If you ask most people where they would go if they could go anywhere in Central America they would probably say Costa Rica or Belize. Both are wonderful places and a lot of fun to visit; as are Panama and the islands of Honduras. Very few people would mention Guatemala. In my opinion that’s a shame. Guatemala has a lot to offer and is one of the most interesting and diverse countries I have visited. I recently returned for the second time and was able to see Lake Atitlan; the most stunning body of water.
Lake Atitlan is located about three hours or so west of Guatemala City and two hours west of Antigua. It is a beautiful cascading lake formed in the valley between several volcanoes and mountains. The backdrop of the volcanoes is amazing, especially at sunrise and sunset. From Hotel Atitlan (where I was staying), Panajachel (one of the towns located on the edge of the lake), I could enjoy spectacular views – even from a hot tub while drinking Gallo, Guatemala’s national beer.
Hotel Atitlan is well designed, spread over several acres and lush gardens leading down to the lake where you can take a boat or a kayak, swim or paraglide. The setting is awesome, volcanoes dominate the skyline. At sunset, the sun shimmers over the water and darkens the volcanoes – an eerie scene.
After sunset, we would head into Panajachel for the surprisingly good nightlife the town offered. There was a main drag with lots of bars and very good restaurants. Our homebase bar was the Pana Rock Café – a play on the Hard Rock Café, without the cheesiness, but good food. The burritos, both chicken and beef, are among the best. You can order a bottle of whatever liquor you want, top shelf or otherwise, for less than $30.00. Just to put that into perspective, where I live in New York City, a bottle at a club or bar will cost in excess of $400.00. We lived like kings in a little village, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
We spent time in Antigua – a more touristy colonial town, an hour from Guatemala City. I had been there before. I was eager to get back because I remembered the great restaurants and fun nightlife. Antigua is the number one place for foreigners learning Spanish. There is a large American and European student population studying there, or living, trying to learn proper Spanish. Of course, there are the regular gringos who go to Antigua one day and never leave, a familiar characteristic of such a town.
Antigua is as popular, as Cuzco is in Peru – similar in design and attributes. The difference is that Cuzco provides a base camp to visit Machu Picchu; Antigua merely provides a base camp for more active volcanoes. You can see the volcanoes spewing out smoke most of the day. The highlight is when they seem to almost burp up a huge shot of smoke high into the sky – quite fascinating.
Antigua by night is as good as anywhere in Central America. The Monoloco, crazy monkey, is the place to start the night for cheap drinks with a lot of expats. Then the party moves to several bars and clubs that blast salsa until the wee hours. We certainly went to several of them and had a terrific time.
Guatemala is probably best known for the ruins and temples of Tikal in the north on the way to Belize. I highly recommend Tikal. Spend time in the highlands also, and check out Lake Atitlan and Antigua. It's a great way to get away from the States, be in another world – relaxing and exciting at the same time. You won’t be disappointed.
For more information on Guatemala, see the BootsnAll Travel Guide.