In early May Central America Vacation traveled to Guatemala for 9 days to explore our next major country offering. Chris and I had both been to Guatemala briefly on separate occasions, most recently on a 2015 trip from Belize over to the famous Maya site, Tikal. Back in 2011 I had the opportunity to play with the Costa Rica female softball team in their first international tournament hosted in Guatemala City. Other than these two brief visits, Guatemala was brand-spanking new to us and needless to say, we were excited. Having traveled extensively to every corner of Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize, we were eager to travel to Guatemala with a country that offers so much history, culture, and colonial charm. We were ready to trade our Costa Rica jungle and Pacific beaches for cobblestone streets, colorful Maya markets, and one of the most beautiful lakes in the world!
Our first two nights were spent along the Pacific coastline at the world-famous Casa Vieja Lodge to experience for ourselves how Guatemala has earned the title “sailfish capital of the world”. The fishing lived up to the hype and far exceeded our expectations (see pictures and read more about this portion of the trip on Central America Fishing’s blog post). From a beach vacation stand-point, we had heard not to expect too much of Guatemala’s Pacific coastline and were curious to see for ourselves if it would in fact be beach worthy. Unfortunately, Costa Rica’s rich Pacific coastline and Belize’s white-sand Caribbean have spoiled us and are a much better fit for a beach stay. However, it’s not to say a vacation to Guatemala is without saltwater. A week long travel itinerary can easily include both Guatemala and Belize’s Caribbean beaches (see our Multi Country packages).
After the fishing portion of the trip we stopped overnight at the beautiful La Reunion Resort just 45 minutes (11 miles) southwest of Antigua. Its location offers one-of-a-kind views of three popular volcanoes – Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango with Fuego being an active volcano. La Reunion’s south side vantage point of Fuego Volcano allows guests to see red lava flow on a clear evening when the volcano is active. Unfortunately, when Fuego Volcano did decide to “wake-up”, we had already moved onto Antigua, which is the opposite side of the lava flow. The only other way to see Fuego Volcano’s lava flow up-close is to do a very extreme, difficult hike up Acatenango Volcano (our next trip!).
La Reunion features a challenging 18-hole golf course, Fuego Maya, with dramatic landscapes making it one of the most beautiful courses in Central America. For non-golfers there are various on-site activities, including horseback riding, hiking, biking, and even a miniature golf course that emulates the first 9-holes of Fuego Maya. What really blew us away at La Reunion were their suites overlooking the Fuego Maya course with volcano views. These suites were spacious, elegant and featured indoor and outdoor showers, a Jacuzzi tub, and a private terrace with infinity pool. For an incredible sight from our suite, we were told to wake-up to watch the sunrise behind Agua Volcano, which we did and then gladly returned to bed for a couple more hours of sleep in preparation for the day ahead.
Our next destination was Lake Atitlán with a side-stop in route to Iximche ruins. Iximche was once a Maya capital and was also known by the Spaniards as the first capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala (and therefore the first capital of Central America). Hostilities between the local Mayans of Iximche and the demanding Spaniards caused the Maya residents of Iximche to flee, deserting the capital after only 60 years of reign with it being burnt down only two years later. The site is beautiful and quiet, with the majority of visitors being indigenous Maya. Iximche consists of 4 large plazas, various temples, and two ball courts. After an hour at Iximche and a typical Guatemalan lunch at a local restaurant nearby, we continued onwards to Lake Atitlán.
Lake Atitlán is a magical place that deserves its own two-to-four-night stay. We heard of many advertised day (or even ½ day) trips from Antigua to Lake Atitlán and [strongly] concluded that a day-trip would not grant this region due justice. There’s no arguing that Lake Atitlán really is one of the most breathtaking lakes in the world and that’s coming from two Midwesterners that grew up around hundreds of lakes, including The Great Lakes. At Lake Atitlán, steep volcanic cliffs plunge into emerald blue, sparkling waters. Small villages and bustling towns on the lake’s outskirts are best explored via boat taxi. You’ll need at least a full day to explore these enchanting towns, each with its own unique culture and character. Santiago Atitlán is one of the more popular towns to visit with a 500-year-old church and a wide range of artisanal crafts ranging from beadwork, paintings, carvings, and intricate weavings.
Nearly all the hotels on Lake Atitlán offer kayaks or canoes to use in the mornings (when the lake is less choppy) while other popular lake activities include paragliding from the mountain tops over the lake (this looked daring and very fun!), hiking San Pedro volcano, sunrise hikes overlooking the lake, horseback riding, scuba diving to underwater Maya ruins, mountain biking, and birding. While our time on the lake was short-lived (we’ll definitely be back), we were able to squeeze in a hike of Laguna Lodge’s nature reserve for some breathtaking vistas, a swim in the lake to cool off after our hike, and a stroll through the popular Chichicastenango Market on a happening Thursday morning.
The Chichicastenango Market experience was incredible. Whether you’re a photographer, shopper, history buff, or people-watcher, you’ll be entertained with all the movement, scenery, and sensory experiences that go on at these lively highland markets. With that said there are many markets to experience depending on the day of week you have available to visit, some being closer to Lake Atitlán and less touristy than the Chichicastenango Market (large tour groups arrive to the Chicicastenango Market by late morning so it’s best to go in the early morning on Thursday or Sunday for a more authentic experience).
We spent our final three nights in the colonial town of Antigua, the once capital of Guatemala for over 230 years. We stopped for a cafecito at Finca Filadelfia coffee plantation between Lake Atitlán and Antigua, arriving to Antigua in time to roam the cobblestone streets at sunset. Antigua is a colonial masterpiece, which is likely why you’ll see so many painters along the streets recreating canvases of Spanish-Baroque architecture draped with bright bougainvillea bushes. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, no new construction is permitted within the 10×10 block perimeter and all buildings must be restored and preserved to showcase Antigua’s historical beauty. Step into any entryway and you’ll likely find a courtyard full of flowers and fountains, a hidden restaurant, or a charming boutique hotel with historical artifacts hanging from colorful stucco walls.
Antigua is full of museums, shops, cafes, restaurants, and historical ruins. To say we kept busy during our time in Antigua would be an understatement. Our days in Antigua were a whirlwind with every ounce of daylight spent visiting hotels, sampling popular eateries, checking out local happenings, and hiking up an active volcano. With all we experienced in our short time in Antigua (again, we’ll be back!) the highlights were our exceptional dining experience at Meson Panza Verde accompanied by live music, our lovely stay at San Rafael Hotel, our hike up Pacaya Volcano to hear it rumble and see it shoot volcanic rocks into the air, the heavenly chocolate samples (and purchases) from Choco Museo, sampling the world’s finest rums at La Casa de Ron, and a scrumptious rooftop breakfast farewell at Hotel Sor Juana.
Guatemala has won our hearts with its rich cultural and historical beauty. Guatemalans are some of the most welcoming and proud people we’ve encountered in Central America and are eager to welcome new faces. We are excited to now offer Guatemala as a travel destination for your next Central America trip. Check out our Guatemala Facebook Album for more pictures from our May 2016 trip and stay tuned for future return trips to this enchanting destination! Soon you’ll see Guatemala on the website. In the meantime, if you’re interested in traveling to Guatemala, we’d love to help you plan an itinerary.