Although we had been wanting to visit Guatemala for some time we didn't firmly decide to do so until the end of last August, opting for a 13 day trip in November. This left us a little over two months to plan the visit. Using a file of newspaper clippings I had saved on the country, a few archived posts on TheTravelzine, every Guatemala guidebook from the local library, and supporting websites, we narrowed our itinerary down to four distinct areas within the country. First we would visit the old Spanish colonial city of Antigua, next on to Lake Atitlán, then the coffee- producing highlands around Cobán, and finally the ancient Mayan city of Tikal in the Petén jungle before returning to Guatemala City for one night before our early flight home. Normally our style of travel is to leave accommodation choices open until our arrival (except for the first night) but on this trip we opted to reserve all hotels ahead of time. This was mostly due to uncertainty regarding how busy this time of year was for tourism, timeliness of ground transport, and a fairly large part of the country to be covered in such a short period of time. We were able to contact all hotels either through e-mail or by telephone, making and confirming reservations as well as arranging transfer from Guatemala City to Antigua immediately upon our arrival. We opted to fly in on American Airlines and also chose to return to Guatemala City from Tikal on Taca Airlines. Ground transportation within Guatemala was a mixture of buses and mini-shuttles, arrangements of which were all made as the trip progressed.
Our flight from San Diego to Guatemala City took about 7-8 hours (with a short layover in Dallas) and had us arriving around 8:30pm. Antigua is a short distance from Guatemala City, less than an hour, and we had arranged for transfer with our hotel. Our driver, accompanied by his girlfriend, made a stop at a Chinese restaurant for some takeout on the way out of town. As we sat in the car chatting with his girlfriend we took note of the security guard standing in front of the restaurant with his short-barreled shotgun (weapon of choice by security personnel). These security guards were quite common at businesses, banks, and even on delivery vehicles (such as beer trucks, which I can easily understand) throughout the country. You see the presence of these guards here in the U.S. at banks (usually with holstered handguns) and also at Mexican banks (bearing automatic weapons).
Antigua was one of the original capitals under the Spanish government. However, due to repeated destructive earthquakes eventually the capital was moved to Guatemala City. The result is a uniquely preserved 16th-century colonial city. Part of its charm is it's setting -verdant tree-covered steep-sloped volcanoes looming over the city. Cobblestone streets emanate from the central plaza on the traditional Spanish grid layout. With a minimum of hills in the city proper, Antigua begs to be explored on foot.
First and foremost among Antigua's sights are its many ruined Catholic churches and convents. Because of its predominant role in the early years of the Spanish colonialization many of the different Catholic orders built large church complexes which included schools, convents, etc. And with the aforementioned earthquakes destroying the buildings, after repetitive rebuilding many were ultimately abandoned. Some have been slightly restored and can be visited while others can just be viewed from the exterior. All are nicely lit at night giving the city a wonderful feel for an after dark stroll.
In addition to sightseeing, shopping, and dining in Antigua we made two side trips while there. First we visited a macadamia farm just a few miles outside the city. Secondly we made a 1/2 day excursion to climb the Pacaya volcano which looms over Guatemala City.
The trip to the macadamia farm was made on local buses. These are commonly referred to in travel guides as "chicken buses", a term I find offensive. The buses are former North American school buses which have been beautifully repainted and are now serving a second life as the major means of transportation for the vast majority of Guatemalans. For this 6 ft. 4 in. American male the seat spacing originally designed for elementary school children is just a bit too tight. I could stand it for the short 20 minute ride out to the farm but knew that any long distance travel in the country would have to be done on a more commodious vehicle.
The Valhalla Macadamia Farm affords one the opportunity to visit a working nut farm including walking amongst the various species of trees and having a guide explain the drying, sizing, and shelling methods and apparatuses. An extra bonus to the tour was a ten minute facial given with macadamia nut oils. And we topped it all off with some macadamia nut pancakes for lunch. We were joined on our visit to the farm by two members of the Guatemalan Politur (Tourist Police). This specialized police force was formed by the Guatemalan government and tourist commission (INGUAT) in response to some highly publicized crimes committed against tourists earlier in this decade. We had a wonderful chat with these two men about their jobs, their hometowns, the U.S., and Guatemalan politics (which they ultimately became a little uneasy discussing; not surprising considering that despite the peace accord signed in 1999 the man behind many of the atrocities committed in the early '90's is still a member of the Guatemalan Congress). During our visit to Guatemala we encountered and were helped by the friendly members of the Politur on several occasions.
The hike up the Pacaya volcano is one of the most common adventure activities done by visitors to Antigua (and Guatemala City). Tours are offered for both day and night ascents. We opted for the day ascent which consisted of a 6:00am departure, 1 hour+ drive to the trailhead, 2-3 hour hike up the volcano, approximately an hour on the peak, the hike back down and a return to Antigua about 1:30pm. We were led by a very knowledgeable guide through upland forest before breaking out onto the barren flanks of the active volcano. The final push for the summit is along a well- defined trail along a ridge, then a steep ash incline that levels off on a lava rock strewn bench (from which you can see the Pacific Ocean), over another windswept ridge to a trail along the very upper flank of the peak, a last steep pitch of ash, and the final scramble over the most recent lava flows to the three different calderas at the very peak. The views along the upper barren flanks are outstanding; the Pacific I've mentioned but also one can see the skyscrapers of downtown Guatemala City and the three volcanoes (Agua, Fuego, and Acotenango) ringing Antigua. The calderas are just as you'd imagine with steam and sulfurous gas rising up from the volcanoes three distinct throats. And at the very upper caldera we could scramble over the brittle lava flows and peek down at the glowing molten rock as the blast- furnace-like heat rose up from the depths.
For those less adventurous travelers shopping is another outstanding activity to partake in while visiting Antigua. In addition to the myriad number of stores offering local handicrafts there is an artisan's market adjacent to the main city market. Beautiful woven fabrics are the highlight of the Guatemalan folk art. Woven on backstrap looms the fabrics are intricately designed, colorful, and well-made. Do as we did and bring along a collapsible bag to carry home your purchases. And don't think you are done shopping until you get on the plane bound for home.
Guatemalan cuisine is not distinctly different from its neighbors being heavily influenced by Mexico to the north and its fellow Central American nations. However, the food is quite tasty and lacks the strong use of chiles so common by its northern neighbor. Black beans, rice, and fried plantains are common accompaniments. With tortillas and rolls usually being offered as well. Antigua offered a plethora of different cuisines including Chinese (common throughout the country), French, and Italian. Our best and worst meals were taken here in Antigua. The best being at La Casserole, a French restaurant where we enjoyed entrees of rabbit and duck. Our worst (a mediocre meal not a bad one; the desserts were excellent) was at El Sereno, a beautiful restaurant that could improve on its preparations. Coffee houses are ubiquitous and a must, after all this is a major coffee producing nation. And you'll encounter excellent pastries throughout the city.
Our accommodations were at the Casa Cristina. Our room was small, on the second story looking over a quiet callejon (small street or alley), with its own bathroom and shower (hot water available at limited times), securely locked front door with a doorman present 24 hours, located approximately four long blocks from the central plaza. Free internet and Continental breakfast included ( of which we never took advantage) and the cost of the room was $23 U.S. a night. Quite satisfactory for us. There is a wide range of hotels and guesthouses available in Antigua as it is a popular location for Spanish instruction.
A few websites that might be of help in planning a Guatemala (and Antigua) trip:
The guidebooks we took (thank you to the San Diego Public Library) were The Rough Guide: Guatemala and Moon Handbooks: Guatemala (most recent additions).
Next installment forthcoming next week will be on Lake Atitlán.
Happy travels! John in San Diego