Guatemala City, Antigua, LakeAtitlan, Chichicastenango
By Lyndsay Harshman and Tad Bradley
Arriving by air into Guatemala City is always awesome. Truly. My flight from LA landed just as the sun was setting the volcanoes ablaze with the golden morning light…smoke from home fires rose from the different barrios and hung at the base of the volcanoes. It’s beautiful.
Then the plane sort of falls out of the sky and hits the very short runway with a slam of the brakes. There are rumors that Guatemala City is getting a new runway. We can only hope! Once on the ground, Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport (GUA) is modern, clean and conveniently located close to hotels and the lovely craft market.
By Lyndsay Harshman
As I was staying with friends in Guatemala City, I don’t have hotel feedback from this trip, but generally your best bet in Guatemala City are the larger international chains, though there are a few good boutique hotels which are fine for an overnight stay. Two of the major highlights of my Guatemala City stay this time around were the Mercado Central in Zone 1 (the oldest part of the city) and three great fine dining experiences at very different spots around the city.
I highly recommend travelers to Guatemala spend a day in the City. It can be a daunting place with all the bad press out there and when travelers don’t know what to expect. But, with the direction of a good guide, exploring the city adds so much to a stay in Guatemala. Ixchel, the textiles museum, the National Museum complete with its extensive exhibit on Maya artifacts, and the nearby craft market help to lay the foundation for a comprehensive Guatemala journey. The indoor central market (located behind the Catedral Metropolitana) is three full floors chock full of traditional handicrafts (geared at both locals and tourists), including a sections of baskets, fabrics, candles and more. You can even find dog food in bulk. It’s a great place to find beautiful jewelry, handmade luggage and purses, and leather goods. The basement houses fresh flowers, the most colorful assortment of fruits, vegetables and baked goods you can imagine, plus food stalls, tortillerias and butchers. It’s best to go with a guide and keep an eye out for pick pockets, so advise your travelers not to carry valuables and keep cash for purchases in their front pockets. That said, it’s generally safe and vendors are excited to see tourists and very friendly and engaging. Be cautious of taking photos of people and goods and always ask first for up-close shots.
I had many great dining experiences this time around in Guatemala City, but three really stand out as highlights: Hacienda Real, Ambia and La Lancha.
Hacienda Real is one of Guatemala City’s great traditions. It’s a beautiful colonial style/hacienda building with a massive courtyard complete with lush vegetation and fountains, a wide selection of the finest carnes nacionales (local beef), comidatipico (traditional food) and international cuisine. It’s best to head there on a Saturday or Sunday around lunch time – in between shopping in Zone 10 or visits to the museums, and enjoy people watching as the high society and “normal” folks head out for long lunches. Plus, the meat is exquisite, service great and the atmosphere is so very Guatemalan.
Ambia, also in Zone 14, represents one of the top fusion joints in the City and the setting is pretty cool, too. It’s in a small complex with a high end wine shop, a kitchen store and the restaurant, all with manicured gardens, sunken outdoor cocktail tables, sliding glass walls so even diners sitting inside don’t feel like it. It’s extremely trendy for sure, but the food holds up to the persona and was very, very good. My only complaints, which I find are common throughout Latin America…the music was too loud and too “House” and the waiters didn’t know enough about the wine list. That said, we had an awesome meal that included a truffle and espresso soup, which was incredible, a spin on traditional Pad Thai (which they had no problem making vegan for my friend) and bacon wrapped shrimp risotto. Wine was solid and for the price, it was a lot of bang for the buck. This is the sort of place that you send your travelers at the end of their first day in Guatemala and they will be wowed and blown away by an experience they didn’t expect would be available in Guatemala.
We’ll go to the opposite end of the spectrum here with my meal at La Lancha. Also a very trendy spot in Guatemala City, but with a very different crowd. La Lancha draws a more artsy, bohemian crowd than the trend-setters at Ambia, but it is equally impressive for different reasons. I won’t go into full details here, but please read my blog post for more thoughts on this spot. La Lancha is owned by the designers/founders/builders of the La Lancha resort on Lago Peten Itza, which Francis Ford Coppola now operates. Traveler who would enjoy this restaurant would be those who are seeking traditional French food, a quiet, unique atmosphere away from the nightlife of Zone 10. It would be a great match for people who are then continuing on to Peten and will stay at the La Lancha Resort so they can see the development of the concept that started with the restaurant. Talk about properly “layering” an in-country experience in a way your travelers never could! Read: VALUE ADD for booking with a travel expert!
By Lyndsay Harshman
From Guatemala City, we made our way up to Antigua and spent two days exploring this UNESCO World Heritage Site and gem of a city. Antigua is just 45 mins to an hour away from the airport in Guatemala City nestled in the hills above the valley below. The cobble stone streets, towering colonial churches and arch ways make for a special, sort of lost-in-time feel. The main areas of town around the primary churches and the central square are always bustling, but if you wander just a street or two off the main plaza, you can quietly explore Antigua’s streets all on your own.
Meson de Maria – a great mid-level option with an excellent location on a quiet street in the main part of town. All of the rooms face the interior courtyard, rather than the street, so noise is really kept to a minimum. Stepping into the courtyard is like stepping back in time and each of the three floors of rooms offers wide balconies that wrap around the courtyard below, plenty of outdoor seating areas and a rooftop sitting area with an incredible view of town and the volcanoes. The standard rooms are quite small, but have lots of character and are a good value. The upgraded rooms are more spacious (but these rooms still aren’t big, guests should plan on taking advantage of the outdoor sitting areas and rooftop balcony to maximize space available for use). Breakfast is served in a small, sort of dark room. Lunch and dinner are not available at the hotel, but in Antigua, Maya Trails provides a great restaurant list and we highly recommend that your travelers get out and explore the culinary scene in Antigua for lunch and dinner. I would suggest that unless pax are very luxury oriented, a great option is to stay at Meson de Maria for a few nights in Antigua and splurge either at Lake Atitlan or in Peten at NiTun.
El Convento – a beautiful boutique hotel located 5 minutes from Central Park on a quiet street across from the 18th century Capuchin convent. They’ve really done something special here by making a new building seem original in both style and design. The hotel was build recently on the site of an original Antiguan building that went into ruin. There are three categories of suites all of which are incredibly spacious and feature a stunning en suite bathroom with walk-in shower or huge soaking tub. They really went all out here and the styling is classic, but understated, vaulted ceilings, high-end amenities such as L’Occitane, welcome drinks, fruit platters and chocolates. Beyond the rooms, the central courtyard is manicured in a traditional way with fountains, a small swimming pool and hanging flowering vines. The rooftop bar and breakfast area has great views and is set under a massive shade tree. White chaise lounges, sofas and a small sala are ideal for relaxing.
Panza Verde – One of Antigua’s popular and long-standing boutique hotels, and rightly so. The setting is beautiful, especially the central courtyard, bar and restaurant area. The rooms are all colonial style, but I didn’t find them as nicely finished as El Convento or Posada de Angel. The rooms that are closest to the restaurant should be avoided as their doors open literally directly into the restaurant, which is open and active late into the evening, and I imagine that privacy would be compromised. If nothing else, it wouldn’t be very quiet. Maya Trails only reserves rooms at the back of the hotel. The bar has a nice vibe and made an excellent gin & tonic, service was better in the bar than in the patio restaurant. Dinner was definitely high-quality and tasty, but it wasn’t as good as I expected. There’s a lot of competition in Antigua these days, especially with the new chef at El Convento, and other great options like Bistro Sanq, Como Como, El Cazador Italiano, that the meal and service should really be spot on to compete.
Posada del Angel – what a gem! This hotel is really special and absolutely stunning. It’s ideal for honeymooners, couples and those who appreciate a quiet retreat jam-packed with amazing art, artifacts, maps and books. The front rooms are smaller and the showers are very odd with a really low shower head. Anyone over 5 feet tall would struggle to get their hair wet in the shower! (Maya Trails’ Jimmy Rogers models this issue on the right!) The back rooms are larger and priced accordingly – they are really suites. The second floor room is truly an amazing honeymoon hideaway with the entire second floor reserved for its occupants, including the private roof-top patio and lush gardens. Breakfast is served on site and meals on request, but this is common in the small restaurants in Antigua as there are so many amazing dining options in the town there’s no reason to stay in.
By Tad Bradley
Ringed by dramatic ridge-lines dotted by red-roofed indigenous villages and three jaw-dropping volcanoes, Lake Atitlaneasily feels like the heart and soul of Guatemala. The lake offers the traveler a host authentic cultural experiences, active adventures and spectacular lakeside lodging options. English writer Aldous Huxley is famously quoted calling “Lake Atitlanthe most beautiful lake in the world” (while an easy catch phrase for travel marketing, he actually compared it to Lake Como writing “Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” But I digress). Regardless of what Mr. Huxley actually said, Lake Atitlan is no doubt one of the most picturesque lakes in the world and a must-see Guatemala attraction.
Typically the 3rd prong of an Antigua-Chichicastenango-Atitlanhighlands itinerary, “The Lake” is a short 1.5 drive from the famous market of Chichicastenango and about 2-3 hours on the Trans-American highway from Antigua (depending on how many chicken buses are plying the road that day!). On a clear day, the descent from the highway down to the gateway village of Panjanchel is truly a stunning trip with the deep blue water sparkling in contrast to the verdant volcanoes towering above it. There are 12 villages perched along the Lake’s shores and ridges. Most inhabitants of these villages are indigenous Maya from several different linguistic and ethnic roots – K’iche‘, the largest Mayan group, Kaqchikel and Tzutujil. Both the men and women of each village wear distinct traditional outfits, called trajes, with colorful and intricate patterns skillfully woven by hand. It is most common to see women wearing their traditional garments – A colorful corte or skirt and embroidered huipil or blouse. Women are more faithful to this tradition, and weaving skills are highly desirable attributes for a young bride. Many men, especially the younger ones, have adopted modern western styles though you’re still likely to see a few still wearing uniquely patterned trousers and colorful jackets, especially during festivals, saint days or holidays.
Panajanchel is the gateway village to the rest of the lakeside villages and many travelers never venture further, which is quite a shame. “Pana,” is a fine place though pretty busy and not very traditional these days. The tourist market that lines the main road to the lake is a decent place for picking up Mayan arts, crafts and weavings. Prices are probably on par with Chichi, maybe slightly cheaper and the quality is usually pretty decent. Like at Chichi, you’ll have to haggle to get a reasonable price, so be prepared to cut the initial offer in half, at least. If you’d rather not haggle, then save your souvenir purchasing for one of the women’s weaving cooperatives in other lake villages or for the fair-trade market in Antigua. Or just pay an inflated price.
Hotel Atitlan is located just outside Pana and is a convenient option for those who only have one or two nights at the Lake. It is also a great hotel for family groups as it has a large pool surrounded by lush gardens. With 61 rooms, it is quite a bit larger than most of the other properties we recommend at the Lake. But despite its size, it has a warm, colonial feel, decent restaurant and it’s a great home base for lake activities.
Generally, when I arrive in Pana, I look for the first lancha (boat) headed elsewhere. But that’s not entirely fair especially for first time Guatemala travelers. The advantage is the location (no boat ride required) and the number of gringo-catering establishments available (restaurants, pizza joints, coffee shops, yoga studios, etc). I prefer a less-busy and more traditional village, like San Juan La Laguna, Santa Cruz or Santiago. Let’s hop a lancha and move onward across the lake to . . . Santiago Atitlan.
Santiago is a good home base for exploring the lake and offers one of the best boutique, mid-range accommodations, Posada Santiago. (More on the Posada later) The largest and one of the most visited villages on the Lake, Santiago is located about a 30 minute lancha ride from Pana and sits in a picture-perfect bay nestled on the lower slopes of three towering volcanoes – Toliman, Atitan and San Pedro. It is a Tzutujil Maya village of 30,000+ (though it really doesn’t feel that large) and notable for its often tragic history of violence during Guatemala’s brutal 30 year civil war which lasted from 1966-1996. The 10 years between 1980 and 1990 were especially violent, with several massacres, assassinations and disappearances of local indigenous leaders. In 1980, Father Stanley Rother, a Catholic priest from Oklahoma, was murdered in his Church by the Army. Father Stanley was much loved by the local Maya. He spoke fluent Tzutujil, accepted and even embraced the melding of Mayan and Catholic syncretism spiritual practices and was focused on social justice for the poor. Father Stanley’s work with and for the indigenous population of Santiago are what made him a subversive according to the Army, though he steadfastly refused to take sides in the civil war.
The Maya here are proud of their culture and traditions. They aren’t afraid to confront injustice and protect their way of life. In December 1991, the village was one of the first to successfully expel the Guatemalan army after a massacre of 13 innocents during a peaceful protest against the army’s occupation and disappearances of local residents. More recently, the town legally challenged the development of a large geothermal power plant proposed at the base of the Atitlan volcano and won. These victories for an indigenous community are significant in a country where often native people are marginalized and pushed to the sidelines.
Santiago gets a bit of a bad rap for being a larger town and not the cleanest, but it’s history anchors the region and exposes travelers to the horror of the war years, the amazing ability of the local Maya to strongly cling to their ancient traditions and the everyday mysticism that leads their lives. The best way for your guests to experience all three of these is to book a Santiago tour with Maya Trail’s specialist guide, Dolores, a local Maya who has one of the most intense, inspirational stories I’ve ever heard…I won’t give it away here, but I’ll hint at the story-line: Dolores’ path crosses with a priest from Oklahoma in an incredibly fateful way, she encounters an American on a soul searching journey who sends her life careening in a surprising direction and eventually returns to her roots and shares her love of her community, her craft and her dedication to her traditions with visitors as one of Guatemala’s living treasures. Traveler’s explore Santiago’s colonial churches, which are usually built on top of original Maya temples, visit pagan shrines – the most famous is Maximon, and the venerated, dual-purpose saints who are a fascinating and functional blend of the Catholicism that tried to take over their traditional beliefs and the Maya gods who keep the world turning, the rain falling and the crops growing. Dolores artfully and eloquently exposes her guests to this fine balance that is the life of a contemporary Mayan. In the video below, she tells a bit of her amazing story. . .
The local Maya regularly visit this effigy saints, praying and asking blessings for everything from good health and business success to wishes for a happy marriage and a good harvest. Maximon is looked after 24/7 by a local shaman for one year at a time. This is serious business and his only job for that year. He keeps Maximon well-dressed, his rum continually refreshed and his cigarette or cigar lit (during a ceremony, Maximon must have smoked a least 4 cigarettes in an hour!) While for visitors this may all seem a little nuts, it is no joke for the Mayans. It is through Maximon (and other folk saint shrines – ask about visiting some of the others) that they connect with their ancestors. Visiting Maximon will cost 2 quetzales, 10Q ($1.50) if you want to take pictures and 25Q ($3.50) for video and pictures. It’s well worth a visit, IF you have a good local guide like Delores. Delores explains Mayan & Catholic syncretism and Maximon in the videos below.
Spending a day with Dolores touring Lake Atitlan is an incredibly enlightening, educational and in many ways, spiritual experience. She speaks nearly perfect English and because she lived it, she conveys the history, traditions and culture of the Maya in a very personal way.
Dolores’ sister has been the head chef at Posada Santiago for nearly 20 years. The Posada is rustically elegant and with a very homey and warm feel. Its pleasantly located just outside town, a 10 minute walk from the hustle and bustle in the center of Santiago. The Posada is run by an American ex-pat who opened the hotel in the late 70’s with his mother and while they did return to the US during the most intense of the war years in the area, they came back to Guatemala to rebuild the hotel and brought it back to its original quality. The food is exceptional (especially their trademark smoked chicken tacos with blue corn tortillas!), carefully prepared and using the best local ingredients, same with the coffee. The rooms/cottages at Posada are simple, but have great character and the lush gardens are dotted with hammocks and private sitting areas. It’s beautiful.
In addition to visiting Santiago, we recommend that guests also venture with a guide to San Juan La Laguna, a much smaller Tzutujil Maya village that is home to several womens weaving cooperatives, a medicinal and naturopathic plant cooperative, fair-trade and shade-grown coffee finca and many wonderful visual artists. This is my favorite village on the Lake because of the obvious pride the residents feel for their town. Over the last 10 years, as a community they have embarked on a series of civic improvements, making the town more comfortable and enjoyable for locals and visitors alike. Colorful murals have been painted on the sides of buildings depicting Tzutujil Maya life, making for a fascinating cultural history lesson while walking through the village. This is one of the best places in Guatemala to purchase Mayan weavings at a good price directly from the artisans themselves. There are opportunities to learn the traditional dying and weaving methods of the Maya at a womens weaving cooperative, where you can sit side by side with these artists. More active travelers can hike through the coffee field to Cerro de la Cruce, a lookout point over the lake with spectacular views of San Pedro volcano. The viewpoint provides a great perspective of the lake for a discussion about the complex of volcanoes and how the lake itself was formed by a collapsed volcano.
For travelers interested in health and wellness in Guatemala, the village of Santa Cruz is your best option for peaceful accommodations offering spa treatments, yoga practice and meditation experiences.
Laguna Lodge is a 5-star eco-lodge and nature reserve commanding stunning views of Lake Atitlan and all three of its volcanoes from its lakeside location. The lodge is incredibly sustainable and eco-conscious while at the same time manages to provide the perfect amount of luxurious elegance for its guests. The six spacious suites (500-600sq ft) are flooded with light, feature private balconies or patios and offer spectacular views of the Lake and its volcanoes. I enjoyed several glasses of Chilean red wine on my large balcony while watching the ruby-red sun turn the lake pink as it set behind San Pedro volcano. In the evenings, the award-winning on-site Zotz Restaurant offers more romantic ambiance as the light fades and the flickering golden hues from the large stone fireplace and table-top candles set the mood. The atmosphere is worth the trip alone but food also delivers. Important note, Zotz is fully vegetarian (though not vegan) so if you’re not willing to give up meat for a night, you should go somewhere else. But my advice even for the most passionate carnivores, skip the meat and come experience this place. The cuisine features fresh organic vegetables, greens, herbs and eggs harvested daily from their own gardens, foraged from the mountains of their nature reserve or procured from local farmers. The offer a set 3-course menu or you can order a la carte. They also have an impressive list of imported wine or try the house special, the Molten Lava cocktail made with Guatemalan Zacapa rum, organic carrot and apple juice! Laguna Lodge Reserve is 100 acres of tropical dry forest which sprawls from behind the lakeshore lodge at 5135ft to an escarpment at 6,440ft with last remaining primary forest on the lake. There is an extensive network of well maintained paths for every fitness level and palm thatched resting pavilions offer panoramic views of the entire lake.
Two other beautiful luxury properties we recommend on Lake Atitlan are Villas B’alam Ya and Casa Palopo, both located just a short boat ride from Pana near the village of Santa Catarina Palopo.
Villas B’alam Ya is a sister property to the colonial gem Panza Verde in Antigua. It offers a high degree of privacy and exclusivity. Each villa has its own full gourmet kitchen, living and dining room, and private veranda. Prior to arrival, guest may submit a shopping list and arrive with their kitchen fully stocked. A private chef can also be arranged. There is no restaurant on site but it’s a short 30 minute drive to Panajachel’s many dining options should guests prefer a night out. The path from the dock winds its way through the beautifully manicured gardens full lush greenery and blooming flowers. From their perch just above the lake, the villas offer stunning views of the lake and its volcanoes. Maya Trails is developing an exciting culinary opportunity in conjunction with B’alam Ya, excellent for families. Guests will join their own private chef at the local market in Panajachel or Solola to shop for ingredients for dinner that evening. Back at the Villa, the entire family will help prepare a meal of traditional Guatemalan dishes.
Casa Palopo is a wonderful gem located just outside the small village of Santa Catarina de Palopo. One of the most luxurious properties on the lake, it also has an award-winning restaurant, arguably the best fine dining in Lake Atitlan and also offers jaw-dropping views of the lake volcanoes. It is now managed by Isabelle and Didier Torchut, the former managers of Francis Ford Coppola’s beautiful eco-lodge, La Lancha, located near Tikal in Guatemala’s northern jungle region, El Petén. The couple has done a remarkable job of refreshing and updating the interior spaces and improving the service levels. On the improvements docket is a renovation and expansion of the plunge pool and view deck.
By Tad Bradley
It’s hard not to include a trip to Chichicastenango, the famous Mayan market town, in just about any Guatemala highlands itinerary. If travelers know one thing about Guatemala it’s most likely the “Chichi” market. Perched among the mountains and accessed by a vertigo-inducing serpentine highway, this is the Mayan supermarket where local K’iche residents gather to buy, sell and socialize with their neighbors and rub elbows with the rash of gawking tourists who descend on the town each market day (Tuesday and Sunday). This is one of the best places in Guatemala to purchase authentic (and not-so-authentic) Mayan handicrafts while witnessing the fascinating syncretism of ancient native spirituality with traditional Catholic rites, centered around the ancient church that sits atop a former Mayan temple. Yes, Chichi is definitely touristy but it’s certainly worth the trip IF you have a good guide. I’d also recommend arriving the afternoon before market day, when the town is abuzz the activity of local merchants setting up their stalls. This allows travelers to leisurely stroll the streets soaking in the ambiance of this highland village, without hundreds of other gringos straining to snap photos. If you have flexible dates, try and schedule a visit around one of the festivals celebrating the feast of this or that saint. Travelers will witness a colorful, fascinating and often loud (Guatemalans love fireworks!) celebration centered around a statue of the saint paraded through the streets and to the Church of Santo Tomas. Sunday mass is also an event, especially for Catholics, and its fun to witness the service conducted partially in the indigenous Kiche language.
You really only have two options for 3* or better accommodations in Chichi – The Mayan Inn, the original hotel in town that put Chichi on the tourist map or Hotel Santo Tomas, a colonial-era mansion located two blocks from the famous market.
Hotel Santo Tomas has 43 comfortable rooms styled with colonial art and outfitted with two queen-size beds and a wood-burning fireplace (which the staff will build and light for you!) It’s a bit of a sprawling operation, but maintains a nice ambiance with several large interior courtyards with beautiful gardens full of colorful local plants and flowers. It does have a pool and separate jacuzzi, plus a gym with steam bath and sauna. The rooftop terrace offers a tremendous panoramic view of all of Chichi and the surrounding mountains.
The Mayan Inn was built in 1932 by the Guatemalan tourism pioneer Alfred Clark. Split between two colonial-style buildings, the hotel has 28 rooms and 2 suites, each unique in its colonial decor and include their own butler. Rooms are a bit small and a bit dated for the somewhat inflated price. However, the location is great, just steps from the market and the service is excellent. Its a fine option though I prefer Santo Tomas if given a choice.