Central America: Roads Less Traveled

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It’s a 3-hour drive from Guatemala to Lake Atitlan or two hours from Antigua to the 50-sq.-mile Lake Atitlan whose major town is Panajachel, the most common departure point for boat excursions: by scheduled lanchas, on guided boat tours, on privately chartered craft. Cruising to the eastern end of the lake, you find Santa Catarina, a quaint village with adobe houses built into the hills and with several women’s weaving cooperatives fashioning hand woven table coverings, clothing and bed covers. You can also drive here easily, and even stay. Probably the lake’s most splendid lodging, the colonial villa-style Casa Palopo (casapalopo.com), offers nine elegant rooms and suites with grand lake views.

West of Panajachel and accessible only by boat is Santa Juan La Laguna, where day-trippers visit a women weaver’s cooperative, medicinal plant garden operated by the midwives of San Juan, a coffee finca, and local naïve painters’ workshops. Several famous painters are from this settlement, which is also home to the Laguna Lodge (lagunalodgeatitlan.com), a lovely boutique eco-resort fitted out with seven spacious suites, native healing spa and nature reserve. Of note: Lake Atitlan counts 236 bird species.

The next stop will be Santiago Atitlan, the largest and most picturesque of the lake communities. Stop at the visitor’s center for an introduction to the Tz’utujil Maya, their traditional clothing and spiritual beliefs that focus on Maximon, the Mayan god who receives visitors who make an offering before asking for healthy crops, to help cure illness, to find love or cast a spell on a neighbor. Friday and Saturday are principal market days, when the streets are lined with local craft stalls. Any day one sees women wearing their distinctive huipiles (blouses), intricately embroidered with birds and flowers. The best hotel in town is Bambu Hotel & Restaurant (ecobambu.com); two of its accommodations are bungalows with patios overlooking the lake.

Lake Atitlan is a perfect place for kayaking and canoeing, while on land visitors go horseback riding, rent mountain bikes, and soak in hot springs. Hiking up Volcano San Pedro (with a guide) is popular, and the truly adventurous can take a tandem paragliding flight over the lake: the natural high of a lifetime.

While there are many lovely places to stay around the lake, in this writer’s opinion, top of the list for all-round comfort and convenience is Hotel Atitlan (hotelatitlan.com) located outside of Panajachel on a magnificently landscaped lakeside site. It’s known for its stylish rooms with lake views, terrace dining overlooking the pool, the lake beyond, and its own dock and boats for private excursions. Within walking distance is the Reserva Natural Atitlan, occupying the grounds of a former coffee farm. Its attractions include a butterfly farm, well-designed nature trails with hanging bridges leading to waterfalls, a zipline canopy tour and lakeside beach.

Lake Atitlan is also a good base for visiting many of the wildly colorful highland markets. Closest is Solola, whose major market days are Tuesday and Friday. And farther afield, the Atitlan traveler can plan an excursion to Chichicastenango, whose Thursday and Saturday market is awash in a sea of traditional costumes as the indigenous Maya people come from all over to sell their wares.

honduras Copan & Beyond: The Lenca Trail

Honduras lures its guests with two spectacular assets: the Eden-like Bay Islands for world-class diving along the hemisphere’s longest barrier reef, and the majestic ruins of Copan for spending time at one of the grandest of ancient Mayan sites and hiking, birdwatching, and horseback riding in the Copan Valley. One road less traveled from the charming town of Copan Ruinas leads farther into the western highlands along la Ruta Lenca, or the Lenca Trail.

The trail is named for the native people of the region who make up the largest indigenous group in Honduras. Officially the 80-mile route starts in the cool, hilltop town of Santa Rosa de Copan and winds along pine-forested mountain roads and through a series of small colonial villages from Santa Rosa de Copan to Esperanza, not far from the border with El Salvador. Along the way, travelers come upon beautiful colonial homes, churches, historic forts, museums and a cloud forest surrounding Montaña la Celaque, the highest point in the country.

Santa Rosa is distinguished by cobblestone streets, clay-tiled roofs and a lovely church with azulejo (glazed tile) floors. Prosperity under the Spanish came from establishing a tobacco industry, and the hand-rolled cigars produced here are among the best in the world. Visitors always take a tour of Flor de Copan tobacco factory, and those who are here on the third Friday of August join in the Noche de Fumadores, a lively event dedicated to fine cigars. Santa Rosa de Copan is also known for its religious processions during Semana Santa (Holy Week), a time also for the Artisanal Fair that showcases crafts made in the region. This fair is also held Aug. 25-30 and the second week in December.