Guatemala City or “Guate” is the capital and largest city of Guatemala, located in a mountain valley in the southern regions of the country. Once described by many as the “jewel of Central America”, Guatemala City is no longer the charming colonial wonder it once was. Today, the city serves more as a transportation hub – a place to dine, shop, party, and visit some great museums before exploring the more popular attractions offered elsewhere in the country (i.e. gorgeous tropical rainforests, traditional folk villages in the highlands, and famous ancient Maya ruins).
Guatemala City’s history dates back some 9,000 years ago when the ancient Maya city of Kaminaljuyú sprung up. The ruins of Kaminaljuyú are still found in the city today.
In the 16th century, the city was a small town occupied by the Spanish colonists. When the capital of colonial Central America, Antigua, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, the capital was moved to Guatemala, where it has stayed ever since even after Guatemala became an independent nation in 1821. The status as capital has helped the city develop from a small town into the sprawling metropolis that it is today.
Guatemala City is divided into the Old City and the New City and there are notable attractions in both sections.
The Old City is the northern section of Guatemala City, the scene of more rustic pueblos and backstreets. The heart of the Old City is at the Plaza Mayor, a historic square with landmark old buildings and a water fountain. Near Plaza Mayor, you’ll find the architectural marvels of the Palacio Nacional and the Catedral Metropolitano.
The Palacio Nacional is the national palace built in the mid-20th century to serve as the ornate residence of President Jorge Ubico Castañeda and his ministers. Today, it is an art museum housing an impressive collection of paintings and sculptures of famous Guatemalan artists, including the murals of Alfredo Gálvez Suárez.
The Catedral Metropolitano is an 18th century cathedral, an iconic landmark of the city. It is one of the few examples of colonial architecture still left standing. Inside, you’ll find ornately designed interiors and an exhibit of colonial religious art.
The Mercado Central is another must-visit of the Old City. It is a maze of underground passages that are lined with stalls and stands selling every kind of textile and handicraft, from leather goods to woolen blankets.
Making up the southern section of the city, the New City is the place to be if you are looking for the best shops, restaurants, clubs, bars, and discos. The Zona Viva is the chic area where you’ll find many of the aforementioned. The nightlife in the New City is wild and dynamic with most of the hot spots buzzing all night long. During the day, the shopping mall Los Proceres near Zona Viva has some nice boutique stores where you can do some serious shopping.
You’ll also find a number of museums and cultural sites in the New City. The Museo Ixchel is the city’s best museum, featuring textiles, fabrics, traditional costumes, sculptures, and paintings made by Guatemala’s indigenous peoples, past and present. The highlight of the museum is the 19th century handwoven fabrics from the country’s highland communities.
The Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno (National Museum of Modern Art) and the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology) at Parque Aurora are two of Guatemala City’s main museums. The National Museum of Modern Art features the art work of Guatemala’s most famous artists. The National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology showcases the archaeological artifacts of ancient Maya, from its jewelry and pottery to its costumes and masks.
The Museo Popol Vuh is another museum in the New City. It is small but has a fascinating display of ancient stone carvings and statues that date back to the Preclassic period (around 1500 BC). The museum is highlighted by the Popol Vuh (i.e. the Maya Bible), the “painted books”, which are historical records kept by the ancient Mayans, and ancient objects from the Kaminaljuyú ruins.
The Kaminaljuyú ruins are located in the western section of the city and should be marked on one’s travel itinerary. Kaminaljuyú was an ancient Maya city of about 50,000 people. The ancient city was most prominent between 300BC to 900AD. Unfortunately, most of the ruins have been buried by modern development, but there are still surviving sculptures, monuments, and a ceremonial center that has been made a part of a protected park.
Volcán Pacaya is a 23,000 year-old volcano located just 20 miles south of Guatemala City and also easily accessible from Antigua Guatemala. The volcano is a very popular tourist site. It is part of the Pacaya National Park. Volcán Pacaya is one of Central America’s most active and spectacular volcanoes, often performing dramatic night-time eruptions of orange molten lava. It has impressive views from its summit, which you can climb in a day. The volcano has erupted 23 times since the Spanish conquest of Guatemala with its most recent major eruption occurring in 1965.