Ah, Guatemala, I can’t wait to get back to you; the people, the food, the scenery that’s as hypnotic as anything I’ve ever experienced, a close second to the day-dreamy isle of Capri, Italy. But love letters and comparisons aside, Guatemala is for those who take their chill seriously. My week of serenity started in Antigua and ended on Lake Atitlan.
Although, please allow me make one more comparison to your average European vacay, by mentioning how shockingly affordable it is to eat, sleep and soak up the sunshine in this Central American country.
Antigua’s colonial charms have been brilliantly woven into the details at El Convento. This boutique hotel is located on one of the city’s cobblestone streets – close to baroque churches and other cultural landmarks. Every room has rustic accents; some with fireplaces to take the chill out of the evening air that sweeps through the Panchoy valley. Having opened only five years ago, the property’s aesthetic belies its real age.
One might think, as I had, that the hotel had risen up from the ashes of an 18th century nunnery. The hand-carved doors to each of the 26 suites did come from one, however. From the lap pool to the library and the views from a lovely rooftop lounge, I was utterly enamoured.
After a three-hour bus ride to Panajachel, and another thirty minutes by boat, I checked into Casa del Mundo. Built into the volcanic cliffs overlooking Lake Atitlan, the hike up is a challenge, but the rewards come with pretty gardens, hammocks swinging in the breeze and cute and cozy rooms. A solar powered system ensures hot showers, while speedy Wi-Fi kept me as connected as I wanted to be. Breakfasts, smoothies, snacks (order the hummus!) and dinners were all hearty and healthy, served up by staff that are incredibly sweet and accommodating.
Antigua (meaning ‘ancient’ in Spanish) should be on everyone’s bucket list. For all its impressively-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture, and ruins of colonial churches, the city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Shake off the jet-lag and start your day with coffee and some lively people watching in Parque Central. After admiring the grand Cathedral of San Jose, tour other spiritual sites like La Merced Church, Santo Domingo Monaste, and La Recolección Architectural Complex.
Also renowned for chocolate makers, stop in for a lunch and learn how the job gets done at Fernando’s Kaffee (7a Avenida Norte). Baristas will happily show you the coffee-roasting and chocolate-making rooms. Just ask!
Properly fuelled up, you will be keen to shop all the locally-made textiles, toys and tiles that stock the shelves at Nim P’ot (5a Avienda Norte 29).
Afternoons can be spent casually strolling the many art galleries, or hiking up to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) – about 30 minutes north from the city centre.
While on Lake Atitlan, take your pick from quaint villages around the lake. San Marcos La Laguna, San Pedro and San Juan each offer something special. The latter is known for its galleries and weavers. Or simply skip back to Panajachel for larger markets and shopping on Calle Sant Andare.
I spent most of my time in San Marcos and can highly recommend breezy morning yoga classes at the Kaivalya Yoga School & Hostel, as well as a massage with Stephanie at Hotel Aaculaax (pronounced Aqua-lash).
For a spectacular guided hike to Indian Nose, Lonely Planet suggests making arrangements with Excursion Big Foot, based in San Pedro.
EAT + DRINK
Antigua is filled with a romantic allure that’s completely palpable; and the restaurants play up these assets. Indulge in the delicious morning, noon and night at El Convento. Welten is a magical spot that serves international fare. For real Guatemalan fun, try Porque No? (2a Avenida Sur 9a). After dinner, take your group for a wander and enjoy the drinks with a view at Cafe Sky (1a Avenida Sur #15) or allow yourselves to be pulled into lively joints like La Peña de Sol Latino for soulful local music.
Around the lake, one should be a bit picky on where to eat. If not staying at Casa del Mundo, then be sure to head over for one of their hearty, healthy breakfasts. Otherwise, most establishments can be found on the road that leads to the main dock in each village. In San Marcos, Johnny’s Cafe does fresh juices and a fine soy latte, while Moonfish Cafe has you vegging out on a locally-sourced menu that includes pizza, nachos and burritos.
At night, check out Blind Lemon’s for drinks and snacks served with a jazzy soundtrack.
For something decidedly upscale, boat over to Laguna Lodge for sunset cocktails and dinner.
Is it safe? Antigua proper is safe and walkable by day and night; although one should carry valuables inconspicuously and never go it alone. Same goes around the lake.
When is the best time to go? I enjoyed the back half of February in Guatemala very much, but word is June through August is prime time on Lake Atitan. Antigua’s colourful Catholic processions during Easter are a site to savour under guaranteed warm weather.
As always, you can find more photos on this, and details on many other destinations, at TheTravelPresse.com.