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Guatemala City’s Central Plaza

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Smack in what is considered to be the bellybutton of Guatemala City lies its central plaza: a massive slab of concrete flanked by the National Palace to the north, the Cathedral of Guatemala City to the east, El Portal de Comercio to the south, and Parque Centenario and the National Library to the west. While the plaza in itself has been the main stage for great historic events such as the Guatemalan declaration of independence and the massive protests against government corruption in 2015, it normally serves as a hub for pigeons, loiterers, and people trying to sell you stuff you don’t really want/need. It’s great.

Guatemala city’s main square. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Much like Christian Bale throughout his career, the park has experienced several transformations. The first major modification happened in 1892 during the government of Jose María Reyna Barrios, a president who was seriously concerned with looks. The story has it that he was particularly upset with how the park hadn’t changed since its creation in 1776. So, to ease his aesthetic woes, he ordered the construction of a yuuuge gazebo where the original fountain of the park stood. About four years later, the construction was completed.

However, this still wasn’t enough for Reyna Barrios’s sensibilities. So, he commissioned a presidential palace from José de Bustamante, a Spanish architect. The contract was approved in 1895, and construction began on the orchard of the first Palace built there during colonial times. The building was finished in December 1896, and it began housing virtually every government institution. President Reyna Barrios also ordered a statue of Christopher Columbus from a Spanish sculptor named Tomás Mur, which was placed in front of the Palace.

People walk across the fountain in Guatemala’s main square, “La plaza de la Constitución”. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

The second biggest modification to the plaza came about thanks to a series of earthquakes in 1917 and 1918 which, in layman’s terms, effed ish up. A year later, the cartoonishly evil dictator-in-turn, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, ordered the construction of a new palace to commemorate the first century of Guatemala’s independence. However, in 1920, a year before the country’s hundredth anniversary, a series of crazy and unfortunate events led to his ousting. Congress elected Carlos Herrera y Luna, a successful sugar businessman, as interim president. One of the very few things that were carried over from one government to the next was the plan to build a palace commemorating a century of independence. With very little time and resources left, on the year of the Centenary, Herrera y Luna decreed that the construction of the palace would have to be completed in merely three months, along with a bandshell somewhere else on the park (that’s how Parque Centenario came to be). The obviously flimsy structure made mainly of wood became known as the Carton Palace. On that same year, the Chinese Colony, a group of Chinese immigrants in the country, gifted the people of Guatemala a Paifan (memorial arch) along with a couple of other structures to commemorate the century of independence.

El Portal del Comercio, across the park from the Palace. in Guatemala City. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Eventually, the Carton Palace burned down and a new one was commissioned. The Chinese Arc, doubling as a movie theatre at the time, was demolished to make way for the current National Palace, which was basically designed to make Jorge Ubico, the dictator-in-turn, happy. The gazebo was also removed at some point, and a new fountain was added for good measure. Even though Ubico was eventually overthrown, the Palace remained as the seat of government in the country.

The plaza in itself remained largely unchanged until about 36 years later when a couple of car bombs killed several people in front of the palace. These acts of terrorism led the government to forbid cars from parking alongside the plaza. As a holistic remedy of sorts, the government built an underground parking lot beneath the plaza, and all was well. A few governments later, President Álvaro Arzú Yrigoyen decided to decentralise the government’s offices and turn the National Palace into the offices of the Ministry of Culture and Sports.

The main square and the palace as backdrop. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Nowadays, the Plaza lies there as a weathered 0,5km² witness to the crazy quirks of its nation’s history. From straight up combat and terrorism to peaceful protests, Guatemala’s central plaza has been the main stage of it all. However, when history’s not performing its erratic dance on the massive slab of concrete, park-goers, tourists, pigeons, and the occasional drunk make use of it to enjoy a nice afternoon. You should go check it out.

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

The National Palace of Culture, also known as “the green palace”. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

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