This article originally appeared in Delta Air Lines’ 2012 Caribbean, Mexico and Latin America Travel Guide. It has been extracted from its original format. To read the full travel guide, visit the digital edition.
The front door to this Tennessee-size country is Guatemala City, a cosmopolitan capital that is well-endowed with fine hotels—Real InterContinental, for one—and good restaurants—we like the traditional dishes at Kacao—excellent museums, a lively nightlife, new shopping centers and traditional markets. Some of the city’s most impressive buildings, such as the National Palace, border the Parque Central, and the capital’s most commanding religious building is the neo-classic Metropolitan Cathedral. The prettiest of church interiors, however, are those of La Merced and San Francisco. And there is a trio of must-see museums in town: the National Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology; the Ixchel Museum, which honors the country’s weaving traditions; and the Popol Vuh Museum, whose artifacts cover Guatemalan civilization from the pre-classic period to the colonial era. Then go to the upscale neighborhood called Zona Viva where many of the old mansions now house art galleries showcasing works by contemporary Guatemalan artists, as well as boutiques that draw on native excellence in weaving, embroidery and jewelry-making.
Almost any day excursion from the capital is to a destination worthy of a longer stay. Just 30 miles away is Antigua, a picture-perfect colonial city and UNESCO World Heritage site, full of 16th and 17th century cathedrals, convents and historic mansions, many converted to elegant little inns. Two hours beyond is gorgeous Lake Atitlan, framed by three volcanoes, its shoreline fringed by Mayan villages known for their traditional dress and skilled artisans. Day-tripping from the capital to the famous highland market town of Chichicastenango is best on Thursday or Sunday when vendors from all over the region set up their stalls around Santo Tomas Church. But you’ll have to take an hour-long flight to reach Tikal, the granddaddy of Mayan ceremonial cities.
- Best time to go:
November to May, and anytime there is a major traditional festival (say: Easter in Antigua)
- Fun fact:
The resplendent quetzal, whose feathers provided headdresses for Mayan kings, is Guatemala’s national bird
- 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 local food:
Pastel de tres leches (three milks cake), wonderfully light, moist vanilla cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk, cream
- Best buys:
Colorful textiles, weavings, embroidery, tablecloths, bedspreads, wooden masks, leather goods, and carved jade
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