Guatemala City – The largest city in Central America

GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA: Guatemala City is the biggest city in whole Central America (by population) and the capital of Guatemala. After Antigua was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, It became the capital of this country.

The name “Guatemala” means a place of many trees. This is one of the few countries in the world, interestingly, with the Atlantic one side and Pacific on another side. 3 of the most important volcanoes in Guatemala are Fire (Fuego) Volcano, Water (Agua) Volcano, and Pacaya Volcano. While Agua Volcano can be seen from the city, Pacaya is about an hour and half drive from the capital. Both of these volcanoes can be accessed and climbed by anyone.

Let me start by saying, Guatemala City is huge and very scattered, as far as the touristic places. To save myself some time, money, and energy, I booked a guided tour online before I reached Guatemala, called Guatemala City Tour. It was $29 per adult for a 3-hours tour. We were picked up by Gray Line Guatemala around 2:15pm and were dropped off a little after 5pm. It was a very rushed tour, especially because of the bad traffic conditions in the capital.

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A vendor in Mercado Central in Guatemala City

Some important facts: for US citizens, you don’t need a visa if you are going to be staying in Guatemala for 90 days. And 1 USD was about 7 quetzal during my visit in November 2019. 

 The capital is divided into 21 zones and Zone 1 is the historic center with old architectural touches. Getting in and out of Guatemala City overall is very time consuming because of traffic jams, especially during rush hours. “Chicken Bus” is a popular transportation system here for locals to carry goods from one market to another. But for tourists, I didn’t feel it to be that safe, especially if you don’t know the culture or language or if you are traveling alone or at night. 

If you can spare a couple days in Guatemala, visiting Tikal would be an ideal getaway to see a very important Mayan site. It’s recommended that you take a plane to Tikal, driving can be long and exhausting. I personally could not make it to Tikal…something to check out next time I am here. 

MY HOTEL: I stayed in “Oh Espana”…a bed and breakfast-style accommodation in Zone 13 in Guatemala City. The capital is divided into different zones; make sure to pick your hotel carefully, as some zones are not safe for the tourists. The owner lady and the cook were very friendly and helpful. Inside was very nice as well with a bed and breakfast feeling. Although a traditional breakfast was included, the location was not that great. It was in some kind of a military residential neighborhood…very safe and gated. But there were absolutely no restaurants or stores within walking distance. Thanks to my ramen cup noodles that I brought from home, which I had to eat for few of my dinners. It was only 3 minutes drive from the airport, and the hotel had free shuttle service…but again, I wouldn’t stay there again next time I go to Guatemala. 

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My Guatemalan breakfast at my hotel Oh Espana in Guatemala City

 

My recommendation, if anyone is going to Guatemala for a vacation, is to stay in Antigua. It’s about an hour away from the airport and costs about $20 per person for each way. You can book it online/Viator in advance for a better deal. But once you are there, it’s heaven. I know for sure, if I ever go back to Guatemala, I’ll stay in Antigua…especially Hotel Porta Antigua, which looked fantastic inside and out. 

TIME of TRAVEL: I visited Guatemala during the long weekend of Thanksgiving, 2019. I had 3 full days to roam around different parts of the country. 2 more extra days here would have given me the flexibility to visit Tikal, the famous Mayan ruins site in Central America. It gets pretty chilly at night and early morning around this time of the year. During the day time, you can go out with a t-shirt and it’s very pleasant. But if you are traveling with kids in November to Guatemala, I would recommend carrying a sweater.

EATING and SHOPPING: The day I spent some time in Guatemala City was the only day I had breakfast at my hotel with eggs, fried plantains, beans, freshly squeezed juice, fresh fruits, and locally brewed Guatemalan coffee. I never miss having fried plantains at any meal…something you may want to try when you are in this part of the world.  

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Some local food in Mercado Central in Guatemala City

One of the dinners that I had in Guatemala City was at famous Pollo Campero. It’s a local fast food chain for fried chicken and biscuits. There are plenty of street food options in Guatemala City, but I would be careful of their hygiene and the way they handle food. 

Coffee, chocolate, vanilla, jade jewelries, textiles, pottery, hammocks, masks, and wooden trinkets are some of the popular gifts to buy from Guatemala. When in the capital, check out their underground market, Mercado Central, to go souvenir hunting or to buy fresh produce. 

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A line of souvenir stores in Centro Historico in Guatemala City

PLACES I’VE VISITED: As I mentioned before, I only spent a couple hours in the capital city with a tour company. To get around the town, tuk-tuk can be a nice ride but it does have the reputation that drivers sometimes rob the tourists or charge absurdly high prices if not bargained beforehand. 

Museo Popol Vuh is supposedly one of the most famous museums with a nice collection of archaeological items from the pre-Spanish Mayan world. Also if you get time, Plaza de la Constitucion (Parque Central) and Plaza Berlin are couple other touristy destinations. 

  1. AVENUE of the AMERICAS: This is a long boulevard which we just drove by slightly stopping at a couple places for only a few seconds. This is a long stretch of corridor honoring countries who kept good relationship with Guatemala. We passed many statues of different presidents, politicians, writers from American countries like Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Chille, Argentina, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and etc. A statue of the Pope, who came to visit Guatemala, can also be found here. This is one of the most important avenues in the city. 

Avenue of the Americas is located near a very rich neighborhood with luxurious apartments and residential houses. The park is closed on Sundays. 

2. AVENUE REFORMA: Like above, we didn’t stop anywhere on this long street of historic landmarks. Avenue Reforma was built in the late 1800s and throughout the 20th century, many more sculptures were added honoring notable people from the history of Guatemala. With about 2.26km length, it’s considered as one of the main thoroughfares of the capital. The boulevard has many statues of Guatemalan writers and past reformers. Two of the main statues that I remember our tour guide mentioned were Mother’s Day statue and a statue of the writer of 1st Guatemalan constitution. 

From the Avenue Forma, we passed by Mayan Language Institute, USA Embassy, and Iglesia Jurita which was a red Baroque style building…looked stunning from outside. 

3. ZONE 4: This is the civic center of the city with many of the important government and other buildings, like National Bank of Guatemala and Guatemala Tourism Building. Republic Plaza is a beautiful roundabout. We just drove by Zone 4 without stopping anywhere. 

4. CENTRO HISTORICO – Historic Center of Guatemala is located in Zone 1. This is one of the busiest areas in the city with elegant colonial style buildings. Many important government buildings can also be found here. There are some free guided/walking tours to explore Zone 1 – the historic center of Guatemala City.

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Historic Center of Guatemala City
    1. NATIONAL PALACE – Situated in Plaza Mayor, the National Palace was built between 1939 -1943. This was the most important building in the country at one point and was the headquarter of the President of Guatemala. The elaborate and imposing exterior of the building was designed in Renaissance and Spanish Baroque styles. We didn’t have time to go inside but there are organized tours that you can take you to get a peek at the interior courtyards, official rooms, wall murals, and decorative art works. 
    2. PASEO DE LA SEXTA/6TH AVENUE: This is a beautiful pedestrian zone in Guatemala City (a few minutes walk from the National Palace) with lots of stores and restaurants. Take a stroll on 6th Avenue to have a true cultural experience among Guatemalans. This is the heart of the historic zone in Guatemala City. There are few small parks around this area for locals mainly but a good atmosphere during day time to relax and do people watching. 
    3. CATHEDRAL of GUATEMALA CITY or METROPOLITAN CATHEDRAL: Built by the Spaniards somewhere from 1778-1850, this was a beautiful cathedral to visit. It’s big and bold inside and out. The marbles here were brought from Italy. 
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Metropolitan Cathedral in Guatemala City

5. MERCADO CENTRAL: This was our last stop of the tour. You can spend a good couple hours exploring this unique underground market in the heart of Guatemala City. There are plenty of fast food/street food restaurants here serving typical Guatemalan dishes for very cheap prices. Inexpensive clothings, shoes, and leather goods can be found here too. But what I loved here was that you can get all kinds of tropical fruits in Mercado Central for a very good price. We barely had less than half an hour to spend here and I was able to buy a jade pendant for my daughter for 75 quetzal. 

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Mercado Central – an underground market in Guatemala City

 

 

4 Comments on “Guatemala City – The largest city in Central America

  1. Love this post because I’m such a sucker for street vendors and little markets. It’s the real stuff that cities catering to tourists are accustomed to, and, even though the stuff they’re selling seems to be the same all over the world, I’m still drawn to the tables to see what pictures they put on magnets, stones, letter openers, etc. I miss traveling now that I’m in full-blown social distancing mode!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hear you about the social distancing. I am hoping I won’t have to cancel my next trip to Columbia in June…hopefully, everything will be back to normal by then. Thanks for stopping by. Stay healthy

      Liked by 1 person

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