Discovering Guatemala

August 14, 2015 Updated: September 7, 2015

Guatemala is a small country bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the southwest and the Caribbean to the east. It is distinguished by its steep volcanoes, vast rainforests, and ancient Mayan sites. 

Despite the fact that it is Central America’s most populous state, the atmosphere in Guatemala is relaxed and the people are friendly and helpful.  

Guatemala City, home to the stately National Palace, has its own rendition of the Eiffel Tower, although traffic makes it difficult to stop and take photographs. In fact, it requires a certain daring to drive in the traffic-clogged city, so it might be better to take a taxi to where you want to go and then proceed on foot.

The national instrument, the Marimba, is enthralling when played by Hacienda Real’s skilled entertainers.

If you like to shop, try the many wares offered by indigenous vendors in the main square in front of the National Palace. Bargains can be had with a bit of bartering. It is expected that the first price will always be higher than what you are expected to pay.

Outside the city in Tecpán, horse lovers should be sure to make reservations at Finca Pasajinak, a dairy farm that produces some of the best cheeses in the Americas. It is owned by Manuel and Regina Marroquin, who keep 15 Peruvian gaited horses and offer rides into the mountains. 

There, the vistas of volcanoes are among the most glorious from anywhere in the country. Riding can be adjusted for any level of experience. However, accomplished riders will be thrilled with water crossings, mountain paths, and forested valleys.

A great way to spend the day would be to ride in the morning, then have lunch at the restaurant, walk the grounds, return to watch Finca Pasajinak’s 500 Jersey cows come in for milking, then ride again in evening with the cool of mountain air refreshing in the pastoral setting of the ranch.

The Marroquin family also own Guatemala City’s Hacienda Real, a sprawling restaurant and entertainment complex that presents live musical entertainment on weekends. The national instrument, the Marimba, is enthralling when played by Hacienda Real’s skilled entertainers. The restaurant’s open grill offers many specialties that tempt the palate. 

Speaking of food, restaurants serve exotic tropical fruit fresh with every meal. And Guatemalan coffee is nothing short of superb.

From Fishing to Diving

Guatemala offers the best billfish fishing in the world. At Pacific Fins Resort & Marina, a modern sport fishing resort on the coast where English is spoken by everyone, charter boat captains take guests 40 miles out into the deep Pacific Ocean in quest of big fish. Sailfish and marlin are caught in great numbers. 

Guatemala has catch-and-release only sport fishing. According to Niels Erichsen, the managing partner of Pacific Fins, one of their boats catches and releases 20 sailfish on any given day.

The deep blue depths of Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan Highlands are a favourite of scuba divers. The water is refreshing for swimmers too, although the lake’s cold temperatures require wetsuits and hoods if one wants to penetrate its depths.

Divers will find a modern teaching facility at Water Quest, which offers everything from introductory scuba courses to technical diving. Excursions to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts can be arranged through Water Quest, as well as trips to the Bay Islands of Honduras for whale shark-watching expeditions.

For those wishing to snorkel and explore the mangroves on the Pacific side, Antonio Flores operates a launch service out of the small fishing port of Aldes Barra el Jiote. The Flores family offers rustic accommodations on a nearby island where there is always a breeze off the ocean and the long beach is ideal for secluded walks. 

Antigua

In the old colonial capital of Antigua, about an hour’s drive from Guatemala City, there are lots of interesting places to visit, one of the most unique being the gardens and museum of Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. It was a nunnery during colonial times, but two earthquakes shattered its stone buildings. 

Careful excavation by the hotel, in trust for the people of Guatemala, created an amazingly beautiful garden with exotic plantings amidst a modern hotel and restaurant. The architecture from the baroque era of ancestral America was preserved, and the hotel displays a number of artifacts from that time.

Jadeite producer Jade Maya offers free tours of their jade museum. Jadeite is only found in any quantity in two countries: Burma and Guatemala. Jadeite is the most precious form of jade and was prized by the ancient Maya kings and Chinese emperors alike.

Jay and Mary Lou Ridinger, American anthropologists, came to Guatemala in 1974 to locate the source of Maya jade and subsequently set about re-establishing a jade carving industry in Guatemala. 

Although Jay died of cancer in 2009, Mary Lou, with son Jake, continues the tradition of Maya jade making from rocks they surface-collect in a sustainable way on land they own. The jade is cut and polished at their factory by native Guatemalan workers who are recovering and preserving the carving traditions of their ancestors. 

Jade Maya’s retail store offers jadeite copies of traditional Maya figures along with exquisite jewellery made from the hard, precious stone.

Jade Maya is an amazing place to visit. Leave time to enjoy one of Mary Lou’s programs about jade. Her vast knowledge of Mayan culture and the historical importance of jade along with the extraordinary museum displays are worth a trip to Antigua alone. 

John Christopher Fine, a marine biologist with two doctoral degrees, has authored 24 books, some dealing with ocean pollution. He is a liaison officer of the United Nations Environment Program and the Confederation Mondiale for ocean matters, and has received international recognition for his pioneering work investigating toxic waste contamination of land and water.

MORE INFORMATION

Jade Maya: jademaya.com
Pacific Fins: pacificfins.com.gt
Antonio Flores launch service: 502 5584 8141
Water Quest: 502 2365 7254
Finca Pasajinak: 502 5301 0565
Hotel Casa Santo Domingo: casasantodomingo.com.gt