One of the most popular places for those with a sense of wanderlust is Central America – there are so many exciting countries here, and the culture is like nowhere else on earth. Belize, El Salvador, Mexico, and Honduras are all notable places of interest, but one country stands out against the rest, and that is Guatemala.
The capital and aptly-named Guatemala City attracts more than 1.5 million visitors each year, which rivals some of the more obvious tourist destinations on the planet, such as Cape Town and Buenos Aires. So, one might imagine that Guatemala city is a place that should be added to the travel bucket list, but is it a city worth visiting?
The short answer to that question would be, yes, I would always recommend visiting this vibrant and culturally explosive city. However, there are some things to think about before setting foot on that airplane. In this article, I am going to help you explore some of these considerations to ensure that you are well-prepared to visit a city that, until recently, has struggled democratically, economically, and in many other ways.
Guatemala City – A Brief Background
Guatemala city is not only the capital of its mother nation but can also lay claim to being the most populated city in the whole of Central America, and this busy atmosphere is what drives many tourists to the area.
The city lies in the Valle de la Ermita and is nestled in the country’s southern mountains. The city goes back many thousands of years and is believed to have been founded in 1500BC during the Mayan civilization – the site it now sits on was once known as Kaminaljuyu. However, during the Spanish invasion of the country in the 1700s, the area was taken over and dubbed the Kingdom of Guatemala’s capital.
In the early 1900s, devastating earthquakes left Guatemala city in ruins, and it had to be rebuilt, almost from the ground up. Fortunately, some of the older buildings survived, but modern-day Guatemala city has a more recent looking skyline than other cities in the Central American region.
Today, the city is the epicenter of culture, finance, and politics in Guatemala. Despite a rocky history of dictatorship and civil war, this is a city that is pulling itself free from the chains of its past and working towards a brighter future.
10 Things To Consider Before Traveling To Guatemala City
If you are at all familiar with traveling, you will be aware that countries in this part of the world tend to have more cautious visitors – this is partly due to the higher crime rates here and the potential for natural disasters. But this shouldn’t put you off paying a visit; it merely means that you should prepare yourself for every eventuality and arm yourself with the relevant knowledge that visiting this country requires.
With the wealth of stunning ancient architecture in the form of Mayan ruins, the incredibly underrated cuisine, friendly people, and beautiful natural scenery such as jungles and volcanoes – Guatemala city is, without a doubt, a city worth visiting.
01. This Is A Big City
Considering the country’s small size, one could be forgiven for thinking that Guatemala city is not very big and could be fully discovered in a short vacation. The opposite is, in fact, true.
I mentioned earlier that this is the most populated city in all of Central America, and these people all need a place to rest their heads, so understandably, the city has expanded more and more over the years.
In terms of things to keep the tourists entertained, there is a lot! If you are planning a trip to Guatemala city, you should be prepared to spend a decent amount of time here, if you want to see everything it has to offer.
Of course, it is entirely possible to spend a long weekend here to get away from the stresses and strains of life and immerse yourself in the world-famous Central American culture, but just be ready to make a detailed itinerary of the things you want to see most.
02. There Is A Risk Of Sickness
If you’re traveling to this gem of a city from one of the first world countries, you should be prepared to alter your way of life, at least for the time that you are here. Unlike more developed countries, Guatemala is not as advanced in terms of their water system and cleanliness – this can be expected of any developing country, so it pays to err on the side of caution.
One of the most significant risks is drinking tap water. While splashing out on bottled water for the entire vacation may add a little extra to your spending budget, it is worth it for the sake of your health. Alternatively, there are many points throughout the city where you can fill up a bottle with purified water, usually at accommodation places.
There are high amounts of bacteria in the water, and this can translate into an upset stomach, which has the potential to turn a fun-filled holiday into one where you cannot leave your hotel room.
Furthermore, you will likely come across many colorful food markets, selling a vast array of delicious fruits. While the temptation may be overwhelming, it is essential not to eat these unless they have been cleaned with pure water.
03. It Has A High Crime Rate
In years gone by, Guatemala’s crime rate was sky-high, and this deterred many potential tourists. However, the good news is that the city is beginning to improve, and crime rates are dropping gradually.
That being said, the crime rates here are much higher than many other places in the world – it is reported that in 2018, there were 101 murders reported each week nationwide. The drug trade is also a major issue here, with drug trafficking being a very real problem.
However, for modern tourists to the city, vacations tend to be relatively safe. Of course, there are always precautions that should be taken when traveling, and these should always be applied when in Guatemala city.
The streets are, for the most part, safe during daylight hours. But at night, it can be dangerous to walk alone, and I would recommend traveling in groups or simply retiring to your hotel or hostel at a reasonable time.
04. A Lot Of The Tourist Spots Are Outside Of The City
Guatemala city has a lot to offer its guests, such as an array of museums, markets, and the grand cathedral, amongst other things. However, a lot of the tourist attractions that are associated with Guatemala are located outside of the capital city.
With this in mind, many tourists may be put off seeing some of the sights that the country has to offer, but since this is such a small nation, basing yourself in the city and going off to explore is entirely possible. Guatemala is just 280 miles in length and slightly shorter in width, meaning that you could quickly drive from one end of the country to another in less than a day.
05. The City Is Divided Into Zones
Most large cities are separated into zones, areas, or districts, and Guatemala City is no different. But it does pay to learn a little about these zones since some of them are not recommended for visitors due to the gangs and crime in these areas.
There are 25 zones in all. Most importantly, tourists should avoid heading into zones 3, 6, 18, and 21. In contrast, zone 1 and 10 are extremely popular with tourists to the city, the former being where you will find buildings of notability and the latter being a hotspot for nightlife.
If you are looking for the city’s modern hub, then heading to zone 4 will give you the chance to explore cafes and trendy bars.
Getting to know the city’s layout and where the best places are to visit will save you a lot of time once you arrive – as I mentioned, it is a vast place.
06. There May Be Some Interesting Mini Inhabitants
One of the things that many people forget about Guatemala is that it is a tropical country, and this is reflected in not only the weather but also the wildlife.
There are many colorful and obscure-looking bugs here, which can come as something of a surprise to the unwitting visitor – especially if you have come from a country where these minibeasts are not found.
The main thing that causes tourists to jump is the huge Guatemalan spiders that are frequently found in homes and hotels around the city. However, despite their size, they’re pretty “friendly”, and the locals favor their existence since they kill and eat the mosquitoes.
Speaking of mosquitoes, do be prepared for their presence, and be sure to pack a good repellent – you’re going to need it.
07. Earthquakes Happen Here
The last devastating earthquake to hit Guatemala city was in the early 1900s when much of the city was torn to the ground, and a massive rebuild project went underway. Since then, there was an enormous earthquake in the mid-70s, which caused a lot of destruction but nothing compared to the one at the turn of the century.
Guatemala’s geographic location on a significant fault means that earthquakes are prevalent here. But this shouldn’t put you off visiting. For the most part, these are small tremors that do not cause mass devastation. However, from time to time, the country does experience much larger quakes, and this is something that travelers should be aware of.
Anyone traveling to Guatemala city should prepare themselves by learning some essential earthquake safety tips. This is especially true if you come from an area where this type of natural phenomenon does not occur.
08. Traveling Around The City May Be Different To What You Are Used To
For most of us, getting around a city involves hailing a cab or hopping on the subway. However, things are slightly different when you head over to the capital of Guatemala – but change isn’t always a bad thing, and it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the way of life here.
If you are looking to save money on navigating this Central American giant of a city, the Chicken buses, for which the city is famed, are among the cheapest ways of getting around. These buses are, in fact, renovated US school buses, which were donated by the USA. They’re entirely unrecognizable after their Guatemalan makeover, however, with bright colors and elaborate designs.
The chicken buses are known to be one of the least expensive ways to get around, although the service is well-known for being unreliable and on some of the more dangerous roads, things can get a little hairy – so hold on tight. The buses do not have their destinations displayed but instead operate on a color-coding system. This is due to the low literacy level in the city; using colors makes it easier for the locals to get on the right bus.
Alternatively, you could opt for a shared shuttle, which is very slightly more expensive, although not by much, and a lot more reliable. If you have a tour booked or an appointment to get to, this option will get you there more quickly.
09. Guatemala City Is A Shoppers Paradise
This certainly isn’t one of the locations that might come to mind when thinking about places to bag a bargain, so it may come as a surprise to learn that Guatemala city is excellent for anyone who loves a bit of retail therapy.
The city is renowned for its bright and vibrant markets that sell various foods, hand-crafted items, and other local wares. If you are looking to explore the culture of the city, this is the place to go. You will also have the chance to interact with the locals and get a taste for how things work here. The most famous market is the Central Market, which is located underground.
Many of the market stall owners are happy to chat, and you may even be able to haggle yourself an excellent bargain. However, it does pay to be cautious here since the markets are known to be a pickpocketing hotspot, so be sure to keep your valuables safe.
10. That’s Kids Playing – Not A Gunshot!
With the reputation that Guatemala has had in the past, it isn’t surprising that when you hear a loud bang out on the street, your heart will jump into your mouth, and you instantly think that a gun has been fired.
However, it is very common on the streets of Guatemala city for children to play with firecrackers. These small packages are thrown at the ground and result in an almighty bang, highly reminiscent of a gunshot.
This may be startling, and many visitors find their hearts racing every time a firecracker goes off, but when you accept that this is simply part of life here, things become a little more comfortable, and you are able to let your guard down.
One of the best ways of enjoying a country is to indulge in the culture and way of life, and these Guatemalan children certainly give you a way to do this.
Conclusion – Is Guatemala City Worth Visiting?
Guatemala city may have had a problematic and tumultuous past, and there is no denying that it still has a long way to go in terms of the crime rate and economy, but without tourism, the city would find this almost impossible.
More than 1.5 million people head to this incredible city every year, so there must be something about it that keeps people coming back time and time again.
There is a lot more to this tropical paradise than first meets the eye. Yes, you need to be careful and very aware of your surroundings, but that is true in many places worldwide.
If you are looking for a base to explore the further reaches of Guatemala or want to see a city that is diverse, vibrant, and trendy, then Guatemala city is, without a doubt, worth visiting.