Coming in at #12 on the worldwide per capita murder rankings does not make Guatemala City a very attractive tourist destination, and I hadn’t planned on spending any more time in the city than it took to get into a cab and get to Antigua (on a road mostly lined with American fast food chains). But I needed to get a yellow fever vaccination (I thought), as I’d heard it might be a requirement for getting into Panama (it wasn’t). I also had a standing offer from a local that I’d met in Antigua to be shown around the city and figured this was a better plan for my midweek birthday than yet another pub quiz in San Pedro.
As a Chicagoan I always take descriptions of a city as “dangerous” with a grain of salt. If you based your perception of Chicago solely on news reports, you’d probably never want to visit Chicago any more than Guatemala City. But in both cases much of the violence is gang-related and confined to certain neighborhoods — not exclusively, of course, but citizens of both Chicago and Guatemala City go about their daily business in the city center in much the same way as all other cities, which is to say, not dodging bullets and wearing body armor.
A Danish guy at my school in Antigua had given me my safety briefing, which I assure you is much more entertaining when I relate it personally in my fake Danish accent, but I will do my best to recreate it here.
“When I walk around outside, I do not take the wallet, but I just take maybe 300 Quetzals [less than $50], so if I get robbed, I give this to them, and they do not shoot me, because it is not worth it to them to get in trouble, and you know the bullet costs money. But if I do not have any money then maybe they shoot me anyway, so is better to have some money on you.
I am living in Zone 10 for six months, and I never have any problems. My friend though, he is living in Zone 1 for four months, and in this time he see four bodies in the street.”
So I stay in Zone 10.
I should know better than to be surprised, but I’m taken aback byw how modern it is. The Oakland Mall has pretty much anything you’d expect from an upscale mall in the US, and some stuff I didn’t even know existed. Zara has a home store now, which was news to me. I pick up earplugs at the Guatemala City equivalent of Home Depot (“uhhh…cuando hay much ruido??” [points at ears frantically]), get an extremely expensive haircut (about US$ 10) and, reassured by the hostel owner, I feel comfortable enough to explore the city on foot.
Zone 1 is the historical center, with all the government buildings and museums you’d expect in a capital city. I stop in for a birthday lunch at El Portal, a restaurant near the main square where Che allegedly used to eat. It’s the first of many dozens of references to Che I’ll encounter along the way, from Guatemala to Tierra del Fuego.
I hoof it to the Relief Map of Guatemala, a good 20 minutes on foot past the last TransUrbano stop, in Zone 2. The Relief Map seems like it must be a recently constructed tourist trap but it was actually built in 1905. The impressive nature of the map is not very much diminished by the fact that it’s currently under renovation; in fact, for the visitor with an active imagination, it makes for a rather entertaining experience. A worker is power-washing the northeast, causing massive flooding in Belize; birds land in the newly formed pools, one imagines the map’s miniature citizenry fleeing their cities in terror as they are besieged by dragon-size pigeons. But these fantasies can only captivate for so long, and I head back to Zone 10 for the evening via Zone 4, the market district, the most dangerous area of the city for me. Not because of crime, but because of low-hanging corrugated metal that lines the market stalls. You pretty much have to look down when you walk around Guate, as there are plenty of open manholes and construction sites without barriers, so the price is that I’m regularly bashing my head into tree branches and other low-hanging objects because nobody as tall as I am has walked down that street for weeks, or more.
At night my guide to Zone 10 is a girl I met in Antigua while she was on a weekend getaway from the city. It’s Wednesday night and I don’t have high hopes for a festive birthday, but live music doesn’t take a break in Guatemala City. Clubs in Zone 10 are full even on a Wednesday night. Gentlemen, if you’re wondering where are the ladies are, they’re in Guatemala City and they are waiting for somebody to dance with them. Sadly for my own dance partner, she loses her phone and the night ends on something of a lame note as we spend an hour fruitlessly searching for it. It was found in the parking lot and turned in the next day, but by this time I was on the way to Honduras.