A Centuries-Old Trading Town Never Dies
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.
Incomparable Ghost Metropolis of the Maya
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.
Ancient Beauty, Ancient Ways
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.
Colonial Monuments, Poetic Decay
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.
The ruins of an ancient church – Antigua, Guatemala
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.
Costa Rica in a Nutshell
This beautifully situated cattle ranch is one of Costa Rica’s most favored rain forest getaways. Located in the Tilaran Mountain range, one of the most biologically diverse areas in this verdant country, the Chachagua’s 50-acre spread nestles up against the Children’s International Rain Forest, which in turn joins the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve: Potential for bird and wildlife viewing here is tremendous.
Arenal Volcano and Lake are an easy four-wheel drive away; there is spelunking, white-water rafting, and rappeling for those who aspire to do it all, and the Tabacon Hot Springs for those who don’t. In this working cattle ranch, a stable of fine horses is on standby, and resident naturalists act as your guides. At the end of every perfect day, your handsomely appointed bungalow awaits by a mountain-clear stream. Chachagua could only be the brainchild of an owner dedicated to detail and creature comforts; the kingpin behind this smoothly run operation is the charismatic Carlos Salazar, who – with a lifetime of experience in the hotel industry – enjoys himself as much as all his international guests put together. Let him loose in the kitchen (much of the fruit and produce is grown on the ranch), and dinner becomes an event. Let him loose in the dining room, and he’ll convince you that nothing less than a lifetime in Costa Rica will do.
Where Vibrant Rain Forest Plunges to the Sea
Of Costa Rica’s dozens of national parks, Manuel Antonio has long been one of the jewels, an idyllic combination of exuberant forest, white-sand beaches, and rich coral reefs. The guardians of this beautiful wilderness are now attempting to harness its popularity by limiting the number of ecotourists and diverting some to other, less-visited parks. Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s smallest parks, and one of the last remaining habitats for the red-backed squirrel monkey. Few parks boast a coastal location, but here there is snorkeling, skin diving, surfing, and fishing galore.
After a visit to the rain forest gets you hot and sweaty, nothing beats jumping into the refreshing ocean … unless you’re lucky enough to have booked at La Mariposa, dramatically sited on a cliff above the sea. Its six split-level Mediterranean-style villas are enveloped in a riot of hibiscus and bougainvillea and flawlessly integrated into the hillside. Astounding 360-degree panoramas may distract one from the excellent meals served in the open-air dining room. So captivating are the full-circle vistas that guests linger long after the brilliant colors of the sunset dissipate and the margaritas disappear. Some never make it down to Manuel Antonio, happy in their bird’s nest above it all.
For That Real Jungle Experience
With one of the world’s best systems of reserves and national parks, Costa Rica’s thirty-five wildlife refuges protect more than 25 percent of the country’s territory; choosing where to head first is a visitor’s toughest choice. Covering one third of the remote Osa Peninsula that juts into the Pacific Ocean, in what National Geographic called “the most biologically intense place on earth,” the Corcovado National Park is difficult to reach. You may, at times, feel like the only human interloper on the trails (there are no roads) meandering through its 100,000 acres.
Corcovado is one of the country’s largest and wildest parks, safeguarding virgin rain forest, deserted beaches, jungle-rimmed rivers, and a large, inaccessible swampland. Within its broad range of habitats live more than 140 species of mammals, from tapirs to ocelots and cougars. It has the largest remaining population of scarlet macaws, which – together with the 375 other species of birds in the park that occupy more than 850 kinds of trees – vie with four species of monkeys to be heard amid the wildlife cacophony.
At the park’s southern border, the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp is the highlight of a Costa Rica trip for many ecotourists. There’s no electricity, shared baths only, and drinking water comes from a crystal-clear stream that runs by the twenty platformed tents. A unique “canopy tour” hoists awed guests up eight stories by pulley into the dense jungle canopy. Neither the canopy tour nor the Tent Camp is for everyone: Where the road from civilization ends, it is a forty-five-minute walk along a pristine beach for arriving guests, while luggage is transported by horse cart.
If roughing it is not to your taste, then consider Lapa Rios, a bungalow hideaway perched 350 feet above the Pacific in its own lush 1,000-acre nature reserve on the outskirts of Corcovado. Its American owners have created an intimate setup where guests can learn all about the encroaching rain forest. But school was never this much fun, or fascinating, or luxurious. Spread over three panoramic ridges above the Golfo Dolce in a self-contained corner of the Osa Peninsula, Lapa Rios’s wondrous exposures of ocean and forest are evident everywhere from open-air observation platforms, the bar-restaurant, and the fourteen simple guest rooms appointed in polished tropical woods. Days revolve around nature, beginning with an early-bird tour that lets you share the sunrise with the indigenous bird species (Lapa Rios means “Rivers of the Macaws”) and ending with shaman-guided medicinal treks and night nature walks.
Sleep Where the Ancient Maya Slept
Spending a night in this one-of-a-kind jungle-enveloped lodge is like being a guest of the Mayan spirits in an ancient world. Set within a Mayan plaza dating to the Classic Period (A.D. 300-900), itself surrounded by the pristine vine-tangled wilderness of the 250,000-acre Rio Bravo Conservation area, the Chan Chich Lodge gives new meaning to the expression “off the beaten track.”
The ruin-studded location teems with birds and howler monkeys, while well-tended trails snake around grass-covered mounds concealing temples, pyramids, tombs, and residences dating back more than 1,500 years. Organized jeep and horseback trips to neighboring, less-excavated cities provide further insight into the rich Mayan heritage. The lodge’s thatched-roof bungalows, built of local woods, resemble Mayan homes, but are elegant and luxurious inside, although TV- and telephone-free. Wraparound verandas strung with hammocks invite low-impact afternoons, when listening to the tropical birds may be all the gods meant for their guests to do.
Winning Combination of Texas Ranch and Belize Jungle
Even if you don’t ride, this beautiful place in the Maya Mountains will make you reconsider. Although some treks can be made by foot or four-wheel drive, many fascinating jungle destinations are accessible only on horseback. At Mountain Equestrian Trails (MET), your machete-wielding Mayan guide knows his backyard intimately. As he whacks back the dense brush along 60 miles of narrow, winding trails, he’ll point out hidden wildlife and recount jungle lore on the way to breathtaking locations that include remote Mayan ruins and underground cave systems.
Unnamed waterfalls, hidden streams, and natural pools are perfect for a refreshing swim and a lunch break of homemade empanadas. Situated at 800 feet above sea level in the jungles of the Maya Mountains, some of the METs trails head for twice that altitude on the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. About 70 percent of this tiny former British colony is covered by forest; it is home to 700 species of trees and 250 kinds of orchids. Back at the ranch, owned by a hospitable American family, the simple but handsome thatched cabanas have no electricity, but are romantically lit by the flicker of kerosene lamps and resident fireflies. The showers are hot, the bacon is crisp, and the homemade banana pancakes are delicious. Extraordinary scenery and the clear mountain air should have even the formerly horse-phobic jumping back in the saddle for another day’s journey of discovery.
First-Class Diving Along the World’s Second Longest Barrier Reef
It is incongruous that along the coast of a little-known country the size of Massachusetts is a teeming barrier reef, the longest in the western hemisphere and second in area only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. More than 200 offshore islets and cays sit either directly on or just off the 185-mile-long reef, the two largest being Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye.
The latter is the most popular, its charming laid- back town of San Pedro the reef’s most important jumping-off point for more than forty snorkeling and dive sites. Off the southern tip of Ambergris, the Hoi Chan Marine Reserve offers one of the best day or night dives for sheer variety of marine life, including forty kinds of grouper, a forest of coral, and sponge as dense and varied as the mainland’s jungle mantle. But if diving off Ambergris is great, then diving off the only three coral atolls in the Caribbean is unforgettable. Ringlike Lighthouse Reef is the most accessible, owing to a new airstrip built on the cay, and is nearest to two of the reefs most stellar dives: the fabled Blue Hole (in 1970 Jacques Cousteau called it “one of the four must-dive locations on this blue planet”) and Half Moon Caye National Park. Lighthouse Reef also has spectacular wall dives, with superlative visibility often reaching 200 feet. At Lighthouse Reef Resort, 90 percent of the guests come for the diving, the rest for the remoteness and serenity.