Guatemala City, like many metropolises of the Third World, is a city divided into two parts, whose chaotic centre deters some tourists.
The air in the often narrow, crowded streets of the historic centre is filled with exhaust fumes, even though the depots of the bus companies have been banned from the centre.
The ambitious RenaCENTRO restoration project targets to restore the remaining, mostly neoclassical facades of the centre to their former splendour with the help of international funds, above all from Argentina, Spain and France. The closure to traffic of streets such as the 6th Avenida, Guatemala City’s busiest shopping street, and the widening of sidewalks have made the centre more pedestrian-friendly and revitalised it.
In the wealthy zones 9, 10, 13, 14 and 15 the Avenidas become wider and are lined with modern office buildings, banks, restaurants and cafés. Due to the large number of restaurants and nightclubs, Zona 10 is also known as “Zona Viva”. It is also home to the better hotels of the two million city, as well as ministries and embassies.
Guatemala’s capital is also home to the country’s best museums, most notably the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in Zone 13. Although the exhibits are not as modern, professional and didactically prepared as in the museums of Zona 10, their quality is outstanding, as they are precious originals from the various archaeological sites of Guatemala. Among the most outstanding items are ceramic finds and steles from Kaminaljuyú, ‘barrigones’ (stone figures reminiscent of the Olmec tradition with thick, inflated bellies) from Pacific sites and artefacts from the Mayan cities of the Petén. Among the latter are artistic steles and a spectacular hieroglyphic bank of Piedras Negras, Dos Pilas and Machaquilá. The ‘highlight’ of the museum is the jade burial mask of King Quetzal K’ uk’ Ahau, the 18th ruler of Tikal, which once decorated the title of the National Geographic Magazine.
Also worth seeing are the neighbouring museums Ixchel and Popol Vuh on the campus of Francisco Marroquín University (Zona 10).
While the Museo Ixchel (del Traje Indígena) is dedicated to the extremely rich textile culture of the country, ceramic vessels from various Mayan groups and sites dominate the collection of the Museo Popol Vuh. The museum also owns a replica of the Dresden Codex.
An insight into Guatemalan history since independence from Spain can be gained by visiting the former Palacio Nacional, which was converted into a museum in 1996. Reminiscences of the numerous dictators and military juntas in Guatemala’s history are brought back to life here, as is the end of the civil war with the treaties of 1996, which is commemorated in the Patio de la Paz with a stone sculpture from two open hands. Every day at 11 a.m., a white rose is ceremonially placed in the hands.