Oh, Guatemala City. There are a lot of things you will hear about this city. After you visit, I can assure you will also have a lot of things to say about it too. You will quickly notice that it is not a tourist place as you won’t find a lot of information about places to visit or places to stay on Google.
When you approach a tourist agency and mention you want to visit Guatemala City, they will immediately tell you that it is not worth it. Instead, they offer other places like Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Rio Dulce, Semuc Champey, and Flores. Those places are really amazing and are worth visiting, but Guatemala City also has many attractions, interesting buildings, and tons of history to tell from which you will have a clearer idea of why Guatemala is the country that it is today.
And so, that is why I’m here. I have gathered information to make this guide as complete as possible, so you can make informed decisions and enjoy your visit.
You won’t be able to understand many things about Guatemala City if you don’t understand some history, that’s why I’ve squeezed almost 500 years of happenings in a few paragraphs:
Guatemala City is actually the fourth capital this country has had since the Spanish colonization in 1524. The first capital was settled in what is known as the archeological site of Iximche, the second was what is known today as Ciudad Vieja, the third was what we know today as the city of Antigua. Finally, in 1776 the capital moved to where it is today.
That may sound like a lot of effort to move the capital over and over again for such a “young” country since they signed their independence from Spain in 1821, but the history didn’t happen like that because Guatemalans like to move around. You can blame mother nature since the reasons are one major flooding and two earthquakes that left buildings underground or destroyed. Thankfully, anti-seismic buildings began to spread, and the city has remained where it is.
Though, it hasn’t been easy to stay afloat, since after those happenings, also a 36-year civil war happened in this country that ended in the mid 90’s. This event, in particular, has scared many Guatemalans around the country, and you will see some memorials on your way around the city.
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that us travelers should be prepared for anything.
Travel insurance has always been high on my list of things to organize before I travel but now more than ever it’s at the top of my list.
I’m pretty sure we have all had travel plans messed up because of COVID and not all insurers covered this. So you need to find an insurer that covers travel disruption due to COVID-19, World Nomads, Safety Wing, or Travel Insurance Master are the ones to go for.
World Nomads is great for incidents that happen prior to your trip, so if you get sick or are unable to travel due to travel restrictions some of their policies will cover that as cancellation cover.
I also use Travel Insurance Master for some short vacation-type trips as they are cheaper than World Nomads a lot of the time.
If you are doing shorter trips or a longer backpacking trips then WorldNomads or Travel Insurance Master are the best options. If you are a digital nomad or planning travel of at least 6 months then go for SafetyWing.
This is the heart of the city with a whole lot of history of revolutions. You will see the National Palace where for Q40 you can get a tour inside the stunning building. On the other side of the plaza, you will find the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Also, something not to be missed while you are there is Sixth Avenue, you can walk through it and arrive at another important building, the old Palace of the National Police.
Do you remember I mentioned memorials from the civil war? If you walk the Sixth Avenue, at the entrance of Pasaje Rubio, you will find two small plates as a memorial of the place where Oliverio Castañeda was murdered. He was a young student, leader, and human rights activist in the 70’s.
The history junkies have had their share with the Plaza de la Constitucion, now is time for the architecture and art junkies. Head to the Centro Civico and look for the Finance Buildings, National Bank, CHN, and IGSS. All of these buildings have postmodern low relief murals from two very famous Guatemalan artists, Rodolfo Galiotti Torres and Efrain Recinos.
If you are into Mayan history, this is one of the main places to go to if you are in the city. This museum is owned by Francisco Marroquin University. Here, you will find pre-Hispanic and colonial pieces that range from 15,000 BC to 1,821 when the independence from all the central American countries was signed.
This place is not known by many, not even by Guatemalans. This fortress was built in 1842 to protect the city. Of course, at that time, the city was a lot smaller. After that, it was abandoned, then used as a jail, and a military school. Nowadays, is a military museum next to a theater.
Now, imagine a small city inside of another city, built as a mall with stores and restaurants, but also with apartments. That is what this place is. It is actually the place where the wealthy people live, but it is open to anyone who wants to visit. But what makes this place so interesting is the architecture and sculptures that are totally different from everything else you’ll see in Guatemala.
From posh to the somehow charming chaos of Guatemalan culture, the Mercado Central. It is not the biggest Mercado in the country, but it is HUGE! Artisans, farmers, food, textiles, butchers, toys, grains, you name it. People from all around the country gather there to sell their products. A word of warning, though, you will need to put your bargain abilities to test here.
An archeological site in the middle of the city. Guatemala is the land of the Maya so maybe by now you have heard of the ancient city of Tikal. Kaminaljuyu goes hundreds of years before Tikal and if you are lucky, you can see a real Mayan ceremony while you visit.
This is not a place where you can spend much time, but it is a stunning building inside and out. Unfortunately, it is not open to the public so you can only see it from outside or if you are lucky, you can catch a special event such as a wedding happening. It is a chapel with a mix of roman, neoclassic, baroque, and neogothic architecture.
Once upon a time, there was a train that connected the main Guatemalan ports in the south, the Caribbean, and Guatemala City. In the beginning, it worked only to transport goods from the ports. Later on, it was also used for travelers. Unfortunately, problems with the United Fruit Company happened in the late 1950s, so cars and roads became more popular, causing the trains to stop working. Nowadays, you can see all the old machines in this museum.
4 Grados Norte has become a very well-known place by locals to eat different kinds of food, party or relax with a good coffee. You will also find offices. If you want to visit this place, the safest way is by arriving on the transmetro from La Sexta Avenida in Zone 1. DONT USE THE OTHER LINES OF TRANSMETRO because they’ll take you through the most unsafe parts of the city. You can also call an Uber.
In Guatemala City, there is food for everybody. Thing is, you have to really look for it.
This is the restaurant of Vista Quince hotel. The restaurant is located at the top of the not-so-tall building, but there aren’t many tall buildings in Guatemala City anyways, where you can enjoy a delicious meal and cocktails with views of the city, volcanoes, and the sunset.
A fusion with a touch of molecular food here and there, this restaurant has plenty of options to let your senses go wild!
If you are looking for a less fancy place and taste one of the signature foods that every person in Guatemala City will know (even if they try to deny it), you have to taste Los shucos del Liceo. The word “shuco” actually means dirty, but don’t let this discourage you because you are in for a local treat! If you are wondering what they are, they are big toasted bread, kind of like tortas but very different, with avocado, cabbage, chimichurri sauce, ketchup mayonnaise, mustard, and you can choose if you want it with sausage, chorizo, beef, longaniza, etc.
If you don’t eat meat, keep scrolling because this place is ALL ABOUT MEAT! You can probably guess that by the name of the place.
Better known as El Portalito, this is one of the oldest restaurants in the whole country that has been open since 1932. Once you step in, it is like a journey to the past. Not only the owners have managed to keep the architecture almost intact, but also you will be able to taste old bar foods that have almost disappeared and tap beer. It reminds me of a Guatemalan-style pub.
Vegan and vegetarian restaurants are not yet too popular in Guatemala City as they are in Antigua or Lake Atitlan, but there are a few I can name:
A nice place to eat a whole meal or grab a snack at their bakery.
This is the place where a vegan can be let loose without any kind of remorse.
Buy souvenirs at Mercado central. Most of the time, hotels will have the same products at much higher prices.
Look for accommodation or restaurants with a buffet. Some restaurants will have buffets on weekends since those are the days the families go out to eat.
If you stay longer than one month, buy a no-contract plan instead of a pre-paid sim card. If you stay less than one month, you can buy a pre-paid sim card since you’ll need it for Uber or Google Maps.
There are only two phone companies, Tigo and Claro. Tigo is a bit more expensive, but it has better phone service. On the other hand, if you continue your travels to other central american countries, you can use your Claro sim card in some other countries. Always make sure to do your research.
Pack discrete clothing. This applies to both men and women. By discrete I mean t-shirts, jeans, jumpers, hats, sneakers, and maybe tank tops. Shorts, dresses, mini skirts, or anything in between are not advisable unless you are chilling at your hotel or moving in a car to a restaurant or attraction.
There are only two seasons when you talk about Guatemala weather, sun and rain. During the rainy months from April to October, make sure to pack a good hair mask, and a raincoat or umbrella and prepare for some serious rain that can cause flooding on the streets.
During the sunny months, during the day it will be nice and warm, usually not more than 28 C, but it will get colder at night. The colder months are from November to February. Make sure to pack nice sweaters and maybe a hat since the temperature can drop to 9 C every now and then.
Lastly, don’t wear flip-flops. The floor is almost always filthy if you are planning to walk.
There are plenty of options in Guatemala City, you just need to find out in which zone you prefer to stay.
Most people stay in Guatemala City only one or two nights and then move to Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Flores, etc. If this is you, I recommend staying close to the Airport in zone 13 and 10.
On the other hand, if you are planning to stay longer to explore, you can stay in zone 1 close to the Centro Civico, in zone 4 close to 4 Grados Norte, or if you want to push it farther, you can stay in Ciudad Cayala. The last option is farther away, so you’ll probably need to rent a car, use Uber or hire private transportation.
I have also written a whole post about where to stay in Guatemala City.
If you are flying, you will arrive at La Aurora Airport, which is fairly close to everything since it is in the middle of the city. Don’t let this fool you though, the traffic can make a short ride into hours in a car. Make sure to always have transportation booked from the airport to your accommodation.
You can also get to Guatemala City by land if you are getting there from El Salvador, for example.
When you enter a Central American country, you will be granted 90 days to travel around Central America. If those 90 days run out, you have to either get out of Central American countries and re-enter or get a visa at Migration. Most travelers take a short vacation in Mexico and then return to save themselves the paperwork.
The best ways to get around in Guatemala City are Uber and the Transmetro. Transmetro are the city buses. There are other city buses, but I strongly advise you not to use them since they are unsafe.
PRO TIP: you’ll always need to keep changing because the Transmetro fare is Q1 per normal journey and Q2 for express journeys. Unfortunately, no contactless works with them. If you see people with Transmetro cards, those are only for citizens.
Taxis, I also don’t recommend unless you have the contact of a reliable person.
If you are feeling like going full in vacation mode and don’t want to think about public transportation or Uber, you can hire private transportation. My friends at GuateGo offer both shared shuttles or you can contact them if you want to plan a full itinerary with them.
Always keep change in your pockets! in ZONE 1, if someone asks you for money, give them 1Q and keep walking. This happens a lot, not only with tourists, but with all people in general.
Always keep change in your pockets. If someone asks you for money on the streets, it could be tempting for them to take your whole wallet and run if you first open your bag, open your wallet, and search for change. It’s better to have change in your pockets and keep walking. Also, you’ll need change for the Transmetro.
Transmetro is the safest means of public transportation. Don’t even think about using other types of public transportation. To help you make your way through Transmetro, here are the lines available, and which ones I advise are safe and which ones that aren’t.
When using an ATM, make sure to use one inside a mall or a bank. DON’T use one out on the street because you’ll most likely end up with a cloned card.
Don’t carry valuables with you out on the streets like phones, jewelry, expensive glasses, etc, unless it is a safe place like Cayalá or 4 Grados Norte. If you want to do some vlogging, it is okay in the places I mentioned before, just be precautious. Believe me, if you encounter sketchy people, you’ll know if it’s okay or not.
If you are planning to walk around, it is best if you do it in groups.
All year round is good, but it is particularly special for the Holy Week and Christmas time, though the traffic is INSANE during that time. If you visit during these times, it could be best to rent a car and learn your way through the city.
PIN FOR LATER
I couldn’t not include this Lonely Planet Guide to Guatemala in the reading list.
I’m not always a fan of these kind of travel guides as they are oftern out of date. I learned this more than once the hard way! But they do serve a purpose and it’s always nice to have one actual book that you can use to plan before your trip as well as having something to read when the battery dies on your kindle!
Although you can also get most of these Lonely Planet Guidebooks free as part of a kindle unlimited subscription.
Rigoberta Menchú is quite possibly the most internationally well known Guatemalan. She is a indigenous feminist and human rights activist who won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Her book I, Rigoberta Menchú is now a global bestseller and she has dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of the Indigenous people in Guatemala both during and after the civil war.
This book is a reflection on her personal experiences during the civil war in Guatemala when her mother, father, and brother were murdered by the Guatemalan military.
If you have an interest in the history of Guatemala then read this book. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measures.
I was given this book to read while I was dog sitting in Lake Atitlan and I can’t even tell you how much I loved it. I knew the Lake well by then so reading this book really brought those places to life for me.
The book is based on the life of the author Martin Prechtel who somehow found himself on an incredible journey from New Mexico in the USA to a small Mayan Village in Guatemala where he became a shaman.
Read this book. You won’t regret it!
Ok so maybe A Short History of Guatemala isn’t the most riveting read. But it really is interesting, especially for all of you history buffs out there.
It’s easy to read and gives you a good overview on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Guatemalas history.
The book mostly focuses on the ninetieth and twentieth centuries. It is a little dates now, but it still does the job!