Ladies and gentlemen, I made a mistake.
I misjudged Guatemala City.
What can I say? I was off-base; out of line; missed the mark. Just...wrong.
Here’s what happened.
During my first trip down through Central and South America oh-so-many years ago, I passed through Guatemala City.
Everything I’d read on the Internet indicated that I shouldn’t spend much time there (dirty, dangerous, not many attractions, etc).
So, I didn’t.
And the little time I did spend, well, I was less than impressed. Traffic was bad, streets seemed dodgy, and taxi drivers were trying to rip me off left, right and center. I felt stared at much more than I did in Mexico, and not in a good way.
It wasn’t what you’d call memorable.
In fact, after documenting my Latin America trip on this fine website, it occurred to me that I had given Guatemala City one of the lowest city-guide ratings out of the some-odd 80 cities I’d visited in the region.
However, as years passed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something.
A city that big. Over 1,000,000 people, one of the top 50 biggest cities in Latin America?
Takes more than a day or two to get under it.
Not to mention, it was among the first countries I’d visited in the region — I hardly spoke Spanish, and didn’t know how to explore effectively.
There has to be more to the Guatemalan capital, I thought to myself.
So, I recently took a short, $149 USD round-trip flight from Mexico City to Guatemala City to find out.
5 Days in Guate.
Here’s what happened.
What Did I Do In Guatemala City?
On Thursday afternoon, I landed in the Guatemala City airport with a friend who runs the website LATAM CAPITALIST.
After arriving to our Airbnb, the first order of business was picking up a SIM card to have data while we were out and about, so we hit up a nearby TIGO store and got it set up.
From there, we did a thorough walking tour of Zona 10 where we were staying, one of the nicer areas of the city.
We got some food, went back to the apartment, fixed ourselves up and dabbled in the nightlife.
That was day one.
We spent most of our 5 days checking out the city. Observing people, strolling the streets of different zones, trying the local food and seeing how young Guatemalans party.
(and for you degenerates, don’t worry — I’ll be doing a full post on nightlife in Guatemala City very soon)
We also fit in a couple day trips to Antigua and to some nearby hot springs.
It doesn’t sound like a lot, but we didn’t find ourselves with much downtime.
I’d say 5 days is a good amount of time for checking out the city and its surrounding areas.
Is It Safe?
Is Guatemala City safe?
Here’s the thing.
It’s tough to analyze safety and security in Latin America, at least as far as tourists are concerned.
Some places with high murder rates are relatively safe for travellers.
Other places with lower murder rates are less-safe for travellers.
Guatemala City was is ranked the 24th most dangerous city in the world.
And here’s what the US State Department has to say about it.
I’ll admit that it felt rather tense at times walking around the city, particularly in Zona 1 (we didn’t risk visiting the zones noted above by the US State Department).
But, nothing too sinister.
The places where you’re likely to stay as a tourists, such as Zona 10, Zona 4 or Zona 9, all felt fine during the day.
A couple of things to note:
First. As a foreigner, you will get stared at more here in Guatemala City than you would in, say, Mexico.
There’s just not too many tourists hanging around on the streets of Guate.
Of course, as always, you’ll see one or two token gringos in a nightclub, and you’ll wonder just how the hell they ended up in the city, but apart from that, you won’t notice too many visible minorities.
Second. I would not suggest walking around at night. You’ll see extremely few locals doing this. Take Ubers to your destinations, even if they are only a short distance away.
Third. Be aware of scams. While out at night, we were constantly quoted incorrect and exorbitant prices for drinks (like $7.00 for a beer at a regular old bar/nightclub). They’ll often say they “don’t have menus” if you request one.
(Max price for a beer should be around $4.00-$5.00 USD in a fancier locale.)
To avoid this sort of trickery, only stay in bars with menus, or that have drink prices plastered on the wall.
Better yet, find a local or two that can accompany you for a nightlife romp.
I was disappointed by these constant scam attempts (even an Uber tried to pull one over on us).
It’s worse in Guatemala City than in many other places I’ve travelled to.
What I Liked About It
I discovered that Guatemala City does indeed have its charms.
Here’s what I liked about the capital.
1. The city is zoned.
The safe zones, dangerous zones, hipster zone, historical zone, wealthy zones and nightlife zones are all clearly defined. This makes it easy for a tourist to arrive in the city and know more or less where he/she will want to spend time. In a city like Managua, for instance, things aren’t as organized — it’s harder to get a handle on where you should stay or what you should do in the city.
2. The nightlife exceeded my expectations.
I was surprised that I was able to locate a party on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and even Sunday night.
Of course, I took advantage by going out each one of these nights :).
(Again, nightlife post forthcoming, I’ll give you the goods and update this article with a link).
3. The women.
The attractiveness of the local gals isn’t nearly as bad as I perceived it to be the first time around. Certainly not the best place I’ve been, but it’s not so horrible to make you want to flee.
There’s enough here in Guatemala City.
4. The Guatemalan people.
Swindlers aside, Guatemalans are among the friendliest people I’ve encountered in Latin America. We had a lot of good chats with waiters, Uber drivers and young Guatemalans, and most were happy to help provide us with intel about the city.
For the most part, the Guatemalans we encountered were warm, friendly and welcoming.
5. Zona 4.
This zone could be considered the “hipster” area of the city, with plenty of cafes, restaurants and pedestrian-friendly streets. Yes, it’s gentrified and yes it has an “American” feel to it, but since it isn’t flooded with tourists like most similar Latin American neighbourhoods, it really is quite pleasant.
There’s even a co-working space (which I’m sure you’d have all to yourself).
I wish we spent a bit more time here.
Here are a few photos I snapped of Zona 4.
What I Didn’t Like About It
With the good comes the bad.
So, here’s the bad.
I haven’t had locals try to fuck me over this many times in Latin America for a long while.
Guatemala City is worse than many other cities in this regard.
2. The Prices.
Don’t get it twisted: Guatemala City is far from expensive.
But if you want to hang out, eat and party in its more exclusive zones, you’ll be paying about 10% more than you would to party in Mexico City’s equivalent zones. Considering Guatemala City is smaller, less developed, less safe and has fewer options, this isn’t a great deal.
That said, you’ll pay less in rent in these said areas of Guatemala City than you would in Mexico City.
I’d venture that your overall expenses would work out to roughly the same in the two cities, but Mexico City is much better value for money.
Although we felt safe for most of the trip, there were a few times I sensed we were being sized up. The fact that you see virtually no one walking the streets even in supposedly secure nightlife areas also doesn’t bode well for safety.
Here in Mexico City, I live in Centro (downtown).
I would never, ever attempt to live in Centro in Guatemala City.
The lurking sense of insecurity is a bit of a vibe killer.
4. The Food.
We tried a big spread of Guatemalan dishes on the second last day of our trip. It didn’t impress. Not horrible, but very forgettable. I’m sure there is excellent Guatemalan fare to be had, but if there is, it isn’t easy to find.
Good local food should be easy to find.
Now, I know that people get sensitive about food: you should have gone to x or y place!
But let’s be honest, people.
Who is out there saying that Guatemalan food can even come close to Peruvian or Mexican food.
Come to think of it: who is talking about Guatemalan food at all?
Guatemala City is a rather ugly city. Geographically, it’s located in a nice little spot with mountains around and a decent amount of green, as you can see in the photo below.
But, everything else about it is drab.
A lot of grey and ugly light-blue coloured buildings. Streets are run down (although very clean!). It’s tough to walk. Not many dedicated areas for pedestrians; not many parks.
It ain’t a pretty city, folks.
Mind you, this is Central America. There’s not a lot of money in these northern triangle countries. That, mixed with a corrupt government, you can’t go expecting Dubai.
Based on what funds there are to go around, they did OK with Guatemala City.
Is Guatemala City A Good Place To Live As An Expat?
This is an interesting one.
Whenever I travel to a city, this is a question I ask myself:
Would I, or, could I, live here.
For Guatemala City, I’m going to say that, yes, I could live there.
Like I said, I was wrong about it before. It’s really not THAT bad of a place.
I have no illusions that my life would be more confined than it is here in Mexico City, where I visit a number of different neighbourhoods for various purposes.
But yeah, I reckon I could hack it in the Guatemalan capital for a time.
Zona 4 and Zona 10 have nice apartments that are fairly cheap (you could snag something nice for $600 USD/month). These neighbourhoods are also walkable. Nightlife is decent. People are friendly. The restaurants are adequate — there are enough international options if you can’t get down with the local cuisine.
I’m imagining it now. Working from home, a pretty Guatemalan girlfriend, weekend trips to Antigua and Atitlan…
I could make a go of it.
But, alas, it just doesn’t make much sense.
There are cheaper, safer cities with better infrastructure than Guatemala City, and I’m already living in one of those cities.
Although Guatemala City may seem appealing to an adventurous, city-loving foreigner who wants to get off the beaten trail for a few months, the return on investment on such a decision simply won’t be that great.
Will I Be Back?
I don’t know.
On one hand, it’s a quick, cheap flight from Mexico City and would work swimmingly for visa runs.
On the other hand, I’m not really sure what more I’d do there if I were to go for a third time.
All in all, I enjoyed the trip, but I’ve had my fill.
If I do ever go back, it probably won’t be in 2019. Too much more out there. I’ve got Paraguay and Bolivia to tick off my list, not to mention the other LATAM countries I haven’t been to for awhile calling me back.
I’d never say never — who knows where life takes you, right?
But for now it is on the back-back-back-burner of travel priorities.
Well, Guatemala City is not the shithole I initially thought it to be, to put it bluntly. I’m glad I gave it another shot — it was the right thing to do.
But nor is it El Dorado. That magic city untouched by gringos that’s cheap, safe, fun and where local women will hurl themselves at you.
Although I was far too harsh toward Guatemala City the first time around, particularly toward the quality of women, the nightlife scene and the general atmosphere of the city, it’s still not a place that left an overwhelmingly positive impression.
Is it worth a visit?
Probably not for the vast majority of individuals.
That said, if you’re like me and get off on city living, people-watching, nightlife and there being virtually no backpackers around, perhaps give it a try.
But don’t go too far out of your way to do so.
We’ll end things there.
As always, thanks for listening.
P.S. LATAM Capitalist wrote a version of our trip to Guatemala. You can read his post here here.
And or more information about Guatemala City, check out this city guide.