basic ingredients Captivating Antigua: Located 30 miles from Guatemala City, Antigua is a picture-perfect colonial city, full of 17th and 18th century cathedrals, convents and residences. Indeed, it is Guatemala’s most popular weekend-away from the capital. Additionally, its colonial treasury has earned Antigua UNESCO World Heritage site status. A citywide restoration program has given new life to the historic buildings framing the Plaza Mayor, including the imposing Royal Palace of the Captains General and the neo-classical cathedral, next door to the Archbishop’s Palace. Along cobblestone streets, colonial homes are painted in a rainbow of colors, while historic mansions have been converted to elegant little inns, restaurants and boutiques. Antigua’s religious monuments are superb: the San Francisco church with its treasury of frescoes and paintings, richly decorated La Merced convent, and the cloisters of Las Capuchinas. Other historic buildings now house a bevy of beautiful little B&Bs and luxury inns, as well as little gourmet restaurants and superb shopping boutiques.
Sky-High Lake Atitlan: Breathakingly beautiful, mile-high Lake Atitlan is ringed with towering volcanoes, and around its shores are Indian villages whose inhabitants are direct descendants of the Cakchiquel, Tzutuhil and Quiche cultures. Visitors stay in and around the town of Panajachel, departure point for boat trips on the lake. Recently, small lodges have been added in villages around the lake. Here, active travelers head out on the lake in canoes or kayaks, and climb volcanoes. Everyone enjoys visiting the local communities, shopping for fine crafts at weekly markets and joining in the celebrations that honor local saints and deities.
Mighty Tikal: While the Roman Empire was in decline and Europe was entering the Dark Ages, the Mayan civilization in Guatemala’s great northern rainforest of El Peten was in its Golden Age. Among the largest of the early Mayan city-states, and in its ceremonial center, rose a forest of stone pyramids such as the 230-ft.-tall Temple IV, one of the tallest Mayan structures ever built. Modern-day adventurers can explore the pyramids, temples, sculptures, sacrificial altars, underground burial sites, astronomical observatories, ball courts and more at more than 20 excavated sites in El Peten—not only Tikal but Yaxchilan, Uaxactun, Ceibal, Yaxha, and more. Flores is the air gateway to the area, with flights not only from Guatemala City, but as of July 1, daily flights from Belize City on Maya Island Airways.
adding some spice There are no better places than the markets of the Maya to experience the most colorful traditions of Guatemala. Markets explode with flowers and fruits, and the most varied selection of important handicrafts. Weekly markets are magic; three come to mind—Solola on Friday, Totonicapan on Tuesday, and Chichicastenango on Thursday and Sunday.
In Central America, the area of Guatemala was indeed the center of the Mayan world, connecting city-states in what are now the neighboring countries of Belize, El Salvador and Honduras by networks of footpaths and river routes. Today, good roads in these countries make it easy to design itineraries that follow La Ruta Maya. From Antigua, go overland to the beaches of El Salvador; from Tikal, go straight north to the highlands of Belize; and from Guatemala City, follow the road to Copan. Each of these drives will take four to five hours.
new products on the shelf Upscale boutique lodgings continue to be the accommodation of choice in Guatemala. Two new ones for the road—in Antigua, El Palacio de Doña Beatriz is the latest addition to the boutique hotel scene. The luxury hotel has two master suites, five jr. suites and five villas, as well as a pool, jacuzzi, terrace with solarium, restaurant, bar, library, colonial chapel, and wireless Internet. Rooms with breakfast start at $215. Visit hotelpalaciodebeatriz.com.
On Lake Atitlan, the new Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort, overlooking the lake and volcanoes, is located outside the village of Santa Cruz Laguna and a 15-minute boat ride from Panajachal. There are seven indigenous suites, as well as a spa featuring native rejuvenation and relaxation treatments and a spa pool. Imaginative vegetarian meals are the order of the day, and guests have the use of kayaks, canoes, and snorkeling equipment. Rooms are priced from $225, and include breakfast, high tea and boat transfer. Visit lagunalodgeatitlan.com.
Capital city: Guatemala City
International airport: La Aurora International Airport (Guatemala City)
Nonstop air service from the U.S.: American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Spirit Airlines, Taca, US Airways
Domestic airline: Taca
Entry requirements: Valid U.S. passport
International departure tax: $30
Tourist information: Guatemala is a member of the Centroamerica4, with a marketing office in Miami, (866) 597-2286