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Guatemala City: Where Are The Crowds?

Our day begins at Guatemala City's Plaza Principal. Like Mexico City's Zócalo, this is a big open space, able to hold thousands of people. Unlike most of the town squares we've seen around Guatemala, this lacks green space, and it could really use some. Instead, the dominant features are the large central fountain, a vast flock of pigeons, and an enormous Guatemalan flag.

And while the Zócalo in Mexico city is a constant swirl of craft vendors, performers, short-cutting locals, and gawking tourists, Plaza Principal—like every other attraction we see in the capital—is a much quieter place. A few people sit on the fountain rim or nearby benches, a few more stroll around the edges, and one man feeds bread to the birds.

The beautiful National Palace lines one side of the square. Entering the building feels like stepping back to about 1870—but in fact this oasis of two- and three-storey ceilings, graceful courtyards, and elegant plantings dates only from 1943.

Tours in Spanish run frequently, and include the several large murals, the antique telephone switchboard, the big wooden ballroom that contains Kilometer Zero directly under a massive crystal chandelier—and at this moment (July, 2008), a temporary art exhibit.

Facing the palace, the National Cathedral fills the block of the square on the right. Although on a larger scale, this is typical of the Catholic churches we've seen in Guatemala: sparse white interior, lots of art on the walls, quite a bit of decoration in the altar area, and nothing resembling the gaudy churches we often saw in Mexico.

Behind the cathedral is an amazing experience: the Guatemala City artisan market. This great big barn, almost invisible from the street, could actually be described as tranquil compared to markets we visited in infinitely smaller communities like Santiago Atitlán or Antigua.

Selection is good, prices are reasonable (and open to negotiation)—and hardly any shoppers wander the aisles. And there we find the elusive chamarra we hadn't been able to locate in its home territory of Momostenango—a gorgeous and warm hand-woven wool blanket, for 160 quetzales or $20 U.S.

Our next stop is the National Archaeology Museum—and once again, we have the place almost to ourselves. While the pretty reddish-brown building is quite large, it only took an hour or so to go through. Well-organized by period, starting with pre-Columbian, it has quite a nice collection. And one could spend double the time, just by reading the long explanations in Spanish, but I didn't feel up to working that hard. While the 60 quetzal admission—Guatemalan citizens pay only 5—is expensive by local standards, it's quite reasonable given the collection's scope and breadth. Photos are allowed, but not flash.

At least two other museums are on the same Zone 13 campus: one on natural history, and the other on modern painting. Unfortunately, we had run out of time.

So where were the many residents of "Guate" (as all the bus drivers call it) that day? In their cars, apparently. While every attraction we visited was almost empty, the thoroughfares were absolutely jammed, and we spent an astonishing amount of time sitting in traffic.

Despite the traffic, it was a great day, all the more so because we'd come into the city with low expectations. All the travelers and guidebooks advised against even going, but we were visiting a family, and were glad we had the day there.

Shel Horowitz has written about travel experiences from meeting with peace activists in Israel to cooking in Mexico to getting around Los Angeles by bus. He is the editor of Global Travel Review and the author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook and six other books.


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