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April 21, 2016 / oneworld82

Maya, Aguacates, and Colonial History – A four day trip to Guatemala

After having our only child, our beautiful Olivia, we have been very busy taking care of her. Long nights marked by interrupted sleep and not much “husband and wife” time called for some “us” time for Thuy and myself – we love our daughter to death but the more rested we feel, the better we can tend to her. So, also thanks to Olivia’s grandparents who graciously volunteered to take her of her for a weekend, we decided to head to Guatemala for an adventure-packed, fun-filled, and relaxation-heavy long weekend.

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Guatemala has long been on my laundry list of places to visit in Central America. Deeply rooted into Mayan culture, this small yet interesting country has a lot to offer to visitors – in fact, I could easily fill 3 weeks if I could across this incredible, still-hidden gem! From colonial architecture and history in Antigua, to majestic volcanos, to the mountainous beauty of Lake Atitlan, to the lazy beaches of the Caribbean Sea, Guatemala has something for everyone. It helps that it’s touristic infrastructure is well developed, and prices still low.
As we only had three full days to spend in the country, I had to carefully plan each day to make we maximized yet not overloaded our stay.

We would fly into Guatemala City on an evening Friday American Airlines flight from Dallas; for the the first two nights we would be based at the Westin Hotel Camino Real, one of the better properties in the capital, conveniently located in “Zona 10”, only minutes away from the airport.

Ready to go!

Ready to go!

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On Saturday we would do a full-day trip to “El Peten”, the northernmost part of the country, to visit the incredible, jungle-set Mayan city of Tikal (with a detour to the lake town of Flores).

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On Sunday, the plan called for hiking up the active Pacaya volcano for some lava shots, before moving on to Antigua for a day and a half of relaxation, exploration, and pampering.

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If this sounds tiring, well, it was – but it was also exciting and, in the end, relaxing. Just what we needed to recharge our mental batteries and, why not, to learn how to miss our incredibly-beautiful baby daughter.

Hope you are ready for the trip!! :

Guatemala, we were saying. What a beautiful country! Mountains, lakes, kind people, great food. This country really has it all. Including a troubled past, and a not-so-perfect present. Because Guatemala has a long history of dictatorships dating as far back as independence from Spain in 1821, which was particularly cruent in the aftermath of WWII, when the struggle between the local Maya population and the dominant Criollos (people of Spanish descent) intensified on the backbone of a wider anti-communist strife across the Americas. Yet, if you visit today, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a country that had a very peaceful past and harmonious social relationships. Because Guatemala City is a growing modern capital city, with shopping malls and skyscrapers; luxury hotels and upscale eateries dot Zona Nueve, the business district of town only a couple of miles away from the international airport.

We stayed at the Westin Camino Real, a good upscale business hotel that had everything we needed – including a central location and cheap in-room breakfast.

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In room breakfast

In room breakfast

The city is surrounded by volcanoes and mountains and lakes (although apparently the lakes are quite polluted!), and while driving through the city you can see slums and poorer areas (and the ever-present trash by roadside), Guatemala doesn’t look like a country that was immersed in civil war only 20 years ago.

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One striking feature of Guatemala City is the abundance of good-quality restaurants. On our first night we had dinner at the acclaimed Hacienda Real, to try a typical parrillada. With lomito, chorizo, pollo, and some more meat – all washed down by a good local beer and complemented by some good sides – the dinner was a real feast, a true homage to long-gone Spanish vaqueros that used to be the country’s ruling elite.

Hacienda Real

Hacienda Real

Parrillada

Parrillada

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Cerveza Gallo

Cerveza Gallo

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Yet, great local cuisine comes in the form of authentic Mayan food. As you would find on a visit to Guatemala, aguacate (avocado) is king here. You would have the best guacamole you can think of, as well as some great local specialties such as avocado soup or jocon, a guacamole-based chicken stew served with either tortillas or rice; but also better known dishes as tamales or chicken tortilla soup will surprise you with an array of new, unusual flavors. Guatemala was really a culinary surprise, and we definitely enjoyed some good meals out there.

Jacon

Jacon

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And of course, when you eat so much you then need to burn it off – one way or another. Thankfully, this mountainous country offers plenty of volcanoes to climb and – in its north-Eastern reach – Maya ruins and tropical rainforest to explore.

Take Tikal, for instance. This extraordinary Mayan site – located near the town of Flores in the Northern Peten province – is one of the most stunning archaeological sites I have ever visited. Immersed in the thick Yucatan jungle (and only one hour away from Flores, which in turn is only a short 45 minutes flight from Guatemala City), you can really feel like a XIX century explorer as you wander through these majestic and remarkably well-preserved ruins.

Aviance DH-8 to Tikal - pretty good

Aviance DH-9 to Tikal – pretty good

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Tikal boasts a  number of impressive structures, but the central square is nothing short of impressive, thanks in great part to the perfectly-preserved Templo del Gran Jaguaro. And indeed jaguars call this area home (although it’s hard to spot them during the day), as howling monkeys do (take a look here!): their screams are a distinctive feature of the park, and their sight is surely interesting.

Templo del Gran Jaguaro

Templo del Gran Jaguaro

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Has Peten anything else to offer? Well, we did not stay in the area for long, but the Peten Itza lake is charming and dotted by a few hotels/resorts, while the town of Flores – nestled on a small island within the lake – is a charming little town with a backpacker feel to it (think good bars and cheap eateries).

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If you are visiting Tikal, you should plan to spend at least a couple of hours wandering around town, which is also the jumping point to Belize, as plenty of buses and van leave for Belize City, only 4 hours away.

Road to Tikal

Road to Tikal

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Cocoa

Cocoa

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Yet, when it comes to nature, Guatemala’s best features are arguably its mountains and volcanoes.

So many!

So many!

The country boasts dozens of volcanoes, many of which still active. Four of them lie around Guatemala City, Pacaya (the closest), Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. The latter is the highest and most impressive, but it’s best visited on a two-days hike. So, in the interest of time, we opted to visit Pacaya, part of a recently-opened national park and only half a hour away from the capital city.

View over Guatemala City

View over Guatemala City

Ascending the volcano takes all but a couple of hours through a somewhat dense tropical vegetation. I will digress one second here, to briefly talk about Mr. McKinney: this is a local man who has climbed this mountain more than 1,000 times in his lifetime (and after whom one of the peaks is named). We spotted him on our way up, and one can’t help but admire such a strong spirit!

Mr McKinney

Mr McKinney

Our local guide was very knowledgeable, and helped us learn a lot about the local flora; the fauna has pretty much disappeared recently, following the latest eruption in 2014, when lava flowed all the way down the slopes of the mountain. While this is not the case anymore, the main solidified lava bad just under the peak is still warm and emitting hot vents – the perfect place where to cook marshmallows!

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Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango

Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango

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Rustic toilets

Rustic toilets

Pacaya

Pacaya

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Cooking marshmallows :)

Cooking marshmallows 🙂

The all climb and descent took around five enjoyable hours, a perfect day trip from either Guatemala City or Antigua.

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————

As you can see, I have already shown you a few cool things that Guatemala has to offer – from nature to archaeology. Yet, it gets better than that, as the true highlight of this trip (and, likely, of all Guatemala) is La Antigua, the old capital city of the Spanish colony of Guatemala. This marvelous city was vastly destroyed during an earthquake in the latter part of the 18th century, after which the capital was moved to today’s Guatemala City – a short 30 minutes away by car today. Still, a lot remains to be seen in what is most likely one of the best preserved and most scenic colonial town in Central America.

Cathedral in Antigua

Cathedral in Antigua

Early morning life

Early morning life

It doesn’t hurt that we treated ourselves with a stay at the Museo Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, a remarkable former convent featuring centuries-old statues in the spacious, splendidly appointed rooms. This hotel – visited by many celebrities – is possibly the most fascinating boutique hotel I have ever visited. As we booked a room in the convent section (I took a video, linked here), we were handed the keys to a spacious deluxe room (conventual room) with large living area, two live fireplaces, two balconies facing the main pool, and private Jacuzzi.

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Does it get any better than this? Well yes, it does, as the hotel boasts a renowned spa where we got a top-notch couple massage and which is a true oasis of tranquility, with its private outdoor pool and – most stunning of all – a huge Jacuzzi pool in the basement of the building (I never seen anything quite as stunning as this!).

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The hotel grounds are spectacular and very well kept.

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Breakfast was, needless to say, outstanding, featuring a vast array of international and local dishes, including an awesome tamales station and the best refried beans I have ever had.

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Antigua’s life revolves around Parque Central, which is bordered by the Cathedral and the stunning Palacio del Ayuntamiento. This area is frolicking not only with locals but also with colorfully-dressed Mayans – mostly mothers carrying their children selling trinkets to tourists.

Palacio del Ayuntamiento

Palacio del Ayuntamiento

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Antigua is a compact town, and only minutes away, through the perfectly-restored Arco de Santa Catalina (used by nuns to cross the street without being seen) you arrive to the wonderful Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced.

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We visited during Lent (Quaresma), a particularly important time of the year in Guatemala in general and in Antigua in particular, with lots of processions and events going on every week. One such event took place the day we arrived in town (although we narrowly missed it), characterized by colorful beds of painted sand laid out around town. Some of them were preserved in the churches around town, and let me tell you: they were brilliant!

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The historic sites around town are hard to count, and simply stunning.

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Antigua features also some great restaurants, boasting everything from sushi to local Mayan cuisine (delicious, by the way).

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After a wonderful day exploring Antigua we headed back to Guatemala City, where we spent a short night before taking an early morning flight back to Dallas. We got upgraded to business class, and the breakfast served was decent enough (a couple of bloody mary’s helped, of course).

Very good omelette with local flavors

Very good omelette with local flavors

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Splendid view over the volcanoes

Splendid view over the volcanoes

Last but not least, tacos: as you can imagine, the good stuff is ubiquitous here, and the quality pretty good overall. Portions tend to be big, so beware!

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While this was a short trip, we thoroughly enjoyed Guatemala and we made a point to come back to explore more of it, namely Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlan. The people, the nature, the culture, the food – everything stood out in what turned out to be a safe and very enjoyable, easy-to-visit country.

If you head this way, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

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