AdventureSmith Explorations’ Lis Larson reviews her recent custom Guatemala trip, which included time in Tikal National Park, Guatemala City, Antigua, Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlan and the Highlands region. Read on for her expert review and photos.
I love the first view of a new place from a plane window. There’s something magical about that cloud-level revelation. My first glimpse of Guatemala was at night, with the tiniest dots of light arranged below me like constellations. Single star-like points were visible almost to the city. Right away I could see this place was remote, a bit wilder.
I started my trip with a visit to the Peten region, which required an early flight the very next morning to Flores. For this portion of my trip I was traveling with other attendees of TravelMart Latin America, an annual tradeshow for the travel industry. Our crew included 4 Peruvians, 2 Argentineans, 1 Canadian, 1 Romanian, 1 Australian and 1 American, me. We walked to our small plane from an industrial hangar on the opposite side of the runway from the main terminal. From the Maya World Airport in Flores, our group met with our guide and driver for the journey to Yaxha.
En route, my eyes were peeled as everything was so lush and green, and the houses were of the simplest variety (concrete, no doors, no windows) but colorful with well cared-for properties. Cows, donkies and pigs dotted the roadside, and dogs were literally everywhere, often in the middle of the road. Yaxha requires a fairly lengthy drive down a long dirt road, but updates to the site (including a new visitor center) will soon allow visitors to access the site by boat instead of car, providing a more authentic experience of how Mayans used to arrive to the site. But as it currently stands, Yaxha is quite remote; in fact, we only saw perhaps 3 other visitors there in addition to our group. But the ruins are beautiful, sprawled through a well maintained forest, and the lake view atop the main temple is simply stunning.
We immediately took to our guide, Manuel, who was a spunky older man of perhaps 70 or 80. He practically skipped up and down the temple steps, and held an umbrella he used to point at things. Even when it rained, he kept the umbrella at his side. I got a good kick out of this and quickly learned to just let the intermittent rains here fall on me as well. Due to the humidity, it seemed to be best to just get wet and let the heat dry you. It was magical how the rains came and went, often dousing us atop temples where you could see and feel them coming your way.
Tikal National Park
The next day was a full day spent at Tikal National Park, the famed 222-square-mile ancient Mayan city ruins settled around 900 BC. The site is at once massive and secluded, with 3,000 buildings in the 6-square-mile central area. Walking through the jungle here is hillier than Yaxha, with larger pathways. At times all you see is forest, but then amazing temple views emerge through breaks in the trees. Due to preservation efforts, visitors can only climb a handful of the temples; many have wooden stairways and platforms to even further minimize visitor impacts. The highlight for me was climbing to the top of Temple IV, aka the Star Wars temple, and it was so amazing to be at that same view. The clouds were big, the sun was out, and a group of howler monkeys were hanging out in the trees just about 15 feet from the top of the temple. Trip highlight moment!
The clouds were big, the sun was out, and a group of howler monkeys were hanging out in the trees just about 15 feet from the top of the temple.
Part of the benefit of having a guide like Manuel here was not only all the history we learned about the temple and the stelae, but also for the shortcuts through the forest he took us through to show us things like a giant cedar tree he called “el gran papa” and caches the Maya built to store food underground. Plus, it was the way in which the site was presented to us: our first view of the Gran Jaguar (Temple I) plaza was coming in atop the facing Temple II. We climbed up the backside of Temple II via a wooden staircase, wrapped around the side and then were treated to an amazing aerial view of the main plaza and the Gran Jaguar. Such a special way to view it at first. At this point in the day, the rain had come in pretty steady, though this just made our main plaza visit unique as it cleared out most other visitors. In fact, I was lucky to be completely alone in the center of the plaza for about 5 minutes. A very powerful moment, and testament to the “give and take” you get during a destination’s off season.
TravelMart Conference in Guatemala City
After Tikal, it was back to Guatemala City for me to attend TravelMart Latin America. Bringing in travel operators and tour wholesalers from all over the world, this conference provided a great way to experience Guatemalan culture as the conference organizers were really trying to show us the best of the destination. From regional coffee and treats to traditional dance performances, we were well fed and entertained in classic Guatemalan hospitality and style. A party hosted by our partner operator Viaventure through their Atlas travel group had me riding in a tricked-out chicken bus (ubiquitous in Guatemala) to the historic Panamerican Hotel downtown for a menu of beef pepian and chicken jocon stews, chapin rice, beet salad enchiladas, bonuelos and of course handmade tortillas. As is common throughout Guatemala, a woman made tortillas right by our tables as we gathered to eat, and then our group got to learn the art in a tortilla-making contest. It’s harder than it looks!
The Guatemala Highlands
His connections to the Maya people are what make our tours so special as we visit not only the classic spots like Chicicastenango and Lake Atitlan, but also places untouched by tourism.
Post-conference I embarked on an abbreviated version of our Guatemala Highlands Explorer, really delving into the rural Guatemalan life and experiencing the culture firsthand. We work with a small operator whose founder’s resume includes organizing the return of refugees post-Civil War and assisting Rigoberta Menchu after her Nobel Prize fame. His connections to the Maya people are what make our tours so special as we visit not only the classic spots like Chicicastenango and Lake Atitlan, but also places untouched by tourism. Our first stop was one such place: Totonicapan, a 3.5-hours’ drive from Guatemala City along the Panamerican Highway. We passed farmland and steep mountains covered with lingering fog. My guide Beli was an encyclopedia, having grown up in Guatemala City and pursuing guiding upon retirement from his job in the accounting field. We hit it off right away, even despite my narcoleptic nature on car rides!
We stopped at a roadside spring, poured with concrete for the village to use to launder clothes and bathe. Fish swam in the soapy water, children cried as mothers scrubbed away a week’s worth of dirt, and piles of laundry was laid out to dry on the adjacent grassy field, complete with roaming village dogs. Here, and everywhere from here on in the Highlands, I began to see the living history of Guatemala. At first you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time, with women dressed in traditional skirts and embroidered tops in the matching colors of their village. But after days of experiencing this it becomes clear the simplicity and practicality of dressing this way for so many years.
Totonicapan was hosting its summer fair so town was packed and many streets blocked off. It was fun weaving through the narrow streets filled with people, tuk-tuks and dogs up to the home of Miguel, a weaver and our host for lunch and our town visit. We parked near Miguel’s house then took a van filled with other locals down to town center. It was packed. Vendors upon vendors selling food, goods, textiles, ceramics. Women in traditional dress. The town plaza had a big stage set with a live mariachi band. Yet an ironic juxtaposition to it all was a free WiFi sign in the plaza. In fact, such a mix of old and new is prevalent throughout Guatemala: people in traditional dress wielding smart phones and Mayan rituals and symbols in Catholic churches being two widespread examples. After walking through the market, we returned to Miguel’s for lunch and a weaving demonstration. He showed me numerous techniques, his pattern book and how he made letters by weaving my name into a tapestry he was working on. He even let me spin a spool on his homemade bicycle-gear-powered spinner.
Meals throughout Guatemala were delicious, with simple ingredients and always the option on every menu, no matter breakfast or dinner, for some variation of refried black beans, freshly made corn tortillas, queso fresco and plantains. The meals I ate at Mayan homes with families always started with a soup, followed by chicken, vegetables and rice pilaf and variations of the common ingredients above. At Miguel’s in Totonicapan, Raquel prepared a delicious homemade hibiscus tea.
Lake Atitlan & Chichicastenago
After a full day in the Highlands, it was down to Lake Atitlan. The road was steeper and windier than I’d imagined, with waterfalls and cliffs along the way. During my two nights here, the road became an obstacle course from debris from mudslides blocking parts of the road with boulders and trees. My accommodation at Posada de don Rodrigo Panajachel is only separated from the lakefront by a walkway, so it has incredible lake views, plus nice amenities of an outdoor pool with slide, temescal (sauna), colorful hammocks and two small adjacent museums. The location is prime, right at the end of Panajachel’s main street with great local shopping and restaurants.
I took a morning boat ride to two small towns, San Antonio Palopo and Santa Catarina. These villages had a very remote, local vibe, so it was nice to walk the steep town streets and see the people going about their daily tasks. It was sunny but clouds topped all the volcano tops.
After a morning on the lake, we drove to visit the famed Chichicastenango market. Stalls upon stalls of goods, but my favorite spots were the central local’s eatery, a smattering of outdoor kitchens and bulk grains for sale unseen by most visitors, and the indoor produce market – it’s a must here to stand on the upper balcony to get the view from above. This stop was a highlight of the trip for me, not just for the ambiance but also as it’s where I began thinking in Spanish. As a car, swerved fast around a corner, coming quite close to my guide whose back was turned, I yelled, “Cuidado!” And then immediately celebrated with him for I had turned a corner of language remembrance! All those years of studying Spanish at university had laid the roots; I just needed some time for them to surface.
I woke on my second morning at the lake to a clear lake with the tops of the volcanos showing! A fine send-off as we left Atitlan today for Antigua, stopping at the Iximche ruins, where we witnessed an intimate shaman ceremony blessing a family’s new business, and Xetonox, tiny farming town where we stopped in to lunch at the home of Dona Vicenta. This was the most rural, real experience of the Mayan culture I experienced, with Dona Vicenta’s home, where she raised 8 children with her husband, very much a working home, with pigs, a corn cobb compost and the home’s only sink all outside. Pine needles were spread out on the earthen floor to celebrate my visit. She set the table with her finest handwoven textiles, and prepared us a simple meal of broth soup, rice, chicken and boiled potato. She only spoke Spanish, so it was special to be able to converse with her, though my guide was able to translate what I could not understand.
In Antigua, life is more European, with cobblestone streets, language schools, fine restaurants and boutiques and travelers from all over the world. This is the place to shop, to enjoy the finest of Guatemalan cuisine.
I stayed at the Posada de don Rodrigo, where my historic room, locked by a large, old lever-style key, overlooked an interior courtyard garden. The hotel has a restaurant with nightly live Marimba music and folk dancers. Must-sees in Antigua are the many cathedrals and their ruins throughout, and the Paseo de Museos, a collection of museums built by the Casa Santo Domingo resort. The Imagen & Semjanza exhibit, a comparative pairing of Pre-Hispanic ceramic and stone objects with recent glass pieces from all over the world, the Guillermo Grajeda Mena exhibit and the way in which each space was carefully built to incorporate the site’s ruins, all made this visit extra special. Antigua reminded me much of small towns in Italy, and the way the town preserves its ruins is a stunning experience. An example: on one of my last nights here, I ate a thin-crust margherita pizza on 7A Norte’s hip rooftop patio, overlooking the crumbling old walls of a cathedral next door, so close you could touch them.
My tour was capped off with a visit to Pacaya Volcano, about 20 miles southwest of Guatemala City. I particularly enjoyed this as my trip was mostly cultural so it felt good to stretch my legs with some exercise up this steep volcano. The hour’s hike up offers views of Volcan Agua most of the way. We hiked up and up, into a fog layer, and then coming out of it, the steaming Pacaya crater came into view.
An active lava flow occurred a year ago so it was crazy to see the recently hardened lava over the landscapes. The ground in some places is so hot that it steams, and my guide led me over to a deep hole in the lava where we roasted a marshmallow! Be sure to stop into the quaint, well-cared-for Lava Store that bills itself as a “world-famous rest stop.”
On my way back to Guatemala City, I treasured every minute of my car ride as we passed through numerous little towns. Passing our car on one turn was a young dad on a motorcycle, his baby seated in front of him, strapped on with a dish towel. Guatemala is a place where life is just so different than what we experience at home, and I love this.
This Guatemala travel review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Read all AdventureSmith Expert Reviews for more trip reports, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about these small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.