Things to Do in Guatemala City
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.
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.
One of the best-maintained zoos of Central Asia, the La Aurora Zoo is located next to Guatemala City’s International Airport. Established in 1924, the zoo also houses the relics of an ancient viaduct. This zoo has three distinct areas- African, Asian and American where animals from the respective continents can be found.
Overlooking Plaza de la Constitución in the center of Guatemala City is the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral. Though several devastating earthquakes have rambled through the city, the blue-domed Neoclassical-Baroque structure stands strong as the city’s main house of worship. Pass through the 12-pillar entrance to admire the massive interior, austere though wonderfully embellished with religious paintings, carvings, and sparkling gold altars.
Constructed in 1904, long before Google Earth, this huge 3-dimensional outdoor map of Guatemala offers a grand-scale viewpoint of the mountainous country from above. A family-friendly attraction, Mapa en Relieve contains all the country’s volcanoes, rivers and lakes (some with running water), as well as its cities, roads, bridges, and railroad tracks.
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.
This 18-century neoclassical church in Guatemala City’s historic center rose to fame after the Virgen del Rosario was dedicated here in 1933. Join the pilgrims who come to visit the venerated image along with celebrated sculptures such as El Senor Sepultado and Jesus de la Buena Muerte. The splendid gold stuccoed altar is one of the best preserved in the country.
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.
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.
The Popol Vuh Museum located within the Francisco Marroquin University campus exhibits one of the largest collections of Mayan art in the world. Extraordinary artifacts are here, including masks, ceramics, pre-Hispanic statuettes, traditional fabrics, and more. One of Guatemala City’s must-visit destinations, some pieces date back to 9000 BC.
More Things to Do in Guatemala City
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.
Named after Guatemala’s colorful national bird, Biotopo del Quetzal is a vast nature reserve in central Guatemala encompassing Lanquin Caves, Rey Marcos Caves, and the rock pools of Semuc Champey. Abundant wildlife populate the expanse, including howler monkeys and elusive birds such as emerald toucanets, highland guans, and the endangered quetzal.
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.
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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