Lake Atitlan and Tikal are two of the most popular areas to visit in Guatemala. // © 2013 Brian Payntar Harris
Guatemala is rapidly becoming a top destination of Central America. In 2012, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina launched a 10-year National Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development, ensuring that Guatemala implements tourism as a state policy. There’s no doubt that travel agents will be hearing about Guatemala for years to come.
Luckily, there is a wealth of cultural and historical riches for those who look just beneath the surface. Since Guatemala is an emerging destination that can be intimidating to the unfamiliar, hire a guide and spend time taking in the exotic sights and sounds of Guatemala’s four distinct regions: Guatemala City, the pre-Columbian Maya ruins of Tikal, picturesque Lake Atitlan and colonial Antigua.
Visiting Guatemala’s highlights can easily be done in a week’s time. Most trips start and end in Guatemala City, the capital and home to the largest international airport. Guatemala City is broken up into zones, some drastically different from each other. The sight of gated communities juxtaposed with shack-towns somehow clinging to steep hillsides is particularly dramatic.
Stay close to the airport at the Westin Camino Real, Guatemala hotel in Zona Viva, a hip and trendy new neighborhood. This hotel is also a top choice for international diplomats visiting Guatemala City. Narrow, quiet streets are lined with local shops and a variety of restaurants. A delicious, authentic regional meal can be had less than one block away in the relaxed but refined atmosphere of Kacao restaurant. Zona Viva is also your best bet for nightlife in Guatemala, and 5,000 feet in elevation provides for comfortable evenings out.
Tikal, which was the center of the Maya world 2,000 years ago, is currently one of the largest excavated Maya ruins sites worldwide. To get to Tikal, take a short, early morning flight and enjoy the view of cloud-lined mountains. Once you de-plane — at an elevation of 400 feet — it is apparent that you are in a tropical forest. A two-hour van ride brings you deeper into the jungle, enveloped by the ominous, deep echoes of howler monkeys.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can spend a day or two leisurely roaming through dozens of temples linked by a network of trails. Having a private guide in Tikal will allow you to avoid crowded sunbaked roads, opting instead for shaded single tracks, which literally bee-line to the best sites. Only an official tour guide can let you in on all the secrets of Tikal, including how they use these same trails for puma sighting excursions after dark. Be sure to allow time to climb Temple IV which, equipped with a wooden staircase and handrails, is suitable for all ages to climb. The top of Temple IV provides a refreshing breeze, and the other-worldly view of various temples protruding through a thick canopy may look familiar to “Star Wars” aficionados. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Tikal was referred to as the planet Yavin and some scenes depicted the temples. Stay near Tikal in the beautiful, newly built eco-lodge Villa Maya, located in El Peten.
After a return flight to Guatemala City, board a bus to Lake Atitlan, which Aldous Huxley famously described as Lake “Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Stay at the water’s edge in the intimate, 60-room Hotel Atitlan. Once a coffee plantation, it now features a topiary garden boasting more than 250 species of birds and no less than 25 colors of bougainvillea.
Spend a day traveling by boat visiting remote lakeside towns and markets, and be sure to include a trip to the shrine of Maximon (Saint Simon) in Santiago Atitlan. Rather than a benevolent God, Maximon has been referred to as a bully you do not want to bother. To that end, making an offering of rum, a cigar or just a few dollars may benefit your health and future success. Return to the town of Panajachel to have cocktails at the Sunset Cafe or continue on to Antigua.
At separate times both the capital of Central America and the capital of Guatemala, Antigua’s colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and regal flair distinguish it from anywhere else in Guatemala. Even discriminating guests will be impressed staying at the converted 16th century convent, Casa Santo Domingo which features everything you need on-site including seven museums, a spa, a pool and some of the best restaurants in Antigua. Spend a day or two in this UNESCO World Heritage Site and visit old governmental buildings and churches as well as the largest jade factory in Central America. Unlike other tented markets, Antigua’s shopping consists mainly of boutique vendors. Prices may be a little higher, but quality is consistent and some travelers may find it more familiar.
Because it is generally safe to walk around at night, visitors can wander to and from various bars and restaurants. Antigua’s ancient buildings take on a magic of their own when lit by moonlight and antique streetlights. Guatemala City’s international airport is less than one hour away (without traffic), and you can leave from Antigua to catch a flight.
About Brian Payntar Harris
Brian Payntar Harris is the president of Destination Site Selection, which help groups find the ideal venue for their needs. Based in Aspen, Co., and specializing in luxury destination resorts, Harris coordinates all aspects of site selection consultation, from RFP to contract negotiation. Read an interview about Brian and his work in the travel industry here (link to www.travelagewest.com/News/Industry-Interviews/Travel-Agent-Talk--Brian-Payntar-Harris/).