Regions and Towns
Guatemala City is the largest urban agglomeration in Central America - it's far from a pretty site. It sprawls across a range of flattened, ravine-scored mountains, covering an entire mountain plain and tumbling into the surrounding valleys. With its rickety chicken buses and chaotic marketplaces, the city's Latin character is over the top to the point of cliché. Like all Guatemalan towns, a strict grid system has been imposed on the city's layout: avenidas run north-south; calles run east-west. The huge city has been divided into 15 zones, each with its own version of this grid system.
Few colonial buildings grace the city, and it is visited more for its role as the nation's administrative and transport hub than as a must-see tourist site. In Zona 1, Plaza Mayor is a classic example of the standard Spanish colonial town-planning scheme, and is the city's ceremonial center, with the retail district nearby. It's best visited on a Sunday, when it's thronged with thousands of locals who come to stroll, eat ice cream, smooch on a bench, listen to boom-box salsa music and ignore the hundreds of trinket vendors. The square is lined by the imposing Palacio Nacional, currently being restored to house a national history museum, and the twin-towered Catedral Metropolitana. An earthquake destroyed the original market building adjacent to the square in 1976, and today the hugely chaotic Mercado Central specializes in tourist-oriented crafts.
North of Zona 1 is the shady and restful Parque Minerva, featuring a quirky relief map of the country. Several important museums can be found in Zona 10, including the Museo Popol Vuh, which is a superb private collection of Mayan and Spanish colonial art, and the Museo Ixchel, which displays the rich traditional arts and costumes of Guatemala's highland towns. Zona 13 houses the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, with its prized collection of Mayan artifacts, and the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno, which has a superb collection of 20th-century Guatemalan art. Several km west of the center lie the extensive ruins of Kaminaljuyú, an important Late Pre-classic/Early Classic Maya site. Unfortunately, the ruins have been largely covered by urban expansion.
Most of the city's cheap and middle-range hotels are in Zona 1, while posh hotels are clustered in Zona 10. Zona Viva is the place to go to eat expensively and dance the night away.
Antigua was the nation's capital from 1543 until 1776 (following the devastating earthquake), when the capital was moved 45km (28mi) to the east to the present site of Guatemala City. Antigua is among the oldest and most beautiful cities in the Americas. Set amid three magnificent volcanoes - Agua, Fuego and Acatenango - its superb yet sturdy colonial buildings have weathered 16 earthquakes and numerous floods and fires. Antigua is especially beautiful during Semana Santa, when the streets are carpeted with elaborate decorations of colored sawdust and flower petals.
The city's churches have lost much of their Baroque splendor, the post-earthquake repair and restoration leaving them denuded of embellishment and elegance. However, many remain impressive, in particular La Merced, the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Las Capuchinas (now a museum). Casa K'ojom is a fascinating museum of Mayan music and ceremonies and related artifacts. On Sundays, visitors and locals alike gather to assess the goods for sale at the bustling market held in Parque Central.
At 2030m (6658ft), the magical and misty highlands town of Chichi is surrounded by valleys and overshadowed by looming mountains. Though isolated, it's always been an important market town. The Sunday market is the one to catch, as the cofradías (religious brotherhoods) often hold processions on that day. The locals have combined traditional Mayan religious rites with Catholicism; the best places to witness these old rites are around the church of Santo Tomás and the shrine of Pascual Abaj, which honors the Mayan earth god. Incense, food and drink are offered to ancestors and to ensure the continued fertility of the earth. The town's Museo Regional contains ancient clay pots and figurines, flint and obsidian spearheads, maize grindstones and an impressive jade collection.
The commercial center of southwestern Guatemala, Quetzaltenango, more commonly called Xela ('SHAY-lah'), is an excellent base for excursions to the many nearby villages, noted for their hot springs and handicrafts. The city prospered during the 19th century as a coffee-brokering and storage center until an earthquake and volcanic eruption ended the boom. In recent years, Xela has become well-known for its Spanish-language schools. The town's major sights are the central square and the buildings which surround it, a couple of basic though useful markets and the ubiquitous Parque Minerva - many such monuments were built during the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920), to honor the classical goddess of education in the hope of inspiring Guatemalan youth to new heights of learning. The beautiful volcanic countryside surrounding Xela features natural steam baths at Los Vahos and Fuentes Georginas. Also in the vicinity is the picture-postcard village of Zunil, the garment district of Guatemala, San Francisco El Alto and the center for wooly woolens, the village of Momostenango.
The capital of the jungle-covered northeastern department of El Petén, Flores is built on an island on Lago de Petén Itzá, and is connected by a 500m (1640ft) causeway to the service town of Santa Elena on the lakeshore. Flores is a dignified capital, with its church and government building arranged around the main plaza, which crests the hill in the center of the island. The city was founded by the Itzáes, and at the time of conquest was perhaps the last still-functioning Mayan ceremonial center in the country. The pyramids, temples and idols were destroyed by the God-fearing Spanish solidiers, and the dispersal of the Mayan citizens into the jungle gave rise to the myth of a 'lost' Mayan city. Modern sights include boat rides stopping at various lagoon settlements and a visit to the limestone caves of Actun-Can.
Don't be deterred by this town's nickname of Gringotenango ('place of the foreigners'), nor by the town's lack of colonial architecture or colorful market. The attraction here is the absolutely gorgeous caldera lake (a water-filled collapsed volcanic cone). Since the hippie-dippie days of the 1960s, laid-back travelers have flocked here to swim in Lago de Atitlán and generally chill out. Volcanoes surround the lake, and the town is the starting point for excursions to the smaller, more traditional indigenous villages on the western and southern shores of the lake. The most popular day-trip destination is Santiago Atitlán, with its colorfully dressed locals and a unique, cigar-smoking resident deity called Maximón. The market town of Sololá has been attracting traders for centuries, and the town's main plaza continues to throb with activity on market days.