As I mentioned in my post on Tikal, I came to Guatemala to help TA my Dad’s class. Big group travel is a beast unto itself, but the great thing about it is that the will of the group takes you to places you never would have thought to find.
Fun fact about neighborhoods in Guatemala City, it is supposed to have 25 different zones, but not all of them exist. According to our guide, three of them aren’t actually a place, the local government just decided 25 sounded like a nice number. Ask a local about the zones, and they’ll tell you anywhere between 16 and 22 of them are real.
Anyway, the group stayed at the Westin Camino Real located in Zone 10, a charming section of town with more expats, nightclubs, and bars than neighboring zones. For those looking to stay in Guatemala City, Zone 10 is where you’ll find most of the malls, shops, and restaurants similar to other tourist districts around the globe. The two zones on either side of 10 contain parks and museums, making 10 the logical choice.
Pro Tip: Navigating the GC airport isn’t difficult, but people crowd the exit waiting for loved ones in a way that can be overwhelming and block traffic. If you have a prearranged ride, meet them across the street where the crowds aren’t packed for easy in and out.
One of our first stops was in Zone 1 to see some phenomenal colonial architecture, including the National Palace, a spectacularly green building where the president’s offices are located. Around the corner, you’ll find the Santa Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana, an impressive sample of neoclassical architecture and fun example of Guatemala City’s rich history. Guatemala’s capital moved around a few times while the Spanish were in power, as they searched for less earthquake-prone regions. After a massive quake in Antigua in 1773, and a fair amount of religious in-fighting, the masthead cathedral was moved to Guatemala City, and completed in 1867. It now has 12 pillars out front listing the names of those who were killed in the civil war (or, were “disappeared” as they are often referred too).
The holidays are a big deal in Guatemala City. Literally, decorations on every surface under the sun. The most amazing thing is that the city turns the Plaza de Consitution into a winter wonderland, complete with man-made snow, ice skating, and an entire holiday themed streetfood market. The city puts the whole thing together during the school holiday, which runs from October to January and is so much fun! If you are in town over the holidays, watch the kids who don’t regularly see snow play in it (or, take a turn yourself!).
As in many places in Latin America, Spanish colonial influence is heavy in the region and you can feel it particularly in Guatemala City. Guatemalans threw out the Spanish in 1821 while part of the Federal Republic of Central America, which dissolved in 1841, making Guatemala an independent nation. However, the United States and the United Fruit Company propped up a number of nasty dictators through the mid-1950s in order to maintain control of their stunning natural tropical farming resources. This led to a bloody 30-year civil war, in which the U.S. backed government and rebel groups massacred hundreds of thousands of indigenous Mayans. The genocide officially ended in 1996, and the country has been steadily rebuilding ever since. (Seriously, if you are unfamiliar with the “work” of the United Fruit Company, hit Wikipedia for the basics. To say the history is shameful is an understatement).
Pro Tip: Earthquakes are a part of life in Guatemala, as are the volcanos. If you are there for more than a few days, you will probably feel one. This doesn’t mean you should skip Guate, but you should review earthquake preparedness guidelines.
The next day, we hit the road to Lake Atitlan, which is about a three and a half hour drive from Guatemala City. Along the way, we stopped at Iximche, the former capital of the Kaqchikel Mayan kingdom from the late-1400s until it was abandoned in the mid-1500s. Although the site is much younger than Tikal and not as large, it has a lot to offer. It is incredibly well preserved, and you can see evidence of hieroglyphs on the walls if you look closely. The site also features several ball courts and a few temples. The remains of over 100 individuals have been found at the site, some of which were Mayan sacrifices and can be seen in the museum.
My favorite part of the site is somewhat removed from the grand palaces. If you make your way past Court D, there is an altar where traditional Mayan rituals are still held by locals. People will bring food and other goods to burn as offerings, along with candles, the colors of which have meaning (for example, black may be for protection from one’s enemies, red for life, or love etc). The four cardinal points are also important for these rituals, which is why you will see crosses placed on all historic sites, so people can burn their offerings and candles in designated areas. If you are lucky, you can catch a ceremony, but please watch from a respectful distance. These are often family ceremonies and you should be invited to the front row, not gatecrash it.
Pro Tip: The drive to Lake Atitlan/Panajachel can be harrowing. If you have a sturdy stomach and are comfortable with winding roads, steep drops and flexible interpretations of the speed limit, rent a car and drive yourself. Otherwise, hiring a driver is relatively easy and will run you about $85 for a private car, or $25 for a shuttle (you can catch both from the Guate City airport). Unless you are super comfortable speaking Spanish, I would not recommend a local bus.
Bonus Holiday Pictures! My dad was so excited to pose with Santa aka the safety personnel at Denimatrix, the denim company we visited. That’s right, people decorated their workstations for the holidays and the bosses dressed like Santa.