Hands down and without equivocation, Guatemala is the gem of Central America, offering more to the traveler than any of its half dozen neighbors, even if the equatorial heat had melted them into a tropical glob.
World class sites stretch from the most fabulous Mayan ruin at Tikal in the north to the Rio Dulce and Lago Izabal in the south, sandwiching polychromatic markets and variously active volcanoes from Antigua to Lago Atitlan.
This short list barely scratches the surface of flashy and vibrant Guatemala, a country I found safe and carefree outside the habitual suspects in the nighttime ghettoes of the ugly megalopolis pedantically named Guatemala City.
Away From the Sweltering Lowlands
Best of all the bulk of Guatemala sits high at altitude, a good place to be in the tropics, away from the sweltering lowlands of unfortunate neighboring countries.
The single exception is the Rio Dulce on the Caribbean coast, a don’t-miss waterway lined with lily pads, mangroves, houses on stilts and galères of exotic birdlife winding through chalky narrow cliffs to the Rastafarian town of Livingston, reachable only by boat.
At its top end the river connects to pristine Lago Izabal stuffed with manatees and plied by hand-hewn canoes. The River can be crossed only by a hulking concrete monstrosity of a bridge at the fast-growing town of Rio Dulce, a mile from the Castillo de San Felipe.
This metallic-colored Spanish fort was built in the 1600s to protect the territory from pirates marauding far up the river to sack hapless little Spanish towns.
Rio Dulce’s the jumping north place for the largely uninhabited Peten region where lurk the fabulous Mayan ruins at Tikal and the wonder of the neighboring tourist town of Flores, plunked at the end of a causeway in Lago Peten Itza.
A Loss of Faith
Tikal sprawled over 100 square kilometers (2,500 acres) during its heyday sometime between its founding in 300 B.C.E and the tenth century when it was abandoned.
Abandonment followed an insurrection caused by porcine priests and drought, resulting in starvation of the peasant population, who lost their faith in the priest-class, who had erroneously forecast a cornucopia of harvest goodies while feasting on peasant offerings.
Magnificent temple bones remain, and what bones they are, taking two full days to fully see, though the highlights may be perused in four or five hours, accompanied by shrieks of hearing-impaired howler monkeys.
Tourists flock to the heights of Temple IV for sunrise where the inattentive suffer starvation as the resident coon cats, the coatimundis, flock to steal unguarded daypack snacks.
The Ancient Capital
The prime destination for Semana Santa, Easter Week, is Antigua sitting at an altitude of 5000 cool and crispy feet (1500 meters). Antigua was the ancient capital of Guatemala from 1543, becoming the finest city in the Americas until heavily damaged in a 1773 earthquake.
Its Easter celebrations are attended by visitors worldwide, a festival of elaborate religious parades and street murals plumed from a rainbow of flower petals.
The city remains a magnet outside of Easter when exorbitantly-priced hotels drop to merely pricey, overshadowed from the south by the Maya Volcano towering over ancient cobblestone streets, ornate colonial churches, doppelgänger arches, world-class museums and baronial buildings.
Students of Spanish fluency flock to Antigua’s many language schools amidst an ambience of Don Quixote.
Antigua’s don’t-miss museum is the cultural center created by the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo from an old Dominican Church and monastery, preserved yet converted into a combination performance theater, art gallery, colonial museum and open-air chapel.
Excavations revealed human remains feeding the lichens on a pristine mural in rustic red and blue of a Calvary scene dated from 1683.
Inexpensive private vans shuttle tourists between Guatemalan destinations, from Antigua to wherever, including Chichicastenango, aka Chichi, for market days on Thursdays and Sundays. Guatemalans love color, reflected in spades at regional markets.
The cascades of flowers, fabric and females dressed in blazing brilliance are reminiscent of similar markets in Mali, the north of Vietnam and western China, with the added element of religious celebrations combining Mayan traditions with splotches of Catholicism. Chichi is truly a photographer’s and fabric shopper’s paradise.
Guatemala’s a paradise for those who love volcanoes and clambering up steep slopes. A string of scenic cones march lock-step down the west side of the country, affording summits with views over such as Santiaguito, a highly active volcano sitting in the shadow of Volcan Santa Maria near Guatemala’s second city of Quezaltenange aka Xela.
A similar view of Santiaguito may be wangled from the rim of Chicabal, also overlooking a scenic Laguna, or from vertically steep Santa Maria towering over the city. See MonteVerdeTours.com
I unfortunately climbed Chicabal the wrong day, when clouds descended and the visibility could be best described as drizzly.
The Scenic Highlight
The absolute scenic highlight of Guatemala is Lake Atitlan, 11 by 6 miles (18 by 10 kilometers), sparkling at 5000 cool feet, certainly one of the pretty-prettiest and flamboyant lakes on the planet.
The lake is surrounded by stylish ethnic villages ranging from touristy Panajachel to a dozen Santas this and Sans that named for various Apostles and saints, the inhabitants speaking three separate languages, wearing diverse costumes and exhibiting divers cultures.
Good things come in threes. Three perfectly jutting volcanoes, San Pedro, Atitlan and Toliman, sit smack on the lakeshore with spectacular views soaring over mini-volcano Cerro de Oro.
And the lake constantly changes color, from shades of aquamarine to sublime tints of emerald. On first sight the reaction is uniformly: this can’t be real.
But it is, where millions have visited and many have stayed, building a gringo population and tourist magnet providing services from hotels with spectacular views to restaurants of all culinary persuasions: the perfect place for a super ball in Guatemala.
It’s Easy to Go:
Internet rates range as low as $300 roundtrip from the States to Guatemala City, or drive down and see the many colonial cities and Mayan ruins in Mexico on the way down. The roads are good and the sights remarkable. Hotels with air, cable and private bath range from $20 up.