Things to Do in Guatemala City
Located in the Centro Historico (Zona 1) district of Guatemala City, the Plaza de la Constitución (Parque Central), is considered the best place to kick off a tour of Guatemala City. (You can translate the names as Constitution Square, Constitution Plaza, or Central Park.)
A number of important sites are located around and the Parque Central, as locals refer to it, which follows the standard colonial urban-planning scheme found in the New World. The plaza's concrete “park” is always bustling with activity, especially on public holidays and Sundays. Plaza de la Constitución is also surrounded by important structures like the National Plaza of Culture, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the underground Central Market, the Portal of Commerce and Centenarian Park. The National Library and Periodicals Library and General Archive of Central America are found here too.
Near the Parque Central is the pedestrian-only area of Paseo Sexta Avenida (Sixth Avenue Passage), a beloved shopping and entertainment area that is a great introduction to Guatemalan culture and habits.
Considered to be one of the best zoos in Central America, La Aurora Zoo (Zoólogico la Aurora) opened in 1924. This small zoo offers four permanent exhibits: Africa, Asia, Granita and American.
Not only does this zoo give visitors the chance to learn more about Guatemala’s animals, it also has a large collection of Central American creatures. Experience animals including giraffes, elephants, farm animals, lions, tigers, pythons, hippos and more.
The zoo does a good job living up to its mission – to educate, conserve and rehabilitate animals. It even offers lectures and other programs daily.
This stoic structure in the heart of Guatemala’s capital city was built in 1939 entirely by local hands and using only local materials. As a result, the National Palace offers up an homage to Guatemalan heritage and is ranks tops among the buildings prized by locals. Its green-tinged exterior is a nod to the favorite color of the former dictator’s wife, and the result of concrete and copper used to cover the exterior to avoid painting. As a result, it’s affectionately known by some locals as 'The Big Guacamole.'
An impressive bronze plate at the entrance to the Palace marks a spot known as 'Kilometer 0.' According to residents, this is the official starting point of all roads in Guatemala. Travelers will find a beautiful courtyard at the center of the five-story building, which is surrounded by five archways on every side. A touching Monument to Peace is located in the center of the palace to commemorate the end to the nation’s most recent civil war. Because the National Palace is also home to a national museum, travelers will find unique and historically significant artifacts like the first switchboard and hand painted murals depicting scenes from the nation’s past. Be sure to check out the stained-glass windows along the presidential balcony and the palace salon, used only for ceremonial events.
Built during the 1540s upon the ancient foundation of a Maya temple site, Santo Tomas Church (Iglesia de Santo Tomás) is a Roman Catholic church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. It remains a venerated holy site for people of both Catholic and Maya faiths and blends of the two. The stone stairs leading to the gleaming white Dominican church are reminiscent of those at ancient temple sites, and the steps have turned black from prayer sessions in which shamans waft copal incense and set purification fires. Inside, the church is adorned with offerings, everything from maize to liquor, and numerous candles, which have colors and patterns that correspond with those they've been lit for.
Once a powerful seat of the Mayan empire, the Tikal ruins are now the most famous archeological site in Guatemala and one of the most-visited sets of Mayan ruins in all of Latin America. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of temples, plazas, and pyramids, was first settled around 700 BC, and modern visitors still get swept away by their beauty and powerful aura.
The Metropolitan Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Guatemala City, is the main church of Guatemala City. Located in the heart of town, the main portion of it was built between 1782 and 1815. About 50 years later, the towers were finished. The impressive baroque/neo-classical building with a blue dome is earthquake proof – it’s withstood numerous quakes (it was damaged by two earthquakes and repaired).
Inside there is a collection of work which was originally from the Cathedral of Antigua Guatemalan. In addition, the altars are preserved and feature images of saints and other work from the Cathedral of Antigua Guatemala as well.
Be sure to take a moment and pay respect to the tragic recent history of the country at the 12 pillars, located in front of the cathedral. These pillars were resurrected to pay tribute to the murders and disappearance of thousands of people during the civil war from 1960s through 1996.
Get a different kind of look at Guatemala with the Relief Map (Mapa en Relieve). This larger open-air map of the entire country (and Belize) was inaugurated more than a century ago, on Oct. 29, 1905 and created by Lieutenant Colonel and Engineer Francisco Vela and Engineer Claudio Urrutia.
Not only does the map feature cities, but there are also rivers – some complete with running water – and other natural landmarks which makes Guatemala’s landscape unique.
Located in the Parque Minerva, of interest is a railing with six medallions – the National Shield, Central American Shield, The Quetzal, Ceiba, The Prosperity, and (in every column), the monogram of the Republic of Guatemala and Spain.
A beautiful neoclassical church, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo (St. Dominic's Church) rose to fame because the Virgen del Rosario was dedicated here and crowned as the queen of Guatemala in 1933.
The church took nearly two decades to construct, finishing in 1808. However, a little more than a century later, the building was damaged by the 1917 quake, and again in 1942. Fortunately, restoration allowed it to be brought back to its original form.
It is located at 12 Avenida 10-09 Zone 1 and for some the Church of Santo Domingo is famous for its beautiful neoclassical architecture.
The Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera Nature Reserve, commonly referred to as Biotopo del Quetzal, is one of Guatemala’s best nature sites. It gets its name from the country’s national bird, the endangered Quetzal, which has found a home within the sanctuary.
Quetzals are rather elusive within Biotopo del Quetzal, but they are sometimes spotted near local restaurants, as they prefer to feast on avocado-like fruits from neighboring aguacatillo trees. Some say December and January are the prime months to spot them; keep your eyes open for birds with bright-red chests; green, fuzzy feathers on their heads; and exotic, long tail feathers.
If you don’t manage to spot one, there is still plenty to see at Biotopo del Quetzal. Despite the fact that only a small portion of the vast reserve is open to visitors, there are a number of different mosses, ferns, orchids and epiphytes to see, as well as other birds, including the emerald toucanet and highland guan. Howler monkeys and other wildlife also make their homes in the reserve.
Two trails begin at Biotopo del Quetzal’s visitor center, branching off into the vegetation. The first trail, Los Helechos, is shorter at 1.24 miles (2 km), while Los Musgos (The Mosses) is twice that length. Whether you opt for the shorter or the longer trail, you will pass by scenic waterfalls where you can stop and enjoy a quick swim.
Mixco Viejo is an archaeological site that dates back to the postclassic Mayan civilization. There are two areas with the name Mixco Viejo, as the former Chajoma Kaqchikel kingdom was mistakenly linked to the postclassic Poqomam capital as a result of confusion interpreting the colonial records. To properly distinguish between the two today, the former Poqomam capital is called Mixco Viejo (Chinaulta Viejo), while the Kaqchikel capital is known as Mixco Viejo (Jilotepeque Viejo).
Mixco Viejo (Jilotepeque Viejo) borders the departments of Quiche, Chimaltenango and Guatemala near the junction of the Motagua and Pixcaya rivers. It consists of 15 groups with over 120 major structures, including palaces, ball courts and temples.
Mixco Viejo’s population was believed to have been about 1,500 at one point. Evidence shows it was one of the few Maya cities inhabited and still functioning when the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Guatemala. Researchers believe the area got its start in the 12th or 13th century, and it’s possible that Mixco Viejo was an economic center for the surrounding valley. The nearby Motagua River was a commercial route for products during the pre-Hispanic area.
More Things to Do in Guatemala City
Quiriguá (sometimes written Quirigua) is an ancient Mayan site in southeastern Guatemala. Although it’s considered a small Mayan city, it is without a doubt one of the most important. It was here that the tallest stela from the Maya world was discovered. The monolithic stone stands 35 feet high (10.6 meters), 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide and 5 feet (1.5 meters) thick, weighing over 60 tons (53.6 long tons).
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Quiriguá once controlled the jade and obsidian trade route. During the same time, the city had a fierce rivalry with its neighbor Copán in Honduras. Researchers believe Quiriguá was inhabited starting in the second century, and the bulk of the most important monuments were carved between A.D 426 and AD 810. It is unknown why Quiriguá entered a period of decline, but evidence suggests that when the Europeans arrived, the jade route was under the control of Nito, a city closer to the Caribbean coast.
The stelae, or monolothic sandstone monuments, at Quiriguá were carved without tools and contain hieroglyphic texts that provide information on the Maya city’s rise and fall, along with details during the most important years. These monumental structures also tell an important tale of Quiriguá’s relationship with Copán and were built around the Great Plaza. The Ceremonial Plaza and the Plaza of the Temple are renowned for their complexity.
The last known hieroglyphs from Quiriguá date back to A.D. 810, which was around the time of the entire Classic Maya collapse. Researchers believe that the reduction in trade along the Motagua may have caused Quiriguá to ultimately be abandoned.
Housed on campus at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Popol Vuh Museum (Museo Popol Vuh) contains some of the most famous collections of pre-Columbian artifacts in the country. A private research institution, visitors to the museum have an opportunity here to learn about the history of Guatemala. The goal of the museum is to conserve, research and educate people about both the cultural and archaeological heritage of the country. It accomplishes this with its many exhibits within the property.
For starters, the Popol Vuh Museum contains one of the largest collections of Maya art in the world. Visitors to Popol Vuh can expect to see a varied collection within its small rooms, including stone sculptures, pottery and the Lord Bat sculpture. The museum is known for its ceramic collection, which is considered to be the best in Guatemala City, if not the country. Of special note are the collections of funeral urns, censers and ceramic whistles.
A small area within the museum is dedicated to colonial art and includes items like traditional clothing and more.
There are two ways to experience Mayan treasures when traveling across Guatemala: Either traipse through the jungles, down bumpy dirt roads, to ancient village sites and temples, or visit the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, or MUNAE) in Guatemala City. Inside this exceptional museum, visitors will find over 20,000 pieces of ancient Guatemalan treasures, from Mayan pottery, artwork, and crafts to traditional textiles and dress. With thousands of years of human history have taken place in these hills, Guatemala is comprised of a fascinating mosaic of different cultural identities. From the first settlers who built villages to thriving days of the Maya, all the epochs are represented inside Guatemala's national archaeological museum, with relics from archaeological sites having made their way to these halls. Learn how people first settled Guatemala as they migrated through Central America, and formed different languages, farming techniques, and ways to honor their dead. And, with so many discoveries still being made in Guatemala today, a museum that’s been open since 1898 continues to grow and improve.
IRTRA Mundo Petapa is more than just another theme park; aside from it's large size, it also features botanical gardens, Guatemalan history, and a zoo. Exceptionally clean and well maintained, Mundo Petapa even features an Olympic sized swimming pool for beating the midday heat, and a towering, 175 ft. “skyscraper” with a thrilling vertical drop. Parts of the park are devoted toward preserving a slice of Guatemalan history, and quieter parts of the sprawling park are built in an old, 1950s style of small Guatemalan villages. You’ll also find a zoo on site with dozens of species of mammals, as well as 60 species of birds that flit and squawk in the aviary. Before you leave for the day, be sure to ride the ferris wheel that towers above the park, where the view looks out over Guatemala City and the surrounding volcanoes beyond. Even the grandiose rainbow archway is an entertaining sight, and Mundo Petapa is a guaranteed day of family fun.
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