Like most, or perhaps all, Central American capitals, Guatemala City has a reputation for guns, drugs, violence and danger.
And it’s true, Guatemala City is a little on the dangerous side, but it’s also a Spanish colonial settlement that dates back to 1628 CE, and it was the capital of the Captaincy General of Guatemala (a Spanish state that included most of Central America and part of Mexico) after the old capital, Antigua, was destroyed by a series of earthquakes in 1773.
Surely that means it’s worth a visit?
Parque Central, Guatemala City
At the heart of Guatemala City you’ll find the big, empty, oddly-quiet, and somewhat-grimy Parque Central, also known as Plaza de la Constitución. It’s full of pigeons, and there is a man here with his own flock of goats selling goat’s milk. He milks the goats on the spot, a little paper cup with steaming hot goat’s milk your reward should you make a purchase.
The Cathedral of Guatemala, on the eastern boundary of Parque Central, dates back to 1782. It’s had to be extensively repaired on various occasions due to damage from earthquakes.
National Palace, Guatemala City
The National Palace, completed in 1943, contains the office of the President of Guatemala. It’s seen its share of action, including, in 1980, bearing the brunt of a car bomb during a terrorist attack staged by the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor), which ended up claiming seven lives.
Nowadays the Palace mostly serves as a museum, offering tourists a glimpse into the day-to-day life of dictator General Jorge Ubico.
Downtown Guatemala City
Downtown Guatemala City is full of grand colonial buildings and bustling shopping streets. There are malls, taco stands, and even one or two hipster cafes. Be careful using the ATMs though, as credit card fraud is rife in Central America.
Is it safe?
Downtown Guatemala City is safe enough to wander around by yourself during the day. There are plenty of people and police around, and I never felt troubled.
At night much of the city goes into lockdown mode, and it’s best to ask locals for advice before venturing out.
Is Guatemala City worth a visit?
Most tourists skip Guatemala City and head straight to Antigua, the former capital. While GC might not be as cute and comfortable as Antigua, it is still full of colonial charm, and receives just a fraction of the tourists. It’s the most stately of the Central American capitals, and you could certainly do worse than spending a day or two here.
Practical information and how to reach Guatemala City:
Guatemala City has an international airport with regular flights to destinations in Central America, the United States, and Mexico. Public buses link Guatemala City with Antigua (trip time = 1 – 2 hours), and San Salvador (trip time = 5 hours). Private shuttles offer transportation to Copán (trip time = 5 hours). More transport info here.
Or visit my crappy capital cities page.