Guatemala City, or Guate (GUAH-te), is the largest urban area in Central America. Smog-belching buses and countless sidewalk vendors, together with the sheer number of people, noise, and the endless expanse of concrete, make the city center uncomfortably claustrophobic. Add to this a general concern for safety and it’s easy to understand why many visitors flee Guatemala’s capital for the surrounding highlands. Still, poking around Guate for a day or two does have its rewards. Fine architecture dating back to the 1700s and several worthwhile museums make for an engaging stay. After camping in the countryside and hiking through jungles, the city’s modern conveniences and hot showers can be welcoming. While travelers may find comfort in Guate, many residents do not. Poverty is laid bare here, standing in harsh contrast to the antiseptic shopping malls and guarded, fortress-like mansions in the wealthiest neighborhoods. This disparity is particularly evident in Guatemala’s large refugee population, mainly Maya who fled civil violence in their home villages.
Guatemala City was named the country’s capital in 1775 after an earthquake in Antigua left the government scrambling for a safer center, though powerful tremors shook the new capital in 1917, 1918, and 1976. Despite the whims of Mother Nature, the city and its three million inhabitants persevere, expanding ceaselessly into the surrounding valleys.
Although Guate is overwhelmingly large, sights and services are concentrated in Zonas 1, 2, 4, 9, 10, and 13. The major thoroughfare is 6 Av., beginning at the Plaza Mayor in the north and continuing south through Zonas 4 and 9. Zona 1, the city’s oldest section and the true city center, houses budget hotels and restaurants. Zona 4 lies immediately south of Zona 1. An industrial area, Zona 4 houses the INGUAT office, the second-class bus terminal, and the market area. Zonas 9 and 10 house the boutiques, embassies, fancy restaurants, and five-star hotels.
The two zones are divided by the north-south Av. de la Reforma: Zona 9 is to the west, and Zona 10 is to the east. Avenidas run parallel to Av. de la Reforma and the street numbers increase eastward. Calles run east-west and increase southward. The southern portion of Zona 10 is the Zona Viva (Lively Zone), home to the bulk of the city’s most happening clubs. Zona 13 is south of Zona 9. Its two notable features are the international airport and the Parque La Aurora, which contains museums, a market, and a zoo. Some possible causes for confusion: 1a Av. of Zona 1 is different from the 1a Av. of Zona 5. Also, some streets are nameless for a block, and some calles in Zona 1 have secondary names. Note that many streets—especially in Zona 1—do not have street signs, so it’s best to ask for directions.
In Zone 1, you will find The Plaza Mayor; formerly known as “the center of all Guatemala,” the space is now mostly filled with pigeons, shoeshines, and men playing card games. In Zone 2, the Mapa en Relieve will satisfy any traveler trying to get their geographic bearings in Guatemala. Climb to the top of one of the two viewing towers to get a birds-eye view of this gigantic map of Guatemala. Located in Zone 4, the color scheme inside the Iglesia Yurrita, including an unusual window painted like the daytime sky, is nearly as blinding as the exterior. Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena is a Zone 10 must see for any travelers interested in buying Guatemalan textiles. The Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología of Zone 13 traces eons of Mayan history with hundreds of artifacts and an excellent scale model of Tikal.
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In Zona 1, sidewalk vendors offer the cheapest grub, though travelers have been known to experience stomach illness from these quick fixes. Local comedores are inexpensive. There’s also a fair amount of American fast food joints. The ever-developing Zonas 9 and 10 are featuring an increasing number of international options. Here, pad thai is just as common as comida típica.
Corn is divine in Guatemala—literally. According to the sacred Quiché Maya text, the Popol Vuh, the gods unsuccessfully first tried to use mud, then wood, and finally corn in their attempts to create man. As man’s original essence, it is hardly surprising that Guatemalan cuisine centers around corn. From tortillas and tamales, to the roasted cobs sold on street corners and the popular milky drink atol, visitors will find more than their typical earful of corn. Black beans, or frijoles, are another sure bet: while they may come refried (volteado) or whole (parado), they’ll definitely be somewhere in most dishes.
Beyond the staples of corn, rice, eggs, and beans, Guatemalan cuisine features a wealth of traditional dishes and stews (caldos). In restaurantes típicos, thick, chili-based sauces spice up otherwise ordinary servings of vegetables, chicken, and turkey. Around Antigua, the rich sauce pepián, consisting of onions, tomatoes, and peppers, is particularly popular. Along the Caribbean coast, seafood reigns supreme. Savor a bowl of tapado, a rich, coconut-based soup in which an unlikely mix of shrimp, fish, tomatoes, and bananas are all mixed together. In the highlands, you’ll find the distinct taste of indigenous Ki’iche cuisine with Kak’ik, a spicy turkey stew crafted by simmering cilantro, garlic, tomatoes and dried peppers in a wholly delicious culinary affair.
If you’re searching for the basics, nearly every town has a market with stalls of fresh fruits and vegetables—look out for guanábana (soursop), a tropical fruit with a thorny exterior and pulpy, creamy, seed-studded flesh. Coffee is the bebida preferida, but with Guatemalan coffee in high demand by international coffee companies, locals are often peddling cheaper, weaker brews. Guatemala’s temperate climate produces some of the world’s best beans, along with exceptional crops of sugar, bananas, and cocoa. Fruit juice blends known as licuados are lifesavers on hot days. We suggest cooling off like a local by sipping on a homegrown beer like Gallo, Mozo, or Dorado.
On the topic of the arts, a traveler’s thoughts tend to flit to the Maya, whether of the crafts and artisan’s works that decorate the country, or the ancient reliefs, murals, and architecture of the Mayan past. Slightly more recent in pedigree, the colonial period left its imprint in the churches and religious infrastructure of Guatemala. Modern artistic endeavors have a small but important role in Guatemala’s history. One of the best-known painters of Guatemala is Carlos Mérida, a mural painter who was born in 1891 and is often compared to Diego Rivera; another classical artist of Guatemala was Alfred Jensen, a painter and printmaker of Danish and German descent. In recent years, modern art in Guatemala has been carried forward by avant-garde performance artists, including Regina José Galindo, who work on an international scene.
The most ancient Guatemalan literature is the mostly vanished corpus of Mayan writing, referenced in their artifacts and exemplified by the Popul Vuh, one of the main religious texts, and the traditional play, the Rabinal Achi. It was not until centuries after the Spanish conquest that another major literary tradition came about. These first stirrings included the poet and historian Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán, who chronicled the recent conquest, and, later, the poet Rafael Landívar.
Early Guatemalan authors and intellectuals quickly became partisans of independence and romantic nationalism; many Guatemalan figures from the period of independence, the broad era comprising the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, traveled around Latin America and were significant figures in creating the new independent identity of the continent. Antonio José de Irisarri Antonio was a Guatemalan journalist and statesman who was deeply involved in the nascent republics of Guatemala, Chile, and El Salvador. María Josefa García Granados was an influential Spanish-Guatemalan socialite of this era who became renowned as a satirist, commentator, and woman of letters. More well-known was her friend, José Batres Montúfar, a poet and critic.
Later, Guatemalan literature began to leave behind the poetry and nation-building that had characterized it in decades past. The novelistic tradition began with José´Milla y Vidaurre, a newspaper editor, international literary figure, conservative politician, and father of the Guatemalan novel, whose work mainly was in the field of historical fiction and the realistic portraiture of life in the colonial age. Modernism, and a heavy dose of Francophilia, began to reach Guatemala at the fin de siècle, with authors like Domingo Estrada and Máximo Soto Hall fostering a small but energetic hub of modern literature in Guatemala.
A new element of daring was injected into Guatemalan literature by the political strife of the 20th century, and the emergence of the “dictator novel,” a genre criticizing the authoritarianism of Latin America. Miguel Ángel Asturias received the 1967 Nobel Prize for his efforts in this genre, as well as the Soviet Union’s Lenin Prize. In recent years, Guatemalan literature has diversified further, with a re-examination of the Mayan contribution to Guatemalan literature; a recent winner of the prize set up in Asturias’s honor was Humberto Ak’abal, a K’iche Maya poet who declined the prize in protest. Guatemalan literature remains largely political, and focuses on the often turbulent question of Guatemalan national identity.
Guatemalan folk is the country’s most widely exported musical genre; several distinct traditions make up this tradition. In one corner is traditional Maya music, reliant on wind instruments, drums, and, for the very authentic, the conch-shell trumpet. Coming from the African-derived culture of the Garífuna is the tradition of Garífuna music, which brought African rhythms and styles similar to those of the marimba, Guatemala’s national instrument and the cornerstone of mainstream Guatemalan popular music. Classical music in Guatemala bears strong Spanish and Church influences, but became indigenous with José Eulalio Samayoa, who composed the first symphonies of the New World in the early years of the 19th century. The various strains of music in Guatemala have been unified in the 20th and 21st centuries by Guatemalan composers and conductors like Dieter Lehnhoff, who has brought together Mayan, African, and Western traditions to international acclaim.
The cinematic arts have had a checkered history in Guatemala. In 1905, the first film in Guatemala was produced, a documentary of a festival in Guatemala City. Detective films were soon to follow, and in the 1930s the government began to make use of film extensively. The first all-Guatemalan film with sound, “El sombrerón,” was produced in 1950 under director Eduardo Fleischman. The 1970s were an age of renewed work under directors like Rafael Lanuza. For much of the post war era, however, great parts of the country were too dangerous for film or documentary work, and many films with Guatemalan subjects were filmed in neighboring countries, including Mexico. Recently, however, both film and an indigenous television industry have taken off.
Although etiquette is fairly universal throughout Central America, Guatemala has a few of its own customs. As in much of Latin America, punctuality sometimes falls by the wayside—no one seems to be in a rush, and lateness is both tolerated and expected. Between friends, it is customary to give a kiss on one cheek as a greeting, and handshakes are the norm among men. Gifts should always be accepted with emphatic gratitude, and visitors to a Guatemalan home should consider bringing a small offering like chocolate, flowers, or souvenirs from their home country.
Most Guatemalans have two surnames: their paternal name, followed by the maternal. When addressing Guatemalans, use only the first surname. To greet a stranger or authority figure, make sure to use the formal usted form, while the tú form should suffice for friends and informal acquaintances. A soft speaking voice is considered polite in Guatemala. Be aware of the volume and tone of the people around you, and notice how your voice sounds and travels—particularly when conversing in English. Approach conversations about politics and the recent violence in Guatemala with care, as you may hit upon a particularly painful or controversial subject. Feel free, however, to demonstrate your interest in Guatemalan history, culture, or geography with a well-posed question about Guatemala’s 1967 Nobel Prize in Literature (to Miguel Asturias) or the Liga Internacional de Fútbol.
As a visitor to a highly touristed, developing country, be sensitive about whom you photograph. It is considered polite to ask permission of indigenous people and locals before you take their picture out of respect for their privacy. Don’t be surprised, however, if you are asked for a few quetzales to seal the deal. Machismo, a chauvinistic attitude toward women, still colors gender relations in many communities across the country. While it is perfectly acceptable for women to dine alone, it is not advisable for them to go unaccompanied to bars or clubs or to walk alone at night. Women are encouraged to dress conservatively in order to stave off catcalls and unwanted advances, and all female travelers should be aware of the alarmingly high number of violent crimes targeted at Guatemalan women over the past decade. Public displays of affection are generally acceptable, but while Guatemala has no laws prohibiting homosexuality, same-sex relationships remain taboo. As always, rules of etiquette and codes of conduct tend to be more relaxed in cosmopolitan, urban areas.