BEST TIME TO GO: November to May, and anytime there is a major traditional festival (say: Easter in Antigua)
FUN FACT: Just picture jungle-bound Tikal, the most impressive of the ancient Maya ceremonial cities, covering some 25 sq. miles and in its heyday occupied by more than 100,000 people
GETTING THERE: Delta flies from Atlanta and Los Angeles to Guatemala City
ENTRY DOCUMENTS: Valid passport, valid for at least six months beyond arrival
MUST-TRY FOOD: Chicken in pumpkin seed and tomato sauce (pepian), and spicy seafood soup in coconut milk (tapado) are on the menu in Kacao, the restaurant for traditional cooking in Guatemala City
BEST BUYS: Drop into the Carlos Woods Arte Antiguo y Contemporaneo gallery in Guatemala for the finest in modern and historical arts and crafts; go to the source at market in Chichicastenango (Thursday & Sunday) for superb native textiles, carved wooden masks and religious figures, ceramic wares
INFORMATION PLEASE: INGUAT—visitguatemala.com
Not only is it the transportation gateway to the rest of the country, but Guatemala City is also a cosmopolitan capital that offers a compelling mix of new shopping centers and traditional markets, fine hotels, very good restaurants, a lively nightlife and excellent museums. The latter provide an essential introduction to the antiquities and living Maya culture one discovers all over Guatemala. Among the city’s 21 zones, four of them—1, 4, 9 and 10—are home to places of particular visitor interest. On everyone’s short list of leading things to see are the stately blue-domed Metropolitan Cathedral, the ornate La Merced Church and the impressive interiors of San Francisco; three must-see museums are the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Ixchel Museum showcasing textile and weaving traditions, and the Popul Vuh Museum whose artifacts cover Guatemalan civilization from the pre-Classic period to the colonial era. Zones 9 and 10 make up the Zona Viva, an upscale neighborhood where dozens of old mansions have been converted to restaurants (Kacao and Tamarindos are good picks), nightclubs and boutiques aglow with native weavings and finely-made jewelry. Zona 10 also offers many high-end hotel choices: Real InterContinental, Westin Camino Real and Radisson Hotel & Suites are all here. Jump to Zone 1 for the family-run B&B Posada Belen Museum Inn.
To really understand, appreciate and enjoy Guatemala, head for the highlands and the weekly markets held in traditional Mayan villages: Thursday and Sunday in Chichicastenango, Saturday in Totonicapan and Todas Santos, Friday in San Francisco el Alto near Quetzaltenango and Solala at not-to-miss Lake Atitlan. Flores, an hour by air from Guatemala City, is the gateway to the Peten Rainforest and the spectacular ruins of Tikal, covering a 25-sq.-mile area. And just an hour’s drive from the capital is Antigua, a gem of a city. Saluting its fine examples of 16th and 17th century architecture, cathedrals and convents, UNESCO declared this colonial treasure house a World Heritage Site. Citywide restorations resulted in a bevy of traditional mansions turned into truly elegant inns—the most famous is probably Casa Santo Domingo.