By Claudia Wood, Canada.
Photos: Claudia Wood.
Guatemala City – this is NOT to be missed. People talk about how unsafe Guatemala City is but really enjoyed it and never felt unsafe. But there are so many beautiful and interesting things to see. If you worry about visiting there, hire a guide. Believe me, it will be worth it! We hired Fabio Saenz with Authentic Guatemala. He was reasonable, very knowledgeable and an excellent driver. His English is excellent, and he will customize your tour to see the places you want to see as well as a few of his own. You can contact him by email or phone and will find him reliable in getting back to you with suggestions. His email is Fabio@authenticguatemala.com and his phone number is +502 4715-9095. His webpage: www.authenticguatemala.com.
Here is a summary of what we saw while visiting, along with my personal take on the experience. Just to put things in perspective, we toured on the day of the big march in January 2019. It was interesting to experience the historical area under extreme police presence – it was probably the safest place in Guatemala that day!
On our arrival day we had enough time to visit a few places on our own. We had the hotel’s driver drop us off and pick us up, because yes, we were a bit nervous to be on our own. We needn’t have been – we felt totally safe in the places we visited.
Our first stop was the National Museum of Anthropology. The museum was worth the trip. It has an amazing collection of artefacts and stelae from back as far as 800BC. There is a huge scale model of Tikal which is good thing to see before you visit there. The carved stelae are huge and in amazing condition. Everything is housed in a very cool-looking building. The displays are very nicely done and there is lots of English!
On the same site there are two other places to visit, the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Natural History Museum. We skipped the latter as it was all in Spanish and ours is very limited. The National Gallery of Modern Art has a beautiful collection of art, some very stunning work. Definitely worth an hour of your time if you like art!
We had agreed to meet our driver at the Artisans Market just down the block from the museums, so we wandered down the road, about a block walk. I expected a market like those we have seen in the past, cluttered and noisy and not very clean, but it was more like a bunch of tiny stores and there was almost no one there. Each seller had their own small booth, although many of the items repeated themselves over and over and many, I suspect were massed produced in China. Loved all the bright colours. Unless you are shopping for something, you can see this in a half hour or so.
Across the street from here is the Zoo. Unfortunately, we just didn’t have enough time but on a full day, this could easily be added in. We found this whole area very safe-feeling and wouldn’t hesitate to visit all of these spots on our own.
Started our day with a traditional breakfast of eggs, beans, fried plantains and coffee (most important as after not having any on our flight I was feeling caffeine deprived!). Our guide, Fabio arrived right on time and we headed out to tour Guatemala City. This is something not undertaken by many tourists. Whether it is a fear based on past history of it being an unsafe place or a lack of interest, it just isn’t a hot spot on the tourist trail. Wow – so many people are so wrong! We could have spent two or three days here.
Guatemala City is huge with over four million people. It grew outwards like a snail from its original centre and sprawls for miles and miles. It is divided into “zones” and is relatively flat in the centre but surrounded by hills. Traffic isn’t nearly as bad as some large cities and cars are relatively new, mostly Japanese and Korean with few US built cars as parts are expensive. There are lots of buses of varying quality…red chicken buses, blue commuter buses and green ones that travel only in certain areas but are much more modern. The city is relatively clean and has a lot of green spaces, parks and playgrounds. It is a mix of old colonial structures and in the touristy zone, modern hotels and not so high high-rises. Nothing over ten stories due to the earthquake risks.
Our first stop was at the National Theatre, which in its heyday must have been beautiful. We just saw the outside, but it opens regularly to host theatre, opera, symphony, ballet and other performances on a regular basis. Hard to tell what the inside is like, but the outside looked a little neglected and the building itself was impressive. It was designed by architect Efraín Recinos whose name we saw several places in the country.
On the same grounds we visited the Military Museum and the original San Jose Fort. Inside the fort was a historical presentation of Guatemala through its many years of war. Outside on the roof, between the canons, the view was impressive in all directions. We got an idea of how big this city is! Off in the distance below, we could hear sounds of the protestors outside a government building.
Our day was somewhat modified from its original plan due to some road closures and building closures. We weren’t sure what to expect. Our guide drove with a traffic app open on his phone, searching out the best routes to avoid traffic so he could get us to the sites we wanted to see.
A short drive from the Cultural Centre was the Guatemala Relief Map. This spot was quite amazing. It took 16 years for an engineering team to travel the country to amass the geological information and then another year to build it. And all of this was done in 1905! It is about 60 meters across in each direction (my guesstimate), built to a scale of 1:10000 with elevations built 1:2000…so it is BIG! It was an interesting to plot out our route.
After the relief map, we headed to the downtown historical area.
Guatemala, like many Central American countries has been a country in constant civil unrest for what seems forever. They have been relatively “at peace” since 1996 when the civil war ended. But poverty and inequalities are still very much a part of life here, corruption is rampant, and the natives seem to be growing hostile. In oversimplified terms, the UN sent in a commission to investigate corruption at high levels of government. Recently, the government ordered them to leave the country. The locals are protesting this, saying the government hasn’t the right to do so. The government is saying the commission overstepped its boundaries and became involved in areas they weren’t supposed to be touching and so has ordered them out. This week, there are protests and blockades around the country with a large protest march in Guatemala City today.
We parked nearby the historical centre and walked to the central plaza. Because this area is home to many government buildings, security was unbelievable. It would have been a good day to rob a bank somewhere else in the city because it seemed every available police officer was guarding an entrance to a building or blocking a street. There were thousands of them, including traffic police, regular police and riot squads!
Around the Presidential Palace, which is now a cultural centre, the police stood shoulder to shoulder, guarding every entrance. This building covers a very large square block so a LOT of police! The building sits on one side of the large Central Parque, where there was a very small group of noisy but peaceful protestors, but mostly just families and sellers.
Our guide, Fabio, took us inside a couple of buildings that used to be private residences but have since become government offices. One was the office of the electoral commission, which is gearing up as an election will be announced this week. Tomorrow is the installation of a new president who was elected last July and the official announcement of the new election that will take place in July. Today the outgoing president gave his year end report and exit speech – likely another reason for the timing of the protests. At any rate, the house was beautiful, inside and out… neocolonial architecture with terrazzo floors, murals on the walls and ceilings, a lovely central courtyard. What were once bedrooms and bathrooms around the courtyard are now offices. The dining room is now the media room.
Our next stop was to be the Central Market but as we neared it, we could hear the voices of the protestor march. We watched for a bit, impressed by the number of people marching, then headed down into the market. Fabio stopped us at a food stand, one of the oldest and most popular around, run by the same family for over 60 years. We sampled a few things…chili rellenos, tostadas and then the woman gave us each a small pastry stuffed with the most delicious sweet filling. It was enough of a light lunch to get us through the afternoon. The market was remarkably clean, even throughout the wet market areas. Lots of souvenirs but for us, not yet!
From the market we wandered down Piñata Street – every store had huge piñatas hanging outside. Who knew there could be so much demand for them! Roads around the national building where the president was giving his speech were blocked off so we took a roundabout route to a few more stops, including the old post office, which is now an arts school and a street archway that is a copy of a famous one in Antigua that we will see later in our trip.
We visited a few big churches, including Iglesia San Francisco, which was stunning, a couple others whose names I have already forgotten!
We took a green bus back to the Central Parque area and while my husband and I visited the Metropolitan Cathedral, Fabio went to retrieve the car. The cathedral was beautiful. People were lined up to see the black Jesus, which is a big thing in Guatemala. Many of the items in the church were brought from Antigua when the capital was moved. The pews went on forever. They would need a good sound system to hear the priest. Lots of locals inside.
It had been a long day and a lot of walking, so it was nice to sit in the car! And we weren’t done yet! We drove to see Iglesia La Merced, but it was closed today due to renovations. We did get to Cerrito del Carmen (church on the little hill). It was built originally in 1620 and then rebuilt after one of the big earthquakes. I have read that it used to be a spot for drug deals and criminal activity, but it is now a park area where locals gather to run, exercise and play games. The church is small, but the view is BIG!
Our final stop was a treat! Fabio took us for a traditional Guatemalan hot dog! There is neighborhood that specializes in these with several shops all along the same street. As you drive by, they try to wave you in. He took us to his favorite, in a small cafe where you could watch the owner as he prepared your hotdog…grilled bun, lettuce, mustard, guacamole, onions and chopped smoked sausage…tasty indeed!
We drove home through the more modern areas, down a beautiful treed and grassy boulevard, Avenida la Reforma. It was designed after the Champs Élysées. Then we travelled the Avenue of the Americas which had plazas every few blocks representing all the Latin America countries.