Gathering Glimpses of Guatemala City – Guatemala City, Guatemala

Gathering Glimpses of Guatemala City: My First Impression of Guatemala’s Capital City, A Gateway to a Discovery Hopping Spree
Guatemala City, Guatemala

If not for its front-door status, Guatemala City is easily dumped-off by camera-toting tourists. Relegated as gear-stocking way station, or a last-minute mind-body-spirit checkpoint Charlie, it serves as a steppingstone for the magical wonderlands of Antigua, Tikal, or Lake Atitlan.

La Capital greeted me on a yawning Saturday morning touch down from an overnight flight. I lost no time acclimatizing and exploring while waiting for my early evening connecting flight to Tikal.

As the cliché, “don’t judge a book by its cover” holds true for the rest of Guatemala, don’t judge this city on its airport. Aurora International incorporates no icy-cool glass-and-steel ensembles, rather a humorous adornment of crazy cuts on concrete panels coated with a paint bearing its national colors of baby blue and white outside. A gloomy-heavy feel permeates inside. Its low-tech, low-maintenance look reflects provincial atmosphere and attitude.

A 1940s construction, its endurance resonates around its long stretches of hardwood handrails in vogue during those “good old days” of pre-environmental awareness.

Tourists arrive regardless of the day of the week but the information counter is unmanned on a Saturday. An American-educated Venezuelan catering at the Viewing Hall pitched-in the needed insightful direction.

Buses link old downtown from its bus stop, accessed by climbing a bluff sliced-off to accommodate a basement porte cochére serving the arrival traffic. The upper-level departure area is connected by overhead bridge to this bluff’s top. Emerging disoriented, I was hit by its stark rocky-wall, blocking the wide welcoming city landscape above. Engineering wise, the arrangement makes sense but I’ll leave the rest to Fung Shui experts.

April showers added twist to a sleepy welcome, exactly as I stepped down from the bus. Drenched with rain and sticky sweat, I beseeched the sky, which responded in more drizzles – an auspicious treat from the Guatemalan gods.

Intense tropical humidity permeates at 4,000 feet altitude.

First stop is Plaza Mayor, converted cramped fairground-like with tarp pavilions obliterating the view to the centerpiece fountain.

To the east, the August Cathedral stands. Its cobalt blue Bavarian bulbous-topped twin belfries along with its Cupola glitter with fish scale-like tiles from afar. Thousands of victims’ names from the 80s-90s military purge are etched on its fence’s pillars, indicating deeply entangled affairs between Church and State. Much like if an Anti-Slavery Civil War Honor Roll Memorial is installed on the grounds of Washington, D.C. Cathedral, Church and State separation purists will cry foul! The Catholic Church is invigorated by Liberation Theology prevailing in the region.

The Palace of Culture, venue for state ceremonies and receptions occupies the north, an avocado-flavored wedding cake made rotten green by the gloomy weather. Its granite veneer incorporates green silica specks, oxidizing through geologic evolution explaining the unique color.

This 1940s dream-villa fits to a T any Spanish millionaire-landowner who’s been to California in the 1930s, the overall look – an amalgam of arts and crafts, avant-garde, and Spanish mission styles.

Woodcarvings adorn hallways alongside murals by a local Michelangelo depicting Guatemalan history and aspiration while fantasizing Guatemalan female form along Hollywood’s standard of exhibitionism and concept of beauty with vital statistics not typically manifested by maidens in Mayan villages.

The “Throne Room” seems taken out of a page from an inspirational coffee-table book about Hollywood’s palatial cinemas. This one is reminiscent of El Capitan.

Batteries of stained-glass windows in the “Banquet Room” are interrupted by clear blank glazing replacing shattered panes, a regretful reminder of the nasty left/right-wing bombings in the 1980s. The guide directed curious eyes to the ceiling done in the Mudejar/Artesonado style.

The palace is a repository of works of internationally renowned painter – Carlos Merida. Unfortunately, the display halls are closed on Saturdays.

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Palace of Culture
If the Plaza Mayor is the orchestra, the Palace of Culture its proscenium-stage, then the block behind is its backstage, devoid of architectural indulgence even if it’s meant as the Presidential apartments incorporating paint-covered windows, high blank fences, and barb wires. This prison-type unhealthy compound must’ve been psycho-torture with dire consequences to the occupants, particularly, to the Presidents of Guatemala in their decision-making processes. I strayed into this area but the guard wasn’t flustered, if I pulled out my camera it would have been a different story.

A clue to Guatemala’s Congress is an inscription on a dingy building southwest of the Cathedral by an old university. This rusty classic is boarded-up, appearing condemned for a soon-to-be scheduled demolition.

Intriguing why culturally endowed Guatemala put up no architectural showcases for its highest offices, sadly it’s time to move on.

Few blocks east, the knockout stocky La Merced church contains a treasure trove of one of the fabulously oldest ecclesiastical iconography and furnishings in Latin America, an appetizing sneak preview to great Antiguan churches.

Somber yet fabulous is the interior of La Merced. Walls became backdrops for multiple centerpieces; each one of them makes a full day or even more of startling conversation pieces. All that is here is salvaged accoutrement of damaged churches in Antigua.

Equally, rich in Antiguan flavor is San Miguel de las Capuchinas church. The all-white facade has pilasters stylized like long Chinese lanterns with heavy accordion-type folds that go all the way to the finials. The cavernous interior is gleaming with gold.

The squeaky-white colonial church of El Carmen reminded me of Styrofoam-package coming out of a TV box, nestled on a tree-filled hill offering city views. Guidebooks warned of shady pickpockets and drug dealers. A street worker of the oldest profession aimlessly strutting by on a lunchtime shift was ready for take-out. On top were two uniformed armed tourist troopers.

Lovers are out-of-sight in this rendezvous delight, hotter than more exposed Mexican plazas where romance and lust are expressed openly. Locals’ restrained display of affection parallels the somber seriousness of Guatemalan churches as compared to the exuberance of its Mexican cousins.

Interesting to note that this 1.5 million-inhabited city has a Chinatown! Blocks down the Palace, sits a Chinese Temple accessorized by Chinese-looking pedestrians, hopefully not another force to reckon with for the already suffering natives.

The affluent new downtown is three kilometers southeast. Its main thoroughfare – Avenida Reforma, is a diminutive sister of its namesake and counterpart in Mexico City where the French implanted a copy of Champs Elyseé. Lesser in grandeur, but no shortage of street sculptures, this time mammalian forms augment the original theme of heroes and history.

The premier Marroquin University campus with tidy modern buildings and mowed lawns is east of this strip. Visiting its two impressive museums, I felt transformed in a first-world country where everyone looks more Caucasian, young, trendy, drives his/her car, and is a highly cigarette smoke-belcher.

West of the Avenida is Plaza de España on Calle 12. Compared to Paris’ Arch D’Triumph, this micro-monument to Mother Spain isn’t a walk-through experience. Circumferential office-buildings and polychrome azulejo tile-finished bus-stop benches resembling kitchen counters provide architectural character.

Champs Elysee and Arc D’Triumph are done, the Eiffel Tower must be somewhere.

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Azulejo Bus Stop
Eiffel Tower reincarnates crudely in Torre de Reformador on a heavy-traffic intersection, an unpretentious composition of steel crosses-and-rings in the tic-tac-toe style, good start-up drawing exercise for kids before graduating to the more sophisticated original.

Situated along the airport’s route and loud in their tangerine box-like structures with heavy elliptical window moldings, two important museums are impossible to miss. They are the Archeology and Ethnology Museum with exhibits of impressive heirlooms, diggings, and copies along with good archeological models, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Struggling to be all-in-one Native-American, nostalgically European, and vibrantly Modern against political and natural odds on a back-burner reputation, Guatemala City offers amusingly simple attractions.

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