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We were greeted at Guatemala’s Maya Mundo International Airport with the warm, welcoming smiles that we had become used to on our 10-day multigenerational family holiday in the country. Our driver ushered us into the waiting van, and we set off along an inky-black road for the hourlong journey to our hotel.
As we turned off the main drag and onto the bumpy dirt track that led to the property, our guide told us that if we were lucky, we might still grab a glimpse of the owner, Francis Ford Coppola. And sure enough, no sooner had we pulled into the entrance and been handed our welcome drink that we spotted the movie mogul himself, finishing dinner with his family.
This was the last stop on our Guatemalan adventure. We had come to this northern corner of the country to visit the region’s star attraction: the ancient Maya kingdom of Tikal. Most visitors to this area choose to stay near the entrance to Tikal National Park or in Flores, a picturesque town on Lake Peten Itza that is not far from the airport. However, we chose to stay at La Lancha, a lakefront eco-lodge that easily ranks as the best hotel in the area and is one of the finest value hotels in Central America.
The delightful boutique hotel — part of Coppola’s quartet of hotels in Belize and Guatemala (he also has properties in Italy and Argentina) — offers an excellent restaurant, stellar service and the design aesthetic you expect from an award-winning movie director. It also has impressive eco credentials: For example, La Lancha sources all food and building materials locally and boasts a low carbon footprint thanks to a lack of modern conveniences such as air-conditioning and televisions.
If traveling with young children or older family members, be aware: Guests of La Lancha must be prepared to climb. The property’s 10 stilted wooden casitas are built into the hillside and connected by winding stairways that eventually lead down to the lake. We unpacked our bags in our Rainforest Junior Suite and quickly decided that three nights was not going to be enough — the lake views from our balcony hammock couldn’t be beat. All room categories (the other two are Rainforest Casitas and Lakeview Suites) are spacious and filled with Guatemalan handicrafts, art and furniture.
We awoke early the next morning for our trip to Tikal to the sound of the resident howler monkeys.
We had organized a guide through La Lancha and were greeted by Carlos after breakfast. I’m often wary when hiring guides, because it takes a special person to make an ancient archaeological site come alive for kids — but I needn’t have worried. La Lancha has plenty of guides who can provide a child-friendly tour of the Maya kingdom. Carlos was no exception, and my older children (at the time, ages 9 and 7) hung onto his every word as he led us through the dense jungle and into what was once the heart of the Maya world.
Once upon a time, this city and ceremonial center covered Belize, parts of Honduras and northwestern El Salvador, and all southeastern Mexico and northern Guatemala. It’s thought that between 50,000 to 100,000 people lived there in its heyday (around 700 AD). Carlos kept the kids entertained by spotting wildlife and finding vines that could be used as rope swings. Standing between Temple I and II, he showed the kids how to clap so that the echo sounded like that of a Quetzal bird. He pointed out the best spot to take a photo of Central Plaza, the remains of what was once a royal bedroom and the views from the top of Temple IV — the tallest temple in Tikal and a filming location for “Star Wars: Episode IV.” He also answered many questions about sacrifices. (If you visit Tikal with kids, be prepared for a lot of talk involving blood and gore.)
We spent the following day back at La Lancha. The hotel organizes several activities, including bike rides, nature hikes and canoeing or kayaking on the lake. We decided to do nothing but enjoy our surroundings, alternating between the two-level swimming pool with panoramic lake views and the lakeside palapa.
Like the previous evenings, dinner that night was at the on-site Guatemalteca Restaurant. La Lancha can organize dinner outings to restaurants in Flores if clients want a change of scene, but we were happy to dine on traditional Guatemalan food in the palm-thatched venue while watching the sun set over the lake for the last time — or at least until the next time we visit Tikal.
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