The normal routine for visitors to Guatemala:
Step 1: Fly into the international airport in Guatemala City.
Step 2: Get the hell out of Guatemala City.
Onward travel is usually toward Antigua, which is a 45-minute drive away, or a domestic flight to Flores, the gateway town to the Maya ruins at Tikal. For cautious travelers, the various boogeymen of Guatemala City, propped up by warnings from the State Department and in guidebooks' "Dangers and Annoyances" sections are worrisome enough to scurry along as quickly as possible. Being occasionally skittish myself, I can understand.
But does Guatemala City actually offer anything beyond muggings in dark alleys? Turns out it does.
Against the explicit suggestion of my government's resident hysterics, we stayed in the heart of Guate's old town, Zona 1, a short walk from the Parque Central. It turned out to be worth the stated risk.
Our hotel was just around the corner from the elaborate Central Post Office, which elevates the task of purchasing stamps into an activity for which you might care to dress. And it's not just an outing for philetists - it's a nice stop on your way to Parque Central and just one of those little things that gives you a quotidian experience.
Because I realize I just offered up a post office as a reason to visit a city, I'll move quickly along. Parque Central is, simply put, a choice place to hang out. Find a seat on the fountain and watch the world move. Old couples in matching tweeds, young families indulging their kids in sticky sweets, teenage lovebirds, evangelists, workers on break, sellers of Polaroid snapshots, people selling the most fragrant pineapples you'll ever come across - they're all here, strolling and relaxing by turns. Join them.
The Catedral Metropolitana flanks the eastern side of the square, and it's worth a look as an excercise in Catholic decorative restraint. It's hard to look at the spare expanses of white paint and not think that after one too many earthquakes (see Antigua), repairing all that gilding and painting just completely lost its appeal.
Just behind the Cathedral is one of my two favorite places to get lost in Guatemala City - the Mercado Central. This labyrinthine market stocks (sometimes to the ceiling) produce, Guatemalan textiles, leather goods, daily necessities and just about everything you could imagine. In terms of physical attractiveness of the building, this is not La Boqueria. But whatever the heaving concrete mass lacks in charm is made up for by the friendly vendors who will slice up a sample when you linger over particularly beautiful fruit and the sheer volume of the beautiful merchandise on display. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, prices are good.
Next up, a place for textile junkies to lose their minds.