Guatemala is a rich and diverse country that represents some of the best that Central America has to offer: world-class coffee farms, active volcanoes, lush rainforest, dynamic and vibrant towns, as well as great food and nightlife. I visited with some friends several years ago and have been wanting to return ever since!
Guatemala City is the country’s large, sprawling capital, which is lively and exciting. We spent a couple days here and it proved to be a fantastic destination in its own right, as well as a hub for staging trips around the country.
Heading to the city center from the airport, you may see the Torre del Reformador, a huge steel structure that dates to 1935 and honors former President Justo Rufino Barrios.
Arriving downtown, the city is centered around Plaza de la Constitución, which has plenty of street vendors and performers, and is set to the backdrop of the Cultural Palace and the massive Guatemala City Cathedral.
Just to the east of the Plaza is the Mercado Central, the expansive indoor covered market with plenty of shops selling everything imaginable — from food, to household goods, to decorative items.
One vendor had an enormous, precariously-stacked pile of fragile clay Christmas ornaments– trying to pick out any of them was like a high-stakes game of Jenga!
There are also plenty of small restaurants inside with freshly-cooked food. My buddy and I even had the chance to briefly jump onto a cooking show that was being filmed there!
Beyond shopping at the main market, we also enjoyed shopping around the nearby streets, where we bought some high-quality handmade leather boots for a competitive price!
There is fantastic food and nightlife all over the city center, and while I don’t recall the specific places we went, I will note that the traditional food is hearty and similar to other regional fare: friend plantains, spicy chicken stew, tamales, chiles rellenos (bell peppers filled with meat and rice)– I also found some delicious fried empanadas!
We took a day trip to nearby Antigua, which is a small and picturesque town that dates back to the 1500s. It’s known for its traditional colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and arched arcade-style buildings. Upon arrival into town is the famed Santa Catalina Arch with a clocktower on top. Other famous sites include the Iglesia de la Merced, as well as the nearby ruins of the Convento Santa Clara and the ruins of the Church of Candelaria. At the center of town is the large, ornate Antigua Cathedral, which is well worth a visit.
To the west is the Central Market, a large open-air market with local fare for a quick bite, handicrafts, and produce.
For a “posh” rooftop experience, I recommend the Cafe Sky — while it’s only on the rooftop of a two-story building, most of the surrounding buildings have one story, so it provides a commanding view over the town!
Another classic option is Monoloco, which serves local fare with a quasi western / Tex-Mex feel. For a fantastic coffee, I recommend visiting Tretto Caffe. The owner, who goes by “Frosty”, is very friendly and brews coffee like a chemist — carefully, slowly, and with the utmost attention to detail.
Finally, at night we went to Frida’s, a cozy restaurant / lounge just off the central arcade, where I tried for the first time Ron Zacapa rum — not only did the rum live up to its world famous reputation– but Frida’s was the perfect place to sit back and enjoy it!
There are several active volcanoes in Guatemala — and it’s pretty interesting to first see one in the distance with a plume of smoke coming out the top!
It’s possible to hike to the top of several of them — which makes for a perfect half day trip. We used Voyageur Tours for our hike. They arranged transfer from our hotel in Guatemala City to the village of San Vicente Pacaya, and led us on a small group hike to the volcano’s crater. It wasn’t too strenuous of a climb, but with the elevated altitude (~8,000 feet) I could notice the difference at the top. The top of the volcano was covered in lava rock from a previous eruption and there were several small pockets where steam was coming out — it was quite hot!
I’ve heard that people have tried roasting marshmallows in those heat pockets, but we didn’t pack any, so we had to settle for warming our hands. Some of the dried lave pockets were large enough to climb into, but after a few seconds you started overheating from the steam!
There were also several sheets of of dried lava ripples at the top of the volcano from a previous eruption…
The crater on top is covered with rock, so you can’t look down and see roiling magma or anything– but it’s still a great experience!
Coffee Farm / Ziplining
On another day, we organized a ziplining excursion Filadelfia Coffee Resort & Tours, just outside Antigua, which was a blast! The ziplining was safe and professional, and the zip runs gradually increased in height, length, and speed through the lush forest.
As Filadelfia is also located on a Coffee Farm, you’ll have the chance to see the coffee plants and buy some of the famous Costa Rica Tarrazu coffee (as well as other variants). From the resort, it’s only a short, pleasant walk back down to Antigua.
Something for Next Time: My first priority for a return trip to Guatemala will be to visit the north — in particular, the Reserva de Biosfera Maya and the ancient Mayan ruins. I’d also like to get to the western highlands and visit the city of Quetzaltenango.