March 2014, Guatemalan Higlands
By Lyndsay Harshman
It’s been nearly a decade that I’ve been traveling to Guatemala, at least twice, sometimes three times a year, and I have grown to think of this country as my second home. My first trip (to the extremely rustic Tikal Inn, years ago, while experiencing stomach unrest during late-night hours of generator black-out did not leave the best impression). A lot has changed since then and tourism has gone in the direction of what I like to call authentic and aware luxury. Guatemala has embraced its color, vibrancy, textures, cuisine and history like few other American nations have.
(please note: we are in the school of thought that America extends beyond the US borders through Central America and on through South America).
‘Rising to the opportunity’ aside, this is a country that experienced a long-lasting civil war and still bares its scars. But, Guatemala has opened its arms widely to tourism, communities are embracing their traditional costume and holding on tightly to their beliefs, the energy of festivals, markets and small aldeas (villages) overflows onto visitors. The fall-out of the war can be spotted when visiting the small villages lining the shores of Lake Atitlan, where old stucco buildings and stone roads used to be found, there are now cement homes and paver stones. What is lost architecturally in a Guatemalan Highlands village is gained many times over in the soul, mysticism and lore of the place. Middle-aged women walk down the street in huipiles, young girls talk on cell phones, older men play checkers and discuss local happenings. Village homes take turns housing pagan gods and their accruement, the Catholic Church on the corner venerates both saints and Maya gods out of necessity and in Highland villages you hear Spanish and indigenous languages mix in a single sentence – this country is a fascinating dichotomy in similar ways (solely based on my first-hand experiences) to South Africa, Rwanda, Vietnam and, perhaps surprisingly, rural Norway. Old and new crash into each other at the speed of technology, ethnic groups don’t always see eye-to-eye in politics and economics, and the signs of the first-world leaving its marks on a developing nation or community are hard to miss.
Bring all these factors and countless more together, add a whole ton of history, folklore, tradition, and the foundations of civilization as we experience it and there you go: Guatemala! As a travel expert/advisor/tour operator, go now and experience a country redefining itself. Send your guests with a trusted local operator like Maya Trails. Let them experience living history in action, cuisine that is – RIGHT NOW – experiencing a cultural rebirth, arts that would make even the finest collector weak in the knees. Ok, I promise I’m moving on to the trip report…
I visit Guatemala twice a year or so and have for close to the last decade. My best friend is Guatemalan and owns a lodge in the Peten, I took my son to the country when he was just 13 months old, and the Kusini Collection boasts an incredibly invested and passionate Guatemalan-owned DMC in our portfolio. I fail to mention that Tad lived and guided in the Highlands, so there’s no way around it, we love this country.
In March, we headed to Guatemala with an awesome group of North American tour operators and agents and set out to have them understand our passion and love for this country. The best way best way to accomplish this? Incredible guides, beautiful accommodations, fine dining and, well, depending on who you ask, some excellent shopping. Maya Trails delivered, that’s for sure.
We began our exploration in the World Heritage city of Antigua. The cobblestone streets, crumbling cathedrals and pastel buildings in the foreground with towering volcanoes in the background, make a picturesque scene and an impressive start to a Guatemala tour.
On arrival everyone got settled in to their hotel, Camino Real Antigua (a Westin-owned property). While the property is new construction, they’ve done a great job at honoring the traditional Antiguan architecture. Rooms are spacious with high ceilings, the famous “Westin Heavenly Beds” and well-appointed en-suite bathrooms. This is one of the few hotels in Antigua with air conditioning in its rooms. It is a larger property with 98 rooms, but they’ve done a nice job at keeping it intimate feeling. Bear in mind that many of these larger properties in Antigua are frequently hosting events and weddings and can be a bit noisy because of this, especially on weekends during local weddings. If this is a concern, it’s best to utilize the smaller boutique properties.
I stayed at the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo on the opposite side of town. This is also a larger property, with a total of 128 rooms, but the magic is in the history here. Even if your guest is not staying at this hotel, a visit would be included on a walking tour of Antigua or they can go for dinner and drinks. Exploring the grounds, museums and galleries is a must. The history of the hotel and ruins date back to the 1500s and many of the original walls and ruins of the chapels still stand. Rooms are spacious and feature small balconies or Juliette balconies, TVs, fans (no A/C), safes, double or king beds and en suite bathrooms with tub/shower. There are both new and older wings and Maya Trails does always try to confirm rooms in the newer wings. Suites at Santo Domingo can be really special with incredible art and sculptures featured in rooms. While some of the linens are dated, the setting and decor tends to make up for any shortfalls in softs.
We’ll return to Antigua after our visit to Lake Atitlan for site inspections and touring with top-notch guide, Jose Antonio Gonzales.
The drive to Lake Atitlan is just about 3 hours in total, but we went via Chichicastenango (better known as Chichi) as it was a market day. Chichi is perhaps Guatemala’s most famous market, and while it is certainly interesting and worth a visit, we do tend to include other more traditional markets in most itineraries. Our guide for this portion of the trip was Olga Reiche, a Guatemalan textiles expert. Olga is one of Guatemala’s foremost textile experts, having studied the traditional textiles and costumes for decades. She’s also written a book on Guatemalan textiles and guides on request for Maya Trails. If you have travelers who are interested in textiles and the traditional costume, I highly recommend requesting Olga to guide and also pairing their market experiences with a visit to the Ixchel Museum in Guatemala City to deepen their understanding of textiles and what the patterns and styles represent. I believe that Guatemala has one of the best living textile cultures in the World. The indigenous attire is so unique and varied and is still widely used.
The Chichicastenango market can be incredibly busy, and for first time visitors to Guatemala it can be an intense experience. We always recommend travelers visit with a guide and get a feel for the market and share their specific interests (textiles, crafts, food, etc.) with the guide so they are able to tailor the experience. A visit to the church is worthwhile as it is a unique combination of Catholic and Maya with incense burning of the steps of the church (the site of an ancient Maya site). The market is everything a market should be: colorful, crowded, bustling with locals in typical clothing, animals be bought and sold, the smells of tortillas being cooked on an open fire. It’s fun! For travelers looking for additional market experiences, or less touristic ones, Maya Trails can advise and build your pax guests itinerary around specific market days. Just ask!
From Chichi we continued on the winding road toward Lake Atitlan. As we approached the lake high above on the mountain pass, I could see the Lake socked in with low fog and clouds. Rains had come early this year and while March is normally very clear, we hit the Lake on a cloudy day. It’s such a disappointment not to see the Lake when it’s clear and volcanoes surrounding it. I crossed my fingers for a clear morning the next day when we were touring the lake with local guide, Dolores Ratzan.
We did a site inspection at Casa Palopo, which is a beautiful 5-star boutique property in the the village of Santa Catarina Palopo overlooking the lake (pictured right). As we reached Casa Palopo, the fog started to lift and the volcanoes peeked out. Casa Palopo is one of my favorite options on Lake Atitlan. It’s pricey, for sure, but the atmosphere and setting are incredible. Every square inch of the hotel has been thoughtfully decorated with art, curios, sculptures and textiles. Initially it is a bit overwhelming to take it all in, but the chaos works together and creates a really special atmosphere. The seven rooms in the main building are a little small, but well-appointed and have beautiful views. While there are quite a few steps, they are easy to navigate and golf carts are available for transfers around the grounds for anyone with mobility issues. The exclusive use villa sits at the top of the property and commands an amazing view of the lake. The villas decorated in a slightly different style than the main hotel rooms. It’s more minimalistic and has a sort of post-modern feel complimented with Guatemalan artifacts and high-end curios. The entire villa (3 rooms) can be taken exclusively or fewer rooms used depending on the group size, but use is always exclusive.
Villas B’alam Ya is just outside of Panajachel is quite the exercise in post-modern architecture and design. This place is right up my alley, but then again Eichler and Frank Lloyd Wright are two of my design heroes. B’alam Ya is a series of 4 private villas (one and two bedrooms) that are strung together by pathways and steps clinging to the lakeside. Design and d’cor has been done by the owner who is an artist and it shows. This is NOT the classic Guatemalan feel of Panza Verde (who run this property), but a very modern, designed place. I think it pairs well with Ni’Tun EcoLodge in Peten and San Rafael in Antigua. It’s 100% fine to pair with Panza Verde, but clients should know the styles are very different. The way B’alam Ya works is also a bit different, there isn’t a central dining area and all meals that are taken at the villas are prepared in the villa by a chef. It has a very exclusive feel. The restaurants in Pana are just minutes away, but travelers should note that this is not a typical hotel set-up. Best for: independent travelers, design freaks, couples traveling together, active/fit travelers due to all of the steps.
We continued back into Panajachel to the classic Hotel Atitlan (pictured left). Just outside of Panajachel, the hotel is the grande dame of the lake. My favorite things about this hotel? The gardens are absolutely amazing and each room has a private balcony with beautiful views of the gardens, lake and volcanoes. The rooms are simple, but comfortable with en suite bathrooms (shower), TV, writing desk and balcony. Wrought iron beds and local art finish things off. I highly recommend grabbing a cold drink and sitting by the pool overlooking the lake, or gaze out from the private balcony. The restaurant serves traditional specialties and our breakfast was quite good. The bar has great atmosphere and is the perfect place for a night cap. We dined out at the famous Circus Bar, a Pana institution known for its wood-fired pizzas, homemade pastas and live music. It’s always a fun night and the food is great.
Well, we were lucky and woke to a crystal clear morning for our day on the lake! The volcanoes greeted us towering above the water and the boat ride to Santiago on the opposite side of the lake was stunning. Crossing Lake Atitlan is one of my all-time favorite boating experiences (alongside Lake Tana in Ethiopia, Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania and the Ganges in India). Rarely do you find yourself in such a setting: steep-sided volcanoes surrounding a cerulean lake, colorful villages lining the shore, coffee, citrus and avocado plantations shading local workers. It’s uniquely Guatemalan. We had a blue-bird day crossing the lake and a short journey to Santiago found us snapping shots of simple boats guided by fishermen and Maya women washing their laundry in the lake.
Today we were accompanied by one of Guatemala’s most special guides, Dolores Ratzan, a local Tz’utujil Maya woman with quite the life story (I won’t give away the details as hearing it is part of the experience in Santiago, but let’s just say Dolores is a gift to Santiago and the Lake and your travelers will be changed by an afternoon with her). Santiago is Dolores’ hometown and touring it with her brings this often underrated town to life. While Santiago is bigger, more “modern” and possibly less-picturesque than some of the other lake-side towns, its story is unparalleled and its relics are impressive.
First off, Santiago was a hot-spot in the civil war and history took an unforgettable turn here as an American priest worked to empower the local Tz’utujil community against the government-headed military forces. Secondly, the Maya tradition and contemporary Catholicism have merged in a somewhat unlikely way here. And, lastly, Santiago is home to many pagan saints, the most famous is certainly the venerated cigar-smoking, booze drinking Maximon (Dolores at Maximon, pictured right).
From Santiago we headed to San Juan, a more picturesque village that has focused on cottage crafts and has really worked with the local community to teach sustainable tourism and eco-travel principals. And it shows…walking through the quaint village (a very steep uphill climb, but don’t fear tuk-tuks are available for your less active travelers!).
Several excellent weaving co-ops are available for visiting and shopping and it should be noted that San Juan also specializes in natural-based, hand-dyed fabrics and the products are exceptional!
We only had time to explore Santiago and San Juan on this trip, however each of the 12 villages along the lake has its own special draw such as ceramic/pottery, textiles, woodworkers, etc. It can really take two days to visit the villages and get a feel for the Lake.
After finishing in San Juan, we continued by boat to Isla Verde (a more budget-oriented hotel, yoga retreat and restaurant) for a tasty and fresh gourmet lunch overlooking the lake. Falafels, salads, sandwiches, all created in-house! Delish.
From Isla Verde it is just a short boat ride to Laguna Lodge. It is set on the edge (literally) of Lake Atitlan and offers just 6 rooms – each with their own style and design. All with equally stunning views and beautiful amenities. Design and d’cor is traditional Maya with modern flair. Dining is at the on-site restaurant, Zotz (which means Bat) and something to note: the restaurant is fully vegetarian and locally sourced. Laguna Lodge pairs well with San Rafael, El Convento, Panza Verde or Posada del Angel and NiTun (for eco-chic) in Peten. They also offer spa services in the Hummingbird Spa. Best For: jet set (they have received some impressive PR and media coverage recently), honeymooners looking to hide away and travelers who are interested in staying at a property to relax for a day or so during their trip. The setting at Laguna Lodge is spectacular.
Since this was an exploratory trip, we continued down to Antigua by vehicle after our full day on the Lake. Pax would normally spend another night as returning back to Antigua is a haul after a full day in the sun and on the water. We arrived at Hotel Santo Domingo for a free evening and overnight. Several people went out and explored town and others ate at the hotel (which is quite good). We ventured out to Bistrot Cinq – a classic Antiguan restaurant with excellent French food. Even though it had been an extremely long day, we enjoyed immensely our steak frites and French wine that evening.
We had been warned by Maya Trails about a special surprise the next morning that required us to get up VERY, VERY early so we were all ready to go and loaded into 4x4s in the pre-dawn hours. We traced the roads to the outskirts of Antigua and then continued down and down in the direction of the Pacific (Guatemala has an incredible 9 biomes from sea-level to over 13,000 ft!). As we continued, the air became warm and humid. In the distance the volcanoes took shape out of the morning mist. We cut off the main highway and suddenly the need for our luxury Nissan 4x4s became apparent. The dirt road was crisscrossed by waterfalls and streams and we passed small villages with waving children. I still had no idea where we were headed. Then, we came to a large gate at what seemed to be the base of Fuego Volcano (which was blowing off steam every few minutes in a rather grand gesture), and there was a large hand-carved sign for “Finca el Zapote.” Ah ha! The Finca is a famous quinine farm and nature reserve that welcomes visitors for day tours of the beautiful gardens, hiking in the finca and even exclusive use of the private homes on the farm. The family who owns the finca are the relatives of the famous Guatemalan painter, Carmen Pettersen, who captured traditional attire and textiles so precisely that her collection is housed in the Ixchel textiles museum in Guatemala City. The main home on the Zapote ranch includes her studio and several of her original works. We spent the morning hiking through the incredible gardens, bird watching, enjoying brunch under a pergola draped in vibrant blossoms, then jumping from a rope swing into the refreshingly cool, clear spring water in the swimming hole below the house. The whole while Fuego was spouting off steam and rumbling in the not-so-distant distance! It was a magical morning and while the accommodations are homey and simple, this visit would be ideal for a family looking to spend a few days in a completely unique setting, running kids ragged before a couple days filled with history and museums in Antigua or even a multi-generational family reunion. The setting is unsurpassed; you feel a safe distance, yet at the base of the volcano. The property is very secure and hiking, swimming, birding and relaxing all come easy. It’s a short drive from Antigua and there is a helipad available on site, as well.
After our morning at the Finca, we headed out for a day tour of Antigua with guide extraordinaire Jose Antonio Gonzales (pictured left). Antigua is meant to be walked and it’s lay out and close proximity of sites proves this. Jose first took us to an impressive view-point above the city Cerro de la Cruz to get a birds-eye view of Antigua and help us understand what we were about to explore at eye-level. Jose is one of Guatemala’s true explorers, artisans and writers, and an engaging and premier-level guide. To set the stage for our walking tour, Jose first took us through the grounds and museums of Casa Santo Domingo. The hotel is a treasure-trove of artifacts, contemporary art and ruins from the early days of Antigua when it was the capitol of Guatemala. We explored many of Antigua’s active and ruined cathedrals dating back to the Spaniards, as well. After lunch we continued with several site inspections.
El Convento Boutique Hotel: A beautiful new property (ie this is NOT a restored historic building, but a new one that they have done such a great job with maintaining the colonial feel) just off the beaten path in Antigua. A short walk from the main sights of Antigua, the hotel is a quiet, private escape. Each of the 26 suites is well-appointed with spacious en-suite bathrooms, a minimum square-footage of over 500 sq ft, L’Occitane bath products, marble, soaking tubs (most rooms) and some have outdoor hot tubs that are filled on request. It’s lovely. The restaurant is highly acclaimed and the roof-top bar offers amazing views out over the city and toward the volcanoes. Best for: honeymooners, privacy seekers, luxury clientele.
San Rafael: This new boutique hotel is located right near the Arch in town – steps from bars, restaurants and shops. It’s ideal for folks who want to get out and explore, but also travelers who like to stay in and enjoy their accommodations for morning coffee or an afternoon reading on the sunny terrace. The design in this bespoke hotel with just 7 guest rooms offers a very unique style merging historic and modern seamlessly (pictured right). After a three-year renovation, the hotel opened last year. Rooms are impeccably decorated and the level of design here is quite impressive. Best for: Jet set, boutique-seekers, honeymooners, art lovers, big bang for the buck!
Panza Verde: A classic Antigua option oozing with old-world charm. If guests chose not to stay here, they can always dine in the lovely courtyard restaurant or grab a drink at the cozy, atmospheric bar. NOTE: rooms closest to the dining room are not booked by Maya Trails due to noise from late-night diners. The back and upper rooms are spacious, d’cor is more classic than San Rafael and rooms are simpler (more spare?) than Posada del Angel. There is also a dining room for private functions so groups often dine here and it is ideal for private dining and special parties. Service is very good. Best for: Classic Antigua, boutique, small groups, those who want to dine in-house in the evenings. Note: Panza Verde also runs B’alam Ya on Lake Atitlan. The two pair nicely, although the style is quite different.
Posada del Angel: Located very close to Panza Verde, Posada del Angel is another Antigua classic and the pioneer of boutique hotels in Antigua. This is one of my favorites in Antigua! Service here is superb. The rooms are a little small, but are so cozy with fire places, traditional d’cor, textiles and canopied beds. The upstairs honeymoon suite, with its own private verandah is spacious and exclusive (pictured left). It’s my top recommendation for more classic-style honeymooners (a suite at San Rafael is a bit more modern/design-y). The seven room hotel offers a lap pool, beautiful central courtyard, sitting rooms, breakfast room (lunch and dinner are not served here but restaurants are very close) and a roof top lounge of note – the view of Volcan Agua is amazing! The service team is excellent and go-to manager Anibel is a gem.
After finishing up our site inspections, we headed to our home for the night – Meson de Maria, a beautiful mid-level property in the center of Antigua (yet surprisingly quiet for its location due to the rooms being around a private central courtyard). The rooms are cozy and simple, but traditional in their decor and warm and incredibly welcoming (pictured below right). The staff is superb. My favorite thing about Meson de Maria is the shared spaces. Sure, the rooms are quaint and have everything one needs for a comfortable night, but to perfect shared areas is a tough one. And they’ve done it: the roof-top deck is stunning – beautiful potted plants, cozy couches, volcano views. There’s not a bar at the hotel, but the bar across the street delivers. Gin & Tonics. What more do we need to say. Outside culster of rooms is a small sitting area. An over-stuffed couch, comfortable chairs and a small table. It becons guests to enjoy the setting. And it works. For the price point this hotel hits the nail on the head. It’s clean, welcoming, comfortable and centrally located. You could book Meson de Maria in Antigua and have your pax splurge elsewhere on their trip? Just an idea.
After our full day tour with Jose and site inspections in the afternoon we enjoyed a private dinner at Panza Verde and presentation on the history, culture and mysticism of Guatemala. It was a lovely ending to an incredible couple of days. After dinner we returned to Meson de Maria, our home for the evening.
The next morning we visited the La Azotea coffee tour just on the outskirts of Antigua. The finca is a working export-quality coffee farm and is a truly unique experience for travelers interested in coffee and all-things related. The finca is not just a working farm, but also a coffee and ethnographic museum. One of the best traditional music museums I have been in is on the property and it really comes alive with a guide like Jose (he is also a musician). After the comprehensive tour there’s a coffee tasting available and a beautiful gift shop to tour (read: coffee jam for purchase, sounds weird but it’s amazing). The finca is a big hit and I highly recommend including the experience for your travelers. It’s one of the most in-depth tours available, but still accessible and fun for the lay person.
From the Finca, we headed back to Guatemala City. . .stay tuned for Part II next week: Guatemala City, culinary tours and the Peten!