Now almost 350 years old, Guatemala City has survived wars, earthquakes and civil unrest. This metropolitan hub proves a chaotic mixture of colonial arches, crumbling art deco facades and architectural leftovers dating back to the 1980s. Street sellers hawk everything from batteries to freshly squeezed goats milk, while every street corner features a different preacher, clown, painter, artisan or activist. It is a thriving city where people from all corners of the country mix and trade daily, living in one of Latin America’s most unequal countries.
Talk to any tourist guide, and chances are they will tell you to skip Guatemala City and head straight to its popular neighbor, the historic city of Antigua. More often than not, Guatemala City is whittled down to nothing more than a transportation hub and gateway for travelers keen on visiting the “Heart of the Mayan World.” With a reputation that precedes it, many visitors opt to skip Guatemala City altogether. While Guatemala City—like any other major metropolitan area—has its setbacks, it also is home to some hidden gems found scattered across the historical center, close to the city’s Central Park.
Learn About Guatemala’s Past and Present Struggles at La Casa de la Memoria
Guatemala’s past is marked by conflict and the present is plagued by social injustice and inequality. Almost every street is adorned with posters that remind visitors and residents of this turbulent history, the faces of the disappeared and street graffiti calling for peace and justice. To delve deeper into this history, a visit to La Casa de la Memoria (The House of Memory) is a must. Just four blocks from Central Park, La Casa de la Memoria, is a small museum founded by the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights. It charts the violent and untold history of Guatemala from before the colonial era until the present day, through interactive and rotating exhibitions, particularly focusing on the role of women throughout Guatemala’s history and the impact of the 36-year internal armed conflict that ended in 1996.
For the real history buffs and nerds among us, the National Historical Police Archives are also worth a visit. Hidden away in Zone 6, the archives represent the most complete history of Guatemala’s 36 year internal armed conflict. They were discovered by accident in 2006 and have since become an essential source for solving ongoing cases and find missing persons and there is a small museum attached. Entry to both museums is free and guides are available on request (English speaking guides should be requested in advance).
Support Local Artisans at the City’s Central Market
Guatemala City’s Central Market is just one block away from the main square and a favorite with tourists. Divided across three levels, you can find a host of locally made crafts, have breakfast, lunch or a freshly squeezed orange juice and get all your supplies for a traditional Mayan ceremony. If you are looking for something a little more alternative there is an artisan market in Casa Q’anil that is held the first Saturday of every month.
Local artisans and cooperatives sell fresh organic produce, gourmet chocolates, vegan food from local collective Tecomates, artisanal soaps and handcrafted textiles, jewelry, books, and cloth sanitary towels from the feminist collective Guatemala Menstruante. There is often a workshop or talk in the afternoon and a traditional Guatemalan dish is prepared for lunch. On Sundays, Guatemala’s Central Park is taken over by local families selling corn on the cob ‘elotes locos’, sweet potato treats and tamales on one side and an array of indigenous dress from all over Guatemala on the other.
Indulge in Traditional Mayan Textiles Made by Local Women
If there is one thing that Guatemala is famous for, it’s the quality, diversity, and intricacy of the hand-woven Mayan textiles. Take a visit to the women’s association, AFEDES, in the nearby town of Santiago Sacatepequez to find out how Mayan women are working to protect the millennial art of backstrap weaving. It is the perfect opportunity to buy some original weavings directly from the women who produce them and to support female artisans who are gaining financial independence for themselves and their communities through their craft.
Vegetarian Delights at Chikach
Chikach meaning ‘basket’ in the Mayan language, K’iche is a treasure among locals serving freshly prepared vegetarian food with most of their ingredients coming directly from their own organic farm. They have a set menu which varies every day or customers can order ‘a la carte’ from a selection of amaranth burgers, falafel, eggplant sandwiches and amaranth ice cream for dessert. Once you’ve satisfied your appetite you can have a look around the shop for organic coffee, herbal teas, amaranth in all its forms, locally produced gluten-free flours, essential oils, and other natural remedies, all produced by local cooperatives.
Tea for Two at Caravasar
When the chaos of Guate gets too much, Caravasar—tucked in Pasaje Rubio just off the Central Park—is a little corner of calm and tranquillity. Run by local woman Julia, Caravasar has the best selection of specialty teas in Guatemala, as well as a lunch menu including a number of veggie, vegan and gluten-free options. They also serve tempting treats for the sweet tooth such as their signature matcha and lemon sponge.
Grab a Slice at Pizza 502
It feels like there is a pizza franchise on every street corner in Guate but you won’t beat the weekly specials and craft beer available at Pizza 502. Set in a colonial patio with hanging vines and soft lighting Pizza 502, or ‘la pizza’ as locals call it, is run by Javier and Andrea, local activists with a passion for pizza. They host rotating exhibitions, music nights, salsa parties and poetry readings. You can also pick up a copy of Guatemala’s favorite (only) feminist periodical ‘La Cuerda’, edited by Andrea.
Connect with other Feminists at Xibalbá
Finish your night off Xibalbá, a feminist cafe and bar, where there are regular events and debates on anything to do with feminism in Guatemala and weekly concerts by favorite local artists.
Budget: Casa Q’anil
Casa Q’anil, also home to the Saturday market, is only a ten-minute walk from the city center. They offer private rooms and dorms and all proceeds go to support a local association of community radios FGER who support young indigenous women to become reporters and broadcasters.
Splurge: El Tular
Spoil yourself at the ecological sanctuary of El Tular, nestled among the hills on the southern edge of Guatemala City. El Tular is the creation of local journalist and ecologist Magalí Rey Rosa and offers a welcome escape from the noise and traffic of Guatemala City’s center. They have accommodation options ranging from camping to luxury cabins with activities including hiking, archery, and bird watching to do on site as well as a diverse menu of homegrown ingredients from their organic garden.