I’ve been writing a lot recently about travel. Some of it my own experiences (mostly here, to be honest), some of it based on previous places I’ve been, and some of it more theoretical.
Writing loads of travel content is an interesting experience. The vast majority of it these days seems to be based around the ‘hidden gem’, describing experiences off the beaten track that most people don’t know about, and conspiratorially sharing these nuggets of travel gold just with the reader (and, presumably, the hundreds or thousands of others who are reading whichever website I’m writing for at this particular time). One particular bonus of these blogs is that you know that if I tell you about a hidden gem, only you, my mum, my dad and maybe some random Chinese bots are going to know about it. Lucky you.
Something I’ve discovered about constantly writing about ‘under the radar spots’ and ‘diamonds in the rough’ is that there is a stark difference between being able to write compellingly about a place for 500 words, and that place actually being worth visiting.
There’s definitely a formula for this – as long as it is somewhere that has a couple of decent restaurants, a bar and a couple of cafes, as well as at least two ‘sights’ and somewhere that you might not think to visit but is actually reasonably cool, then we’ve got a winner. The best ‘secret cities you should definitely visit instead of X’ will have a small hipster neighbourhood with a third wave coffee shop, enough interesting street art to take a few photos of, and an underrated museum or art gallery of some sort.
However, what is so often the case is that beyond these five or six attractions, the place itself is overlooked by travellers for a good reason. Not that its bad, or dangerous, just because there’s not much there, not much to do. Just a normal place not locked in to the tourism merry-go-round.
I decided to visit Guatemala City for a couple of days, as there were cheap flights and I had some time on my hands. At first glance, it is exactly this sort of place. Everything I read about it described it in terms that I am very familiar with. It is overlooked by most tourists, as the airport is equidistant between Guate and the far more picturesque and instagrammable Antigua, to the south west. It has had a bad rep in the past, and although it has been cleaning up its act in the last few years, there’s definitely still areas that it’s not advisable to wander around. But blog after blog after adventurous travel website sang its praises as an alternative to the more touristy Antigua, an underrated gem with an edgy nightlife and beautiful spots far from the madding crowd.
Reading between the lines, I thought I knew what to expect. And at first glance, my hunch was correct. Guate is…not really somewhere to recommend as a pure tourist spot. It’s a nice enough city, with a pretty pedestrian main street ending in a large historic square, with a national museum (extremely closed) and a mildly interesting cathedral. Some very lovely if faded colonial architecture made wandering around rather pleasant, and the off-beat museum I wandered into was delightful, and completely empty apart from me and the curator. The small hipster district of Zone 4 definitely fit the bill, with several trendy coffee shops, some very interesting and political graffiti, and an entire street of bars and restaurants with more retro neon signs than can possibly be healthy. But in a day and a half I’d covered most of the city that it was advisable to walk around, and only missed a couple of museums and galleries. A serious holiday destination this was not.
And yet I was completely charmed by the place. Whether it was the complete lack of other obvious tourists (I saw two other non-Latinx people the whole time I was there), the cleanliness of the streets, the friendliness of the people or the fact the place just felt like it was getting on with normal life, I don’t know, but I loved it. The graffiti in Zone 4 really lived up to the hype, a wonderful combination of Mayan iconography with modern Guatemalan political references and just plain weirdness. Although the main cathedral was merely pleasant, a few other churches threw up some genuinely fascinating little tidbits, including a relic of San Judas Tadeo in Iglesia La Merced. The Mercado Central was a lovely combo of bustling aisles of butchers and fruit and veg stalls, and an almost empty artisanal craft market full of a mix of excellent textiles, lovely silver jewellery, weird wood carvings and tourist tat.
The city is small enough to wander around fairly comfortably, and rewards this approach, with some beautiful if slightly crumbling architecture and a very pleasant atmosphere. Maybe I’ve become used to life in Mexico City, but the traffic seemed pretty minimal, the pavements less erratic and everywhere felt clean and fresh in a way that can be unusual in DF.
The hipster street is a little treat, packed with extremely lovely bars and restaurants, and without the arch irony or acute self-awareness that is modern hipster culture in most cities. Just attractive little independent spots decorated with reclaimed wood, retro neon, and the odd bit of vintage furniture. My very solitary breakfast in Coffee District was highlighted by a soundtrack of pure Radiohead, and some of the most ornate and excellent toilets I’ve ever been to.
Hand on heart, I still couldn’t in good conscience describe Guate as an amazing destination. You’ll find more beautiful churches, more interesting museums and a far more sophisticated nightlife scene elsewhere. My appreciation for places like this is certainly in spite of their flaws, and with a significant dollop of snobbery about traditional tourist spots. But equally it deserves not to be completely overlooked. People who fly in and then head straight out to the more popular Antigua, or off to laze on the beach or trek in the jungle are missing out on discovering a little more of the real Guatemala, which is, I guess, what Guate delivers.
Not all of that is positive. There was an entire street of immigration law firms offering help with papers, documents and processes. The checks on the way back into Mexico were far more rigorous than anything I’ve experienced before, with an entirely separate arrivals section for flights from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. It is an obviously poorer country than Mexico, and a poorer city than DF, although the balance between the richest and the poorest felt somehow better, and although 48 hours is nowhere near enough time to truly understand these things, the gap felt smaller.
Going back to my original musings about getting away from traditional tourist destinations and finding diamonds in the rough, I think the real issue is one of perception and expectation. Internet writing is by its very nature hyperbolic, and there’s a reason why people don’t flock to Puerto Montt, say, or Durango. But equally there is charm beyond 5 star restaurants and a well set-up tourist industry, and if you are prepared to look for it, there is definite beauty and value in heading to the less-visited places of the world. You will probably have to get excited about niche religious relics, empty museums and political graffiti though…