From the moment I step off the plane at a new destination, something will immediately collide with one of my senses forever holding that link in my memory. In India, it’s the smell; in Vietnam, the thick humid air that sticks to your skin, and in Las Vegas, the big city bright lights that seemingly blind you before you even land. In Guatemala, I was overwhelmed by the colours — the clothing, the food, and the landscape—everything explodes with an intense rainbow of shades.
Of the close to 15 million people, approximately half are of Mayan descent. The majority of them still wear traditional clothing and jewelry, not for the benefit of the tourist taking a photo, but out of pride for their heritage. As a result, visitors are treated to a visual feast of colours at every turn. Featuring everything from towns filled with historical monuments, to plateaus sitting at over seven thousand feet with stunning views of the lush highlands, to a coastline boasting black sand beaches lined with palm trees—Guatemala is truly a land of contrasts that provides layer upon layer of depth simply waiting to be peeled back.
Our first stop was the charming town of Antigua, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.The relatively short 45 minute shuttle from the airport at Guatemala City makes it an extremely accessible stop for many visitors and is arguably the most popular tourist destination within Guatemala. We happened to be there in low season so although tourist numbers were minimal, you could certainly tell it was normally much busier judging by the number of restaurants and local artisans selling their wares. Having once been the colonial Spanish capital of Central America, the architectural influence echoes its gloried past and is perfectly enhanced by cobblestone streets.
The city is fairly easy to navigate with the distinct Parque Central in the middle and most of the streets running in a grid style from there. We spent a wonderful day exploring historic buildings, churches, courtyards and ruins, stopped at a local restaurant to sample the Guatemalan cuisine, listened to street buskers playing traditional music, and even discovered a quaint little wine bar run by an ex-pat from Colorado who now calls Antigua home. The feel of the town is very laid back although you will have your share of locals approaching you to sell you a myriad of souvenirs. (A polite “no, gracias” is more than enough to make them move on and we certainly never felt overwhelmed or bothered by any means).
In stark contrast to Antigua, Tecpán is a far less elaborate town where dirt roads replace cobblestone and tourists are fairly rare. But what you give up in creature comforts, you gain in a greater level of authenticity. It is typical to see farmers herding their cattle across the street while locals look at you giggling as their own curiosity is piqued by your presence.
The local market day bustles with a fantastic energy as various townspeople from surrounding areas come to buy and sell goods ranging from fruits and vegetables, to live chickens and crabs, to clothing and handmade wooden furniture. Our tour leader Chris Buckshaw from El Camino Voluntours made a bold claim that despite the town’s simplicity, we would experience the best cheesecake in the world at his favourite local café. He managed to win that bet, which of course, resulted in return visits each night we were there and a souvenir of a few pounds we were happy to bring home.
Just a few kilometres away from Tecpán lay the ruins of Iximché, the former capital of the Kaqchikel Mayan kingdom. Today it is a GuatemalanNational Monument featuring remnants of temples and small pyramids. Ceremonies are still conducted there by local descendants and the grounds are certainly worth a visit. Depending on your political affiliation, an amusing story was shared with us where following a visit to the ruins by George W. Bush in the early 2000’s, the locals conducted a ceremony at the site to cleanse his ‘negative’ energy.
From Tecpán we made our way up to the town of Chichicastenango approximately 90 minutes drive away. Sitting at an altitude of close to 6,500 feet there are some stunning views of its surrounding mountains and valleys as you approach. Its greatest claim to fame is that it hosts one of the largest indigenous markets in Central America on Thursdays and Sundays. Literally hundreds of stalls line the streets sending you through a maze of vendors selling just about everything including textiles, pottery, flowers and food. It was by far the most touristy of all the places we visited and at times was overwhelming in both crowd size and items being offered. Consequently, this is one place you definitely keep a hand on your wallet and bags attached to your front to deter pickpockets. Interestingly enough the highlight of the city for me was when we visited the local cemetery. Even here colour is significant as hundreds upon hundreds of brightly painted mausoleums adorn the plot of land overlooking the town at one of its highest points. The only colour one hopes to avoid having painted on his or her final resting spot is red, which represents a life of shame. The Mayans don’t bury the deceased underground but rather above ground so as to be as close to god as possible resulting in some stunning looking structures that can reach quite high. Sadly we noticed many headstones from the 1960’s through 1990’s, a poignant reminder of the casualties of the Civil War where thousands of people of Mayan heritage were killed by the Guatemalan Armed Forces.
Definitely one of visual highlights of the trip was our stop at LakeAtitlán. To call it stunning would be a vast understatement and the Mayans certainly got it right when they very aptly named it with a word that translates as “the place where the rainbow gets its colours”. It sits one mile above sea level surrounded by three imposing volcanoes that give it an impressive exotic feel.
We stayed in Panajachel, an 800 year old town considered the gateway to theLake, located right on its majestic shore. My only regret is that we ran out of time and missed out on an opportunity to take a boat across and visit San Pedro. But as the sun set that evening, lights representing the other communities cropped up surrounding the lake while we were treated to a stunning lightning show we witnessed from the comfort of our restaurant deck overlooking the water—truly an image that will forever be burned in my memory.
From Lake Atitlán we headed back down to Antigua in the morning to catch a shuttle to the coastal town of El Hawaii. Once again we found ourselves peeling back yet another layer of Guatemala’s amazing diversity revealing a distinct contrast to everything else we’d seen so far. The volcanic views and cavernous valleys were replaced with fields of sugar cane and rows of palm trees. The massive drop in altitude turned the cool, crisp air into a heat and humidity of tropical proportions.
Looking to support local and sustainable businesses where possible while on our travels, we had been recommended a 13 room eco-lodge which, to our wonderful surprise, was situated right on the black sand beach that stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions. Amongst this landscape reminiscent of the “real”Hawaii, our lodging was fittingly named The Honolulu. Despite it being low season, the owner Lygia took incredible care of us ensuring we had everything we needed and provided us with great insight into the local community. The dinner she cooked for us one evening will forever stand out as one of the best meals I’ve ever had featuring homemade fish stew, fresh Ceviche, prawns with a tamarind chipotle sauce and a plate full of local plantains. And as tempting as a long walk on the beach is, be warned you need to do it before 10am or after sunset as the black sand simply gets too hot midday even for Lucas, Lygia’s 7 month old Beagle who was always up for a walk. Likewise, as inviting as the crashing waves and warm water look, the undertow is strong and even the most experienced swimmers are warned to stay close to shore and have someone keeping an eye on them.
Our last excursion on this incredible trip was a wooden boat trip through the local mangroves. We spent two hours weaving in and out of canals, ducking branches, and spotting geckos all the while being serenaded by dozens of different bird calls…a fitting way to end a very special trip.
As a frequent traveller to more than 65 countries, Guatemala easily stands out in my mind as one of the most memorable destinations yet. The beauty and diversity of the landscape is surpassed only by the friendliness and welcoming nature of the people. Less well known than its Central American neighbours Costa Rica or Nicaragua, it is a relatively easy place to reach from most Canadian cities and it won’t be long before it becomes as equally popular.
I was lucky enough to experience Guatemala while on my first trip with GoVoluntouring guided by the incredible Chris Buckshaw from El Camino Voluntours. A massive thank you to both for introducing me to this amazing country. And while this blog focuses solely on the sightseeing aspect of my Voluntourism experience, stay tuned for the next ones centered on the two projects we visited: The Project Somos Children’s Village and the ARCAS Sea Turtle Conservation Program.
Allison Wallace is the Media & Communications Manager at Flight Centre. For more information about GoVoluntouring projects or booking your next experience, visit the GoVoluntouring website with your enquiry.