Guatemala Exceeded Our Expectations

Martha Cohen at Tikal, Guatemala
Martha Cohen at Tikal

I recently returned from a family and working vacation in Guatemala, where we traveled as guests of INGUAT, the country’s tourism promotion department.  Guatemala vastly exceeded our expectations!  The people were friendly, the Mayan and Spanish colonial histories were fascinating, and the landscapes were breathtaking.

We began our adventure in El Peten, the jungle-covered lowlands in the north of the country, about one hour by plane from Guatemala City.  This area is considered the cradle of the Mayan civilization, and the main attractions are the numerous Mayan ruins, including Tikal.  Tikal is a huge complex, located in the middle of the rainforest.  Its central city occupied six square miles and included over 4,000 buildings.  Temple IV, at 213 feet, is the tallest building in Tikal, and the second highest pre-Colombian building after La Danta at El Mirador.  The highlight of my visit to Tikal was the view from the top of Temple IV of Temples I, II, and V peeking through the canopy, with the sound of howler monkeys in the background.

After El Peten, we traveled from Guatemala City to Antigua, the former Spanish Colonial capital, which was destroyed by an Earthquake in 1773.  This caused the Spanish to relocate the capital to Guatemala City.  Antigua’s colonial character has been maintained by renovations throughout the years, and it was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.  It is surrounded by three large volcanoes, has cobblestone streets, and numerous Spanish-language schools, making it a hub for tourists.  The city is also known for its weekly processions during the forty days of Lent leading up to Holy Week.  We enjoyed people watching in Parque Central, taking a horse drawn carriage ride back to our hotel, and witnessing the creation of sawdust carpets lining the path of one of the processions during our visit.

On the way from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, we stopped at the Iximche archaeological site, which consists of four ceremonial plazas, temple structures up to 33 feet tall, and ball courts.  Iximche is still an important ceremonial site for the local Mayan’s and we observed one of the ceremonies while we were there.

Lake Atitlan, our last stop, is one of the most spectacular natural settings that I have ever seen.  It is a deep blue lake formed by a caldera (collapsed volcano), surrounded by steep cliffs and three immense volcanoes at the southern end of the lake.  The main village on the lake is Panajachel, and there are a number of other Mayan villages around the lake, each with its own unique charm.  We crossed the lake by boat from Santa Catarina Palopo to visit Santiago de Atitlan, the largest village.  Here, we learned about the tocayol (women’s traditional headdress), Maximon, a deity of mixed Mayan and Catholic origins, and shopped for arts and crafts.

I want to thank INGUAT, our host during this vacation, our wonderful guide Rita Maldonado, our driver Waldemar, who got us everywhere safely, and the people of Guatemala for their warmth and hospitality.  Our vacation was truly a memorable experience.  I have uploaded our Guatemala Photo Album and several videos to our Facebook page, and will be adding Guatemala Tours to our website soon.