Travel Guide // Guatemala City, Guatemala
may 17, 2017
Like most Central American capital cities, Guatemala City is known for being dirty and dangerous. All the blogs I read in preparation for my trip asserted that this was especially true of the capital of Guatemala (aka, Guate). But being a city girl at heart, I was determined to take a peek around. So en route to Antigua, I spent 24 hours in Guatemala’s capital, and what I found was surprisingly warm, colorful, and clean(ish).
So Guatemala City is a little grimy, but aren’t most big cities? I will say that the amount of men I saw peeing on the side of the highway was both absurd and comical. Yet, this city is begging to be given a chance, and it didn’t take long for me to give in to the endearing charms of Guate.
First off, it is not dirty - it is more dilapidated. This may be because I was traveling during a holiday period, but, as it goes, the streets downtown were free of trash - no empty soda cans or fast food wrappers on the ground.The sidewalks are a bit uneven, but manageable without the typical hurdles of tossed waste that you see in many other Central American cities or Chicago and NYC, for that matter. Old, crumbling exteriors and chipped paint reveal themselves on every street corner. But all of these infrastructural flaws give the city a lot character, while the very helpful and smiling locals brought warmth to doorways and sidewalks. Most of buildings are painted in bright colors and chalky pastels - these tones make anything beautiful in my opinion, even if the paint is fading and peeling. Street art and local coffee are hipster staples and the Mercado will make any fellow wanderluster’s heart sing. Maximize your stop over in Guatemala City with my guide below:
// Know the Zonas //
Guatemala City is broken up into a series of “zonas” - some are cool and safe, many are not. I stayed in these 3 zonas and felt safe and had plenty to do in my 24 hours:
Zona 1 is the Old Historic Center of the city. I started my morning in Guate, by strolling this zona while shopkeepers opened up and the city came to life.
Mercado Central, located opposite the Santa Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana, is a lively and authentic shopping plot in the center of town. The countless vendors sell a lot of the normal stuff, such as flowers, fruit, and woven bags; but also, live animals, like hamsters, bunnies, mice, ducks, and more. The exterior is quite bright and cheery. It’s a lovely place to watch locals interact and go about their day-to-day lives.
Cafe Casa was definitely not what I expected when it came time to caffeinate and get some breakfast in the “big, bad” Guate. This warm-lit cafe serves artisanal coffee, pastries, and local fare. Mini cacti plants are strategically placed on each table, vintage cruiser bikes hang from the ceiling, and pictures of historic Guatemala City line the walls. Stop in for a mug of guatemalteco (authentic Guatemalan coffee) and a stay for the mango cheesecake.
Zona 4, a short walk South of zona 1, was my favorite region of the city.
Graffiti and street art make for many creative photo-ops in this ‘hood. This area is fueled by artsy-types and start-up moguls. Take some time to wander the streets before ducking into one of the many trendy cafes.
Head to Café Caminito for a pick-me-up anytime of day. They have yummy eats, such as an avo breakfast sandwich, burgers, AND a rotating Happy Hour - get on that. They also host fun pop-up events, such as live music, meditation, and garage sales - check out their Facebook to see what they’ve got going on.
La Esquina proves that Guatemala has kept up with international foodie trends. This food hall houses vendors offering a variety of cuisines, many of which emphasize local sourcing and artisinal products. Contemporary design meets Ancient Mayan motifs in this eccentrically decorated space.
Zona 10 is the commercial hub of Guate, housing many international restaurants and museums.
Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena was a huge draw for me. I’m super into the cultural perspective of dress, so this indigenous textile museum was right up my alley. Unfortunately, I made the trek out to the museum, only to find it was closed on a Wednesday for Easter Holiday weekend. Please go. And let me know how awesome it is.
Sophos is stocked with a variety literary material, in both English in Spanish. Housed inside a nice shopping mall, Sophos is a great option for picking up a book to keep you entertained during a day spent in the park or en route to your next destination.
Stay // Sleep
Budget: Tequila Sunrise B&B is located in zona 4, with cute cafes and eye-catching street art right outside the door. Breakfast is included, and all rooms have shared bathrooms. (Basic private rooms from $12usd/night)
Mid-range: Hotel San Carlos is located in zona 10 and has a gorgeous garden, pool, and restaurant on sight. (from $80usd/night)
Luxe: Hotel Vista Real is a 15 minute drive outside of the city center and 20 minutes from the airport, the exterior is very colonial-Guatemalan. With a spa on site and a fairy-tale garden, you may never make it into the city. (from $160usd/night)
Getting Around // Getting There
I stayed in the centrally located zona 4, so I was able to walk to most of the sights I wanted to see. However, when I planned to go to areas beyond the distance my feet could carry (zona 10), I used Uber. All of my rides, including to the airport were between $2-5. Yes, there are cheaper ways of getting around by bus, but this was super convenient for me, especially because I wanted to maximize my time in Guate. I was able to be picked up and dropped off right at my hotel and destinations, which saved time and the stress of hauling my luggage around. Additionally, the charges went straight to my credit card (Capital One, which has no foreign transaction fees), so I didn't have to fumble with currency or worry about the USD to GTQ exchange rate.
Side note: I was traveling alone, which further inclined me to use Uber for safety, so I didn’t get on the wrong bus and end up in a dangerous place or miscommunicate with, almost exclusively, Spanish-speaking cab drivers. Additionally, I did not go out at all after dark, but I felt totally safe walking around the city alone during daylight hours.