This might be the post I’ve been most excited to write from my entire six weeks in Guatemala — it’s also, fittingly, the last, which is usually what the best is saved for. Why am I so animated over this one? Well, Guatemala City doesn’t have much of a reputation among travelers. Most, in fact, don’t spent a single night here unless forced to by a flight. Like most Central America capitals (Panama City being the one exception), Guatemala City is considered entirely skippable.
I don’t blame anyone for thinking so — I know I would have happily breezed by were it not for three of my close friends from Brooklyn spending several months on an architecture project in the city’s lively Zone Cuatro.
After our weekend away in Monterrico earlier in my trip, I’d returned with Steffi, Sam and Mary to Guatemala City for one night before moving onward back to Antigua. We arrived in the evening and I left in the morning, but one night in their funky communal living compound had me itching to go back and explore more. And so later, after a week spent in the fairly rural outposts of Livingston, Rio Dulce, and Lanquin, I was ready for some big city action — not to mention some big hugs from old friends.
I wasn’t expecting much more than quality time with my nearest and dearest out of Guatemala City. After all, it’s a sprawling concrete metropolis that doesn’t even come close to making it onto the Gringo Trail. As Lonely Planet, always generous to the underdog, quips, “depending on who you talk to, Guatemala City is either big, dirty, dangerous and utterly forgettable or big, dirty, dangerous and fascinating.” I was about to be surprised by the fascinating side.
Zona Cuatro, or Zone Four, was my home base. The city is broken into various zones, each with a distinct personality. Zona Cuatro is kind of the Brooklyn of Guatemala City — filled with street art, chic cafes, trendy design studios, bohemian restaurants, and communal workspaces for young entrepreneurs.
It was the perfect place for a wander. While Sam admitted that there’d been a recent daytime mugging only blocks away, this sector of the city felt no more or less dangerous than anywhere else I’d been in Guatemala, and I felt comfortable carrying my (admittedly old and practically defunct) dSLR around in my bag.
I admit that I was totally spoiled by healthy meals cooked by my fabulous friends for the vast majority of the time I was in Guatemala City. The living and working space they were based in was shared by artists, architects, and NGO workers from Guatemala and beyond, and I loved getting to know them over mealtime. Seriously, after months of eating in restaurant nothing feels quite as luxurious as eating a homemade dinner in the kitchen in your sweatpants while drinking wine out of a plastic cup. Travel does funny things to one’s perspective on life.
But that said, we did get to try out some great restaurants in Guatemala City. Fresh squeezed orange juice and cold coconuts were frequent splurges on the street, and Café Caminito, Shasta, and Café Despierto were three Zona Cuatro favorites.
Zona Cuatro is also home to Centro Cívico, home to the country’s Supreme Court and other official buildings. I loved walking through this district as it reminded me so strongly of my hometown of Albany, New York, and their distinctive shared architectural style. In fact, I posted a photo on Instagram of this area and a friend from home commented that at first glance they thought I’d come home early.
It was also the perfect setting for an impromptu photoshoot. But where isn’t, with these two?
One afternoon we headed to Zone Ten, where we ran some errands, marveled at a Guatemalan mega-mall, and checked out the Guat City location of Pitaya, the salad and juice bar I’d become so enamored with in Antigua. Zone Ten is the ritziest and most modern sector of Guatemala City and there are American-style chains around every corner, so this organic and original outpost was quite a treat. We all joked that my buying lunch constituted my turn in the kitchen but ha ha we weren’t kidding these guys have literally tried my cooking.
It’s really better that I just leave those sorts of things to the professionals.
The final zone — of interest to travelers, anyway — that we had left to conquer was Zone One, the historic center of the city. Here we browsed through markets for fresh produce, dipped into a Megapaca, snacked on street food and checked out an art exhibit in the Parque Central. Before I move on, a note on Megapacas — these are Guatemala’s crazy cheap version of the Salvation Army, and I scooped up some beautiful new things for just a few bucks a piece. This adorable playsuit? Two dollars. This chic dress? Three! They are all over the country and are also a great place to nab a few warmer pieces if you’re caught off guard by Antigua‘s chillier temperatures, for example. Saying I’m not much of a shopper is kind of an understatement, but even I couldn’t resist the allure of the Guatemala City Megapaca.
Once we were loaded up on old clothes, it was time to get some culture on…
Nothing makes a bunch of art school survivors as giddy as a big public art installation, so we were thrilled to explore the exhibit housed in the Parque Central. The installation was a beautiful blend of modern and historic, and I loved seeing work from Guatemala City’s most celebrated artists displayed inside of it.
Yes, we had some amazing adventures during the day. But we also had some pretty great ones by night. No, we didn’t check out the city’s bars or nightclubs, or explore its lounges or theaters. The majority of our time, in fact, was spent giggling inside what I affectionately referred to as “the compound” where my friends lived and worked. But on my last two nights in Guatemala City, we played at Yantra.
For the most part, we got around Guatemala City by foot or by the efficient mass transit system the Transmetro. But these evenings we biked through the hectic and chaotic traffic of the city, which was a great warm up for the workouts that were to come. My first night at Yantra Studios, we took a capoeira class. Capoeria is a Brazilian martial art that I’ve been hoping to try for ages. While I don’t know if it was really my thing, I loved the music and enjoyed the playful workout.
The second class we attended, however, might become a new obsession at some point. How did it take me so long to try aerial silking? It might not look like much work, but holy wow — I don’t think my arms have every been as sore as they were the day after this class. My friend Mary has been silking for almost a year and watching her clamor up that fabric was unbelievable. Steffi and I were first timers and could only manage about half the class before our arms gave out in protest.
It was so much fun! And at 50 quetzales (less than $7USD), it was a bargain to try.
From cute cafes to capoeira classes, from modern art to megapacas, Guatemala City might have been my favorite stop in all of Guatemala — and I don’t think I’ve ever heard another travelers utter that same opinion. Of course, much of that had to do with my unique circumstance of having friends who were able to host me and show me around town. Between the festival they threw in El Salvador and our adventures here in Guatemala, this might have been the most time I’ve spent with these cuties since college!
But that doesn’t mean that others couldn’t enjoy some of the same wonder I did at Guatemala City. Travelers, I encourage you to tack on a day or two in the capital before that plane takes off — you might be surprised by the gems you uncover under all the grit and grime.
Have you ever fallen for a city others dismissed as foul?