The best way to visit a country is with friends and family. You don’t feel so much like a tourist rushing from museum to museum, ruin to ruin, restaurant to restaurant. The pace is more relaxed and there is an opportunity to feel at home and make new acquaintances. While you may not be as lucky as we were to stay with family, you can certainly follow in our footsteps to enjoy the same visit. The people are welcoming and gracious. No one is a stranger for long.
Guatemala is the heart of the Mayan world. Descendants of these first inhabitants still maintain their own cultures and languages. The climate is always mild, averaging 75 F, usually with balmy breezes and refreshing nights.
It is a relatively small country nestled between Mexico and Belize to the north and El Salvador and Honduras on the south. Some 12 million people live in a 42,535 square mile area. Sometimes it seems that they are all driving their cars at the same time, making it more important than ever to have family or friends drive. The alternative is to take a taxi or hire a local driver which is not expensive. Guatemala City’s traffic jams make driving in Manhattan seem like a breeze. Add to that the fumes and exhaust of old diesel buses and trucks and the bane of driving in town is compounded.
A good place to start is at the park in Zone 2 called Hipodromo del Norte. An 1,800 square meter relief map of the country was created by pioneer surveyors in 1905. The map offers overlooks that orient visitors to the geography of Guatemala. Mountains and volcanoes are shown as are definitions of the Pacific and Caribbean coastal areas. The relief map, made without the use of modern technology, remains accurate even today and provides an aerial view of the country’s topography in detail.
The park is dedicated to preserving the Hormigo tree. It is from the wood of this fast disappearing tree that the Marimba, national instrument of Guatemala, is made. The park offers a nice respite from the bustling city.
Theatre is popular in Guatemala. Many productions are available throughout the year. We enjoyed a children’s performance of Alicia En El Pais de las Maravillas. It was an interpretation of Alice in Wonderland and lots of fun. There is the Teatro Nacional and musical performances depending on the time of your visit.
Downtown Guatemala City can be difficult to navigate. Parking is usually in private lots but sometimes street parking can be found. One of the nation’s president’s admired the Eiffel Tower in Paris so had a mini-steel tower constructed downtown. There is the Palacio Nacional and the splendid main square, the place from which all roads in Guatemala start. Any distance marked begins at zero from the Palacio. There is a market where most anything can be bought including typical souvenirs and hand work by native people. Evening is the best time to visit the market.
There are coffee plantations just outside the city that offer tours. Nearby is the suburban town of Pastores, cowboy boot capital of the world. If you have even a casual interest in leather goods, park the car and walk both sides of the street. Shopkeepers offer welcome and leather work is created by hand.
Take time to visit the Popol Vuh Museum on the campus of University Francisco Marroquin. Amazing examples of Mayan pottery recovered from Guatemala’s lakes are on display along with large sculptures found throughout the country.
For those that like Scuba diving Pana Divers is a modern dive training facility right across from the imposing statue of Christopher Columbus on Avenida Las Americas in Zone 14. We took a trip to dive in Lake Atitlan, about 155 kilometers northeast of the capital. The beautiful lake is at 1,562 meters altitude. Diving at that altitude means that 20% must be added to decompression tables for safe diving.
Lake Atitlan was formed thousands of years ago by the eruption of a volcano. An entire Mayan village was submerged some 2,000 years ago when the lake waters rose 30 meters. Pana Divers offer excursions to explore the lake and visit underwater walls where the Maya once lived.
The quaint Hotel Toliman is built on a hill overlooking the lake and affords beautiful views and modern conveniences in a hacienda setting with flowered gardens and a swimming pool. Nearby, right on the lake, is an organic agricultural project. Launches are available to take visitors to see farmers planting organic vegetables and spices. It is a good opportunity to buy fresh cucumbers, bananas, cabbage, yucca and arugula. The vegetables proved popular when we made meals at home back in the capital.
Tavo Juarez Garcia has his art gallery in the little town of San Lucas Toliman. Stop by for a look. His unique paintings on old sandals are eye catching. Many of his works depict the struggle of native people under previous oppressive regimes in the country.
“My cousin gave me his oil paints when I was 13 years old,” Tavo said. He has made good use of them and has been awarded many prizes for his paintings.
The drive to the capital is picturesque with 31 ‘tumulos,’ or speed bumps, before regaining the main highway. Roberto Matheu, owner of Pana Divers, has made the trip to Lake Atitlan so often that he’s counted every bump in the road.
There are little three-wheel ‘Tuk-Tuks’ everywhere. They are painted red and serve as people’s taxis. Take a ride if you will but only try them in small towns where traffic is nil since they are a far cry from being highway safe.
The Caribbean coast of Guatemala leads into the Rio Dulce River. The river runs inland to one of the largest lakes in all of Central America. Lake Izabal, unlike Atitlan, is a shallow, sea level lake with an average depth of 16 meters. There are little towns around the lake with welcoming people that are happy to take visitors on tours of their villages. Elder residents might offer a taste of black beans and tortillas cooked over open fires in their homes.
The village of Isabalito once housed a Spanish fort and watch tower. The lakefront village is a good place to begin diving excursions. Pana Divers took us to explore an old steam powered shipwreck in the lake. Visibility is limited so be prepared to see only a little of the wreck at a time.
Hotel Bahia is built right on Lake Izabal and has modern rooms with beautiful hard wood paneling. The owners, Rodolfo and Mauricio Estrada, operate an organic water buffalo ranch on the 1,700 acre farm. Take time to visit the water buffalo herd with ranchers. One day the brothers dream will come true to develop the area into a major resort with a golf course and marina.
There are certainly many ancient ruins in Guatemala. Mirador has the highest pyramid in the Americas, called the Danta, that rises 220 feet out of the jungle. Peten has Tikal. Easily reachable, about 45 minutes east of the capital, is the colonial city of Antigua.
Antigua was founded in 1543 then abandoned in 1773 when earthquakes shook the city to its foundations. There are many beautiful facades preserved in town, structures that describe the elegance of colonial life. The Hotel Casa Santo Domingo is tastefully built around a former convent. The ruins are preserved in the hotel’s gardens surrounded by courtyards and tropical plantings.
Antigua’s central square is a nice place to amble and photograph the people and Cathedral of Santiago. Nearby are jade shops and the Casa del Jade factory on Calle Oriente. Jade was the most precious stone of the Maya. They valued it more than gold. New veins discovered in the Zacapa Mountains have yielded rare orange, lavender and baby blue stones. The jade factory offers insight into the Mayan use of the stone for ritual masks and adornment.
Spanish is the official language although native peoples speak 23 languages. It is a country of contrasts. Very modern and very traditional. Very rich and very humble. It can only be discovered a little at a time. Guatemalans take time; friendships are valued more than rushed visits. There are plenty of ruins that have lasted throughout the millennia that offer insight into ancient Mayan culture. There are happy trails that await in little towns and villages with discoveries at every crossroads. Friend or stranger you will find that Guatemala is a land of smiling faces.