Guatemala City is divided into 25 “zones”, with the historic downtown designated as Zone 1, or Zona 1. While an interesting city and the largest in Central America, Guatemala City does not have the best reputation as far as safety is concerned. The good news is that it isn’t the danger zone some make it out to be. I touched on this topic on Wednesday, incidentally.
After deciding I had put off visiting the historic area for far too long, I ventured over to Zona 1 to check it out. It turned out to be quite enjoyable. There was so much to see, that I decided it was best to break it up into parts.
Today I’ll show you the Guatemala National Palace of Culture (Palacio Nacional de la Cultura), one of Guatemala’s most imposing buildings. Built with 100% Guatemalan materials and with an all-Guatemalan design and construction, the Palace is a source of national pride. But first, a word about Zone 1, a dangerous place or upcoming area, depending on who you ask.
Table of Contents
- Safety in Zone 1
- Plaza Mayor
- Guatemala National Palace
- Tour Hours & Cost
- Entrance to Guatemala National Palace
- Palace’s Courtyard
- Monument to Peace
- The Changing of the Rose
- Touring the Rest of the Palace
- Historic Murals
- The Finest Salon in Guatemala
- Traffic Lights… Inside a Building?
Safety in Zone 1
While this was a big concern for a long time, the government and local businesses have really stepped it up and revitalized a once super-sketchy part of the city. This has done wonders for tourism (watch the short video midway in the post here).
One of the first things I noticed was the heavy police presence. There were a few “shady” characters milling about, but everyone, it seemed, went about their business without a care in the world. Even late in the afternoon, when Police presence dwindled a bit, there were still lots of families walking about. From what I hear, Police presence is plentiful even late at night.
I’d say that as long as you follow basic safety rules (don’t get drunk and walk back to your hotel, don’t flash cash or jewelry, avoid lonely alleys, etc…) you should be OK.
The first place I visited was the main city square, Plaza Mayor de la Constitucion (it has had many names in the last – including Plaza de Los Lamentos (Laments’ Plaza) at one point). Lots of history has happened here and presently it serves as the grounds for a farmer’s market on weekends.
It has served as a political demonstration area, and for military exercises of ceremonial importance. Executions by firing squad have also been carried out here, though not recently, as the death penalty is no longer legal in Guatemala.
Originally, the plaza was designed more like a park, with abundant trees and walking paths. These were torn down in the 1980s to make way for a now-public underground parking lot.
The huge flag you see below was installed in 1996. To the left is Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral – Guatemala’s main Catholic church), and the one-story building immediately behind the trees is Portal del Comercio.
If you’ve ever been to Antigua Guatemala, all this may seem somewhat familiar. It is by design.
Antigua Guatemala was originally Guatemala’s capital, but earthquakes in 1773 (7.5 Richter scale) obliterated the city. Spain’s government, who had been already thinking about moving the capital somewhere else due to space constraints of Antigua, made the decision to rebuild the capital in its present location.
Plaza Mayor is very similar in layout to Antigua’s Parque Central (and to many other Spanish city plazas for that matter). Even Antigua’s Arco Santa Catalina was recreated in the new capital. I’ll take you now through a tour of the Palace.
Guatemala National Palace
Construction of the Palace was ordered by President (Dictator, really) Jorge Ubico and started in 1939. It took four years to build and at a relatively low cost, since prisoners were forced to work in the projects for a measly 0.25 cents a day, back when Guatemala’s currency had the same value as the dollar.
Incidentally, in the Palace’s current grounds had been a big Chinese Pagoda, donated by the Chinese community living in Guatemala in the early 1900’s. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in an earthquake, after which Ubico hatched the plan to build the Palace.
Sidenote: For whatever reason, Ubico did not like the prominence of the Chinese community and enacted a law that prohibited admission to the country of “yellow people… and black people.” This law was amended in 1944 to limit the country to a total Chinese population of no more than 657, after which point a Chinese person could only enter when one of the 657 died. This law is still on the books, although it was deemed unconstitutional in the early 1980s. Today, China and Guatemala have good relations.
The building was built out of brick and concrete. It gets its green color (the dictator’s wife favorite color) because of the mix of concrete and oxidized copper used to coat the building. This was to avoid having to constantly repaint the building.
Not surprisingly, the building’s affectionate nickname is “El Guacamolon”, or “The Big Guacamole.”
Many artists in Guatemala worked during the construction of the building, and most were forced to do it for free. The craftsmanship is excellent.
Tour Hours & Cost
Tours are scheduled every working hour and are free to Guatemalan citizens. English-language tours are conducted at 11 am and 3 pm and foreigners must pay a Q40 ($5) fee upon entering. The guides are knowledgeable and the tour lasts about 45 minutes.
Entrance to Guatemala National Palace
Right at the entrance to the Palace, there’s a marker indicating “Kilometer 0”, from which all roads into Guatemala lead out of. Of note is that while this is the true “zero point”, another symbolic marker exists in the building. We’ll cover that later.
The interior of the building is elegant and nicely designed.
The tour led us right into the courtyard, where it the tour’s narration part was to begin. The groups ahead of us were already moving on.
Dictators can be kind of fickle and superstitious. Dictator Ubico liked the number “5” so much, he sought to incorporate it everywhere he could. That’s why there are five “main” arches on every side of every courtyard, and five stories to the building, among other details.
What used to be an open-air courtyard, is no longer so. This is to protect the building from further damage.
Monument to Peace
Guatemala endured a long and violent civil war not that long ago. Finally, in 1996, both sides made peace and it was here at the Palace that peace accords were signed. To commemorate the occasion, a bronze statue, the “Monument to Peace” (below) was installed.
Notice there are two left hands reaching up, representing each side of the conflict. This was to signify this was a sincere truce since the left hand is the one closest to the heart.
The 16 interlocking arms signify the Guatemalan people, locked in arms, determined to sustain peace and liberty, the big rock which the arms lift up.
The Changing of the Rose
Of note is that the original design called for a dove to be represented above the hands, signifying the release of peace. Somehow that plan was scrapped and a white rose was selected as the symbol of peace.
When the monument was created, the rose was replaced every day, at 11 am, in a formal ceremony. This was to signify that peace was a process that required a renewed commitment every day. A pretty nifty idea, or so I thought.
Noticed I said “was“, which I didn’t learn until I had made the effort to be there in time to see the ceremony.
Turns out someone figured that this was too special a ceremony to be carried out every day, so instead, a “peace committee” decided that the rose would be changed every 29th day of every month, to honor the date of the accord. People that shed blood and tears trying to bring peace to Guatemala were naturally chosen to carry out that honor.
That went on for a while until the peace committee again decided this was too special of an honor to let “normal” people place the “rose of peace.” Instead, they would choose a special “Ambassador of Peace” to do it.
So today, only people of importance, as designated by the committee, are honored, such as the Dalai Lama. Or UN Secretary Ba-Kin Moon. Or the President of the International Football Federation. Or very successful and influential businessmen. Or political appointees.
In short, people that had little to nothing to do with bringing peace to Guatemala. Oh well… at least the initial sentiment that started it was right. And at least the flower is real, not a plastic version (I checked).
Just behind the peace monument is another monument, to the “anonymous heroes of peace.” This one has an ever-burning flame kept on to honor those who died to bring peace during the conflict.
Touring the Rest of the Palace
After we were done with the courtyard, we swung by a relic: Guatemala’s first switchboard console. Below is the original equipment.
The building has various styles mixed throughout. Ubico liked Spanish-style buildings as well as Arabic accents, such as the fountains below.
Scattered throughout the building are huge murals depicting Guatemala’s history. From Mayan ancestors, through Spanish rule, all the way to Guatemala’s independence.
Below is a depiction of a bird being sacrificed. No human sacrifices needed that time, apparently.
The Spanish came and fought the Mayans…
… and the Mayans lost.
The rails on the stairs are made of brass, recovered from spent bullet casings. There were a lot of shots fired apparently. Par for the course during a dictator’s run.
Also, rails have a copper bar running through them, installed so that they could be heated or frozen, depending on the weather, to prevent people from leaning into them.
Sheesh… jerk move, Ubico…
The Finest Salon in Guatemala
Below is the reception room, one of the finest in the country and reserved for special ceremonies, such as the appointment of new ambassadors. The floor has a symbolic star signifying “Kilometer 0”, although the true location is right at the entrance.
The chandelier is huge and weighs 2 tons. In the back, lower center in the picture is a “3D” representation of the Guatemalan flag, which contains a stuffed quetzal, the super-rare national bird of Guatemala.
The finest talent available in Guatemala was on hand to create everything, from design to execution. Below are the stained-glass doors that lead to the presidential balcony overlooking Plaza Mayor.
Traffic Lights… Inside a Building?
A curious design feature was the installation of “traffic lights.” Ubico did not like people milling about when he was walking the hallways, so he installed a light system to warn everyone about who could be outside.
Different lights indicated who was allowed about, so it was best any worker be on their best behavior if they ran into any of them. Lights were also inside the rooms, so it wasn’t necessary to poke one’s head out to see what the state of the hallways was at any time.
Red Light? Ubico was out and about, so nobody better be caught unless they ran the risk of incurring his wrath.
Yellow Light? Only government functionaries were to be walking the halls.
Green Light? Anyone, including janitors, could move freely around the building.
Another interesting fact is that every single door handle at the Palace (over 500!) bears Ubico’s thumbprint.
Even though Ubico was in power over 15 years, he was removed only 8 months after having moved into the Palace. And so ended the tour. Pretty interesting and made me learn more about the history of Guatemala. If you’re ever near Zone 1 in Guatemala, I would highly recommend it. At the right time, you might even catch some goats feeding at the Plaza.
Have you visited the National Palace?