A chaotic home to 3.2 million people, and with a high crime rate, Guatemala City is not a place that lures tourists. Instead go for the mountains and Maya culture.

AT DAWN IN Guatemala City, a motorcyclist zips down a street toward the city’s main cathedral. It’s one of the few quiet times of day or night in the burgeoning city, Guatemala’s capital, where shantytowns sprawl beyond the high-rises and those historic buildings that have managed to survive the country’s devastating earthquakes.

A chaotic home to 3.2 million people, and with a high crime rate, Guatemala City is not a place that lures tourists, even though it has museums and a lively nightlife of cafes and art galleries. Instead, visitors to the Central American country go for the mountains and Maya culture. They make a beeline for Antigua, a beguiling city of colonial-era architecture edged by steaming volcanoes, and the mountain highlands town of Chichicastenango, a web of cobbled streets with a huge, twice-a-week market where indigenous Mayans sell everything from traditional embroidered blouses to medicinal plants.

Down in the Guatemalan lowlands, Mayan archaeological sites poke out of the dense jungle. Tikal is the most extensive and best-known, a trading center that flourished between about 200 and 900 A.D. Studded with the ruins of temple-pyramids and tombs, palaces and more humble residences, Tikal is believed to have been home to almost 100,000 people. Only a fraction of its ancient buildings have been excavated. More lie waiting to be uncovered.

Kristin R. Jackson is The Seattle Times’ NWTraveler editor. Contact her at kjackson@seattletimes.com.

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