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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Guatemala.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Guatemala.
To be completely honest, I didn’t feel like hiking up Volcan San Pedro. While strolling around San Juan la Laguna, the 3,020m cone loomed over me somewhat menacingly. The sky was overcast. It was 7am. I’d spent the night in a homestay and had only slept for about five hours. Breakfast had been a tiny muffin and a cup of instant coffee – hardly preparation for a hard climb.
But then mountain guide Hector Rogelio Puac arrived on a boat. I had to make a decision. He wolfed down breakfast and somehow I found myself following him – he was small, wiry and fast – around San Juan as he bought bread, bananas, drinks and chocolate.
Pride, or some alpha-male thing, got the better of me. Or perhaps it was the power of the place: I was spending a week on Lago de Atitlán, a big, beautiful crater lake surrounded by volcanoes. If I couldn’t conquer at least one of its handsome cones, I didn’t belong here.
Guatemala is all about fire, lava, mountains and magma – which is why I’d decided not to dash around the country but linger in one area, absorbing life around some of the country’s most magnificent volcanoes. I’d arrived by taxi from El Salvador, where volcanoes are numerous but small and the weather had been balmy. As I wound up into the Guatemalan highlands, I’d felt the chill. Along the road, people wore bobble hats and ponchos. I was still in flipflops.
The active Fuego-and-Acatenango massif and Volcan de Agua, near Antigua, looked unnaturally voluminous as I journeyed deeper into the country. I wasn’t sure if my sense of scale was still Salvadorean or if it was a trick of the light. The clouds turned black and apocalyptic shortly after Antigua, where the Panamerican Highway fords a high pass. But, suddenly, they lifted, and there below was the lake, shimmering at one end as the low sun splashed down.
From my hotel in Santa Catarina Palopo, on the eastern edge of the lake, I watched what seemed like a slow sunset, wispy salmon-coloured clouds scattering around the cone of San Pedro.
This is the most perfectly conical of the three big volcanoes on the west bank. To the south I could see Volcan Toliman, flanked by Volcan Atitlán; a few clouds shifted around this less photogenic pair.
Walking around town I asked two men, in Spanish, where was the best place to eat. They responded with a string of words that sounded like smashed glass and pointed to the beach. I later found out the local language is Kaqchikel. I ate some tortillas, drank a beer and slept well thanks to the pleasantly cool climate.
The next day I took a boat, skippered by the amiable Juan Ismael Xingo, from Santa Catarina Palopo to Santiago de Atitlán, the largest of the lakeside settlements. Crossing the lake allows you to see the three volcanoes and the water under a new light and from new angles. En route I talked to Juan about the Mayan language I’d heard, and he explained that we were now crossing to a Tz’utujil-speaking area.
It’s about 14km – 30 minutes by boat – from Santa Catarina to Santiago; it would take a car 2.5 hours to do the trip overland.
As we reached the centre of the lake, a wind was getting up and there were small but choppy waves. Juan shared a Romeo and Juliet-style legend about a more powerful wind. The Xocomil, he explained, is a divinely ordained gust that blows to bring together two lovers from the two language groups, which have long been rivals.
Guatemala’s largest market takes place in Chichicastenango, one of the country’s most colorful and accessible highland towns. Crafts from all over the country are sold here, and “Chichi’s” famous twice-weekly market has become a popular tourist attraction. This has been an important trading town since well before the Spanish conquest, and Indian village life is still reflected by the vendors and the stalls with mouthwatering food set up to allay their hunger.
The tourist stalls are traditionally set up around the outer edges of the market for better visibility, so head for the inner nucleus around the fountain, where the Indian population trades and barters. And pay a visit the night before, when Indian families from more than sixty surrounding villages set out their wares and exchange news and goods before settling in to sleep under the stars. Of the two market days, Sunday is when the traditional religious brotherhoods called cofradías often stage processions or ceremonies in the whitewashed 16th-century Church of Santo Tomás, where Catholic and Mayan rituals are practiced side by side. One of the country’s most charming hotels, the Hotel Mayan Inn, is located here: The Quiche-Maya staff dress in traditional costume, and each room is its own museum, individually appointed in local crafts and textiles.
In an empire that once encompassed Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, Tikal was the most resplendent of all Mayan cities. Its towering pyramids and acropoli were the highest structures in the western hemisphere, and by its heyday in the 7th century A.D. (it is believed to have been mysteriously abandoned around A.D. 900), an estimated 50,000-100,000 people (some accounts say twice that) lived in the 6-square-mile ceremonial city.
Now Guatemala’s most famous and impressive Mayan ruin, its centerpiece is the Great Plaza, flanked by tall, well-restored temples that were once covered in stucco and painted bright colors. At 186 feet and 212 feet respectively, Temple V and Temple IV are the highest on the grounds, and ideal for watching the sunset. Tikal lies in the middle of the vast, forest-covered Tikal National Park, so wildlife viewing and temple visiting to the cries of toucans and howler monkeys go hand in hand. Special passes are granted to visit the Plaza after-hours when the moon is full, but Tikal is magical at any time of day. You can wake up and fall asleep to the sounds of macaws by staying on the park grounds in the modest bungalows of the Jungle Lodge, initially built to accommodate those who came to excavate.
The Altiplano, Guatemala’s western highlands, is the country’s most beautiful region, and perfect-blue Lake Atitlán – mirroring three Fuji-like volcanoes – is the image that most readily comes to mind and stays there. Around the lake (itself a collapsed volcano cone), descendants of the ancient Maya still live off the ash-rich land, their simple maize-farming methods unchanged over time. Small towns top the olive green hills and promise interesting day trips, particularly when market day enlivens the village squares.
The lakeside town of Panajachel retains something of its 1970s hippie heyday, when it was nicknamed Gringotenango. It is still the best jumping-off point for the other, more traditional lakeside towns on the western and southern shores, whose indigenous charm remains intact despite decades of tourism. The most visited, Santiago Atitlán still clings to the traditional lifestyle of its proud Tzutujil Maya; the women wear their colorfully hand-embroidered huípiles (blouses), and the Friday market is justly famed as a center for hand-woven textiles. Don’t miss staying at the Posada de Santiago, nestled between two dormant volcanoes by a lagoonlike offshoot of the lake. It offers six small garden-surrounded stone bungalows that brim with local flavour, plus a well-known kitchen that does the same.
Gorgeously set in a green mountain- and volcano-rimmed valley, Antigua is one of the oldest and loveliest cities in the Americas. The remnants of its colonial past are a charming and poignant legacy of a time when the city reigned as Spain’s capital for all of the middle Americas, until the epic earthquake of 1773. Today’s strict preservation ordinances protect what remains of its 16th- to 18th-century Spanish Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries, and homes. Some have been reconstructed, while others have collapsed, probably forever.
With its leisurely small-town pace, Antigua has become the darling of artistically inclined ex-pats, wealthy weekend homeowners from Guatemala City, and more than thirty programs that teach Spanish as a second language. Amid the fashionable cafés and shops and poetically decaying weed-choked ruins stands the most beautiful rescued building of all, the Casa de Santo Domingo, Antigua’s showpiece hotel. It is set among the romantic remains of what was Antigua’s richest and most powerful monastery, built in 1642, 100 years after the city’s founding.