Country’s roots trace to Spain and the indigenous people; it’s a great spot for eco-tourists, too
The treasures of present-day Guatemala, the cradle of Mayan civilization, go beyond the ancient.
The country’s roots trace both to Spain and the native people. This diverse history combines with the natural beauty of the land to create a luxury travel destination worth more than an afternoon spent digging for artifacts.
Eco-tourists will find forests in the midst of preservation. Urbanites will enjoy consuming the food and artwork in Guatemala City. Photographers will find a broad, green canvas in between. Whether your interests run ecological, archaeological, or historical, there’s a slice of Mayan history in Guatemala to satisfy your curiosity.
The Central American country consists of three main regions — the cool highlands with the densest population, the tropical area along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, and the tropical jungle in the northern lowlands (known as the Petén). One can travel from coast to coast in six hours, see the entire country in seven days, and change climates in just two hours.
When traveling a great distance, the most common mode of transportation is the camioneta, or “chicken bus.” These refurbished, colorfully painted buses follow a designated route and can accommodate up to 30 people. They’re often crowded with passengers and sometimes chickens, hence the name. At some point — say, the four-hour mark — comfort becomes an issue. Anything less than that can be chalked up to a “rich cultural experience.”
Navigating the country by rental car offers a cheap thrill if you can brave the steep mountainous roads. It’s a viable alternative if you can do it. Some of the narrow, winding lanes are enough to give any driver white knuckles, but the scenery is beautiful.
Whatever your mode of transportation, start in Guatemala City, the largest city in Central America. Guatemala’s capital has a wide variety of art galleries, theaters, sports venues and museums.
For a close-up look at the indigenous people, visit the Ixchel Museum of Mayan Costumes. One tour introduces visitors to 117 different patterns of colorful woven fabrics used to make costumes worn by Mayan men and women. Traditionally, several months were needed for the fabric to be woven and fashioned into clothing. All clothing was made by the women of the house, who made time to weave in between their daily household chores.
The museum displays items of clothing, from everyday to formal wear that dates to the late 19th century. Woven fabric was also used to construct “suts” — a square of cloth tied by the corners to carry babies, food, and other supplies (not all at once). One room displays more than 60 paintings by native Carmen Pettersen, each showing the colorful costumes she collected from the Mayans.
When hungry, visit the beautiful open-air gourmet lunch venue at Fontabella Mall in zone 10, where the lunch crowd goes for ceviches and other specialties. Guatemalan food is influenced by Spanish cuisine but isn’t as spicy. Typical meals include corn in some form with beans. The must-try dishes are maize tortillas, frijoles negros, tamales and kaqik (a turkey soup). A typical breakfast consists of frijoles, eggs and bread with coffee. Atole de elote is a popular, warm corn drink.
Beer enthusiasts must try the native Gallo (a dark lager), and Monte Carlo (premium lager). Guatemala also produces a number of different rums, including the superb Ron Zacapa Centenario which is aged up to 30 years. Tequila is a very popular choice among locals.
When staying in Guatemala City, the opulent Westin Camino Real promises to transform every aspect of your stay into a revitalizing experience with their attention to detail. Its friendly staff and close proximity to La Aurora International Airport make it a natural choice when coming or going abroad.
From there, we traveled to the magnificent views of Lake Atitlan, located in a mountainous region 60 miles from the Pacific coast. This deep blue lake should be counted among the wonders of the modern world. Surrounded by many picturesque villages and three active volcanoes, it’s the deepest lake in Central America and renowned as one of the most beautiful freshwater lakes in the world. It’s been said that when the xocomil wind comes from the south across the lake it is “the wind that takes your sins away.”
Stay at Casa Palopo, a chic, rustic property on the lake that offers clear views to the volcanoes across the water. Author Peter Bowerman stayed there while he wrote “The Well Fed Writer.” He likely gorged on the shrimp wrapped in wontons at the in-house restaurant, called 6.8 Palopo.
The southern side of Lake Atitlan is known for its textiles and art. The area is accessible only by boat, and a public ride across is just $2 each way. (Chartering your own boat costs about $40 a day, but that buys the freedom to set your own schedule.) While there, take in the sights and sounds of a traditional Guatemalan market and bargain for your choice of treasures to bring home. At the Corazon del Lago shop in San Juan, local indigenous women wearing brightly colored clothing dye yarn and weave cloth by hand on a back-strap loom. Walking further, one encounters amazing art galleries filled with work from local artists. Coffee drinkers must stop and buy the local beans — Guatemala is the top provider for Starbucks.
Antigua, the first city in Guatemala, is a very well-known destination full of historic buildings, monuments, fountains and ruins. It can be reached via a $10, 45-minute shuttle from La Aurora.
Of Antigua’s 38 Catholic churches, only five are active. The others are still standing but in ruins. You can easily walk from one end of town to the other in 15 minutes. Its cobblestone streets are quite pedestrian-friendly, full of shops and restaurants. For lunch or dinner, try Los Tres Tiempos up the street from the famous arch of Santa Catalina. Try the Elotes Locos — corn on the cob with mayonnaise, ketchup and white cheese sauce — one of many unique menu items. Watch tortillas being made in the open-view kitchen, then devour them while they’re still warm.
Casa Palopo (the property on Lake Atitlan) has a home in the heart of Antigua available for rent. It’s built in the colonial style typical to the area, in which rooms are constructed around open and spacious gardens featuring pools and fountains. This house features several lounge areas, a living room with a fireplace, large dining room, office, kitchen, and upstairs balcony with both lounge chairs and beds if you want to sleep outside and watch the stars.
For a more rugged local adventure, Guatemala’s northern province, the Petén, is home to the Maya Biosphere Reserve — a vast area of tropical forest, wetlands and Mayan ruins. It’s considered one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Jaguars, pumas, monkeys and tapirs are some of the species that reside inside 8,000 square miles of lush forest — an archaeologist’s paradise. Petén is a two-hour ride from Guatemala City.
The best time to visit Guatemala is the summer months, November through February. The clear blue skies allow visitors to enjoy the beauty of the mountains and volcanoes. Visiting between March and October comes with lower lodging rates, but this is the rainy season, which means an abundance of mosquitoes.
The modern luxuries of the Guatemala City Westin, the old-world cobblestones of Antigua, and the natural beauty of the tropical forests of the Petén complement each other perfectly. More than just an escape from stress, Guatemala offers an escape to a land frozen in time.
Shelly Goldman writes for Conway Confidential, a content syndication provider specializing in travel, food and lifestyle.
If You Go…
Getting there: American Airlines offers round-trip flights to Guatemala via Miami daily from LaGuardia and returns to Newark from $599, aa.com. Delta also flies from LaGuardia and returns to Newark from $600, delta.com.
Stay: – The Westin Camino Real, Guatemala has classic European décor, prices from $140/night. tinyurl.com/Westin-Guat.
– The Jungle Lodge Tikalhotel, sometimes known as the Posada de la Selva, is the nicest and largest of the Tikal hotels and is close to Tikal National Park (junglelodgetikal.com) The Tikal Inn hotel is the furthest away but breakfast and dinner are included in your rate (tikalinn.com). The Jaguar Inn is well priced ($50 – $100/night) and only a 10-minute walk to the park entrance. (jaguartikal.com).
– Casa Palopo in Lake Atitlan starts at $175 per night, and their exclusive villa with private helipad and pool starts at $1,300 a night from April to June. casapalopo.com.
Do: A tour of Tikal National Park can be completed in one day or expanded to five days of camping and park exploration. The entrance fee is $20 per day. The museums inside are an additional $1.50. To avoid camping, plan a tour that includes a night at one of the park’s three hotels so you can spend your days sightseeing. tikalpark.com