Perhaps a bit hectic for those looking for a relaxing Guatemala vacation, Guatemala City, or Guate as it is often called, constitutes the largest urban sprawl in all of Central America. While not exactly pretty, and wrought with transportation issues, Guatemala City offers a vibrant Latin charm that integrates itself among both the city's historical and modern trappings. Between its active year round cultural scene, antique churches and the thriving Guatemala City night life, Guatemala's capital has something to offer visitors willing to put up with its sometimes overwhelming atmosphere. Flights to Guatemala favor Guatemala as their arrival point, meaning that if you are going by plane, you will most likely show up at the Guatemala City airport. Named "La Aurora", the Guatemala City airport is preparing to open a new terminal and further expansions are planned with the intent to provide a step up in passenger and airline services. The FAA certified the Guatemala City airport as a Category I facility in June of 2007. Guatemala's second busiest international airport can be found near the city of Flores.
While Guatemala City does emit a sense of disorder at times, some travelers will appreciate its fast pace and vibrancy. Modern and cosmopolitan, while maintaining its traditional heritage, the city began its reign as the country's capital when Spanish colonists began looking for a replacement for the earthquake-damaged former capital of Antigua. Founded in 1776 on what the Spaniards fancied as more forgiving lands, Guatemala City rests atop three tectonic plates in a valley where the Agua volcano looms omnipotent. While void of the country's more popular ruins and mountains, the majority of Guatemala's most notable museums are found here and over 30 galleries located around the city display the varied mediums of native artists. The National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology houses the largest collection of Mayan artifacts in the country, and the Archaeological Park at Kaminaljuyú offers up remnants of one of the Mayan region's first great cities. Guatemala City, in its continual growth, managed to predominantly swallow up the Pre-Columbian settlement of Kaminaljuyú, as well as a number of one-time suburbs. Unfortunately, much of the ruins were buried under commercial real estate developments.
While you may not opt to stay long in Guatemala City, you will find that the capital boasts some nice restaurants and there are decent options for Guatemala City hotels if you should decide to spend a night or more before embarking on a wider Guatemala tour. Those looking for comfort will opt for the New City, while those looking for more character might venture into the Old City. If you have secured a rental car Guatemala City can make for an intimidating town, with 21 different zones, most of which should only be explored by the truly adventurous souls. There really is no need to stray from the city's four central zones, which ultimately makes the city more manageable. Zone 1 in the north is where you will find the Old City, while zones 9 and 10 in the south comprise most of the New City. The main bus terminals are found in Zone 4, but other than hailing a bus, there is not much for tourists in this somewhat seedy section. The Old City's Zone 1 features the national and presidential palaces, the main plaza and the cathedral, while Zone 10 in the New City is where you will find the majority of high-class restaurants, bars, hotels and shopping options. Recreational enthusiasts can seek out activities outside the city, such as climbing the Agua and Pacaya volcanoes, or look for swimming opportunities and water sports at Lake Amatitlán
While Guatemala City's Old City is a bit rough around the edges, strolling its Plaza de las Armas can be a rewarding way to pass time, and it is in the Old City that you find the true flavor of a Central American capital. Pleasant at times and noisy and obnoxious at others, the Old City can make for exciting and memorable moments, if given the chance. Also, shopping in Zone 1 reveals a bit of everything, and it is hard to beat the prices you can find here. While shopping in Guatemala City, visitors will tend to find that the "typical goods" offered are usually of a higher quality, and you might consider trying your hand at bargaining for a real deal. While the New City's Zona Viva comprises most of the upscale shopping and Guatemala City night life, you might find that the Old City offers a bit more character. To see and be seen at night, definitely stick to the most trendy Zona Viva (Lively Zone), but be prepared for dress codes at some of the dance clubs, as well as lengthy lines at some of the more popular hangouts. Among Guatemala City night life spots, you can expect a nice mix of discotheques as well as a welcome array of more subtle bars if dancing isn't part of the plan. It is discouraged that you walk anywhere alone at night, and generally taxis are the best way to go for getting around town, day or night.