24 hours in Guatemala City – Jurg Widmer
It’s fair to say that Guatemala City is not always the first place on many people’s bucket lists of places they would like to stay when they come to the country. For many it is just a quick stopover on the way to somewhere with a more tourist-friendly reputation, like Antigua. We think this is a real shame and a big missed opportunity.
Why? Well, because while the country’s capital might have a bit of a mixed rep – it has an alarmingly high crime rate for one – that really isn’t the whole story. In our experience we have always found Guatemala City to be a fascinating, friendly and vibrant melting pot of different people and cultures. It is somewhere where you need to exercise caution, as you would in any big city (especially as a tourist), but don’t let that put you off. We love the place, so we thought we’d share just a few of the best things to do in the capital if you only have a brief stopover.
Get your bearings with the Mapa en Relieve
A bit of a weird one to start with, but this is something very impressive indeed, and a great way to get a sense of just how diverse this remarkable country is. Built in 1905, this to-scale topographical map of Guatemala is just mind-blowing – it was based on the measurements of two men who travelled the country on a donkey to survey the land. It’s an incredible achievement and well worth a visit – especially if you are making Guatemala City your first stop on a bigger tour of the entire country. You will find the map in the Parque Minerva off Av. Simon Cañas in Zone 2.
Understand the country’s pre-colonial past
Spending some time in the beautiful Museo Popol Vuh is an opportunity to really get a more in depth understanding of this country’s rich and varied history. Guatemala has a remarkable indigenous culture, and the museum is a great place to explore Mayan artefacts and other traditional objects. It’s packed with fascinating exhibits and it is also close by the Ixchel Native Costume Museum, which is spectacular and also well worth a visit. Head to number 6a on Calle Final in Zone 10.
Palacio Nacional de la Cultura
If you want to get a taste of Guatemala City’s more recent history, then pay a visit to the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura – the Presidential Palace. It was originally built in the 30s by Guatemalan dictator General Jorge Ubico and today it is a museum that is well worth exploring. The building itself is a spectacular example of Spanish style architecture and you can also watch the changing of the guard every day at 11am. You will find it on the corner of 6a Av & 6a Calle, in Zone 1.
Get a taste of the real Guatemala at the Mercado Central
You can learn so much about a city by visiting its markets, and the Mercado Central is a great example of this. It is a microcosm of Guatemala City itself – packed, vibrant and full of an incredible array of sights, sounds, flavours and smells. While you are there make sure that you head down to the lower levels and sample some of the fabulous local food – the tortillas in particular are delicious.
Take time to reflect in the Metropolitan Cathedral
A deeply important part of Guatemalan religious and cultural life, the Metropolitan Cathedral is a truly impressive piece of architecture. The twelve pillars outside the building represent the memory of the many thousands of people who were killed or disappeared during the country’s violent civil war in the sixties. It is packed full of colonial art, much of which was brought from the original church that once stood in the old Guatemalan capital of Antigua. Look up as you walk along the nave and you will see a number of striking paintings by the 17th century Mexican artist Pedro Ramirez.
A few final words about Guatemala City. It is a city with a tough reputation, but, like so many capital cities, it is also a place that encapsulates the very best of the country, as well as the worst. It is a city that usually rewards anyone who is willing to explore and to talk to people to find out more about their daily lives – so, be careful, but also don’t be afraid to throw yourself into it.