Guatemala: From the Pyramids to Panajachel

A Family Vacation in Guatemala

By Tim Leffel

Alina and Donna at the top of a Tikal pyramid in Guatemala.
Alina and Donna at the top of a Tikal pyramid in Guatemala.

“Come on, let’s go to the top!” Alina says as she scrambles up the ancient stone steps of another pyramid in Guatemala. Wearily, we parents follow in line, ignoring the burn in our leg muscles.

My shirt is drenched with sweat and I’m panting hard by the time I reach the top, but it’s worth it. What a view!

“OK kid, you were right,” I tell Alina. We had to come up here.”

This is three hours into our exploration of the grand spectacle of Tikal, in northern Guatemala. Covering a greater area than the other former Maya capitals, the pyramids here are steeper, the jungle is barely kept at bay, and it takes hours of walking and climbing to see more than a fraction of it.

Stretching out in front of us is a vast expanse of jungle, with the pyramids dramatically poking out of the top, like alien structures from another planet. (George Lucas apparently got the same impression: this area made a brief appearance as the rebel base in the first Star Wars movie.)

This is our fourth pyramid climb of the morning, but each one has led to a different vantage point to take in the wonders of this amazing city. Tikal reached its height a thousand years before the Spanish conquerors landed on this side of the Atlantic.

The author's daughter zips through the trees near Tikal.
Alina zips through the trees near Tikal.

It’s still a remote spot though, which keeps it from becoming deluged with tour bus crowds. As we scamper around the monuments in the morning, in many spots we’re the only ones there. That night we sleep well at Jaguar Inn, a small hotel right outside the park, listening to dozens of different birds singing and calling.

Buzzing Through the Trees

The next morning I pay $25 each for us to go on a zipline tour a few miles away. I’m psyched, my wife Donna is psyched, but we’re not sure how our six-year-old daughter is going to deal with it. Turns out we’ve got nothing to worry about. She looks at it all like a jungle version of an amusement park ride. Since she’s riding tandem with one of the guides, she doesn’t have to do anything but take in the scenery and enjoy the fun.

We buzz through the trees and bushes at high speed, using a leather glove as a brake on the cable. Eventually, we jumped off nine different platforms and whizzed through the air.

It’s great fun and a major adrenaline rush, though of course, it’s hard to see any wildlife when you’re going that fast and making lots of noise. On the walk back along a dirt path, however, we watch spider monkeys screeching and jumping overhead and see parrots and toucans land in nearby branches.

Wildlife in the Tikal area of Guatemala.
A toucan in the Tikal area of Guatemala.

Guatemala may not be the first place that comes to mind for a family vacation, but we’re already glad we’ve ignored conventional wisdom and headed out for a real adventure.

Spanish Colonial Antigua

After a day on Lake Peten, near the city of Flores, it’s time to head south to Antigua for some Spanish immersion classes. By bus it would take an entire day of travel to get there, so I’ve splurged for flights to get us to Guatemala City ($110 one way), where we can take a quick shuttle over.

Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of those picture-postcard Spanish Colonial cities that seems too perfect to be real. All the clichés are in place, but nothing seems forced.

The cobblestone streets, the horse-drawn carriages, the 15th-century churches, and the grand central square — it all belongs. I get the strong feeling that civic pride — not just a grab for tourist dollars — is what drives the smart preservation practices. There are more than a few warts showing though in the form of crumbling churches that are open to the blue skies.

Antigua has seen more than its share of earthquakes and in a city that seems to have a church every two blocks, some of them just weren’t worth saving. It gives us visitors some dramatic photo ops anyway.

The remains of a historic church in Antigua in Guatemala.
The remains of a historic church in Antigua in Guatemala.

Getting Schooled

After the sightseeing, it’s time to work on our Spanish. Donna’s proficiency is already pretty good but mine is at “just enough to get by” beginner level. My daughter’s only exposure has been a few trips to Mexico and lots of colors, numbers, and animals in her elementary school.

No matter, it’s all one-on-one individual instruction where we’ve enrolled for a week, at Centro Linguistico Internacional. For a shade over $450 total, we’ve signed up for four hours a day of individual instruction, plus room and board at a family’s home nearby.

One hour of the four each day, my daughter and I study together with one teacher, which mostly consists of playing picture bingo or card games in Spanish.

The location is unbeatable. We’re either studying in a pretty courtyard, with grass under our toes, or we’re on a balcony with a view of the surrounding volcanic mountains. As the days go on, I’m still nowhere close to fluent, but at least I can take a stab at speaking in the past tense and I’ve gotten some valuable comprehension practice.

Individual Spanish lessons while overlooking the volcanic mountains
Individual Spanish lessons while overlooking the volcanic mountains

I would never study this intensely at home in a class or on my own: there’s always too much else going on. By getting away to a foreign land, it’s much easier to let the everyday melt away and just focus on learning.

Like most Spanish language schools in the city (there are over 40 of them to choose from), CLI arranges optional afternoon learning opportunities or excursions: salsa dancing one day, tortilla making class the next, then a local sightseeing trip after that.

We take advantage of two trips, visiting the Casa del Tejido Antigua textile museum close to our school and hopping on a local “chicken bus” to check out a coffee plantation on the outskirts. The textile museum tour is completely in Spanish, so we got to find out how much we had really learned so far that week. (Not enough.)

This is a great early stop, though, to learn about the diversity of weaving styles and patterns developed throughout the country. It’s also a good place to buy quality hand-made clothing, fabric, and placemats for yourself or as a gift.

Demonstration at the local textile museum
Demonstration at the local textile museum

The Bella Vista coffee plantation tour gives us an overview of how the beans are grown, harvested, processed, and bagged. The beans start out red before the shell comes off, then are small and green after they are dried and bagged. Most of them are exported to another country, where they get plumper and more fragrant after roasting.

Some of Bella Vista’s beans end up at your local Starbucks. Again, we weren’t sure how well all this would go over with a kid who has never tasted coffee, but as we’ve often found, these things are hard to predict. Seeing a working factory in operation and climbing over burlap bags of beans has a certain appeal to children, especially when there are a few of them along to play together.

Chillin’ on Lake Atitlan

After five days of one-on-one instruction and trying to think in another language, my brain hurts and Alina has had enough of being at school while on vacation.

We’ve all also had enough of the lumpy beds and the grotty shower at the family homestay. It’s time to get out into the countryside. We plop down $7 each for a shuttle van ride and we’re on our way along the winding road to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan.

We’ve made reservations for most nights; family travel isn’t as conducive to just winging it. For the night in Panajachel, we’re winging it though, which turns out fine. A tout leads us to a huge junior suite with a full living room, two queen beds, a kitchenette, and a nice swimming pool downstairs — a great deal at fifty bucks.

Panajachel isn’t much to look at, but it’s got two things going for it: a great location on the lake and some of the best shopping deals in the country. It’s a little girl’s shopping dream come true, with all kinds of sparkly bead necklaces, bracelets, and little purses. The wife is thrilled too since prices are far cheaper here than in Antigua. Both of them come back to the room loaded up.

We spend the next few nights in paradise, perched on a cliff over the lake, at hotel Casa del Mundo a few ferry-stops away. We’ve grabbed the largest room there is and it’s $60 a night, with one of the best panoramic views I’ve had from any hotel ever.

We spend the whole time swimming in the lake, lying in hammocks, and eating great food, with one hike thrown in to take a stab at exploration.

From the top of a pyramid to the side of a steep mountain, Guatemala has turned out to be just the ticket for a unique family vacation.

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