Travel Guatemala: Antigua, Tikal & Lake Atitlan
A basic trip to Guatemala starts in the Spanish colonial capital of Antigua; a forty five minute drive from the airport in Guatemala City. After a day or two there you fly to Flores to take a tour of Tikal, then return to Antigua. Most travelers then take a van to Lake Atitlan by way of Chichicastenango.
Needless to say, the basic trip suggested above is by no means the only way to go; however it is a good starting point for you to plan your trip. Keep in mind that market day in Chichicastenango is Thursday and Sunday so you need to schedule your trip to or from Lake Atitlan on one of those two days. A visit to Tikal can be the last leg of your trip as easily as the first. Also you may want to go to the beach, climb a volcano, visit a Mayan shaman, see a Quetzal bird, go deep sea fishing and/or visit a community project. Travel Guatemala and explore all that and much, much more!
Founded in 1543, Antigua was built in an era of fantastic colonial wealth. Three enormous volcanoes (Agua, Fuego and Acatenango) surround a city of great charm and grace. History and geology have combined to create one of the world's great travel destinations.
Earthquakes eventually forced moving the capital of Guatemala from Antigua to its present location in Guatemala City. The quakes that led to Antigua being all but abandoned in 1773, have largely prevented development since and, ironically, helped preserve the beauty and style the city enjoys today.
There are wonderful museums, parks, hotels, shops and restaurants. Antigua is small and the best way to get around it's colorful, cobblestone streets is to walk.
Van services are plentiful. They will pick you up at your hotel and drop you off at the door of your next destination.
Guatemala City has for the most part, avoided the third-world urban horrors of Mexico City or Bangkok, but it is still a noisy, busy modern capital of a developing country. While there are some great museums, the main reason one comes to Guatemala City is to fly in and out of the country.
A dozen small Mayan villages squeeze between the lake shore and the towering volcanoes and steep cliffs that contain the lake. Plentiful flowers and colorful Mayan dress garnish deep blue water and green volcanoes. A more exotic setting would be hard to imagine.
"Pana" as it is known locally, is the place to shop in the region. Hotels and restaurants range from primitive to first class, with everything in between.
Not that long ago Panajachel was pretty much the only village offering travel services on the lake ...primitive or otherwise. But over the last fifteen years some wonderful hotels have sprung up around the lake. The easiest, if not the only, way to get to most of them is by boat from Panajachel.
The Chichicastenango market on Thursdays and Sundays is not to be missed. It is unrivaled in North America as a native market. "Chichi" is a popular destination. One moment all one hears is Italian, French, German, English and vendors hawking whatever in shrill Spanish. Walk three meters away and only Quiche is heard. Be sure to make the effort to walk that extra three meters.
There are a couple of good hotels in Chichicastenango. One night in Chichi before or after market day is a not a bad idea, but many come to see the market just for the day. Van services coming from Antigua will drop you off in Chichi in the morning and take you on to Panajachel in the afternoon, or vica-versa.
New highways have made Guatemala's Pacific coast easily accessible. For a couple of reasons Monterrico has developed into the place to be on the coast.
Secondly, Monterrico is in the middle of a mangrove swamp. You even have to take a ferry to get there. Better yet, it is right next to the Monterrico Nature Reserve. There is an endangered sea turtle hatchery and a small local zoo. Plus you can take a tour through the swamp in a small boat.
"Xela", or Quetzaltenango, is the largest Mayan city in the country. About eighty years ago it went through a neo-classic phase and Greek columns abound. Xela is close to Almolonga and Zunil on one side, and Totonicapan and San Francisco El Alto on the other; all of which are well worth visiting.
The ancient archaeological Mayan site of Tikal is probably Guatemala best know feature, and with good reason. Its steep pyramids and setting in the middle of a tropical jungle is impressive to say the least. The surrounding vegetation is full of toucans, howler monkeys, tree frogs, parrots and even jaguars.
Flores, the city nearest Tikal, has an airport and many fly there from Guatemala City. Vans do go between Flores and Antigua/Guatemala City and the road is new, but it's a long 12 hour drive. From Flores to Tikal is another hour and a half drive.
Other ruins not as well developed as Tikal, but in a way even more interesting for that very reason, are Uaxactun, Quirigua, Seibal, Yaxchilan, Copan, The Mirador Basin and Sayaxche.