GUATEMALA CITY – The highway climbs toward the edge of Guatemala City, past deep ravines where the poorest residents of the capital live in thousands of cinderblock huts, roofed with plastic sheets and powered by black cables stealing electricity from nearby lampposts.
Seven miles south of the historic center, the rutted, two-lane road comes to a set of towering white stucco walls and a pair of broad cast-iron gates that open onto apartment buildings and storefronts designed in Spanish colonial style. Cupolas top red-tile roofs. Residents sip cappucinos and lattes under red umbrellas in the sleek silver chairs of cafes facing a cobble-stone promenade.
Guatemalan developers are building a nearly independent city for the wealthy on the outskirts of a capital marred by crime and snarled by traffic. At its heart is the 34-acre Paseo Cayala, with apartments, parks, high-end boutiques, church, nightclubs, and restaurants, all within a ring of white stucco walls.
The builders of Paseo Cayala say it is a livable, walkable development that offers housing for Guatemalans of a variety of incomes, though so far the cheapest apartments cost about 70 times the average Guatemalan’s yearly wage. It’s bordered by even costlier subdivisions. Eventually, the Cayala Management Group hopes to expand the project into Cayala City, spreading across 870 acres, an area a little larger than New York’s Central Park .
Cayala’s backers promote it as a safe haven in a troubled country, one with an unusual degree of autonomy from the chaotic capital. It also embraces a philosophy that advocates a return to a traditional concept of a city, with compact, agreeable spaces where homes and shops are intermixed.
Detractors, however, say it is a blow to hopes of saving the real traditional heart of Guatemala City by drawing the well-off back into the urban center to participate in the economic and social life of a city struggling with poverty and high levels of crime and violence.
Cayala is a place that tries to imitate a historic center, the way people move around an urban city, but it fails because it is not a city, said architect Carlos Mendizabal, who worked to rebuild the Cinelux movie theater, one of Guatemala City’s first cinemas.