GUATEMALA CITY: “Guate” Gets its Groove on in Zona 1

N.O.A Guatemala City

The scene at N.O.A. Image: Natalie Compagno

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 adrianajk@yahoo.com. 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.




  1. Cynthia Ellingsen on February 22, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    What a great article! I could totally picture the neon lights and graffitti-tagged walls, with Frida’s art and local authenticity around every turn. Looking forward to hearing about your next location!

  2. Salvatore Compagno on February 23, 2013 at 9:31 am


    A fantastic report on an unknown region of Guatemala City! I was there in 1968 for two days–
    certainly not enough-to grasp its glories. You have made it an highly inviting and energetic
    place to visit. Keep up your writing and your traveling- it broadens and enlightens people. Did
    you know I am off to a river-cruise in China -April 13-May 1? Hope I survive.

    Uncle Sal

  3. Mary Rose on February 24, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    Irish pubs? awesome!

  4. Julie Skoog on February 25, 2013 at 11:23 am

    Just put Guatemala City on my list thanks to your article. Looking forward to your next destination recommendation!

  5. celeste iuul on February 25, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    Have been so keen to visit Central America, but wasn’t sure if I would put Guatemala on my list but now I certainly will. Thank you Natalie for a fun and informative review of your experience there. I look forward to meeting Enrique and Adriana. And who doesn’t love seeing Uncle Sal in the comments section! My friend Stacy just finished a river cruise through China, get ready for small quarters, otherwise she said it was a trip of a lifetime. Celeste

  6. Carolyn Jenkins on February 28, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Ummm… do you really think people should bring their camera to Zone 1? A disposable camera, maybe.
    A little current events:

  7. Mia Wood on March 2, 2013 at 11:06 am

    Natalie is a wonderful source of knowledge and information from around the globe. With her husband, Greg Freitas, Natalie owns and operates Traveler’s Bookcase in Los Angeles. It’s my go-to bookstore for practically everything I need and want! YAYA, Nat! Great article!

  8. Susan Van Allen on March 4, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    Wow Natalie–I’ve loved living vicariously through these fun times in Guatemala–great post–looking forward to more!

  9. […] site WanderMelon visits Guatemala’s trendy Zona One, offering tips on nightlife and things to see and do in this rapidly developing urban neighborhood. […]

  10. Laurel baker on May 14, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Thanks for the nice review of zone 1!

  11. Garrett Richmond on July 3, 2013 at 8:49 am

    While this is an interesting article and I do plan on visiting zone 1 when I’m back in Guate again in a couple weeks, I think it is a bit irresponsible for this article to not warn about the dangers of Guatemala City. A casual traveller visiting the city, especially one that has never been to latin america before, has no idea what they are in for from reading this article alone. While I do visit the city frequently to visit friends that live there, I only do so with locals that live there. We only get out of our cars at places where there are armed guards. At night we leave the bar and go back to their house, in a gated, electrified razor wire surrounded community with armed guards. We never feel safe going from point A to point B though, at any stop light a gun could be put to your head.

    I guess my advise is, unless you have a reason to go to Guatemala City, don’t. Stick to Antigua.

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