An awesome inventory of temples and pyramids left behind by the ancient Maya. Horizons of sacred volcanoes mirrored in pristine lakes. Quiche Maya people weaving and wearing traditional dress. Well-preserved colonial towns and villages. Weekly markets and folkloric festivals—a kaleidoscope of color.
Without doubt, few countries in the Americas can match Guatemala in cultural attractions. At the same time, Pedro Duchez, director, Guatemala Tourism Board (INGUAT), points out that “we are focusing on positioning the country in new sectors. While one of our greatest strengths and appeals is the living legacy of the Maya culture, there are many other experiences to enjoy in Guatemala.”
Last year, travel agents learned about the various ways to plan and sell leisure travel to Guatemala during the tourism board’s training sessions in Toronto, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami; this year’s seminar schedule kicks off in Dallas and Houston in May.
Adventure tourism—volcano trekking, white-water rafting, mountain biking, spelunking, sportfishing, and kayaking—is one avenue that Guatemala is particularly keen on promoting, notes Duchez.
Duchez is interested in promoting another kind of adventure product: community tourism. “We want visitors to not only know our archaeological sites but also to know our people. We continue to push the Maya Trek, a trek in the Buenavista Valley, renowned as the main route of trade and communication in the El Peten rainforest during the pre-Hispanic eras. The 3-day trek begins in the community of Cruce dos Aguadas within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which protects both wildlife and the important Maya city of El Zotz, and ends at Tikal National Park. This is a trip for the well-conditioned, true adventurer, for each day, walking time runs six or seven hours (there is an option of using horses part way), and accompanying members of the community provide fully trained guides, as well as food, water and full campsite setup (visitguatemala.com/about-mayatrek).
Less rigorous are the activities within communities that many U.S. tour operators incorporate into itineraries: tours to learn the workings of coffee farms, visits to banana and cacao plantations, chocolate workshops—bean to bar—cooking lessons with local chefs in Guatemala City and Antigua, weaving workshops in the villages around Lake Atitlan, and language classes. A few tour operators offer homestays; for instance, Adventure Life has a home-stay package in the village of Totonicapan in the highlands around Quetzaltenango.
Additionally, the hotel sector is expanding with both international brands and boutique properties. For instance, Guatemala City will be home to a Courtyard by Marriott and a Hyatt Place, both scheduled to debut in 2016. And Duchez outlines briefly that five international airlines—American Airlines, Avianca, Delta Air Lines, Spirit Airlines, and United—link Guatemala City with nonstop flights to eight U.S. cities; the newest of these are the direct flights to New York and Washington, D.C.
Latour offers an 8-day Magic and Mystery of the Mayas by Private Car that visits Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Tikal and Gautemala City. It includes activities that offer travelers the chance to hang with the locals such as visiting some of Comalapa’s local painters who continue the tradition of naïve painting; touring the San Juan La Laguna Village local textile cooperative to see how they still color with natural dyes, and visiting the home and workshop of local artists in the village; and touring the Azotea Coffee Farm and Museum.
International cruise business plays an important role in the overall growth of the country’s tourism industry. Guatemala has made numerous in-country investments to upgrade the cruise experience, including adding and training more personnel to attend to visitors arriving by sea. The training focused on offering custom-tailored services to visitors once on the ground, as well as improving security procedures. Other investments were directed at improving the infrastructure of the ports’ terminals, greatly enhancing first impressions for disembarking passengers.
According to Duchez, this past season Guatemala welcomed over 120,000 cruise passengers, which translates to an approximate 11 percent increase. This coming season, Guatemala expects to welcome 79 cruises, with 16 more cruises in the process of being negotiated. Thirty-two will operate out of the Santo Tomas de Castillo port located in Izabal on the Caribbean coast, where passengers most frequently explore the Rio Dulce area by small boat and visit Quirigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site; 42 of the cruises will disembark at the Puerto Quetzal port on the Pacific coast, signing up for day excursions to colonial Antigua and even day charter flights to Tikal.
Cruise lines currently operating to Guatemala include Azamara Club Cruises, Carnival Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America, Regent, Oceania and Royal Caribbean.
Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue archive): Checking-In to Latin America (December 2014)