Not many travelers — even savvy ones — know about Guatemala City’s Zona 1. In fact most visitors skip Guate, the local moniker for the country’s capital, altogether for other attractions in the country such as the Maya ruins of Tikal and the colonial city of Antigua. How unfortunate, as this area of the city is undergoing a renaissance currently transforming it into one of Central America’s most colorful urban landscapes. What you’ll see here is a hidden gem brimming with street art, newly-restored architecture, coffee houses, pubs, contemporary art bars and restaurants. Like other newly-revitalized urban areas in Latin America, many of these locales brim with new construction, but you can still feel the history and sense the ghosts of personalities like Che Guevara moving in and out of the side streets. (The Argentina-born revolutionary icon lived in Guatemala for a year and loved to eat and drink at El Portal here in the heart of it all).
Guatemala City Night Moves
Now that you’re suitably fired up for your Zona 1 culture/bar crawl (camera mandatory, Che T-shirt optional) here are some hot picks for a cool night on the town:
Start with a guided or self-guided architectural tour beginning at the main square in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral. First, go inside the grand building to see one of the most beautiful and ornate cathedrals in all of Central America and perhaps pray for the sins you are about to commit during your Zona 1 nightlife crawl. Don’t miss the Palacio Nacional and the Edificio de Coreos Central (Post Office). If you do choose the guided tour option of this historic district, make sure and contact locals Enrique and Adriana at firstname.lastname@example.org. They can give you a wonderful tour in English or Spanish. They also just happen to know the latest bar and restaurant openings.
Now that you’ve checked the culture stops off your list, head straight to El Portal where Che whiled away his days discussing politics and drinking micheladas. Or at least that’s how people here imagine him. There’s usually a band playing in the alcove and the place is so seductively cool and dark you can easily forget what time of day it is outside. But hopefully you won’t miss all the daylight hours so you can enjoy a pick-me-up at Cafe Leon. Guatemala is famous for its coffee so make sure you don’t miss this stop. There is a lovely garden out back and you can rejuvenate with whatever caffeinated libation you prefer.
Don’t worry, the nightlife is next and it starts right next door to the cafe. Reilly’s, an Irish pub (yes, they’re everywhere) practically shares a kitchen with Cafe Leon and has every whisky you could possibly hope for. The staff is hip, friendly and from what it seems, very Irish at heart.
We’ve saved the real treat for last. N.O.A. is a hipster haven cocktail lounge dressed to party in neon-lights and graffiti-tagged walls. There is an art gallery upstairs and gift shop named after Frida Kahlo’s house, La Casa Azul, that’s worth the trip by itself. Downstairs you can eat great food, sip the latest fashionista cocktails and groove to the DJ, all while surrounded by modern art. Have a few too many cocktails and you might think you’re in New York’s East Village. But once you step outside, you’ll remember you’re in Guate’s Zona 1, Guatemala’s alt-cultural festival of the senses that will have you falling in love with its authenticity and style.
Natalie Compagno is a frequent global traveler and co-owner of one of the Los Angeles area’s leading independent travel bookstores, Traveler’s Bookcase.