Getting to Guatemala City
My flights to Guatemala were uneventful with the exception of the AA gate agent requesting me to insert my bag into the size. After it went in, she said it didn’t fit because I pushed it. I looked at her and said, “I’ve traveled around the world with this bag.”
I find this annoying on two accounts. First the sizer is much smaller than the overhead bin for an A300 (there was at least 2 inches to spare when I placed my bag above my seat). Second, they seem to target tourists. For long distance flights, I dress in long cotton pants and a cotton shirt for comfort. Because I wasn’t donning a business suit, I qualified for harassment as did my seat mates.
They have done this twice to me with two different bags at the same gate to Dallas in the last six months. Little do they know I fly internationally multiple times a year. If loyalty mattered, perhaps I’d only fly American so they’d treat me better, but this happened to me even with Gold status!
I found it more disconcerting, that the flight to Guatemala was treated like a domestic flight. I was prepared to watch all the academy award films, yet no in-seat entertainment was included and the drop-down screen showed a TV program. I normally read, so the entertainment options aren’t generally important to me, but this time I truly planned to catch up on movies. Boo! In addition, the only food provided was a biscuit. I’m glad a brought a huge selection of snacks. With this type service, however, I may as well have flown a budget airline!
Guatemala City Airport
Immigration in Guatemala City, affectionately known as “Guate” to locals, was quick and unfriendly. I wasn’t even greeted with “Hola”. There were a few places to change money in the terminal and at baggage claim. I probably should have changed my money at the baggage claim, but upon exiting the area, I pressed the button for possible extra screening, and I passed with a green light so I walked out and hoped to find an ATM by the rental cars. Nope!
The information desk directed me to exit, cross the street, take the non-working elevator to the 3rd floor (stairs were nearby) and to re-enter the airport for a cash machine. Before heading that way, the taxi man wrote me a receipt for a ride to my hotel in Guatemala City. It only cost 80 Quetzales or $10-11 depending on the exchange rate which ranged from 7/8Q for $1, for a 30-minute ride. He said the taxi would take me to an ATM on the way, but I didn’t want to risk my card being declined outside the airport where there was also cash exchange if necessary.
Hotel Royal Palace
After trekking up to the third floor and securing my money, I returned to the street below where I handed my slip to the taxi driver who also asked in his fast Spanish if I needed to go to an ATM before we made our way to my hotel in the traffic. He stopped at a secured parking garage and pointed. I hesitantly entered the parking area, and the security guard directed me to a hallway which I zigzagged through to the lobby of Hotel Royal Palace. What a strange entry, I thought to myself.
The front desk didn’t have my reservation and the young lady on duty spoke less English than I spoke Spanish. Fortunately, I travel with printed reservations and 30 minutes later I got a room. According to TripAdvisor, however, many people receive a free shuttle from the airport and a welcome drink and appetizer. Hmmm…perhaps booking through Hotels.com wasn’t the best choice this time around.
My room was simple with a white tile floor, one double bed, a TV, and a few pieces of furniture. The bathroom had definitely been remodeled with a nice marble shower, decent water pressure, and hot water after a several minute wait. The room included French doors which opened to the balcony. I quickly found out that the temperature is so consistent in Guatemala (a comfortable 70 degrees), that most places did not provide air-conditioning. The ceiling fan simply circulated the warm air in the room, so my choice was to open the doors to the balcony and contend with street noise, or to be hot. I picked the former and hoped at bedtime my ear plugs would drown out the street noise, most notably the continuously honking horns.
Los Helechos Restaurant
Tired and hungry, I kept things simple and safe and had dinner at the hotel restaurant. I ordered steak, broccoli, and potatoes. Fortunately, I got the small, four-ounce portion. The steak was huge, tender and delicious.
It turns out, my ear plugs weren’t quite enough to drown out the noise, and I awoke almost every hour. By the time the traffic got going around 5:30am, sleeping wasn’t much of an option. Breakfast was included in my stay, so I waited until shortly after 7 before venturing down to the restaurant. I expected it to be empty, but to my surprise there were many early risers. Breakfast, just like dinner was large and tasty.
Tour of Guatemala City
Given I had heard many parts of Guate are unsafe, and it was even suggested to skip the capital city in its entirety, I decided to hire a guide for the day. At $75 for a private tour with Authentic Guatemala, it didn’t seem like much, and frankly I find looking at old buildings much more interesting when someone can provide history to go with them. I requested the tour via email, no deposit was required, and I hadn’t received any sort of confirmation beyond our initial email conversation a week prior to my arrival, so I wasn’t sure what would happen until I confirmed before going to bed.
Fabio picked me up at the hotel only 15 minutes late which I later found to be very timely compared to any of the group tours in which I participated. Fabio started his personal tour company three years ago and now has a few friends helping as well. We spent much of the morning wandering around Zone 1, the historical area, and I felt very safe. There were plenty of people and police. In fact, I found this morning that the main, lobby entrance to my hotel opened to Avenue 6A, which was a pedestrian only area and plenty safe in which to walk both day and early evening. Had I only known, I might have requested a room at the front of the hotel! Oh well.
Iglesia San Francisco
Our first stop, Iglesia San Francisco was just a block away. The church is of Catholic origin and belongs to the Franciscan Tertiary. The structure is of neo-classical design, and its construction began in 1778 after the 1773 earthquake. It was almost complete by 1820 when it was decided bell towers would be added. The work, however, was suspended during this unstable political time between church and state. The construction was finally completed in 1851, however, the Franciscans were expelled from Guatemala in 1871. While the worshipping area remained a church, its convent and the rest of the facilities were confiscated and converted into a post office and customs. Later it served as a railway station and a school.
The structure was destroyed in the 1917-18 earthquake and remained in ruins. A temporary wooden dome replaced the fallen stone in 1928 and the sacristy and façade of the church were restored in 1932. The cloister, however, was destroyed and the rest of the building was converted into the barracks for the National Police Palace under “Dictator” Jorge Ubico’s regime. In the late 1940’s, the church underwent additional improvements after Ubico fell from power only to be damaged again by another earthquake in 1976. Reconstruction began again in 1979.
While the church could use an outside paint job, the inside was beautiful. There are several images of importance in the church including the Immaculate Conception (at the altar), Mother of the Poor, The Virgin of the Chorus, and The Virgin of the Kings. In addition, the wooden altar is worth noting. It could have been constructed of precious metals, but the residing bishop thought it should reflect the nature of Guatemala and he requested it be carved of wood from the area.
National Police Palace
From the church, we walked next door to the police headquarters. We could have entered the building had it been 9am, but we were 30 minutes too early, so we just visited the courtyard. As mentioned above, the National Police Palace was constructed by Jorge Ubico in 1942, who ordered a new project every year for his birthday. This was the second to last project that was built under his rule as his dictatorship was overthrown in 1944.
The police headquarters included the Coat of Arms of both Guatemala and the Federal Republic of Central America in its courtyard. The Federal Republic of Central America was created in 1823 when the region finally declared itself independent from Spain and Mexico. It included five countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, as represented by the five mountain peaks. Guatemala City served as the region’s capital during its short 15-year existence.
The Coat of Arms for Guatemala features the Quetzal bird which is also the name of Guatemala’s currency.
Subject to much civil war, the Federal Republic disintegrated in 1838. Now, of course, Panama and Belize are now part of Central America as we know it. Panama was previously associated with South America, specifically Peru and later Colombia when it finally seceded from the conflict plagued Colombia in 1903. Belize, once part of Guatemala, was proclaimed British Honduras after much strife and became Belize when it declared its independence in 1903.
Edificio de Correos Central
From the National Police Palace, we backtracked along the pedestrian only avenue to 12th street where an arch spanned the road. The arch, which was once a post office was another one of Ubico’s projects. It was inspired by the famous Santa Catalina arch in Antigua. Now the arch is part of a cultural center where locals can go for free art and music classes.
Office of the Historic District
Attached to the arch is the Office of the Historic District. Here we took a tour of the building which was once a home owned by the owner of the first bank in Guatemala. Prior to the banker owning the house, it was owned by one of the signers of Guatemala’s Independence agreement. The home included an old wash basin, lovely porches, nice tile work, a water fountain where guests washed their hands, and an elaborate old bathroom just to name a few of historic items preserved in the office.
Plaza de la Constitución
The next destination on the tour was Central Park, officially called Plaza de la Constitución. Its layout emulates that of Central Park in Antigua, Guatemala’s previous capital until it was destroyed in the 1776 earthquake and subsequently moved to Guate by the Spanish.
In its center is a lovely fountain. The half paved, half stone square is home to protests and celebrations. The park was currently undergoing preparations for Santa Semana or Holy Week. In addition, it included a memorial to the many orphans that died in a fire at an orphanage under direct supervision of the current president’s wife. Apparently, the kids lived in deplorable conditions and were treated poorly and raped by the guards. The memorial also represents a protest of the current president.
The National Palace
The Palace, located on north side of the square, was the last building “Dictator” Jorge Ubico constructed before he was removed from office. He was nick named number five for his obsession with the number. There are five letters in both his names and many of the buildings he constructed included sequences of five windows or doors such as at the palace. His wife’s favorite color was green, so the palace dons a green color. My tour included the entry fee to the palace, but I passed on the 45-minute tour. I likely missed out, but I was getting hungry and didn’t think I would last that long.
Cathedral of Guatemala City
We continued on to the Cathedral of Guatemala City on the east side of the park. On its columns, were the names of all the thousands who died or went missing in Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. Inside, it’s altar mimics that of the Vatican. The columns on either side of the pews displayed paintings of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. One chapel area of the church featured a Virgin Mary that was breastfeeding feeding which is a very rare image.
After visiting the church, we took some stairs down to the three-story underground central market. Markets are always what I enjoy visiting the most in other countries, and this market was no exception. The top level featured a variety of hand-crafted items such as jewelry, textiles, pottery, and leather goods at the best prices in Guatemala City. Baskets, ceramics and wedding materials could be found on the lower level. We didn’t spend much time on either of these levels as I’m not much of a shopper, but I love to see the food which was on level two.
Fabio purchased some fruits and vegetables so I could take some pictures of the people and their booths though it wasn’t completely necessary. We stopped at a food stall and ordered pacaya and a rellinito. This food stall has won many awards! The pacaya was a fried flower topped with guacamole in a corn tortilla. It was good, but the rellinitos were amazing. I would have never ordered what looked like a large oval hush puppy. Instead, it was a fried plantain with chocolate flavored beans! Topped with a little sugar, it made a fantastic treat.
We washed it down with a marañon smoothies. A marañon is the fruit of the cashew nut which Guatemalans sell in the market. We bought some and asked the man at his juice stand if he’d make our smoothie. The fruit wasn’t too sweet and had a slightly nutty flavor. I also purchased roasted fava beans for an ongoing snack. I would have never known that’s what they were without Fabio. It was really fun to interact with the locals!
La Merced Church
After we finished our walking tour of Zone 1, we climbed into Fabio’s van to go see Cerrito del Carmen, the relief map and other places in Guatemala City. On the way, he dropped me off at La Merced Church for a quick 10-minute perusal. It was very busy with no place to park. The church, built in 1540, is the sister church of the famous La Merced church in Antigua. It houses a variety of sculptures, paintings and other religious work.
Cerrito del Carmen
Del Carmen Church is the oldest church in the Guatemala City located on top of the hill called Cerrito Del Carmen. It is surrounded by lovely gardens and walking paths and provides a nice view of the sprawling city. It is famous for its Virgin Mary image which is believed to be sacred.
The story goes that Juan Corz, after making his pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the beginning of the 17th Century decided to give his life to the Lord and move to the Americas. Upon hearing this, the Carmelites asked that he bring a small image of the Lady of Carmen to the New World. When he wondered where to place it, the sisters told him the image would decide.
When he arrived in the Guatemala, he lived in two caves northeast of the Valley of Leonera. In one cave, he placed the image and called it the niche of the Virgin. Living as a hermit, he occasionally begged for food, and the locals became curious of the strange character. Upon seeing the image, they felt the cave was not suitable for her and they built a chapel. After a solemn procession to move the image, it was missing the next day where they found it in the cave.
They considered this a divine sign and asked Corz to pray to the Virgin to find a place for the image. Days later, Corz and the neighbors climbed a hill that resembled Mount Carmel which he saw in the Holy Land. A chapel was constructed on this hill as well as small house for the hermit in which to live and care for the chapel and image. Corz lived here for a while until a fire burned the area. The only thing saved was the image. Another chapel and home were constructed in 1620. One day, the hermit vanished, but the image remains at Cerrito del Carmen.
Relief Map of Guatemala
From the church we headed to the relief map. At first, I wasn’t that impressed with the brick and green painted mortar structure representing the topography of Guatemala which then included Belize, but then I realized it was mapped by two people, Francisco Vela and Claudio Urrutia, who walked the entire country over 16 years in the early 1900s. They collected all this data with instruments I doubt I could even work!
Also in the park which features the relief map, is a forest of trees with names on them. The wood from this type of tree is used for a musical instrument called a marimba that more than seven people can play at once. The names on the trees honor different music conductors.
Café San Jose
From the map we cut back across town where we saw one of the poor neighborhoods built after the earthquake in 1976 that killed 27,000 people. Many that survived fled the mountains, and they ended up here and built their houses together. Not far from the neighborhood, is a restaurant called Café San Jose where we got lunch for two for 35Q (less than $5). I had the spicy chili relleno stuffed with meat and Fabio got chicken. Our meals came with two sides, soup and a big cup of juice. The folks at the restaurant and Fabio bet I wouldn’t be able to handle the spice. They were wrong!
After lunch, we toured the Guatemala City via car. The driving seemed a little unusual. It wasn’t too crazy, but there was a one way street with a yellow line in the middle that generally signifies two way. I kept thinking we were on the wrong side of the road. In another section of town, there was another lane marked very different from the others and this was a makeshift velodrome for cyclists who were willing to race around in circles during the very early morning as traffic builds by 5:30am when it is a road for cars.
Guatemala City is made up of several zones including a handful of nice ones. A new development called Paseo Cayala was made of white adobe with ceramic tile roofs. It was a mixed-use development offering apartments, parks, high-end shops, restaurants. While it is promoted as a safe place to live for all Guatemalans, the cheapest apartment costs 70 times the average wage. It is basically its own little city on the outskirts of town.
Avenida La Reforma
We also passed along Avenida La Reforma whose median operates like a park. It includes monuments to the countries in Central America, shade trees, a bike path, and kids playgrounds. While pretty, it didn’t seem like the most peaceful place with loads of traffic going by, but with limited green space, I suppose it can be a nice place to enjoy.
Torre del Reformador
Eventually we headed back to the hotel, but not before we drove underneath a replica of the Eiffel Tower! Torre del Reformador, which stands 236 feet high, was built in 1935 and commemorates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Justo Rufino Barrios, once a president of Guatemala who instituted many reforms.
During the late afternoon I took a short rest before going out for an early dinner. After my tour, I learned that I could at least walk along the pedestrian street safely during the evening. Fabio suggested San Martín which had a handful of locations, but this one on Avenue 6A was in an old bank that needed refurbishing. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and vibe. My tortilla soup was tasty though it cost 30Q almost as much as our two-person lunch!
A Few Scenes from the Streets of Guatemala City
I had a nice day in Guatemala City, and I’m glad I visited. Now I’m facing the option of a private transfer to Antigua at 8am for $35 or a tour of Chichicastenango which ends in Antigua for $50, I picked the latter. I’m excited to add on a visit to this town that I was considering skipping due to coordinating all the transportion, though the 5am start isn’t too enticing! ETB