Culture and color of Guatemala

By Charles Burke
This item appears on page 33 of the October 2012 issue.

Eager to explore Guatemala, my wife, Gail, and I chose Caravan Tours (Chicago, IL; 800/227-2826) for our trip, Jan. 2-11, 2012.

We arrived in Guatemala City for two nights at the centrally located Barceló Hotel, with comfortable rooms, a great pool and good food (served buffet style).

With our guide, Belinda Sanchez, on our first day we traveled by motorcoach to the National Museum of Archaeology to learn about Guatemala’s pre-Columbian history, then toured the city.

Colorfully dressed vendors in Chichicastenango. (Burke)

The next morning, with 44 passengers, we left the congestion of the city and were treated to beautiful views of the highlands as our driver, Manuel, skillfully navigated the many hairpin turns.

The market town of Chichicastenango was a place where it was necessary to stay with the group and guard any valuables, but it also offered a look at the local culture plus great photo opps.

Two more hours of travel brought us to Lake Atitlán for two nights at Hotel Atilán. A former coffee plantation, it features colonial architecture and beautiful botanical gardens, home to many macaws. Our third-floor room had a spectacular view of the lake ringed by volcanoes.

Our stay included a one-hour boat ride to the lakeside village of Santiago, where we toured the local church and visited shops and sidewalk stalls. It was fun to see the indigenous people still wearing colorful regional clothing.

On day five, we passed highland vistas and rural cemeteries with tombs painted in bright colors. We arrived at an active coffee plantation for a tour and a great lunch.

Nearby, Antigua featured beautifully restored colonial-style buildings and the first-class Porta Hotel with attractively appointed rooms.

On the morning’s walking tour, Belinda led us to a cathedral, the Fountain of Sirens, a convent and other interesting sites. After lunch, free to explore the city, we chose to listen to some street musicians.

The weather in January was wonderful — in the mid 70s, with low humidity due to the relatively high altitude (5,000 feet).

The road trip to Tikal was long. Although some of the legs of this tour were long, we were never bored, as Belinda kept us informed about local history and culture. Many of the rest and lunch stops featured small shops with local handicrafts at reasonable prices; Caravan avoided taking us to tourist traps with overpriced items.

The ecoresort Villa Maya, near Lake Petén Itzá in the Petén region, was very different from the other hotels on the tour, as it is in a 67-acre nature preserve, a true jungle setting.

There were about 15 separate villas, each consisting of four units. The rooms were spacious, had balconies and were air-conditioned. The resort offered a large outdoor pool and spa as well as an open-air restaurant overlooking the nearby lagoon.

A local guide traveled with us to the Tikal ruins, a short ride away. Tikal was really spectacular! We had previously enjoyed a visit to Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán, yet we were pleasantly surprised by the scale of this amazing ancient Mayan site, which covers several square miles.

We were able to climb to the top of several of the pyramids, many of which had wooden stairways that made the task much easier. If you can make the climb, the view of the jungle and multiple pyramids is really worth it. You could spend several days there and not be bored.

The weather there was much warmer, with temperatures in the high 80s.

The ninth and final day of the road tour took us to the well-preserved Mayan site of Quiriguá, where we saw many intricately carved stone animal figures and huge stone monoliths. In Guatemala City that evening, we enjoyed a farewell dinner.

Guatemala is a fascinating place. It has suffered in recent years from political instability, poverty and overpopulation, but the scenery, history, culture and people make it worth visiting.

Because of the high levels of poverty and crime throughout the country, we would suggest traveling with a tour group. Caravan made sure we were safe in risky areas.

Caravan did a good job of balancing sightseeing with giving people time to just relax or explore the local areas on their own when it was safe to do so. We have taken many tours over the years and found Caravan to be a well-organized company.

The land-only price for our 10-day tour was about $1,295 each, including all meals, hotels, airport transfers and entrance fees. We were satisfied with the itinerary, resorts, food and our tour guide and would travel with Caravan Tours again.

Cape Cod, MA