Our recent trip to Guatemala was magical. We spent 4 days in Flores, 5 days in Jaibalito and 2 days in Antigua. On our way to our destinations, we had a 6 hour layover in Guatemala City. We were dreading this layover, as we weren't sure what to do in that short period of time, and we had read that Guatemala City crime was a problem. One friend even told me there was "nothing to see in Guatemala City" and that we should just bring pillows and books and stay at the airport for 6 hours. I'm so glad we did not take that advice or get scared from the things that we had read.
While I'm sure that there have been travelers who have had less than stellar experiences in this bustling, vibrant city, I'm not sure that online resources give Guatemala City it's fair shake. I took the same precautions in Guatemala City that I would take when visiting any large city in the U.S.
Arriving in Guatemala City
Upon our arrival at La Aurora International Airport, we were bombarded by friendly vendors selling colorful handmade items and taxi and shuttle drivers wanting our business. After making our way through to the taxi area, we met a friendly and accommodating driver who was so helpful. He barely spoke a word of english (and we, unfortunately speak a word of Spanish) but still he did his best to understand our needs, and suggested that we spend a few hours at the Plaza Mayor de la Constitucion. We hopped into his tiny taxi and hit the road.
The four of us were completely taken by the color, the people and the architecture. Guatemala City's tight streets and daring pedestrians are a wonder to weave through. People of all ages walked along sidewalks, passed us speedily on motorbikes, and weaved in and out of potholes at breakneck speed. The whole city seems to move in a rhythm that only the locals understand, and it works for them.
After a 15 minute high-speed drive through the city, we arrived at one of the most beautiful city parks we have ever encountered. The square was filled with locals eating lunch, vendors selling handmade goods and fresh fruit smoothies, and children feeding and chasing the pigeons.
The Historic Center of Guatemala City
As we had just finished a 7+ hours overnight on two planes, we were exhausted and hungry. And with each of us carrying 25-pound backpacks, we needed a spot to sit and take it all in. We found a bench, got our cameras out of our packs and started photographing everything around us.
We were lucky enough to be there on a beautiful sunny day, and the blue of the sky in Guatemala is saturated and gorgeous. The square is surrounded by several breathtaking buildings: the National Palace, Metropolitan Cathedral, National Library of Guatemala, and the Porto del Comercio.
Since we had limited time, and no place to stash our packs, we didn't attempt to go inside any of these gorgeous buildings. We were completely content with the sites we could see right from our park bench.
The National Palace of Guatemala City
This gorgeous building was under construction while we were visiting, but that did nothing to hinder the beauty of this structure. Built in 1939, it is used for various artistic exhibitions and houses a collection of paintings and sculptures. It is the former seat of the government of Guatemala, and was declared an Artistic Monument in 1980.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Guatemala City
Officially called the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago de Guatemala, this beautiful cathedral is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Guatemala. The building of the church began in the late 1700s and finished in 1867 when they finalized the construction of the towers. The structure has survived several earthquakes with it's thick, indestructible walls. In 1917 an earthquake devastated the city, suffered damage from that quake which has since been repaired.
Guatemala City Food
After we had spent about an hour at the square, we threw our packs back on and headed out into the streets to find something to eat. We found a taqueria not too far from the square, had amazingly friendly service and great food. As we sat in the open-air restaurant in the middle of the city, we were entertained by the buzz of the sirens, the line of people at the payphone (which was always busy, from what we could tell) and the smiles on everyone's faces. As a first impression of the country, we were blown away at how wrong our preconceptions were about this amazing place.
Granted, we were there in the middle of a bright, sunny Saturday and everyone in the city seemed to be in a good mood. But we never once felt threatened or in danger in any way. As far as our experience goes, it is like any other large U.S. city in that we made sure to keep an eye on each other; not leave our packs anywhere that they could be grabbed, and not to carry too much money on us at one time. These are the same precautions we would take to visit L.A., Chicago or New York.
Guatemala City is a Great Place to Visit
Our advice? Don't be scrrrrrd. Be smart. Ask questions. Stay together. And enjoy this beautiful city! Take the same precautions you would take when visiting New York Chicago or L.A. Keep an eye on your backpacks, and don't flaunt a huge wad of cash. Be aware. You'll have a wonderful experience in Guatemala City.
Learn More About Our Trip to Guatemala
During our 2-weeks in Guatemala we traveled around to 3 unique areas including Lake Atitlan, Flores and the Tikal Mayan Ruins, and the beautiful colonial city of Antigua. Take a look at our blog posts on the colors of Guatemala, the hikes we enjoyed the most at Lake Atitilan, and wonderful things to do on the magical Isla de Flores. You can also read a review of the boutique hotel where we stayed in Flores, Guatemala for around $100 U.S. per night.