Guatemala’s breathtaking natural scenery, warm people, and multi-colored colonial cities all work to make this one of the world’s most underrated travel destinations. It’s perfect for tourists looking for a little adventure without breaking the buck or getting run down with jet lag. The country has gotten a bad reputation in recent years due to its high murder rate, but it’s safe to say that unless you’re running drugs through the country to Mexico, you’re probably safer in Guatemala than you are in most American cities.
Day 1: Panajachel, Lago Atitlan (Lake Atitlan)
We hired a taxi company prior to arriving so that we would have an easy time getting from the Guatemala City airport to Panajachel, a tourist town that borders one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Lago Atitlan. Our hotel was right on the lake, giving us a clear view of the lake and the enormous volcanoes Toliman and San Pedro jutting out of the clouds in the distance. The town of Panajachel was unremarkable, full of souviener shops and hostels for the backpacker set.
Our hotel, the Porta del Lago, was a bit sterile given the scenery in its backyard, but it was fine to use a base for a couple of days. It was the only multistory structure right on the lake so I bet its construction blocked views and rankled some Guatemalan feathers.
Day 2: Chichicastenango
The next morning, Saturday, we were greeted by an enormous rainbow suspended in the sky above the lake and the green volcanoes in the distance, which were partly shrouded in white cumulus clouds.
Saturday happens to be market day at Chichicastenango, a small town in the highlands about 1 hours drive from Panajachel, so we took a taxi to see it. This little town had a lot to offer besides souvenir bazaars that line the narrow, cobblestone streets.
Two things stood out: the white church Iglesia de Santo Tomas whose front steps were full of indigenous people quietly selling colorful flowers. Candles burned and incensed billowed in the daylight, like a pagan ritual infused with elements of Catholicism and ancient Mayan religious symbols. My hunch was right–upon googling it I learned that 400-year old church was built atop a Pre-Columbian temple platform, and portions of the temple stairs still exist. The second highlight was a cemetery perched on a little hill overlooking the town. It had above-ground crypts in all shapes and sizes.
Day 3: Santiago De Atitlan
We took a little ferry boat–more like a big row boat, to be exact–across the wide expanse of Lake Atitlan, between the steep volcano peaks to the bustling little town of Santiago De Atitlan. We spent a few hours here, browsing the Sunday market stalls and taking pictures of the street scenes and the indigenous people in their colorful dress. We were the tallest people in the town and obviously foreigners, but no one really gave us a weird look at all. A little off the main plaza we saw the biggest pile of avocados we had ever seen. When I see avocados in the U.S. today going for $2 each, I wonder how much of that $2 these Guatemalan farmers see. After crossing the lake again, we checked out of the hotel and took a taxi service to the city of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Central Highlands region of the country. We had a little trouble finding our small hotel, the Hotel Casa del Parque, but we managed.
Day 4-5: Antigua
Antigua is well-preserved city with many good examples of Spanish Baroque architecture, nestled in a broad valley surrounded by green mountains. Not only are the buildings beautiful, but the city’s grid of cobblestoned streets lend an air of order to the landscape. One of the first things we did that morning–ignoring the tour book warnings that we could be robbed–was to walk up a hill overlooking the city so that we could get a view of the place. We spent the afternoon exploring the city a bit, trying out the different shops and restaurants all over the Centro Historico. My favorite place was the Central Park (Parque Central), in the heart of the city. I especially liked the Arco de Santa Catalin, a colonnaded building reminiscent of the many plazas I have seen around the world.
On the second day, we had the morning to relax before our shuttle left for the airport in the afternoon. I got another good look at the yellow Santa Catalina Arch, probably the city’s most recognizable landmark. This arch with the mountain in the background provides a great photo op.
A perfect trip, albeit a little short. I’d like to go back one day to show my fiance this beautiful little country. It’s only a short flight from the U.S and it’s cheap. It shouldn’t be too hard to get down there again.
Food and Wine
- Panajachel: Porta del Lago: A modern hotel located right on the shore of Lago Atitlan. Sort of a souless concrete block compound with a fake looking backyard with a big pool. The redeeming quality of this hotel is the excellent views it provides of the lake and two volcanoes in the distance. There are cheaper places to stay in this little town, but you’ll be sure to get a minimum guarantee of some comfort here, with all the amenities a big hotel provides.
- Antigua: Hotel Casa del Parque: The rooms were beautifully decorated, the pool and jacuzzi were nice, and the view from the second floor balcony of the volcanoes was stunning. It’s also located right next to the center square of Antigua. The only negative thing, if you want to call it a negative, is that a few of the hotel front desk people spoke no English whatsoever. Not typical for hotel catering to international visitors.
- I read that some Guatemalan ATMs are rigged to steal your information. Only use those ATMs that look legit and are associated with a bank.
- If you have the time, try to fit in a trip to the Mayan ruins of Tikal.