Despite warnings to the contrary, we crossed the border into Guatemala with no shenanigans. In fact, there were signs all over the border post denouncing corruption and promoting honest enforcement of official regulations. Another pleasant surprise? Lots of road construction and the bits that were done were in great shape.
Still, we wouldn’t put Guatemala City on the top of anyone’s travel list. It’s sprawling and pretty much full of belching buses and pissing men–not to mention the legacy of Guatemala’s troubled past, which is a more-pleasant way of referring to the incredibly bloody and brutal civil war which raged in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996.
Peace and democracy were declared in Guatemala in 1996 but the training wheels are still on. Kidnappings and drive-by murders still happen at an alarming rate. During this year’s Presidential election (there are 28 political parties in Guatemala), Sandra Torres, wife of the incumbent president, went through with a sham divorce from her husband (they stated in the press that they still loved each other) in order to try to clear the way for her to make her own run for the top office.
Thankfully, the country’s Constitutional Court ultimately put the kabosh on that plan, calling the bald-faced power grab unconstitutional. Big step in the right direction.
Despite these problems, Guatemala’s capital city has charm if you know where to look.
Michael Jackson and a budget traveler bonanza
When we pulled into Guatemala City we were greeted by a fairly impressive Michael Jackson impersonator complete with sequined glove. He was busking at a stop light where he moonwalked through the cross walk when the light turned red. So far, so good.
Guatemala City’s downtown area also recently got a bit of a facelift with a new pedestrian mall dotted with outdoor art. This pedestrian mall, down 6th street, is a good place get acquainted with a Central American shopping phenomenon called pacas. Many millions of pounds of lightly used, factory second or even brand new clothing is sent to Central America every year. The clothes are bundled into massive packets (pacas) which local retailers buy in bulk.
The clothes are sorted and priced then sold in bare-bones stores reminiscent of a Salvation Army store in the US. Some clothes have obviously come straight from a Salvation Army store since the tag is still on it.
Paca prices are low and there are finds to be had but it takes patience and persistence. Still, we’ve scored board shorts, skirts, tank tops and more for just a few bucks at pacas. They’re a great source of mid-trip replacements for any traveler on a budget.
Guatemala City is divided into a bunch of different zones, each with its own personality and level of safety and services. Zone 10, for example, has the fancy hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. Zone 1 is central to downtown and offers friendlier prices. This is where we found Quality Service Hotel.
A Guatemalan couple who lived and worked in the US for years (she as a professor, he as a real estate agent) decided to return to Guatemala and turn some family property into a hotel. The aptly named Quality Service Hotel is a clean and safe option for around 250 quetzales (about US$30) including a full breakfast and WiFi. The hotel also has roomy indoor parking–a bonus in this town where we would not feel comfortable leaving our truck on the street in Guatemala City (or any other city, really).
The Quality Service Hotel also has one of the most meticulous gardeners we’ve ever seen. Don’t even think about touching any of the gorgeous plants he nurtures in the hotel’s central courtyard. He has been known to yell.
The best ceviche ever
By far the most common dining option in Guatemala City is American fast food. Pretty much every single major chain is open for business in Guatemala City and everyone was in a lather about Starbucks’ debut in the country when we were there. But bear with us. It gets better.
Chinese restaurants are also a common sight in the city and while the food is more
Chinese American than Chinese Chinese, it’s affordable and portions are HUGE. Come hungry or ready to share.
The real food find in Guatemala City, however, is Los Chavos with two locations in Zone 5. This long-standing seafood restaurant, which started out as a street cart, serves up cooked seafood dishes but the ceviche is the stand out.
You choose your ingredients (fish, shrimp, calamari, etc) and your size and they whip up a bowl of unbelievably fresh fish perfectly seasoned. A tiny bowl of seafood bisque is the perfect amuse bouche. Our thanks to George and Mandy for taking us to Los Chavos for the best ceviche we’ve ever had. At 100 quetzales (US$13) for a large ceviche that’s big enough to share, it’s reasonably priced too.
The cost of culture
What’s not reasonably priced are the museums in Guatemala City–of which there are many. Sadly, the average price of admission is US$6, which, for us, meant that we could only afford to visit one.
We chose the Museo Ixchel for a crash course in world-famous Guatemalan textiles. It did not disappoint and our 50 quetzales (about US$6) combo ticket also got us into the adjacent Museo Popul Vuh. This museum focuses on Mayan artifacts including incense burners, wooden masks and burial urns and it also has a copy of the ancient Dresden Codex document but, oddly, not a copy of the its namesake Popul Vuh text.
This rare Mayan painted book will be of particular interest to anyone getting excited about travel to the Mundo Maya (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras) next year to learn more about the mysterious end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012.
If you’ve got gifts or souvenirs to buy do it at the gift shop in the Museo Ixchel where great quality and great prices are available on traditional textiles as well as modern products (place mats, napkins, etc) in traditional patterns and vibrant colors.
We couldn’t resist visiting the Mapa en Relieve, a super-large-scale map of Guatemala even though admission was also US$6. Located in a residential neighborhood, the giant topographic map sprawls over an entire block depicting the country’s topography and taking a few liberties with borders–Belize is shown as part of Guatemala.
Like we said, the training wheels are still on…
Read more about travel in Guatemala