Try taking a walk in much of Guatemala City: it’s every pedestrian’s nightmare.
Motorcycles speed along crowded sidewalks. Guards armed with rifles squint at every passerby, sizing up potential attackers. Buses belching smoke speed through stop signs.
But hidden in the chaotic quilt expanse of the capital, there is a dream retreat where none of this exists.
In the city of Cayalá, a utopian domain created by one of the richest families in Guatemala, the streets are quiet and orderly, the shops are exclusive and the houses are accessible, even only to families belonging to the country’s small wealthy elite or to foreigners, such as American diplomats stationed at the huge, recently built US embassy nearby.
Evoking the atmosphere of a serene Mediterranean city, Cayalá features milky white buildings with red tile roofs, a colossal civic hall with Tuscan columns, expensive cafes and restaurants, colonnade-lined plazas and walkable stone-paved avenues. All of this is open to the public, except for the fenced-off sections where around 2,000 families live.
“In 20 years, Cayalá will be just like La Rambla,” said Andrés García Manzo, a restaurateur who lives in one of Cayalá’s secluded villas, drawing a comparison with that of Barcelona. legendary pedestrian promenade. “Here you can walk anywhere in peace.”
But critics say it is largely a playground for the wealthy, difficult to reach by public transport, environmentally devastating and has attracted significant investment even as other parts of crime-plagued Guatemala City fall in decline.
But a heated debate is heating up over whether Cayalá exacerbates problems of inequality and access to urban spaces, rather than alleviating them, after protesters against efforts to block the country’s new president, Bernardo Arévalo, from taking office are were swept away by armed men from the area.
The spotlight is on Cayalá, which among the indigenous people roughly translates as “paradise”. Kaqchikel language – focuses on the role of architecture and urban design in one of the Latin American countries more unequal countrieswhere approximately 59% of the population of 18 million live below the poverty line.
Cayalá began on a modest scale 20 years ago, when Guatemala’s Leal family, which owns large swaths of some of the capital’s last urban forests and had already built gated neighborhoods, hatched plans for a different kind of community.
They hired a Luxembourg architect Léon Krier, who had worked with King Charles III on a model city in southern England, to help plan Cayalá. Architects including Richard Economakis of the University of Notre Dame also joined and designed inspiration from the Parthenon in Athens to design the civic hall of Cayalá.
Private security guards closely monitor the gardens, especially on weekends, when shoppers flock to the area. The neighborhood has proved particularly popular with visitors from neighboring El Salvador.
In a city where the upper classes have long lived in well-policed communities, Cayalá might not have become the focus of an uproar were it not for the protests that erupted across Guatemala in October over ultimately failed attempts to prevent to Arévalo to take office. .
While protests in other parts of the country were largely peaceful, two motorists plowed their vehicles into protesters near the entrance to Cayalá and men armed with guns with balaclavas, including a business owner in Cayalá, swept prevent protesters from entering the area.
The episode left many astonished.
“I was stunned when I saw those images,” said Dora Monroy, who lives in a neighborhood near Cayalá. “When someone brings a rifle to a peaceful protest, it is a form of intimidation.”
Cayalá developers declined to comment on that episode and did not respond to questions about criticism of the enclave. But in a statement, a spokesperson said: “Cayalá is a city for everyone.”
As they nurture expansion plans, some wonder how it might affect some of Guatemala City’s last remaining forests.
Bárbara Escobar, a biologist and environmentalist, said the expansion could cause damage to a crucial groundwater recharge basin, endangering the habitat of foxes, raccoons and owls.
“I’m not against development, but you have to do things right,” she said. Noting that bus access to Cayalá is limited, making it largely a place for people wealthy enough to own a car, Ms. Escobar added: “This is an exclusion zone, designed for a privileged minority in this country”.
Curiously, dissent also comes from Mr. Krier, one of the creators of Cayalá. Mr. Krier, who has worked in Cayalá since 2003, acknowledged that it was conceived as a place for upper-class Guatemalans to live.
“There are a lot of things for the extreme rich,” he said. “We built for the middle and wealthy.”
But Krier also stressed that he imagined Cayalá as a completely gateless complex with two- or three-story buildings, inspired by Persian, Greek and Roman cities of antiquity, where people from all walks of life could gather.
“The city should be walkable, not just horizontally but vertically,” he explained, adding that tall buildings make cities too dense, increase energy costs due to the need for elevators and prioritize real estate speculation over life quality.
A departure from that vision occurred, Krier said, when “residents came together and voted democratically in favor of the gate,” effectively creating a series of gated communities within a development that would otherwise remain open.
The Cayalá developers’ plan to build skyscrapers as they expand, which could generate higher commercial returns, was a step too far for Mr. Krier, who recently resigned.
“The pressure on me as master planner became unbearable,” he said. “I believe skyscrapers are an immoral act.”
Criticism of Cayalá has been growing for years, with some questioning the project when urban areas that are potential gems, such as Guatemala City’s historic center, are in ruins.
Javier Lainfiesta Rosales, the founder of a startup marketing firm, called Cayalá an “abomination” in a wise.
“In Cayalá there are no homeless people, children begging, malnutrition, street vendors, harassment, fighting, extortion, assault, corruption or inequality,” he said. “It’s a piece of the First World in the heart of a city dangerously close to the Fourth World.”
However, Cayalá has many defenders, who point out that people of diverse backgrounds frequent its open spaces.
Warren Orbaugh, professor of architecture at Francisco Marroquín University, responded by focusing on the thousands of trees felled to build and expand Cayalá.
“What wasn’t the forest once upon a time here in Guatemala?” Mr. Orbaugh asked. “Cayalá should multiply as cells across the country, replicated in scale and population density.”
Cayalá’s charm was on display this month, as visitors, including indigenous families chatting in Mayan languages, wandered its gardens, taking selfies in front of pieces of sculpture. Young couples entwined on park benches whispered sweet nothings to each other.
Other visitors wandered into Cayalá’s cavernous Roman Catholic church. Oenophiles sipped wine in cafes and revelers in an overflowing Mexican restaurant drank margaritas.
A few steps away, behind Cayalá’s gates, its well-guarded residential areas, perched near a nature reserve, were eerily quiet.
Mr. García Manzo, the restaurateur who lives in Cayalá, said the three restaurants he owns there employ more than 100 people.
But he acknowledged that fears arose among his neighbors during the protests when word spread that hundreds of buses were headed to Cayalá to attack the area.
“I told my neighbors that it was impossible, if they came they wouldn’t bring torches to set fire to our houses,” said Mr. García Manzo, stressing that he is against taking up arms to protect Cayalá. “The voices created a strong psychosis.”
For Carlos Mendizábal, an architect who detests Cayalá, this was not surprising. Citing the need to constantly repaint its white walls and repair its air conditioning, all while beefing up security, he called it an unsustainable “white elephant.”
“After all this time,” Mendizábal said, “Cayalá is still a shopping center pretending to be a neighborhood.”