Most visitors who arrive in Guatemala come for the vast jungles, towering volcanoes and enormous Mayan ruins, but Guatemala’s best museums offer their own delights and insights.
Whether you want to know more about the Maya, who once dominated Central America, or are curious about the more modern history of Guatemala, the country has a host of excellent museums to inform and entertain you and your family.
1. Palacio Nacional
When infamous Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico began construction of the Palacio National in 1937 few would have guessed it would one day be a landmark to peace
Known to locals as The Big Guacamole because of its greenish colour, the palace is a must-see attraction in Guatemala City for its murals, architectural beauty, and enormous chandeliers in the Sala de Recepcion and Sala de Banquets.
But perhaps the most memorable part of this palace is the peace sculpture in Patio de la Paz. It was unveiled in 1997 as memorial to the peace agreement which ended the Civil War a year earlier, and depicts two hands holding a real rose.
The rose is changed in a ceremony each day at 11am, which is in stark contrast to the memory of Ubico, who used slave labour to build the palace.
2. Museo de los Niños is aimed at children
Children are a discerning and demanding audience when it comes to museums, and they’re unlikely to be disappointed with the hands-on nature of the Museo de los Niños in Guatemala City.
It includes an earthquake simulator and a jigsaw map of Guatemala, but also aims all of its exhibits and displays at younger people, so they won’t get bored staring at dusty relics.
The museum is also located directly opposite La Aurora Zoo, providing a double dose of child-friendly fun. One the same street, Calle 5A, you will also find two more of Guatemala’s best museums: The Museum of Modern Art, and the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
3. Tikal is home to two of Guatemala’s best museums
Just about every visitor to Guatemala wants to get at least a taste of the stunning historical legacy left by the Mayan people who once dominated Guatemala and most of Central America.
Some of the most spectacular ruins are deep in the northern jungles, but the site at Tikal offers a more accessible option, including two museums on site.
You can take day trips to Tikal from Guatemala City, Antigua and Flores, which is a little easier than the multi-day hikes or helicopter rides needed to get to the more remote locations.
The ruins themselves are quite stunning, but Tikal also includes the Sylvanus G. Morley Museum and Museo Litico, as well as the Japanese-funded CCIT research centre for archaeology and restoration on the site.
4. Museums for chocolate lovers
Whatever else the Guatemala has contributed to world culture, the invention of chocolate may be its most enduring, and the Choco Museum in Antigua will explain why.
The museum gives you ample opportunity to taste chocolate and learn how it is processed, from the harvesting and fermenting of cacao beans to final touches on the treat we know so well today.
You can also discover how the Mayans used it, and if you want to learn more about this then it is worth visiting Popol Vuh museum in Guatemala City. It has a collection of Mayan artefacts related to chocolate, including drinking vessels, grinders and carved depictions of cacao gods.
5. Museo del Libro Antigua
Antigua is a lovely city visit just for its charming architecture and atmosphere, but it is also home to the strikingly beautiful Museo del Libro Antigua, which celebrates Guatemalan literature and books in general.
This 18th century museum itself is unmissable, just opposite Parque Central and marked out by the elegant arches and columns which adorn both the top and bottom levels.
Inside you will find some bona fide literary treasures, including a 1620 first edition of Don Quixote de la Mancha (Part II), as well as replicas of the country’s first printing press.
6. A museum for rum lovers: Museo Casa Botran
If you venture up into the western highlands in search of culture and adventure, then you are likely to reach Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela City, and it has some intriguing and quirky museums.
The Casa de la Cultura is home to both the Marimba Museum and the Natural History Museum, so you can discover the history of the ubiquitous marimba instrument or enjoy some startling fossils and artefacts.
Perhaps the least expected is the Museo Casa Botran, which is dedicated to the history of rum. You need a reservation for this particular museum, and for your trouble you will get to see how this famous drink is made and even try some samples.
Joining the list of unusual Xela City museums is the quirky Railway Museum of Los Altos, which memorialises an ultimately doomed rail project to connect the city to the Pacific Coast in the 1930s.
7. Casa MIMA
Guatemalan history tends to focus on the big, powerful forces which have shaped it, whether that’s dictators like Jorge Ubico or entire ancient civilisations like the Maya, so it’s a joy to find something as understated but fascinating as Casa MIMA.
This lovely little museum is contained entirely within a 19th Century house right in the heart of Guatemala City, and re-creates life in the 1870s.
This includes rooms set up with the furniture and decorations they would have used during this period, which coincided with a fascinating part of the country’s history under President Justo Rufino Barrios.
A lawyer and rebel leader before becoming president in 1873, Barrios created a new police force in the capital, introduced the telegraph and railroads, and tried but failed to re-form the Central American Union with El Salvador and Honduras. You can visit his tomb at Guatemala City General Cemetery.
Whatever your interests, budget or travel plans, you will certainly find something to divert you among Guatemala’s best museums.
About Jürg Widmer Probst
Jürg Widmer is a busy blogger and resident of Guatemala who often shares all things about Guatemala, from the country’s hidden gems, article and culture to the best place for food and drink.
Image source – Gorgeous Guatemala