all the rivers, volcanoes, mountains, valleys, and the coast laid out before you like this is really a stunning sight. To the south along Avenida Reforma you come to the Jardín Botánico , which is kept by the Conservation Study Center of the University of San Carlos de Guatemala. A huge variety of plants and trees are to be found in this small space. Avenida La Reforma , with its broad, tree-lined meridian, is one of the main arteries of the southern part of the city, providing access to new shopping areas such as La Pradera, Gran Centro Los Próceres , and the Zona Viva, where you will find the most exclusive clothes shops and the best restaurants, surrounded by hotels.
The Archaeology Museum houses a valuable display of Mayan relics, including a large collection of Pre-Columbian jade. There are displays on the country's indigenous tribes, showing their different styles of weaving. Opposite, and in a similar architectural style, stands the Museo de Arte Moderno , a gallery which houses a good selection of the best in contemporary Guatemalan art, particularly painting and sculpture. In an innovative building next door is the Museo de Historia Natural , with exhibitions on flora, fauna, mineralogy, and paleontology, including a collection of dissected animal specimens from various regions of Guatemala. There is also an ecological library for children, the only one of its kind in the country.
Classic Journeys (+1 800 200 3887/ http://www.Classicjourneys.com) Gray Line (+502 2383 8600/http://www.grayline.com/Grayline/destinations/latinamerica/guatemala.go) Turansa (+502 2433 6080/ http://www.turansa.com)