A few months ago, I made my first trip back to Guatemala in over 5 years. That’s painful to say given how much I love this often misunderstood and unfairly maligned country, where my career in tourism actually started many years ago! It was so good to get back! I flew the redeye from LA and despite the very early hour, I was warmly welcomed at Guatemala’s Aurora International Airport by Maya Trails’ founder and director Jimmy Rogers along with his daughter Emma and his dog Cali! I was treated to a lovely breakfast (avocado toast!!) with Jimmy and his family at their home in Guatemala City.
After breakfast, Jimmy and I met the FAM group at their hotel in Guatemala City and departed for the easy 45 minute transfer to Antigua, the former colonial capital of Spain and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Antigua is always a great first stop on any trip to Guatemala. After checking into our hotel, Casa Santo Domingo, we headed out on a walking tour of Antigua with one of Maya Trails’ fantastic guides, Karen Ayala. A walking tour is a great way to get comfortable with pedestrian-friendly Antigua. Travelers get the chance to learn about the city’s layout, its colonial history and get a sense of its fantastic character, stories and see how its beautiful colonial ruins have been transformed into boutique hotels, restaurants, craft breweries and small shops.
In between Antigua highlights, we checked out some of the city’s boutique hotels. We kicked it off with breakfast at a Maya Trails favorite, El Convento, a beautiful luxury hotel that was a convent (hence the name) during the Spanish colonial missionary times in the 16th and 17th century. The design and attention to detail in this hotel is exceptional. For example, each of its 26 rooms has a wooden door that is a hand-carved piece of art of a saint or colonial historical figure created by a local Antigua artist. There are several room categories, but you can’t go wrong; every one of them is full of beauty and dripping with character. Like many of the boutique properties in Antigua, El Convento has a beautiful roof deck with views over the city and the surrounding volcanoes – including the active Volcan Fuego which was puffing away during our breakfast!
We also had the chance to visit Guatemala’s new Relais & Chateaux property, Villa Bokéh, situated just fifteen minutes’ drive to the Main Plaza with stunning views of Agua Volcano. Despite its close proximity to Antigua, it feels a world away. The Villa’s twelve rooms (there are several room categories – request one with the view of Agua!) each offer different color schemes and themes. For your higher end clients looking for a retreat away from the hustle and bustle of Antigua, it’s a great fit. Its beautiful gardens, lovely, Monet-esque pond with row boats and channels to explore and gorgeous views make for a peaceful stay. As with any Relais & Chateaux property, the service and food are very memorable.
Following our site inspections, we had a really memorable experience at Volcan Pacaya. Just a 1-hour drive from Antigua to the trailhead and we were out in nature. I’ve hiked on Volan Pacaya several times and it’s always fun to see how different every experience has been. You never know what you’ll see in terms of the volcano’s activity – if you’re lucky, you might see flowing lava! We didn’t see flowing lava this time, but we did hike across relatively fresh lava fields that were flowing just months before. Being on the volcano is an otherworldly experience in a Martian landscape. It’s not a difficult hike – it takes around an hour and a half on a gentle slope to a stunning overlook. For those who don’t want to walk the whole way there is a horse (aka ‘Guatemalan Uber’) to help. What was especially unique about hiking Pacaya this time was the’ “Pizza Pacaya” experience! David Garcia Mansilla, a local pizza shop owner/entrepreneur from a nearby village created this experience. He wanted to take his great pizza out of the shop and bake pizzas for hungry hikers coming off the volcano. Jimmy and his team discovered him on a scouting trip and have since partnered with David so their guests can have the most unique pizza they’ll ever eat, baked in a volcanic hotspot! When we arrived, David was waiting there with the fixings – you can choose your toppings then it goes into the hotspot and takes just 2-3 minutes to finish. There are unique travel experiences and then there are truly one-of-a-kind travel experiences. Eating pizza baked by a volcano is definitely in the latter category! Pizza Pacaya y cerveza Gallo – a match made in Guate heaven!
The following morning, we headed farther into the highlands en route to Lake Atitlan. We stopped at one of the few Mayan ruins in the highlands, Iximche, where Maya Trails arranged to have a Mayan shaman meet us to perform a traditional ceremony. I can picture you rolling your eyes as you read this as many of us have had cultural experiences that are done for the benefit of tourists and they don’t always come off as authentic. Maya Trails are well aware of that. Even I was skeptical and thought it might be touristy – ogling a spiritual experience. It was completely the opposite, however. It was enlightening, spiritually powerful and fascinating to learn from Tojil, the shaman.
This experience is not done on a tourism schedule or for those purposes. It was a totally authentic ceremony performed by Tojil. At the end of the ceremony Tojil asked if anyone in our group had any prayers or concerns they wished to share. One of our group described her father’s illness and hospitalization. Tojil perused his different colored candles that mean different things in the Mayan ceremony and chose red candles to help purify her father’s blood and bring him better health. It turned out her father was in hospital with staph infection and actually did need his blood to be purified but she hadn’t told Tajil that. It was a very powerful moment for all of us, feeling a spiritual connection among our group and with Tojil, our spiritual guide. It was unforgettable.
After arriving at Lake Atitlan in the late afternoon, we enjoyed dinner and tortilla making at Casa Palopo, Guatemala’s first and only other Relais & Chateaux property. Tortilla making is always fun and we got to enjoy the fruits of some of our labors – only some as gringos aren’t very good at it. We had the tortillas with a great spread of taco fixings. Casa Palopo is the sister property to Villa Bokéh outside of Antigua. Their partnership makes for a nice perk – for those that don’t want to drive from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, Maya Trails can arrange a helicopter transfer between the two. It saves three plus hours of driving and the views are extraordinary en route! Whirring by active volcanoes, the Pacific Ocean, rolling hills and the gorgeous mountains of Guatemala’s highlands then arriving at one of the world’s most beautiful lakes is hard to beat!
Casa Palopo has several categories of rooms plus a newer wing. The original wing houses rooms with unique color schemes along with Mayan art and tapestries, and lovely views. The newer wing has equal views. The property also boasts an exclusive use villa that is great for multi-gen families or groups for the ultimate privacy. The villa does require climbing A LOT of stairs as it is situated higher on the property, but for those that don’t mind the steps, they are rewarded with a private pool, chef-prepared meals, a private kitchen, helipad and more.
When at Lake Atitlan, you have to get out on the lake! The following morning, we headed off on an active excursion to kayak and SUP along the lakeshore. We paddled with the volcanoes in view, along with beautiful scenery of impossibly arranged fields on steep slopes that local farmers have tilled on the side of cliffs as well as some small (and not so small homes/villas) on shore. A paddle is a great way to start the day and you can kayak for a full day if you want. The morning is a better time for water activities on Lake Atitlan as afternoons can see choppy waters.
For guests that want to complement their active morning, there is an option to kayak from the village of Santa Cruz about 1-1.5 hrs down the lake to the next village then hike back to where you started. The hike back is on ancient Mayan footpaths that have been used between villages for centuries. The hike takes travelers through forested areas, and small-scale farms. It makes for a really nice, active morning on the lake.
After our morning paddle, we headed by boat to my personal favorite village of the two indigenous villages located on the lake – San Juan la Laguna. When I started visiting Lake Atitlan in 2007 as a hiking guide, we used to end our three day highland trek in San Juan la Laguna. Back then, there was very little tourism in the village but it was evident how much pride the community had in their village. It was (and still is!) the cleanest village in Guatemala and there were many infrastructure projects/municipal improvements, beautiful streets, many colorful murals depicting Mayan life and a truly wonderful feel. Small tourism-oriented co-ops were only just getting started.
Fifteen years on, San Juan has become a tourism hot spot. There are multiple women-owned weaving co-ops, a medicinal plant / herb co-op and a Mayan bee cooperative, among many others. We visited the latter where we had the chance to spend time with a local family raising bees to produce honey that they sell locally and to visitors. It was fun to learn about the different types of honey produced by different types of bees, as well as the varying medicinal and health benefits of the honeys.
San Juan is also known for weaving, which is an art unto itself. We visited Casa Florixcaco where we learned about the art of weaving using the traditional backstrap loom. They kindly gave us a demonstration on how it works and how it is used to produce textiles and garment. They use all-natural dyes made with plants/insects that have traditionally been used by the Mayans to create a wide variety of colors. We enjoyed a demo of how cotton is spun to create yarn, how it is dyed and then woven into clothes, scarves, tapestries and other textiles.
It is always fun for me to go back and see the progress and changes in San Juan la Laguna. It has been transformed into a bustling spot that attracts tourists, but it still very obviously embraces its long-standing community pride.
The next day was our last full day in Guatemala. We left my beloved Lake Atitlan and headed to Chichicastenango (aka ‘Chichi’), the largest indigenous market in the Americas. It’s about 1.5hrs from the Lake to Chichi. And yes, Chichi is touristy, there’s no way around that – it’s where tourism was born in Guatemala in the early 1900’s – but it’s totally worth seeing. There’s a strong historical connection here with Maya Trails, too. Jimmy’s great, great grandfather, Alfred Clark, built and opened the Mayan Inn in 1932 in Chichi– it was the first hotel for tourists built outside Guatemala City. And while the market is a good place to buy textiles (though possibly overpriced), I prefer to support the weaving coops around Lake Atitlan. If you’re prepared to have some bargaining fun there are some beautiful textiles and other Mayan handicrafts on offer.
But for most Maya Trail groups, they recommend that their guests escape the busiest tourist areas (the textile market being the most touristy).The real magic in Chichi is getting away from the tourist area and going to the ‘real’ market where locals do their shopping. The market is set up twice weekly and it serves as the “Mayan Target” of the rural highlands. Everything a local might need in this part of Guatemala, from meat and produce to new shoes, grains, herbs, clothes and auto parts, can be found at Chichi.
If you really want to stay away from the crowds, one option is to have Maya Trails take your guests to the home of Miguel Ignacio, a 5th generation Mayan ceremonial mask maker. Miguel has been making traditional ceremonial masks and costumes for Mayan ceremonies for most of his life and his family has been mask makers going back centuries! Visiting his home takes guests away from all of the hustle and bustle and it also lets them learn about ancient traditions. Miguel’s children and cousins performed a Mayan ceremonial dance in full costume for us! Maya Trails also arranges lunches in Miguel’s home – expect traditional Guatemalan dishes like chicken pepian. It’s a super enjoyable cultural experience!
For more active guests and those with a full day in Chichi, hiking up to to the top of the sacred hill Pascual Abaj is an option. This sacred spot is just outside of Chichi and is where traditional, non-touristy Mayan ceremonies take place on a regular basis.
One other must do while in Chichi is to visit the church of Santo Thomas. It is located in the center of the village on the site of an ancient Mayan temple. It’s a great example of the syncretism of Mayan spiritualism and Catholicism. In the church there are many Mayan practices observed as well as iconography and architectural elements, such as the thirteen steps leading up to the entrance, which is a significant number in Mayan spirituality. Both in the church and outside of it, Mayans can perform sacrifices and ceremonies. This coexistence was a way for the Spanish to integrate Mayan spiritualism into Catholic practices. The Catholic saints are often similar to Mayan gods. It seems like the Catholics have a feast day every day, some which are more important than others. Each saint/feast day has a cofradia or brotherhood that is responsible for helping to celebrate each saint. While standing outside the church, our group witnessed a small procession to honor a saint – it was easily evident that they were venerating both the saint and honoring Mayan spirituality. Chichi is probably the best place in Guatemala to begin to understand this Mayan and Catholic syncretism which still exists today.
After leaving Chichi, we headed back to Guatemala City where sadly I had to leave the group before their flight up to the northern Peten region for the last day of the FAM. While I spent less than a week in Guatemala on this visit, even just a short trip to “The Land of the Eternal Spring” is refreshing, inspiring and full of adventure! I can’t wait to return, again, and spend more time in one of my favorite places on the planet, Guatemala!
If you want more first hand accounts from Guatemala, check out the trip reports linked below!