~ For CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2018
Guatemala is the heart of the Mayan civilization. From ancient ruins and colorful villages, a charming UNESCO city, to beautiful lakes surrounded by volcanoes, there’s a lot to see and savor in this Central American country. Besides being a popular tourist destination, it’s also emerging as a place that engages eco-travelers, Spanish language students, and offers plenty of opportunities to give back to the community.
Do Good in Antigua
Most travelers fly into Guatemala City and take a shuttle or taxi to the colonial capital of Antigua. Explore the World Heritage sites by walking the quaint cobblestone streets at your own pace for a couple of days.
Wander around the 26 churches, ruins and monasteries, pop into a bar for a drink, shop for handicrafts from all over the country at Nim Pot market, and watch families gather in the evenings at the Parque Central.
With a backdrop of three volcanoes, there are dozens of historic and modern hotels, hostels, and restaurants in the city. Tucked away on a quiet street is The Good Hotel, a contemporary European-style mansion where 100% of revenues are invested in the local community. They provide hospitality training to unemployed and single moms, educate low-income kids, and source locally produced food, including crafts, food, and coffee. The central coffee shop and garden is a cool place to hang out, catch up on emails, and meet fellow travelers.
Take a Day Trip to The Pueblo
To see the true Guatemalan way of life, get out of the city and visit the mountainside villages by local transport (called chicken bus) or taxi.
Stop to see local women weaving colorful Mayan handlooms in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Here you can purchase tablecloths, cushion covers, bags, and stoles directly from the women who make them. At San Pedro las Huertas, watch as the locals bring their clothes to a communal laundry at the main square. It provides everyone access to clean water and helps conserve it too. People watching and photo ops are abundant at Santa Maria de Jesus, one of the bigger villages, which is also a starting point for treks to Pacaya volcano.
The Valhalla Macadamia Farm is a great place to enjoy a relaxed afternoon learning about the organization that sustains local families by providing an income source through macadamia trees. They focus on reforestation, sustainable agriculture, and organic farming, and have donated over 250,000 macadamia trees to indigenous communities in Guatemala. Sit down for lunch to try their legendary macadamia pancakes, macadamia-crusted eggplant sandwiches, and hibiscus juice. Then take a nap…under a macadamia tree.
Be Eco-Friendly in Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Guatemala. To soak in the scenic beauty and authentic culture of the lakeside, it is advisable to spend at least 2-3 nights at Laguna Lodge.
The luxurious boutique hotel constructed with volcanic stone, adobe, and palm, is tucked away from the city and has rooms overlooking clear blue waters.
Practice morning yoga on the deck while watching the sunrise over the volcanoes; have an authentic campesino breakfast of mashed beans, scrambled eggs, tortillas, and plantains, hike through Laguna’s private nature reserve, and have a romantic sunset dinner at Zotz, the hotel’s vegetarian restaurant. The proprietors, Miyah and Jeffro, make a conscious effort to ensure all aspects of the hotel are sustainable and you are encouraged to read about their conservation efforts at their explorer room.
Explore Lakeside Villages
While most tourists end up in the town of Panajachel, it’s worth exploring some of the smaller towns located along Lake Atitlan via affordable public water taxis. Santiago Atitlan is the largest lakeside Maya Tzutujil traditional village with incredible views of the volcanoes, and tons of places to shop for paintings, beadwork, wood carvings, and jade jewelry. Here you can visit the statues of Maximom, the famous Catholic pagan saint who drinks and smokes.
San Juan La Laguna is a small farming and fishing village home to textile and coffee cooperatives. Learn how coffee is harvested at La Voz Coffee Cooperative, taste raw cacao at Licor Marron chocolate factory, and stock up on handmade handicrafts and textiles using traditional techniques and natural dyes from Casa Del Tejido.
Guided tours are generally available for a voluntary donation and friendly tuk-tuk drivers are happy to practice their English along the way.
~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2018