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The Colors of Guatemala

Vista de verduras en mercado central en Guatemala

They say that the name of the country derives from the Nahuatl Quauhtlmallan, which translates "The Place of Many Trees"; however, it could well have meant "The Place of Many Colors".

White and Gray

Vista diurna del Palacio Nacional de la Cultura en Guatemala

Guatemala City is the largest and most populated city in Central America and the Caribbean. There, in the Historical Center to be precise, white and gray are mixed in emblematic buildings such as the Metropolitan Cathedral—a building that has withstood the onslaught of 20 earthquakes in the last century—and the Plaza de Armas, with its imposing Presidential Palace.

Far from the Center, the Ciudad Universitaria is an example of modernist architecture: 117 blocks with facades in white stucco. This color is also present in colonial architecture; as is the case of Ciudad Cayalá, a citadel with white walls, stone paths and roofs with Spanish tiles.

When visiting zone 1 (the capital is divided into 16 zones), you may notice how grayish tones are predominant in the administrative area. In buildings such as the Banco de Guatemala, indigenous art is present in limestone murals.

Ocher and Terracotta

Vista de Guatemala y sus colores en la plaza

Towards the east, 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Guatemala City, you will find the city of Antigua: the capital of the General Captaincy of Guatemala during the Spanish colonial period. Antigua is an ochre and yellow city, always on the lookout for the intense activity of the Volcano of Fire and for earthquakes, which have haunted this architectural wonder for centuries.

Antigua reflects a baroque style preserved in its stone valleys, surrounded by churches, palaces, public buildings, houses and remains that have witnessed the passage of time. A stop here to admire the ruins of Santa Clara, Santa Catalina, the Cathedral and San Francisco, and to visit the so-called Arco del Reloj (The Clock Arcade) is highly recommended.

Further south of Antigua, an hour and a half from the capital heading for the Pacific beaches, you will arrive to Escuintla. Its iconic yellow cathedral is part of the country's color palette.

Dark Blue, Light Blue

Panorámica diurna de Río Dulce en Guatemala

When taking the road to Chimaltenango, from Guatemala City to the semi-dry highlands, a wide range of blues appears. The skies are usually clear and, in the background, you can see the great Tolimán, San Pedro, and Atitlán mountains and volcanoes, as well as lake Atitlán.

Here was the place where the Mayans of the Classical period (second age), settled and developed techniques that withstood the test of time. During the Spanish colony, this was also the founding place of 13 villages—almost all of them named after saints—, which can be reached by boat through Lake Atitlán if the xocomil, a wind that is formed between the volcanoes and that can from big waves at noon, allows it.

Green and Emerald

Vista diurna del  parque Cayala en Guatemala

Seven hours north of the capital you will find Semuc Champey, a river in the middle of the tropical forest that forms turquoise pools, and on whose surface you can see seven different colors.

As the altitude drops, towards the east, you will find the island of Flores on Lake Petén Itzá, attached to the coast by a 0.5-kilometer (0.2-mile) road. This city has cobblestone streets and colorful houses by the shore of the lake that reflect the shades of the jungle.

From there you can take one of the tours to the Mayan settlements of Tikal, Mirador and Ceibal, and you can even see some of the imposing pyramids.

Further north, a day's journey from Guatemala City, is Lake Izabal, where Río Dulce, a river in the middle of the jungle, is mixed with thermal springs forming bubbles that reach the Caribbean Sea in the town of Livingston.

Guatemala City: The Beat of the Mayan Heart

Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias, Nobel Prize in Literature, imagined his country as a hand in which each line, finger, muscle and tendon represented the mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and volcanoes of the territory. He wrote: "Oigo pegando mis oídos al mapa vivo de tu suelo que llevo aquí, aquí en las manos, repicar todas tus campanas, parpadear todas tus estrellas."

The fragment summarizes the essence of Guatemala City: a city that preserves its Spanish legacy since its foundation in 1776 in Valle de la Ermita, with its 96 churches as a testimony of the Catholic faith, but also an ancestral town that has its origins in the Mayan civilization, which one millennium ago housed its longest-standing settlement (Kaminaljuyú), and which scrutinized the night sky to understand the origin of the cosmos and life.

Panorámica nocturna de Guatemala

Today, Guatemala City, with an area of ​​692 square kilometers (267 square miles) and a population of approximately five million people, is the largest city in Central America. It is also one of its most important urban lungs: the Environment Committee of the Union of Ibero-American Capital Cities named Guatemala City as 2019 Green Capital for its 95 square kilometers (59 square miles) of natural areas within the city and for the protection of tree species such as the pink poui and the jacaranda.

As the capital of one of the most mega diverse countries in the world, according to the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity, this city has had to find new ways to grow that will allow it to protect its natural resources. Therefore, in 2012, at the Smart City Expo World Congress, it was recognized for its initiatives that seek to eliminate social gaps through innovation and implementation of renewable energies.

Guatemala City was elected unanimously in 2015 as the Ibero-American Capital of Culture for its project 'Cultura en tu barrio' ('Culture in your neighborhood'), which brings theater, film and painting to the suburbs. Furthermore, in 2006, the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art of New York recognized Guatemala City as an innovative urban center for its urban plan and for spaces that invite the people to enjoy pedestrian passages, squares and gardens.

What to do in Ciudad de Guatemala?

1. Museums Route:

According to Mayan mythology, the gods Tepeu and Gucumatz created mankind to preserve the memory of their deeds: they molded men with wood and corn, so they could honor the past and the history of their ancestors. Today, centuries later, museums in Guatemala City still honor this ancient commitment to the Gods in 27 institutions that guard, investigate and display the country's legacies.

Popol Vuh Museum

Vista de figuras antiguas en museo Popol Vuh

In the 18th century, the Spanish friar Francisco Ximénez discovered a Mayan text written around the year 1550 in the Quiché language: the Popol Vuh (which can be translated as Book of Counsel). This museum, with six thousand archaeological pieces, was founded in 1977 and displays the origin, ascent and consolidation of the Mayan people.

Its eight rooms are dedicated to ceramic, carved stone, obsidian and alabaster artifacts that this civilization perfected during 18 centuries. Here you can also visit the largest collection of funeral urns in Guatemala and the colonial art room that exhibits pieces of Christian imagery, baroque painting and silverware.

Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Costume

Fotografía vestimenta típica en Museo Ixchel en Guatemala

Out of the approximately 16 million people living in Guatemala, between 41% and 50% are indigenous. That is why this museum, founded in 1973, wants to preserve, investigate and display the history of indigenous peoples through their clothing.

The 7,801 fabrics are organized chronologically from 1532 to mid-20th century in order to understand how the contact with Europeans gradually modified designs, materials and symbols. Its permanent exhibition, donated mostly by private collectors, has costumes that represent the country's 186 indigenous ethnic groups.

Archdiocesan Museum of Santiago de Guatemala

Fotografía de esculturas en el museo Arquideocesano en Guatemala

most of the art exhibited in this place is anonymous. The hands behind the details in the wood, the silver, the fabrics and the paintings worked with a single mission: to worship. However, among the eighty pieces exhibited (of a total of about 200 collected and preserved between the archdioceses of Antigua Guatemala and Guatemala City), there are names like the one of the Dominican friar Juan Chaves or the artisan silversmith Miguel Guerra.

The museum, founded in 2005, has the largest collection of ecclesiastical art of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in the city. In addition to its permanent exhibition, each year there are two temporary displays, like the one dedicated to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, which features sculptures, French robes, jewels, silver ornaments and dalmatics with gold threads.

Kaminaljuyu Archaeological Park

Vista interna de Museo Kaminaljuyu  en Guatemala

According to the National Geographic Institute, in Guatemala there are three active volcanoes and 29 more at rest. As a result, the history of the country has been linked to volcanic activity: eruptions and earthquakes have shaped its cities.

Of course, obsidian—a rock produced from volcanic lava—was a valued mineral for the Mayans, especially for the settlement of Kaminaljuyu, which flourished for a little more than a thousand years and reached a population of 50,000 people that traded with this stone.

This archaeological zone was discovered in 1936 and, since its original name is unknown, it was named Kaminaljuyu: Colina del Muerto (The Hill of the Dead). Today, in this site you can visit the vestiges of its pyramids, the exhibition of obsidian artifacts (weapons, masks and ritual objects) and the artisanal ceramic, alabaster and jade sample.

2. The Green Route of the City

Ruta verde en parue de Guatemala

The name Guatemala comes from the Náhuatl word 'Quauhtlemallan', which means place of many trees or place with abundant trees. The name, of course, was not given lightly: with approximately 300 parks, Guatemala City provides each inhabitant with 22 square meters (26.3 square yards) of green space (the World Health Organization recommends an average between 10 and 15 square meters / 12 and 18 square yards per person).

Ecoaventura

Eco aventura en parque de Guatemala

For the past 20 years this private park, located in zone 11, has allowed the citizens of the capital to get in touch with nature amidst an urban setting. The park has 500 square meters (598 square yards) of pine forests where you can find flowers such as orchids and chrysanthemums, an artificial lake for canoeing and climbing walls.

It also has a farm where visitors can observe the traditional processes of collecting eggs, milking cows and raising animals such as ducks and goats. Somewhere between its gardens there is a coffee restaurant called Blue Tree where you can eat the traditional corn tortilla with beef or drink cashew and mango smoothies.

La Aurora Zoo

Fotografía de una iguana en el zoológico de Guatemala

This place is not only famous for its 900 animals; it’s also known for its charming botanical variety: 16 blocks of wooded land make it one of the largest gardens in the city.

Founded in 1924, the zoo was part of an urban plan to turn the south of the capital into a leisure zone with parks, museums and a racetrack. Today, this project is the only one standing and is a conservation site for species such as the ceiba (Guatemala's national tree).

Here you can also visit Casa del Té, a construction of the early 20th century inspired by the Renaissance period and surrounded by nine marble sculptures representing deities of America, Africa, Asia and Europe.

Botanical Garden of the University of San Carlos

Vista de arboles en el jardin botánico de Guatemala

Throughout its 17,600 square meters (21,040 square yards), about 1,300 plants provide air to Guatemala City. Since its foundation in 1922, this space, the first of its kind in Central America, has been a sanctuary for the preservation of the country's flora (considered mega diverse due to the large number of botanical species and animals that can be found in its territory).

Each year, walking along its paths, ten thousand visitors observe trees such as the palo lagarto, the conacaste and the sapotaceae. In addition, during the tour you can see the curious sculpture of 'La Chata' (or 'The Snub-Nosed'), whose name was given after the earthquake of 1918, when she lost her nose.

Parque Ecológico Deportivo Cayalá

Vista diurna del  parque Cayala en Guatemala

Since its foundation in 1995 as a protected green area within the city, this Eco Park is a meeting point for bird watchers. Its forests are the habitat of 108 species of birds, including the mockingbird, the rattle and the black-headed jumper.

Its 32 hectares are the refuge of butterflies, squirrels, rabbits, weasels, small amphibians and reptiles. In addition to protecting the fauna and flora, the park's mission is to protect the sources of water that cross it, such as the Contreras River. Here you can visit the Metropolitan Museum of Birds, which teaches about endemic and migratory species.

3. Handicrafts Route

The Guatemalan artisans inherited the Mayan culture, the Spanish colony and the Caribbean influences. In 2017, Guatemala exported 80 million tons of handicrafts, equivalent to 63 million dollars. Multicolored sculptures, native stone jewelry and typical costumes are sought in the US and European markets: 90% of artisanal exports go to these destinations.

La Aurora Craft Market

Vista diurna del Mercado la Aurora en Guatemala

Its proximity to the city's airport, the National Museum of Modern Art and the zoo has turned this place into a popular stop. For 44 years, in this market you can find huipiles (typical indigenous costumes), clay pots and vases, woven beads, blankets and masks that represent Mayan rituals.

Its 10,200 square-meter complex (about 1 hectare) also offers typical dishes such as tamales: corn dough with meat, usually chicken, marinated in achiote sauce, wrapped in plantain leaves and served with lemon.

Mercado de flores

Vista de flores en el mercado de las Flores en Guatemala

During the entire year, this market opens its doors to display the color of its flowers. Its construction, carried out in 1971, was part of the plan to modernize the capital's commerce and organize it by zones, diversifying its offer and satisfying the demand.

In its 185 stands you can find roses, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, gladioli and the monja blanca, an orchid variety that is Guatemala’s national flower.

This 1,600 square-meter complex (1,913 square yards) adjoins the Cemetery of Guatemala City, so it is possible to observe the funeral arrangements made by Guatemalan artisans.

Mercado Colón

Vista de muñecos en el Mercado Colon en Guatemala

400 stores selling products as varied as typical costumes, crafts, fruits, vegetables, shoes and typical food.

The real allure of this place is its piñata shops: in its outdoor stalls you can buy these figures made of wire, paper, glue and paint that represent superheroes, Guatemalan myths, politicians, cartoon characters, animals and many more.

The market, inaugurated in 1948, is considered a cultural heritage of the city for its preservation of the country's traditions, for being the heart of the piñata artisans and for its Art Deco architectural style.

4. Tikal: Ecological Heritage

Vista panorámica diurna de Tikal Suen en Guatemala

527 kilometers (327 miles) away from Guatemala City, visitors can truly understand not only the grandeur of the Mayan civilization, but also the exuberant nature of its settlement.

Moments before landing at the international airport of Santa Elena, in the northern Guatemalan department of Petén, while flying above the colorful city of Flores or the many shades of blue on Lake Petén Itzá, the jungle reveals the boundaries that define the border with Mexico as if they were straight lines drawn on a map.

The view of the region also evokes an image that George Lucas made famous in one of his Star Wars movies. The lake and its surrounding villages, Isla de Flores, the Cerro Cahuí Biotope and the Tayasal peninsula, are the main pieces of this puzzle. 

According to the Guatemalan Tourism Institute (Inguat), Tikal is "the last refuge in the country for species that need large areas of virgin forest to survive, like the scarlet macaw, the jaguar, the puma, the white-lipped peccary (boar), the tapir and the howler monkeys. It is the perfect habitat for millions of migratory birds during the winter in the northern hemisphere."

This park, located about 60 kilometers (37.2 miles) from the Mundo Maya International Airport, in the district of Flores, was declared a Place of Mixed World Patrimony (nature and culture) in 1979 by UNESCO. The 3,000 archaeological structures reminiscent of an ancient capital that dominated the territory during the Pre-Classic and Classic periods belong to the second most important green lung in America: the Mayan Forest.

The average temperature is 25 °C (77 °F), with high precipitation.

In its jungle you can find mahogany, zapote and ceiba, Guatemala's national tree. As for the fauna, the ring-tailed and white-nosed coatis, as well as the ocellated turkey, are endemic.

For 100 to 150 Quetzales you can camp in Tikal and see the dawn over the temples. There is also lodging in the district of Las Flores, aimed at protecting the heritage and avoiding pollution.

Hydrological Innovation

According to Jay Silverstein, a researcher at the University of Hawaii, innovations in water management contributed to the monumental triumph of the kingdom of Tikal during the Classic period, in a region that would otherwise have been considered a marginal environment, not favorable for growth nor for sociopolitical complexity.

In his opinion, the extremely variable access to water created both a challenge and a stimulus for the growth of the city. The engineers’ ability to optimize the collection of seasonal rainfall increased the supply and permanence of water, thus allowing a growth in population and an economic stability.

5. Monumental Architecture

In the Great Plaza, the place from which you can see much of the architectural ensemble, there are two of the six main temples: to the east, Temple I, or the Temple of the Great Jaguar, which was built around 700 AD by appointment of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I, who is buried inside. Facing Temple I, to the west, is Temple II, or the Temple of the Masks.

Temple IV, or the Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent, is the tallest: about 65 meters (213 feet) high, is recognized because it was chosen by George Lucas to give life to the planet Yavin 4 in the Star Wars saga.

South of the Great Plaza is the Central Acropolis, where you can see several residential and administrative structures, as well as the Palace of Siyaj Chan K'awiil II (also known as Storm Sky), the Maler Palace and the Five-Story Palace. During the tour you can find nine pairs of twin pyramids that were built during the Late Classic period at intervals of one K'atun (20 years). They vary in size, but are all composed of two pyramids, one in front of the other, along an east-west axis.

Barrientos highlights "the harmony with which the Mayan cities were planned. The buildings' orientation used the cardinal points and the astronomical phenomena as reference. Many of its temples were built as funerary monuments and observatories, and the plazas were designed according to the cosmological concepts still used by today's Maya people." In addition, he adds, its inscriptions bear witness to great military victories, alliances and other feats of its leaders, as well as the details of his dynastic succession, whose lineage comprises more than 30 rulers.

Where to Eat

Flor de lis

Vista interna de Restaurante Flor de Lis en Guatemala

Chef Diego Telles wanted to be a professional cook "since forever." For the past 16 years, after traveling to Spain and Denmark to study cooking, Diego puts his personal mark on each dish. That is the philosophy of Flor de Lis, a restaurant that has positioned itself in only five years as a place to try outstanding signature cuisine. "With our food we recreate the Popol Vuh, a Mayan book that we all read as children," he says. The inspiration came when rereading the passage in which the twins Hun-Camé and Vucub-Camé travel to Xibalbá (the underworld) and Hun-Camé's head is turned into a tree.

This tree impregnates the daughter of one of the lords of the underworld. To flee from punishment, she burns a red sap she finds in the fruits, which give off a delicious smell and protect her. This story comes to live on the sweet and steaming corn croquettes with quesillo. However, the dishes change according to the season: "Our corn, squash and beans come from Guatemalan crops, so we use what the earth gives us." Herbs, spices and mushrooms are grown in pots or collected in a vegetable garden in the city. Without a doubt, the tomato confit, the only permanent dish on the menu, is a must: a nixtamalized, fermented and pickled sweet "that takes you back to your childhood," says Diego.

Siete caldos

Vista interna de restaurante Siete Caldos en Guatemala

Twenty-five years ago, a Greek man opened a Guatemalan restaurant: Demetrio Moliviatis traveled through the 22 departments of the country to taste their seasoning, learn about its ingredients and fall in love with food. He is the father of the current chef, Mirciny Moliviatis, who explains how typical Guatemalan dishes are prepared by a Greek family: "My father is more Guatemalan than anyone, because he decided to be one." She grew up surrounded by pots and pans, bubbling soups and aromatic spices. To perfect her vocation, she traveled to Spain and trained with chef stars such as Karlos Arguiñano and Juan Mari Arzak.

Upon returning to her country, she became aware of its culinary wealth. Now she walks through market squares, orchards and regions to select chili peppers, tomatoes, spices, beans and other products that will turn into a kak'ik (a slightly spicy soup with turkey) or a suban'ik (a tamale served in mazán leaves). She has also toured Guatemala with the show Desafío Culinario or to write her book Viviendo la receta (Living the recipe), which was recognized as the second best gastronomic book in 2016 by Gourmand Awards China.

La Cocina de la Señora Pu

Fachada de restaurante Señora Pu en Guatemala

As an anthropologist and a member of the indigenous community of Santa María de Chiquimula, a town 164 kilometers (104.3 miles) from Guatemala City, Rosa Pu Tzunux felt the need to recover traditional Mayan food. This recovery did not only intend to explore flavors, "but also the centennial processes, from the very essence of the craft," as Rosa says. Thus, the cooking, the pickled vegetables, the seasoning and the service seek to emulate Mayan traditions.

Rosa studied her cultural heritage at the San Carlos University of Guatemala and turned into her thesis 'Anthropology of the Mayan Cuisine'. The restaurant is a meeting point where you can try communal dining, with meals prepared in sight and by the fire. The ingredients are Guatemalan and include corn, different types of chills, spices and cocoa, a special ingredient for Rosa given its historical Mayan importance. Some of the most representative dishes on the menu are the Mayan barbecue, shrimp to King Kiq'ab's taste and 'pato al tukan'.

A chef: Mirciny Moliviatis

Fotografía de una famosa cocinera en Guatemala

Known as 'Misha', Mirciny is head chef at her family restaurant: Siete Caldos. A place specialized in typical Guatemalan dishes such as kak'ik, suban'ik and shrimp casseroles for more than 25 years. Trained by internationally renowned chefs such as Karlos Arguiñano and Juan Mari Arzak, Mirciny travels her country with her show Desafío Culinario to explore Guatemalan tradition. She is also an award-winning author: her book Vivir la receta was recognized in 2016 as the second-best recipe book at the Gourmand Awards in China.

Typical dishes

Guatemalan food has a strong Mayan influence. Five centuries after European colonization, there are still dishes with indigenous names such as kak'ik, which means red or very spicy: a soup prepared with chili, achiote, cilantro and a turkey drumstick on the side.

There is also the pepián stew, made with different types of chili peppers, garlic, pepitoria seeds, sesame and chicken. Both dishes are considered intangible heritage of Guatemala.

A Recipe: rellenitos

Fotografía de plato típico en Guatemala, rellenitos

This dessert contains two of the most basic ingredients of Guatemalan cuisine: plantain and beans.

For 4 servings
Ingredients:

  • 6 large plantains
  • 2 teaspoons of cinnamon powder
  • 2 teaspoons of vanilla
  • 2 cups of blended black beans

Preparation:

  1. Cook the plantains in water without removing the peel.
  2. Blend the plantains with a teaspoon of cinnamon and a teaspoon of vanilla.
  3. Season the bean paste with the remaining cinnamon and vanilla.
  4. Take some plantain dough and form a cake the size of your hand.
  5. Put one and a half tablespoon of beans in the center. Close the plantain dough in a round shape and fry it in a pan until golden brown.

December 2018

Pablo Milanés in Concert


After performing in countries such as Colombia, Spain, Mexico, Chile and Portugal, Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés arrives in Guatemala to celebrate 44 years of artistic career. The artist, winner of two Latin Grammy awards, interprets some of his best-known hits, such as El breve espacio en que no estás, Ámame como soy and Yolanda.

December 1st
Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center - Open-air theater

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Relevant Data

Airport

La Aurora International Airport

Language

Spanish

Currency

Quetzal

Average temperature

66.9ºF

Metro - Transmetro

Service hours: From 4:30am to 10:00pm. * * When you arrive to Guatemala City check the subway schedules, these may vary depending on the day and the line. Each ticket costs 1.00 GTQ (0.13 USD).

Taxi

Minimum rate: 25.00 GTQ (3.24 USD). Rate for each additional kilometer: 4.80 GTQ (0.62 USD).

Hotel

3 star hotel: 563.45 GTQ (73.27 USD) per person. 5 star hotel: 733.72 GTQ (95.41 USD) per person.