Seeing Guatemala's Classics in a New Light

Nov 1, 2021

Guatemala packs a varied punch for such a small nation. You may already know about the Central American country's top sites, from the storied history of La Antigua Guatemala to the tranquil paradise of Lake Atitlan and the centuries-old pyramids of Tikal. But Guatemala’s glories go further, with ample rewards beyond the beaten path. A leisurely 4- to 5-day tour will allow you to see the famous highlights of Guatemala while also giving you the chance to explore some of its more hidden mysteries. 

Day One: A Blend of Past and Present

A full day in La Antigua Guatemala is a peaceful way to begin an exploration of the country’s historic sites. The Arch of Santa Catalina is the city's signature attraction. Go early to beat the crowds -- and if you've got a busy day ahead, consider approaching it from the north. Coming from the south means you’ll walk past the Chocolate Museum, which may make all your other plans go out the window. 

La Merced

Pause as you pass the La Merced church and take a look above its main door. The blend of Catholic iconography and golden-white Moorish stucco hints at how the Mayan culture influenced designs from as far afield as Madrid.

When you can drag yourself away, turn right onto Quinta Avenida. Here, the Arch itself hides a passageway through which nuns could walk unseen by prying eyes. The 19th-century French clock adds a touch of excess all the more unusual for a religious edifice. Notice how pillars on either side show a hint of sag, from the weight of history and from surviving repeated earthquakes.

Through the Arch, above it and to either side, towers the Volcán de Agua, the Water Volcano. Wreathed in cloud and long dormant, it was once praised for nourishing rain and cursed for devastating floods (none of the latter for centuries, thankfully).

Eat Pepian, Repeat

Lunch in La Antigua Guatemala is synonymous with pepian, arguably the culmination of the city’s combined Mayan and Spanish heritage. This slow-cooked meat stew originated as a ceremonial dish in Mayan rituals but, much like its homeland, it has morphed into something more complex. Its pleasant spiciness blends pepitoria -- a local pumpkin spice which would make Starbucks baristas weep -- cinnamon, sesame, coriander and more.

Where the best pepian is served is a matter of hot debate. Some may point to street stalls, others to fancy eateries. Our personal recommendation is La Fonda de la Calle Real, delicious enough to convince you that Guatemala’s national dish should replace your own. Word to the wise: successfully making pepian at home from scratch is considered the sign of a master chef.

Guatemalan Handicrafts at Nim’Pot

As the sun begins to set on your day, make a final stop at Nim’Pot market. While Chichicastenango might seem more traditional, Nim’po't presents the best artists from all over Guatemala. The country’s history explodes off the shelves, Mayan symbolism jostling for attention with the Spanish colonial influence.

The pressure is off as you are left free to browse, unlike most Guatemalan markets. Work your way past ceremonial candles, wrought-iron lamps and Mayolica ceramics to the back of the market, where hundreds of masks grin down and tempt you to carry them home. 

Bargaining won’t get you far here as prices are fixed. But Nim’Po't artists are always keen to discuss the origins of their work, their historical and cultural inspirations, and their own personal touch.

Day Two: Sail to Santa Cruz La Laguna

In the morning, set off from La Antigua, and stop off at the ruins of Iximche, before continuing to the “hot spot” of Panajachel. From there, a short boat trip takes you to the loveliest village on Lake Atitlan, Santa Cruz La Laguna. With road access almost unviable, Santa Cruz La Laguna has remained relatively untouched by mass tourism. Homes and hotels are dotted up the hillside, ready to host you for a couple of nights and offering astounding views of the jungle-covered topography. The hike up from the lakefront is not excessively strenuous, but you might be grateful for the local tuk-tuks if you face it several times a day.

At sunset, from the right spot, the volcanoes are reflected in the azure depths of the lake, seeming ready to swallow you whole. Despite its remoteness, Santa Cruz La Laguna offers all that is needed for relaxation -- from waterside yoga classes to kayaking and plentiful hikes.

Day Three: Mayan Altars at Cerro Tzankujil

A short boat ride from Santa Cruz is the nature reserve of Cerro Tzankujil. A relatively uncrowded trail winds its way up the mountainside, allowing you to admire San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan, the trio of local volcanoes. Hiking up the hill is thirsty work, and a seven-metre dive into the lake below awaits you at the euphemistically named Trampoline lookout point.

The hike is moderately difficult but worth it: a Mayan altar awaits at the top. Villagers around the lake are slowly reviving Mayan ceremonies at such altars, and it’s worth checking local festival calendars to see if you might be in luck. Taking in a Mayan fire ceremony high above Lake Atitlan and surrounded by volcanoes is a truly unforgettable experience.

Day Four: Explore Underground Caves by Candlelight

The drive from La Antigua to Semuc Champey is a long one at six hours, but the site's natural pools are a wondrous way of washing the trail dust off upon arrival. Next, make your way down into the Kamba caves, a labyrinth of interconnected caverns with water sometimes up to chest level.  There, guides will take you in to explore by candlelight. Accompanied by dappled shadows on the rocky walls and guided by rope ladders, you can progress for around 1,000 meters, climbing up a natural underground waterfall, diving into rock pools, and ducking under mighty stalagmites. Once you make it back to the surface, a pleasant float down the Semuc Champey rock pools concludes the experience.

Day Five: The Voices of the Forest in Tikal

After a night in Semuc Champey, the temples of Tikal await. As you explore the age-old Mayan ruins, don't forget to look up:  peeking out of the treetops are thousands of animals native to the surrounding jungle. Once you have clambered down from the tree line at Temple IV, nature-loving guides will happily take you on a thrilling hike at dusk.

Woodpeckers hammer their familiar tune, toucans call out their clattering call, howler and spider monkeys compete for attention, and green macaws swoop low overhead. Even the soft earth will draw the eye as leaf-cutter ants blaze their trails. And as you turn for a last farewell to Lake Petén Itzá, the eyes of low-lying crocodiles will shine in the night before slowly sinking below the waterline.

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