GUATEMALA CITY HAS LONG BEEN better known for its crime statistics than its popularity as a tourist destination, but things could finally be changing. A raft of regeneration projects brought new energy to the capital of Central America’s largest economy, along with a growing sense of optimism among residents. At the same time, significant difficulties continue to hold back development and discourage foreign investment in what remains a troubled part of the world.
In fact, you’ll find these contradictions wherever you look in Guatemala City. On the one hand, World Bank figures show the economy has been one of the strongest in Latin America in recent years, but statistics also show Guatemala suffers some of the worst poverty, malnutrition and maternal-child health rates in the region.
According to experts, the situation results from high rates of inequality between the ruling elite and the vast majority of the population. Anyone who takes a short drive from the wealthy enclaves of zones 10 and 14 to the slums on the outskirts of the city can see this reality at work. As such, Guatemala City has a lot of potential in terms of tourism and business opportunities, but the current conditions have stifled development.
One thing may bring about change: the ongoing work of the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known as CICIG by its initials in Spanish). The organization has been investigating rampant corruption in political and business circles and brought down the Otto Peréz Molina government in September 2015 on the back of massive popular protests. Since then the country has been run by former TV clown Jimmy Morales, who came to power on an anti-corruption ticket but has since been rocked by graft allegations of his own.
In September 2017 Morales narrowly survived a Congressional vote to strip him of his immunity and open the way for a possible trial on allegations of illegal campaign financing, yet another sign of the political instability continuing to grip the country. For activist Natalia Peréz Arévalo from the Justicia Ya collective, Morales is part of the old system that benefits from corruption. “The corruption has deep roots in the political and economic system of Guatemala,” she said, criticizing Morales’ attempts to stop the CICIG from working. “To say that the fight against corruption weakens the development and economic growth of the country shows a belief that corruption is necessary for the economy to function.”
With the tentacles of corruption extending throughout Guatemalan society, activists hope popular protests and the continued investigations of the CICIG lead to a fairer society and allay the fears of international investors. However, other issues besides corruption — high crime rates, a lack of high-quality infrastructure, a lack of highly skilled workers and the weakness of state institutions — discourage investment as well. The World Bank’s Doing Business survey ranked Guatemala 88th out of 189 countries, and the Central American nation ranked 136th out of 176 countries in the Transparency International 2016 Corruption Perception Index, so there is a lot of work to be done.
If Guatemala confronts these problems, it could see plenty of opportunities for growth. The country has a lot of points in its favor, including natural resources, a strategic location and a youthful population, but reforms are necessary to unlock its potential. Despite the present difficulties, Peréz remains optimistic about the future. “I believe in the people, I believe in this country, and I firmly believe that there is a different way of doing things,” she said. “I believe in a more equal, safer and prosperous Guatemala.”
One sector that continues to grow despite multiple challenges is tourism. The number of visitors from January to August 2017 rose 14.2 percent higher than the same period in 2016, despite concerns over tourist infrastructure and safety. Popular sites include the Mayan ruins of Tikal, the volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan and the colonial city of Antigua. While authorities are pleased with the growing number of visitors, experts say the country needs to focus more on sustainable tourism.
“You have to look at the money but also the cultural heritage,” said Claire Dalles, a lecturer at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, in an interview with the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre newspaper. “It’s a job for the tourism authorities, tour operators and the tourists.”
While many visitors view Guatemala City as a stopover, regeneration projects are helping transform the city into a destination in itself. The formerly crime-ridden neighborhood of Zone 4 is now home to bars, restaurants and cultural spaces such as Karma, Shasta and La ERRE, while the historic center in Zone 1 is becoming a favorite with young fashionable locals after years as an administrative and commercial center. In fact, creative industries are booming in Guatemala City, with galleries such as The 9.99 and studios such as Decontrol providing a boost to cultural and artistic life garnering international attention.
These kinds of projects point to a new optimism among residents. It is easy to forget Guatemala is still emerging from the shadow of a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, and society still bears many scars. However, if you keep your ear to the ground, you’ll discover a sense Guatemala perches on the verge of momentous change which could finally unlock the enormous potential of the country.
Things to Do in Guatemala City
Guatemala City is building a reputation as an attractive tourist destination of its own with a growing art and culinary scene. Whereas the colonial city of Antigua was the preferred base for tourists in years past, an increasing number now appreciate the attractions of the capital.
Business travelers most likely stay in Zone 10, also known as the Zona Viva. Here, you will find the top international chain hotels and restaurants. There are several shopping malls, including Oakland Mall and Plaza Fontabella, where you can pick up souvenirs. Plaza Fontabella is also home to the best bookshop in the city, Sophos.
Over in Zone 4 you will find innovative restaurants such as Mercado 24 and Shasta, as well as bars like Karma. Late at night, Espacio Solemne is the place to be. The next day, if you’re in need of a caffeine fix, you’ll find fine Guatemalan coffee on sale at Paradigma and Rojo Cerezo, two cafés at the forefront of the growing barista movement in Guatemala. Suitably fortified, check out the exhibitions at La ERRE or head over to Zone 1 to The 9.99, both heavyweights in the contemporary art scene.
In fact, Guatemalan art is making waves around the world, and the artists at Proyectos Ultravioleta are ones to watch. Its latest project involved transporting a mini-gallery to LACMA in Los Angeles, providing further evidence of the international reach of Guatemalan artists. Other good spots for art fans include Proyecto Poporopo in Zone 2 and Espacio Sotano 1 in Zone 1.
You can also visit the presidential palace and the cathedral on the central square in Zone 1 before taking a look around the atmospheric central market.
CHECKING IN WITH LUISO PONCE
Cofounder, Design Studio Decontrol
What inspired you to set up a design studio?
Our biggest motivation was knowing we both [Luiso Ponce and Andres Vargas] had artistic skills that would make a solid combination and deliver a unique approach in the Guatemalan market.
How have creative industries in Guatemala changed in recent years?
The democratization of creative tools and the internet made it possible for more experimentation to take place. As a result, a new wave of studios and innovative projects developed separate from traditional advertising.
How has the art and design world grown in Guatemala in recent years?
The art scene in Guatemala has always been the biggest in Central America. In recent years there has been an upturn and there have been more high-quality projects, but there is still a lot of work to be done in order to compete on the world stage.
How does the political and economic situation influence the work of Decontrol?
Without a doubt the political situation affects everyone in Guatemala either directly or indirectly. In the past four years, various corruption scandals in Guatemala have also empowered the people to find their voice and demand things work as they should. It’s something that motivates us to push forward and try to improve the things that happen in our community.
How can Guatemalan creativity reach an international audience?
We think there are various exhibitors and local artists who do things well, and as a result they’ve managed to expand their audience. The answer is simple, and it comes from hard work.
Which creative spaces should visitors to Guatemala City make sure they see?
They should not miss Proyectos Ultravioleta, The 9.99 Gallery, Gente Secreta, Sótano 1, La ERRE, to name a few.
Guatemala City Info to Go
La Aurora International Airport, the fourth-busiest in Central America, is a two-terminal facility located about four miles from Zone 1. The airport completed a renovation project in 2008 and acts as a hub for the Cuban airlines Cubana de Aviación, Aerogaviota and Aero Caribbean, and also takes flights from more than two dozen international carriers. La Aurora lies close to Zone 10, location of the majority of business hotels, but traffic at peak times can make for long journeys. Book a taxi in advance or find one outside the terminal on arrival. Public transport is not available from the airport terminal.
COMING AND GOING
U.S. citizens must have a valid passport with at least six months of validity remaining for stays of less than 90 days.
Guatemala City: Just the Facts
Time Zone: GMT -6
Phone code: Country code: 502
Currency: Guatemalan quetzal
Key industries: Sugar, textiles, tourism
Where to Stay in Guatemala City
BARCELÓ GUATEMALA CITY With two restaurants, a sports bar and a spa, this 5-star hotel is one of the best in town, popular with business travelers. 7a Ave., 15-45, Zone 9 $$$
HOTEL PAN AMERICAN If you want to stay in Zone 1, this is the place to be: smart guestrooms in an Art Deco building, a stone’s throw away from the central square and the presidential palace. 9a Calle, 5-63, Zone 1 $$
THE WESTIN CAMINO REAL Guests at this refined hotel can relax in the outdoor pool after a day of meetings before heading out to eat and drink in buzzing Zone 10. Avenida la Reforma and 14 Calle Guatemala City $$$
Restaurants in Guatemala City
MERCADO 24 This Zone 4 mainstay uses fresh ingredients from the 23 markets dotted around Guatemala City to make delicious dishes for a trendy crowd. Ruta 3 Vía 5, Zone 4 $$
RESTAURANTE ALTUNA This traditional Spanish restaurant is found in Zone 1 and makes a great choice if you are looking for great seafood, attentive service and a refined atmosphere. 5a Ave., 12-31 $$
TAMARINDOS Thai-Italian fusion with a hint of Guatemalan influences might not sound like the most likely combination, but Tamarindos confounds expectations with amazing food and an expansive wine list in Zone 10. Calle 2-19A, Zone 10 $$$
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