The most colorful country in Central America, Guatemala basks in traditional Mayan culture and Spanish colonial influence. This land of friendly people and lush geography boasts working cocoa farms, ancient ruins, fascinating churches, thriving festivals, rumbling volcanoes, resplendent cloud forests and busy markets, as well as a rich culture of great coffee and chocolate.
Antigua – Rich Colonial Coffee Capital
Set amidst dramatic mountains and volcanoes, the former capital of Guatemala shines in Spanish colonial splendor. A well-established UNESCO World Heritage site, Antigua overflows with enchanting architecture displayed in its churches, monasteries and homes that share cobblestone streets with shops, restaurants, bakeries and cafés. Amble through beautiful churches erected by the Spanish and explore colonial ruins left behind by nuns and missionaries. Visit markets filled with traditional crafts such as ceramics, jewelry of silver and jade, wooden sculptures and woven textiles. Enjoy the city’s many fabulous cafés, each of which features Guatemala’s famous coffee—rumored to be best in Antigua.
It’s easy for visitors to learn about the process of making coffee and chocolate (cacao and chocolate are Guatemala’s two major exports). At the ChocoMuseo, you’ll learn the history of chocolate (dating back to the ancient Maya who drank it) and watch how artisanal chocolate—bars, truffles, paste and more—is made. Dedicated chocolate-making workshops illustrate what it takes to make beans into bars. You can also go on a daylong coffee tour to a local plantation, where you can harvest the cocoa pod and taste the pulp.
Visitors who decide to stay in Antigua can choose from a great variety of amazing B&Bs and boutique hotels like Posada del Angel, awash with charming colonial flavor.
Quiriguá – Vestiges of a Mayan Dynasty
While the famous ruins of Tikal receive flocks of visitors, the lesser-known Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quiriguá lie tucked away in a clearing of tropical jungle amidst banana plantations, approx. four hours northeast of Guatemala City.
Quiriguá emerged from its role as a jade trading outpost and way station between Mayan strongholds Copán and Tikal to control the principal trade route that ran from the Caribbean to the Mayan civilization. It became a major ceremonial center that required grand processional spaces and structures. Setting it apart from other Mayan sites are its massive zoomorphs—animal forms representing gods that are carved from giant boulders and decorated with intricate designs, figures and glyphs (ancient symbols). Wander along the Great Plaza to palaces, temples and Acropolis ruins and contemplate how the mammoth slabs of carved stone (the largest weighs over 60 tons) were carved without the use of metal tools. The building of this ancient city came to a halt in the late 8th century, and Quiriguá mysteriously faded from civilization in the early 9th century—its demise potentially caused by a great earthquake. Fortunately, it survives as a heritage site mostly hidden from the masses.
Lake Atitlán – Place of the Waters
Located in southwestern Guatemala, Lake Atitlán lies at an elevation of 5,125 feet, surrounded by three majestic volcanoes and an area populated with ancient culture. The massive volcanic cauldron is the deepest lake in Central America and is designated as a national park. Almost completely closed off from the world until about a decade ago, the area still harbors many mystical elements of the native Indians, along with corn and coffee farming, and a bounty of fruit and vegetable crops. Although 800-year-old Panajachel (aka Pana)—its largest town—has been discovered by tourists, it’s easy to take a boat around the lake to other towns, each of which has its own distinct flavor.
For approx. 25 quetzales (approx. $3.13 U.S.), you can get to Santiago Atitlán on the southwest corner of the lake. According to Mayan belief, the world was created here, when the gods raised the volcanoes. Retaining the most traditional flavor of any of the lakeside villages, it’s a place to see simple fishing boats along the shore and women in brilliantly embroidered traditional huipiles (tunics) selling fruit, vegetables and handmade items in the town’s small plaza.
Check into one of the enticing stone bungalows of Posada de Santiago, and bask in a Guatemalan Eden. You’ll smell fresh cacao beans roasting in the stone oven, taste wonderful local fare in the open-air, thatched-roof dining palapa and see fantastic views of the lake as you sit in a wood-heated hot tub atop a stone tower. Other activities include volcano hikes, horse riding, canoeing and fishing, plus archaeological and cultural tours.
Chichicastenango – Indigenous Flavors of Commerce & Christendom
Located a few hours northwest of Guatemala City, Chichicastenango is known to most as “Chichi.” This charming town is home to a spectacular crafts market, named the most colorful in the Americas. Held on Thursdays and Sundays in Chichi’s narrow streets, the mercado (market) brings out tons of vendors, food stands, bargains, friendly locals and families from the surrounding area outfitted in traditional attire. Although the market is famous for textiles and vegetables, you’ll find all manner of wares—along with curiosities like snakes and eyeballs.
When you’ve had your share of shopping, explore the town, its eateries, the local cemetery (featuring colorful above-ground crypts) and the two unique churches, which blend Catholicism with traditional Mayan worship. Visitors can attend a Sunday mass to experience local life at its most spiritual.
Each of the 18 steps leading up to the 16th-century Santo Tomás Church represent one month of the Mayan calendar. The sacred remains of an ancient temple, the steps are reserved for the Maya to use to honor and communicate with the dead. Hire a guide to fill you in on the fascinating significance of the church’s décor and its blended rituals. No photos are permitted inside to preserve spiritual sanctity—a rule that’s very serious to the locals.
You can take a day trip to Chichi from Panajachel via a tourist shuttle or one of the infamous public buses (aka chicken buses), often stuffed to capacity with people, goods and chickens in wicker baskets.
Amatitlán – Lava Hike & Volcanic Spa
Pacaya Volcano National Park is home to the country’s most frequently climbed volcano, an active wonder that has erupted more than 20 times since the Spanish invaded Guatemala in the 16th century. Only an hour from both Guatemala City and Antigua, it provides an easy way to view some spectacular scenery by foot or by horse. Guided hikes—mandatory for first-time visitors—will take you through humid forests before climbing to the summit where you may see lava flowing.
After completing the moderate morning jaunt, head to nearby Lago de Amatitlán (Lake Atitlán) to get pampered at the Santa Teresita Spa. Submerge in therapeutic pools to cleanse both body and spirit. Various temperatures let you roam from hot to cold, while steam baths, massages, mani/pedis and skin treatments (including chocolate and coffee scrubs) provide further relaxation. Popular with the residents of Guatemala City, Santa Teresita lets you soak with local families and practice your Spanish. While you can rent towels and robes, you’ll need to bring your own flip-flops, soap and shampoo. If you book a Pacaya Volcano Package, you’ll get round-trip transportation to the volcano from your hotel, a local guide and a box lunch followed by a thermal circuit and massage.
If you go to the volcano on your own, a Spanish-speaking guide will be assigned to you at the park’s entrance. English guides usually accompany the daily tours that originate in Antigua and Guatemala City. Choose an early-morning or night tour to avoid the intense midday sun.
Semana Santa – An Unforgettable Easter
To see Guatemala in its full glory, visit during Semana Santa —the Holy Week preceding Easter. Celebrations and processions marking the occasion originated during the Spanish colonization in the 16th century, and start a week before Easter on Palm Sunday. Many locals travel from smaller pueblos to larger cities like Antigua, where celebrations occur at all hours of the day. Varying in theme and pace, the processions stop at the stations of the cross to commemorate Christ’s journey. Parades feature andas (wooden floats that are carried), church bands, singing and banners, with everyone dressed in traditional attire. Antiguans pull out all the stops when they decorate their churches, homes and towns, and create intricate alfombras (carpets) of fine sawdust, which are decorated with elaborate stencils, fruit, feathers, flowers and pine needles. Amidst clouds of incense, you’ll find candlelight vigils, specialty food and a fusion of Catholic and Mayan traditions. In 2014, celebrations occur from April 6–13. Book well in advance for this time of year.
Panajachel – Textile Traditions & Fair-Trade Shopping
Featuring the vibrant colors and patterns of Mayan heritage combined with a bit of colonial influence, modern-day Guatemalan textiles are still crafted using traditional techniques. To experience this cultural wonder on a deeper level, take a tour or workshop organized by Thirteen Threads, a nonprofit Mayan women’s education project working to ensure fair trade and sustainable markets for rural Mayan artisans. The annual weaving and rug-hooking workshop takes place in early spring, while day tours of the women’s communities—as well as week-long tours of women’s cooperatives—provide a great way to blend craft with culture. You can also visit the Fair Trade Store and Women’s Center in central Panajachel. Ensconced in the historic Casa Cakchiquelbuilding (a former hotel rumored to have hosted Ingrid Bergman and Ernesto “Che” Guevara), the space also functions as a community resource center and exhibition area. Authentic souvenirs at fair prices include handwoven table runners, scarves, purses, jewelry, rugs, coffee and chocolate.
Cobán – In Search of an Elusive Cloud-Forest Deity
Many consider the resplendent quetzal—an incredible long-tailed tropical forest bird—to be the world’s most beautiful. While both female and male share the brilliant white, green and red coloring, only the male has the distinct long green tail and crown feathers.
The quetzal carries deep spiritual and mythical meaning for the Maya and Aztecs, who used its image in carvings, artwork, headdresses and weavings. In the Mayan and Aztec empires, the quetzal was a divine entity associated with Quetzalcoatl (aka Kukulkan or Q’uq’umatz), the feathered serpent god that some Mayans elevated to creator god. The bird’s green plumes symbolized cool-water springs, life, healing, rainforests and maize corn crops—and possibly wild avocado, which the quetzal eats. The Maya captured male quetzals to collect their plumes before releasing them back into the rainforest, where they could regenerate their feathers. The emerald plumes were valued more than gold and used exclusively by nobility—priests and warrior chiefs wore grand green-feathered ceremonial headdresses. The national symbol of Guatemala, the quetzal is depicted on the country’s flag, its postage stamps and its currency, which even bears its name.
To get a glimpse this remarkable creature in its natural habitat, head to the Mario Dary Biotope Preserve in the vicinity of Cobán in the Central Highlands. Created to protect the quetzal, the preserve contains two well-marked nature paths that meander through a mountain cloud forest. Hike through lush vegetation past orchids, moss, ferns and bromeliads. Your best chance to see the elusive quetzal is in the early morning (especially when the birds mate in March and April), but sightings aren’t guaranteed. Even if you don’t spot one, taking a day trip to the preserve is a great way to experience one of the area’s most magnificent forests. Photo courtesy ofBird in Hand.
Travel Tips: Guatemala
Bursting with beauty, color and culture, Guatemala is a gold mine for travelers. We’ve compiled these tips to help you explore this remarkable country, from how to shop and bargain to how to dress and what food to try.
Getting Around in Antigua
The colonial marvel of Antigua is easy to navigate on foot—most tourist destinations are located within 8 sq. blocks. You can buy a map at a local shop or from Inguat, the official Guatemala tourism office (2a. Calle Oriente #11). To make it easy, streets are numbered rather than named. Streets oriented east to west are designated as calles (streets), while those oriented north to south are known as avenidas (avenues).
If you need a ride, flag down a roving tuk-tuk (three-wheeled covered motorcycle) or look for a taxi along main routes and at Parque Central (Central Park). After 11 p.m., it’s best to catch a cab at the park if you’re heading away from the well-lit center. Always negotiate fares in advance, wherever you’re going.
A wealth of wonderful edibles grow in Guatemalan soil. Be sure to visit local markets, cafés and restaurants, and go on a plantation tour to sample the following specialties in their freshest form:
- Avocados: Antigua is the avocado capital of the country. Residents are nicknamed panzas verdes (green bellies) for the large amount of avocados they consume.
- Cardamom: Guatemala is the world’s largest exporter of cardamom, a spice in the ginger family commonly used to flavor Arabian coffee.
- Coffee: Guatemala’s largest export has eight regional varieties and more than 90,000 producers. Antigua prides itself on having the best coffee in the world. Tour a plantation to see how coffee is grown and produced.
- Chocolate: Cocoa beans have been cultivated in Guatemala since Mayan times and were once valued as luxuries.
- Macadamia nuts: Visit a local nut farm like Valhalla to taste delicious concoctions such as macadamia pancakes. Located outside Antigua, this nonprofit organic farm assists indigenous communities.
A bounty of artisanal products make Guatemala a shopper’s paradise. The techniques used to make them and the patterns used to decorate them are handed down through multiple generations. Look for these specialties:
- Basketwares: Artistry in the form of woven natural fibers dates back to Mayan times.
- Ceramics: Available in glazed, painted and molded form. Antigua is the chief producer of molded ceramics, while Pastores and San Miguel Dueñas primarily generate painted ceramics shaped like fruit and vegetables.
- Jade: Sacred to the ancient Maya, this gemstone is still prized in Guatemala. It’s commonly used in jewelry and reproductions of Mayan burial masks.
- Leather: Look for bags, belts, satchels, suitcases and wallets.
- Silver: Antigua and Santa María de Jesús are the key places for silversmithing—another craft handed down from the Maya.
- Wooden crafts: Seek out furniture, kitchen utensils, candy boxes, religious figurines, masks, toys and musical instruments. Highland towns like Chichicastenango (Chichi), Quiché and Totonicapán specialize in creating wooden masks. Guatemala’s national instrument is the marimba (a wooden xylophone), which is produced in Huehuetenango and Quetzaltenango.
- Woven textiles: The indigenous costumes of Guatemala are legendary, each design unique to a specific village. You can also find a dazzling array of colors in the form of carpets, wall hangings, bed covers, tablecloths, bags and fabric dolls.
- Wrought iron: Good examples include colonial-style lamps, furniture, candlesticks and home décor. You’ll see the most elaborate forms in Antigua.
Negotiating a Price
Prepare to bargain when you shop at markets and street stalls. Start by asking around to gauge the average price of the item you want. While vendors may request double that price, you should begin negotiations at 50% below the average price. Knowing some Spanish (especially numbers) and having a grasp of both the quetzal (the local currency) and the current exchange rate will help. Don’t break down negotiations over a few quetzales, but don’t be afraid to walk away. Above all, be respectful—although negotiating may be just another travel adventure to you, this is how the vendors earn their living. Bring smaller bills (with larger ones tucked in a money belt and a calculator if quick math isn’t your forte. Antigua generally has the highest prices.
What’s the Buzz?
Guatemala’s warm, humid climate and its location on the equator makes it a popular destination for mosquitoes—especially in the early mornings and evenings. Fortunately, most cities and tourist towns lie in the cool temperate zones at higher elevation, which have fewer mosquitoes. In fact, the buzzing bugs are rare in Antigua and practically non-existent in busy Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango (8,000 feet above sea level). Lowland areas (less than 4,920 feet) have the most activity. When you book a place to stay, be sure it has well-screened windows or air conditioning when possible. When climbing or hiking, use a tried-and-true insect repellent or cover up with long pants (convertible pants are ideal), long sleeves and socks. Consider a shawl for outdoor dining in places like Lake Atitlan.
Know Your Zone
Guatemala has three climate zones: tropical, temperate and cool. Pack according to which zone(s) you’ll visit. The country is generally casual—shorts, a skirt and one pair of pants with a few T-shirts and a cardigan mixed in will serve you well in most areas. Antigua and the smaller villages are very conservative, so don’t wear tank tops, strapless dresses, short shorts or mini skirts when visiting. If you’re planning to hike the popular Pacaya volcano, pack layers; the higher elevations can be cool and windy. Take a light jacket or rainproof windbreaker and be sure to wear comfortable hiking boots or walking shoes to navigate the loose, volcanic rock. You’ll also need good shoes to explore ruins such as Tikal. Take a poncho for afternoon showers, especially during the rainy season (May through October). Sandals are great for the more humid lowlands.
Guatemala has excellent language immersion programs all around the country. The colonial city of Antigua offers some of the best and most affordable programs in Latin America. Take half-day classes or full-day courses with one-on-one instruction or in a classroom setting, for a week, a month or longer. A basic understanding of the language will make it much more enjoyable to explore the vast number of cafés, restaurants, markets, churches and squares. You can also opt to stay with a Guatemalan family in a village if you’d rather be more remote. It’s a great way to learn Spanish while discovering the culture.