From what we have heard other people tell us, Guatemala City is a get in and get the hell out sort of place. When a city decides to number the suburbs rather than name them, that tends to happen. Everytime you enter a new ‘Zona’ you’re always a little unsure if its the one that gave Guatemala City the title of ‘3rd highest murder rate in a capital city’. Really, how hard would it be to name your suburbs something a little nicer? I’m sure people would be more willing to visit Del Amino than a place called Zona 18.
Thats why until the volcano Feugo erupted we weren’t even thinking about staying here. The advice we had from other people seemed to be the sort of advice you give purely cause that’s what they did. One person told us to go to ‘Zona 1’ but to stay inside at night. Another told us that ‘9’ was the safest place due to the international hotels next door in ’10’. This is the sort of thing that people tell you to do because that’s what they did. For a place like Guatemala City this means that no real useful information is passed on about where to go or what to do. Just anecdotes about what people did (Generally involving staying indoors at night). For this reason i recommend taking advice from travellers you’ve met on the road with a pinch of salt (at least for Guatemala City). Accept for our advice, our advice is real good.
That’s because we fell into the same trap, but luckily, that landed us in the funky ‘Zona 4’. So let us tell you all about it. For you Australians this is like the Brunswick of Guatemala City. For Americans this is like Seattle, for everyone else, its just a cool street art filled, coffee sipping, Fancy restaurant area. The roads, buildings and artwork are all well developed. The coffee culture is made obvious by the strips of cafe’s that are found on pedestrian only arcades. Construction crews are busy building more apartments that are probably part of some sort of gentrification program. Internet works and for the first time arriving in Guatemala office buildings prove that this is just a place where people go to work and live regular lives.
In 2006 the City of Cape Town began implementing a program they called ‘Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading Programme’ (VPUU). The primary success of the program was the reduction in crime through infrastructure design. This involved increasing surveillance with neighbourhood watch patrols, 24 hour watch towers, defining property boundaries, safer pedestrian walkways, prettier buildings to discourage vandalism, higher property boundaries and well kept buildings designed to foster a respect for property with residents. In Cape Town at least, this reduced the homicide rate by 1 third.
I can’t tell you that this specific form of macro city planning has been used in Zone 4 of Guatemala City. I can tell you that this is certainly NOT the murder zone of Guatemala City. Walls are high, street art hasn’t been disrespected with randoms tags, residents are abound, security guards with high powered shotguns (Some held together with duct tape) are on every corner and privately owned thoughtful restaurants are all around. In fact I would go as far as to say that Guatemala City has a real ‘foodie’ aspect about it.
At the heart of all this urban planning is something we seem to be longing for in western politics, that is, a focus on community development. Context goes a long way in shaping peoples behaviour, putting people on street corners with shotguns obviously deters a lot of crime. However, for a city that only ended a 36 year civil war in 1996 brought on by a US backed coup that led to a series of military dictators and genocides against local Mayan residents, more than guns is required. The context of unfair harsh politics and international meddling obviously shaped the behaviour of government opposition up to 1996. To recover from that (At least partially) to get to where parts of the city finds itself today takes a community focus.
We have heard that crime still happens here, I’m not trying to paint Zone 4 as some sort of safe haven within the city. However, if you find yourself in Guatemala City and need more than a couple of anecdotes about where to stay, we hope this helps.