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The Best of Guatemala
Sinead, our Latin America specialist (and forever jetsetter) talks about her Guatemalan experience and how she uncovers the diversity of the country. Combining a visit to the cobbled streets of Antigua, the mind blowing landscape of Lake Atitlan and the Mayan city of Tikal, it was one trip with three very different experiences…
I have been incredibly fortunate to have travelled as extensively as I have through Latin America and I always struggle when asked that impossible to answer question: which country is your favourite and why? How can I choose just one?! But one day my manager asked me: if you had the opportunity to return to any country in Latin America, which would it be? And there it was… Guatemala… no hesitation. Guatemala is one of Central America’s most diverse and less-travelled countries, offering a spectacular mix of culture, green rolling lands, colonial gems and mysterious ruins once dominated by the Mayan people. After a recent trip to Guatemala, I was lucky enough to revisit Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Tikal. Three of the country’s top destinations that should be included in any trip to Guatemala!
As I emerged from customs at Guatemala City’s international airport, I was greeted by our guide, Carlos who drove us one hour to the old Spanish capital of Antigua and delivered us to our hotel, Meson de Maria.
Meson de Maria is in a beautifully restored colonial building in the heart of Antigua. Central to everything, and with spacious rooms, comfortable beds, delicious breakfast and wonderfully friendly staff who ensured we enjoyed our stay. On a clear day, the three volcanoes that surround Antigua can be seen from the roof top terrace: Fuego, Agua and Acatenango – a spectacular view!
I loved being in Antigua, aimlessly wandering around the cobbled streets and soaking up the vibrant atmosphere; it’s a place of rare beauty and bursting with colonial charm and culture. Our wonderful guide, Carlos, showed us around the town and introduced us to places way off the tourist trail. One afternoon we were taken for a walk in the nearby valleys through coffee plantations. Mid-way we were treated to a coffee tour by a family who belong to the local fair-trade community. I learnt that Guatemala is the world’s 6th largest producer of Arabica beans… who knew!
Saying goodbye to Antigua, we continued our journey to Guatemala’s highland region. This fascinating part of the world is famous for spectacular scenery, authentic markets and the locals’ resilience to maintain their traditional customs and beliefs, despite the Spanish conquistadors’ best efforts.
On route to Lake Atitlan, we stopped off to visit the markets at Comalapa & Chichicastenango (Chichi for short). Comalapa is a local market and it was fascinating to watch everyone in their traditional dress, trading their wares and generally going about their daily business – not a single souvenir in sight! The Chichi market only operates on Thursdays and Sundays.
What may appear to be a tourist trap is much, much more. Once you pass by the souvenir stalls, you will find an authentic fruit & vegetable section, very local “restaurants” and what appears to be a Catholic church. It was the conquistadors who built the church, however, it was built on top of a Mayan temple and the steps to the front door tell you that this is no ordinary church. The steps are almost hidden underneath local men and women burning incense and selling fresh flowers, candles and more incense. Once inside, the distinction between Catholicism and Mayan beliefs is very blurry. Altars where people burn different coloured candles as offerings to the Mayan gods, the priest’s chair which is carved with multiple Mayan symbols… it call comes together to form a real religious fusion! Perhaps most intriguingly, the Virgin Mary can clearly be recognised as holding twins!
As we approached Lake Atitlan, we were treated to spectacular views of the lake bathed in afternoon sunshine. Panajachel is a very good base for exploring the lake if you like to be close to a town with a variety of restaurants and nightlife. For me personally, it is worth every last penny to find a hotel room that has a view of this stunning lake, after all it’s what you’re here for right?
We drove through the main town of Panajachel to the dock where we boarded a boat to take us to our hotel, Lomas de Tzununa. Lomas de Tzununa is located high up on the north-west side of the lake. We were all extremely grateful to the porters who carried our luggage to our rooms for us – 323 steps certainly tested our fitness! Yes, it takes a bit of effort to get to this hotel but the view from each of the rooms and the restaurant is easily one of the very best views I’ve ever had the privilege to admire. If mobility is an issue, Thierry (the owner) will offer to collect you from the nearby public dock and drive you the short distance to his hotel on a road he and the local community have built especially. Our rooms were simple but large, with a floor-to-ceiling glass sliding door that took up the entire wall panel and led out onto a balcony… Let’s just say that I have never been happier to wake at 5am!
There are numerous activities to choose from during your stay at the lake: hiking up San Pedro Volcano, zip lining and canopy tours, kayaking, scuba diving, paragliding and of course, exploring some of the villages around the lake edge. Each village is unique in its own special way – there is truly something for everyone. On this occasion, we visited the town of Santiago, home to Maximon. Maximon is a three foot tall, wooden statue who is believed to be a deity. His origins are said to be an infusion of Mayan beliefs, Catholicism and Judas – honestly, the whole arrangement has to be seen to be believed, one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen!
The third and final leg of our adventure in Guatemala saw us take an early morning flight north into the jungle of Guatemala. Gone were the comfortable temperatures of the highlands. Upon landing, even at 7am, we were welcomed with the unmistakeable heat and humidity of the jungle.
The major town of the region is Santa Elena, situated on the shores of Lake Peten Itza. The tiny island of Flores is linked to the mainland by a 500m man-made causeway. In 1697, Flores became the last independent Maya state to be conquered by the Spanish. While there are plenty of places to stay on Flores and in Santa Elena, most of these are geared towards those on a budget. I didn’t get to do this, but I would highly, highly, recommend camping near the remote village of Uaxactun (say: wa-shuck-tun). Glamping is a more appropriate word, as each tent is large enough to have two wooden-framed single beds inside. A campfire is built while dinner is prepared for you within the nearby archaeological ruins – a magical setting indeed! To be able to rise to the sounds of the jungle and be the first ones there ready to explore the ruins, I’d say it’s a pretty special experience and something completely out there and bespoke!
For many travellers, the main draw to this corner of the country is to see Guatemala’s leading archaeological site, Tikal. At the height of its power, Tikal was one of the largest classic Mayan cities and is one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites in Central America. The site is estimated to contain approximately 7,000 structures over an area of some 125km2. Luckily for visitors, archaeologists have focused on uncovering and restoring a 16km2 area around the core of the site. The appeal for many is that it is the complete opposite of its Mexican cousin, Chichen Itza. Tikal is remote, less-frequented and consumed by the surrounding jungle. The whole experience allows you to get in touch with your “inner Indiana Jones” – walking amongst what once were mighty palaces and sacred temples; you can ascend to the top of several pyramids for the most amazing view of the jungle canopy, stretching all the way to the horizon. Seeing the tops of temples peeking through the canopy is quite a surreal view. For avid nature lovers, you can expect to encounter spider monkeys, howler monkeys, coatis (looks like a raccoon), wild turkeys and a wide variety of birds including macaws, toucans, guans, trogons and many more.
In less than nine days, I went from the exquisite city of Antigua, to the rich, colourful markets in the highland area and finished up in Mayan ruins set deep within the jungle.
It’s a country that offers something so different and untouched it has everything a traveller could hope for: history, natural beauty, culture, mysterious ruins, and charming colonial towns. It’s easy to see why it’s a favourite destination of ours.
Do you love wildlife and want a jungle experience?
Contact one of our Guatemala experts on 020 3141 2840 to find out more about visiting this area.