Most visitors race through Guatemala City, keen to get to Antigua’s colourful colonial streets, visit the country’s Mayan sites or explore its spectacular volcanic landscape. But stay a while in the capital and you’ll experience a buzzing modern city that’s emerging from the shadows of its recent past.
Inaugurated as Guatemala’s capital following an earthquake that levelled Antigua in 1773, Guatemala City has grown quickly after internal refugees flocked here during the civil war. Since then, crime has tarnished the city’s reputation and there are still some areas to avoid (ask any local).
But locals also feel that the city is returning to the “golden era” of their parents and grandparents – and it’s worth discovering for yourself. Fresh from her trip, Freya Godfrey picks seven reasons to give Guatemala City a chance.
1. Dancing in the main square is a thing
In the Parque Central, you’ll notice an imposing bandstand covered by an arched roof with swirling decorations. Twice a week, marimba and other music is performed live, and you can join locals dancing in front of the stage.
The Parque Central is also the city’s cultural hub. The National Palace here – often referred to as “The Big Guacamole” for its green exterior – now houses the Palacio de Cultura and regularly puts on events in the square.
2. You’ll find Guatemala’s biggest brewery here
Craft beer has just begun to emerge in Guatemala, with small breweries starting to pop up across the country. But, for the original Guatemalan beer, head to the Cervecería Centro Americana. The brewery has been running for more than 125 years and there’s even a museum, the Museo de Cervecería Centroamericana.
Take a tour around the museum’s red-brick interior walls, lined with large barrels and outdated equipment, from typewriters to original machinery.
3. Sexting is encouraged
No, it’s not what you think. “Sextear” or “sexteando”, which awkwardly translates as “to go sexting”, is the term used by locals for hanging out along Sexta Avenida. Guatemala’s recent regeneration is most evident along this road.
One of the city’s most glamorous streets in the mid-nineteenth century, by the 1980s, Sexta Avenida was crammed with stalls hawking all sorts of wares. Now pedestrianised and lined with sweet-smelling trees, the street’s grand buildings have been renovated and new businesses are opening up all the time. Today, it’s once again a popular place for a weekend stroll.
4. You can join a poetry reading
You can’t miss La Bodeguita del Centro; with its bright pink and blue exterior, it’s one of Guatemala’s hippest nightlife spots. Inside, walls lined with posters and covered in writing give you something to look at as you enjoy a Guatemalan tipple.
It’s not only popular for its live bands and good food, either. The venue also holds regular poetry readings, talks and exhibitions, and is a brilliant place to gain a deeper cultural understanding of the city.
5. There’s an underground market
The Mercado Central can be difficult to find – the entrance is more or less hidden. But the unassuming opening leads to a vibrant market that covers almost two square blocks. Fresh fruit and vegetables are available, as well as the somewhat gory butchers’ displays you’ll find in many Guatemalan markets. For tourists the main draw is the handicrafts sold here.
There’s good reason for the minimalist building that houses the market: the previous site was destroyed by an earthquake in 1976 and the new surroundings are built to withstand a similar event. Inspiration for the present structure was taken from nuclear bunkers.
6. It’s party time every Sunday
Stumble across the Avenida La Reforma and Avenida Las Américas on a Sunday and you’ll find a busy route filled with walkers, joggers and rollerskaters.
The two streets are closed to traffic on Sundays paving the way for a lively gathering – it’s an initiative known to locals as Pasos y Pedales. There are also street performers, games can be found along the route, and you might get to join a dance or Tai Chi class.
7. Goats hang out in the centre
It’s not often that you’ll spot goats in the centre of a major city. But, in Parque Central, you’ll find just that. Harking back to the square’s past as the site of a major market, farmers bring goats to the centre and milk them on demand. The milk sellers whip the ground to alert people to their presence; follow the sound for a fresh glass.
Header image: Alamy/Al Argueta